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This has been a great year for TV's 'mute' button

By John Gould / November 20, 1998



Our postmaster, Irving MacIntosh, dealt in real estate on the side, and was often sought by folks looking for property. So one noontime Irving was walking from the post office up the street to his home for lunch, and an automobile with Ohio license tags pulled up in the street. The driver leaned out to say to Irving, "Excuse me, sir, but can you tell me where Mr. Irving G. MacIntosh lives?"

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"Certainly," said Irving, "He lives in that small cottage-house just this side of the Episcopal Church."

"Thank you," said the motorist.

"Not-a-tall!" said Irving.

So when Irving got home he found the man from Ohio waiting for him, and in an ensuing conversation, Irving sold him the Norman place. The fellow has lived there happily ever since and is no stranger to our Maine rules of speech. Namely, to answer the question directly, and to say something only when you can improve on silence.

I mention this now only because I am about to say something to be heeded, and I'd like to improve things a great deal.

In the earlier days of our century, when things were pretty good, I got acquainted with an Irish colleen in Boston by the name, as I recall, of Nora Adams. She was a staffer on Westinghouse Radio WBZ, and one day she was called front and center by the management and named the broadcasting expert on television. At that time, TV was a possible comer, and consisted of a coaxial cable from New York to Washington. It would be Nora's job to find out about this TV, set it up, and introduce it to New England.

Which she did, and one day along in the 1940s she told me, "It is a frightening thing to realize that nobody in the world knows one bit more than I about TV, and that one day I'll be called to account for what happens to it!" She was sad, for she realized what would become of this magnificent blessing once it tangled with mankind's accursed thirst for gold. (See "The Aeneid.")

She foresaw, and would say, "I'm developing television, for what?" So far, and I long ago lost touch with Nora, I believe that television has succeeded in but one desideratum: It has elevated the overactive bladder into prime time.

During the baseball playoffs, several network play-by-play announcers voiced the unproved axiom, "This has been a great year for baseball!" Then they'd play the tape of Mark McGwire belting his record-breaking home run, a replay I saw 38 times. By this logic, it was also a great year for President Clinton, who was replayed 39 times as he stepped from the White House to wave pleasantly at nobody at all.

Then the Braves fell apart and the game was nearly an hour late in starting because of its being a great year for used cars, engine oil, Goodyear blimps, self-winding windows, life insurance, lawn fertilizers, Caribbean cruises, cat food, Perry Como tunes, and so on and so forth, and Hello Nora Adams. On one of those games I was so much impressed I turned and made a significant speech. I said, "The greatest single invention of the 20th century is the mute button on the TV." The applause dins in my ears even now.

How many high-paying TV advertisers realize that when their commercial comes on everybody turns it off? I have so much TV sales resistance I don't even buy things I want. So one of these baseball announcers glibly told me, from the depths of his erudition, "If the guy hadn't of run down the line like he did, he wouldn't of been there like he was, y'know?" Isn't it nice to reflect on the billions we've spent on public education, when we might have gained the same thing by piping TV into the kindergarten and letting Toyota and IBM pick up the tab?

As we began to notice, a few of us, what was happening to television, there arose the cult of the "public" channel, which in turn is worth our attention. The laudable purpose of good programs without fiscal subsidy necessitated the constant dunning for contributions until the mute button could be reached. Either that, or the documentary on Lapland reindeer racing was interrupted to say that while the station took no advertising, L.L. Bean had made a charitable donation and was still selling top-quality outdoor specialties. Thus TV also beguiles us, and it has been a great year all around.

AS TO baseball, the reason we kids seldom hit a home run was the ball. It had lost its cover, and Dave Longway had wound it for us with friction tape. If we'd ever slapped a ball hard enough to reach the woods, our arms woulda been fulla bee stings.

But we didn't need home runs in our high school league, because we had Normie Blake to pinch hit. Normie never hit a baseball, but he was adept at letting baseballs hit him. If we were two-down in the ninth inning, bases loaded, and we needed a hit to win, we just sent Normie to the plate. He'd stand there swinging a bat, looking not unlike Mark McGwire, and then he'd step into the first pitch, yowl with great cry, and force in a hit-batsman run.

Normie got a bit punchy by the end of our short season, but he'd be all right by September and return to the same grade again. When graduated, he had won 24 games. So other years were good for baseball, too, and it needed no TV to tell us that. (See "Hamlet.")