Yulee: McCormick’s TV Repair (in Echoes of Jeff Whipple’s Dad)

by Tim Gilmore, 7/28/2023

It’s been 50 years, the weekend of our visit to McCormick’s, since Jeff’s father’s death. He’s never since called the number, out of curiosity, though he still has the sign. It used to ride on the side of the family station wagon: “Whipple Television Ph. 695-0789.” Sometimes Jeff visits the old man, Bill McCormick, owner these last 60 years of McCormick’s Television Sales and Service, 30 miles up Main Street from MetaCusp in the tiny town of Yulee.

Bells clang on the glass door. Signs out front say the business is for sale. Bill’s 86 years old. “Fact,” say the stencils on a parking lot sign, “Most Repairs Costs Far Less Than Replacing.” A sign behind those signs advertises new neighborhood development. Before Bill loved Yulee, named in the 1890s for Florida Senator David Levy Yulee, he hated it. And it won’t be the same town in five years: just more suburban overflow.

“I don’t know if you remember us,” says Jeff, the twisted realist. “My dad was in the television repair business. We’ve visited you before. Coming in here and seeing the old equipment, it’s like revisiting my childhood.”

Bill says, “Well, I’m still here.”

one of my favorite Whipples, on the wall at MetaCusp

I keep picturing scenes from the last five decades of Jeff Whipple’s art – the “twisted realism,” portraits couched vortically, swirled up in vacuumed checkerboard, scenes of Americana expressed in their truest uncanny just-off-ness – faltering across these TV screens.

from Jeff Whipple’s Drawn Into Something: A Memoir of Becoming an Artist

Jeff is quiet, slightly stubbled, stooped. He wears an unbuttoned long-sleeved shirt over a t-shirt and a baseball cap fronted with his own particular three-stripe infinity sign. He’s a poet as a painter, the way Magritte called himself a philosopher with a brush. He asks Bill about the start of the business.

Bill McCormick

“I come here in 1960,” Bill says. He was born in Alabama, but his parents had moved to Yulee for millwork and his mother became ill. “Yulee was a mill town. After I got here, I hated this place. I despised it. I stayed on the beach about six months, grew a beard, the whole nine yards, and I got down to about $250 and told my dad, ‘I gotta get out of here and go make a paycheck.’ He said, ‘Look. I got a little money. I got this garage alongside the house. You been goin’ around, you been adjustin’ these people’s televisions. They think a lot of ya.’ He said, ‘Why don’t you start doin’ this professionally for a livin’?’”

In the early 1960s, Jeff’s dad’s TV repair shop took up half the family’s two-car garage in Illinois. Jeff recalls equipment on wooden benches, soldering guns, an “oscilloscope with a small circular screen that had a wiggling green graphic line that was fun to watch.” In his recent book, the first of three projected volumes, Drawn Into Something: A Memoir of Becoming an Artist, he limns memories from when he’d just started elementary school.

Jeff still uses the wheeled worktable his father made that was always topped with some customer’s TV, innards open. “There was a CB radio in the shop. It would burp and phizz often.” Jeff would hear “the crackly voice of men conversing and a radio voice saying, ‘KRJ9577, come in.’” He went with his dad on house calls and recalls the Whipple ad in the phone book and customers stopping by the house. “He always needed parts, so he was on the road a lot going to distributors, often in Chicago. Sometimes he took me along. I loved going on the road with him.”

Bill’s dad gave him $2500 in 1960 to start his repair shop in the shed. Six months later, his father was tired of having the business by the house, “people driving up here at midnight, blowin’ their horns.” So Bill said, “‘Well, Dad, I don’t wanna go down to Jacksonville.’ I said ‘St. Mary’s is a mill town.’ I said, ‘Fernandina’s a mill town.’” His dad said, “It’s gone be a primary service business, idden it?” Bill said, “Yeah.” He said, “Put it in Yulee.” Bill said, “Dad, there’s less people here than there is anywhere else.” His dad said, “Think for a minute, son. You’re only 15 minutes outta Fernandina. You’re only 20 minutes outta Callahan. St. Mary’s. Folkston. Jacksonville. If you cain’t make a livin’ in five cities, hang it up!”

Jeff’s dad entered split-level ranch-style houses in the Chicago suburbs 60 years ago like a magician. No wonder Jeff learned the poignancy of art through the presentation of story. Moe Whipple carried big wooden cases stuffed with wires and filamented glass tubes and let Jeff carry whatever he thought he wouldn’t drop. “By the early ’70s,” Jeff writes, “the tubes were replaced with small transistors,” which severely damaged his father’s TV repair business, “because the transistors either didn’t break or they were impossible to replace.”

I watch and listen to Jeff watch and listen to Bill. Moe and Bill were contemporaries in business. I see the time lapse. And what did TV do to time? And how might it alter memory? What happened when TV stood in for reality? What lapsed when TV replaced that which it represented? You had to adjust the vertical hold. Scenes flipped up from scenes flipped up from scenes flipped up from. What if the people transmitting the show to you were also, unbeknownst to the passive viewer, transmitting you back to those creators? TV ever was image jumping distance and recollection.

Rod Serling, The Twilight Zone, “Where is Everybody?,” 1959

“I been in this building,” Bill says, “54 years. I been in the same three block area 60 years, I’ve seen a lot of changes and I’ve seen a lot of TV shops come and go. I make mistakes just like anybody else, but not anybody can say I was dishonest with ’em. And I’ll tell ya somethin’ else. It is aye repeatin’ business. They find somebody else, do business with them, they’ll come on back.”

Though Bill hated Yulee upon first sight, he says, “After layin’ around on the beach, I got to know the people here, and I gave ’em this business, and I fell in love. I fell in love with Yulee. Now I’ll tell ya somethin’, I been in every state of the union, I been in Alaska, I been in Mexico, parts of Canada. I wouldn’t go back to a single one of ’em.”

When he first started the business in his father’s garage, Bill says, if he “was in the river fishin’, they would take their TV and leave me a check on the desk. I had one fella, picked it up, left a note, said, ‘I’ll be back in an hour, Bill, I forgot my checkbook,’ and he come back in an hour.”

Jeff attended his father in many a suburban living room where he beheld the wielding of the magic circle. We find one on a bottom shelf in Bill’s back workroom. It’s probably not been used for decades. The housewife would show them the family’s broken set, usually recessed in some gargantuan wood-paneled console that matched the furniture. “The screens were never larger than 23 inches diagonal, but the consoles were sometimes four feet wide and tall,” Jeff writes in his memoir.

Bill McCormick

The tool, a degausser, was a 12 inch circle attached to an electric cord. When Moe Whipple waved that circular wand across the set, the screen moved in oily iridescent patterns in obedience. Jeff remembers the degausser as “sorcerer’s tool” and says, “The housewife and I would watch in awe.” Then his father adjusted knobs, pulled and replaced glass tubes, and flexed the screen image back into shape. “Years later,” Jeff writes, “when I went on house calls with him as a teenager, I realized a lot of what he did was showmanship. Theater.”

from Jeff Whipple’s Drawn Into Something: A Memoir of Becoming an Artist

Of all the things Bill McCormick says he can’t change, the most formidable is “the new mentality,” that if something bought new malfunctions, people throw it in the trash. He sees wealthy new residents of Fernandina throw brand new TVs to the curb for the garbage truck because they never bothered to turn the set off and restart it.

Bill, however, all 86 years of him, is all about lasting things out. He built this building to withstand hurricanes. “You could park your car on the roof,” he says. When storms come, his whole family comes over to McCormick TV Repair, inflates mattresses and waits out the weather. “You cannot come through that pre-stressed concrete roof,” Bill says. “It takes a special bit, and a special drill, and it takes about a half a day to do it.”

The discourse tunes in and out, from far channels, distant decades. “Now, in the early days, only thing was unique, was RCA” … “UHF tuner” … “it could run backwards or it could run forwards” … “But the drill motors, that come out of NASA and the Space Age – the microwave oven, all those type of devices like that” … “the Chinese, I found out this, the no. 2 screws, I ordered a set of no. 2 screws from China. Now if you use the American-manufactured drill, dud’n go in deep enough, and these would go in deep.”

Jeff says he only saw his dad drunk twice. Those “typical scenes of a belligerent shouting drunk thrashing furniture and beating everyone never happened.” Yet when Norma gave Moe the ultimatum, alcohol or divorce, Jeff’s older brothers picked their father up from a final binge and “took him to dry out at the state hospital.”

What Jeff next writes models much of his art. “I didn’t know he had a problem and suddenly he was in the nut house.” Home stability, “illusory or not, was now gone.” My favorite Whipples are realism just slightly off. A Fourth of July picnic, at which participants’ mouths hang wrongly ajar. Parking lots normal but for someone, too normally – and that’s crucial – crawling out from underneath a car. Apple pie deliciously just barely wrong.

Jeff’s uncle and aunt drove to his father’s apartment, Jeff in back, Heinie, his uncle, talking “about men who drank themselves to death with vodka or gin,” but how unimaginably “slow and miserable” was suicide by beer.

Jeff Whipple’s Facebook post on the 50th anniversary of his father’s death

When we leave McCormick’s, we stop off at a redneck bar on the water at the line between Nassau and Duval Counties. Old drunks flirt with Liz. Jeff looks slightly amused. Men with assault rifle stickers on pickup trucks hide behind a fish fry to share weed. Coming too close, though white, makes you suspect. Keeping a distance, though white, makes you suspect. Exhalations of oyster beds burning in the sun float in funks across land- and water- scapes.

TV was magical once. Images and mood channeled through the pines and cornices and telephone poles and steeples at night. Prepubescent boys stayed up late to see breasts, frequently hidden in static snow, flickering dots, fuzzy zig zag. Some cable-access corner jockey showed his favorite horror movies never making prime time.

from Jeff Whipple’s Drawn Into Something: A Memoir of Becoming an Artist

Tune your old panelboard TV to the in-between. Moe’s still there and Bill will always be. White noise enters from the Cosmic Microwave Background that fills all space in the observable universe. Any corner of any forgotten episode blips out and in, naught into aught, in all this nautilus not-us. The static snow you see on the screen is the afterglow of the Big Bang, listen closely, a sound 13.8 billion years old.