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You may think that when I was growing up in the 1940s and 50s we knew nothing of technology, especially because we lived on a farm in remote northern Minnesota. Not so. We had our own kind of technology. When I was very small, we had a console radio. It was a wonderful, ornate piece of furniture about three and a half feet tall and two feet wide with a depth of perhaps eighteen inches. When it was turned on, you could turn a dial to hear people talking or singing. It operated on a large battery, a little larger than a car battery.
Once when the radio wouldn’t work, Dad replaced the battery. Behind the grove where we lived at that time, there was an old house and a two-seater “outdoor bathroom facility.” Behind these buildings was our very own “toxic waste dump” – a junk pile in less modern terms. That is where Dad disposed of the old battery. We kids were fascinated with it. We thought all the “little people” who sang and talked for us when the radio was in use had died and were in that old battery. We, of course, were not supposed to mess around in the junk pile, but behind the old buildings behind the grove, we were out of sight. We tried to break into that old battery so we could see all the dead little people. I don’t remember how successful we were at demolishing the battery, but I do remember we never did find those tiny corpses.
Later after we got electricity, we had a small radio that sat atop the refrigerator. It seems to me that we listened to that more often – perhaps because it didn’t require purchasing batteries. I remember Mom listening to “soap operas” like Fibber McGee and Molly and Ma Perkins and I remember her singing along with the radio. I liked that. Gabriel Heater presented the news, and we can’t forget Amos and Andy. And in the mornings, Dad would listen to a farm program that I think gave the prices on the grain markets. And always the weather program – very important on the farm. There also were children’s programs on the radio – programs like The Lone Ranger, Lassie, and something like Storm King.
I remember how excited I was when we got a phonograph – a record player. I think it was a used one that Dad got for us kids. If I recall correctly, we only got one record for it. It was a 78 RPM record about the size of a dinner plate. The phonograph had to be wound up with a little crank and the needle arm had to placed on the record manually. I loved it and listened to that record over and over. If it wasn’t cranked up enough, the phono would slow down before it got to the end of the song and the sound would change. The tone lowered and the words strung out longer and longer until you couldn’t understand them. It’s strange but I cannot remember the name of the song on that record that I listened to so many times, yet I remember the name of a song on a record I heard once at my Uncle Emil’s house – The Goosepimple Waltz. “I get goooose pimples when I waltz with you . . . ”
Later, I got a little red and ivory suitcase-style electric phonograph that didn’t require winding. The needle arm still had to be placed on the record manually, but it would play either the dinner-plate 78s or the salad-plate 45s. The 45 RPM records had a larger hole so a little plastic-disk adapter had to be inserted to use them on the phono. That little phono played a lot of music for me – one record at a time. Each record had to be changed manually – there was no automatic feed. Eventually, I did go on from the phonograph record player to an 8-track player, cassette players, and CD players. But that was years later.
The really big technological advance in entertainment came about when I was a Junior or Senior in high school. We got a TV — black and white. I don’t remember, but we probably got only one channel, two at the most. It didn’t really matter. I spent very little time watching it. I thought it was a ridiculous and useless thing. Mostly we saw snow – that’s what we called white dots moving vertically across the screen. Sometimes you could make out a picture, but it would come and go. It never came in clear enough and for long enough to get involved in what was being presented. That probably was a blessing since you were unlikely to have reception steady enough to see the program to its end. Perhaps it is this introduction that explains my lack of interest in TV to this day.
When I was young, I always found something to read. Dad’s The Farmer, Mom’s True Story, catalogs, advertisements, cereal boxes, comic books (we usually stopped to buy a comic book every week after Sunday School). I remember taking reading material (not the cereal boxes, though) to a grain trailer box that sat back of the woods. I liked going there to read. The sides of the grain box provided windbreak, so it was usually a warm place to read in spring, summer, and fall sunshine. The sides also shielded me from view, so I could pretend I didn’t hear Mom calling me and no one knew where to find me. I spent many hours reading and basking in the sun there. There has been little technological advance in reading (although I am aware of the e-books technology, I have not used it – 2003). But I have always preferred reading to TV – no “snow,” no dials to fiddle with, no electronic equipment, and the picture in my head is clearer and provides a more intimate involvement with the story. And yes, when there is nothing else to read, I still read the catalogs, advertisements, and cereal boxes!
Oh, yes, we had our “high-tech” entertainment, but as you’ve probably surmised, we didn’t spend a lot of time at it. We had other ways of entertaining ourselves when we lived on Grandpa Ole’s farm – “low-tech entertainment” you might call it.
We rode the huge, old pigs like ponies, which was a lot of fun. We also rode our bikes or trikes and even made little bridges over the shallow ditch next to our driveway to add to the experience. We had a tire swing that hung from a branch of an old tree. And we climbed trees.
I loved to hang in the treetops like a monkey. I wonder if that was because my mom said I looked like a monkey when I was born. Now, you understand, this purportedly was not because I was incredibly ugly, but because I was a preemie and, like many preemies, had dark fuzz covering my body. I had a redeeming attribute, however; I was born with pretty dark, curly hair on my head. Unfortunately, when I was perhaps 3 or 4, I got the measles and ran such a high temperature that I lost all my curly locks. It came back the color of straw and straight – so much for my redeeming attribute!
In addition to biking, swinging, and climbing trees, we had a few toys. However, at one point, apparently enamored with the idea of buried treasure, we decided a good portion of our toys, if buried, could qualify as our very own buried treasure. So we dug a hole, plunked a box of our toys in it, covered it over, and promptly forgot the location of our treasure. We had neglected a very important step in the process; we didn’t make a map. I remember we buried them behind the house, but where??? Oh well, we were innovative and imaginative children and went on just fine without our “buried treasure.” If we longed for a new toy, we would simply nail a couple of small blocks of wood together, and Voila! We’d have a new toy! We played with many an item that didn’t qualify as a toy, but our imaginations made it so.
We never lacked for companionship, either. In addition to the ubiquitous canine companions, we were always surrounded by the “little people.” Some days we even had to be careful we didn’t step on the little folk when walking in the grass. Sometimes we’d try to blame our mischief on the little people, but I don’t remember even one time that Mom believed that. I can’t understand why. She is Norwegian and should have been as familiar with the naughty Nissen as we were!