Read Old Man Scanlon

Bankrupting the Russkies

02 June 2012

Just as it was becoming widely fashionable to despise America and flaunt one's tolerance of Commies, my friend Cav and I engaged in behind-the-scenes operations to help destroy the Soviet Union. Of course, we weren't crucial, nor instrumental, nor even witting, but I shamelessly claim that, like the butterfly in chaos theory, our tiny drain on the resources of the Soviet Union may have had far-reaching and dire consequences for the Kremlin.

In our early days of high school, in the mid-1960s, Cav and I used our Heathkit short wave radios to listen to Radio Moscow, and mailed them requests for confirmation of that fact. Such were the times we didn't know if it were even possible, let alone wise, to send mail to the Evil Empire, but we got the confirmations. From then on I periodically received broadcast schedule pamphlets in the mail that didn't stop until the KGB got wind that I'd attended a Young Americans for Freedom organizing meeting. Although it wouldn't surprise me to find my name on J. Edgar Hoover's private list of Radio Moscow correspondents, I'm confident that the added stress on the propaganda outlet's postage budget helped precipitate the USSR's financial ruin. Every little bit helps.

Our short wave listening happened long past radio's heyday when families sat around the console to hear Jack Benny and The Shadow. It was solitary, not without its charm, much like the Internet can be today. Nobody ranted about it destroying society as we know it and making us stupid; after all, it wasn't television, and many humans still had the capacity to moderate their propensity for totally ruinous behavior. From the vantage point of fifty years I can even discern some slight instructional value, though at the time we did it for the sheer joy and hell of it.

In the bargain, the Heathkit experience built character. As a grandfather, it's hard to resist telling my grandson how we did things when I was a boy: we mined and smelted bauxite and machined the aluminum for many of the radio's mechanical components. We cadged entrée to the local glass factory and hand-blew our vacuum tubes. Fabricating the other electronic bits was child's play, and actually assembling the radios was a lark, a relaxing indulgence after slaving over an English essay for the brutal Mr. Kelly.

Reality was less intense. I did learn how to etch my own printed circuit boards and had put together from scratch other modest electronics projects. Building something like a working audio oscillator gratified me, and the scent of charring phenolic from unsuccessful projects excited in its own way. I discovered that a thin strip of aluminum foil combined with ordinary household current produced a satisfying miniature fireworks display, if the fuses held. But I failed to fulfill my destiny as an electronics engineer when I was seduced by the Queen of the Sciences, mathematics. (Later, our affair in ruins, I was discarded by her and abandoned, but that's another story altogether.)

As well as giving us our minimum daily requirement of the Communist party line, our radios introduced us to the short wave English broadcasts of other, predominantly European, countries. They also delivered the standard American AM broadcast band, so we devoured adult-scaring teen music. Already heady to an impressionable teenager, the Ventures became noticeably more attractive when I knew they were coming from halfway across the country. In my Massachusetts hinterland hometown of tomahtoes and dropped ars, we heard Brother Al on WWVA, Bible-spieling from Wheeling, West Virginia. We could tell he wasn't a local boy. One of the side effects of listening to the radio is that you do hear things, and the things were interesting at least in part because they didn't come from around here. Distant equated to exotic. We got a tweak to our imaginations, a valuable hint that the world might in fact be bigger and more heterogeneous than we suspected, young as we were.

Consider a radio station spewing radio waves in all directions. Consider also a spherical mirror enveloping the earth some fifty miles above its surface. If radio waves bounce off the earth's surface and the mirror—and they do—there will be lots of radio waves zig-zagging away from the station to distances much greater than you'd expect if radio waves just hugged the ground and dissipated—which they also do. This, of course, is the simplified account. The mirror is a layer of particles in the upper atmosphere ionized by radiation from the sun and outer space; actually, there are several layers. And during the day the sun forms an absorbing layer between the earth and the reflective layers; this dissipates after sunset, so night is the prime time to hear far-away stations. This is a markedly dynamic system of many variables, as difficult to predict as the weather.

Because propagation of radio waves is so dicey, it was inevitable, after we accidentally heard distant AM stations, that Cav and I deliberately turned the hunt for more stations into a sport. Besides that element of randomness, some skill was necessary and perseverance was rewarded. Listening for distant stations also had most, if not all, of the qualities of any true manly activity: competition, collecting, utterly trivial stakes, and an esoteric vocabulary to mark the cognoscenti. It lacked only exorbitant expense; our radios were modest.

At the time it seemed rather less attractive to go out Saturday nights and try to score an underage Bud than to hunch over the dials and strain to hear a new station. I'd warm up with a couple of local stations, then maybe a couple more in New York, just to get a feel for the ionospheric tides. Referring to my collected notes and charts I could identify gaps in the broadcast radio spectrum for which I needed to find a station. In those thrilling days of yesteryear you dialed your three-pound telephone, kilocycles hadn't been deprecated in favor of Herr Doktor Hertz, and digital tuning had not been invented. Tuning was an art. The scale on the dial was imprecise enough so that I usually tuned to the neighborhood I was interested in and listened for a landmark, a station I knew existed. Ambiguous tuning was useful, though, when there was an overpowering strong station next to a weak one of interest. By tuning a little away from both stations you could sometimes reduce the interference from the strong station enough to be able to hear the weak station sufficiently well.

So there in our rooms Cav and I would sit, logging song titles and times and listening conditions. Signals faded in and out as the ionosphere ebbed and flowed. But sooner or later we'd get to the magic moment of station identification, hear call letters, and flip through the trusty White's Radio Log to verify our ears. Next day, type—yes, with a typewriter—a letter to the station requesting confirmation. Sooner or later, as a rule, a gaudy postcard would come back, the U. S. Post Office enforcing delayed gratification. There was our payoff: no trophy, no Super Bowl ring, just a bedroom wall papered with QSL cards. As a bonus I got words like QSL, radio jargon for a reception confirmation. I won't say that the girls in my class swooned when I casually dropped "ionosphere" and "Kennelly-Heaviside layer" into conversations, but it's clear to me that an obnoxiously arcane vocabulary contributed heavily to my amazing success with women.

Cav won the contest with WOAI, San Antonio. The best I could muster was WFAA, Dallas, not quite good enough for a tie. For a while I hoped to trounce his ass by bagging some pitiful five-kilowatt California station, and failed. You'd think with so little at stake the competition between Cav and me would have been fierce and bitter. But it wasn't, and though I'm sure I betrayed unseemly testosterone-induced envy, our friendship endures to this day.