Viewpoint

Somehow, with crude technology, we survived

May 5, 2014 

We need a new wireless router at our house. I know less about routers than I do about Thomistic theology, but I’ll just ask one of my Arroyo Grande High students for help.

Oddly, routers and signal strengths reminded me of growing up in Arroyo Grande: We got two TV stations with an antenna that fetched signals magically out of the air, just what the does with your cellphone today. Even when it’s turned off.

When KCOY arrived, having three stations seemed prodigal, like having two Starbucks across the street from each other.

Our third-grade teacher, Leona Kaiser — teachers in the 1950s and early 1960s seemed to favor names like “Leona,” “Edith,” “Beulah,” and “Medusa” — brought her TV to Branch School for JFK’s Inauguration in 1961. She, too, came from Massachusetts, a place she remembered fondly except for the Great War years, when her last name became inconvenient.

A television at school was a technological event so staggering that I found the moon landing, at the decade’s other bookend, anticlimactic. But I had German measles that July, and few things will make you more cynical.

At home, our television reception could be erratic, so when Shari Lewis and Lamb Chop (ask your grandmother, kids) started to look like fuzzy cotton balls, Dad would climb to the roof, with no evident enthusiasm, to twist the antenna in different directions. We all would yell at each other:

“HOWZAT?” “WORSE!” “A LITTLE BETTER!” “BACK WHERE YOU HAD IT BEFORE!”

During Antenna Time, every spectacular word Dad had learned from the World War II U.S. Army came flooding out, like GI’s exiting Higgins boats. But the antenna had to be fixed: Television was so central to our lives that I’d get Walter Cronkite withdrawals. I thought of him as my TV Dad.

So those were tough times for roof-bound dads, but they were just as tough for children. Our fingers grew callused, traumatized by “changing the channel” and “rotary phones.” Today, my students use the phone to take a picture of an assignment posted on the whiteboard. Amazing.

Earlier this school year, I tried to explain the concept of “long distance” and “the operator” — Dad worked in San Luis for Alex Madonna and my parents talked every day at lunch — and the sophomores I love so much looked at me blankly.

I can teach them the cause of high 18th-century illegitimacy rates or even why relativity theory had such profound impact with ease, but “long distance” is no clearer to them than Ramses III’s family tree.

During my own time as a student at Arroyo Grande High, the benighted pre-driver’s license underclassmen made do with one pay phone. After dances or games there was a long line. We’d pass the time pretending it was the Great Depression and we were waiting for soup until our turn came to call our parents to pick us up, which they frequently did.

“Bob, HOW many kids do we have?” Mom would ask absently, and Dad would fetch me on the condition that he got to grumble about it all the way home.

So we were a hardy bunch, living life close to the edge. There was, for example, no such thing as “pizza” in Arroyo Grande. You wanted pizza? San Francisco had pizza.

What sustained us were drive-ins with creamy rootbeer freezes, two-handed cheeseburgers my cardiologist would thump me for eating today, and, best of all, a car hop on roller skates who looked a little like Annette Funicello.

Ask your grandfather, kids.

Jim Gregory teaches advanced placement European history at Arroyo Grande High School.

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