Holding the Bag

How I learned about trust on ‘Bonanza’ night in 1963

I recently bought a lighted remote control so I could watch TV in bed without fumbling for it in the dark. A lighted remote was such a brilliant idea, I wondered why I hadn’t thought of it sooner. But my new gadget needed to be programmed. After many failed attempts, and about to slam it against the nearest wall, I gave up on the instruction manual and dialed my satellite-TV provider.

Tom, the customer service rep who said he was in snowy I-o-way, asked me about the weather in Huntington Beach and then had me punch a series of code numbers into the remote and push the reset button. But an hour and a half later, with my cell phone battery

fading by the minute, I was still talking to Tom, still punching numbers. I held the phone so tightly to my ear that it attached itself with a suction fit. The upside: I could now use it hands-free. Yet, despite all of Tom’s efforts, nothing worked.

“Well,” he said, “looks like I need to shut down your system.”

“You need to what?” I asked, fearing he’d permanently sever my satellite lifeline. “Are you sure that’s the only way?”

“Don’t worry,” he said. “I’ve done this a hundred times. After the system reboots, it will recognize the new remote.”

But I did worry. How could I put my faith in someone I didn’t know, even if he was from Iowa? Then, as if he understood my fear, Tom added, “This works. Trust me.”

Still, before giving him permission, I thought a moment about those two words—“trust me”—and they took me back to 1963, to another TV set.

My family relocated from L.A. to Orange County that year, a move I was not happy about until I saw billboards on Highway 39 advertising new housing tracts. In red letters 3 feet tall they announced: “Vets—No Down!” In my 9-year-old brain, any place this eager to bring in veterinarians had to be all right.

Even with Dad’s VA loan, payments on our four-bedroom ranch house strained the family budget. Color TV became the rage, though we made do with our old Zenith black-and-white. But Dad’s friend Bob had one, an RCA—“The Most Trusted Name in Television.” Every Sunday night my mom, dad, sister, brother, and I would pile into our AMC Rambler, drive past the goldfish farm that later would become Westminster Mall, and go to Bob’s house to watch “Bonanza” in color.

At 9 p.m., when the “Bonanza” theme would begin, I’d float off into heaven; I had a pre-teen crush on Little Joe Cartwright. We’d all ooooh and ahhhh at the full-color Ponderosa, especially when Bob got the set adjusted so the Cartwrights weren’t green. Bob had no remote control—then called a “lazybones”—but turning knobs on the set was simple. The TV had only three channels and five adjustments: horizontal, vertical, brightness, contrast, and volume. There also was a color-control knob. And, of course, TV sets had vacuum tubes.

One night Bob turned on his TV and, immediately after the NBC peacock spread its colorful tail feathers, the screen went black. A thin plume of white smoke rose from the back of the set. “Look,” Mom said, “the TV has selected a new pope.” The adults laughed until the smell of burning electrical parts filled the air. Dad slowly shook his head and said to Bob, “Pray it’s not the picture tube.”

My dad, Mr. Fix-It, unplugged the TV and pulled a screwdriver from his pocket protector, which also held a grease pencil, a tire gauge, a mechanical pencil, and a Zippo lighter, in case a lady needed a light. He removed four screws, popped off the pressed-wood rear panel, and marked all the dark, suspect vacuum tubes with his grease pencil so they could be replaced correctly. Bob carefully placed the tubes in his handkerchief and tied it up like a hobo’s bindle.

The local drugstore had a tube tester. I begged to tag along with Dad and Bob, hoping to snag an ice cream cone. It worked, and I settled in with my 5-cent pistachio-nut cone beside Dad at the tester.

As he fit the old tubes into the appropriate slots, he’d say things like, “There’s life in this one; the needle’s in the green zone,” or “This one’s still kicking.” While he worked his way through the half-dozen suspect tubes, I could see Bob sweat. If it weren’t one of them, it was the picture tube, and that would cost a fortune—a week’s pay for most men. When Dad finally found the bad tube, he chose a replacement from the supply cabinet under the tester. For 90 cents, we were back in business.

Dad then turned to me. “Honey, why don’t you carry this,” and handed me the brown paper bag with the new tube inside. “Now be careful. We’re all counting on you.” My pride swelled. Never before had my father entrusted me with the safekeeping of something so valuable. All the way back to Bob’s house I cradled that glass tube as if it were a newborn kitten, guarding it against every bump in the road.

Today, whenever I have a choice to make that involves trust—my doctor, elected officials—I first ask myself, “Would I let this person carry my brown paper bag with the fragile glass tube?” If the answer is yes, I know that, just like my dad, this person has my best interest at heart.

“Miss Tallman, you there?” It was Tom, the customer service rep.

“Yeah, I’m here,” I said, still undecided if I should let him continue.

“It’ll be fine,” he said. “I’ll stay with you until we get this problem licked.”

We? With that word I realized that Tom had staked a claim, that my success was his success. “OK,” I said. “Go ahead and reboot the system.”

My screen immediately went black. For several tense, silent minutes I sat in the dark, hoping my trust had not been misplaced. Suddenly, my TV sprang back to life. And my new remote worked.

Pam Tallman’s most recent essay for Orange Coast, “Beyond the Mask,” was published in October 2009.

Illustration by Megan Berkheiser and Mike Caldwell

This article originally appeared in the February 2011 issue.

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