Radio in the Dark AgesWhen my dad bought the Philco "Cathedral" in 1940, it went into the living room. It only stayed there for a year or so - - - I remember our hearing the news of Pearl Harbor on it - - - then it got stored in the attic. My mother never did like radios.
Sometime in 1943, somehow, it made its way down to my bedroom. I set it up next to the bed. It was a floor model, with smooth wooden supports in front of the speaker hidden behind the filigree cloth. It was named, well named, The Cathedral.
There was a green-white dial, lit from both sides, with bands for AM, Medium Wave, and Short Wave. The hinged top came down to hide the dial, if you wanted to hide it, and you were left with the small burnt-umber light right in the center, a hot navel so you could know that the Philco was operating despite the darkness, in case you were deaf and couldn't hear the boom of the speaker.
The back of it was the lady with her clothes off: all the naked tubes and condensers and wires and transformers and dust. A lovely sight: the speaker was eight inches across - - - a five-pound piece of hardware with a huge, heavy electro-magnet. The tubes operated with a soft, suffusing warm glow, the glow of the sun at rising. Each tube had its distinctive shape, coloration, contour of filaments and mica; but all had in common a thin pyre of fire, electrons streaming out so that you could see the energy within that was bringing the ghosts out of space.
When you turned the radio on, the glassine separators inside the 6SJ7's would burn blue for a moment, then settle down to russet. Some of the tubes had shields to protect them (or you) from god knows what. Some had tiny hats, with a wire connector snaking down to the base. Some tubes scarcely burned at all; others poured out a steady red/white fire. All worked together to pull in the sounds, working together in push-pull - - - that's what they called it.
At the ends of the chassis were the heavies of reception: a huge black obese stoic transformer, with six or eight thick colored wires twisting out at the sides. On the other end there was a delicately curved variable gang condenser that moved as you moved the dial from station to station, from frequency to frequency.
It was a fantasmagorical world there inside the Philco - - - one that could be simplified and eliminated by simply placing the confused metropolis of tubes and wires and speakers up against the wall, out of sight.
That Philco dropped the walls for me. From my rather desultory world I was given access to another that was more brilliant, certainly more alive. There were stations that now, even after forty years, still have a magic for me, totems to the new worlds I was permitted to discover at night, back there in 1945 or 1948 - - - when I was supposed to be safely abed in another world.
I was in another world. Instead of sleeping, I had my ear to the frequencies of humanity - - - my head in the Cathedral of the universe - - - voices muttering out of the aether, voices calling, calling to me. WCKY in Cincinnati. WKAT in Miami. WCFL in Chicago. WBT in Charlotte. WLAC in Nashville. WWL in New Orleans. The clear-channel stations, signals coming in from thousands of miles. Signals out of the night, calling me from so far away.
What was the fascination, that fascination with the sometimes tangled sounds leaking into my bedroom from across the worlds? Was it that the lady who did the late-night program on WKAT who sounded as if she was trying, with her sensual voice, to seduce innocent me? Or the announcer at WBT, talking so softly of the sophisticated world at the University ("He's a Phi Omega; she's a Delta Tau; this song is for her") that gave me a taste of the love that was awaiting me when I was allowed to Grow Up. WLAC with its black music, from Randy's Record Shop, the music I loved the best - - - Lightnin' Hopkins, Li'l Son Jackson, Blind Willie McTell, the new upstarts for Chess and Checker, the bands out of Chicago, Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson, Muddy Waters, Clarence Brown.
Or, most of all, perhaps, it was the sound of New Orleans. The man's name was Bob Poole. Improbably, he worked for the Catholic Church. WWL was owned by Loyola University of the South. He was on the air from eleven to midnight - - - or in my bedroom on EST - - - until 1 a.m. He played the popular music of the time (Artie Shaw, Harry James, David LeWinter, Phil Harris) between which he told awful, terrible, horrible, nightmare jokes.
Slip on anything and come on down.
So she slipped on the top stair.
And then his engineer - - - Maurice - - - would zip into the sound of a woman screaming, or a dog howling, or a man intoning, "Hey wait a minute Bob . . . Have you got a match?" which would be repeated regularly after each joke.
She said she felt like a young colt, but she looked more like an old forty-five.
And then Maurice would give us the sound of a woman screaming - - - racked up from transcription speed of 33 rpm to 78 rpm, so she would sound frantically crazily out of her head at this piece of information.
Man to waiter: "Give me some orange juice for a pick- up."
"Yes sir. And what will you have?"
(Sound of sirens and gunshots).
"She was just an optician's daughter. Two glasses, and she made a spectacle of herself."
(Bombs falling - - - sound of machine guns and cries.)
Poole would then play some of the music of the day, music I loved so much: Frank Sinatra, Doris Day, Frankie Laine, David LeWinter, Nat King Cole - - - or some local musician playing at the sponsoring hotel, the New Orleans Roosevelt Hotel. Could we ever forget Ray McKinley, sophisticated, intoning in his raspy voice:
You came a long way from St. Louis
A feeling I ain't going to know,
You came a long way from St. Louis
You still got a long way to go . . .
Then a brief plug for the hotel, and Poole:
They say that the average human has over 20,000,000 pores.
No wonder we're such poor people.
And then Maurice the engineer gives us a pistol shot, some more screams, and we go off into the strains of Peggy Lee throating her way through "Why Don't You Do Right (Like Some Other Men Do?)"
You had plenty money 1922
You let other women make a fool of you . . .
I fell for you jiving and I took you in
Now all you've got to offer me is a drink of gin
Why don't you do right
Like some other men do?
Get out of here and get me some money too?
It was all very frantic, and great for keeping this boy awake so he could doze through his algebra and English classes the next day at John Gorrie Jr. High School.
§ § §
Whatever happened to us? Bob Poole got hired off by a clear channel station in Albany where he learned that union engineers weren't like Maurice, didn't know beans about playing around with raucous sounds on the air.
Me? I got shipped off to the north, too - - - to one of those intense schools that thought radios were bad for students' minds (and morals). For most of three years, I wasn't allowed to listen to the radio at all.
The Philco? I would guess that my mother got that back into the attic as quickly as she could, eventually into the hands of the Salvation Army. She, like my school, knew that radios were bad for your souls, could keep you up all hours; knew that that getting rid of it was a dam site better than having me lolly-gagging about on my bed long after midnight, listening to some voice out of murky New Orleans:
"You remember the fruit song, don't you?"
"Orange you sad you left me."
And Maurice sends out 50,000 watts of woman's laughter, speeded up, a mad shriek, raging up screaming at us out of the sweet nights of the dark hot savannah of the great gods of transmission, out of the dark rooms of the night.