A TV repairman talks back
Kids kick him. Men cuss him. Women throw crying jags at him. He’s a hum when the set won’t work and a bandit when he collects for fixing it. But never, until this moment, has he told the blistering truth as only he knows it
Robert Thomas Allen
My parents were Italian-immigrant farmers, but I always wanted to be an electronic technician. I studied electricity at technical school in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, and when I joined the navy. I kept up my studies by mail. After the war I repaired radios and TV in a Toronto shop during the day, used my rehabilitation credits to study electronics at Ryerson Institute at night, and did my homework well into the morning. I finally became a qualified electronic technician, and eventually went into partnership in an electronic service shop in Toronto.
It was hard work, but I made it. Now I can walk up to a house, carrying fifteen hundred dollars’ worth of equipment, a head full of mathematics including calculus, and fourteen years’ experience, and get called a bum. I’m known as that jerk who fixed the wavy lines but started the picture jiggling, through stupidity and uncontrollable greed for money. I’m told I'm in on a sweet racket. Kids kick me when 1 take the TV out of the house and yell out the door after me, “You’re a bad man.” I slink out feeling like the Sheriff of Nottingham, and when I come back the owner tells me I’m a hi-jacker. The dealer can't stand me, TV salesmen hate me. The manufacturer says I loused up his set and the government doesn’t recognize my existence.
People won’t even trust me to take their sets out of their houses. My partner and I have thirty-five thousand dollars’ worth of equipment at our place, financed the hard way, to service what is the most complicated device in the modern home. But the minute I mention taking a set out of the house, the customer narrows his eyes.
“Why can't you fix it here?” he says suspiciously.
1 could fix it there, but somebody would have to bring me my meals and bed and haul over all my equipment in a couple of trucks. I explain this to the customer, drawing little diagrams. TV owners love little diagrams. 1 tell them the RF amplifier sec-
tion is defective. I draw a picture of it. I say I can replace the RF amplifier tube, but that it has affected the value of one of the resistors. I draw a picture like a little bean. I explain that I can’t get at it, I can't even see it, without getting the set on my bench.
The customer nods and says, “But can you make the set work by putting in that there RF what-do-you-call-it?”
“It’ll probably work, but ...”
“Put it in,” he says happily, figuring the bit about the resistor is for the birds.
What can I do? I put in the tube. The set works almost as well as it did originally, as I knew it would, for a while. That night the guy sees Gunsmoke and congratulates himself on outwitting a rustler—me.
But the next day the picture disappears. The owner phones me. “You didn’t fix my set,” he snarls.
I know I didn’t. I fixed the tube. That’s all he’d let me fix. Customers figure for some reason that when I fix one thing I'm to blame if any of the other parts go. I counted the parts in a set one night when I was sitting in my shop feeling sorry for myself. An average set has 124 capacitors, 120 resistors, 41 coils, 13 transformers and 300 miscellaneous nuts, bolts and brackets, plus 18 to 24 tubes. Just in the tuner—the little box behind the knob you turn when you wonder if Have Gun Will Travel could be any worse than the wrestling matches— there are over 60 soldered connections. The picture is produced by a spot of light the size of the point of a sharp pencil traveling across the screen 525 times and up and down 60 times every second, and it’s so sensitive that if one of the components of the set so much as changes its value. Matt Dillon will melt right into Dodge City.
Yet if I solder one wire, and the next day I get called in to replace a tube, the owner says: “I paid you six dollars to fix that yesterday.”
He didn’t pay me six dollars to fix it yesterday. He paid me for something else yesterday.
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“The wife screamed ‘He hit me!’ Her son came in with a switch knife. I called the police”
Or he'll ask, "How long is it going to last me?” He doesn't mean how long is the soldering job going to last. He means how long is the TV set going to last.
1 got a call from a man one day asking me if 1 could hurry to his place to get his set working for the football game. I was busy, but I went up to help him. 1 like football games myself. I found that the horizontal control was off. He'd been fiddling with it. 1 charged him $5.75 for the service call. That price has been carefully worked out by the Radio Electronic Technicians’ Association, and it’s the minimum I have to get for a call if I’m going to stay in business and stay honest.
He glared at me and said, "Do you guarantee your work?”
I said, "I guarantee that if you don't play with that control again it will stay where it is.”
"You're nothing but a bunch of rac-
keteers,” he said, parting with the money. Nobody wants to pay for a service call. A while ago I got a call from my doctor, who is also a good friend of mine. He thinks I'm a crook, but he overlooks it. I changed a tube for him and charged him $5.75, plus the part. You'd think I’d stuck a hypodermic in him.
"What's this $5.75? For putting in a tube?” He gave me a knowing look, from my tool caddie to my fallen arches. "Where do you hide all your money. Reale?”
A week later I went to him with some water in my ear. I waited half an hour to see him. Then he peered in my ear. I don't know what he saw in there but he gave me a prescription that cost me $6.75 and charged me $5 and waved in his next patient, a little old lady with her arm in a sling. He didn't even have to leave his office. I asked him if he guaranteed my other ear. He didn't laugh. He said, "I spent seven years learning what to look for in that ear.”
I spent ten years learning what to look for in his TV. I used to clean chassis in a repair shop after school for nothing just to find out how a TV worked, and 1 cut wood at two bits a cord to buy text books on radio. But nobody wants to pay me for what I know. If I replace an eleven-cent part, the customer figures I should charge something in the neighborhood of eleven cents. When 1 give him a bill just covering the cost of the gasoline I used coming up to see him, he gives a yelp that drowns out the gunfire coming from the TV I just got working.
"You were only here five minutes.”
If I spend five minutes fixing a set, 1
spend another fifty-five minutes explaining why it only took me five minutes. And 1 don't convince anybody. I can't even convince the customer that 1 don't get paid according to the weight of the part. A customer will hold a resistor the size of a pea in his hand and say, "You mean that thing cost twenty-five cents?”
Sometimes I don't altogether blame the customer. The cost of parts, piece by piece, is two and a half times the selling price of the set, not counting the picture tube. But I can't help it. Everybody made something on the part before I got it. and it was all included in the price I paid. I’ve got to get a mark-up myself or go broke. If I carried all the parts I need in stock. I’d need a warehouse. The parts department in a factory averages a (loor area of five thousand square feet. So I've got to drive my truck to the factory for parts, pay for them, store them and lug them around with me.
But people want me to give them their parts wholesale and when I won't do it, they get sore at me. And they're already mad because their sets didn't last them into retirement.
"There can't be anything wrong with it,” they say. "I've only had it five years.” One time when I presented my bill to a man in west Toronto, he looked at it, then at his wife, who was standing beside him, tossed the bill down and said, “Get the factory to pay for it.” “Look, I don't work for the factory,” I told him. "I work for myself, and I like to eat. I can't do this work for nothing.” “I'm not going to pay for it.” he said. I said, "Well. I'll have to take the set back.”
His wife said, “You just fry taking it out of here and see what happens.” "Okay,” I said, reaching into my metal kit for a tool, “I’m going to have to take out fhe parts I put in.”
The guy closed the metal lid on my hand. I let out a yell and yanked my hand out so fast it kept going back over my shoulder and clipped his wife. She screamed, "He hit me!” and her son came in from the kitchen with an open switch knife. But with all the commotion he wasn't sure who to stab and while he was making up his mind. I got to the phone and called the cops. When they arrived, the woman started sobbing “I’ve been a good girl. I’ve never done anything wrong.” The cops couldn't have cared less about who’d been a good girl, but they wouldn’t let anybody touch the set, including me. I never did get paid.
Not that many people threaten to beat me up. They just wait till I’m finished, then tell me to send the bill to the manufacturer. They got a lemon right from the start, they say. “My neighbor has one just like it and he’s never had any trouble.”
People talk to TV technicians as if they were their doctors, but they won’t tell their neighbors their TV troubles. So every TV owner on the street thinks he’s the only one who got stuck. And he wants service right away. If a person calls to have a refrigerator repaired and the serviceman says, “I’ll be up in two days,” it’s accepted. If I say I can’t get up till after supper, the TV owner says, “What am I supposed to do with the kids? They’re driving me crazy. They want to watch Captain Atom.”
Kids get blamed for everything. One man I know with four kids held out until 1954 before he got1 a TV. He wouldn’t have one. It would ruin the kids' eyes, he said, and his wife wouldn’t get her work done. Finally he got one. A beauty. Three months later it went out of whack. He phoned me first thing in the morning from his office.
“I don't care what it costs,” he said. I ve got to have it. My kids are driving my wife and me crazy. We’ve got to shut them up.”
When I went to his home, the maid let me in. There was no one around and I asked about it. The maid said the kids were at camp. They’d been there for a week. I asked for the woman of the house. She was at camp with the kids. It dawned on me that the husband had been leading a secret life with his TV. When he thought he might have to kick the habit he went to pieces and started lying about his kids.
People cuss TV, condemn it and ask me, “Why can’t you guys put on better programs? promoting me to a producer, yet they can t do without it. One woman made me sit through the last eleven minutes of a program she was watching before she’d let me touch the set. She’d called me in because the picture was getting shallower and it was only about eight inches high when I got there. I sat there worrying about all the phone calls coming into my shop from people who said they had gas in their picture tubes, although their neighbor’s worked fine, while I watched Love of Life, the tears nearly rolling down my cheeks and the picture narrowing down until the nurses and doctors looked as if they could walk right under the beds.
"It’s probably only a tube,” the woman said, when all the doctors disappeared.
If I do manage to get a set out of a house, someone phones and says, “You’ve had it for two hours. What are you doing with it?” When I bring it back everybody gathers around to watch. The kids bring in their pets. One time I got out to my truck and heard a cat meowing and discovered that the kids had put their kitten inside my tool kit.
If the woman of the house lets me in, points to the set, and disappears into the kitchen, I know somebody has been monkeying around with the TV. Nobody ever admits it. They just disappear so they won’t have to look me in the eye.
I serviced a set one time for a woman who called back in a week and said the picture was out of focus. I looked at the set and realized right away that someone had been fiddling with an adjustment that you need an eighteen-inch screwdriver to get at. I’d set it the week before.
"Has anybody touched the set?” I asked.
The woman stopped on the way to the kitchen. “Touched it?" she said. “Why would anybody touch it? It's just the way you left it.”
I eyed her little boy, who looked as if he might have touched it. Not all people are lying when they say they didn't touch the set. I'll fix a set and when I leave, the woman goes to the phone to order some groceries and Junior nips in and pretends he's the TV man, although I don’t know why. He turns all the controls back to where they were when the set wasn't working.
I thought maybe this kid had. “Maybe the little lad ...”
“He hasn't been near it.” the woman said. “It just wasn’t fixed properly.”
I got busy. The kid came up close.
“Hello, son,” I said, without looking up. “What were you doing to the TV after I left last week? Did you take a screwdriver to it?”
“I didn’t touch it,” he said.
“Daddy,” he said. “He fixed it.”
He fixed it all right. When I got the back off I saw about the oddest thing I’ve ever seen from that side of a TV. A kitchen fork was stuck against the magnet at the end of the picture tube. Daddy must have just panicked when the fork disappeared and screwed the back on again.
The chances are there was nothing wrong with it in the first place. People worry about the least little thing. Sometimes I know there’s nothing wrong with a set, but the owner looks so unhappy I get him sitting in front of it with his arms folded, put my hand inside the set as if I’m doing something, look him in the eye over the top of the TV, and tell him to let me know when it’s just right. He starts: “Nope, back just a little. That’s almost got it. Hold it! Hold it! Now the other way a bit. That's good! Lock her. That’s the way it was before you fixed it the last time." Nothing has happened but everybody's happy.
The slippery salesman
People with new sets phone me at all hours to tell me there are twelve stations marked on their dials, but they've only been getting five, and I can’t convince them that that's all they're supposed to get. I got a bad case of pleurisy once making a winter call to find that the only trouble with a set was that the station the customer wanted wasn't on the air. Another time I got a call after midnight from a man who’d just come home from the Royal York Hotel. He chewed me out because I hadn’t fixed his set that afternoon. I had, but I went up again anyway. I found that after I'd left that afternoon, the maid had unplugged the set.
The TV repairman has* been kicked around so much he’s got inferiority feelings. In a lot of dealers’ service shops, he’s still working in a room fixed up behind the furnace. Out in front is an air-conditioned showroom the size of a roller rink where the salesmen tell customers, every time their sets break down, that they must have got bum repairmen. Manufacturers advertise “trouble-free TV,” which means that if it gives trouble it’s because the technician is a clown with a screwdriver but not a clue where to put it. Incidentally, the manufacturer's own engineers can't always fix the sets they design. Diagnosing and correcting TV trouble is a special job that requires special training plus plenty of experience. Yet the labor laws of the federal government and most provincial governments, which recognize and set standards for most other trades, crafts and professions, don't even mention radio or TV technicians.
If the customer phones the manufacturer and describes what his set is doing, the manufacturer says he never heard of it. Oh, maybe the odd one has done it, when somebody got a repairman who didn't know his amplifier from a loose connection. Yet out of 171 service calls my shop made to one dealer’s customers (on contract to the dealer), 1 1 1 of the sets had to be brought to our shops for repairs within forty-eight hours after installation. We were losing so much money on the contract we complained to the dealer. He called in the manufacturer’s salesman, who said it was because of inefficient' service by the repairman.
One bright side is the growing fad for do-it-yourself TV repairs. Every time the customer does it himself our stock goes up. I've got a set in the shop right now that a home mechanic fixed by putting a 15-amp fuse where a 1 '/6-amp fuse was supposed to go. He burned a hole in the side of his set, then the whole thing caught fire. It’s going to cost him $240 to get it repaired and he's trying to collect from his fire-insurance company. He's mad at me because I won't authorize it.
One time a neighbor called me in to see if I’d give him a hand to put his set together. He’d got it apart but he couldn't remember how things went back. Everything was lying around the living-room floor. He’d completely stripped the chassis. There wasn't a wire connected. It took me four days to put it together.
Drugstores now sell TV tubes along
with tubes of Royal Jelly and they have machines to test the customer's old tubes. A graduate pharmacist looks to see if they light up. The customer takes home a handful of tubes, gets out a book he bought at Coles Book Store on Be Your Own TV Man, and goes to work. I'll say one thing for these books. They’re well written. The customer can't understand them, but they're well written.
But there's one do-it-yourself technician who comes into my shop who always gives me a lift. She's a goodlooking woman. She'll buy fifty resistors and go home and try them all. A little later she brings the set in, carrying it herself, and asks us if she can use our bench. We tell her to make herself at home. She does a pretty good job. She can solder like an expert, although sometimes she solders the wrong things together. But she's having a ball. And when her set doesn't work she never blames the TV repairman, it