Christmas 1938, my father begged for a radio, fed up with sharing the family radio. The silence of that Christmas morning had taken on a solid form, the tick of the grandmother clock downstairs not exactly threatening but still, she wasn’t quite herself. If she could have held her own pendulum to her heart, she would have, just so my twelve-year-old father could have tiptoed down carpeted steps in a quiet that might have prevented his own heart from getting away from him.
But it was there; a dream of a black box with a slender, silver antenna tucked underneath the glittering tree. My father, dropping to his knees, lifting the radio between his fingertips, my grandfather appearing behind him, smiling, sipping from a steaming coffee mug.
At first, the two bowed heads searched for stations sitting on the piano bench beside the front window, taking turns spinning the tuning knob methodically back and forth across a row of horizontal numbers, checking to be sure the antenna was extended as far as it could go. When their efforts produced nothing but jarring static, they stepped to the dining room, the kitchen, the back porch, upstairs to my father’s bedroom, then back downstairs to the front porch where they sat swinging.
My grandfather eventually gave up, returned to hearth fire, but my father, undaunted, as my father was about everything in life, hiked up the hill behind the house, past detached garage, snow-covered roof, made a serpentine through the apple orchard, marched back down the hill to the main road where no cars were ambling early on a Christmas day.
“Get anything, Ralph?” His mother sang from the front porch, hands cupped, hair blowing.
And he did – walked along the side of that road that split the town in half, spinning the knob, holding his breath. It was as if there wasn’t any world outside of rural Pennsylvania, no big bands, no big sounds, no big places at all.
A buddy, Guy Houser, was missing from his family’s living room too. He was following the contours on the other side of the same road, carrying the same model of Motorola radio.
“You got one too, Guy? Find any music yet?” My father asked.
“Nothing, and I walked all the way down to the gas pumps.”
“Nothing at all? Darn it.”
The cold and the promise of a hot, turkey dinner eventually coaxed both boys back indoors to fight another day. It didn’t take long.
The next morning, Guy appeared outside the kitchen window. My grandmother was standing at the sink, washing dishes. She hurried to the door.
“Guy, there was so much steam around you; I thought maybe you were smoking a pipe. Did you run all the way here?”
When all the boy could do was manage a nod, she added, “Ralph’s upstairs. Go ahead up.”
“I did it,” Guy announced, pulling a ball of wire from his coat pocket. He positioned my father’s radio on the floor and wound wire around the antenna.
“Crawl under your bed. Lay on your back,” Guy directed. “I’m going to feed you wire. Wrap it around the bedsprings, tight as you can.”
Butch the tabby cat was already under there, yawning and licking his paws. When the wire was gone, Guy stood up, crossed his hands over his chest.
“Go ahead,” he said. “Try it now.”
Just like that, the sounds of big band filled the room, clear and strong as a tolling bell. The only station they ever got on those Christmas radios came to them all the way from St. Louis, Missouri.
Six Christmases in the future, my father wouldn’t be at home in this boyhood home. He would be in basic training, preparing to serve in World War II. He would miss his senior year of high school, his last games as an athlete for Gregg Township, his spring graduation ceremony.
But on Christmas morning 1938, none of those parts of the future seemed possible. Life was composed of simple questions and ready answers. A town with one main road and a smattering of houses, a quiet life to be made working in the silk mill or in the countryside dotted white and black with dairy cattle, rust-red barns, silver-topped silos and two grinning, resilient boys standing in the middle of the upstairs of a warm bungalow listening together to what the world sounded like outside of Spring Mills.