One Native Life: The Table Top TV

By Richard Wagamese
News From Indian Country 4-08

There’s an old style TV antenna on the roof of our cabin in the mountains. One of these days I need to climb up there and haul it down because it serves no purpose anymore. We have satellite TV now and even though we don’t watch much television it’s good to know the reception is clear when we do. That old antenna is an unsightly reminder of a bygone age.

When I was a boy they were everywhere. There was no such thing as cable television and everyone depended on rooftop antennae. In the north where I was born you had to get accustomed to snow on the show as much as you did snow on the roof. Reception was never a clear given with those old antennae. I thought about those times the other day and it reminded me of something special I learned from an old TV.

Back in the early 1970s I was a vagabond. I’d left home at sixteen and there weren’t a lot of opportunities for someone with a Grade Nine education. Finding work was hard and I went from day job to day job and every now and then, when I was lucky, there was work that lasted a month or even two.

You needed to be picky about accommodations when you lived from hand to mouth like that. I couldn’t afford apartments, studios or even a bachelor suite. Instead, my finances took me to rooming houses and sleeping rooms in drab buildings that most times begged for a coat of paint and a good cleaning. Waking up in those places was for the most part, a struggle for hope and positive thinking.

But I remember one place fondly. It was one of those one-room mansions you can find in the heart of any city anywhere. It came with a dresser, a hot plate, a small refrigerator, a creaky old bed and a table and chair. Twelve of us shared a bathroom and the smell of stale cigarette smoke and the grease from someone’s cooking was always in the air. There was a park across the street where I could go sit and watch the regular folk play with their dogs and children but in my room itself there was nothing to occupy me.

One day I saw a portable television in a pawnshop window. It was a small red RCA and I picked it up for ten dollars. The screen was about ten inches wide but to me it represented distraction and a connection to the regular world. The house I lived in didn’t have cable TV and I had to settle for extending the long aluminum aerial and twisting it about if I wanted to watch any of the local stations.

The reception was bad in my room. Often I turned the TV off in frustration because the picture was so horrible. There’s nothing worse than trying to watch a hockey game when the skaters are double imaged and the puck is virtually invisible between the dots of heavy snow on the screen. It drove me crazy.

But I discovered that if I stayed close to that television my body acted like an extra antenna and the picture quality was great. I could watch whatever I wanted as long as I stayed within two feet of the screen. But if I moved to get something from the refrigerator the screen filled with snow and the picture disappeared.

I tried all kinds of things. One of the old timers across the hall told me to wrap tin foil around the end of the aerial. Someone else said to keep it by the window. I moved that TV all around that little room trying to find a spot where the reception would stay clear. Then, one day I set it on the little table in the middle of my room. The picture was perfect.

When I moved three feet away and the picture stayed strong. I moved six feet away, nine feet, right over to the door, and it was perfect. As long as it stayed in the middle of my room I couldn’t get far enough away from it to lose the picture. My room was small enough to allow me the freedom to move about it without losing the program I was trying to see. All the time I was in that room I kept that little TV on the table top smack in the middle of my room. It never failed me.

When I think about those days I smile. The times seem so strange now with their lack of technology and I was such a different person. I’m older right now than I thought I would ever be back then and the places I live in are regular homes in a regular life. I have cable and satellite television now along with computers, the Internet and MP3s. But that little red TV taught me something elemental that I’ve never forgotten.

You see, that little television was like anything that connects you to the world. It’s like anything that channels the information, insights, viewpoints and opinions that you need to navigate your world. It could be spirituality, it could be culture, the traditions of your people, a philosophy or even religion. Whatever gives you your idea of the world and your place in it, whatever anchors you, that’s what that little television was like.

It doesn’t work so hot if you stick it in the corner and only get to it when you have the time. If you move away from it you miss the message. You can’t be tuned in when the image is scrambled and the audio is crackly. But if you keep the vital things right smack in the middle of your life, you can move anywhere in your world and you’re always going to get the signal you desire, bright and strong and true. That’s true for all of us, Indian or not.

 

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