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For the first decade of my life, even as I explored every corner of my parents’ small apartment in the Bronx, I paid no attention to the dark wood double-door wardrobe that stood awfully closed in a corner of the living room.
Instead, the center of attention in the room was the television which sat in the opposite corner. It was a General Electric model, with maybe a 12-inch screen. My brother and I watched our Saturday morning cartoons from the floor in front, while our mother periodically warned us to step away from the screen so as not to hurt our eyes. (For the record, I’ve never heard of an actual case of visual damage resulting from too close a view of Alvin and the Chipmunks.) In the evening, our father came home tired from a day’s work. After he finished his supper, he commandeered the sofa, the television and the rest of the living room.
One day in the late 1960s, when I was about 10 years old, I finally opened these mysterious double doors and discovered a set of knobs and dials. It was a radio—a vintage 1940s Philco “highboy,” as they called those cabinet-mounted receivers that stood on four spindly legs. Of course, I had to turn the knobs. At first, nothing happened except a slight hum. Then the vacuum tubes warmed up, just like those in our TV, and soon the room was filled with the familiar voices and music of New York’s AM radio stations, but with a richer sound than what I used to hear. Even a child could tell the difference.
I never saw my parents use the living room radio. My mother preferred a simpler transistor model that she kept in the kitchen. The large wardrobe came to their home shortly after they were married in 1946. They had it in their first apartment in a walk-up building in the South Bronx. He traveled with them to Washington Heights in upper Manhattan, where I was born, and he came back with us to the Bronx in 1960.
I had a friendly but not close relationship with this radio for a few years. Some afternoons I would listen to Yankees on my way home from school. At that time, many weekday baseball games were played in daylight, which rarely happens now. But when we moved across the Bronx to a new apartment in 1969, my parents gave the Philco to another family in our old building. It would have been expensive to take it with us, and for them it was useless.
I was not disturbed by this development, because I had my own radio. Two, in fact. One was a small eight-transistor battery job, the kind every schoolboy in the 1960s had. My childhood version of music streaming was turning on that radio and waiting for a station to play The Beatles.
But my most prized possession was a two-speaker GE tabletop radio that my parents bought me in 1968 as a reward for an exceptionally good report card. This little radio, with its tubeless (“solid-state” as the marketers called it) design and faux-wooden plastic casing, was the closest thing to a stereo until buy one for myself after college. He came with me to our Catskills cabin in the summer. At night, I listened to the Yankees when they were playing, and the distant Baltimore Orioles when they weren’t playing. Unbeknownst to me, while I was playing during the day, my mother used my radio to get her recommended daily allowance from Tom Jones and Engelbert Humperdinck.
Once puberty arrived, I became a nocturnal creature, like many teenagers. School seemed like a good place to catch up on my sleep. At night, I got out of bed in the early morning, turned on my radio, and listened to the news, sports, and weather from the farthest places they could reach. The free-to-air stations came from cities like Toronto and Minneapolis, and unlikely places like Louisville, Ky., and Fort Wayne, Ind. I could get French stations from Quebec and New Brunswick, and Spanish stations that might have been from the Caribbean but more likely from Mexico, where illegal high-powered broadcasting was in vogue in the early 70s. I can’t say it with certainty, because I understood neither French nor Spanish. This is what happens when you sleep during your high school language class.
The table radio disappeared while I was in college. A relative needed it and my mom, thinking I no longer needed my GE, gave it to her. I don’t think I made too much of a fuss about it, but I suspect my parents felt bad. Shortly after graduation, they presented me with a huge black portable Panasonic that had AM, FM, and five shortwave bands. A few years later, I heard reassuring reports from Radio Moscow of a serious but well-contained nuclear accident at a place called Chernobyl. I still sometimes use this radio to listen to a baseball game while having dinner.
But I don’t use shortwave anymore, and I don’t have to wait for clear signals late at night if I want to tune in to a distant station. I can get almost any remote show just by going to the internet. Even KIYU, operated by the Big River Public Broadcasting Corp. in Galena, Alaska is within reach of my iPhone, iPad and computer. These devices became the supercharged radios of today.
Of course, these fine antique sets are treasured by collectors who appreciate the history, engineering, and in some cases, the design elements and craftsmanship that go into them. Any good antique market in New England has a collection of old electronics, some in good condition and others showing their decades of age.
I found a brother of my old GE table radio when I sat down to write this article. I showed the picture to my wife and told her the story of my fifth grade award. For about $15 I could have it again. She asked me if I wanted it.
I felt torn. “I don’t know,” I said, “but I think I can decide after I write this post.”
And so I have. I’m not going to buy this table radio. I don’t want to give my mom a reason to feel bad for giving mine. But more than that, I just don’t feel the need to relive my past. These old radios are part of a distant world in which I grew up. They are not part of the world I live in today. I can appreciate what they gave me as a boy, even though I now listen to distant radio stations on the latest smartphone.
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