Monday, March 10, 2014

The Radio

The early evening summer breeze wafted tobacco smoke towards me and I could see it tousling his wispy white hair as he rocked back and forth on the old porch. His hair wasn't actually white but had a tinge of yellowish-brownish-red still left in it. While I actually never knew my grandfather when his hair was bright red, the color became his nickname around town, and the little tint still left allowed me to picture he had looked as a younger man. I smiled thinking about how much I looked like him. The wind had taken a turn and carried the sound of his radio down the sidewalk "Jackson takes third, bases are loaded. Garcia is up". By that time I had reached the steps "Why are you listening to the radio when the TV is right.." "Shhhhshh" my grandfather held out one hand towards me to silence me and the other holding a light cigarette towards the speaker as he leaned in as if somehow holding that position would ensure he took it in like being at Fenway Park. "Garcia swings and a miss. It's a 2-2 count right now." "Damnit" he said matter of factly. I advanced a step causing him to pump his hands in the air as if doing a push up and i knew he meant "don't fucking move."

"Garcia cracks a 98 mph fast ball down the right line. Valentins got some distance on this one, it might make it over the fence...Gentry is racing for it, it looks like it's gone, no wait Chad Gentry snagged it just before it passed over. Oh my god what a catch. The Redsox are knocked out of the playoffs." He muttered something about lousy team management as he reached for the classical music station preset. Another thing I didn't understand - why the classical music? I could dig some of it but the opera was like lacerating my ear drums and pouring gasoline on the cuts.  "Come help me pick a salad" he said putting out his cigarette. I didn't reply because we both knew I wouldn't say no. I just waited for Gramps to grab his radio and stroll off to the garden. Every year there was a garden with the same things in it: eggplant, zucchini, tomatoes, green peppers and several kinds of lettuce. I guess old people like bitter things because my grandfather was a huge fan of Endive and would sometimes pick dandelion leaves to throw in the salad because the Endive just didn't cut it. We didn't talk for a few minutes other than him handing a head of lettuce he had cut out of the ground to me saying "wash this one". 

Right next to the garden was his compost pile that he would manually turn a few times a year. To help with the decomposing process he had run a water line underground several hundred feet to establish a spiggot for wetting down the compost. I don't know if it was part of the initial plan but at some point a sink was connected to the aqueduct (it being a sensible place to clean fresh vegetables in due to it's geographic location). "I can take it with me" Red called across the garden as he was picking some tomatoes. "What are you talkin about?" I shot back my diction not very crisp. "You need to enunciate when you speak especially when it's over long distances to your grandfather." He said this emphasizing the wh and t sounds in particular. "When I was younger I took an elocution class? Do you know what elocution is?" I shook my head no. "Get the dictionary and look it up." "Ok" I said and kept washing the lettuce the water overflowing from the sink into the compost. "I mean now. That lettuce can wait and don't look it up with your damn iphone sirachi thing or whatever the hell it is." I raised an eyebrow as I turned off the water and dried my hands on my T-shirt but he didn't notice. A few minutes later when I returned he asked without looking up "what did it say?" "the skill of clear and expressive speech, esp. of distinct pronunciation and articulation." I replied. "That's correct." He had stopped picking and looked over towards me. "I took an elocution class as a young man. The teacher told us that we might spit and be embarassed when we were encuiating during our speeches but that our points would be more powerful if we spoke the words clearly and with confidence." "Ok" I said after a long pause. I knew he was expecting a further question but I remained silent. "I can take it with me, the radio that is" he said completely changing tracks while placing down several bright red roma tomatoes." "Yeah but isn't if better to watch stuff happen than imagine it?" I asked winding up the salad spinner. "Sometimes i enjoy it but I prefer to not have all my mind sucked in if I can help it. I love to feel the breeze, and be able to watch the birds eat when I'm just listening. It's relaxing. TV is stressful. It zones you in and then shuts you down. We called it the boob tube because it turns you into a giant boob when you watch it." His use of the word boob cracked a grin on my face. Gramps would curse sometimes with a hell or damn (only once did I hear a bullshit) but he was never the kind of person to drop the f-word. Even though I used the f-bomb in my everyday language, I appreciated the fact that my grandfather didn't. It wasn't in a self-righteous or judgemental manner but was simply indicative of a different era.

I had been gone for several years in LA when my Mom called and said that Gramps had died. It was the first time in my life where I cried because someone had passed away and my mind went back to that day 8 years before. After the radio talk he had encouraged me in his offhanded way by saying that it made him smile to see me strike out on my own giving my mother grief in the process. I'm sure he didn't know how much that meant to me but I was reminded that I started to live my dream partially because of his small encouragement. Dreams take money and didn't have any extra which meant I couldn't purchase a last minute airline ticket for the funeral. The next few days I barely left the house except when I had to go pick up a couple job applications but my efforts to fill them out were perfunctory and they ended up in a pile on the end table. Thursday morning I was playing that conversation in the garden over again in my mind when it came to me how I could honor old Red. I jumped on my computer taking care of some details and emailed my mother with very specific instructions. 

My sister told me that when Mom brought out the radio and set it on the coffin, it turned some heads. "I'm sorry I couldn't make it to send Grandpa off with you guys but I think I found something almost more appropriate." I had emailed my mother this filed recorded on my computer and purchased a low powered radio transmitter to connect to her computer online. "We all know that Gramps loved the radio. He could have gotten a new radio when the KLH broke but wanted to have it repaired instead. Every room in the house had a radio pumping out different levels of a concerto or opera from WGBH. One time I asked him once why he would listen to the baseball games on the radio instead of watching it on TV. He gave me a few reasons but I think the real reason is that radio and Gramps were a lot the same. Radio announcers have to enunciate and speak clearly to be understood unlike TV where they subtitle all these mumblers. We've all nearly been baptized with his spit while getting an overly enunciated speech on the subject right?" I'm told a chuckle ran through the crowd." 

"It wasn't just the speaking clearly that was similar but also a cultural / epochal difference. Even radio has changed recently but it used to connotate a more wholesome world view without the profanity and lewdness on many TV shows now. Grandpa wasn't ever rude or crass but he said what was on his mind only occasionally punctuated with a hell or damn. He used his mind constantly which is why I think he liked the radio the most. When you watch TV you don't think very much because several senses are being involved. Listening to the radio is different - it keeps your mind active and processing. I think he understood that and didn't want to be shut down. I could have done this over a video with the technology we have today but wanted to just send the audio because it seemed appropriate. See, I think that's something that Red understood - being present with ourselves and others is the most important thing. Since you haven't had to focus on a video I bet you've been looking around as I talk sharing smiles and maybe some tears. I remember listening to the radio with Gramps when we were fishing, picking vegetables, or riding in the truck and sometimes we talked over it and other times he would just look at you out of the blue breaking the silence by making a funny face and making me laugh. He wanted a full life and he got it, his life propagating into outer space like one of the rockets he would read about in his Scientific American magazines.  I'm talking to you on Gramp's favorite radio station 99.5 right now and I would sing an opera for you but I don't know one. Bye Gramps" my voice cracking which was a perfect time to sign off so I played the morse code for "Gramps SK. "--. .-. .- -- .--. ... ...-.- ...-.-" It's how ham radio operators used to sign off in morse code standing for silent key. The radio went silent for a second till my mother turned off the small transmitter WGBH suddenly filling the room with a beautiful, mournful opera. The entire room sat silently listening till the song completed, tears streaming down faces. Everyone knew his silent spirit was taking one last listen to his KLH before he started his own broadcast somewhere else.

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