By today’s standards of electronic innovation, the old radio would be an embarrassment; an eight track player sitting in a shiny new Lexus. There was no screen, no camera, no MP3 player; the device didn’t have remote speakers or digital capability. You couldn’t access Twitter, or even talk on the damn thing.
Made of cheap crimson colored plastic with gold painted Roman numerals to identify places on the dial, my first radio offered a crappy speaker that exploded into peak volume without warning, usually at a pre-dawn hour. Local AM radio stations were the only thing it could capture and relay back to my ears. There was no other type signal in the vast nothingness of the airwaves during the middle of the 20th Century.
I’m not sure how I acquired that old red radio. My father probably acquired a new one or got tired of slapping the top of the thing every time the volume dramatically changed for no reason. My first memory of the device was the fall of 1960, in Demopolis, Alabama, the small town where the Cox family spent one year waiting for our father to decide what it was he wanted to do the rest of his working life.
Late one sleepless October night, while trying to locate anything other than white noise, I stumbled onto something that still gives me goose bumps. While twisting the dial from end to end searching for substance, the static suddenly became alive with something I’d never heard before. A collective primal roar filled my ears. Two guys with distinctive accents began to discuss scores, first downs, Chinese Bandits, and gridirons. I was listening to LSU football — college football.
The following year we moved to Tuscaloosa and I had a front row seat to Paul Bryant’s first national championship, which cemented my passion for the sport and the team. But that first night, and successive Saturday nights listening to Paul Deitzel’s Tigers, was the catalyst for something monumental. My neck hairs still prickle thinking about those howling fans.
A few years later, as the Beatles, Stones, and other bands stimulated teenage tastes in this country; I would listen to the Top Five on weekday afternoons in my father’s car. My radio couldn’t capture Birmingham’s WVOK during daytime. But late at night, if the wind and humidity were just right, the strains of Chicago’s WLS would sneak through the speakers in tantalizing bits and pieces.
A teenage boy trying to grow long hair against his father’s wishes, and longing to be a rock’n’roll star to get girls, could discover music no station in Alabama played. Whiter Shade of Pale, Light My Fire, Shotgun; I still hear those songs and travel back to a younger and more magic time.
That ancient device helped shape me into what I am today. Sadly, it vanished as suddenly as it appeared, likely tossed aside for modern innovation — a transistor radio with an earpiece that would fit in my pocket. The technology might have been passed by but the things that red radio introduced to me linger still. I wish I still had the thing.
It deserved better.