My earliest childhood memories revolve around my Italian grandparents in upstate New York. For the first six years of my life, they filled the roles of mother and father. I’ve never been told exactly why my parents sent me to live with them, but I did eventually get a glimpse of why later on….
Many of my memories involve sitting on my grandfather’s lap in the evenings and watching TV. I loved to hear him laugh during shows like All in the Family, Three’s Company, F-Troop, M.A.S.H., and a myriad of other late 70s shows. During the summer, the Yankees took precedence. My grandfather did not miss watching a game, and I grew to love America’s pastime in my grandparents’ living room. During the day, when my grandfather was away at work, the voices of Big Bird, Oscar the Grouch, and Burt and Ernie emanated from the TV set. I was a child of the Sesame Street generation. Later in the morning, my grandmother and I would watch Bob Barker give away fabulous prizes and money on The Price is Right. I guess you could say that television played a fairly large role in my early life. At least, I feel like I learned a lot from it, no matter what was on.
My life took a dramatic turn in 1979 when I moved to Virginia to live with my parents. Eight months later, I was being adopted by a couple I’d never met. The attempt to be reunited with my parents failed miserably.
My new parents lived fairly simple lives (they weren’t Amish by any means, but it was pretty close). The house was situated in the mountains of western Virginia. Surrounded by woods, trails, creeks, and a pond at the end of the lane, the new environment proved to be very healthy for a seven-year-old boy who just went through a traumatic ordeal. I quickly became the type of child who spent more time outside during my waking hours than in.
Unlike today, we only owned one small TV set. It sat in the den on the first floor of our home. To turn the TV on, one had to actually walk up to it and turn this thing called a “knob.” To change channels (and when I say “channels,” I mean TWO channels on a good day), one had to get up from the sofa and turn another knob. In fact, there were two knobs for the channels—one for VHF and one for UHF. On top of the TV sat two sets of antennae—a “V”-shaped antenna for the VHF and a circular-shaped one for the UHF. My TV viewing, limited already by my desire to be outside, was even more limited by the sheer lack of options available. I can remember going through the woods to my best friend’s house for an expanded assortment of viewing pleasures. His family had one of those BIG antennas on top of the house. If I wanted to watch The Dukes of Hazard or The A-team, I was heading to his place. But overall, I was quite satisfied with ignoring the idiot box. There were far better activities to be involved in anyways—building forts, climbing trees, throwing a baited hook into the pond, constructing dams in the creek. In certain months, I would go out and gather bowlfuls of wild blueberries and strawberries. My mother would then turn them into preserves or bake a pie. To say that I lived a rather enchanted life is an understatement.
My lack of electronic entertainment during the year was made up for in the summer. Every summer, I would fly alone to upstate New York to visit the same grandparents who raised me until the age of six. This one month of the summer was akin to me returning to modern civilization. My grandparents had a plethora of TV channels to choose from. And getting to watch Yankees games with my grandfather again was always wonderful. But the Real McCoy was my cousins’ house. They lived less than ½ mile away and it was a safe, easy walk. In their home was a treasure trove of entertainment options. My aunt and uncle had their own TV downstairs, while my cousins had one upstairs. Plus, they had this amazing thing called CABLE. Showtime, HBO, Cinemax, and a young adolescent boy’s dream channel—MTV! But wait, there’s more! My younger cousin, Michael, had the latest, greatest video game system every year—Atari, Nintendo, you name it, he had it! My 11 months of the year with no video games became obsolete. Many hours were spent getting sore thumbs and crossed eyes playing video games with my cousins. By the end of my month-long visit, I was ready to return to my Swiss Family Robinson life!
Throughout the years, my parents did slowly begin to conform to the times, eventually owning more than one TV, getting cable, purchasing VCRs and DVD players, and satellite service.
Today, children and most young adults don’t know anything other than controlling the TV with a remote and having literally hundreds, if not thousands, of channels to choose from. I actually do not admire them. I feel like they have missed out on something special and rare. As much as I, myself, enjoy the idea of being able to watch anything in the world with the push of a button, would I ever trade in those times of only getting two channels on a good day? The answer to that question will always be, NEVER.