Tuesday, February 15, 2011

What's Your Story?

As you were lurching through your younger years, story meant to you a succession of half-hour dramas presented at afternoon and evening hours over a mocha brown Emerson radio, located in the living room where on occasion it was listened to by the entire family, other times by you alone.  Other times, you were aware of your sister, listening to her choices from what seemed to you both as an enormous menu.  On infrequent occasion, some electrical storm or disturbance would play merry hell with the circuitry of the grid in which you lived, meaning your avenues for story on that particular moment were cut and you recognized the helplessness and hopelessness to come in the form of crashed drives and lost connections in a technology you had not the prescience to imagine.

There were evangelists you rose early to listen to, with the caveat from your father that the rest of the family had no such interests.  Your interests were by no means religious, rather they were entranced by the range and reach of the voice of Aimee Semple McPherson, ditto the drawl of the homespun Cousin Mirandy, and two Sunday morning voices,one, Pal Gus, reading the funny papers of the Los Angeles Examiner in a voice you later realized was hung over, and the distinct, nasal Mel Lamont, who read the funnies from the hated (because of its anti-labor policies) Los Angeles Times.

Story was everywhere, so long as that mocha-colored Emerson radio was there, but you'd been disappointed enough when the tubes--radios were powered by receptor tubes in this pre-transistorized era--went and there was no money for replacements.  You were driven to the discovery of the so-called crystal radio, a non-electric form of radio reception involving a coil of wire wrapped about the cardboard tubes about which such necessities as wax paper (for wrapping lunch sandwiches) was wrapped or shorter tubes about which rolls of toilet paper were engaged.  The longer the cardboard tube and the more rounds of a thin, cotton-covered wire spun about it, the more broadcasting stations could be reached, thanks to a simple, seemingly miraculous device called a cat's whisker or galena crystal, thus the term crystal radio.  You needed an antenna, which was achieved by climbing the garage roof to access a telephone pole, clambering about half way up the pole, and extending a long length of wire.  The circuitry was completed when you attached a line from the cat's whisker to a radiator, from which you had judiciously scraped a bit of insulating paint.  Now your radio was complete, with the exception of a pair of earphones.

Your favorite stories were the weekly serials featuring bigger-than-life heroes, some of whom--Jack Armstrong, for instance--were more or less of your age.  But the kid's serials and daily soap operas were nothing when you could listen to such joys as The Lux (soap) Radio Theater, which featured hour-long dramatizations of movies and then, a tad later, Jack Webb pre-Dragnet, as a San Francisco private detective named Pat Novack, earnest competition for Howard Duff's portrayal of Sam Spade, and not to forget those special moments when radio was about to lose ground to television, but not before Orson Welles did a season of the Harry Lime adventures.

Story began for you as something heard; you were invited to fill in your own descriptions, which you did, willingly enough.  The basic rule was that you had to believe the situations.  If you did not believe,then there was no story, nothing to mull over after the fact.  Because you adored your sister, you affected a great love for the Peter Paul Mounds candy bar, a concoction of chocolate-covered coconut.  But your favorite candy bar of all was the Baby Ruth because of the high probability of one or more of the peanuts buried beneath its chocolaty surfaces becoming lodged in your inter dental spaces, emerging when you least suspected, a delightful aftertaste.  This became for the longest time your early metaphor for story, the surprise appearance of the peanutty chocolate representing the sudden wonderment about one or more characters in a recent story.

Even now, as you posture before a class, discussing the need for surprise and aftertaste in a story, you can taste the Baby Ruth candy bar, a hidden surprise emerging from the spaces within.

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