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Prime Time/Art Lee: Something magical at the time

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It was something so special that one never forgets the first time you saw it.

It was something we had heard about, read about, talked about, but still the idea was hard to accept, to believe, to even imagine. Must be just science-fiction dreaming.

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And then came the opportunity, the chance to see it for ourselves, to view it at - of all places - the milking shed on Henrik Gjertson's dairy farm.

Henrik had extra skills, extra interests and curiosity, and, though primarily a farmer, he did radio repairs in his combination milking shed and repair shop. A handyman and tinkerer, Henrik easily fit the unstated but accepted major requirement of any successful farmer: When anything needs repairs, fix it yourself.

One of Henrik's sons was a year behind us in high school and, like most kids, he had a nickname, his being unique. It was based on his physical appearance, i.e. he was 6-feet-3-inches tall and skinny and gaunt, hence his nickname: Curtain-Rod.

It was Curtain-Rod who gave us the welcomed invitation to come to their place and see it for ourselves, but warned us there was no guarantee what we'd see, if anything.

"Sometimes it's there; sometimes it ain't," he said. "Depends. Dad keeps gettin' taller ladders and keeps adding to the piping when he can find more tubing. He built the whole thing himself from an electronic catalog."

We grabbed fast at his invite and drove to his farm late in the afternoon the next day, a Saturday. We half ran to the milk shed and inside found ourselves some cream cans to sit on, then sat back and waited and watched - and hoped.

When we first entered the smelly shed, Henrik was just finishing the milking and was putting together the milk/cream separator. Knowing why we had come and seeing our obvious eagerness, he stopped his assembling, went to his cluttered workbench and began fiddling with some wires and dials on this little wooden box that had about a 6-inch square of glass in the middle of it.

After more fussing, he grabbed a big pipe wrench and stepped outside and first looking skyward, made some turns on the pipe-pole, then came back in, muttering: "Vell, den, less see if dat darn t'ing vorks tewday for youse gices." (Henrik also fit into another category, that of "just getting off the boat".)

More wires were wiggled and knobs turned, including finally the On switch, at which point we leaned forward and stared at the tiny glass on the box. At first there was nothing to see, just wavering snow-lines.

And then suddenly there it was! Wow! A picture. Real people on the screen. And we heard them talking, too. They were walking and talking and laughing, and the magical sight was wonderful.

And then just as suddenly, they were gone; all that was there was a blurry snowstorm. At this picture loss, Henrik offered a wry assessment of this new electronic marvel: "Vell, boyses, telewission iss like radio 'cept instead of hearing da static, yew kin see it tew. Heh-heh."

We waited another 15 minutes, and once again figures appeared briefly on the screen, but this time they were so blurry we could hardly make them out. More waiting. Nuthin' happened. Boring. Time to leave.

But that was OK 'cause we had seen our very first television. Seen the miracle.

The year was 1947. Some things you never forget.

Art Lee is a Bemidji State University professor emeritus of history.

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