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Original Issue


Time was, on many a summer afternoon I could hear a Cub or White Sox game playing itself out on the big AM radio in my father's machine shop. If a nap beckoned, he might go up to the house, settle in his chair and, before dozing off, watch the black-and-white Zenith try to pull the game from Chicago across the prairie to our house in northern Illinois. These humble electronic servants were our only access to the ball fields, country clubs and gridirons where great things were happening.

Today, 30 years later, the most amazing thing has happened in my own home. We can watch—on a giant color screen, no less—two, or even four, sporting events simultaneously. With the help of a hand-held control pad that looks like a miniaturized dashboard from a 747 and instructions written by techno-sadists, we can be ringside, in the stands, on the green, in the stream or maybe on Mount Everest, all at once. In stereo.

Like most people, we started with a modest VCR but quickly decided that one VCR is useless. You really need two. They have to be able to talk to each other to copy and edit tapes. And if you hook the stereo system to the video system, you can better enjoy the rich crack of helmets crashing, the smack of bat against ball, and the charming comments that occasionally escape from the stands.

We were hooked. So it came to pass that one dark and stormy winter morning, in rolled a black television half the size of the refrigerator. The TV was so sophisticated, so wonderful, so complicated, it led one to suspect not only that the Japanese study and work harder than we do but also that they must go home at night, lie down and laugh till their sides hurt, just thinking about those of us who have to figure out how to work the things they make.

After only two weekends with technical consultants creeping around the house, my husband and I were left to solo with just the instruction manuals to guide us. That's plural because we decided that the miracle TV deserved to be hooked up to an equally dazzling VCR.

I took the blunder-into-it approach. If you hit enough buttons enough times—sort of like chimpanzees with typewriters—something will make sense. Sure enough, one Saturday afternoon I hit the motherlode. By doing god knows what, I made the TV, VCR and 54-channel cable feed have a sort of microchip Mazola party. The 31-inch screen suddenly split into four little screens. Then they started to dance.

The type on the screen would exclaim 002 in the upper-lefthand corner, and Channel 2 would pop into that corner and freeze. One second later, 003 would announce itself in the upper right. Then 004 and 005. Flash, freeze. Flash, freeze. Four corners, four images. Four seconds later, when it was Channel 6's turn, it would bump Channel 2. Then 7 bumped 3. Emanating from the coaxial cable were a lot of guys playing basketball, some guys playing soccer, a man playing golf and a woman spearing fish. Art Linkletter was selling a chair over here, and Jimmy Swaggart was weeping over there. Precisely 54 seconds later all 54 channels had presented themselves. At this point the wonderful TV seized up, waiting for me to tell it what to do next.

It took me several minutes to compose my thoughts and make an actual picture appear across the whole screen and stay there. When I regained control, I took solace in pushing two buttons to call up a station featuring many comforting shows in black and white that were popular during the Eisenhower Administration.

All this electronic gadgetry would be worth it if I could rest assured that never again would we miss the magic moment of a critical kick, hit, stroke or splat-of tobacco juice. But not too long ago, when we asked the VCR to catch a show on plastic recycling, it played back for us Jimmy Stewart fighting off bad guys around a watering trough.

My husband assures me that the day is coming when he will be able to put his favorite videotape, The Essence of Fly Casting, into the VCR in the basement, where he keeps all fishing-related paraphernalia, and shoot the tape upstairs to me, so I can freeze-frame each cast, thus improving my ability to flail hopelessly at trout. I have no doubt that because of our technical wizardry, trout will one day tremble at my approach. I'm also certain that the time will come when I will go to sleep assured that one of our three VCRs will catch the all-sports station's predawn coverage of Latvian soccer.

But until that day comes when I am master of the microchip, I can be found on occasion, holed up in my laundry room, listening to an old AM radio and remembering my dad.