When I was fourteen, I discovered the Top 40 on WABC radio. I still remember the slogan that was sung, “Seventy-seven, WABC!”
This was the year that “Song Sung Blue” by Neil Diamond and Roberta Flack’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” were hits. Only trouble was, the cult my parents belonged to dictated that songs from the Top 40 were sinful to listen to.
Thankfully, when I discovered the Top 40, I was staying at a friend’s house in Paramus, New Jersey. Her mother was in the cult but her father wasn’t, and as complicated as it may sound, since he was the head of the house, even though by cult standards he was “lost,” he still could set rules in his house.
My friend’s father didn’t see anything wrong with listening to hit songs on the radio, so I spent all week learning and singing along with the songs my friend played. When I got home, I was determined to get a radio.
Since I only got one dollar—that’s right, one dollar, that is one hundred pennies—a week for my allowance, buying a radio seemed to be an impossible task. The tiny allowance was meant as a way to control my actions by not allowing me to have individual choice. Most of even the small amount of choice that a dollar a week could have given me was taken away.
How that was accomplished? First, I had to give 20 percent of the dollar to the cult, in the form of tithes. That left me with eighty cents per week. Can you imagine that? In 2010, that would barely have bought one candy bar per week. It would have taken more than a month by today’s standards for me to save up for a comic book.
But that wasn’t all. Since I made my own lunches for school and since my mother counted all the bread, cheese, and slices of lunch meat, that meant that by ten a.m. in study hall, I would very quietly break off pieces of the two slices of white bread with the two paper-thin slices of lunch meat between them. That meant that by lunchtime, my knees were wobbly with hunger and my head spun.
For a quarter I could buy two chocolate chip cookies and an ice cream sandwich. Oh yes, obesity and diabetes, here we come! But it was better than fainting in sixth period. Having eighty cents per week meant I could buy the cookies and ice cream three times a week. The other two times? Sometimes I begged others for snacks baked in home-economics class. Sometimes someone gave me half a sandwich.
Anyway, the way my allowance was whittled away made buying a radio seem impossible. So I waited until summer. Summer was worse than the school year because I was home all the time, but it was also better than the school year because I could snitch bread and peanut butter between meals if my mother wasn’t home. So my allowance didn’t need to go for snacks.
Another good thing about summer was yard and rummage sales. Thankfully, my mother loved rummage sales. It was at a large community rummage sale that I found a battered transistor radio. It was about twelve inches long, black with a silver grill. Its plastic was cracked but when I turned it on (the previous owner had kindly left the batteries inside), it worked fine.
I had kept my allowance for several weeks and hoped I’d have enough for the radio. When I saw “$1” written in black marker on a strip of masking tape across the top, I paid for it without asking my mother if I could have it.
“Where did you get that?” she snapped as we walked home.
“At the rummage sale,” I explained.
“Well, that ugly thing probably doesn’t even work!” she said.
I turned it on and showed her that it played.
“It probably won’t last long,” she grumbled. “And your friends will make fun of you if they see you carrying that thing around.”
I didn’t care. I carried my radio around the yard that day, listening to the hits on WABC. The radio opened a huge new world for me. When my father, an electrician, came home, my mother told him what I’d bought.
“Let me see your new radio.”
It was a command, not a request.
So I reluctantly brought out the radio. My father turned it over, examining every detail. Sloshing phlegm back and forth in his throat as he did when he was thinking, he opened the back and inspected the circuitry. Finally he replaced the back and handed the radio to me.
“Now,” he said in the tone that usually meant the beginning of a long lecture, “you aren’t to listen to any worldly music on this. You can listen to the news stations or to classical music but not anything else. If I hear anything else coming out of this radio, I’ll take it and you’ll never see it again.”
He rambled on, basically rewording the above statements for the next forty-five minutes. I kept nodding, trying to look as if I was listening raptly to his every word. I’d really zoned out after the first few moments but I’d learned from years of experience that if I looked bored or if he asked me a question and I couldn’t answer, that Lecture Mode could quickly turn into Beating Mode.
So I nodded at all the right times and chuckled at all the corny jokes he told as he wrapped up his lecture. Finally he made me repeat the Rules of the Radio before he let me go.
“What stations can you listen to?” he prompted.
“News stations and classical.”
“What will happen if I catch you listening to anything else?”
“You’ll take the radio away and I’ll never see it again.”
So he let me go and the radio was as much mine as it would ever be. I played the Top 40 on WABC while I walked to the library. At night I placed the radio beneath my pillow, turned the sound down very low and listened to the hits all night.
That radio was my best friend in many ways. When I went back to school in the fall, I took the radio. I never played it in class—that would have been a sure way to lose it. But I did play it as I walked to and from school. One winter day, just after a snowstorm, the radio slipped from my fingers as I walked beside a river.
It smashed through the ice and plunged into the swollen river. I climbed down beside the river, getting as close to the water’s edge as I could. But the current was flowing to fast and the water was too deep.
“Where’s your radio?” my mother asked as I walked in the door.
Funny, she hadn’t asked about it even once in all the months I’d carried it. But moments after I’d lost it, she’d noticed it was gone.
So I told her about dropping it in the river.
“Hmph,” she sighed, turning back toward the soaps flicking across the black-and-white television.
The rest of that winter, I checked on my radio every day after school. Every day I hoped that somehow the water level would go down so I could rescue it. It snowed a lot that winter so the river ran high all the way through April. Finally, in early May, the water slowed and the level had dropped. I took off my shoes and socks and rolled up my jeans so I could wade into the water.
I retrieved my radio, grinning ear to ear. It felt as if I’d won a galactic battle, where the Forces of Evil (represented by my parents) had taken away my one Super Power (the radio) and I had thwarted them. I carried my radio home, smiling and whistling.
Instead of going in through the front door I slipped down the alley between our house and our neighbor’s house and brought the radio into the backyard. I found one of my father’s screwdrivers and opened it up, removing the sodden, burst batteries and exposing the circuitry to the warm sunshine.
The voice came from behind me, making me jump.
It was my father. He was famous for going through trash on his way home from work and bringing home all kinds of broken things. He especially liked pianos. At one point we had six pianos in various states of repair on our front porch and behind our house.
“It’s my radio,” I explained.
“Your mother said you’d lost that.”
I explained what had happened, and how I had retrieved the radio. My father seemed to listen, his fudge-brown eyes examining the radio while I talked.
“Well,” he said after I’d finished, and the tone of that one word made me realize that he was about to launch into Lecture Mode.
He proceeded to spend the next forty-five minutes describing in great detail how my radio would never work again. He explained what happens when the circuitry gets wet, the corrosion, and many details that I didn’t follow.
As I had when I first bought the radio, I formed my face into the appropriate attentive expression. I nodded at all the right times, and chuckled when he joked that I was acting like a baby by believing the radio could still work.
When he finished, I said, “Well, I’m going to dry it out and try anyway.”
Thankfully, he was more interested in going through his newest pile of scavenged items so he just shrugged and turned away.
I let the radio dry out for a week, then put new batteries inside. I turned the big silver knob, holding my breath, hoping hard.
When the radio sprang into life, I was so surprised that I almost dropped it. The only evidence that it had been underwater was that from that day on, the speaker hissed. But I didn’t mind. My world had opened up once more.