Rooftop television antennas are becoming increasingly uncommon. A generation ago, tightly packed neighborhoods featured forests of them, perched on ridgelines or clinging to chimneys. A kind of household radar, they picked up sounds and images from distant and invisible places and brought them to life in living rooms, kitchens, dens and bedrooms. With cables now snaking into our houses or small satellite dishes bolted to clapboards or roofs, the dominant age of the TV aerial has largely gone by.
Their vertical masts hung with various sized tubular aluminum branches, curvaceous ovals, waffle weaves, grate patterns and other configurations, aerials sometimes feature interesting geometries. But I’m not nostalgic. They can be downright ugly, an anathema in historic areas distracting from some of a building’s more handsome elements, like a grand center chimney. I just want to note the increasing rarity of an object once so common I hardly saw them. When I spot one today, I take notice and my mind often wanders into a past of snowy screens and test patterns when free broadcasts seemed tantamount to the First Amendment. But I also gain a heightened sense of change, for the television antenna is not just a physical object, it represents shifting lifestyles fostered by new technology.
I confess to a soft spot for antennas because my late Uncle Harry installed them in his spare moments when he wasn’t working full time as a butcher and simultaneously as a conductor on the New York Central Railroad. A big, bearish man with a gray flattop haircut who was decorated for bravery in World War II, he climbed roofs with the nonchalance of a goat and simian dexterity. At family gatherings and elsewhere, his was the Buick with the long ladders tied to the top, enabling him to depart for jobs at a moment’s notice.
Sometimes I wonder if some new uses can be made of old, out of service antennas. Perhaps they could be decorated to good advantage with steamers or prayer flags, or become eyries for clever art objects. Given recent trends, an entire elf village high above a house might be a good bet at Christmastime. I’m interested in alternative uses because, while I still consider them aesthetic blemishes, I’d hate to lose them all.
TV antennas are markers of an era and provide a sense of the past, transition, and cultural shifts. In that sense they’re not much different than old roadside watering troughs, hitching posts and other objects that we prize for occasionally gracing our landscape. In time, I suspect, almost all aerials will disappear. Until then, I’ll keep looking to the rooftops.