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16 August 2008

JD, call home . . . .

As I implied in my last blog, radio has always fascinated me — ever since circa 1927 when my pappy built a crystal set. Those times he let me wear the earphones I could faintly hear some klutz in Schenectady crooning “Charmaine.”

While it seemed to me that it was an awful lot of trouble for Pappy to go to when we could simply walk across the room and play “Charmaine” on the wind-up Victrola, I marveled at the ability of mankind not only to make noise in a new way but also to fling that noise all the way from Schenectady to Kenmore, NY.

This, of course, was eons B.C. (Before Cellphones) and so I hadn’t seen anything yet. Before long the crystal sets were succeeded by Atwater Kents that were shaped like tombstones and played Buck Rogers in the 25th Century between bursts of static and paeans to Pop-Nut Scrummies. There were The Goldbergs, Jack Armstrong the All-American Something, Li’l Orphan Annie and her secret decoder pins, Fred Allen, Lannie Ross, The Shadow, and all of them sounding as if they were coming from the bottom of an empty oil drum.

The technicalities of such achievements baffled me. The telephone I could just manage to comprehend, because it involved making a noise and letting its vibrations run along a wire until they reached a wrong number. But radio was something else. It defied understanding, this business of making a noise at Rockefeller Center and having it flutter out hither and yon through wind and cloud, passing right through billboards and brick walls so that you could eventually hear it in the local lunch room, if you were so inclined and properly equipped. And, despite my general approval of radio, both in principle and substance, it was vaguely disconcerting to realize that, while drying myself after a shower in a bathroom that was as silent as a cave, the Parisian chanteuse, Mitzi Moué — disembodied by NBC — might be hovering beside me, moaning softly, “Bare Your Heart, Lover.”

This uneasiness became particularly acute in the mid-60s, when I began to see more and more cars going by with their occupants chattering into what appeared to be microphones. What could they be saying? Why did they seem to be so amused? What were they filling the air with? Could they perhaps be talking about me, behind my bumper? I simply had to know.

CB radio, I was told.

I dropped in to chat with the cool young men at Radio Shack, pretending that I could understand their CB sales spiels. They proved to be romantics at heart. They gave glowing descriptions of the fun and utility of having a two-way radio in one’s car. They enthused over the advantages of being able to call home from the boonies, or when you’re stuck in traffic and will be late for dinner, or when you want to check in with the babysitter. They burbled over the excitement of listening in on forest rangers, ski patrols, surveyors, construction crews, truckers, executives, farmers, boaters, racing cars and pit crews.

They regaled me with adventures to be heard on Channel 9, which was monitored along thousands of miles of roads by police departments, rescue units, hospitals, garages and service stations so as to bring immediate help to motorists who’d come a cropper. They were so enthusiastic I couldn’t resist.

“Install one in my car,” I instructed them, my mind filled with visions of my radioing the White House in some desperate national emergency.

“Install what, sir? A 40-channel transceiver with digitals and squelch?”

“Of course.” I improvised (quite blandly imperious, I might add).

“You want the top-of-the-line far-reach antenna, of course?”

“I wouldn’t think of having anything else,” I sniffed.

Several hours and considerable money later, I was driving down the winding road to home, feeling all kinds of cutting-edge superior. At my right hand was an elegant radio set, glittering with knobs and draped with a microphone and curly cords.

My smugness segued into nostalgia. I remembered the crystal set of my boyhood, the croaking table-model Philco of my school days, the awkward walkie-talkies of the U.S. by-God-Army, the sputter and fizz of the old-time headsets in the 1930s biplanes in which I’d risked my noodle. Those were great, primitive days, to be sure, but now I was on the verge of new, tingling experiences in the fantastic milieu of modern communications.

Taking a deep breath, crossing the threshold of the “whole new world” described by the CB salesmen, I turned the “on” button and activated full squelch, so as to pick up the clearest, nearest message. The digitals glowed, the S/RF meter brightened and I was ready for my first incoming signal.

Swept up with the sense of the busy air around me, conjuring visions of beautiful women in stricken cars who’d be pining for the assistance my cool radio voice would summon, I listened intently over the humming of my cruising car.

What would I hear this first time? What great adventure was afoot?

It came then. A man’s voice, loud and clear: “Hey, Ernie! What in hail dija do with m’ monkey wrench? I cain’t fond th’ freakin’ sumbish nowhere!”


Copyright © 2008 by Jack D. Hunter.  All rights reserved.  No part of this document may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without written permission from the author.

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