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TV Guide to Fall Colors

When I was a kid growing up on the farm in northern Wisconsin the fall was an important time of year for me. It was the season that included my birthday. Everyone likes their birthday – most of the time. The fall also meant it was time for harvesting crops. My parents worked long hours and I got some responsibility. For an oldest child this was the power that was necessary to keep me afloat. I got to be in charge and, if possible, boss my siblings around. But, it also meant it was time for the new fall colors. Trees turning orange and red and yellow were absolutely beautiful and always a favorite – to somebody else. I was a twelve-year-old living on a farm, surrounded by trees my whole existence. I could care less about those fall colors. Leave them for the tourists. I was interested in the colors of the peacock in the fall. I’m talking NBC peacock. The fall was the time of the long-awaited new programming. An end to the teaser commercials that had kept me guessing and anticipating for over a month. The new shows would all be starting right when all my homework was starting. How could I possibly balance the two. Something would have to give.

We lived ten miles out of the thriving metropolis of Rhinelander, WI. We lived two miles outside of Starks, WI. Starks contained two bars and a grocery store and three or four streets. I went to grade school in a two room school-house in Starks through 6th grade. There was the “Little Room” (grades 1-3) and the “Big Room” (grades 4-6). Both rooms were the same size. It just referenced the size of the kids. The grocery store didn’t really have too much and it was fairly expensive, so on Sundays we usually hitched up the station wagon and went into town to get our supplies for the week. If you were unlucky you might accidentally get in the checkout line at the grocery store behind the Mitchells. The Mitchells owned the grocery store in Starks and would come to town and buy all their stock straight off the shelves and drive it the ten miles east and mark it up for sale. It’s ill-advised to be in the checkout behind people buying groceries for a grocery store. To top it off, they were old and slow.

There was one of the purchases that seemed to be a staple of our survival out in the country. Every Sunday we would need to get a new copy of the TV Guide. For me, the TV Guide harkened back to a simpler time when people grew their own crops, had party line phones, and needed to monitor only 3-4 channels of television. Today my daughter looks at me like I’m a raving lunatic when I try to explain that I could only watch cartoons on Saturday morning.

“Is that only when grandma let you watch cartoons?” she asked. “No, that’s only when they were on,” I said. “Ah, because that’s only when grandma let you watch them?” she quizzically asked like a little Columbo just shy of puffing on a little cigar – maybe blowing candy smoke. “Nevermind,” I said. She changed the subject quickly asking if she could watch Fat Albert on Netflix. She knows my weakness. “All right. Just one episode. Is it Tuesday night and you still need to practice the piano and do your homework.”

“Thanks, daddy. I love you.” I hear from the con artist as she slides into the family room to watch a little TV, before tricking her little brother out of his birthday money.

In simpler times life was harder. You really needed to be on your TV game. You only got one shot. If you missed your program, you missed your program. You needed to wait for reruns and that didn’t happen until the summer. Kids today are soft – watching cartoons on demand. Before the DVR we used to even have to watch the commercials. My dirty secret here is that as much as I currently still love the TV we don’t have a DVR system. I have friends who look at me like I’m some kind of barbarian. There’s something from the old farm days that I just can’t seem to let go of. The thrill and anticipation of not knowing if I’ll catch a show. Can I get the kids to bed fast enough to watch my favorite sitcom. Maybe I’m actually enjoying my kids enough that I might not care if I miss some funny show. I guess I do have Hulu as a backup for as long as they’re around – or any number of places online to watch stuff I miss. But, I have an unwritten contract with myself. If I miss it, it probably wasn’t meant to be. I’ll pull through. I’ll make it.

This is a long way from the days on the farm. I remember when the TV Guide had a stapled spine. When we picked it up on Sunday and brought it home there was usually some pushing and shoving of the 4 siblings to see who would get first look at our next week’s entertainment guide. This was a barometer of the excitement out on the farm. Being the oldest, I was generally pretty good at getting it first. But after a while my younger brother really started to put forth the effort and I couldn’t compete. My brother Justin loved TV more than me. I’ve mentioned before that our TV was on a lot, but at some point we would get out and away from it. Sometimes we had to be pushed, but it wasn’t too difficult to get us away when the parents thought we’d had our fill. For example, we were not allowed to watch certain things. My dad felt that Gilligan’s Island would make us dumb. Gilligan was obviously a retarded man and it wasn’t funny to laugh at a retarded man. Hogan’s Heros was off-limits because there was nothing funny about Nazis. I guess, all solid in hindsight.

Justin loved TV so much that he would watch anything – game shows, soap operas, news, sports. It didn’t matter. We quickly discovered that Justin was a TV Guide savant. He would get the TV Guide and pour over it for hours. He read all the descriptions of all our favorite shows. He did all the work for us. He was a clearinghouse of TV information. He was like our own personal internet in 1976. Since he was always inside the house and sat, we probably could have called him our “Inner-Sat”. Whatever we called it, it was very convenient. “Hey, Justin, what’s on MorkĀ and Mindy this week?” Anyone might ask. “It’s the one where Mork’s boss come to visit,” our pre-computer computer database might answer.

Not only did Justin know everything that was going on in the TV Guide, but he also had such an affinity for the popular magazine that he actually collected them. Yes, I said it. My brother collected TV Guides. He kept them in his desk and in boxes near his desk. In fact, I remember one fall in the early 80’s the special day that marked the new design of the TV Guide. The TV Guide went to a perfect binding, outgrowing the stapled format. Television was growing and the guide to television also had to grow. This particular TV Guide received a plastic bag and a special place in the desk.

I don’t think my brother still has his TV Guide collection, but something in me thinks he still might have the special issue. Every year around this time, when I’m at the cabin enjoying the fall or just driving and seeing the beautiful colors of cold weather rapidly aging trees, I think about my brother’s TV Guide collection. I think about the excitement of waiting to see the new shows. I think about the importance of not missing that first show. I remember riding my bicycle out in a dirt pile or something and looking at my little watch on my fat leather wristband and realizing that the debut of Mork and Mindy was going to be on in 15 minutes. I remember not realizing I could pedal as fast as I did and how exhilarating it was to charge in the door (with all my homework done) running to the TV and turning the great big knob past the two other working channels. Life was good. Simple, yet hard. Sometimes, I even saw trees turning colors on a TV show. Isn’t that beautiful, I thought.

Sadly Yours,

Jason Spafford

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