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An Old Radio

November 5, 2014

Aside from the city dump, my grandfather’s basement was the next best thing to kid nirvana. It had a musty under-the-house smell, with a hint of yeasty fermentation from the oak barrels where Grandpa stored brandies made from fruit trees he tended behind his garage. There were old fishing poles and wicker baskets to hold fish, strange musical instruments with broken strings, moldy books in a language I couldn’t read, and brownish photographs of  people in stiff clothes and even stiffer poses. Grandpa even had a giant whiskey bottle that stood nearly as tall as me—filled with pennies. But the item that intrigued me most was an old radio.


Made from several types of decorative wood, it resembled a tiny cathedral, like the ones I saw on Christmas cards. I mentioned the radio to Dad while we drove home from visiting Grandma and Grandpa. Dad got a far-a-way look in his eyes and said, “Most people had a radio like that when I was your age. There were no TV’s back then.”


I tried to imagine a world without TV. “There must have been dinosaurs wandering around back when you were a kid.”


Dad laughed. “If there were, I didn’t see any. But we did have radios, like the one in your grandpa’s basement. We’d huddle around it and wait for the tubes to warm up and start glowing, and we’d listen to wonderful radio programs, funny ones like Fibber McGee and Molly and Jack Benny, and dramas like Dick Tracy, or Flash Gordon—a spaceman who fought Ming the Merciless on the far side of the galaxy. But my favorite show was The Shadow—that one scared me!”


“You? I didn’t think anything scared you.”


“Oh, I was scared alright.”


“Tell me more.”


“Well, some of the TV shows you watch, like Amos and Andy and The Lone Ranger, started out as radio programs. Unlike TV, you had to use your imagination. I’d close my eyes and imagine what I could only hear. Later, during the war, President Roosevelt would give speeches and tell us how the war was going.”


“Dad, do you think Grandpa would give me that radio? I mean, he must not want it anymore if it’s down in the basement. I’d really like to have it.”


“You can always ask.”


So I did, and Grandpa told me it was mine if I promised to take good care of it. I crossed my heart and hoped to die if I didn’t. But when we got it home, the radio didn’t work. Dad took it out to his workbench in the garage, opened the back and unscrewed a glass bulb that had turned black. We tried several electronic shops before finding a replacement bulb. Back home, Dad screwed the bulb in place, reattached the back panel and turned the dial.


At first, nothing, then the crackling sounds of static as the lights winked on. Dad rotated the shiny black dial and I held my breath. I couldn’t wait to hear the program about that evil Shadow, or the spaceman Flash Gordon, or hear President Roooosivilt talk about the war.


Dad finally managed to tune in a station. He looked at me with satisfaction.


My face fell. “Wait just a minute!” There was a radio on Dad’s workbench and I switched it on. The words blaring from Grandpa’s old radio were exactly the same as the words coming from Dad’s new radio.


I was frustrated. “I want to hear that cool old stuff you talked about. I thought I could hear it on an old radio, like you did when you were my age.”


Dad ran one of his large hands through my hair. “Sorry, son, it doesn’t work that way.”


He’d gone to a lot of trouble making that radio work and I didn’t want to make him feel bad, but I did a poor job of containing my disappointment.


Then, to my surprise, Dad switched off both radios and shut the garage door, plunging us into darkness. He thrilled me for nearly an hour, raising the hair on the back of my neck with a sinister voice that didn’t sound like him at all. He started at the beginning: “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows…”







I must be older than you. I can remember listening to ". . . the Shadow knows . . ."
By: Catalyst on November 5, 2014
loved the idea of hearing old stories on an old radio. :)
By: TexWisGirl on November 5, 2014
I remember some of those shows. Even though we had TV, there was something special about listening to Jack Benny, or the Lone Ranger on the radio in my bedroom. I guess they all ended in the late fifties. My car satellite radio has a channel where they play the old shows. I listen to it on long drives. The best part are the old commercials.
By: Cranky on November 5, 2014
Oh I sensed you were leading up to this. I remember feeling the same disappointment at not hearing old sounds from an old radio.
By: Hilary on November 5, 2014
Your dad was a great guy. Love, Janie
By: Janie Junebug on November 5, 2014
What great memories. I loved The Shadow also, my favorite. I spent a lot of time trying to cloud my brothers minds so they couldn't I didn't succeed but it wasn't from lack of effort. Thanks for the reminder.
By: Akansas Patti on November 5, 2014
I also remember radio program featuring Jack, Doc and Reggie. I don't remember the name.
By: maryellenbess on November 5, 2014
If only it could work that way! Then again, there are some things we might not want to hear again.
By: mimi on November 5, 2014
up until 2 years ago when I sold it, we had a furniture piece radio from the same era as the one you have pictured. All the tubes still worked in it and you could hear all the static and mess as it "fired up". I always expected to hear an oldie and goodie from it as well. What a great story.....the Shadow knows, is still one of my favorite sayings. The grands look like twin Cocker Spaniels tilting their heads to the side when I do......tee hee
By: Oma Linda on November 5, 2014
I had the same experience with my Grandpa. the cabinet was full size and stood on the floor. It brought in stations from far away. I had to buy special batteries and the novelty wore off. I don't know what happened to it.
By: red on November 5, 2014
I used to hear the Lone Ranger on a floor model radio in our home. It was magical-a small little dial panel that light up with which you could tune in programs that sparked the imagination. Later I remember listening to a table top radio in my bedroom, terrified by the Inner Sanctum and thrilled by Johnny Dollar.
By: Tom Cochrun on November 5, 2014
Your dad & I must be the same age!!
By: fishducky on November 5, 2014
I can only imagine what my eventual grandkids will think of my old walkman.
By: Al Penwasser on November 5, 2014
No secret decoder ring for you. Be sure to drink your Ovaltine.
By: Val on November 5, 2014
Your parents were awesome parents. I like the way they encouraged your imagination to stay busy.
By: Robyn Engel on November 5, 2014
My Mom has told me a lot about The Shadow, and I believe Orson Wellles is the voice for that old program. In many ways, it was a better time, although the medical advances we have today is far advanced than from that time. What a great story, Stephen, and I hope you still have that radio!
By: Michael Manning on November 6, 2014
I'm from a younger generation than your grandad, but your post rekindled wonderful memories of my old transistor radio, secretly listening to it under the bed covers, And yet further evidence to demonstrate what a throughly decent human being your father was,
By: Bryan Jones on November 6, 2014
Those old radio shows were great. But stories from our dads are even better!
By: tom sightings on November 6, 2014
Those were the days. I quite liked the shadow movie with Alec Baldwin, but don't tell anyone...........
By: John on November 6, 2014
You had a super cool dad!
By: Jerry E. Beuterbaugh on November 6, 2014
What a great disappointment to a little boy that the old radio didn't play old shows. Great that your father was such a sport about it. :)
By: Lexa Cain on November 6, 2014
I can't remember if I ever heard it on the radio, but I remember Cinnamon Bear during Christmas time, and hearing that story (we now have it on CD... How times have changed?) Cat
By: Cat on November 7, 2014
I recall listening to the old shows on the radio. They would typically run these shows late at night on the AM dial. I quite enjoyed listening to them.
By: Daniel LaFrance on November 7, 2014
oh my gosh! I LOVED listening to the radio- the Lone Ranger, George and Gracie Burns and the Shadow Knows for starters...loved them all! Thanks for the memories!
By: Kathe W. on November 9, 2014
What a magical story. It's great that we can now listen to all these old radio shows again. Funny, my mother just told me her first memory of radio when she was a girl.
By: Mitchell is Moving on November 24, 2014

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