My Grandfather’s Antenna

My grandfather turned 90 last month, and I’d like to share an anecdote from the Long, Long Ago. I love this anecdote because it encapsulates a number of my granddad’s characteristics, and because it has a serious atompunk/dieselpunk flavor to it.

In the late 1940s (no later than 1950 anyway), back when a television in every house was still a new concept, my grandfather got a TV for the living room. You had to have those big branching metal antennae up on the roof in those days, of course. If you’re too young, you may yet have seen them in old TV or film or in a period piece set in the mid 20th century. You know, the man of the house has to go up on the roof – preferably in his housecoat and pajamas – to jiggle the thing back and forth while the wife and/or kids shout encouragement and irritating feedback from the window or front door. It’s usually played for comedy.

So my granddad doesn’t want to go up the roof every time he wants to change from the station. What he does instead, he cuts a hole in the roof and drills a hollow shaft down into the bones of the house. He cuts this shaft down through the (almost certainly load-bearing) wall of the living room, beside where the television will sit.

He then mounts his antenna on a metal pole which, rather than mounted to the roof, goes all the way down this open shaft.

In the living room wall he cuts out an alcove, a little nook really. It abuts the shaft. There’s a plywood backing, maybe some drywall over that, and two cut-outs for the rope. The rope goes into these holes and attaches to the metal pole inside the shaft. The other ends of the rope? Tied near the ends of a pair of bicycle handlebars he’s got mounted on a swivel in the little alcove.

When my granddad needs to adjust the antenna, he just leans over and turns the handlebars like he’s steering a bike or operating a periscope (he wasn’t a submariner, but he had been a sailor).

And that’s him. That’s John C. Underwood, my granddad. Thinking outside the box, refusing the accept the limitations of available technology, coming up with some crazy DIY solution, and building it. Absolutely with a healthy dash of retro sci-fi thrown in for flavor.

I remember the house he and my grandmother lived in for most of my childhood. They built it themselves, back in about 1986. Completely from scratch, no blueprints, no contractors. It was this DIY gnome-wizard’s castle with inbuilt bookshelves, three different staircases, lofts, hidden panels, five different levels (all split-level style, the house was barely more than a standard two-story height), a couple of decks. It smelled of books and pipe smoke and sawdust forever.

Where he’s at now? His reading chair is near a corner and if he leans back and elbows this hidden switch on the wall? A corner panel pops open, and a shotgun falls directly into his lap. Pointed at the door.

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