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Struggle For TV


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Getting TV reception in Coahuila

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Struggle For TV

  1. 1. t 1 TELEVISION FEVER It was in the early 1970s when the Peñoles Company in Química, at quite an effort and expense, hacked a narrow road to the very top on the sloping back side of the mountain El Rey. Química lies close to the foot of El Rey. The purpose of this was to install a microwave telephone connection to Torreón. (There was no telephone in this remote area.) Torreón, at a distance of one hundred and five straight-line miles to the south was not in line of sight, but because the mountain abruptly rises three thousand feet above the surrounding terrain, it can easily pick up signals from Torreón. And when the microwave telephone was a success, there was talk about installing a television repeater station for Química. Again, they would pick up faint signals from television stations in Torreón, amplify them, and rebroadcast to the town below. In México, as elsewhere, it is prohibited to broadcast radio or television signals without a license of the government. But as long as the broadcast does not interfere with a licensed station, and is not operated for the sake of profit, the government is quite willing to close their eyes when a private initiative promotes the good of the public. For this repeater station, Química contracted with a technician from Alpine, Texas, and it was a great success. The name of the technician was Mr. Neu who owned Mountain Zone TV, and his basic work was to install repeater stations in remote areas. Now the people of La Esmeralda wanted the same thing. In Química the Peñoles company paid all the costs; in La Esmeralda, the people would have to bear the burden. There were several attempts made to form a committee for raising funds, but none ever materialized because from many sad experiences no one trusted anyone to be the treasurer. And it was true. There were any number of fund raisers for different projects, like money to buy glass for the windows in the school, to get a telephone line built into La Esmeralda, for some improvements to the junior high school, and others. Some of these efforts did generate substantial funds, but when the time for accounting came, records somehow had been lost, and also a good part of the money. To be truthful, it is just in the Mexican mentality to pull a fast one if the opportunity presents itself. To show how imbedded this is, it even permeates the clergy. As a rule when a pastor is moved to a different assignment, he leaves the parish penniless. When I retired, there was in motion that project for building a little chapel in the poor workers’ area of the town in Hércules. I wanted to help out in seeing it accomplished, and so I left some considerable funds for it, but I did not give them to the priest in charge, but on the side gave them to a trustworthy lady, and told her to buy and pay for things that might be needed. I too was interested in bringing TV to La Esmeralda and Sierra Mojada. The thing was that we were so isolated from the rest of the world that was on a faster track. Here there was no newspaper, no telephone, no theater. There was radio, but because we were in a tight bowl between two mountains, there was reception only at night. It was an all-day trip just to get out of town and into ‘civilization’. It was important for the people, and especially the young people, to be somewhat abreast of the outside world. So one day, most likely around latter part of 1977, I posted some notices around town proposing a meeting to form a committee for bringing a TV repeater station for Esmeralda and Sierra Mojada. The meeting was quite well attended, and I proposed myself as treasurer. The proposal was unanimously accepted. Right away we contacted Mr. Nue and asked him how much it would cost. Mr. Nue made a trip to La Esmeralda to get to know the lay of the land and know the people. He was quite impressed at how many people attended the meeting, and their enthusiasm. He told us what he was going to charge, and also that it was up to us to run electricity (120V) up to the top of the mountain, and at the top build a little rain proof hut
  2. 2. t 2 6’ x6’ X 7’ high for the instruments. At the same time Mr. Neu cautioned us about not promoting TV among the ranchers for the sake of asking them to contribute to the effort. He explained that for the sake of making the equipment less costly, it would be of low voltage, and just powerful enough to reach La Esmeralda and Sierra Mojada. But it turned out that several ranches twenty straight-line miles away were able to pick an acceptable signal. At the meeting it had been decided to put a non-obligatory weekly quota on every household. The town was divided into sectors with persons responsible for making the weekly rounds to the houses to collect. There was sort of a competition established to see which sector was contributing more, and which contributors were the more generous. The names and their contributions were posted in a public place weekly. Little slips of different colored ribbons stamped with the official seal of the committee were tacked to the doors of the contributors indicating their degree of generosity. Those in Sierra Mojada formed their own committees for raising funds. Since everyone in town wanted television, there was enthusiasm and good cooperation. Also different groups had their own activities for raising funds, and there was competition among the groups. Some dances were organized at which food and drinks were sold. Of course beer was always sold, and for that we had to pay the town for permission, and pay an official deputy to be in attendance and responsible for order. The excitement of a dance, and inhibition engendered by a few beers were often the occasion for settling, and sometimes terminally, seething enmities. There was hardly ever a dance without some disturbance. It was considered a part of the excitement. Other good money makers were rodeos and horse racing at which beer and soft drinks were sold, and also all sorts of goodies like tacos and gorditos and tamales were made and sold by the ladies. In México it is forbidden to hold without a special permission, up-scale horse races in which there is betting, and one of the conditions for a permit is to pay an armed deputy to oversee the racing. Esmeralda was in a district where this permission had to be obtained in some Federal Police agency in Ocampo which is ninety bone jarring miles away. And the permission costs. There is a good reason for this control because especially out in the remote areas of range country the stakes and the emotions and rivalry at horse racing can be very high. And even though no alcoholic drinks are sold among the assembled people, there is no law against one having a bottle in the pocket. At horse racing, drinking is a part of the exhilarating atmosphere. There were some tense situations at some of legal horse races held in La Esmeralda. During all the years I was in the parish there was only one case when an altercation was settled by a bullet. That was at an Easter horse race held in Alicante, and the victim was a young man named Corral from El Guaje. He left a widow with three young children. The mother of the victim took the widow into her own home and raised the children. One of the boys later came to live in La Esmeralda, and married a girl from there. The Corral family had large herds of cattle and horses, and they were the family who took the chapel of Santa Eduvigis under their care. At the horse races pro-TV in La Esmeralda the horses used were work-horse plugs, and the racing was purely for entertainment. Undoubtedly there were some small bets placed on the sly among the spectators. But for this kind of racing- entertainment no permission was required. We did have to pay the town for permission to sell beer. At such an even it is inevitable that some quarrels crop up, and it was probably the result of one of those quarrels that someone, likely out of spite, reported to the Federales in Ocampo that we were holding horse races. The fact was that even though on paper someone else (Lili Morales) was the President of the Pro-TV Committee, I was pretty much running the whole show. So when
  3. 3. t 3 the Federales arrived in La Esmeralda they were told to go see me. I suspect that the Federales themselves knew it was a crank accusation, but it gave them an excuse for a little outing and a bit of extortion. In Mexico the law is that one is guilty until proved innocent, and the accused must at his own expense prove that he is innocent. So first of all the Federales asked me to pay for the extra large amount of gasoline needed for the trip. Next, they were very nice and jovial about the whole affair --- they were convinced that it was a spite accusation --- but they bluntly hinted that it was only right for me to give them something in return for not having given me a hard time. And so it was. The real evil doer was off somewhere snickering with satisfaction. In the meantime we were working at meeting the requirement of putting power to the top of the mountain. For this a Nº 4 aluminum cable with a steel core wire was needed. From the bottom of the mountain to the top would be close to 3000 feet. A transformer exclusively for this line had to be installed at the bottom. At the top there would be a voltage regulator because the voltage provided by the town generators varied greatly. A route was mapped out for the power line and the workers started setting the posts. It should be pointed out that most of this work was volunteer, and mostly by men working in the mines. Most miners started work early in the morning, and by two or three in the afternoon they were heading home. Note the power line a little to the left of center At first we were using eight foot lengths of four inch discarded steel pipe from the sodium sulfate plant in Química. Química collaborated with the TV repeater project because of their dolomite mine there in La Esmeralda. These pipes had been discarded
  4. 4. t 4 because they had become clogged by a growth of sodium sulfate crystals, and so were useless. Because, with few exceptions, the route of the line was over rock, three quarter inch holes twelve inches deep were hand drilled into the rock with hammer and drill. A length of rebar was welded to the bottom of each post for setting into the holes. Near the top of the post a cross arm was welded on to carry the two Nº 4 cables. At the very top of the pole was another piece of rebar for carrying the Nº 9 lightening arrestor wire. These four inch pipes, full of sodium sulfate, were very heavy to lug up the mountain, and very quickly we substituted 2½” thin-wall black iron pipe that I had on hand. This had been scaffolding made in Torreón for painting the exterior the church. It proved very impractical, even to the point of being dangerous, and was never going to be used again. Depending on the terrain, there was a post at least every fifty feet, and, as seen in the picture, most of the way over a very steep grade. The poles were only about eight feet tall because almost the entire course was over terrain never used by humans, but still had to be out of reach of goats and the few deer that live on the mountain. Mr. Neu explained that the splices along the cable had to be perfectly tight, and that he had a special splicer that he was willing to loan. The men replied that they could string the nearly three thousand feet of cable up the mountain in one piece. They simply stationed men at intervals all along the route, and passed the cable hand over hand. Being aluminum cable, it was not that heavy. Still, this simply amazed Mr. Neu. He said he had never in all his work seen such a large group of volunteers cooperate with such harmony, effort and enthusiasm. (As a side note. When the mines closed in l990 and the people were hurting bad, this cable was stolen and sold for scrap metal. Just as well. By this time the transmitter was by way of satellite, and this was located in La Esmeralda. (See below.) This power line would never again be used for anything, and in a way it was like a blemish on the mountain.) The next daunting requisite was that little rain proof hut 6’ X 6’ X 7’ high at the top of the mountain for electronic instruments. For this we bought 4” X4” X 10” hollow clay blocks. One person could comfortably carry two of these plus his/her drinking water. It should be noted that for the ordinary person it took about three hours to make the ascent, and about two hours to come back down. (There was one incredible young man of twenty who could go up and back in two hours!) There were several who volunteered several trips to carry the bricks, and then the Superintendent of the Senior High gave one day off from classes for all the students (say fifty at the most) so that each could carry two bricks to the top. Everyone started out with the two bricks, but only a few made it to the top. There are still abandoned blocks along the trail leading to the top. And then supposing all the bricks were up at the top; there was still the sand and the water and the cement and the lime to be carried up for laying the bricks. A formidable task! The very brow of the mountain is a cliff about seventy feet high, and at the bottom of this cliff there is a relatively flat space a couple of yards wide. For the miners it was a lot less work for them to carry up a few light sledge hammers, some star drills, and a few sausages of explosives. So into this cliff they blasted a hole deep enough to accommodate the rack for the instruments. The front of the hole was walled off with a steel door and the few blocks that were already up there. It was necessary to have a steel door with a lock to keep out those who wonder what happens when you push a button or flip a switch. The brow mentioned above is not actually the highest point of the mountain. At the top of the brow the land levels off some, and at another hundred feet or so reaches the highest point which would be another fifty feet higher than the brow. Because of the low angle of rise, this highest point is not visible from La Esmeralda which is relatively
  5. 5. t 5 close to the foot of the mountain. The receiving had to be at the very highest point, and in direct-line-of-sight with the TV transmitters in Torreón. The transmitter antenna of the repeater station had to be in direct-line-of-sight with La Esmeralda and Sierra Mojada. So a line was laid from the receiving antenna to the repeater hut. The line was simply covered with rocks to protect it from being stepped on. It was about mid 1979, a year and a half after our first contact with Mr. Neu, when we were finally ready to ask Mr. Nue to come and make the installation. By law this equipment should have been imported into México through customs, and duty paid on it. But going through customs can be a bureaucratic affair involving delays for the purpose of asking for a payoff. Mr. Neu had already installed a number of TV repeaters in México, and he knew the ropes. So he loaded his materials, including all the pipes and fittings for the receiving antenna into the camper atop his pickup, and on top of that he loaded his tent and fishing gear. At the border he said he wanted to go fishing. The fact is that the dam near Camargo is a favorite spot for Americans to go fishing. So Mr. Neu arrived in Camargo with all the equipment and tools. Already he had contracted with Pablo Ginther (26 Las Hormigas) to fly him into La Esmralda. At first Mr. Neu had stipulated as a condition for installing the repeater station that he would be taken to the top of the mountain on horseback. No one had ever done that before, but a party looked into the possibility and reported that it was not possible even from the back side, for a horse to climb to the top of the mountain. For some reason, maybe because of the enthusiasm he saw, Mr. Neu had taken a liking to the people of La Esmeralda when he made his first visit, and so he waived this condition. There was a crew of at least twenty-five men ready and eager for the job. I think most of these were workers in the mine, and they had been given time off with pay to help. After all, the mine officials also wanted TV. So the crew, shouldering the equipment, started up the mountain. I went with them carrying my canteen of water. The erection of the receiving antenna was the most time consuming. As I remember it, the pipe structure was about eight feet tall, six feet wide, and twelve feet long. And it had to be secured against the fierce winds that are at times experienced at the top of the mountain. Several times several of the men had to make a trip back to La Esmeralda for a piece that was missing, or for a tool that was needed from my shop. All in all, it took two and a half days to complete the installation and fine tune the equipment. And then there was jubilation of having two channels of television. I think one of them with telenovels (soap opera) favored the women, and the other with sports favored the men. The few houses that already had a television set were crowded with visitors. I did not have a set until years later when Jack brought one down and installed it for me. I had little spare time to watch TV. We had been sternly warned, not only by Mr. Neu, but also by those who work with power lines, that it was imperative to place effective grounds at intervals along the line up the mountain. The mountain is especially prone to violent lightening storms. Maybe the metal ore below has something to do with this propensity. So a heavy copper wire was wound through a pit or covered pile of salt and charcoal, but only one or the other ground had been connected to the Nº 9 lightening arrestor wire above the power cables. It did not seem that there was a great hurry for this; there was no drastic urgency. But within a week of installation one of these storms did strike; a lightening bolt zapped the power line and burnt out the equipment!!!!! The damaged equipment was returned to Alpine via Pablo Grunther for repair. And in the meantime the grounds were duly connected. Here it should be mentioned that there were some funds left over after the installation, but to assure that there would always be funds for paying the electric bill and other costs of maintenance, we placed a monthly quota on all who had a TV set. The
  6. 6. t 6 quota was about the price of a bottle of beer, and of course it was not obligatory. At first several people voluntarily made the rounds every month to collect; there were a few that simply refused to pay. Later a lady who had a small store volunteered to be a pay station. The names of the contributors and the amount were published every month. For sure there were those who did not bother to come to pay. Several months later when the instruments had been repaired, Mr. Neu came back to install and fine tune them. But there were always other problems too caused mostly by the high fluctuation of voltage because of the marginally adequate generators in La Esmeralda, and the marginally adequate power lines to our transformer. The fact is that two more times the instruments had to be repaired and Mr. Nue had to come down to reinstall. The last time he brought along his son to do the work because in the meantime he had been diagnosed with leukemia and was no longer able to climb the mountain. Mr. Nue stayed down below with a walkie-talkie directing the calibration and checking on the progress using a small TV that he had brought along. There is a man in Sierra Mojada, Charo by name, who is self-educated in basic electronics, and he was capable of performing only a small level of calibration due to a lack of instruments and experience. This went on for more than two years, and it was becoming more and more obvious that maintaining in good condition the repeater at the top of the mountain was costly and impractical. Satellite television was now coming into its own. It was not difficult for Mr. Nue to convince us to abandon the mountain top. Mr. Nue explained that satellite equipment is more stable, it would be right next to town and of easy access. Too, the satellite dish would be adjustable so that it could lock onto different satellites resulting in a wider choice of channels. Of course the equipment would still be for transmitting only two channels. The fact is that frequently the antenna was orientated to different satellites temporarily for special sports events. The choice for the location of the satellite installation was just about half way between La Esmeralda and Sierra Mojada. At this point there is the junior high school at which there were already power lines and a transformer. Too, by this time the stability of the voltage had improved considerably. Actually the land on which this new TV station was being built was donated by the school. This school had been established only a few years before, and had been orientated as an agricultural school for the simple reason that it was in a rural area. For that reason the Cooperative Mine donated hundreds of acres to the school. The truth is that from the very start no practical agriculture could be practiced because the rains are inadequate. A decent crop once in five years is normal. Next, for that reason very very few of the students, especially the girls, had any interest in learning how to plant, hoe and harvest. This was during the time when there was a strong Communist influence in the Mexican School System. So a small tractor manufactured in the Soviet was purchased for the school. It came painted red of course. It was used by inexperienced operators, and soon one and then another part got broken or wore out. There were no replacement parts in all of México. So there it sat while the weeds grew up around it. For a while they did have a herd of about twenty pigs for chicarrones and Christmas tamales. Later on the school was re-designated as a vocational school. The girls took sewing lessons and the boys had carpentry and a mechanic shop. In accordance with instructions from Mr. Neu, the foundations, with preset bolts, were poured for the dish and the transmitter tower. For the dish, the bolts had to be set in such an orientation so as to assure that the dish would be orientated toward due south. When it came time to orientate the template for setting the bolts, we could not find a single compass in the whole town. So we wound a few turns of insulated wire around a four inch nail, zapped the two poles of a car battery with the two ends of the wire, and then hung the nail, balanced level, on the end of a thread.
  7. 7. t 7 Satellite repeater station as seen May 19, 2007. The dish in the picture is the original dish. This was just when satellite TV was starting to come in, and so the dish looks like it could be twelve feet in diameter. From
  8. 8. t 8 the way I see it, it looks like it is no longer being used because the central piece, I guess you would call it the receptor, is missing. The 6’ X 6’ X 7’ high instrument hut is just behind and to the left of the dish. A cement block wall was built around the installation primarily to keep the burros from scratching themselves on the dish and nudging it out of alignment. It looks like part of the wall to the right of the gate has been altered for some reason or the other. I have no idea what the structure to the left of the wall is. Remedios, the school maintenance man who lives right close by, was always building something so that the scraps he collected did not go to waste. The fact that things are green and wild flowers are blooming indicates that there had been a good rain lately. Take a close look at the brown and white goat to the right. Right above it is a scraggly plant with some few small yellow flowers above the wall at the top. This is called gatuña, ‘cat’s claw’. The name fits literally because the scraggly branches are covered with thorns the size and shape of small cat’s claws. It grows most everywhere, and it is something you don’t mess with. When it is dry, all the leaves fall off. Immediately after a good rain the leaves appear along with the flowers which are headily fragrant. In the still of a damp dawn the perfume penetrates into the house. Enchanting. It makes you want to go out and make the day a beautiful one. We had on hand a small amount of funds because of the monthly contributions. The people again mounted a fund raising program for what was still needed. The satellite equipment was less costly and the preparations were less work intensive than for the repeater at the top of the mountain. So when everything was ready we informed Mr. Nue. Installing the dish and the tower and the equipment took several days. This was about the middle of 1983. The reception was much better than from the repeater at the top of the mountain, but there were more blind spots. Raising the antenna at the house which was affected usually corrected this problem. In Sierra Mojada there are a number of houses in an arroyo, and there was nothing that could be done to solve that problem. Yet in El Oro, some ten miles away and not quite in direct line of sight, the signal was fairly good. Even though we had complete confidence in the super ground of salt and charcoal we had made for the antenna tower, when there was an electric storm either a school maintenance man who lived next door or the night watchman at the school would go over and disconnect the instruments. Charo was put in charge of maintenance and overseeing the operation of the transmitter. Very soon this type of electronics was becoming more common and available in México. In Química there were several professional technicians in charge of the transmitters there, and they were willing to come to the aid of Charo when it was necessary. Mr. Neu never had to come back again. Except for occasional short interruptions, the women now had their telenovelas (soap operas) to watch while the beans were burning, and the men had their soccer and baseball with a Tecate or two. Complacency is a pitfall. Contributions fell to next to nothing. For a while I was paying the electric bill which at times was an outrageous over-estimate. In México you pay an estimated bill, or else. (And at the time I did not even have a TV set.) Then the station master who had a little store on the side took up the responsibility of paying the bill. Then the instruments began to fail more and more until they were at the point of no repair. New ones were needed, and they cost money. I put up signs around town asking the people to pay their contributions, but suddenly everyone had become illiterate. And too, these were hard times because so many were out of work because the mines had closed. Yet, there were few who could not afford to have their cokes for breakfast, lunch and supper. So I posted another notice saying that the point of meltdown was imminent,
  9. 9. t 9 and if no funds were coming in, the switch to the transmitter would be pulled after one week. (An interesting little side note. In Spanish ‘opening’ and ‘closing’ an electric switch is understood in a sense completely opposite of the way we think of it. In Spanish when a switch is ‘open’ they understand it to mean that the way is now open for the current to flow. When the switch is ‘closed’, they understand that way is closed off to flowing. They understand the terminology in the metaphorical sense; we understand it in the physical sense.) Ninety-nine percent of the people winked at this threat first with one eye, and then with the other. It was just a scarecrow tactic. After all, free television was now a way and a right of life in La Esmeralda and Sierra Mojada. There was stunned consternation everywhere when that morning nothing more than bright light appeared on the screen when the button was pushed. The consternation of some soon graduated into outrage. The Padre was heartless, and more. Especially hard hit were the women who would now never know whether Juana’s insidious strategy for breaking up María and Pepe, Juana’s heartthrob, was going to succeed. That very day mini committees of women formed in both La Esmeralda and Sierra Mojada, and went from door to door collecting long due contributions. In four days time there were sufficient reasons to believe that the people were taking the situation seriously, and the transmitter was powered up again. When the telenovela came back on line, all the women were furious to learn that sneaky little Juana had won out. In the meantime the people came to the realization that the transmitter was theirs, and it was up to them to keep it operating. So a complete overhaul and updating of the system was planned. Along with this project I wanted to add, at my expense, a third channel for transmitting the Catholic Channel which many wanted to watch too. So I did a lot of work renovating the interior of the instrument hut. Originally the instruments had been bolted onto a free-standing rack which was not too stable. Shelves of close mesh were made for the instruments so that they could be handled without have to be unbolted and as a place for working on them. Mesh was used for the sake of good ventilation. Even though ventilation ports were built into the original design of the hut, there was still a problem with the instruments overheating; in fact overheating was probably the major factor in the deterioration of the instruments. For adequate ventilation we make a larger port and added an exhaust fan. The Catholic Channel was on line for only a matter of months when the program was discontinued. And so the third channel was used for another program. One of the three instruments later failed, and so only two channels were transmitted. It was at this time that the small home satellite dishes were becoming more and more available. Not a few people in La Esmralda and Sierra Mojada who were better off were already using them. It was at this time too that the Presidencia of Sierra Mojada took an interest in promoting TV for the community. (‘Presidencia’ is the governing body of the entire county.) At the Presidencia there is a tall town clock tower that is visible from all parts of the town, including that arroyo to where the signals from the transmitter cannot reach. Azteca, a Mexican TV company, cooperated with the Presidencia, and they installed one of these smaller dishes, and also another two- channel transmitter to reach not only these houses hidden in the arroyo, but for La Esmeralda as well. Since the original transmitter provides two channels from Televisa, now all the houses in La Esmeralda and most of those in Sierra Mojada now have four channels. So the people of Sierra Mojada and La Esmeralda have the luxury of television.