We couldn't get television at the mission -- something to do with the geographical position of the mission compound in a sort of basin surrounded by mountains and mesas -- no TV signal could get through. Iíve seen the layout many times from a viewpoint high atop the Carizzo Mountains and the explanation made a lot of sense. So we grew up virtually untouched by the influence of TV.
Uncle Bob and my dad, two of the teachers at our small, 3-room grade school, arranged to show short educational films once a week in the schoolroom that housed the Kindergarten, 1st and 2nd grades. The Wednesday evening event became known around the mission as "Pictures" ... "Are you going to pictures?" ... "Iíll finish my homework after pictures." ... "Wanna shoot baskets before pictures?" That would be David. My cousin and I often shot baskets at the outdoor basketball slab. Or weíd play our own version of tackle football in the sand pile in front of the school. Dusk, then darkness never made a bit of difference since our games had no discernible rules.
I was never too clear on where the pictures came from -- must have been an arrangement with some government agency to supply educational materials to schools. I never bothered to find out the details -- it was just one of those things that appeared with no visible effort. At least no effort on my part and, to a kid, thatís all that matters. Of course now Iím curious. Iíll have to ask my dad.
We learned a lot at pictures. At least I did. How milk is bottled. How automobiles are made. What life is like in other parts of the world. It was my first real view of the outside world. And my first curiosity about how things work, how things go together, and how other kids lived in cities far away from the Arizona desert. It was very foreign to me then. As I grew into a teenager, commuting daily to Shiprock High, I continued to attend pictures, even though it usually put me behind in my homework. The familiarity was comforting at a time when my little world was changing fast.
Most picture nights involved two or more short films. Occasionally a longer one would require changing reels halfway through. The room full of people from the youngest boarding students to the oldest mission staff members would fidget and whisper until Uncle Bob got the first reel rewound and the new one on track. He was always real good at it. He even spliced a few broken reels with scotch tape so the show could go on.
It was exciting but potentially devastating when the projector bulb blew. The pop and sudden darkness was startling. Someone would stumble to the light switch. And then would begin the hunt for a spare bulb. When one was found and installed, it was greeted by applause. If none was available, pictures were over for the evening.
We were at least 70 miles away from a replacement bulb but there was always a new one for the following weekís picture night. I canít remember a single one being cancelled due to unavailability of bulbs. I wonder now who paid for those. Probably Uncle Bob. They couldnít have been cheap.
The rickety old projector made a comforting whirring noise in the back of the room, sometimes nearly drowning out the film itself which was rarely without scratches and jumps and bumps. Most films were in color and they were always accompanied by the drone of a nasal-voiced narrator. On quiet evenings I can still close my eyes and hear the narration. Youíve heard it, too, if you watched any "Wonder Years" episodes involving Kevinís science teacher, Mr. Cantwell.
Our tackle football game or basket shooting would be interrupted by the clang of the big iron school bell announcing the beginning of pictures. David and I would take our usual perch on the table in the back of the room. It was my favorite spot. This vantage point gave an unobstructed view of the screen as well as the ability to sneak looks at the rest of the people in the room. Being Navajos, they would segregate with the boys on one side of the room and the girls on the other. Not that I noticed much. I thought it was perfectly normal. If the picture was boring, David and I would amuse ourselves whispering snide remarks and giggling.
My world these days is considerably more complicated. I miss pictures.