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patterns of ink

How fruitless to be ever thinking yet never embrace a thought... to have the power to believe and believe it's all for naught. I, too, have reckoned time and truth (content to wonder if not think) in metaphors and meaning and endless patterns of ink. Perhaps a few may find their way to the world where others live, sharing not just thoughts I've gathered but those I wish to give. Tom Kapanka

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Bringing Home the Duncan Phyfe: Chapter 14


Last summer, my daughter came back from a rummage sale with a gift for me: this antique 1940's Philco radio.

"I knew you'd like it, Dad," she smiled, "Even if you can't get it to work, it looks cool."

The parts were all there, but the cord had been yanked out. Before reattaching it, I took the insides out of the old wooden cabinet, tinkered with the tubes, and cleaned out decades of dust. Then I sanded and polished up the outside.

"The truth is, Honey...I don't know much about old radios. If your grandpa were here, he could help. He learned radio repair when he first worked for Bell Telephone. [Before my dad climbed his first pole for Bell Telephone, the company had already instatlled 30,000,000 phones in the United States. But Bell was about more than phones, they were about all forms of electronic communications.] Dad fixed people's radios in his spare time.The ones he couldn't fix he salvaged for parts and tubes. He had a boxes of tubes that looked like miniature modern buildings inside glass domes.

When these old radios were on, you could look through the holes in the back and the rows of tubes lit up like a tiny city at night."

Natalie's brow pressed down with the weight of a slowly forming thought:

"How do the tubes bring music out of the air?"

"I have no idea, Honey. No idea. In this room right now are all the radio waves of all the radio stations you know. They are here all around us all the time with or without a radio to receive them. Someplace far away, radio stations are sending out the signals--radio waves-- from tall antennas. It's been happening non-stop since radios became popular in the Thirties.

"Wait a minute, Dad. Do you mean waves like waves in the water?"

"Sort of, but less like the waves at the beach and more like the ripples in a pond when you throw a rock in the middle. The sending antenna at the radio station is like that rock and the waves go out from it. The "frequency" of the wave refers to how frequently the wavelengths go up and down. The low number radio stations send out waves that go up and down--in the air--less frequently than the high numbered radio stations."

"Is it sort of the same way the low notes on my guitar vibrate slower than the notes on high, tight strings?"

"Yes. Those are sound waves, but it is like that." I nodded, putting the last screw in the back of the radio.

"But if that's true, it seems like the high-numbered radio stations would sound like the Chipmunks."

"I see what you mean. If Grandpa were here, he could explain it better and tell us how those waves go through these tubes and come out this speaker. I don't know how it works. I just listen."

"It sure looks nice, Dad. Are you going to plug it in?"

I held the plug a half-inch from the socket.

"What do you think will happen?" she asked, stepping back.

"Probably nothing," I thought, then said,"Wouldn't it be cool if it started playing old songs and broadcasts from when it was new? Like they've been trapped inside the tubes all these years?"

My twelve-year-old looked at me as if to say, "That couldn't happen, Dad," but in my head I began to hear the Andrews Sisters. I imagined turning the knob and hearing Glen Miller's Moonlight Serenade or In the Mood or, perhaps, President Roosevelt's D-Day Prayer. .....[Take a moment to listen to the links for a hint of what I paused to imagine.]

"Go ahead, Dad. Plug it in."

Her voice brought me back to reality. I pressed the plug into the wall, closed my eyes and stepped back, knowing we'd more likely hear a big bang than a big band, but we heard nothing at all. I opened one eye and carefully looked through the holes in the back cover to see only the faint glow of a few tubes, too weak to resuscitate the dark ones around them. I turned the knobs. Still nothing, nothing but the smell of burning dust. I pulled the plug from the wall.

"If Grandpa were here, I'll bet he could get it to work," Natalie sighed.

"I'll bet he could, Nat. I'll bet he could."

_ . _ . _ . _ . _ . _ . _ ._

Forgive me for interrupting the flow of this unfolding story about the Duncan Phyfe with this odd account from 56 years later. I insert it here to reflect a touch of real time that relates indirectly to this tale.

In this type of writing, the present and the past must work together like sun and shadow for contrast as we focus on the things that do not change with time. Gathering thoughts for this story has evoked an interesting mix of memories and emotions, sun and shadow, past and present, all woven together and worn like an old flannel shirt. I'm not sure what it looks like to others, but it has become more comfortable with time.

As mentioned in the previous post, the next chapter picks up with Mom sitting in the '39 Ford, listening to the radio, waiting for Dad to swim back from Canada through the waves of the St. Clair River. The radio in that car was one of the first Dad fixed after taking those classes at Bell.


Blogger Nancy said...

I loved listening to the Andrew Sisters- my daughter and her dance group did a tap dance routine to that song and they went to nationals earning them a firt place. I can picture her now dressed in the red and white sailor costume- what great memories!

I also appreciate the mini lesson on radio waves. I just can't grasp the concept of so many complicated waves out there floating around- microwave, infared waves, radio waves, etc...

Michigan is great. You have beautiful weather- just for me! I am loving the time with my nieces, sister and BIL. Soccer games, football games, swim team, etc.. this is a blessing indeed!

20/10/07 7:58 PM  
Blogger patterns of ink said...

I forgot this was the weekend of your visit to Michigan. The weather is great. We got out big storms out of the way before your arrival.
I love the Big Band era.

Sometimes it takes a simple question from a kid to remind the adult that things we take for granted are actually pretty amazing. Radio is pretty "low tech" by today's standards, but the magic of those tubes still stumps me.
I need to get back to the main plot before I lose you guys. I've been a little bogged down this week. Thanks for the encouragement.

20/10/07 10:15 PM  

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