Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Radio to Shorts

I'm often asked why I just write short fiction. Why I haven't penned a novel or two yet. And I never really have an answer that they understand. I love short fiction, and always have. There's something about reading, and writing, a story that begins, has a meaty middle, and ends all in the span of a few pages. As a reader, it's magical. As a writer, it's a challenge. But, where lies the roots for this love of mine? Well, now, there's a story I'd love to tell....

Darkness settled quickly and quietly into the woods of southern Utah, bringing with it a fragrant chill whispering in through the open windows. Frogs croaked away loudly in the creek bottom as the electric blue dusk fanned through a thin mist creeping down from the hollow across the road. It was the time of day the night things began to creep and crawl their way around, out from the depths of the woods and into my realm.

Everyone came in from what they had been doing, gathering into the small living room, everyone in their favorite places; mom and sister snuggling on the old yellow couch that probably pre-dated the hundred foot tall pines outside. Dad in his squeaky recliner next to the wood stove. It was faded pink and leaked a mysterious sawdust-like substance for as long as anyone could remember. We still have it, though it has retired from country living to desert living. And myself in an ancient tennis ball greenish yellow rocker stationed strategically adjacent to a stereotypical 1980’s ghetto blaster sitting in the window.

Because of my position, I was put in charge of finding the channel, one of countless pen and pencil marks on the horizontal dial. Once KNX-1070 from Los Angeles was tuned in, I was required to maintain the antenna just so on the metal window frame to ensure a minimal amount of static. It was a taxing assignment, but the reward was well worth it. Broadcasting from six-hundred miles away, the all familiar nine pm jingle came on…”KNX ten seventy, news radio,” followed by the crackling static announcing the start of the program. It wasn’t the static of degrading radio waves travelling from the California coast, across the Mojave Desert to the wooded hollows of the lower Wasatch. It was the lovely, soothing static of a by-gone era. The age of radio.

This wasn’t the 1940’s or even the 1950’s. This was the 1980’s, the decade of my childhood. And yet, we looked forward to this every summer weeknight. We listened faithfully, and without fail. At our mountain cabin we didn’t have television or the internet or cell phones. We had ‘The Shadow’ and ‘The Black Museum’ and ‘Box 13’ and ‘Case Closed’ and ‘Inner Sanctum’ and ‘Philip Marlow’ and ‘Sam Spade’ and ‘Suspense’. We had the voices of my grandparent’s generation.

This was our nightly entertainment that began pretty much the first summer we built the cabin in 1981, and continues to this day. We did just fine without so many conveniences the first few summers in the mountains. The first summer we didn’t have indoor plumbing or electricity, in much the same way as many of the original listeners of the radio programs we sat down to every night. As barbaric as it would surely sound to a seven year old boy today, we had Coleman lanterns and Coleman stoves and the ultimate in wilderness survival- an outdoor outhouse! Yes, my dad had lovingly constructed a crude plywood box with tarp walls and no roof outhouse in the front yard for our convenience. As a seven year old it was quite the frightful adventure venturing out there into the dark and cold of night to visit the toilet. Of course, it wasn’t half as frightening as the following summer when we got indoor plumbing installed, real toilet and all. See, we didn’t yet have interior walls, just bare studs with old thin bed sheets acting as crude privacy barriers. Inevitably, I’d be trying to do my business in peace and suddenly a tiny head would peek through the sheets, and in a giggly little girl voice my four year old sister would squeal, “I seeee you!”

Understandably, more than thirty years later I am still haunted by this memory.

Sometime after I had graduated from high school and began my career with the railroad, limiting the time I got to spend at the cabin, the only radio station I knew of still broadcasting the old time radio programs, KNX-1070, decided to stop airing them entirely. When the program was cancelled I felt as though KNX had completely and utterly ruined that whole part of my life, and in a sense, perhaps they had. It had put to an end that cherished link to my childhood and the memories of sitting around as a kid every night with my family and enjoying something together. And, that was simply lost for many years.

Then along came a nifty invention- the Ipod. And to my delight I discovered there was a very sizeable community of old time radio lovers just like myself. All the shows and characters I had loved over the years were once again available to listen to via downloads, most of them for free. It didn’t take long for me to fill my Ipod to capacity with these stories. I was once again swept up into the staticy goodness of early radio.

These programs were more than just simple entertainment for a kid in a cabin with no tv and video games. More than just an important part of my childhood that I have so lovingly carried over into my adult life. They are the lifeblood, the spark- the absolute bedrock which my love for the short story is based upon. It was these early experiences that cultivated and grew my appreciation and passion for short fiction, that still grows to this day.

Sadly, I have a difficult time convincing my own children these programs are something special. They roll their eyes at my old timey radio obsession. And with satellite television and indoor plumbing and walls and electricity, and even, to my objections, limited internet through 4G smartphone service, all available at the cabin now, it becomes even more difficult to pry them away from the new and immerse them in the static and the crackling and the magic that is classic radio drama and mystery and horror. But I keep trying.


1 comment:

  1. Couldn't have said it better. This story made me smile as I remember too. Sorry for spying on you but what else did we have to do up there. I SEEE YOU!!! HA HA HA. Love you big brother and I will keep reading/ listening to your stories :)