I’ve been fascinated and engrossed with the television since I was old enough to develop memory. The first television to catch my fancy was my grandparents’ black and white television. With an antenna reaching to the heavens, we at times could receive one Lincoln station and maybe two Omaha stations. That’s a CBS station, an ABC station and the NBC station. The most significant athletic event I saw through a grainy screen was when the University of Nebraska’s weak men’s basketball team beat Wilt Chamberlain and the mighty Kansas Jayhawks with a half-court shot from some guy that came up to Wilt’s bellybutton.
The first hint of a cable-like service came from the inventive father of a classmate of mine, Myron Rocker, who constructed a tower that sometimes disappeared among the low-lying clouds. He then sold lines to this cable to anyone who wanted better television reception. It was a great idea. I think we subscribed to Myron’s tower idea. However, rooftop antennas improved and the high tower in a cow pasture on the outskirts of Clatonia, Neb., became obsolete and soon came down.
I will never forget the first color television set I ever laid eyes on. George Gerdes, a local hardware store owner, bought the first color television in my tiny hometown. George was a bit of a rebel. He also was the first to own an airplane and a motor boat. Who else would make sure he was the first to watch Howdy Dowdy in living color (sort of living color). I stopped by to view this new sensation. It was time for Walter Cronkite and the evening news. There was a report on Illinois’ powerful senator, Everett Dirksen. Senator Dirksen had huge lips. Everyone knew that. What we apparently didn’t know is this less-than-handsome public figure dressed in purple suits with red shirts and green ties. Who could doubt what we could view on those first color TV sets? My family stuck with the reliable black and white sets where you had to guess the color of the performers’ wardrobes.
My favorite time to watch television was Saturday afternoons. I was almost a teenager and hopelessly hooked as a huge baseball fan. Don’t throw anything at me, but I was a die-hard Yankee fan. I loved Yogi, Whitey, and most of all, number 7, Mickey Mantle. Every Saturday afternoon, the Yankees were on the Game of the Week. The main broadcaster was Hall of Fame pitcher and Super Hall of Fame drinker, Dizzy Dean. Their sponsor was Falstaff beer, which was manufactured in Omaha. The cartoon character, The Old Pro, was the spokesman for Falstaff. Forget about Super Bowl advertisements, you didn’t dare miss any Old Pro Falstaff commercials.
The trouble is every Saturday my slave-driving mother never let me spend my Saturday afternoon inside the house. Hardly anyone had air conditioning and most kids went outside without much encouragement. Not me. I needed to see the only baseball game broadcasted all week. But my mom was pretty clever so the home television wasn’t a good option. The next option was Rehm’s Tavern. They had a black and white television, but getting them to turn it on to the Game of the Week was not an easy option. The trick was asking Harvey Rehm to turn it on. Harvey was a soft touch for the kids. However, he also worked at the grain elevator and worked most Saturday afternoons. His wife and scary little dog were the tough ones to get around. I don’t think she liked me much and I know she liked baseball less. The only chance I had was if their son, Dick, who was a couple of years older than me, wanted to watch the M & M boys (Mantle and Maris) pound home runs. It was a 50-50 chance. If I got it on, I would be the only viewer, but I’d kill the whole afternoon with the Old Pro and Casey Stengel’s boys thrashing the rest of the American League.
That was the start of my journey with televisions and the programs I begged to watch. In March of 1979, I was a high school assistant high school coach in Milford, Neb. I graduated from Kearney State College in 1973 and I loved its basketball program. Led by coach Jerry Huesser, it was built to be the top program in Nebraska. In 1979, it made its thrust into the national spotlight.
Cable television was just making progress. You could only get it in the bigger cities. As Kearney was winning its way through the NAIA tournament in Kansas City, I was able to turn my antenna just enough to pick up a central Nebraska station that covered the games. Finally, Kearney won its way into the semifinals against a powerful Quincy (IL) team. I had to see it with more clarity than I received in Milford. I decided to travel to Lincoln and find a bar with cable television. I chose the Spigot, which was owned by the grandmother of a high school classmate of mine. Jessie Wilkinson and her son, Dwayne, ran this popular bar. The trouble was this Saturday was St. Patrick’s Day and no one was interested in television or an NAIA school that was 120 miles from the hometown of Big Red. However, Dwayne agreed to turn the channel to the game, but he made no promises of anything but a picture.
That was all I needed. The bar was packed for the run on the green beer, but I was glued to the 20-inch television in the corner of the bar. One other guy, a salesman who had to spend the weekend in Lincoln, was watching the game. I really don’t think this guy had any interest because he was constantly asking me where he could find working girls in Lincoln. I had lived close to Lincoln all my life and I had never seen a working girl staking out O Street in my life. There was a rumor that there were two working girls who lived above a pet store on O Street. The pet store had a huge parrot for a sign. The parrot’s eyes were lighted with red bulbs. The rumor had it that if either woman was available, the eye would be shinning brightly. Trust me, I never confirmed those rumors, but it sure interested this lonely and slightly tanked salesman.
That brings me to Saturday night. It was the Fourth of July weekend. Sam, my son, and Jacob, my grandson, wanted to go to a 3-D movie at the Hollywood Theaters in St. Joseph. My beloved Royals were playing on the west coast, so the game started about the same time as the movie. I had tried in the past to get out of such popular movies as The Farmer Astronaut, but Sam always wanted me with him at the movie. I gave it a try, hoping Sam could see this flick with blue men without me. To my surprise, he agreed it would be a good idea for me to cross the street and watch the Royals at Buffalo Wild Wings. Sam must be growing up. I was excited, but I tried not to show it to the boys.
After buying them enough concessions for a good belly ache, I headed to the popular sports bar. I figured everyone would be doing outdoor activities since it was the Fourth of July and the sports bar would not be crowded. However, I found the place packed. I couldn’t figure it out, but they put me at a very tiny table flat against the south wall. However, on the north wall, there was one big screen and two smaller one with the Royals battling the Los Angeles Angels.
I had just ordered a big pile of nachos, when every television but the smallest one in the far corner went to a different program. I was about to protest when a huge shout came from the crowd. I looked up and saw two men slamming each other to the floor as they hugged each other like it was Valentine’s Day. I later found out they called this mixed marshal arts. Everyone was there to watch an ex WWE wrestler named Brock Lesnar defend his heavyweight title over some poor slob named Shane Carwin. The people who packed Buffalo Wild Wings would not look favorably at me if I demanded a big screen of my beloved Royals. Besides, they all had strange T-shirts on and they all had considerably more tattoos than me.
Here’s where a huge problem surfaced. Bruce Kim, the Royal’s journeyman pitcher, had a perfect game going. Not a single Angel had reached base through the fourth, fifth and sixth innings. I could feel something remarkable happening at a ballpark near Disneyland. I made my decision to squint at the tiny television in the corner rather than take on all these fans of mixed martial arts. Finally, at about 11 p.m., the Angels broke up the perfect game and I met my boys just as they were walking out of the theater. I once again felt like that poor soul watching a basketball game on St. Patrick’s Day. By the way, Brock, the fan favorite, also won. I won’t try to figure out why all the hugging, punching while you have a guy on his back and the tattoos. However, I might buy one of those strange T-shirts. Maybe I could blend in.