There it stood, smack damn in the middle of Johnston’s Electrical Appliance Shop window. Rattling noise, akin to scrunching crisp paper. We can identify people talking, chiefly because mouths on projected images move. Oh, if only I might decipher words tumbling out. A quick glance about at other goggle eyed, open mouthed kids leaves me sure they also share my desire. All we can glean is talk about runners circling a track in Melbourne’s Commonwealth Games.
A bunch of neighbourhood kids; girls colourfully attired in crimplene or gingham dresses, boys in grey shorts. Outfits hand made by mum from fabric off huge rolls displayed in Floyd’s Haberdashery. Our squeaky clean faces turn toward this new phenomenon. My brothers trying not to look engrossed. Before too long we get torn away from looking at television by a bellowed, ‘Jesus, wasting time, again! Shut your gobs. Stop catching flies, again…’ as Dad discovers our rapture.
What caught our attention is an alien box shape flickering black and white pictures. Sure we’d heard about this thing called television, but were totally unprepared for it taking over our minds, legs and brains. How these few minutes forced us into silent reverence.
Transfixed, eyeballs glared forward, to catch every aspect of image flickering onto other images. Even through Johnston’s window we heard this new arrival screaming. Already practising a hypnotic charm we are too young to appreciate. Too naïve to realise television is capable of consuming our being. Too afraid to blink for fear of missing minute details. Fuel for childish banter later, ‘did you see when they dropped the relay baton?’ Too afraid to say no, because we’d look stupid or slow.
‘I want to be a sports reporter, after I leave school.’
‘How about when…’
Random excited chatter lasting longer than pulling away from old Johno’s electrical store to help tote groceries onto a green and yellow MTT bus. Taking our mind off grinding gears in labour up Banksia Street. Ought to be another verse to that song, kids on the bus go television…tele…television. A happy, contented group, full of frenzied sharing. Even after we finished jostling for our favourite positions in my family’s panel van. Parked beyond our nearest bus terminal, dusty from gravel roads near home.
‘Will they really be able to break four minute mile in the finals?’
‘Do you think our swim team will win gold?’
Our lives soon purged of time spent playing outside, constructing elaborate imaginings related to houses, domestic duties and wars with the boys. Following our brothers when they took off exploring empty houses being built in a frenzy through our neighbourhood. We stopped re-playing Bill Haley and the Comets Rock around the Clock, or swinging skinny kid hips. Accompanied by a needle hissed scratch on my sister’s record. Why, Why Delilah or…what’s New Pussy Cat? Magic of sound from a piece of vinyl lost appeal. By now my brothers enjoyed listening to Jukeboxes and bands, girls lined up to ask, ‘will you be my Debutant’s ball partner?’
Foleys’ across the road owned our neighbourhood’s first television set. After school, on sunny afternoons we turned it on to gawk at a blank screen, pin of light expanding into a test pattern. Squares within circles, shades of grey; didn’t know black and white came in so many hues. Screeches from Mum summoned us home, stringing out names, bellowed from our front veranda.
Her face a tangle because we failed to notice twilight and be home in time for tea. Afraid of what naughtiness we’d be up to, or if we managed to fall out of a tree, crash off our bikes, or numerous other dangers kids were drawn toward.
A harmless looking little box now occupied our lounge room corner, yet welded powerful spells. Kept us indoors, watching Rin Tin Tinand Lassie. Seeing those dogs come alive on screens, angles their heads just so, barking demands almost as if they might also talk. Television also brought larger mammals of Black Beautyand Furyalive. Tiny hairs on our arms lifted when these animals were whipped, we gasped as horses reared and threatened cruel trainers. Ebony beasts now competed with Elyne Mitchell’s Silver Brumby shifted, shape changed and lifted off pages. Stories no longer told in words, rather viewed hypnotically as tangible sparks brought hooves to life, in episodes. Leaving us waiting holding breaths for next week’s episode. Mesmerising two dimensional dangers floated over us in half hour blocks while we sat cross legged on the floor. Again, ignorant of real hazards life held. This circuitry broken by mum and dad, matching animal cruelty arguing.
Or muttering unheeded warnings like, ‘you’ll get square eyes.’
Radio programs such as Pastures of the Blue Crane, lost their dimensions. So boring! Now only endured due to Dad’s insistence. Strange how listening to descriptions of fertile rural settings capable of mellowing his usual loud raving, or vigorous pursuit of discipline. Sometimes I long for hours listening, seeing my brother’s legs stretched out nearby, or Greg’s arm casually around my shoulder.
Why couldn’t we own a television?
Years passed before Nanna Meyer decided to upgrade her television. By then the invader earned a set name, TV. After all her home wasn’t a rag-tag place, occupied by five kids needing school shoes. Our poverty clearly advertised by home-made school uniforms. Even so funds were found to buy a required TV licence. Like paperwork necessary to own a feral species, to possess a creature likely to infect native populations. Ever ignorant about finance, or regulatory things, most I gleaned was funds were withdrawn from Dad’s Commonwealth Bank account. Thus reducing his sacred passbook figures. My father often espoused an opinion, ‘greater the bank balance, greater the man!’ So strange these few crisp notes were taken next door to Tuart Hill post office to buy a seemingly more important piece of paper.
‘But how will they know?’ I asked. I didn’t ask, who are they, police, army, special troops designed to hunt out undocumented televisions, relatives of those charged with ensuring our state didn’t become invaded by swallows, making sure all German Shepherds couldn’t bred because they’d mate with Dingos.
‘They drive around at night in a van, and prosecute people without a TV licence.’
Of course, flickering lights from our lounge room, while we watched behind thin curtains, declaring our sins. Checking through copies of licences to assess non-payers, ticking off addresses of those who followed rules.
Pretty soon a monster loomed in one corner of our lounge, blocking ambient hall lights. Our hand-me-down TV named Tonkin after a State Premier whose bald head became slightly elliptical by screen distortions. Causing giggles no matter how intense his voice of authority.
Well into nights our parents occupied a couch previously reserved for guests, plenty of expressions of hum and a-ha, at news stories. Snores following reminders, ‘you’ll be tired in the morning.’
‘Too close, you’ll get sore eyes.’
Rolf Harris and his Masonite wobble board become a Guru. Even dad fascinated by how Rolf created vast landscapes, or important faces using only a 4 inch paint brush. ‘Boy from Bassendean,’ acknowledgement of Rolf’s local status. A cultural hero eventually to crash and burn, like so many other television personalities.
Aside from watching TV on visits to my Dutch girlfriend’s house meant new experiences including things like blue and white china kitchen tiles, daubed with windmills. Anjo also offered me hot-sour-bomb candy – salted liquorish. As well as tasting pickled herrings, fine if I controlled my gums pulling in, and hold my nose. Low key experiences compared to an around Australia adventure my brothers planned.
Our own Tonkin sporting a full 17 inches of eyeball took pride of place where once faithful valve radio previously stood. Inside as if materialised from another galaxy, topped by a vase of plastic flowers. Propped up to optimum viewing height on a laminex table. We were ready to worship at an altar where daily news got consumed along with tea. An evening meal soon to be renamed Dinner and spawning a range of pre-packaged TV dinner meals. Brian Henderson became voice of all things knowledge-worthy. Death and destruction, slightly at a distance, reached our lounge each night as ABC 7 o’clock News of the World. More instant than an invasion of new coffee, which replaced usual cups of tea.
‘Mark my words, before too long people at universities will be studying television,’ declared Dad. ‘And any Tom, Dick and Harry will be able to bloody get on the thing.’
Cowboys, previously a rare commodity at seldom afforded Saturday afternoon picture a treat where we saw epics like Genghis Khan, Doctor Zhivago and Lawrence of Arabia, sometimes only accompanied of our older brothers. A rare, warm sibling sharing memory. Taken to mind boggling extravagant places like Palace or Regal Theatre. Similar shows suddenly invaded small screens as Tonkin let in strange new adventures. Even on week nights. Indians began to pile up under the flower vase as bullets took their victims. This genocide tempered a whole generation’s attitude to minority groups. Sparked curiosity and disquiet, forced judgement based on appearances. What if Anjo’s family were German and not Dutch?
We kids also needed to learn a new reverence for Saturday afternoon replays of state football matches. Dad cringed in response to every point or goal, and gesticulated loudly. Comments slung at Tonkin. Usually about every umpire’s decision, ‘push in the back!’ ‘Useless… can’t you see?’ ‘That’s not a point, ball is out on the full.’ Field placements another of his bug-bears, ‘Cable shouldn’t be in the pocket!’ ‘Bloody hell. Waste of a man’s time.’ We were in awe of this animation. Was it possible for players, officials and coaches to hear? Perhaps television is a two way device?
After Sunday roast lunches Dad was now content to fall asleep. But not at the table. He insisted, ‘turn on old Tonkin, kids.’ Ten, perhaps fifteen minutes later he nodded off. Accompanying afternoon movies, a soundtrack of rattles, snorts and lip puffs. I put this new tiredness down to my parents getting older. Plus now my brothers, and one older sister had left home, Sundays were much quieter.
This set-front snooze habit proved useful. My regulatory bed time, 8 o’clock, fell before my favourite show – Avengers. Not Marvel Comics superheros, instead tales of British crime and spies. Once I heard those lightly grating snores, I’d sneak back into the lounge for a weekly dose of Diana Rigg and John Steed. This viewing disobedience double danger tinged due to possibility of imminent discovery.
Some things did drag my family away from Tonkin. One night a knock on our front door. No-one visits during viewing time. Opening to policemen, enquiring. ‘Is your son Gregory?’
Bringing dreadful news he’d passed away.
Weeks receiving sympathy cards, in the same mail as congratulatory notes for my engagement meant each envelope needed an opening ceremony conducted away from entertainment, gazing over our back garden. While Dad dealt with grief and self-recriminations.
‘He asked me for a loan, and I said no!’ His shoulders shuddered, my dad turned away attempting to hide tears.
I never dared ask for money. Ignorant, until many years later, of request made to access enough finance to marry a girl he’d met while travelling in the Eastern States. My father’s rejection lead to my brother trying his luck working on a cattle station up north. An effort to access big wages ultimately costing a life.
So our invading TV did bring changes, but not as dramatic or far reaching consequences. Real evil also came from other technology, motor cars, agricultural machinery and isolated station life well away from TV and radios.
BIO: Karen Lethlean is a retired English teacher. Her fiction has appeared in the Barbaric Yawp, Ken*Again, Pendulum Papers and has won a few awards through Australian and UK competitions. Including Wild Words with a piece titled Red, Yellow and Black. Almond Tree received a commendation from Lorian Hemingway Short Fiction competition and was published in Pretty Owl Poetry Journal. South Coast Writer’s placed Walk on the Wild Side on their website. In her other life, Karen is a triathlete who has done Hawaii Ironman championships twice.