Monday, November 07, 2005

The Crystal Set

I come from a long line of Chicagoans, (Go Cubs!) and was born there myself in 1948, at Grant Park Hospital, in downtown Chicago. My folks, and many of my relatives, made their homes in the Park Ridge area, a suburb of The Windy City. Today, I live in Portland, Oregon, where I have lived most of my life. I love Portland, and I am not surprised that my parents elected to spare themselves the miserable winters and occasional tropical heat of Chicago summers, when they moved here around 1950. I am certain that there were other factors compelling them to move Out West, not the least of which was a young couple’s yearning to strike out on their own.

My Father graduated from The Chicago Technical Institute, which, in retrospect, kind of blows my mind, since he was barely capable of hanging a paper towel holder correctly, and most times, after I turned, oh....., 8, he called on me for most technical chores, like fixing things.

But freshly out of engineering school, diploma in hand, about 1946, and after the war, where he served admirably in the Army, my Dad was employed as a technician at several different businesses, including the family business, “Chicago Tool And Die”, which my grandfather Emil had started years before. I don’t know what happened there, but suffice it to say, my Dad’s future did not lie in Chicago.

My Great Uncle Clair, bless his soul, my grandmother’s youngest brother, was also a Chicagoan for most of his life, and had also been longing to move on, with his wife, my Great Aunt Ruth, possibly to Portland. So my Mom and Dad, and my Dad’s aunt and uncle, moved to Portland, with little Ricky in tow.

My “Uncle Clair”, as I always called him, was one smart sucka, and I always thought he got a lot more out of his engineering education than my Dad. Uncle Clair was a radio and early TV geek, and was always tinkering around at the workbench in our basement, when he and my aunt were at the house.

One Thanksgiving Day, after a sumptuous meal of one of my Mother’s Golden Brown And Super Dry Not One Ounce Of Moisture Left In It Turkeys, Uncle Clair suggested that I follow him to the basement, to help him complete a project he was working on.

When we reached the basement, he proudly showed me a number of small parts, which were lying on the workbench, all organized and ready to use. “We”, he announced, “are gonna make A Crystal Set”, and with that, he took from his pocket a crystal, about 3/4 inch square, and held it up for me to inspect. All these years later, I don’t really know what it was, what kind of crystal, etc., but it looked like a piece of Iron Pyrite, or Fool’s Gold, and had a shiny gold and grey tint to it.

In the hours that followed, he instructed me as we painstakingly utilized each of the parts he had scrounged from the bowels of my Dad’s work bench, and around the house, a toilet paper roll core, copper wire, some old moth eaten headphones that looked like they had come straight from a World War II cockpit, a rather large safety pin. He had also discovered other parts which I am certain had nothing to do with a radio, a metal piece he had fashioned to hold the crystal, and other metal parts that were surely not radio related, but would be useful.

I will spare you an exact and long memorized description of the finished Crystal Set, but it was completely bitchen, and worked great. The tip of the safety pin was positioned such that it touched the crystal. After a time, lying in my bed at night, listening to the Portland Beaver’s Baseball Game, as announced by Sportscaster Bob Blackburn on Portland radio station KPOJ, circa 1956, I became adept at moving the tip of the pin, to receive other radio staions in the area, including good ol’ KEX, before school, when Barney Keep would amuse and offer less than complimentary quips about his wife, “The Ol’ Biscuit Burner”.

I delight in the memory of the building of The Crytsal Set with my Uncle Clair, and I sure wish I still had the thing. I am certain it languished in a shoebox in my childhood closet for a few years, after I had received a brand new and very modern transistor radio for Christmas. Eventually, my Mother tossed it. Lying in bed back then, eyes closed, listening to my Crystal Set, with my shoddy headphones attached, Mom would call up the stairs to my room, “Honey, can I bring you a nice turkey sandwich?” “Nah, thanks anyway Mom” I’d yell back. “I’m not really hungry right now”.

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