Lights In The Dark

Kage Baker slept. At least as an adult – when she was a kid, she had insomnia and was frequently up until well past the television sign off. Back when television stations did sign off. And they did once, Dear Readers. As some of you know.

I have never slept reliably at night. Consequently, we both saw a lot of  test patterns and heard the National Anthem frequently, as even the local monster movie channels went dark by about 2 AM. Discussing it many years later, we both decided we rather missed that quaint ritual, especially the old Indian Head Test Pattern.

The light from the black and white telly was a lot like moonlight, blue and cold, and years of our childhood were lit by that. While it could be depressing if you were the only person still awake – the rest of the household lying pale and faintly glowing in its light, like vampires – it was also a sort of constancy. Someone was out there, keeping the carrier wave going. One was not quite alone.

When we went to Pismo for vacations, the after hours display got even weirder. Well into our 20’s, there was only one station you could pull in at the local motels. It signed off at midnight – from 12 to 6 AM, all you got on the Gold Coast Network (ha!) was a slow camera pan back and forth across a wall. It swung between a temperature gauge and a barometer: silent, inexorable, displaying infinite gradations of information on two measures that changed maybe twice an hour … but I remember sitting awake with Kage and Anne, all of us solemnly tipsy on some hideous concoction of Kage’s, earnestly discussing literature and history and staring transfixed at those two damned gauges, wondering what would herald the dawn.

“What’s on at 6 AM?” Kage would inquire.

Anne (consulting the combination tide schedule and TV Guide): “Scooby Doo.”

“Ooooh, shit …”

Nowadays, of course, there are hundreds of television stations available, and none of them ever goes off the air. The daily ration of weirdness has to be garnered from infomercials (What planet was Tony Robbins from, anyway? That man’s skull was square.) and TV Land broadcasts of the unbelievably bad shows we watched in the 1970’s. Test patterns are gone; and frankly, no one’s channel ID icon is anywhere near as cool. CNN with a Darth Vader voice-over came close, but – no.

All televisions are colour now. Half of them aren’t even televisions, they’re computer, phone and tablet screens, and none of them are cathode ray tubes anyway. That doppelganger moonlight has all but vanished from darkened midnight living rooms, where sleepless little girls once tried to figure out what the hell was actually going on in  chopped-up showings of The Maltese Falcon and White Zombies

Enter my new Kindle. Yes, I am still in the throes of infatuation with my newest techno-toy, because it works just like it said it would! It’s light and easy to hold, it reads like a book, I can buy something new to read from my desk in the middle of the night. I tell you, aside from the still-missing flying cars, this is one of keenest fruits of the future yet. Instant books!

When we moved permanently to Pismo Beach, we discovered that the library system was small and bookstores were few. Luckily, we got on the Internet within a year and discovered shopping for books by computer. As Kage said, that was all we needed to make our exile in the boonies liveable. The Kindle is even better.

And now that I have added a cover and a light, two new joys have been added. I can read much more comfortable in bed, and that magical blue-white electronic moonlight has returned to share my sleeplessness. It shines on my Kindle, coolly comforting – and since it rises up on a neat little War of the Worlds laser-gun neck – I can aim it around the room at need. This is handy when the corgi is talking in his sleep and making goblin noises. Also, I can light my way to the bathroom with a book.

Now that, Dear Readers, is a modern miracle.

Test Pattern

About Kate

I am Kage Baker's sister. Kage was/is a well-known science fiction writer, who died on January 31, 2010. She told me to keep her work going - I'm doing that. This blog will document the process.
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5 Responses to Lights In The Dark

  1. Buffalo says:

    ….”This completes our broadcast day. On behalf of the staff and station manager we thank you for watching. Our broadcast day will resume at six am….” (followed by the National Anthem, then darkness.) Oh, yes. I remember lying there thinking, “I’m too stoned to go anywhere or read. What the hell do I do now?”
    How fortunate our children, relieved of that problem. That’s certainly progress. The flying cars can wait.

  2. Kate says:

    Wow, Buffalo – I don’t remember what the words were! (Though probably Kage did …) But I remember the shot of the flag rippling in slow motion, and the Anthem, and then the test pattern. What I mostly recall as reaction was an inchoate despair – but in my first memories of the station sign off, I don’t think I could read yet. It’s ever so much better now!

  3. PJ says:

    I remember one local station (don’t remember which) used to sign off every night with a film of the Blue Angels (or some military pilots anyway) and that poem, High Flight, which Reagan made famous:

    High Flight
    by John Gillespie Magee, Jr.

    Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth,
    And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
    Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
    Of sun-split clouds…and done a hundred things
    You have not dreamed of…wheeled and soared and swung
    High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
    I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
    My eager craft through footless halls of air.
    Up, up, the long, delirious burning blue
    I’ve topped the windswept heights with easy grace
    Where never lark, nor even eagle flew.
    And while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod
    The high untrespassed sanctity of space…
    …put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

  4. Doug says:

    I don’t have cable or anything but I do have rabbit ears on my tv and live in a small town in Northern California. Channels still go off the air from 2am till 5am! They still play the National Anthem and still show the test pattern! It is in color though 🙂
    – Doug

    • Kate says:

      Oh, how neat! Verification of species survival from the (relative) wilderness! Although the idea of a test pattern in colour is just amazing.

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