That Time My Dad Threw the TV Out on the Lawn

It was the mid ’60s and a simpler time. My dad was the norm back then — a blue-collar worker. He worked 32 years at the Chevron Oil Refinery in El Segundo, California.

My dad and mom raised me and my two brothers in a typical three-bedroom two-bath home in Torrance, CA, a suburb of Los Angeles. I was the youngest and when I was old enough to go to first grade, my mom went back to work as a legal secretary.

I don’t recall there being daycare centers back then, though there must have been some. When I finished school as a first grader, I would walk a couple of blocks to a home where I hung out until my brother Glen, a fourth grader, would swing by to pick me up. We’d then walk the slightly less than one-mile distance through the neighborhood to our house. So, I guess that made us latch key kids.

There wasn’t much to do when I hung out waiting for my brother. We weren’t given homework at such a young age back then. The teachers, either by design or without the societal push to make kids do more, allowed us time to use our imaginations when school was done. I remember wondering around the house of my after-school caretaker, who paid little attention to me. I recall twirling the world globe to learn what other countries there were and where they were located. I recall tossing wooden clothes pins into a bucket.

For those of you who have never seen or held a wooden clothes pin, they were used to pin the clothes to a clothes line in the backyard. That’s how most people dried their clothes back then. It never occurred to me to wonder how people dried their clothes in colder climates in the winter time.

Photo: Annie Spratt / Unsplash

In fact, in those pre-internet days and without the opportunity to travel the country widely, I had no idea there were parts of the country where it rained in the summertime. Southern California gets little rain, and it’s limited mainly to the wintertime. There can be several months in the midyear without a drop of rain. And yet, back then California was never on fire like it has been in recent years.

My dad worked as a pneumatic tools mechanic in the Chevron refinery. He may have had slightly different jobs over the 32 years, but he never rose even to the level of supervisor. He just got up every morning around 5:15 am, got ready, and drove to the refinery.

He hated his job and like many in his generation of blue-collar workers, dreamed of retirement and the day he wouldn’t have to go to that mind-numbing refinery and spend eight hours in his coveralls, standing on concrete, repairing refinery equipment. But he never quit or talked about quitting because providing a stable home-life for his family was very important to him. We’ll see why shortly.

Once, perhaps before I was even born, he took his two-week vacation and did a two-week trial job at one of the many aerospace companies in Southern California, to see if he could make it as a machinist. He did well and could have moved onto that new job. But he didn’t, I’m sure because of the fear of disrupting the stability he had, albeit it in a job he hated.

My dad’s parents homesteaded from the US to Dawson Creek, British Columbia, Canada with a pair of oxen in the late 1800s. Homesteading means moving to a sparsely populated area where the government encourages people to move and develop it by giving them land. Back then, my grandparents were given a quarter section of land to farm. A quarter section is 0.25 square miles, which equals 160 acres.

Farming in the severe climate of Dawson Creek, with its short growing season was very difficult. I remember my dad telling us kids that if the corn wasn’t knee high by the 4th of July, it wouldn’t make it to harvest before the cold weather set in.

Even in the best of circumstances it would have been tough to make a go of it. Unfortunately, my grandfather wasn’t focused on stability for the growing family that eventually totaled four kids. He would sometimes take off for months at a time, doing who knows what, who knows where. Most likely he was off on drunken binges in nearby towns and probably spent time in the local jails.

My grandmother was not able to feed four children during that time. While my father and his younger sister were too young to pull their weight on the farm, my grandmother was forced to “farm them out”, which meant going to live with some other family for months at a time where they were basically treated as child servants.

The one bright spot for my dad and his siblings was the Canadian school system. Even in the one-room schoolhouse, the students learned their three R’s better than many of their US student counterparts. My dad used to tell the story about staying in the schoolhouse during recess in the 6th grade to read Charles Dickens’ Pickwick Papers.

My dad ended his formal education after 8th grade, no doubt to work full-time on the farm and to find whatever other work was available to support his family. That education was sufficient for him to qualify for and complete pilot training with the Royal Canadian Air Force in World War II. He ended up flying many missions out of England as a bomber pilot in the latter part of the war.

My dad would have been an excellent engineer if he would have had the opportunity to get the formal education to do so. Before WWII he spent some time in Vancouver, British Columbia where he learned radio servicing. He got very good at diagnosing problems with our early black-and-white TVs. Usually that meant figuring out which vacuum tube needed replacing.

We were probably the first family in our neighborhood to have the ability to mute commercials. No, it wasn’t a wireless remote. That would have been a bit too far ahead of our time. However, my dad wired up a switch that could turn the sound on and off from the comfort of our couch. He called it a “squelcher”. I’ve never had much tolerance for loud commercials since that time.

Like everyone back in the ’60s, we had rabbit ear antennas on our TVs and we only got a few channels via local broadcasts. We lived the stereotype of having to frequently get up and adjust the antennas for clear reception or to stop the screen from scrolling.

One evening, when I was nine or ten years old, my dad was particularly frustrated with the misbehaving TV and the amount of TV we were watching; he spent much of the early evenings with the newspaper held up as he read the day’s news. He suddenly got up, unplugged the TV, picked it up, opened the front door, and tossed it onto the front lawn!

Photo: Pablo García Saldaña / Unsplash

We weren’t rednecks, so the TV didn’t stay on the front lawn to be buried in overgrown weeds. Instead, the TV got moved to the garage where it sat on the workbench. And sat and sat. For three and half years.

Without a TV in the house, our lifestyle was bound to change. And change, it did.

Every week or two my dad would take my brother Glen and me to the public library where we would search out the latest books. Inevitably, we would come home with a stack of books each.

Photo: Mahendra Kumar / Unsplash

My brother got into science fiction. I was more into mysteries like the Hardy Boys. It didn’t really matter what we read. It’s just that we were reading all the time.

I have no doubt that throwing out the TV made a difference to my brother and me. We both ended up getting PhDs and having successful careers. My brother as a planetary physicist and me as an engineer and Agilist in software development. I’ll write about what became of my oldest brother and the impact on my parents in another post.

And yes, my parents sacrificed when it came to ensuring my brother and I had the opportunity to pursue higher education. My parents paid for us to complete our bachelor’s degrees without requiring us to work except in summers.

Sometimes in life we have an opportunity to pay it forward. And it can have tremendous impacts on the lives of others. My experience with the sacrifices my parents made to provide stability and a great start in life for my brother and me made a huge impression.

When I met my wonderful wife of twelve years, I had an instant family as I became a step-father of two boys aged nine and seven. Almost instinctually, but really, built on my childhood experiences, I understood the importance of providing a stable home. And, as with my parents, my wife and I are fully funding whatever education or training our two young adult boys need to give them the best opportunity for a great start in life.

My dad’s legacy lives on.

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