“program Coming In Fine. Please Play ‘japanese Sandman.’ ”


The radio studio itself was very much like the inside of a burlap-lined casket. Burnt orange, a favorite decorator color in 1922, was chosen for the draped silk meringues that billowed from the ceiling to disguise light bulbs. The door was very heavy. A sign on the wall framed the single word, SILENCE. A tall vase of gladioli stood in the corner. And in the center of this still room stood the working part, a microphone whose unruffled, impersonal, inscrutable selfconfidence gave the whole place the feeling of an execution chamber. On one wall a glass window provided a clear view of the proceedings for the engineer who threw the switch and operated the rheostat that could go from “soft” to “loud.” It is worth reflecting on how fur radio has conic in these forty-three years. If you were to go into today’s radio studio, it would look like »burlap-lined casket with a single microphone, a SILENCE sign, and a disc jockey instead of a real orchestra. Alan, that s progress.

My father, who had been a symphony musician, held his standards high—at least as high as a twelve-piece orchestra composed of Westinghouse shopworkers allowed. With patience and encouragement he would lift them into the arms of Beethoven, Weber, Liszt, and Verdi. Among the appreciative letters a printed card from far away would regularly show up to spoil my father’s day. “ PROGRAM COMING IN FINE ,” it would report. “ PLEASE PLAY ‘JAPANESE SANDMAN .’”

Exactly eight months after its lowly birth on the Westinghouse rooftop, radio would broadcast the world’s heavy weight championship prize fight between Tack Dempscy and the Frenchman, Georges Carpentier, promoted by Tex Rickard at Boyle’s Thirty Acres in jersey City.

On that hot summer evening of July %, 1921, the Saudek family had moved the wicker furniture off the front porch onto the grass, where we might stir up a breexe by rocking and fanning. The wireless set, whose earphones could be passed around so that each listener by turns could relay the action, was deposited on the green wicker table.

Our neighborhood was populated with a good many fa thers in peacetime uniforms. Mr. Miller and Mr. Thomas were postmen. Mr. Farmer was a fireman, and Mr. Wagner was a chauffeur. Rut the most formidable uniform on the block was that of Officer Clancy of the city police force. No ordinary flatfoot, Clancy was a high-ranking officer whose name appeared in the papers with some regularity and who was generally referred to editorially as “Black-and-Tan” Clancy, an epithet that recalled those despised British soldiers who cudgelled the Irish rebels back in the Old Country. Anyway, Officer Clancy came down the street that evening in his shirt sleeves, an open collarhand witli the gold collar button in place, and his heavy blue uniform pants: his gait had the rolling dignity of a dreadnought.

My father invited the great man to share our experience and listen to the fight between Dempsey and (as we pronounced the challenger’s name) Georgex Sharponteer; but Black-and-Tan Clancy, sailing on past my family, and scarcely even favoring my fattier with a glance, snarled in his fresh brogue, “I don’t believe in wireless.”

Although I finally got around to proving my manhood by making my own crystal set, the slightly more powerful “vacuum tube set” was what our family first installed in the dining room; and on it, as I wheeled the vernier dial across the spectrum of stations, I once picked up the unmistakable wailing of the Morse code. Morse code on wireless was quite distinctive. Unlike the monotony of a clattering telegraph key, the airborne dots and dashes ran up and down the musical scale like a roller coaster. They changed quality, from thin, high dceteetects to middle-register bububups, and then they scooped as low as the sound of frogs in the twilight.

I did not know what to make of this frenzy of secret signals, except that it simultaneously alerted my imagination and my instinct for self-preservation. Within the preceding ten years sut h sounds had been associated wkh disaster— the Titanic, the Lusitania , and the Great War. Now I found myself, an eleven year old hoy, piercing the veil to share the mysteries of men of the sea. The urgent nature of the message and its source were corrolxiratcd by the sounds that accompanied it: the unmistakable hissing of wild waves, the roar of the mid-Atlantic scixed by a storm that had obviously crippled this ship whose cool wireless operator, lashed to his post, was filling up the night with his last SOS. that terrifying cry that means death on the night seas. I crisply reported what I had found to my gullible parents, then telephoned our class president, Kenny Westwood, who checked my findings on his own set. We fussed alwut, moving seriously between headphones and telephone, until my parents directed me to finish my homework and get to bed. The following morning the newspapers had completely missed the big story, whatever it was, which is still locked in my breast and that of Kenny Westwood wherever he may be.

Mr. Thompson, the grocer in our neighliorhood who sang bass solos at night, was not just a barbershop or bathtub performer. He was a serious student of the bass voice, singing such favorites as “Rocked in the Cradle of the Deep” and “The Road to Mandalay.” It was on people like Mr. Thompson that Station KDKA depended for its vocal recitals, and on whom my mother depended for a pound of round steak ground. My young brother managed to be the bridge to the daytime, or white aproned, Mr. Thompson because my brother had a poor appetite, as people around there pretty much knew.