While walking through my neighborhood the other day, I was stunned by how much I suddenly missed seeing TV antennas standing tall on every house, each as different from the others as the families who slept beneath them.
It used to be that every roof had one standing on a post, a branching metal arm like a single ray of some colossal steel snowflake, all angled pretty much in the same direction to comb the invisible signals out of the air. At dusk they would loom dark against the blue fading light, the last visual clue to mark where the roof left off and the infinity of sky began, at least until the stars winked on.
Sometimes the antenna would become a prop for a small neighborhood drama that would bring a smile to an otherwise dull day. Maybe Mr. Zumstein would climb up on the roof and turn the whole thing a few inches to the left, or to the right. Through the open window you might hear Mrs. Zumstein call out, "No, that's worse. Try the other way. There, that's better. No… no… you had it for a while."
Mr. Zumstein would grasp a branching arm of the antenna to bend it up or down, and his wife's voice would call, "There, that's it!" He would let go, and she would cry, "No, you lost it again. Why didn't you leave it alone?"
He would grasp it again—"There! Perfect!"
Let go—"No! What are you doing up there?"
And he would shake his head in anger, muttering that there was no way in hell that he was going to stand up there holding that damn antenna until Hollywood Squares was over.
They are gone now, those marvelous antennas. They have been replaced by a dish, or a small post, or by nothing at all if those magical signals are streaming through a hidden cable into the house. They are gone and all-but-forgotten, like the dim branches of a family tree that are swept from memory once any part of it no longer comes to visit on holidays.
It is better this way, isn't it? After all, an absent metal branch is one less thing for lightning to hit, one less thing for wind or ice to wither and warp beyond use.
The birds, however, probably have a different opinion about it.
The sparrows and starlings sit stolid and stunned on the rooftops now, staring stupidly, as if wondering whatever happened to the neighborhood. As if they are waiting for something better to come along.
Look at them up there. It cannot be their first choice to spend the day sitting on the ridge of a tile or asphalt roof. After all, when every rooftop held a TV antenna, every antenna was clustered with birds. No birds chose to sit on the roof, unless they were outcasts or upstarts too young to earn a loftier place among their elders.
The branching arms of the antenna gave the birds several options—top row embraced by sky, or somewhere down near the bottom nestled in warmth radiating from the roof, or facing directly into the bracing breeze, or quartered off to the side to blink into the setting sun.
They looked like musical notes stamped against the sky, the score of an ever-changing tune to serenade each declining day.
But now, with the antennas gone, the birds form a dim staccato line across the peak of every roof. If this is a music score, then it's a drum solo.
The peak of the roof must be a glum compromise for the birds—like the last political candidate left stranded on the party's plate after all the other flavors-of-the-day have been tasted and found unpalatable. With no better place to perch and enjoy the view, the birds have lowered their sights. "We like it fine on the roof," you can almost hear them cluck stubbornly. "Anyway, anything is better than a tree branch."
I don't know how long birds linger in the world—probably no more than a handful of years, which means that it is likely that none of those birds perching on my roof beam has ever seen an antenna.
Still, there may be some genetic memory in the mind of a bird that recalls a time when they perched with their fellows on a wavering metal branch high above the homes of men, with invisible waves humming through their feet. Maybe—who knows?—birds could pick up the signal that streamed unseen through our antennas and brought dream images into our homes. Maybe birds, too, fell asleep to Johnny Carson.
But the antennas are gone now. It was necessary for them to die, to be carried off to scrap yards, in order for progress to rush in. The memory of them is nothing more than a shadow, a ghostly whisper as long-dead as those hearty voices ringing merrily on sitcom laugh tracks. Your roof beam is clean of line now and shouldered straight up to the sky.
Anyway, it is progress. And progress is always better, isn't it?
- - -The author splits his time between Naples and Chicago. Not every day, though. Contact him at email@example.com. Why wait a whole week for your next visit to Planet Kerth? Get T.R.'s new book, "Revenge of the Sardines," available now at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other fine online book distributors. His column will appear every Friday.