Two weeks ago in this space, we pondered the television sign-off, the little ritual that preceded TV's nightly, and temporary, hibernation. Typically, the national anthem would play over some patriotic scenes, and then somewhere a switch would be thrown and your screen would fill with snow and a staticky roar.
A reader had asked why Channel 5 signed off with the America song "Lonely People" (which I mistitled as "This Is for All the Lonely People"). A longtime WTTG technician said he couldn't recall that particular sign-off.
Washington's Gary W. R. Alston was among readers who remembered it. "Many a night I sat in my parents' basement in Southeast D.C. after the Vietnam casualty report had rolled by and cried," Gary wrote.
James R. McIntyre of Columbia remembered it, too. "I'm not sure if it was Channel 5, but if it wasn't, it must have been Channel 7, because those were the only two Washington stations we could get in the small Pennsylvania town where I grew up," he wrote. "I seem to remember that the closing was set to video shot from space."
Farrel Becker of Laytonsville provided the most detailed description of the sign-off, which he remembers from the mid- to late 1970s, when he worked at the National Theatre and Kennedy Center and routinely got home late enough to watch it.
"They didn't simply play the tune with random video," Farrel wrote. "They ran a piece which I believe must have originated with NASA. The video that accompanied the music consisted of beautifully edited video from all of the Apollo missions."
How beautifully edited? Farrel said that the lyrics "Don't give up until you drink from the silver cup and ride that highway in the sky" were backed up with images of astronauts on the moon zipping around in lunar rovers.
His favorite scene began with a shot of the Apollo 17 lunar module on the surface of the moon ready to lift off and rendezvous with the waiting command module. The lyrics were: "Well, I'm on my way back home. Hit it!"
On "Hit it," the lunar module's engine fired and the spacecraft lifted off. The camera -- controlled remotely from Earth -- zoomed in on it as it rose.
"It was absolutely beautiful," wrote Farrel. "I was a teenager during the Apollo era and followed all of the missions with great interest. Even though Apollo was over, this 'Lonely People' sign-off always brought me great joy."
One sign-off that didn't bring great joy was the one Neil Bobrick of Laurel remembers from the late '60s while a communications major at Arizona State University.
ASU owned KAET, the "educational" TV station for Phoenix, and Neil's job was pushing a camera around the studio.
The station signed off with the national anthem about 11 p.m. Different branches of the armed services gave stations handouts of the anthem set to footage shot on 16mm film. Neil was at the station one night as it signed off.
"I watched in horror as a handout [film] from the Army showed an airplane dropping napalm, exploding in time to the music," Neil wrote. "The scene changed as artillery blasted the Viet Cong with the beat of 'The Star-Spangled Banner.' "
Said Neil: "I wasn't the world's biggest antiwar protester, but I did march when the spirit moved me. This film got to me. Was this really how Channel 8 wanted to be perceived by the viewing audience?"
The next day Neil and several co-workers marched into the general manager's office to demand that the sign-off be replaced with something less militaristic. The general manager had no idea what the group was talking about and asked to be shown the film. When he saw it, he was mortified and ordered it replaced with something a little saner.
Said Neil, "Not the biggest victory in the protest movement, but it sure felt good."
Several readers asked about another long-gone fixture of television watching: the test pattern. It featured circles, lines, crosses and, at the top, an Indian chief. Studio technicians used the test pattern to calibrate their equipment, and homeowners could do the same, adjusting the vertical and horizontal hold on their TV sets.
Just try to do that on a modern TV.
A Letter From Camp
Each session at Camp Moss Hollow ends with a talent show. One of the highlights at a recent show was the rap performed by one of the campers:
If you were staring at the world through my eyes,
Looking at the stress and the pain I survived,
Looking at the stress in my life as a kid,
I'm only 14, all the mess that I did. . . .
But he continued: "Lately I've been thinking of ways to make my life better."
Hope Asterilla, the camp's director, said: "I have witnessed many times the ingenuity of a child who someone said won't make it, can't do it, won't ever amount to anything. These are great kids, perhaps from not-so-great circumstances."
You can help support Moss Hollow. Our goal by July 27 is $650,000. So far we've raised $150,465.99. To make a tax-deductible gift:
Make a check or money order payable to "Send a Kid to Camp" and mail it to Family and Child Services, P.O. Box 96237, Washington, D.C. 20090-6237.
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