Monthly Archives: April 2014

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The Radio Kit: Part 2

My newly built radio did not have speakers, but had instead a hand-held ear piece, not unlike the receiver of very early telephones. I would lay in bed late at night with that ear piece pressed to my ear, listening to whoever was talking on the radio.  I have no idea what band I was listening to.  I’m pretty sure it wasn’t AM because I wasn’t receiving the same programming as could be heard on the giant Philco set downstairs.  One of the programs I came across was dedicated to ham radio. Apparently some guy in a studio received transmissions from ham radio operators and the conversation was rebroadcast to me, and to whomever else was listening on that band.

In retrospect this was very much like today’s talk radio, but the topics had to do with ham radio, and the many technical issues involved.  After that I wanted nothing so much as to be a ham radio operator and talk to the world.  I would buy magazines dedicated to the activity. I would read the articles and the advertising, and dream of this or that piece of equipment in the way that a few years later, I would dream of hot rods and Corvettes and Ferraris.

When I entered high school, I took classes in electricity, and soon electronics.  Our next-door neighbor repaired televisions, part-time in his basement and, as luck would have it, he was pals with the high school Electricity/Electronics teacher, Mr. McCarville.  So I had an in. Because of the connection with my neighbor, and because I was so passionate about the subject, I received opportunities and extra tutelage to which I otherwise would not have been entitled.

This was all for naught, however, when sometime in my junior year, I lost interest in electronics, almost literally overnight. All of what I knew beyond the basics, I have forgotten.  This experience led me to the first of several, of what I believe to be, universal truths.  Nothing lasts forever.

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The Radio Kit: Part 1

EARLY IN MY Jr. High years, I purchased, or more likely my mother purchased for me, a build-it-yourself kit marketed by the Cub Scouts. This crystal radio set was a simple device for a young lad to build. It was fairly easy; the components were all mounted to the back of a plastic panel and the most difficult part was winding copper wire around a wooden core, thus creating a tuning coil.  It required an antenna, and fortunately my bedroom window looked out upon the roof of our rear porch.  So, under my father’s supervision, I went out onto the porch roof to attach wooden braces to the house, and to string the antenna cable between them.  An antenna lead was then routed through the window and connected to my radio. I was in business.

Not only did I successfully complete the project, I understood it.  The miracle of the radio receiver was not in its construction, but in how, and why, it worked.  I don’t recall, but within the instructions I think there must have been some explanation as to the function of each of the components.  I was fascinated by that function – The flow of electrons, the synchronicity, and the concept that the completed, working device was much greater than the sum of the parts.  I remember explaining, perhaps at the family Christmas gathering, to a probably very bored Uncle Ray, precisely how a radio worked, and what each of the components did, and why they did it, and the absolute wonder of it all!

     To Be Continued in Part 2

Elmer’s Dog House

Another special time in my early adolescence, for no discernible reason whatsoever, was the late winter and early spring of 1961. With a whole semester at East High behind me, I had new friends, and by now knew my way around, but aside from that, it all just seemed special; and seeming so at the time, it remains so, in my memory, today.

And what I remember most is the music. Like all of my friends, I listened to WLS radio where disc jockey Dick Biondi, and others, played what came to be some of my favorite songs, one after another. Hearing such songs as “A Wonderland by Night” by Bert Kampfert and the Orchestra, “Corrina, Corrina” by Ray Peterson, “Apache” by Jordan Ingman, and “The Theme From Exodus” by the twin pianos of Ferrante and Teicher, and many others, will pull me powerfully back to that time.

I envision ice-skating at Phillips Park, hanging out at the lunch counter at Kressge’s — a downtown dime store; which would slowly disappear, only to reemerge a decade later as the altogether different Kmart. And oddly, a strong, clear memory of riding with my mother on Friday evenings to pick up the family’s takeout fish dinners from “Elmer’s Dog House” on Farnsworth Avenue, and of hearing — on the car’s radio – songs which I will always remember, including “Blue Moon” by The Marcells, and my Absolute, All Time, Number One favorite song “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” by the Shirelles.

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The Carpenter’s Ghost

When my father was a boy, that is to say around 1920, it was not uncommon for a skilled carpenter, if he had the resources, to purchase a plot of land and build a house. He would then sell the house and use part of the proceeds to build another, and so on. When my father was young he lived, for a time, in such a house. Years later, if our evening drive returned us to Aurora from the north and east, we would sometimes pass that house on Farnsworth Avenue, just north of New York St. And as we went by he would usually point, or acknowledge the house in some way. The first time this happened he told my mother and me — and David, although that his age then I’m sure he couldn’t have cared less — the story of the carpenter’s ghost.

My paternal grandmother was a widow with many children, of whom my father was the youngest. With no skills other than to work as a “domestic” — read servant girl — she was occasionally unsuccessful in keeping her family together. My father lived occasionally with an aunt, and once, briefly, in an orphanage. But my grandmother was strong-willed, and whenever possible, she would gather her brood — the younger ones at least — and live as a family.

On one such occasion a job brought her to Aurora where she found an inexpensive house to which to bring her children. Aside from being an entire house for her and her many children to live in, it had the additional benefit of being inexpensive. The reason for this was that a portion of the second floor was unfinished; the carpenter having died before completion. To my grandmother this inconvenience was no match for the ability to live with her family in their own home, and I’m sure the kids didn’t mind at all.

So they settled in and happily made do with what they had. Soon after, however, things started to “go bump in the night”. Actually, sometime after midnight on many occasions the sounds of hammering and sawing and the general clatter of carpentry could be heard coming from the unfinished, sealed off rooms on the upper floor. The consensus was of course that the carpenter was returning to complete the construction of his house. This was too much for my grandmother. She soon found another place for her and the family to live; perhaps not as good, but with no uninvited workmen.

But they remained in Aurora, where some years later my father met my mother, and not too long after that, as soon as that pesky war was taken care of, my saga began. It’s easy to think that my father was teasing his young family with a spooky story. But in all the years of his life he never wavered, and always, without drama, acknowledged the house whenever we passed. Having heard him tell the story, I remain convinced that his experience was real.

In the Navy – Introduction

In the beginning of 1965 The British (music) Invasion was in full swing, and Jerry and the Pacemaker’s second, and last, hit song “Ferry Across the Mersey”, will always remind me of those first couple of months of that year, before I reported to Class A Engineman School, at Great Lakes Naval Training Center; there to begin my active duty service in the U.S. Navy.

The poignancy of Jerry Marsden’s ballad was enough, in itself, to make it a favorite, but the notion that one could love their hometown, as Marsden so obviously did, made me long to live in such a place. I didn’t know much about Liverpool at the time.

Oddly, the other recollection which will always take me back to that time was going with friends to the Tivoli Theater to see Elvis, starring with Ann-Margaret in what I think of as his best film, “Viva Las Vegas”. Another look at a world I had never seen.

But that was about to change. Having spent a life mostly cloistered in Aurora, I was about to begin what I can only recall as being an adventure; a learning, and growing experience which would take me from Aurora, literally, half way around the world – and back again.

Swimming in Gym Class

Aside from a new homeroom, meeting the girl of my adolescent dreams, and my eye-catching apparel, the only other thing I remember about my first day at East High was Physical Education, or “Gym” class. Our gym teacher for that semester was the likable Joe Maze, one of the school’s old-timers, and assistant football coach; famous for his lisping encouragement to “Huthel Boys, Huthel”.

As I stood among the rather odd collection of boys comprising Mr. Maze’s first semester freshman gym class, not only was role called, but the curious question, “why are you here?” was asked. As we progressed, each boy cited some malady, from clubfoot, to poor eyesight, to obesity — a rarity in those days. When my name was called I was embarrassed to confess that I did not know why I was there. Mr. Maze paused and wrote a note beside my name — which of course singled me out amongst this group of strangers — and then moved on.

A brief after class investigation revealed that I was in the class by mistake, but schedules being set I might as well remain in “Special Class” until the end of the semester. There was an upside to this confusion, however. Each gym class rotated every three weeks through various activities — basketball, gymnastics, archery, baseball (in season) and others, including swimming in the school’s rather nice pool, adjacent the gymnasium. Whether planned or the luck of the draw, I don’t know, but Special Class was first in the pool. So, for my first three weeks at Aurora East High School, I went swimming every day.

Ice Skating – Part 3 – Gang Tag and Girls

As I previously mentioned, my favorite winter activity, through Junior High, Senior High, and that last winter before I left for the Navy, was ice-skating. And it was also on the Phillips Park Lagoon that my social circle widened considerably.

Although Phillips Park lay on the far eastern edge of town, the Lagoon was, sort of automatically, neutral territory in the intra-city rivalry which I believe still exists between those on the east and west sides of the Fox River.

The annual football game between the East and West High Schools, the capstone of every season, is the oldest high school football rivalry in the country, and until sometime after World War II was played on Hurd’s Island, a “no man’s land” in the middle of the river. Even now, meeting someone who turns out to be from Aurora always sparks the inevitable question, “Which Side?”

But on the Lagoon, it didn’t seem to matter. Girls, from anywhere, were accepted automatically, and boys were judged, at least initially, on their ability to skate, and did they play “Gang Tag”?

This was important, for aside from paying attention to, and attracting the attention of, the girls, our principal on-ice activity was a game called Gang Tag. Flirting with the girls was generally better done in the comfort of the hothouse and skating serenely across the ice with them didn’t generate enough activity to ward off the cold — unless there weren’t enough guys to start a game. Then of course, we would skate with the girls – and always manage somehow to stay warm enough.