If you are of a certain age you might have distant memories of rabbit-ear indoor antennas. You might have even experimented with hanging strips of tin foil on them to enhance your TV reception in the greater Sacramento market. But, more on that in a bit.
Mt. Diablo, for millions of years, has stood as a sentinel overlooking the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta from its altitude of nearly four-thousand feet. It is a landmark, even a navigation aid, to Delta travelers. No less a fixture of the northern part of the estuary’s landscape, although by far less ancient than the mountain, are Walnut Grove’s television transmission towers. They are, relatively speaking, the new kids on the block and they are a familiar sight if you travel between Stockton and Sacramento on I-5 or if you’re a Delta boater. The location of Walnut Grove, California, the heart of the Delta, was chosen to better serve the greater television viewing area north and south of Sacramento.
A good chunk of my childhood, 1954 to 1960, was spent in what was then the small town of Roseville, a bit north of Sacramento but still within its TV viewing market. It was a big deal when my family acquired a brand new Hoffman Easy Vision television. Black and white of course. Although a color TV was way off in the science fiction future for us at the time, as was consistently good television reception, this was my family’s ticket to the wider world through technology. The evening news, sitcoms, westerns, the “thrill-of-victory-and-the-agony-of-defeat Wide World of Sports,” and witnessing the beginning of some Hollywood careers and the ending of others.
My family was not the first on our block to acquire that new-fangled appliance but back in 1955 our acquisition of this advanced electronic technology was cause for celebration. A great addition for sure, but there were still challenges to getting the best reception with the three TV stations (back then) transmitting from different locations within the greater Sacramento market.
At first we had ‘rabbit ear’ antennas that sat on top of the TV before we got the big one put on the roof. There were only three stations and all of them went off late at night, leaving only a test pattern. When we changed channels the reception would be changed, too, because the various stations’ transmitting towers were in different locations. Occasionally we could improve reception by dangling tin foil from the rabbit ears and adjusting the angles until a sweet spot was found. The reception would perk up when someone was standing there adjusting the antenna then degrade as they left to go sit down. The joke was to have the youngest member of the family (me) just stand there holding the rabbit ears while everyone else sat and enjoyed their popcorn. For roof-top antennas there was a device that overcame that issue by rotating the large antenna to any direction to receive the strongest signal from different locations. But that was expensive and I didn’t know anyone who had one. I only know about that because I saw an ad for it on TV.
Imagine the joy we TV generation kids felt in about 1959 when we heard that the three Sacramento TV stations were getting together to build the world’s tallest (1,549 feet) candelabra style antenna in Walnut Grove. The local stations went on the air from the new structure in early 1962 with a consistently cleaner and sharper image than before. And all three stations transmitted from the same location, making antenna fumbling at home a thing of the past. Later, more TV stations came on line and, not to be out done, a couple of them got together and built a new tower in 2000 not far from the original. It stands 2,048 feet high above the California Delta.
We could finally tune in, free of electronic snow and interference every time a plane flew over, to learn if Dobie Gillis would finally win the heart of Thalia Menninger. Or if Lucy and Desi, perhaps the most mis-matched of TV couples of the day, would get through yet another comedic crisis. Jackie Gleason’s “The Honeymooners” was one of the first TV shows to depict working-class couples’ low rent surroundings. In Rod Serling’s “Twilight Zone” we discovered “To Serve Man” turned out to be the title of – spoiler alert – the visiting extraterrestrials’ cookbook. “Gunsmoke,” a family favorite, kept us guessing when or if Miss Kitty and Matt Dillon would ever get together during episodes of dealing with bad guys. “The Ed Sullivan Show” introduced us to the Beatles in 1964 and we got to know a young Clint Eastwood in “Rawhide.” After a long run on radio, “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet,” although never a top 10 hit running from 1952 to 1966, became the image of the ideal American family in the 1950s and the longest running live action sitcom ever.
Ah, but we still had to get off the couch to change channels. That is, I, as the youngest, had to do those honors. Remotes were just starting to come to market. Life was hard back then.
Besides mostly escapist entertainment, early television also brought us three networks of the evening news, opening our eyes – and living rooms – to global goings on that we could watch in almost real time. In 1968, CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite changed the country when he briefly stepped away from objective reporting long enough to say that the Vietnam war was not winnable. He helped solidify the American public’s opposition to the war and damaged the credibility of the U.S. government by telling his millions of viewers in his editorial, “It seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate… It is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.”
President Lyndon Johnson said a few weeks later he would not be seeking reelection and that “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.” Johnson would devote the remainder of his term to reducing hostilities and moving toward peace. “Not victory, peace.”
Television, in the right hands, can be a very powerful tool, indeed.
Now there are several of these very tall structures in the Walnut Grove area – a veritable antenna farm. These are pretty impressive landmarks. Man-made to be sure – but landmarks nonetheless – in the heart of the California Delta.
Rich Turner explored, photographed, and aerial photo-mapped Antarctica as a Navy photographer, was a newspaper photojournalist for 19 years, and has operated his own fine art photography studio since 1990. “Delta Grandeur”, his traveling exhibit, is now touring California museums and libraries. His most recent passion is spreading the word far and wide about what an amazing place the Delta and Greater Bay Area is. With the help of very talented writers, artists and photographers, publishing this magazine seems a good way to do that.