As I was growing up it seemed as if music was always around me in one way or another, so it’s not remarkable that I formed an appreciation for it. Even when I was young, I would endlessly spin the old records we had stacked up around the house and I also listened to all kinds of music on the radio.
But in addition to the music itself, I was also interested in the technical side of the electrical gizmos that produced it – especially radios, and later TVs – and would often disassemble them to try to learn how they functioned. I don’t know if that was necessarily a good idea, but I do know that I quickly learned that those old units could hold a charge even if unplugged. I lost count of the times that I got zapped when I wasn’t expecting it, and if my mother had known about my close calls she’d have been…well, shocked. (Sorry.)
Once when I was staying with my grandparents at their rural home, they took me along with them to a country auction, and as I wandered around looking at the items being readied for bidding I spotted an old console radio. This was about the time that more and more people were getting rid of those old dinosaurs and buying new smaller table models, and a lot of folks were even buying those new-fangled picture boxes called televisions. However, to me it was an opportunity to have my very own radio — to listen to music with or to take apart and explore to my heart’s content.
Since it was old and worn I thought maybe I had a chance in the auction, and I was flush with earnings from my paper route and eager to buy. Excitedly I waited for the radio to come under the auctioneer’s hammer, and luckily my Granddad was there to help me with the auction process, although he grumbled at my “foolishness” — especially when the auctioneer admitted that he wasn’t sure the radio even worked. I think I paid something like $2 for it and was as happy as a possum in a pumpkin patch.
I’d like to be able to report that the radio worked just fine for me or that I’d been able to fix it, but the truth is that I could never get that thing working. Still, it might have been worth the $2 just for all the enjoyment I had in tinkering with it, and that experience might have helped me a few years later when I had a little more success with another project, my very own personal TV.
By my mid-teens, I had continued to diddle with radios and the like, and had even saved my money and bought myself a decent (and new!) Hallicrafters short-wave receiver. I used to listen to it late in the evening when I was in bed, and it was quite an experience for an insulated American kid in the 1950s. I could find music from other countries all over the dial, and I remember also that Radio Moscow broadcast in English, with occasional newscasts of debatable value, but programming that exposed me for the first time to classical music.
Good stuff but after a while I decided that I wanted something more – my own TV – and I began haunting second-hand shops until I finally found one I could afford, priced low because it wasn’t in working condition. It was a medium-sized table model, and when the guy at the store plugged it in and turned it on, it had sound but no picture. After I got it home, I took off the back and turned it on again, trying to see if all the vacuum tubes were lit up, which was the first thing you did with those sets. Then if you could see a dark one, you’d pull it, then take it down and try it in the tube tester in the hardware store or the variety store.
A lot of stores had those units, which I suppose were some kind of franchise operation. You could test your tube for free and if it was bad, then of course they’d sell you a replacement. Unfortunately, sometimes you couldn’t find a dark tube in your set so you’d have to pull them all out and take them in for testing. (Luckily, most sets had a little diagram on the back panel to help you when it came time to put them back.) My memory is a little fuzzy, but I think I just needed one tube replaced and bingo, I had a working TV. It had a small screen with a faded picture in shades of gray, but to me it was great and I fell asleep in front of it a lot of nights. (By the way, I don’t recall my parents ever restricting my viewing, as long as I kept the volume low.)
I soon developed some favorite shows and one of those remains pretty vivid in my memory, probably because of the fantasies it created in my teenage mind. It was a show called Adventures In Paradise, based loosely (very) on Michenor’s book, and starring a guy named Gardner McKay, who probably could have had a big career as a leading man but pretty much turned all that down, eventually becoming a very successful playwright and novelist.
The show was about a good-looking young guy who had his own schooner based in Tahiti, and sailed around the Pacific carrying a little cargo and some passengers (often attractive women) from port to port. Was there ever a TV show more made to order for a teenager who was still trying to figure out what he was going to do with his life? I’d watch enthralled every week as it allowed me to forget – at least for an hour – the daily pressures that high-schoolers have always faced, even in those days. Instead, I could lose myself in paradise, as Jerry Byrd’s theme song immersed me in the feel of the South Pacific, complete with squawking seagulls and the splash of waves. I could almost smell the ocean…that is, you know, if I’d had any idea what an ocean smelled like.