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(118 Stories)

Prompted By Remembering Radios

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A war surplus electronics store on Boylston Street, a tangle of vacuum tubes, oscilloscopes, braided copper wire with color-coded insulation, servo motors, magnets, armatures, old ammunition boxes, rolls of brittle electrical tape and finally, a chunky, dust-covered, black Hallicrafters short-wave receiver.

This is the one, my old man says.

This is the one, my old man says, and pulls it off the olive drab metal rack. I can tell it’s heavy. He leans back against the weight as he trundles to the counter with the big black box and sets it on the cluttered counter with a grunt.

Plug it in, Sal, he tells the guy behind the counter. Let’s see what we have here.

“You got it, John. Sal uncoils the power cord and plugs the receiver into the power strip on the back wall. The dials light up yellow-green. The speaker hisses and my old man spins the tuning dial. A garble of tones dip and dive like birds in flight, a far-off voice clouded by static. “And that’s without an antenna,” Sal says.

Yeah, not bad, my old man says. We’re getting a signal right off the terminals.

I notice the small nickel-plated earphone jack at the lower right-hand corner of the radio. Good, I think to myself.

How much you want for it? My old man asks.

Gimme fifteen bucks, Sal says.

How about ten, my old man says.

Can we get some earphones? I ask.

Twelve bucks and I’ll throw in the earphones, Sal says.

My old man looks down at me. Deal, he says. It seems he and Sal know each other from some unspoken, faraway place.

Sal walks back into the dark recesses of the shop and comes out with a set of earphones. They have a phone plug that will fit right into the nickel-plated jack on the Hallicrafters. Years earlier I had learned to sneak a flashlight into my bedroom to read late at night. Now, with the earphones, I’ll be able to listen to the Top 40, too.

I carry the earphones and my old man humps that big, old Hallicrafters back to the MTA. Boylston, Arlington, Copley, Kenmore, I inhale the stale, familiar subway air of the subway, back into the daylight on Commonwealth and into my father’s messy Boston University lab. Back home in the cow-and-apple countryside, we set up the Hallicrafters on my bedside table and hang a long wire out the second-story window for an antenna.

Now, long after everybody goes to bed, I can lie in the ethereal, greenish-yellow glow of the Hallicrafters’ dials. I can slip on the headphones and let Carl Perkins, Fats Domino, Brenda Lee, the Platters, Little Richard, Bill Doggett, Eddie Cochran, Sarah Vaughn, and a myriad of other stars in the brand-new galaxy of rock and roll and rhythm and blues, teach me all about love and life in nineteen fifty-five. But wait…

#  #  #

The silver knob on the left, at the bottom of the tuning dial brought the Hallicrafters to its real intention — accessing all the frequencies on the planet. At night, the Heaviside layer, a stratum of ionized gas above our stratosphere, reflects radio waves. My old man explained that the waves radiated into the sky can bounce off the Heaviside layer and back to Earth beyond the horizon, allowing for transcontinental radio communication. Soon I was listening to French and Russian radio stations, tuning into news reports from Cuba, Argentina, and Brazil. My Hallicrafters was bringing the world to my bedside.

Profile photo of Charles Degelman Charles Degelman
Writer, editor, and educator based in Los Angeles. He's also played a lot of music. Degelman teaches writing at California State University, Los Angeles. 

Degelman lives in the hills of Hollywood with his companion on the road of life, four cats, assorted dogs, and a coterie of communard brothers and sisters.

Visit Author's Website



Characterizations: well written

Comments

  1. Marian says:

    This is so sweet and wonderful, Charles. I love the technology at that time and what it brought to you as you listened in your bedroom. Must admit, I’d never heard of a Hallicrafter, so I learned something, too.

    • Thanks, Marian. Hallicrafters had large defense contracts during World War II and became one of the leaders in civilian radio equipment, including amateur HAM two-way radio operators who crowded the air waves in the 1940s and 1950s. The HAM refers to their often-unskilled approach to the field.

  2. Suzy says:

    Wow, fabulous story, fabulous picture! I love the idea of a war surplus electronics store in 1955! You describe it so vividly, I feel as if I am right there with you. And the mysteriousness of your father and Sal knowing each other from some unspoken, faraway place. On your new purchase you could listen to rock and roll, but also (in the part you added after the first time I read the story) radio stations around the planet. Was this a shortwave radio?

    • Thanks, Suzy. That photo really brought me back. It’s the exact model I had as a kid. I could feel the dials, it was so similar. Radios like the Hallicrafters had a broad range of signal frequencies they could tune into by switching from one band width to the next with the silver dial on the left of the instrument face. So yes, this was a shortwave radio.

  3. Bravo Charles, what a smart kiddo was you!

    Your story reminded me of one I just shared with John. A dear, late friend of ours was a Philly boy but somehow a Yankee fan, and remembered as a kid carefully manipulating the dials to get the New York station with the Yankee game.

    • Yeah, the earphones were part of my late-night equipment stash, along with the flashlight. Did you notice back then, that radio reception was better at night. That was the above-mentioned Heaviside layer at work.

  4. Charles, I know nothing about radio waves but for some reason your story made me think about that scene in the movie Contact where the TV broadcast of Hitler’s speech made it to outer space. I wonder if any aliens were picking up the same news you were picking up on your Hallicrafters.

    P.S. Did you know the Heaviside Layer is where cats are reincarnated? And if you don’t believe me, just watch the film or screen version of Cats!

  5. Betsy Pfau says:

    What a marvelous story teller you are, Charles. The whole ambiance of that Boylston Street story, the give and take between your father and store owner. I could feel the weight of the Hallicrafters (can’t believe your dad carried that thing on the T all the way to BU!). The ethereal glow it made as it lit up your bedroom late at night. And then, wonder of wonders, beyond listening to the mid-50s galaxy of stars, you could eavesdrop on foreign countries. WOW! Love and learned so much from the story, but never cease to marvel at the way you tell it.

    • Thanks, Betsy. Yeah, I always felt especially endowed thanks to my father’s scientific background. I owe him a lot for the ways he explained the world. And I appreciate your support of my story-telling efforts!

  6. Laurie Levy says:

    Great story, Charles. I could so easily picture you and your father schlepping that Hallicrafters home. What a wonder to hear those broadcasts from foreign countries. Part of making the world smaller.

  7. John Shutkin says:

    What a great story, Charles, and so evocatively told, with Sal and your old man in important supporting roles — as well as the BU lab and the “cow-and-apple countryside.” (I bet that countryside smelled just like my little hometown in CT did.) And great that you found the perfect picture.

    My father, too, spoke of the Hallicrafters that he was so familiar with from WW II, and swore they were the best radios out there. He was even tempted/threatened to get one in lieu of the fancy RCA radio/record player system that he and my mother had built into our living room book shelves. But my mother prevailed in the interest of “aesthetics.”

    Dare I ask if your Hallicrafters is still “alive” anywhere? You could be tracking the current spate of UFOs with it.

  8. Love this, Charles. For a brief time in my tweens I was interested in amateur radio, as was a close friend. Went so far as to try to prepare for the licensing exams which included a mandatory telegraphy standard. Which was my undoing. But I do remember collecting catalogs and drooling over the marvels of radio receivers.

    • My father had been a radio fanatic during HAM radio’s early days (1920s). During the Depression, as I explained in my note to John S above, he shipped out as ‘Sparks’ — maritime radio operator on the high seas. As such, he was proficient with Morse code. I learned the basics as a kid but, my gawd, the nuances of telegraphy! For several years, my father was business partner and pals with a remarkable gent named Theodore Roosevelt McElroy, who was crowned as ‘world’s fastest telegrapher’ in the late ’30s. They had met at Submarine Signal during the war years. As an electrical engineer and inventor of that period, Hallicrafters represented the best of radio receivers and I felt special for having one of its masterpieces on my bedside table.

  9. Khati Hendry says:

    I learned an incredible amount about radios from this story and the comments–sounds like an engineer’s delight. The writing described the times and the machine and your life beautifully as well. I wonder if you will follow up on John’s link to get a Hallicrafter back in your life.

    • Delighted to hear of your newfound electronic history, Khati. All of that equipment went the way of vacuum tubes, then transistors, to be replaced by Intel printed circuitry and the cyber age. As striking as it was to reacquaint myself with that fine old radio, I am, these days trying to lighten the load. My Hallicrafters’ retrospective is probably best off in Retrospect.

  10. Charles
    Such a vivid story. I could smell the subway. Taste the electricity and the dust. I love how your old man looks around what sounds like a somewhat disorganized shop (reminds me of my grandpa’s junk shop in Albany) and says, “This is the one.” Love the dialogue and the transaction. So human. Not like buying something on Amazon. Something about our fathers who knew just what they were looking for, knew the obscure places to find it, and the people who worked there. A story about a moment in time. You’re a terrific story-teller.

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