“Radio was my pal. I was just crazy about it.” — Bob Edwards
THE CHRISTMAS I BECAME KING FAROUK
The transistor radio just might be the coolest consumer electronic product ever invented.
Think of it, the kids of the early ’60s were able to carry, for the first time in human history, music in their pockets.
One Of Humankind’s Crowning Achievements
The iPod is merely a refinement on that earthshaking development. The smartphone can’t begin to compare, since it forces its possessors to communicate with Mom & Dad, among other insufferables.
I was eight years old in the fall of 1964. I’d seen the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show the previous February and was hooked. They were young and mop-headed and fun. I must admit I had no particular love for any one of their endless string of hits, but they opened up the Top 40 charts for me.
Because of them, I discovered the Rolling Stones, the Dave Clark Five, Martha and the Vandellas, and The Four Seasons, all of whom I liked much more. Wherever I saw a radio –the ungainly kind that plugged into the wall — that landmark year, I turn it on and fiddled with the dial until I could pull in WLS or WCFL, Chicago’s rock ‘n roll stations.
Martha And The Vandellas
The thing I studied most that year had nothing to do with math or science; it was Dex Card’s Silver Dollar Survey. Card was the new afternoon DJ WLS had hired early in 1964 to position itself even younger and hipper than when it had originally gone to all rock ‘n roll four years earlier. Each afternoon he’d play, in order, the 40 songs on his Silver Dollar Survey compilation of Chicago biggest hits.
Dex Card At A WLS Record Hop
I appeared faithfully every Friday afternoon after school at Frank’s Dime Store on North Avenue to pick up my fresh new copy of the tri-fold Silver Dollar Survey. For the rest of that day, I’d devour the thing, memorizing the position of each song on the chart.
By the way, it had taken WLS a few years after the big 1960 format change to really catch on. A lot of people who lived within range of the station’s clear channel, 50,000-watt signal were farmers. WLS could be pulled in on a good day from Minneapolis to St. Louis, Louisville to Cincinnati and Detroit. That covered an awful lot of plow-pushers. And at first, all those farmers were mightily ticked off that WLS had replaced shows like “The Prairie Farmer” and “Barn Dance” with stuff like “Alley Oop” by the Hollywood Argyles.
The rock ‘n roll DJs, including Dick Biondi (The Wild I-tralian), Clark Weber, and Art Roberts, gamely hung in there, waiting for the right break — and it came with the arrival of the Beatles in the US in the winter of ’64. Next thing anybody knew, WLS and its big competitor, WCFL, were the hottest stations in town.
That’s where I come in. Starting in September, 1964, I began badgering my mother to get me a transistor radio for Christmas. Ma gave me her stock-in-trade response, “What are we, the Rockefellers?”
She’d alternate between that and “Who do you think you are, King Farouk?”
King Farouk Would Have Had A Transistor Radio
I had no idea who King Farouk was, but I assumed he was filthy rich.
Generally, once she’d invoke either of those titans of wealth, I’d know that whatever I was asking for was out of the question. She had, after all, grown up during the Great Depression and that experience mixed in with her own innate neuroses and compulsions caused her to squeeze a dime so tightly that Roosevelt turned blue.
But this time, I would not take no for an answer. I hammered her seemingly daily, often earning a whack to the side of my head for my troubles.
Besides, Ma never saw Christmas as a time to bestow trivial gifts like toys and such on us. Every Christmas eve, I’d unwrap her Sears gift box full of underwear and socks and then lie to her, telling her they were great. I’d be excited over the gifts my sisters Fran and Charlotte would give me, like Tonka trucks and big 64-crayon boxes of Crayolas. But not Ma’s.
At school, all my friends would gush about their new toy cranes and Erector Sets. Then they’d ask me what I got. The first year they asked, I responded honestly: “Well, my Ma got me underwear and….” I had to stop there because my friends’ howls of laughter were drowning me out.
By the time Christmas rolled around in ’64, I’d grown past Tonka trucks and crayons. I wanted — no, craved — the Rolling Stones and Martha and the Vandellas. I was growing up.
So, that Christmas eve I was decidedly less excited than I’d normally be. We feasted that night on the usual Sicilian Christmas Eve table of the Seven Fishes. My fave, then as now, was the calamari in red sauce. I’d let the tentacles dangle out of my mouth and try to force my sister Charlotte to look, at which point she’d threaten to withhold her gift from me that year. I’d stop forthwith.
At about eight that evening it was time to open the presents. I felt as though my childhood was past because I really didn’t care all that much about the whole thing. The previous year, for instance, I’d gotten a James Band 007 attache case, complete with code book, false IDs and a Luger that shot plastic bullets. Now that was a Christmas gift. The week between that Christmas and New Year I’d even written out my will in case I’d be killed in the execution of my duties as a spy. I recall folding it up and hiding it in the 007 breast pocket wallet that came with the attache case.
Now, at the jaded age of eight, nothing short of a transistor radio would do and since I wasn’t going to get it….
My brother Joey called out, “To Mike from Ma and Dad.”
He handed me the present. It was small, about ten inches by six inches, so it wasn’t the usual underwear and socks. I didn’t even tear the package open as I’d always done in the past. This time I carefully opened it, rather like a fussy old aunt who found it weirdly imperative to preserve the wrapping paper for next year.
The moment I saw the picture on the front of the box, I screamed, actually screamed, as if I were being tortured by Auric Goldfinger.
“Why No, Mr. Bond. I Expect You To Die!”
There it was, my transistor radio.
The Rolling Stones and Martha & the Vandellas were now mine. All mine.
I slept with that thing, the earphone attached to me, for the next three years until I got my second transistor radio. I quickly arrived at the point where I couldn’t get to sleep without the sound of music in my right ear.
Best Christmas present ever.
By The Waitresses.