My wife and I love our seasonal campsite along the Brandywine Creek, in Chester County, Pennsylvania. It’s quiet, clean, and has a great pool. The fishing, whether for brook trout or bass, is exceptional. We have great and knowledgeable neighbors who always help in a pinch if wind and weather becomes a problem. Marsh Creek State Park, with its 550 acre lake, is just minutes away and provides outstanding opportunities for angling and water sports.
One thing, though. The campground sits in a glen, which is great if you’re seeking seclusion, but problematic when you’re trying to listen to music or a sporting event on the radio or TV. There is no cable and dishes don’t quite answer because of the towering trees and hills that surround us. So, we went on Amazon in quest of a radio. But, not just any radio.
My father’s radio.
You know, an old fashioned one, the kind with a big antenna and a dial and AM sub-dial instead of the cheap crap sold in department and electronic stores today with digital displays.
Sometimes that dial, which you can manually manipulate, and the FM antenna, three feet long, can pick up stuff as far away as China.
Okay, although it was made in China, let’s say at three o’clock in the morning without atmospheric interference it could pick up Cincinnati or Secaucus.
It was delivered today and I was excited. I haven’t tried it out at the campsite yet (we will this weekend) but I went crazy playing with it at home all day. I even felt giddy doing so. It’s got do-dads for plugging in ear phones and other devices that a dinosaur like me doesn’t understand. It’s got jacks in the back to attach exterior antennas for both FM and AM so that maybe you could pick up China or a Phillies game after the All Star break. Yes, I still listen to the Phillies, because I don’t wear a hair shirt or whip my back with a cattail made of knotted cords. Yet, I believe that self-inflicted punishment, like rooting for a Philadelphia ball club, will shorten my time in purgatory.
It cost $90 bucks. My wife was skeptical of the purchase. So, the damn thing better work or I’ll be in the doghouse for the rest of the summer and well into the fall.
And, when it arrived today via FedEx and I opened up the box, my mind was immediately flooded with memories of my father.
The Kitchen Table
I couldn’t help it. It brought a smile to my lips and tears to my eyes. It was a genuine old-time fashioned radio. The kind folks a generation or two ago always had on a kitchen counter top or table. It wasn’t a transistor people took to the Jersey Shore in the sixties. It wasn’t a stereo set with hoofers and tweeters that we took with us to college in the seventies, nor a boom box that created the phrase “noise pollution” in our cities in the eighties. It was a plain old radio. The kind dad listened to at the kitchen table after a hard day’s work.
He’d sit there, on a ladder-backed chair, with his radio on listening to music that he taught us to appreciate and love. This was the sounds of the thirties and forties, and the music of his youth, before the advent of rock and roll, although dad did appreciate the early artists of that genre, especially Elvis.
Still, because he was an accomplished baritone back during World War II, and actually sang over the BBC in London and for the USO as part of a Navy band, and because, after the war, he frequented jazz establishments in Harlem, his heart was captured by the legendary horn of Dizzy Gillespie and the brilliant voice of Ella Fitzgerald. He actually knew, sang with, and interacted with these stars. They called him “Red,” because of his fair, freckled Irish complexion and shock of red hair.
Because dad heard all of these talented artists in his lifetime and in person you’d think he would never listen to them on radio. But, my father and radio grew up together. It was a part of him and his family. He told me once, he would lay down on the floor of their simple house in “Brewery Town,” in Philadelphia, in the midst of the Great Depression, and listen to sports or music or comedy shows. This love of radio never left him, even after the advent of television, even after the miracle of color television. No, dad was always a radio man.
We were raised in a modest two-story Jubilee in a post-war suburban development called Levittown. For dad, being born with macadam in his blood and used to the familiar pulse of city life in Philadelphia, this was somewhat unsettling. Here, my mother and father raised ten kids during and after the baby-boom generation. My Aunt Mary and Uncle John, who lived in the city, also had ten children and when they would come to visit us it was, for them, always an exciting trek to “the country.”
Space must have been at a premium, but we kids didn’t seem to mind. We were two to a bunk and if your sibling wasn’t a bed-wetter, then life was good. Mom and dad made sure there was always plenty of food, and spring, summer, and fall harvests provided a bevy of fresh produce which dad would purchase by the basket. Not by the pint, not by the quart, but by the basket. We were that hungry.
Bed time was strictly observed and we hated it. Lights were out in summertime before the sun descended in the western sky. Something us kids thought was darned unnatural. It was then I would creep across the floor and listen at the foot of the steps to what mom was watching on the black and white or what dad was listening to on the radio.
The kitchen table was dad’s domain. Here he’d have his newspapers and periodicals (the National Catholic Register and the National Review). There’d be a quart of Ballentine Ale and an ash tray nearby and, of course, his precious radio. Now, he would constantly fidget with the position of the radio and the direction of the antenna because he wanted to hear stations from New York. Dad managed to find stations that mattered to him. Given the hour and the day, you would hear Jazz or a ball game or an inspiring sermon from Bishop Fulton Sheen, or dad would listen to rebroadcasts of Father Patrick Peyton’s Family Theater productions.
Yet, dad was someone we would call today a political junkie. So, his radio band was frequently dialed into current events and the turmoil of public discourse. Today we call this “talk radio.”
The thing was Dad was not a passive listener. As he was reading or doing puzzles and cryptograms in his papers, he would provide active commentary to whatever was going on the radio. At times, it was heated. No, it was more than that. It was intense. But it was never interactive. And, that was what frustrated my father.
For God’s sake, it was the sixties. Think of how many lifestyles, cultural norms, treasured institutions, holy obligations, venerated practices, and beloved customs, for good or circumspect reasons altered because “the times’ they are a-changin” demanded they be so. A time when Timothy Leary urged the youth of our nation to “turn on, tune in, and drop out.”
The sixties were truly a revolutionary and destructive and divisive decade and I’m not talking about civil rights, which was the natural progression of a nation finally determined to cast off the shackles of a hideous slave mentality.
I’m talking about the sweeping and blitzkrieg-like assault on our church and our moral foundation. As a nation, as a people, as a Christian society, my father’s world was being torn down, day by day; after he, and millions of soldiers, sailors, and airmen like him, had fought, once again in the past century, to bring peace and security to the world.
No wonder dad yelled back at the radio. He was trying to raise ten kids. He was screaming for common sense to enter into the discussion. It never did. And, it hurt him deeply.
I never debated out loud with radio or television programming until recently. My lineage is solidly maternal, or so I thought. I was named after my mother’s father and I’ve always remained somewhat passive, and jovial, like my grandpop and namesake. Although without his full and thick set of black hair; even though some of my siblings certainly inherited my father’s tenacity to argue repeatedly with what is broadcast across the air waves. My middle son does this incessantly while he’s playing video games. But, I could never understand how raising your voice against an electronic device or into a microphone could solve anything.
It doesn’t. I think we’re all just feeling kind of edgy these days.
A friend of mind from college recently sent me a message on Facebook that read: “you can see the glass as half-empty or half-full, or you can see it as refillable.” This is good advice.
Still, I can hear my father’s arguments in my dreams. Just about everything he said would happen has already occurred. The time of trial is certainly upon us.
Our Lady of Lourdes said to St. Bernadette: “I cannot promise your happiness on this earth, only in the next.” But, she didn’t mention anything about joy, peace, fulfillment, and the promise of faith. Nor was this a message to us. Only to a chosen soul marked for greatness.
My radio will be tuned into the unfortunate consequences of our era as my father’s was to his tumultuous times so many years ago.
Your radio, I suspect, will be, too.
Pray, and regardless of future events, be joyful. Because that is our rightful inheritance. And, take some time this summer to tune into some good music, sporting events, and great religious broadcasting by EWTN, Ave Maria, Sacred Heart, and Immaculate Heart radio stations worldwide. Just use that fine AM dial on your old-fashioned radio. It’ll take you where you want to be.