Monday, December 07, 2009

TV Man Chronicles: A Personal Reminiscence

There was a time when, after their television sets broke down, people would call the TV Repair Shop for a service call, or drop it off themselves, like an automobile in need of service. It seems strange now, decades later, that the culture that surrounds consumer electronics would have changed so suddenly and dramatically that, looking back upon it, having one’s TV fixed rather than tossed out and replaced (by The Latest and Greatest Model Yet) would seem as anachronistic as taking vacuum tubes down to the drug store to be checked, or calling the telephone company for a home service call.

This surreal sense of living simultaneously in the past and the present is heightened when a person such as I, barely in his early 50s, can claim to have been, just a few years ago, entirely absorbed in the business and sub-culture of the TV Repair Shop. A person, such as I, found themselves engaged in this vocation due to unique life situations that were the result of a combination of factors, chief among them the ability to troubleshoot electronic circuits to the component level, quickly and accurately enough so as to provide a service to the public at a reasonable cost, while making a livable wage, combined with some deleterious personal limitation that prevented them from plying their talents in other technical fields deemed more professional, above-board and hence profitable. There was always this sense that being a TV Repairman was akin to a bottom-feeder of the technical arts, barely adept, slightly shady – a tinge of the not-quite-up-and-up – the shyster of the technical tradesmen. Everybody claimed to have an uncle or brother-in-law who was a TV Man; who at least knew enough to swap out a tube or two. Despite this reputation however, most every repair shop and technician that I had personal experience with was as honest as the day is long.

There was not a singe TV Man I knew personally who didn’t have some obviously glaring personality trait, or unique life story, that made them becoming TV Men virtually inevitable. They were Characters, each and every one of them. This observation seemed, at the time, remarkable; that there would be so many zany, crazy, kooky or troubled people in the business, as if it were mere coincidence. Looking back upon it now, it seems inevitable: how could it have been otherwise?

There was one man I knew, a middle-aged, frumpy-looking mass of threadbare sweaters and unshaven double-chins, who had virtually no real troubleshooting skills, yet survived on the fringes of TV Repair Success due to possessing a photographic memory. He could not diagnose a new problem to save his soul – and one didn’t even think of asking him to break out an oscilloscope, for he’d no idea of how to work it – but he could look at a TV, carefully consider the make and model, then read the customer’s symptom on the shop’s tag, and without even taking the back panel off the set would march triumphantly down the ramp* to the parts bins, select the proper value of resistor or capacitor, and in no time at all have the set in good working order. He could put out a dozen, two dozen, sets a day this way, provided they were problems he had seen before. But throw a new problem at him and he’d be entirely lost, downtrodden and dejected.

(*The ramp: The first shop I worked at had been two older houses, joined together to form a rambling assortment of rooms and hallways, stacks of broken TVs piled up to the ceiling, a bench or two in each room. The back of the shop was higher than the front; when the two old houses were joined into one building a ramp was built to accommodate rolling TV sets, on their carts or skids, from one to the other.)

There were other technicians in the shop for whom the newly unforeseen problems, the Dogs – those that would stump mere mortals – would be reserved; they were known as the Dog Technicians. It seemed necessary to the shop’s owner to maintain good relations with long-standing customers, even if to repair their set meant to do so at a loss (the strategy being to guarantee their future business). The Dog Technician was paid by the hour, rather than piecework on commission; this was only fair, given the length of time it might be required of the Dog Tech to arrive at a successful diagnosis. He was usually reserved a bench in the back of the shop, equipped with the best test equipment, and given more latitude than other techs as to his comings and goings. He was a Prima Donna of sorts, but at a price, that being no matter how hard he worked, pulling his hair out struggling with testy problems, his paycheck was always the same. This disconnect between the amount of mental stress and the resulting financial remuneration was a point of contention between him and the other techs, who were given the cherry-picked problems, those with easy-to-identify, known problems, paid on commission for high-volume work.

I became a TV Man due to my past experience in the military. Like many others with ex-military electronics experience, becoming a TV Man was a logical necessity if one’s life situation (like mine) prevented them from pursuing Higher Education. I had, however, an intrinsic advantage over the typical ex-Cold War GI with experience on tactical nuclear missile systems (or other areas of expertise ill-suited for transfer to a civilian job): I was a TV Man in the US Navy.

Just like every other TV Man with some vital flaw that inevitably led them into the trade, my story was about having been a Nuke Flunky. I had enlisted for six years, at the tail end of the “Vietnam Conflict” (remind me again of the Vital Strategic Necessity of invading a third-world agrarian society with no strategic resources? – oh, yeah – the “Domino Theory”) – I had enlisted into the Navy’s Nuclear Power Program, that two-years-of-college-level-physics-math-thermodynamics-crammed-into-six-months crucible of studies, invented by the infamously renown Admiral Hyman Rickover, at the end of which I was found, due to reasons entirely my own fault, to have a grade-point-average on the cusp of the Pass/Fail demarcation. The decision to send me on to Prototype Training (hands-on training on an actual nuclear-powered steam plant) was left up to the bureaucrats at the Pentagon, who decided that This Man’s Navy had no need for my talents (or lack thereof) applied to the nation’s fleet of small, highly-enriched-uranium nuclear propulsion reactors. I was dutifully sent out to “The Fleet,” to spend the remainder of my six-year enlistment on an oil-fired aircraft carrier*, as an Interior Communications Technician Third Class.

(*The U.S.S. Constellation, CV-64, from 1976 to 1981, known affectionately by her crew as “The Connie.”)

This seeming failure of mine led me eventually (after about a year or so in the Engineering Department, working on shipboard interior communications systems) to an assignment in the ship’s TV Repair Shop, and the opportunity to attend the Navy’s class “C” TV Repair School at Great Lakes (termed “Great Mistakes” by those unfortunate to have spent boot camp on the shores of Lake Michigan in the winter), Illinois.

The same year that I attended “C” school, the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor incident occurred. Suddenly, having TV Repair skills seemed to promise a brighter future than having failed to achieve nuclear reactor operator skills, the bottom of the civilian nuclear reactor job market having suddenly completely melted down.

Three Western Pacific/Indian Ocean deployments later (the subject of more than one story to be eventually told, I am certain, Sea-Stories being endemic to the ex-Navy man), I found myself back out in civilian life with the basic skills required of a TV Man. Back in my home town, I applied at several shops and, weeks later, two of them called me on the same day. I eventually worked at both, full-time at one and part-time at the other until, years later, fortunes reversed and I ended up working the other shop full-time and the first part-time.

I remember the first set I was assigned to work on: a behemoth of a “combo” TV console, an eight-foot-long, solid-wood-cabinet monstrosity that incorporated a 25” hybrid TV chassis, turntable, AM/FM radio, 8-track (yes, 8-track) cartridge player and speakers. The thing (a Zenith brand, bless its little heart) weighed about as much as a VW bug; lucky for me it was already in the shop, sitting in one corner of a side room, collecting dust and an assortment of smaller sets sitting atop it, like birds symbiotically pecking at the mud-encrusted back of a hippo. Virtually every feature of the combo was non-functional, and I spent the better part of that first week methodically working through each problem. I started on the TV chassis, a so-called “hybrid” chassis that involved a combination of high-voltage vacuum tubes, transistors and a few integrated circuits. Think of horse-drawn wagon, internal combustion engine and Star Ship Main Warp Drive, all combined into one surreal blend, and you get the general idea. This set’s “engineering design” (I use that term loosely) was one of those evolutionary expediencies that can only be understood in the context of its day, when fully integrated, solid-state circuits were first coming into the market, but high-power, high-voltage, solid-state components were deemed still too expensive and/or unreliable for service in a consumer product.

I eventually got that old beast working, much to the surprise of the shop owner; I’m certain now that he used it as a kind of test of my abilities. A week later, I was out in the truck doing home service calls. I didn’t drive the shop van, but rode shotgun. The driver, a Central American immigrant who we’ll call Mr. N., was a pretty competent service call guy, knowing just enough technical stuff to decide when he was in over his head and whether the set would therefore require a trip to the shop. We were up in the Southeast Heights of Albuquerque, near Central Avenue (the old Route 66), in an area of town known as “The Combat Zone,” and Mr. N. had decided to cross Central, heading north, by directly traversing the street at a turn island. But he had to stop, out in the middle for oncoming traffic on the other side, with the big Ford Econoline’s rear sticking out into traffic behind us.

Due to the heightened crime level in the area, there was also an increased police presence, one of whom, a motorcycle officer, pulled us over for “obstructing traffic.” English was Mr. N.’s second language, and his experiences and interactions with Guatemalan law enforcement had been, shall we say, tainted. So he refused to sign the ticket, which he mistakenly assumed would imply a confession of guilt. So there I quietly sat, in the passenger seat of the van, barely out of the Navy; I still had the haircut, a fairly high regard for authority (and several uncashed paychecks; our ship’s Disbursing Officer was a Lt. Joe Blow, and thus my checks were “signed,” using his official signature stamp, “Joe Blow”); just a week under my belt at my new job, as my driver was being arrested.

Having lived onboard ship for the previous four and one half years, I was desperately out of the practice of driving; I’m not certain now if I even had a current driver’s license at the time. But I drove the huge van back to the shop, sans Mr. N., and sheepishly walked into the shop, no TV in the back of the van, and no Mr. N., either. My boss at the time, Leo and his late wife Irene, I kept in contact with over the years; we would reminisce on occasion about our experiences at the shop, and inevitably this story would crop up, and we’d all get a good chuckle over the look on my face when I came back to the shop and had to explain that Mr. N. was in jail, had been arrested. Didn’t seem so funny at the time, however.

There was another tech at the shop, a middle-aged black man from Chicago, a Mr. H., who was a pretty good bench tech, but was fast and loose with his craftsmanship. Virtually everything he soldered was done with one of those old, black, Bakelite-cased solder guns, the ones with the red trigger switch and the large copper-loop heating element in the tip, and built-in light bulb. The tip of this solder gun was so fat and hot that it should not have been used on anything smaller than, say, soldering heavy-gauge wires to terminal strips, but Mr. H. would use the gun on everything; resistors, capacitors, even integrated circuits. You’d walk by his bench, he’d be sitting on a stool, hidden behind a large console TV sitting propped up on a wheeled cart, soldering away, the smoke from his iron curling up in little clouds of smoke like signals from some distant Indian tribe. He’d overheat and ruin components, even melt the foil traces off the circuit boards with his high-wattage solder gun. Mr. H. was divorced, had a passel of kids, constantly between lady friends and avoiding his ex-wife’s phone calls (“he’s out on a service call at the moment, sorry”).

Some technicians’ aura would remain long after their physical presence was gone. Like J.R., for instance. People still talked about J.R. like his spectre still haunted the back rooms of the shop. J.R. had been a bastard, an ass (or so everyone agreed); but was a darned good tech, could fix almost anything. A legend.

The shop had employed at times not only TV Men but also Audio Technicians. You could tell an Audio Technician apart from a TV Man about a mile away. The average TV Man was middle-aged, frumpy, disheveled but with a bit of flair about them; the average Audio Technician was a longhaired guitarist from some local garage band. They came and went as they pleased, disdaining any authority the shop owner claimed over their work schedule. You could tell when the Audio Technician was in, for the back rooms of the shop reverberated from the “test” he was conducting on a high-powered audio amplifier. I worked on audio gear off and on, but was no true Audio Technician, rather a jack-of-all-trades Dog Man who also worked commission at times.

Other technicians would come and go, jumping around from shop to shop, as their fortunes rose or fell. The community of TV Men in Albuquerque was fairly small and somewhat tight-knit, at least enough for a person’s reputation to precede them. Reputation, word of mouth, was your stock in trade; you could get work anywhere if people knew you were a top-flight TV Man.

People came and went for various reasons. Some wanted the easy, cherry-picked sets on commission, and didn’t want to be stuck in the role of Dog Tech. Others had more personal reasons. There was Mr. K., an ex-Air Force tech, who knew some passable Japanese phrases, but was an incurable alcoholic. He’d work enough to start getting some decent paychecks (on commission you didn’t get paid until the customer paid for and picked up their set, weeks or sometimes months later; hence your paycheck was not necessarily a reflection of how hard or successful you worked that week), but Mr. K. would then start a drinking binge on his new-found fortune until he could no longer maintain employment, at which time he’d be “let go,” to sober up eventually and, some time later, return to do more work.

I worked part-time – on Tuesday evenings – at another shop, the owner a good friend and remarkable technician, the kind who could have worked in any technical industry but chose TV Repair for his disdain of the large, corporate culture. Eventually, the fortunes at my main job waned as business declined and I, sensing the handwriting on the wall, went to work full time at the other shop. I stayed there until the end of my TV Repair Career, but not before having gained considerable experience on not only TVs, but VCRs, camcorders and Big-Screen TVs.

I would often go out on service calls of Big Screen TVs, into people’s homes, the most common problem being convergence problems, where the three primary colors would not be properly aligned on the projection screen. We had a common solution for most of these problems, which could be solved, normally in-home, by replacing several high-power chips, repairing solder connections and doing a complete setup on the set’s convergence circuitry. This was a High Art, aligning the three electron guns such that their projected images, arriving at the screen from three distinctly different angles, would be uniformly overlapped at every part of the image, especially at the corners.

We had personal reasons for not wanting to take these oak-encased monsters into the shop, the primary one being that they weighed upwards of a small grand piano, and we were not really professional movers; we weren’t hired for our ability to dead-lift small cattle, for example, but rather for our more cerebral abilities. And despite the opportunity to make perhaps a bit more money by taking these sets into the shop, the boss didn’t want to incur the risk of scratching or, God-forbid, dropping one of these during its transit. So he charged full in-shop rates for our home service call, which proved to be a “win-win” for all parties involved.

I go into this level of detail only because I recall one service call, up into the rural areas east of town, a secluded loop of custom homes in a side canyon along old Route 66, in Tijeras Canyon, where a Sandia National Laboratory-employed, Eastern European-Born Nuclear Physicist dwelt; him, his enormous Mitsubishi projection TV (with the usual convergence problems) and his memories of working alongside the other Big Wigs of the Manhattan Project. As I proceeded to replace a few chips, repair solder connections and commence a full-blown setup on the convergence circuits he proceeded to lecture me about how he, being an Eastern European-Born Nuclear Physicist, knew more about these State of the Art devices than did I, and that he (supposedly) knew the President of Mitsubishi Electric Conglomerated personally, and had also rubbed elbows with Dr. Edward Tellar, the Father of the Hydrogen Bomb.

I humbly thanked him for his service to our country during the Cold War (within which I had also served, but found no need to mention this to him), completed my job, ensuring the convergence was “better than factory-new,” since I had ensured that the set’s convergence was optimized for its orientation to magnetic north – no joke, this was actually possible, the electron beam in a CRT being sensitive to the earth’s magnetic field, – collected my money and departed, not needing to inquire as to why he, being of Superior Eastern European Intelligence, hadn’t simply done the work himself. I learned, through these experiences, never to look down on anyone’s job or avocation, regardless of social strata or presumption, because there is no adequate replacement for experience itself. There is no finer diploma available anywhere than the one only obtainable from the School of Hard Knocks, A.K.A. Whatsamatta U.

Another TV Man I knew (and still know) had worked at the second shop since the late 1970s. Mr. F. is still there, thirty-five years and three owners later, as much a fixture in the shop as the old, dusty test equipment. He’s 80 years old now; still shows up to work each day, still able to troubleshoot and solder and think and feel his way around schematic diagrams and circuit boards. Mr. F. is the most remarkable TV Man I’ve known because of his longevity.

The TV Shop had hangers-on, “groupies,” if you could imagine. Not that we were superstars, mind you, but these were typically former or current customers who themselves possessed some interest and aptitude for electronic repairs, as a side business or hobby, but used the shop as a source of spare parts and, on occasion, schematic diagrams. Why the Boss permitted this was a mystery, since these hangers-on were, potentially, taking business away from the shop. Perhaps it was out of a personal friendship, or perhaps they could refer service to the shop for problems that were out of their league.

This was how I eventually ended my TV Man career, when one of these TV Shop Groupies, a middle-aged man, who worked at a semiconductor (“chip-making”) factory, one day in 1993 happened to mention that there was a job position open on the night shift, and would I be interested in submitting an application. I got the job, submitted my resignation at the shop and later found out that the shop owner had to hire three techs to replace me. This is not bragging, but merely an observation about the motivation one has when, working only piecework on a commission basis, with no paid vacation or health benefits, the only means for acquiring a yearly raise was to work harder (and/or smarter) than the year previous.

My experience at troubleshooting electronic circuits to the component level proved invaluable in my new career, since most Manufacturing Technicians in the semiconductor business were graduates of technical schools, where it was difficult to learn true structured problem-solving skills in a mere classroom setting; the School of Hard Knocks, A.K.A. Whatsamatta U., proved to have provided an education unique and invaluable. In the chip-making business, downtime on factory equipment can cost the company millions of dollars per hour in lost revenue; hence the need to “turn around” these manufacturing tools as rapidly as possible.

There is one technician I knew in the TV Repair days whose story I’ve saved for last. He was the father-in-law of the shop’s owner, an older gentleman, Mr. W., originally from Nova Scotia, who had worked the TV Repair business since the early 1960s. He would recount tale after tale of the heyday of the business, years ago, when UHF and color sets had first hit the market and the shop had five trucks and their respective crews, out on service calls swapping out tubes or modules, or installing roof antennas until sometimes eight or nine at night. He had a hungry family of six kids, and had to work that hard to bring home the bacon. Mr. W. had seen it all and done it all, while blind in one eye and, later, hard of hearing.

When we worked together, at the old shop, we'd take a break, mid-morning and mid-afternoon, in the little kitchen area in the back of the shop, and drink a "cuppa" (tea or coffee) and discuss things. We invented an idea for a TV sitcom about a TV Repair Shop, kind of like the series "Taxi", starring Danny DeVito as the old crusty, cigar-chewing show owner, and his rag-tag collection of mishaps called TV Men. There was one episode we were particularly proud of, in our imaginations, about the time when someone forgot to unplug all the power cords prior to going home at night, and the shop burned down over the weekend. The show ends with DeVito, standing amidst a charred ruin, tugging at the old burnt power cord, still plugged in, chomping his cigar and cursing.

He worked in the business well into his seventies, until he couldn’t see well enough to continue. We developed a close friendship, and still keep in touch; I visited him last year while on vacation. This week he’s in the hospital undergoing surgery for an aneurysm. I hope all goes well, that the surgeons and nurses who attend to him are as dedicated to their profession as he was to his.

A few days ago I took my son-in-law out for a post-Black Friday TV shopping spree; we ended up with a 46” LCD flat screen. Carrying the carton up the steps into their home, I couldn’t believe how light it was; lighter than the toolbox I used to tote into people’s homes as a TV Man.

I still keep in touch with the last shop I worked at. It’s still in business, a different owner, now doing a fair amount of large flat-screens. The owner, Mr. J., lets me hang around, drink coffee and chat; and was kind enough to permit me the liberty of capturing these images. But the shop, it still looks as cluttered as ever – as any self-respecting TV Shop should – with chassis and circuit boards and other parts piled high on shelves, and smaller sets sitting atop larger ones, and barely enough room to walk between the rows and rows of TVs waiting for service or parts or to be picked up.

Though I’ve considered picking up a meter, soldering iron and screwdriver again (at least part time), I’ve declined. For now, at least, I have my memories to sustain me. Now I’m just a TV Shop Groupie, though still a TV Man at heart.


Anonymous Nate said...

What wonderful reminisces. I hate watching television, but I love tinkering with old things, so all those shots of boards and parts are pure eye-candy.

I keep looking for an excuse to build myself a new computer, even though I now all the pleasure I'll get from it will come from the five or six hours of putting it together. So instead I just tinker with the older models I can't let go, including my original 1980 IBM PC.

How wonderful that folks can still make a living repairing stuff, rather than just manufacturing and selling more junk.

3:27 PM  
Blogger Strikethru said...

I haven't finished reading this-- I am taking my time -- but so far it is wonderful. The photographs bring back many memories of my dad's garage in the house where I grew up, he used to repair TVs and cars and whatnot, in addition to his job repairing teletype machines.

9:58 AM  
Blogger Joe V said...

Thanks for the comments, I'm glad you've enjoyed this as much as I did composing these words and recollecting old memories.

Mr. W., my old TV-Man colleague, is recuperating fine from his surgery; I talked to him on Tuesday evening and mentioned I did a little write-up on my blog about the old days.

I suspect he will be the topic of another article one of these days. Not about TV Repair, but that he's written and self-published a number of small books, short stories, reminiscences and poetry, all composed on manual typewriters. He is the original Type Caster, before there was the internet.


11:58 AM  
Anonymous Charlie Fox said...

Very good, brought back memories. I started repairing radios in 1946, went to tv, sound and recording, then into motion picture projector repair. Now, at 84, I am repairing computers for fun.

11:12 AM  

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