The Radio - A Short Story
A few lazy snowflakes drifted by his long wire antenna, stretching from the garage peak to his bedroom window, as an excited Danny Langford made ready to attach the headphone leads to the terminal posts. Downstairs, “I can’t give you anything but love, baby’, played on the RCA, and he heard his mother humming to the music.
The crystal radio was his Boy Scout merit badge project, and with a war on, most of the parts were scavenged from trash and discards he found lying around. The coil was wound on a Quaker Oats box, and the condenser was alternating layers of gum wrapper tin foil and waxed paper. The wire for the antenna and tuning coil came from a burned out motor he found in the garage, and the insulators were glass rings carefully struck off the tops of pop bottles. The galena crystal was purchased from the Boy Scouts catalog, and the headphones were a prized gift from his grandfather. A safety pin served as a cat’s whisker to find a good spot on one of the crystal’s facets.
The phone rang in the downstairs hall.
“It’s Mister Winkle. He’s home from work and can’t find his paper.”
Danny had a morning paper route, delivering the Cedar Rapids Gazette. Ralph Winkle always left for work at the Wilson meat packing plant at three in the morning. He was a widower and a shift supervisor, a job he took seriously, especially since the war began. The troops needed meat, and Mister Winkle was determined that a meat shortage would never be due to his negligence.
“Tell him it’s in the flower box on the porch. It was snowing, and I didn’t want it to get wet.”
Danny heard his mom talking and then a long pause, before she talked again and hung up the phone.
“Ok Danny. He found it. He said thank you. Danny always left the paper in the porch flower box if it was foul weather, but Mister Winkle never looked there before calling. However, Danny liked the old man, so he just smiled at his forgetfulness.
The magic of a crystal radio is that it requires no power, no batteries, and no plug in the wall. The long wire antenna pulls an incredibly small amount of power out of the air from the radio station’s transmitter, and then sends it to the crystal radio through a lead-in wire.
The coil wound on the Quaker Oats box and the condenser made from foil and waxed paper, formed a tank circuit, which resonates at a certain frequency, allowing it to tune in one station while tuning others out. The tuned-in station was then rectified by a naturally occurring galena crystal and changed from radio frequency to audio, and then sent to the headphones, to the delight of millions of small boys.
Danny came by his enthusiasm for radio honestly. His father’s first job was assembling radio kits ordered from a Sears and Roebuck catalogue. He had built hundreds of battery operated radios for farmers, who at that time had no rural electric. He then opened a shop and repaired radios, studying at night and then applying what he knew during the day. By the time the war came to America, he was prospering in radio sales and repair and had earned an electrical engineering degree. He also became a ham radio operator. Now he was stationed somewhere in Europe, as a P-51 fighter pilot.
The attic had been converted into a ham radio shack, and Danny was free to use any of several receivers, including his father’s own crystal radio set, built so long ago, but Danny wanted to build his own, and he was almost ready to try it out.
There was a time when he would have childishly protested such a mundane thing as supper when he was excited about trying out his new radio, but that too was before the war. When his dad was ready to leave in his new uniform, he took Danny to the attic, and they had a man to man talk.
“I know that you’re just thirteen Danny, but boys only a few years older than you are off to war, so you’ll have to be the man of the house until I get back. Your mom will be depending on you, and so will your sisters, so I’m telling them to respect you, and I’m telling you to think before you act, and then do the right thing. Don’t abuse your authority, and respect your mother. Do you read me?”
“Loud and clear, Daddy…Dad.”
A smile crossed his father’s lips, and only partly at the use off radio jargon. Danny understood the enormous burden he had just assumed and was already maturing by the way he had just addressed his father. Danny would be fine. He hugged his son and said a silent prayer.
“Be right down, Mom.”
He took a last look at the completed radio, and left to wash his hands for supper.
“Don’t play with your food, Amy”
Five year old Amy gave Danny her best scowl. “You’re not the boss of me, Danny.”
Doris Langford placed her hand over Amy’s small one. “When your Daddy left, he made Danny the man of the house, so yes, you do have to mind your big brother. Remember when Pug Wilson was going to throw mud at you?” Amy nodded. “Who was it that made him stop?”
“Amy grinned. “That old Pug Wilson is so a-scared of Danny. Boy did he ever run away.”
“I won’t boss you around Amy. I’m just going to do what I think Dad would do, and I know he would not want you to play with your food.” Danny patted her small head.
“Is Danny also the boss of me?” Eleven year old Melissa was sporting her usual good-humored and devilish smile. She was the delight of the whole family, and they all adored her. Her girlfriends all had a crush on the happily oblivious Danny, and she was very proud of her big brother.
“Danny is the man of the house, and I am counting on you, Mel, to help him when you can. Being the man of the house is an awesome load. Here, pass the potatoes.” His mother smiled at Danny. “How is the radio project coming along, son?”
“I’m done. I’ll try it out after supper.”
The two girls spoke at the same time. “Can I listen too? Can I? Can I?”
“I haven’t even heard it myself yet, for Heaven’s sake. You can listen tomorrow.”
He instantly regretted his attitude. His father would have smiled and said, “Sure you can!” Maybe he wasn’t so grown up after all.
“Well, on second thought, let me get a station in and then you both can listen. OK?”
Danny saw his mom smiling at him in approval, and he was strangely embarrassed.
With the girls waiting breathlessly, Danny attached the antenna and ground wires, and finally, the headphones. He gently swiveled the bent safety pin until the point was over one of the thousands of facets on the galena crystal. Then he lowered it and was delighted to instantly hear WMT Radio, Cedar Rapids, loud and clear, He tried other facets, but the first seemed loudest, so he left it there. He listened to it for a moment longer and then stood, removing the headphones and waving Amy into the seat. He gently placed the headphone band over her curls. Her mouth dropped open, and she turned to look at him, a big grin plastered on her face.
Melissa waited patiently for her turn, and then she too wore a big grin. Danny showed her how to use the safety pin ‘cat whisker’ on the crystal and the slide on the coil to tune in a station. Unfortunately, one of the drawbacks to a crystal radio was its inability to tune out other stations very well, so a listener had to just ignore them.
After the girls left and before bed, Danny logged all the stations he could get and it wasn’t many. He heard WMT, Cedar rapids, WHO, Des Moines, and faintly, WLS, Chicago.
Danny was a sound sleeper, but something woke him about three in the morning and for a few minutes, he stared at the warm yellow glow on his ceiling, confused. Then he got out of bed, looking for the source. He didn't look long. It was a tiny facet on the crystal, off to one side and glowing a bright yellow. He sat in the chair and stared at it for several minutes. Then he put the headphones on and heard a faint, station somewhere.
Danny flipped the light switch on, but the glow instantly disappeared, so he turned it off, and it reappeared. He sat down again, and finally, he gingerly moved the point of his cat whisker to the glowing facet. What happened next stayed with him for the rest of his life.
“Jimmy! Break right...hard…bandit on your twelve o’clock…I’m at your six on top and coming down hard….got him...got him! Damn...I'm hit!”
It was his father’s voice, and then there were loud bangs, followed by silence. Then his father’s voice came back once again, but it was strangely clear and without static, like he was standing by Danny’s shoulder.
“Well Danny, looks like you’ll be taking my place for a while longer. I’m hit and on fire. I’ll need to jump. Take care of mom and the girls, son, and I’ll get back to you when I can.”
The yellow glow on the crystal's facet flickered and went out.
- To be continued
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