The Radio


19 Aug

            My son came home all excited one day, because someone down the street had put a pair of large speakers out on the curb for the trash collector. He told me we had to take the car to get them because they were too big and heavy for him to carry.

           I must not have responded with the speed he expected.

           “They’re speakers, Dad!” as if I was clueless as to what that might mean to him.

            When I was a kid, speakers were one of our most prized possessions. We followed the vets around during the monthly scrap drive, and searched the hill behind the American Legion, where most of the stuff was dumped, but in those days speakers were not separate, or plugged into the back of a receiver like they are today. They didn't come in pairs, and they weren't plugged into the back of a receiver like they are today. More times than not, they were encased in a large hardwood cabinet glued together and reinforced with wood screws so long that it seemed like days before you could get them out. Sometimes, we had to bring the whole radio home in order to disassemble it, but I remember one occasion when I waded through a pile of old mattresses, broken chairs, and discarded appliances behind the American Legion with various hand tools poking out of my pockets just to get to a 10-inch speaker that was visible inside an old cabinet that had already been stripped of everything else. Not only did I love to hear the deep sound the big speakers made, but I liked to be able to see the way the paper cones vibrated, and I knew that if I ever blew one out, or it stopped working for some reason, I could always take it apart and count on finding a magnet the size of a hockey puck. You couldn't go wrong collecting speakers.

            Whenever I bought a radio home, I always plugged it in first to see if it still worked. If not, I would strip it for “parts,” and save the tubes, transformers, and tuning mechanisms. I kept a working radio next to my bed that was nothing more than a shoe-box sized metal "chassis," old enough even then to be covered with a thin film of dust. It had four or five vacuum tubes sticking up between a couple of transformers, a tuning mechanism, and a cylinder half-inch cylinder that was maybe three inches long, wound with copper wire. I was afraid to touch that part because the wire was coated with an amber-colored, shellac-like substance that I was sure was meant to protect me from instant electrocution. At night, with the radio plugged in and all the tubes glowing, I would lie in bed and listen to broadcasts from stations as far away as Detroit and Boston.

            There was always a lot of static with the old radios, so I had to be careful to keep the volume down while I played around with the knobs on my bedside radio. Actually, there weren't any "knobs," because I took them off when I removed it from the wooden cabinet, and four unidentified shafts stuck out of the side of the chassis. It wasn’t long before I discovered that this particular radio had two short-wave bands. This might not seem like such a thrill compared to an i-phone, but after I got my radio up and running, I was able to tune into "The Dominion Observatory,” located in Victoria, British Columbia. The observatory measured the movement of stars across the sky to define Canadian time, and a series of "blips" corresponding to each passing second was broadcast 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Toward the end of each minute, an announcer with a British accent would read off the exact time, and the blips would begin again until the next minute was up.

            For some reason, being able to tune into the observatory and other places outside of our area, was as exciting to me then as the internet is to my son. I'm not sure what he plans to do with the speakers he found, but I should have told him to look in the attic. I could have saved him the trouble of picking them out of the garbage, and put off the day when I'd have to put my own collection of speakers out on the curb.

Note: This story was published by the state of Nevada in their 8th grade English workbook. It was read by over 8000 students, a fact that has more value to me than the money I received for the rights, but I wonder whether or not kids these days can identify with what life was like in the late 50's. Maybe if I tossed them a PeeWee they might think it was pretty cool (and it was). 

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