Wednesday, October 23, 2013

From Screen Saver: The Cat’s Cradle

Then there were the Huskies.

Some Saturdays the football Huskies played at home in Seattle. Sometimes they played elsewhere. On those elsewhere Saturdays there was no local radio broadcast of the game.

My father was afflicted by a malady that I had thought, from the vantage of a four or five year old, must have been unique to him. Like him it was a weird mix. It resembled insanity mixed with patriotism mixed with irredentism mixed with fantasy and unreal expectations. It was the Husky Football Fan malady. It often involved manic outbursts of deep despair followed by reciprocal outbursts of joy. It required some form of contact with every game.

In those days radios had recently metamorphosed from being large floor standing furniture-like boxes of gleaming hardwood with glowing dials and huge knobs into more svelte packages. My father had one of the new and small - about the size of a toaster - Bakelite encased portables. Portable meant it could be moved without a hand truck, not that it had batteries. It was, as they all were then, AM only and it only brought in local stations. On cold clear nights, with some kind of wire bolted to its back panel, acting as an antenna it was sometimes possible to hear distant stations.

The Huskies played half of their games away from Seattle. Since remote broadcasts had not yet been thought of those away games were not available on local radio. There always was some station in the physical venue – Los Angeles, Corvallis, Eugene, Berkley or Pullman - that broadcast those games, but only local listeners could receive those broadcasts.

“What if”, thought my father, “even though the games don’t occur on cold clear nights, I were to vastly increase the scope and quality of the antenna?” The typical antenna everyone used was a 10 or 12 inch long piece of the soft pot metal wire that bound the bundles of newspapers distributed to the neighborhood paper boys. You could usually find the wire in the street where the paperboys left it after cutting loose their bundles for delivery. But my father had a better idea. “What if”, thought my father, “I buy a couple hundred feet of copper wire? Wouldn’t that increase the antenna’s length and quality? We all know copper is much more conductive than pot metal, and 200 feet ought to be way better than a foot or so. Perhaps 200 feet of copper would improve the antenna’s quality to the level of a top-secret military antenna farm”. Or so he apparently thought because he soon had 200 feet of copper antenna wire. It turned out that 200 feet of good high conductivity copper wire made a significant improvement in the number of stations the AM portable could bring in. Armed with the knowledge of what the frequency of the out of town station was and some patience and finesse, my father could usually get reception of some kind.

Several things flowed from that ability to listen to distant stations with the very long antenna.

The first thing was that, on those occasions when the giant antenna couldn’t seem to bring in the desired station a cloud of gloom and moroseness descended upon the household that was almost a tangible resident of the place. It could have been called “personage one”. Those of us who were not afflicted with the Husky syndrome found it necessary to live with, and accommodate ourselves to this additional personality, this the-world-is-dark-because-I-can’t-hear-the-Husky-game personality. It was physically invisible but it was among us in a very tangible form.

The second thing was “personage two”. It was the result of those days that a station could be brought in, but faded, be brought in again, but faded again. This situation brought out the brother or first cousin of “personage one”. It had all the gloom of its close relative but, while it was every bit as non-tangible, it could apparently talk, although only my father seemed to hear it. Its ongoing lead off line must have been, “just one more tweak of the dial and all will be well”. If that proved untrue, “personage two” apparently suggested that perhaps some intentional act physical sabotage by a family member was contributing to the periodic loss of signal. Examples of such acts of sabotage were fanatically noted by my father. They seemed to be things such as moving from one place to another in the house. This personage seemed to tell my father to demand total immobility from family members on those occasions. When neither of those things seemed to fix the problem, the personage apparently suggested an even more heinous possibility as the source of the problem: someone, or some group, was thinking negatively and was really wanting to block my father from hearing the Huskies. I often felt that “personage two” was suggesting human sacrifice as a solution to the reception problem.

The third thing was a real estate issue. Two hundred feet was a lot of wire. Whereas one could just dangle a twelve-inch piece of newspaper wire, 200 feet of copper presented serious physical considerations. From a house on a lot with perhaps 30 feet of backyard to the property line any extrusion of antenna outside the house would involve 6 plus out and backs. This was deemed by my father to be untenable. So the deployment of the copper occurred indoors with wire wound around chairs and lamps and tables from room to room. My father had created a gigantic cat’s cradle.

There was a particular Saturday.

It had started out rather well. It was a sunny day. My mother had told Annie and me to be good, and take good care of our father while she was away. She was frequently away on Husky Football Radio Saturdays. She usually took us with her, but on this Saturday she hadn’t. Things were going so well that Annie and I even helped with the deployment of the cat’s cradle. My father complimented us on our scientific prowess and capability of high level thought. I was four or five and Annie was 18 months younger, so we put a lot of stock in the good opinion of our father.

Due to the meandering tangle of wire strung throughout the house it was necessary to have your wits about you when you moved from place to place. From my later perspective the prudent thing to have done would have been to become comatose for the hours involved in bringing in and tweaking the broadcast. But I was four or five and Annie was 18 months younger.

My father had found the station and had commenced to listen. As luck would have it the signal was rock solid, no wavering in and out. There was an upbeat, positive, almost lighthearted feeling surrounding us. It was as if we had just been introduced for the first time to a “personage three”. And that might have been the case, and its presence might have made the day continue to be positive and lighthearted; but I was four or five and Annie was 18 months younger.

Of course we forgot. What did we forget? We forgot the cat’s cradle primarily. But we also forgot “personage one” and “personage two”.

Also, we were becoming enthralled by “personage three”.

And I was four or five and Annie was 18 months younger.

Annie decided to go into the kitchen. Being a little girl, barely beyond a baby, she had two speeds: “stop” and “full-speed”. (Of course we forgot. What did we forget? We forgot the cat’s cradle, primarily.) So she took off at full speed for the kitchen, quickly making contact with some elements of the cat’s cradle and causing a sort of launch of the radio from its perch on the end table next to the big chair across from the couch. It leaped into the air briefly, and then executed a fairly soft landing thanks to the rug.

The radio commenced a complaining squealing sound, rather than the Husky game.

My father appeared from somewhere and yelled at us. I said “I didn’t do it.” So he yelled some more at Annie while putting the apparatus back together. No physical damage had been done to the radio; it had merely fallen on the rug, and the strength of the tug exerted upon it by Annie’s encounter with the cat’s cradle had pulled the antenna from its retaining screw. So he was able to re-attach it, and much to both Annie’s and my relief was able to get the station back.

But for some reason, he also did something else. He was going to take a bath and wanted the radio to be close enough to the closed bathroom door that he could hear the game. So he moved the radio to the hall outside the bathroom door. The crucial detail to this redeployment was that the hall outside the bathroom was uncarpeted oak floor. He put the radio on a dining room chair next to the bathroom door, made some minor adjustments to the cat’s cradle and retired to the bathroom.

So Annie and I settled back into whatever routine we had been involved with prior to the near disaster. But Annie suddenly decided to go to our bedroom, which was next to the bathroom. Again she forgot about the cat’s cradle, and again she made sudden and intense contact with it. Unfortunately the results this time were substantially worse. The radio hit the hardwood floor with something between a crash and a bang. The bang may have had electronic origin. It was obvious even to us two young children that the egg had been broken. The probably durable, but certainly not indestructible Bakelite casing had yielded to superior force. It was obviously broken in several places, although the basic shape and dimensions of its fairly recent existence were still discernible. The antenna may or may not have been still attached, the desperation of the moment precluded noticing that level of detail, but the radio signal was far from Husky land. It was emitting an even more hopeless sounding electronic cacophony than had been present with its recent first trip to the floor.

“Personage three” had fled permanently.

There was a delay before my father appeared. Those few moments seemed an eternity. I Again I said, “I didn’t do it”. It would have been useless for me to have tried to take the blame in either of these cases since Annie was not quick enough either time to untangle herself before our wrathful father appeared on the scene, but I just wanted to be sure that the blame was assessed accurately.

So Annie was sent to her room for the afternoon. Since that was where she was heading when disaster struck for the second time she seemed happy with the assignment. But the disgrace was overwhelming even to someone that young.

My father fiddled with the now somewhat amorphous shape of what had not long before been a fairly geometrically regular three-dimensional plastic rectangular cube. He actually got the station back. He put the remains back on the chair and retired again to his bath.

So then I was alone. I couldn’t stop congratulating myself for my maturity, manifested by the fact that I had consistently remembered to be careful about navigating the cat’s cradle. That’s why boys are better than girls I thought to myself. I thought of the times already in her young life that Annie had gotten me in trouble with my mother for some claimed or actual transgression of her person. (My mother always told the story of the day when, hearing Annie in another room saying “stop it” and “don’t”, she had gone into the room intending to wreak havoc upon me only to find that Annie was alone in the room). While I loved my younger sister deeply and totally, I was not beyond classical sibling rivalry, made sharper by the boy/girl thing.

So, deep in contemplation, I jumped up and headed for somewhere, probably the kitchen. Wherever it was it was not in the direction of the bathroom, because as I came in fairly violent contact with and became snared by the web-like cat’s cradle, I heard the now familiar mix of physical and electronic catastrophe from somewhere to my distant left, which was where the bathroom was in relation to where I was headed.

Of course my whole life flashed before my eyes. And that was followed by an intense sense of profound disbelief that I could have been so stupid. That was only the first of nearly limitless times that I was to feel the same feeling.

My father seemed at least twice life size as he appeared this time. As he looked at the now truly mangled mass of electronic flesh lying midst a clutter of shards of vacuum tubes, and making strangled, noises not dissimilar from a wounded animal in its death throes, he did the only rational thing one would do on such an occasion. He picked up what was left intact of his recent radio and lifted it over his head with both hands and hurled in down onto the floor. If he had had one eye in the middle of his forehead we would have had a scene from the movie Ulysses.

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