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Antenna in the Attic

by Gwen Schroth

"I'm sick," I whined. My mother checked my forehead.

"You do seem warm; you'd better stay home from school today."

I didn't mind that at all! This was washday so mom was in and out of the washhouse out back, hanging clothes and then bringing in the dry ones. I curled up in the window seat in the dining room from which I could observe her comings and goings. She took a moment to check my slight fever and then listened to me stumble through a story in my first grade reader, a bit of rare time together. Then she was off again, in a hurry to get the wash done. When she piled the dry laundry on the dining room table to fold and pack away, she turned on the radio. This explained her hurry. She wanted to listen to her favorite programs--The Guiding Light, Stella Dallas, and Young Widder Brown.

I thought the radio only provided evening programs like Inner Sanctum and I Love a Mystery that my four sisters, a brother, and I were allowed to stop homework and piano practice for. My strict Mennonite father, no matter how hard he tried, could find no sin in this. The fact that our enchantment with these radio programs gave him an hour or so of peace and quiet to prepare his sermon for Sunday may have tipped the scales in our favor. Sunday evenings, after church, The Shadow allowed him time to recover from the day's demands.

When our favorite programs came on, my sisters, brother, and I huddled in the dark around the radio, I clung to my sister, Joanne, too frightened by the adventures of Lamont Cranston and his companion, the lovely Margo Lane, to stay and too frightened to go to bed alone at the far end of the house. During an advertisement for the soap that promised the whitest of clothes, Paul, whose head was generally stuck in a science magazine, told us that someday we would be able to see these stories on a large screen as well as hear them. In disgust, we declare him a liar.

On this particular day, while my fever ebbed, mother folded the wash and tuned in to day-time programs of which I had never heard or could have guessed existed. I listened with increasing astonishment. The stories were of people who searched earnestly for happiness, were frozen in horror or grief over the most trivial of events, carried unbelievable hopes, piteously lamented over lover's rejections, bemoaned their deplorable state, and rose to great heights of passion spattered with heavy, meaningful pauses. From what I had heard from the Mennonite preachers twice a day on Sunday mornings and Wednesday evenings as well, much of what I was now witnessing was certainly considered questionable if not downright sinful. Not only was the content of the program alarming, but here was my mother, listening without shame. This could not be the mother I knew--this woman whose eyes glazed over and hands froze mid-air as she looked raptly into space. This was not the chaste, Mennonite wife who had and would continue to follow my father to the mission fields in India and back. This is not the woman who prayed morning, noon, and night and admonished me of my sins at every turn. My innocence was shattered, much like a Methodist or Presbyterian child upon learning that there is no Santa Claus. What would my father think were he to see her in such a condition? I'd better not tell.

As it turned out, my brother, Paul, was not a liar. Years later, when I was married and briefly settled in a small Mennonite community, the foundations of the church's faith was severely tested by the advent of radio with pictures. The latest technological invention, television, came to town. The Methodists and Presbyterians had no problem with this contraption and even the poorest of them quickly found the means to purchase one. But the Mennonites knew that along with dancing, swearing, going to war, playing card games, and telling lies, this mechanism was certainly sent by Satan himself to test our faith. The decision was made that to purchase or even indulge in watching television was declared a sin. So the local furniture store did not sport television sets in its windows, no conversations centered around Lucy's escapades or The Honeymooners or Ed Sullivan, nor did any man slap his thighs and repeat Red Skelton's jokes. Then, without warning, a bomb was dropped with repercussions akin to those dropped in World War II on Germany. The Penner family was rumored to have purchased a television set, sequestered it in their bedroom, and hidden the antenna in their attic. Whispers in the community turned to loud condemnations. In church Mr. Penner, sitting on the men's side of the aisle, found himself seated alone, shunned by his fellow man. Mrs. Penner received similar treatment on the women's side of the aisle. Much as an avalanche begins with the tiniest of movement high on the mountain and then gains force, the Penner's bold move shocked and then moved the church practically off its foundation. In no time flat, more and more attics sported television antennas and folks spent considerably more time in their bedrooms. Simultaneously, the rate of laughter and joy in the community appeared to increase. Children were caught sneaking into Methodist, Lutheran, or Presbyterian homes and then began to demand that their own parents purchase these sinful objects.

My husband and I, young and rebellious, began to regularly visit our neighbors who attended no church at all. We made no attempt to convert them; instead we ate popcorn and watched Lucy and Ricky's antics with no ill effects to our minds or bodies. My husband and I faithfully continued to attend church on Sundays without confessing our television-watching sin. The traditional Sunday dinner was provided by my mother-in-law who dutifully baked zwiebach, a traditional German bread, and prepared an elaborate meal on Saturday to avoid the sin of working on the Sabbath. On Sunday she warmed it in the oven, still finger-licking-good. On one such Sunday, as we sat around the table with our bellies full to the brim, my father-in-law, a much revered deacon in the Mennonite church, announced that it was time to face the issue of television. "We are going to buy a television set," he said. "But I will not be a hypocrite and hide the TV in the bedroom or mount the antenna in the attic. The television goes in the living room and the antenna on the roof. Mother, make room for it; maybe on top of the radio console."

And that was that. In no time flat, most of the other Mennonite homes had antennas waving merrily from their roofs and television sets in their living rooms. The amount of time these good folks spent visiting one another declined and church services were dismissed on time, but the owner of the local furniture store was immensely pleased and soon purchased a new car for himself.