AUTHOR'S NOTE: Although I hail from a large family, I have exactly one big brother, two years older than me. I think the two of us stack up pretty evenly; except for him being taller, stronger, funnier, better-looking, better-educated, more charismatic, more personable, more accomplished and more presentable in public, we're pretty much the same.
He's turning the big 4-0 the day this column is scheduled to go to press, so I decided to use these inches to wish him a happy birthday in that inimitable way of mine, meaning an arch, overwritten, too-cute-by-too-much sprawl of words. Two birds, one stone and all that. It's -- quite literally -- the least I can do. (Plus I'm too cheap to spring for a card. Curse this frugality of mine!)
Saturday mornings were the one day a week when my two older siblings -- Melissa and Matt -- and I managed to roll free of our beds before our parents had to wake us. While the grown-ups slept in, the three of us would creep into the living room to switch on the TV, all without alerting those still in the sandman's grip. This took patience and dexterity and nerves of steel, skills sharpened to approximate those of a professional thief or master spy -- or at least their comparable elementary-school age versions.
Allow me to set the scene. At 6 a.m., my eyes would snap open and stare for a moment at the elongated criss-crossing springs on the underside of the bunk bed mattress above me. Then the realization that today wasn't a weekday would race through me, and my feet would find the cold concrete floor of the basement room I shared with Matt. I'd crane my neck upward to see my big brother's eyes blinking away his sleep, then as he realized the day and time, he'd scoot himself toward the ladder that dangled off the foot of the bunk bed.
We'd grab hold of our favorite stuffed toys -- a perpetually bewildered Wile E. Coyote belonged to Matt, the smiling Bugs Bunny was mine -- and make our way to the foot of the wooden staircase leading up to the first floor of our house. A quiet conversation about time would ensue as we tried to climb the steps without making too much noise; getting to the living room too quickly was pointless, since none of the station we'd want to watch would be on the air until at least 6:30, and cartoons didn't start until 7 sharp.
Eventually, we'd meet Melissa (toting her lanky Pink Panther) in the kitchen, and we'd stand together in the dim light for a moment, contemplating the next move. See, one of us would have to make the stealthy sojourn into the living room to verify that our parents' bedroom door was still closed, then issue an all-clear to the others, giving us the time we needed to assume our positions on the rug in front of the television. Then someone had to check the position of the rooftop roto-antenna, and finally, cautiously, turn on the TV.
It sounds simple, I know, but every one of these acts was fraught with potential hazards, most of them either noise- or light-related. If the bedroom door was ajar, even slightly, it had to be closed. Turning the knob without rattling it before slowly pulling the door shut did the trick in terms of keeping the latch from snapping against the strike plate and startling one or both of our parents awake.
Then we had to take our steps into the living room with great care; the old wood floor had the ability to creak and groan under you with the lightest touch, and never seemed to do it in the same place twice. A far-too-heavy foot could lead to an awakened -- not to mention groggy and grumpy -- Mom and Dad.
Next was the antenna check. Dad had installed an antenna that had an electric motor on it, allowing the people of the house to change its position via a remote box. It was an ingenious gadget, and one that worked very well, but it wasn't even close to being whisper-quiet. When you activated it, you turned the dial the direction you wanted the antenna to rotate, then watched and listened as the system came to bright, buzzing, ka-thunking life. Early on, we tried to muffle it with pillows and blankets, but the hard noise that emanated from the box was uniquely quiet-shattering, and usually brought an unhappy Mom or Dad out into the living room. After having a few too many Saturday mornings nearly ruined by an antenna being too far out of position, we finally figured out that we had to have it set the night before. If we failed to do that much preparation, it was our own fault that we'd be watching our shows all snowy or ghosted.
The last step was the culmination of our efforts -- powering up the TV. Whether it was the old black and white set or the new color one that Mom and Dad had brought home one night, the key was to keep it quiet, incrementally introducing volume into the space until we could hear it well enough. We did not want to have a blast of speech or music -- or worst of all, static -- shoot through the air, otherwise all the effort we'd gone through to get to this moment -- so tantalizingly close to our Saturday morning shows we could practically see them already -- would be in vain. On the color set, the knob that controlled the power and the volume was the same; you pulled the knob out to turn the TV on, you twisted it left and right to control the audio. This meant that you could mute the speaker before you brought the system to life (something that also took a little trial-and-error), but it still took a delicate hand at the control to pull the switch out just enough to do that without accidentally spinning up the speaker.
It didn't always come together as perfectly as we would have hoped, of course -- I think we sat through more episodes of "U.S. Farm Report" than sonorous host Orion Samuelson did -- but it was always worth the effort for us, because we did it together.
These days, the three of us are separated by miles and schedules and the other particle-sized details that collide to form adult life. But I know that it doesn't take much introspection for me to travel back to those Saturdays, dragging Bugs Bunny with me into the living room, tailing my older siblings, and in those moments of reverie, the separations vanish.
I'll always treasure the memories of our early Saturday mornings, not because of the cartoons we sought with such determination, but because of the bonds we formed in the minutes before.