If a genie had appeared to me when I was ten and offered me anything my heart desired, the answer would have poured out of me.

Some girls want ponies. Some want Barbies. Some are generous enough to think of others first, asking for world peace or food for the hungry. Others go straight for a million dollars. I would not have asked for any of those.

The thing I longed for was magic. All the other kids seemed to have it. At the first recess of the day lots of conversations began with “Did you see. . . .?”  And everyone else jumped in to share their impressions of what they saw the night before.

Lunch boxes, pencil cases, coloring books, cereal boxes, not to mention toy pistols, cowboy hats, holsters, dolls, and trucks–all these essential items of a child going to public school in the 1950’s–carried pictures of The Lone Ranger, Tonto, Annie Oakley, Dragnet, Gunsmoke, I Love Lucy. The coolest kids always had a new item to show off or a new story to tell from last night’s broadcasts. They even acted out the Alpo commercials at recess! They all had television at home.

Television. I wanted one so much I dreamed we had one in the cellar. When I woke up, I bolted out of bed and down to flights of wooden stairs, hoping that the vivid picture of a square wooden box with a grey-glass screen in front and rabbit ears on top was real. I traveled through all three levels of the dark, damp cellar, from concrete floor to hand-dug one, each level proving less and less likely material for a dream-come-true. I slowly came back upstairs to the kitchen and joined the family for breakfast, never telling anyone about my burst bubble.

My grandpa was a widowerer who lived alone–with a television in the living room! My brother and I begged to go to his house. When my parents took the train to Madison Square Garden to hear Billy Graham, we got to go to Grandpa’s house and watched the Lone Ranger. Oh bliss! We may have watched the Graham crusade also, but if we did, I don’t remember it nearly as well as that opening sequence with the William Tell Overture.

Not having a tv set was so much of a social handicap that I temporarily turned into a female peeping Tom. We had four near-by neighbors.  Two were Mennonite and, like us, had no television. Two were not. I found myself looking for excuses to go to their houses. I watched The Mouseketeers  at the George household, and by a stroke of amazing luck, I was sitting in the Wideman livingroom when this show was broadcast, perhaps the most famous “I Love Lucy” episode of all time. Oh how we laughed.

Later in life, as I discovered friends who talked more about books, music, and film than about television, I looked back on my deprivation with something akin to gratitude. I spent long hours reading, enjoying the outdoors, playing with friends and family, and trying out my imagination.

All that longing found an object eventually. And even when I was a television-starved ten-year-old, God answered my prayers with the opportunity to see one really great show–Lucy stomping the grapes!

What role has television played in your life?  Do you watch more or less than you did as a child?

Shirley Showalter


  1. ekan on July 19, 2009 at 7:15 pm

    Growing up, we didn't have a TV until I was 8 or so, and then it was a black and white that we snuck in the closet to watch. I'm grateful to my parents, though. I was the kid who brought homemade crafts to show and tell, instead of store-bought toys. According to my mom, some of the other kids starting making things too for show-and-tell. I owe a lot of my entrepreneurial creativity to my early childhood without a TV.Of course, now, I don't watch TV, I watch Hulu or Netflix. The whole mass market, pop culture phenomenon is disappearing for kids growing up today…

  2. shirleyhs on July 20, 2009 at 7:39 am

    Fascinating, Eric. Both that you started out as an entrepreneur because you did not have TV as a crutch–and that no one watches the same things every night anymore.Your creative show-and-tell ideas remind me of my own counter-cultural revolution, the Hikta Stikta Club. I'll have to write about that one another time.Is the disappearance of the mass market a good thing? When Michael Jackson died, that was one of the comments. He is still a product of a time when 70 million people watched the Ed Sullivan show. No one since then has had that size audience. Yet people in Asia and Africa reach us and vice versa everyday.

  3. Gutsywriter on July 20, 2009 at 9:33 pm

    No TV is what we did with our kids when we moved to Belize in 2004, and we didn't have one again until 2007. In a way, those 3 years were the best thing for growing close to one another.

  4. shirleyhs on July 21, 2009 at 2:54 pm

    We had the same experience in Haiti and in the Ivory Coast. We did more cooking and baking and reading together than at any other time. Our children learned to make friends across cultures, including basic language proficiency.

  5. mmilne on August 5, 2009 at 3:54 pm

    I, like Eric, credit where I ended up in life to not having a TV. I had to entertain myself (especially since my sisters were so much younger than me), so rather than watching them on a screen, I made up my own stories and grew to be a writer, actor, and director! I can relate, though, to feeling like everyone was talking about some other world at school, and wishing I could take part. In fifth grade or so, we had to do a TV assignment where we did some basic media critique (tallying how much time was spent on commercials during two hours of television programming, what kind of imagery was used, etc) and I had to go knock on the neighbors' door to complete the assignment. They only had a black and white TV, though, so I couldn't answer the questions on how color was used to affect the imagery…

  6. shirleyhs on August 7, 2009 at 11:55 am

    I agree completely with the emphasis on creativity without TV. I wish we had had the courage to disconnect completely when our kids were young, but we definitely curtailed and monitored.Thanks for the story about the little black and white TV. When my parents finally broke down and let me buy a TV when I was 17, I bought a little black and white portable set. Cost $120. My parents bought it from me when I went to college–sent me $2/week all year long. That was my spending money. Don't I sound old? Oh, that's right. I AM old. 🙂

  7. Tmm2d on November 23, 2009 at 1:30 pm

    I remember when our neighbors got the first color TV in our lower-middle class neigborhood…we saw the Wizard of Oz in color (I was about four years old) but it made in impact on me. We never were allowed to have the TV on during meal times which forced us all to get to know each other…or be lectured to :-)…I don't have anything against TV but I am selective on what I watch now but I really get a lump in my throat when I see some of the old “leave to Beaver” or “father knows best” shows…was life really like that????

  8. shirleyhs on November 28, 2009 at 6:03 pm

    Tmm2d, Thanks for stopping by. I know what you mean about nostalgia. Those old shows seem so tame and innocent now–and I don't think they illustrate real life either then or now. I don't know if there is one perfect approach to TV. But for sure it is wise to curtail total access. My love of reading might never have happened without the TV restrictions I had in my youth.

  9. shirleyhs on November 29, 2009 at 2:03 am

    Tmm2d, Thanks for stopping by. I know what you mean about nostalgia. Those old shows seem so tame and innocent now–and I don't think they illustrate real life either then or now. I don't know if there is one perfect approach to TV. But for sure it is wise to curtail total access. My love of reading might never have happened without the TV restrictions I had in my youth.

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