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By Staff | Jan 6, 2017

I was 5 years old when we got o[ur first TV. Its picture tube had a viewing area that was approximately as wide as a pancake and it lived in a dishwasher-sized wooden cabinet that perched on four spindly legs.

Our TV received only three channels, its picture was often snowy and always black-and-white, but my siblings and I were thoroughly enraptured by the contraption.

The TV brought images from the exotic realms of the outside world into our farmhouse. It showed me that there were innumerable people who, unlike us, didn’t have to milk cows twice a day. This was astonishing.

No less mind-altering were such programs as The Ed Sullivan Show with its eclectic lineup of performers (The Stones! The Beatles! Senor Wences!) and The Jackie Gleason Show, which featured the incredibly leggy June Taylor Dancers.

My siblings and I often wondered how the TV worked. Peeking through the perforations in its back, we espied a miniature metropolis of glowing lights and felt the heat rising from the tiny city. The explanation was obvious: everyone on TV lived inside that wooden box. They would hear the click of the power switch, hasten to their places and put on their shows.

This theory was shattered when our TV went on the fritz and a television repairman was summoned. Like a doctor, the repairman carried a mysterious black case and an aura of authority.

The repair guy quickly removed our TV’s back panel. The dusty tubes and musty capacitors were revealed in all their unglamorous glory. The realization that nobody lived inside the TV was a thunderbolt. Our television was merely a colossal conglomeration of indecipherable electronics!

The repairman took the TV’s innards back to his shop, leaving behind the empty cabinet. My siblings and I took turns being “on TV” by sticking our heads into the cavity where the picture tube belonged and making faces. It was fun, but nowhere near as entertaining as Red Skelton.

After all these years, I will again be on TV. But this time, I got to witness the magic behind squeezing everything down to fit into that little box.

Laura Prosser, Public Affairs Producer at Pioneer Public TV, recently invited me to chat about my book on Pioneer’s “Compass” program. I said yes, despite feeling more apprehensive than if I had agreed to do a midnight skydive.

My wife and I drove to Pioneer’s studios in Appleton, Minnesota and met Laura, a pleasant young lady who is more energetic than a squirrel who has just consumed its body weight in caffeine.

We were escorted to the area where the show would be filmed. Although I guess “filmed” isn’t the correct term since film is no longer involved. Perhaps “digitized” would be more appropriate, but that could also be construed as a medical exam.

We waited on a couch in a hallway – the green room – while final preparations were made. My wife took a photo of me posing at a showbiz-type makeup mirror. Nobody suggested any applications of any makeup, which either meant that I looked good enough already or was deemed beyond hope. I think the latter.

The set where the recording took place consisted of a fake fireplace and a pair of chairs that had colorful cloths draped over them. In other words, it was a lot like home.

Laura and I sat on the chairs. Blinding lights blazed at our faces and a bevy of unblinking TV cameras stared us in the eye.

We chatted pleasantly for a few minutes. Laura would occasionally suspend our conversation to answer a question that came through her earpiece. She explained that in her case, the voices in her head are really real.

There was no shout of “action!” Laura simply said, “OK, let’s begin,” and gave a short intro. Showtime!

My job was to sound intelligent for the next eight minutes. This is a lot harder than it might seem. For me, those eight minutes felt like being on a wobbly tightrope that was suspended over a vat of raw eggs. Failure wouldn’t be deadly, but neither would it be pretty.

My wife watched the recording session from the control room, which had more TV monitors than a Best Buy and featured electronic control panels that looked as though they belonged in the starship Enterprise.

She definitely got the better end of the bargain. Next time (if there is one), I think we should trade places.

My “Compass” appearance is, as they say in showbiz, “in the can.” And when it airs, I am not going to peer into the ventilation slots on our television. Because what if there’s a miniature me in there, peeking into the back of a TV?

Nelson is a freelance writer from Volga, S.D. Reach him by e-mail at jjpcnels@itctel.com.

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