New England, summer of 1966. My pal Chuck and I had spent the previous
winter huddled against the warm, glowing tubes of our CB radios, exchanging
sarcastic comments with the hapless users of the local airwaves. Chuck and I
had met "on the air" and were pleased to discover we were both around the
same age---thirteen. Kid CB users were as rare as one-armed outfielders. The
23 channels of the Citizen's Band were so sparsely populated back then that
it was a really big event when there were more than a handful of people on
at a time. I'd get an excited phone call from Chuck saying, "You gotta get
on channel 5! It's a blast! So-and-so's on!". I'd warm up the set and sure
enough, he'd be on there sparring and joking with a gang comprised mostly of
grown-ups and the occasional teen-aged girl. We'd wisecrack ardently for a
while before reluctantly shutting down sometime near 2 AM. Without
exception, the interplay was all ridiculously innocent; no profanity--.and
everybody announced their FCC-issued call letters with great ceremony.
I used to stay over Chuck's house on weekends. The CB radio was actually his
Dad's, but Chuck used it more frequently. In front of his radio was
something I'd never seen before. It was a shiny silver microphone, the kind
into which Bing Crosby would croon in those old movies. A small red badge on
the front of it said "Argonne AR57".
Attached to the Argonne was a small, metal box featuring a huge control knob
hanging off the side. I was told this was a range-boosting device Chuck's
father had obtained illegaly. I was also given to understand that the big
knob was never to be turned past "1" on the scale, or some sort of bad
consequences would befall us.
Naturally, first chance he got, Chuck would crank the knob to "10". The
result was a booming vocal effect we liked to think sounded like the wizard
of Oz. This phenomenon was said to originate from the special unique quality
of the Argonne mike. Everyone on the air seemed to have one. For $4.98 at
the local Radio Shack, anyone could take part in the mystique. Whatever the
case, I quickly sought one out for my own use.
The contraband box turned out to be no more than an ordinary preamp for a
hi-fi turntable. But I discovered that this little device had another, more
tantalizing use: With minor re-wiring, it would broadcast AM radio signals
to nearby listeners!
I got Donald involved in my experiments with the thing because he had a car
and driver's license. I had hooked up the box in my room to a turntable.
This, my one 45 record ("Cast Your Fate To The Wind") and the
Argonne--comprising a crude broadcast center. 150 feet of copper wire strung
between pine trees outside served as the antenna system. After firing up the
radio station, I would carefully tune Donald's car radio to it, then
instruct him to drive off around the neighborhood and take notes of where I
started to fade away into the static.
I had visions of my broadcasts reaching the polar ice cap; where brave
explorers huddled around a tin stove listening to my every word.
Unfortunately, my signal never reached more than a country mile as far as I
could tell. And Donald's testimony was unreliable at best. He'd drive for a
few minutes, then get distracted by something he saw and forget to take
notes. Alternately, I found he would attempt to re-tune the car radio and
end up listening to some other station and not even realize it. Still, the
dubious coverage gained by this haywire lash-up seemed plenty good enough
for me. Every chance I got, I would go on the air. I pictured stunned
families all over the neighborhood tuning in to my little
station--captivated by my repeated time checks and endless encores of "Cast
Your Fate To The Wind," tickled pink by my lame jokes--gathered round the
radio, desperately waiting for my next appearance.
One Sunday after Canobie Lake Park had closed, Donald and I found ourselves
at my house with an evening to kill. I fired up the radio station and
decided to let Donald have a turn at the mike. He seemed thrilled with the
opportunity to sing atonal compositions of his own into the sultry night
air, the radio waves beaming his flat monotone crooning out in all
directions ---for at least a mile.
During this acapella performance I noticed my teenage sister had arrived
home from her date. A long blue Chevy had pulled into the driveway below my
room and parked there. She seemed to attract an endless variety of geeky
college guys who pursued her continually that summer and all the next. Some
came on motorcycles, some in huge convertibles, but all took part in the
same extended parking ritual in our driveway. Many times my mother would
intervene, appearing on the doorstep to extricate my sister from a
particularly long good-bye. And the window in my room provided the perfect
balcony seat to enjoy all the amorous goings-on.
But nothing much was going on tonight. Muffled conversation inside the car.
Radio playing some Beach Boys ballad. Suddenly a whooping howl and giddy
laughter pealed from below. I strained to listen, sure that wild orgiastic
revels would indeed follow. Instead, I began to hear the unmistakable sounds
of Donald's scratchy voice coming from inside the Chevy. My sister and her
boyfriend had accidentally tuned us in! I quickly grabbed the mike and
slapped my only 45 on the turntable while I filled in Donald. We had an
audience! Here was a chance to impress actual human beings with our
broadcasting finesse. Donald agreed, and insisted he be allowed to continue
his command performance for this audience of two. I gave him the mike,
unaware of what was to come.
Donald had this unpredictable streak that made him, well....Donald. You
never really knew how he would react to any given situation. He could be a
perfect gentleman if he ran into some local girls from school, saying hello
and making the requisite jokes and banter. Then suddenly he would insert
some utterly graphic scatological statement into the conversation that was
so completely offensive and outrageous that it would cause everyone's jaws
to drop. This got him into trouble too frequently with the local toughs who
felt obliged to defend whatever poor local maiden's honor had been
besmirched. Somehow he managed to refrain from this practice around adults,
as far as I could tell, so there were no arrests or brushes with the law, at
Tonight, Donald's uncontrolled attacks on propriety would embark upon a new
medium. As soon as he cupped the mike into his hands I knew something was
"Hey out there," his gravely voice rumbled into the Argonne, "Stick your
**** in her ear."
I went into an instant state of shock. The birds had stopped singing. The
air was still. I heard a car door slam. Donald was in stitches--rolling on
the floor in a wave of loud, mule-like guffaws--as if he couldn't believe
he'd said something so uniquely funny. Meanwhile, the sounds of panic and
rage filled the house. A huge screaming argument had erupted in the kitchen.
It sounded like my sister was being restrained by both my parents in order
to prevent her from tearing down the door to my room and annihilating both
me and Donald.
In the end I was compelled to dismantle the entire broadcast facility to
prevent another such occurrence. Donald was barred from the house
forevermore (although after a few weeks all was forgotten when he showed up
with bags full of fresh tomatoes--peace offerings for my parents.)
In retrospect, I honestly don't think Donald ever fully understood what he
did or why it might be considered disturbing. He displayed none of the fears
about "fitting in" typical of other guys his age. In fact, the whole concept
of worrisome introspection seemed to elude him completely. His complete
freedom from self-judgment was a mixed blessing bestowed on him--and one
that would remain at the heart of his problems with members of the opposite
sex for as long as I knew him.