Dad was a tinkerer. Had he bitten off more than he could chew, though, when he tried to build a radio?
From the Relief Society Magazine, November 1953 –
Just Like Edison
By Molly Johnson
It was late November. Winter had stamped an icy foot on the rural community in northern Wisconsin where we lived, and the harvest had been gathered in. With all the heavy work finished for another year, the inevitable happened. My father began tinkering.
Now we had seen father through many a tinkering spree. Doll cradles, magazine stands, bookcases, and even little chairs for us children to sit in, but this time it was different. It was worse, sort of grim and scary. My father wouldn’t even talk to us while he worked, and this was so unusual we were frightened.
Evenings, when play was over and everything would begin to turn velvety-black outside, Mama would call us in, and we would sit – all four of us in a line – on a basement step near the musty potato bin, and watch father while he stuffed batteries, wires, tiny nuts, and bolts, and all kinds of other things into a big oatmeal box.
We were sitting there one evening with questions just about exploding inside us when my brother got up and slowly inched over to where Dad stood at his workbench. He had a bunch of wires in his hand and was staring so hard at a magazine we wondered if he was angry at it.
Big brother watched him a little while, then asked in a voice you could hardly hear, “What’s it gonna be, Dad?”
We didn’t breathe till we saw Dad’s face soften a bit. He looked up and answered, “A radio, son.”
I sighed and thought it must be nice to be the only boy in the family and not be afraid to ask questions whenever you wanted to. But my sister, the one who was two and a half years older than I, gave a big gasp. “A radio. Golly!”
She flew up the stairs, and my tiny sister and I tagged after. We ran to the kitchen stove where Mama stood mixing something that smelled wonderful.
“Mama!” my sister cried out, “Mama, you know what Dad’s doing? He’s making a radio!”
Mother looked at all three of us and nodded her head slowly. “Yes, I know. I asked him to buy us a radio for Christmas and he said, ‘Buy you a radio! hah, I’ll make you one!’”
After that things were worse than school at our house. Dad was silent and never played with us as he had before, and Mama was quiet, too, so we would be quiet. We were quiet because we had to be.
Another funny thing was the way the news of Dad’s contraption went all over town. He told us not to tell a soul what he was making, yet it got so I just never went anywhere without people asking me how Dad’s radio was coming, unless Dad was with me. If he was there, they didn’t say much of anything.
At last the big day came, the Saturday when Dad would test his radio to see if it worked! He didn’t tell us until that morning. He wanted to be sure. Twice before he had disappointed himself and us, too, by hinting of this a few days ahead of time. In each case something had gone wrong, and each time he had had to go into town again and get a new part and then work late into the night fitting it in. But this time he was sure. He had hurried it up for Saturday night, he said, because that should be a good testing time. There were more programs on, and it was going to be a cold, clear night. Of course, he didn’t tell us not to tell anybody. After all, who knew he was making a radio?
We spent that afternoon in the crisp, squeaky snow and bright sunshine, sledding down School Hill with all the neighborhood youngsters. I don’t remember now if we said much of anything about radios, but we could have, because an awful lot of people just happened to sort of drop in at our house that evening. They sat in the living room, the dining room, on the stairway going upstairs, and in the downstairs bedroom – strung along the edge of the bed where Mama would never let us sit. Most of them were packed in the big kitchen, though, where my father was seated at the table with his contraption.
The ladies were talking about sewing and babies that had colic, so I shoved through them to where three men stood arguing in a corner of the dining room.
“I’ll bet you my first spring calf that this thing don’t work. You got to be a ‘lectrician to make radios,” one man was saying.
I didn’t know him well.
“Takes courage to try something like that,” another man mumbled, hardly opening his mouth when he talked. “You wouldn’t catch me doing it.”
The third one had a face that was round and red as a tomato. He had red hair, and he was always smiling. “You gotta hand it to that fellow, though,” he laughed. “He never starts anything he doesn’t finish. If it doesn’t work tonight, it’ll work some other time, and I’m going to tell him so right now!”
He shoved through the tangle of people till he reached my father.
“Look, Fred ….” he began, and his hand made a big gesture.
It hit the oatmeal box and spilled it to the floor. Crash went the biggest dream we had ever had for Dad’s tinkering, and crash went the radio that was going to work for us tonight. For sure – in front of all these people!
My father dropped his head into his hands and braced his elbows on the table. He wouldn’t even look at the pile of spilled things on the floor, and for a long time everything was awfully still.
Tomato-head mumbled again and again that he was sorry. Slowly my brother began to pick up the stuff. “Don’t worry, Dad,” he kept saying. “We’ll put it together again. If you did it once you can do it again. Watch and see if you can’t. And this time I’ll help you.”
My father didn’t look up. He just sat there, his head in his hands, shaking it from side to side slowly. My brother set the oatmeal box with some of the stuffings still in it on the table. Next he picked up piece after piece and tried to fit them in. My mother came and made the people move back in a circle in case anything had rolled a little ways.
“Is this how it went, Dad?” my brother asked over and over again.
My father wouldn’t look up.
“Is this right? Dad? Look, the soldering is all right … just these other pieces came loose.”
Father lifted his head. He looked as if he were sleeping with his eyes open as he straightened the box on the table before him. He didn’t say a single word, just took piece after piece and began fitting them in. Some of them took a long time, and he wanted to give up, but my brother made him keep on working.
It was getting late, and my mother came up twice to make me go to bed, but I wouldn’t go. I wanted to see the thing work.
My eyes hurt with heaviness as I watched my father and brother working with all the things that were growing out of the oatmeal box again. How long they worked! Dad tinkered and tinkered with them. Then he put on the earphones.
He listened, turning buttons all kinds of ways for the longest while.
Suddenly, he took off the earphones and then took part of the stuffings out of the oatmeal box and changed two little things halfway down to the bottom.
My mother came up to me where I was sitting on a neighbor’s lap and begged me to go to bed, but I shook my head and jerked my hand out of hers so hard she went away kind of angry.
At last the earphones were on my father’s head again. He wound up buttons on the contraption and waited. By now he looked like he had a gray and a brown tissue paper stretched over his face.
All at once he smiled.
“Yes! Yes … I think I hear something!” he said.
Everybody in the whole house seemed to take a quick breath and move just a little bit.
Dad put the earphones on my brother. I was standing close to him by this time, so I got them next. There was music coming over them. I was disappointed. After all that work it didn’t even sound as loud as our old phonograph that stood in a corner of the living room.
Mama must have read my face. She usually did because when Dad took off the earphones she said, “Just think, dear, that music is coming from Milwaukee, or maybe even Chicago. Three hundred miles away!”
Then I realized what a wonderful thing my father had done. It took someone smart to build wires and things in an oatmeal box that could bring music from that far away without records or a phonograph – or a needle.
The earphones had been on my big sister and were being passed around to other people now, and nobody spoke. I held on to Mama’s skirt and tagged after while she moved somehow through all those people to put on the big, gray enamel kettle for cocoa. Next she cut up the cake she had made for our Sunday dinner.
“Just like Edison!” shouted Tomato-head, pushing himself toward my father and shaking his hand.
Then everybody was talking and laughing at once, and I just stood there feeling all warm inside to see Dad laughing again – and thinking how proud we would always be of him.