Wired: The Dawn of Cable TV

When we were kids, ours was the last house of any of my friends or neighbors to get cable TV. The way my parents saw it, as long as we could still use rabbit ears to get PBS to watch the Boston Pops and they could watch “Hart to Hart” once a week it was all good. They weren’t very extravagant with their choice of electronics for viewing either. Until we had cable we didn’t have a remote, and even then we still didn’t have a remote for the TV itself. Being mischievous kids (and having many adolescent boys in the neighborhood) we soon learned that if you turned the TV channel up one notch and tuned to the right cable station, you could watch blurry porn. When this secret came out, my father asked for detailed instructions on how this was done, presumably to keep us from repeating the process.

Our neighbors across the street were an older couple. John and Joan Ternes. The husband was a TV repair man (back in the days when this was actually a viable career) who made frequent visits to our home to repair our blurry console television that took upwards of three minutes to “warm up” and display a picture. Our neighbors had an immaculately kept yard and a house like a museum to mid-century modern. They had a pair or golden lions (re-painted twice a year), tasteful flowers, and shrubs lining the walk way to their front door, and a lawn that would rival that of a professional golf course. One of my favorite things about their home was the doorbell; it played the same tune as the chimes of Big Ben and continued ringing so long that it was sometimes still ringing long after you had been greeted and had entered the house. The Terneses used to give my siblings and I crème soda whenever we came over, and sometimes even ginger ale and Nilla Wafers. (The Nilla Wafers totally blew our minds since “cookies” in our household were Saltines or Triscuits until we were well into our teens and learned better.) They were like surrogate grandparents to us, since our grandparents were across the span of the continental United States in New England. I still remember the Ternes’ yellow and brown teeth, typical of long-term smokers of that era, that never really seemed to dull their smiles, and the smell of lipstick still reminds me of Joan who had to give each one of us a kiss when we came to visit.

I found this picture of them on Ancestry.com on their wedding day.

They have the same hairstyles that they had when I knew them many years later.

Thanks to John’s frequent resuscitation of our television, we began to enjoy all of the exciting new shows that cable TV had to offer. Our channel selection went from six to sixty overnight. And one of the most memorable movies we saw was “Poltergeist”. I can’t even tell you how many times we watched that movie after school, the three of us sitting on our black vinyl couch and occasionally squabbling over someone intruding onto another sibling’s cushion. (Three cushions, three kids… “Don’t touch my square!”) I was the oldest, and Zan was next in line, just over a year behind me. Jen was over two years behind Zan. (My parents always joked that they would have had three in a row, but they took a summer off to take a trip to Hawaii.) Zan and I thoroughly enjoyed the movie for the spooky thrill ride that it was, laughing at some of the scarier scenes after we’d seen it a few times. But Jen was another matter. The movie affected her in ways I can only imagine based on my observations. She asked questions about ghosts and dead people and evil spirits. She refused to eat steak, afraid it might start crawling off her plate. She slept only briefly alone in her brightly lit room, and often begged Zan or I to sleep in our rooms. Being the oldest sister, I exercised my right to be cruel and denied her access, so she slept on the floor in my doorway – for months. Sometimes when she’d walk away from the TV I’d turn off all the lights and put the TV on a station with static to await her return. If I had found a creepy clown doll, I totally would have planted it in her room.

The torture continued when Zan and I learned that by pressing the “record” and “fast-forward” buttons part-way down on a tape recorder, you could create spooky sounding recordings of slow-mo whispering voices. We played these ethereal tape recordings for Jen, telling her that we had been taping ghosts in the house. Her reaction was a high-pitched scream as she threw the tape recorder up in the air, hitting the ceiling. It then caromed downward and hit me in the head. Karma.

The addition of cable TV to our household began a short-lived obsession of mine with scary movies. I would come downstairs after my parents had gone to bed and watch movies like “Cat People” and “The Thing”, all while safely surrounded by our dogs. Sometimes I would be disappointed by the selections, and found only lame romantic comedies or “Portland Wrestling” on instead of a good scare. When it came to wrestling, sometimes Zan would join me, and actually seemed to enjoy the theatrical pummeling on the screen. We would bet before the match who was going to win and wail and bemoan the unfairness of it all when our picks didn’t vanquish the enemy. When Portland Wrestling wasn’t on, Jen would run away quickly if she came downstairs and encountered anything even vaguely spooky.

It wasn’t too many years and maybe a half-dozen more free TV repairs later when John Ternes passed away suddenly. I eavesdropped enough on the adult conversations to know that he had a massive heart attack at work. My mother cooked all night before the funeral, making her “famous” baked beans (I’m not really sure why they were famous since I never saw her make them before or since.) and carefully wrapped the heavy crock in towels and pot holders for transfer across the street to the Ternes’ home. My siblings and I were put in charge of accepting casseroles, jello molds, and various bottles of booze from the neighbors and other mourners after the funeral. When Joan arrived she was crying and almost collapsed as two people helped her to a chair. She saw me staring at her with what no doubt was a confused and horrified expression, and she somehow managed to eke out a smile, saying, “It’s OK, honey. I’m OK.” Even in her grief, she was still like a grandma to me. I can only imagine what she was going through after losing her husband of well over forty years so suddenly.

Not long after John’s passing, our old console television gave up the ghost and joined John in the Great TV Repair Shop in the Sky. Maybe it missed him. The new TV brought revelations that my glasses really were strong enough after all, and that Shelley Long’s nose is unnaturally thin and pointy. Jen eventually got over her fear of horror movies and grew up to have an interest in and appreciation for the occult. I wonder if Zan still watches wrestling on late-night TV?

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