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HUCKABY: It's hard to explain life before television

My history students and I recently engaged in a dialogue concerning "communal experiences of the American populace during the Great Depression." What that really means is we were bumping our gums about how people occupied their time during hard times. It turns out that their favorites pastimes, according to our textbook, were listening to the radio, going to movies and reading.

I think it was hard for my students, who live in an era in which they can watch "American Idol" on their cell phones, to grasp the fact that folks didn't have television sets in their home. And as hard as that world was for them to imagine, it was just as baffling for them to visual a whole family gathered around a radio set listening to "The Lone Ranger" or "Fibber McGee and Molly."

Believe it or not, I am familiar with those days.

No, I was not around in the '30s — or even the '40s — but I can remember the 1950s in great detail and in the early '50s my family did not own a television set. I was probably 3 or 4 when we finally did join the modern age and get our own TV. The first show I remember watching — in living black-and-white and gray tones, of course — was a dramatized version of "Little Red Riding Hood." It scared me to death and I had nightmares for weeks, but I digress.

My grandmother, "Mama Ellis" to me, never did have a television in her home. Going to spend the night with her was a little bit of an adventure. She had a gas stove in her kitchen but she didn't trust "that newfangled thing." She would use it when push came to shove but much preferred cooking on the coal-burning stove in her living room.

I loved waking up in Mama Ellis's house to the smell of sausage cooking in her black iron skillet on that pot-bellied stove. I didn't particularly enjoy dumping the ashes or going outside in the cold to replenish the coal bin, but you had to take the rough with the smooth.

But the thing I liked best about spending the night with my grandmother was listening to "The Lone Ranger," and "Superman" on the radio.

Yes, I said the radio. Even after Clayton Moore, Jay Silverheels and George Reeves had brought those programs to the small screen, the forerunners were broadcast on the radio and even after I had a television set at home, I loved listening to the shows and using my imagination to establish the setting and follow the action.

I couldn't help but share these memories with my students who might not have had a greater understanding of the communal experiences of Americans in the '30s but had a much better understanding the dorkiness of their teacher in the '50s.

I also had to tell them about television night at our house. On the night "I Love Lucy" aired, all the ladies on our street would bring their laundry and sit and fold clothes while watching the zaniness of Lucy and Ethyl. I guess Ricky Ricardo was the first Cuban I ever knew and I went around as a little shaver saying, "ay yi yi yi yi!" because he did.

Naturally I had to explain to the kids about the quaint rules of pre-"Friends" era television. For instance, it was perfectly acceptable for Ricky and Lucy to smoke onscreen but they had to sleep in separate beds, and when Lucy found herself with child it was not OK for her to say the word pregnant — or be filmed sideways.

One thing led to another and one young man had the audacity to ask if movies were in color when I was a kid. I assured him that some were and that we even had "talkies," too. Since our book had indicated that a lot of people used movies as an escape from their troubles during the hard times of the 1930s, some students wanted to know how people afforded picture shows when everybody was out of work.

I am not sure they believed me when I told them that admission was only five cents and that for your nickel you got to see a newsreel, a cartoon, coming attractions and at least one feature — sometimes two. To reinforce the concept of the affordable outing I explained that when I was really small movies were a dime and that they jumped to a quarter and then fifty cents before leveling off at a buck when I was in college.

That's when my students informed me that it cost $13.50 to see a show — with no newsreel or cartoon but lots and lots of previews and a number of commercials to boot.

Quite frankly, I didn't believe them — so I looked up the prices on my trusty iPhone and to my amazement, they spoke the truth, which led me to the frightening realization that when my grandchildren are in high school and taking U.S. history, these will be considered the good old days and teachers now in diapers will be waxing nostalgic about the good old days when movies were mostly two dimensional and cost less than 20 bucks a pop.

I'm getting a headache, y'all. I think I'll go lie down and listen to the radio. Does anybody know what time "The Lone Ranger" comes on?

Darrell Huckaby is an author and teacher in Rockdale County. E-mail him at dhuck08@bellsouth.net.