Last week, while I was sitting on the couch enjoying a day off, I glanced through the morning paper and came across an insert from a well-known electronics store in our area. In fact, there were several inserts from well-known electronics stores, along with a ton of advertisements for furniture stores, mattress shops, supermarkets, restaurants, pharmacies, and a discount auto store with “sizzling summer savings.” I wanted to run right out and buy a fan belt, or something, for my truck, thinking of the money I would be saving 5 or 10 years down the road, if I could find the part. But what really caught my eye was an ad for a “72 inch, High Definition TV, with universal remote." I looked over at our little 24 inch bubble-screen Zenith, hiding in the corner of the oak cabinet that dwarfs it, and began to imagine what our living room would look like with something a little more modern.
The idea of high definition tv also made me think back to when I was a kid, and the first time I ever saw a television. It could have loosely fallen into the category of "high definition," even in those days. It was 1949, and our neighbors across the street, the Stewart's, had bought the first tv on our block.
Mr. Stewart was one of my favorite people, because he was a kid at heart himself, and enjoyed doing the kinds of things that we could only dream of doing. He loved fireworks, and on the 4th of July, and at other times too, he would bring out a short metal pipe, about an inch in diameter, balance a golf ball on top, and put a marble-sized ”cherry bomb” underneath it. In those days, fireworks were legal, and it wasn't uncommon even for kids to have a pocket full of them, but we rarely had the kind that Mr. Stewart used. When he set off his firecrackers, the noise was deafening, and when they exploded under the pipe, those of us who had gathered to watch the spectacle pointed and yelled in awe as the golf balls soared into the sky and seemed to disappear in the clouds.
Mr. Stewart liked to do things in a big way. Looking back now, I would even call him "flamboyant," so when it came time to show off his tv, it was not without a little theatrics of his own.
I remember the day very clearly. I could tell that my parents were excited about the “new invention,” as they called it, and even though I was only 5 at the time, I knew something really good was going to happen when we got to the Stewart’s. It always did.
It must have been a Saturday morning, because not only did my whole family go, including both my sisters and my parents, but a handful of kids in the neighborhood also showed up, at Mr. Stewart’s invitation, I’m sure. When he opened the side door and let us in, his son Bobby was there, and so was his daughter, Kathy. Bobby was a couple of years older than me, but Kathy and I were the same age, and if the truth be known, she was my first crush.
Once we were inside the house, Mr. Stewart ushered us all into the living room, and had us sit in a semi-circle facing the new tv. It was a dark wooden box, about three feet high, with a small grayish screen in the middle, about 6 or 7 inches wide. Mr. Stewart said a few words about what we were about to see, turned on the set, and after what seemed like hours waiting for it to warm up, pointed out the flickering black and white images as they began to appear on the tiny screen. He made a few jokes about having to pass out binoculars to everybody, and then reached behind the tv as if he was waving a magic wand, and pulled out a huge magnifying glass, mounted on a stand. The glass was about 14 or 15 inches wide, from what I can remember, and wrapped in a black metal band attached to a pole. He placed it in front of the screen and stepped back to see if it was set at the proper distance.
"How's that, kids?"
We all "ooh'd and ah'd" as the Lone Ranger, or Howdy Doody, or some other show, came to life before our eyes. Even though I can’t remember what it was we watched that morning, I do know that it was not just the first tv I ever saw, but the first version of a high definition tv.
Not long after that, the Stewart’s moved to Cincinnati, and except for one trip out to visit them when I was 8, I never got to see them again. I’m sure if Mr. Stewart still lived across the street, I could count on being invited over to see his brand new, 72 inch, wide-screen tv, or something a little bigger, but knowing what they cost, I have the feeling it would be my only opportunity to enjoy watching it in high definition, at least as we know it today.