I was given a radio when I was ten. It was an old General Electric transistor. It was brown with a vintage Fifties look and it was about the size of a pencil-case. The radio was a reward for doing the chores that were assigned to me in my adopted home. I’d been there about a year and the radio was the first thing I recall ever being able to call my own.
I took it everywhere with me. It sat beside me while I trimmed the hedges and weeded the flower beds. When I did my homework it sat within reach in case a favourite song came up and I even arranged a way to carry it in the handlebar basket of my bicycle. Every week, at allowance time, I ran to the corner store for the nine volt battery that kept it going.
I heard the Rolling Stones for the first time on that radio. I heard Curt Gowdy call the 1966 World Series between the Baltimore Orioles and the Los Angeles Dodgers.Chinadeveloped the H-bomb in 1967, the first heart transplant was performed in South Africa, the U.S began bombing Hanoi, Jayne Mansfield was killed in a car crash and Muhammad Ali lost the heavyweight title because he wouldn’t fight inVietnam. I heard all of that in that first year or so with that radio.
It was like the world came within my reach. I was a ten-year-old boy in a small Canadian city and there often didn’t feel like much going on. But that radio brought me the world and I came to see it as larger, more brilliant, complex and fuller.
But what I remember most were the nights. I would sit huddled beneath my sheets with a penlight and that old radio, turning the dial and searching out sounds from what seemed like an endless universe of sounds and writing down the frequencies so I would never lose them.
I discovered the blues out of Chicago, B.B. King, Ruth Brown, Big Joe Turner and the raspy, old-time sound of Robert Johnson. Another night I heard Lefty Frizzell, Bob Wills and The Texas Playboys and the high lonesome sound of traditional country music on a station out of Tennessee. It was the 1960s and I heard the great developing thunder of rock’n roll from Detroit and Cleveland, and deep in the purple midnight of my youth I heard jazz from Buffalo and Toronto and I learned the sound of jubilation, melancholy and a visceral, aching solemnity.
I heard Mahalia Jackson sing gospel late one night when the rain spattered against my window and my life was altered forever. Another night when the moon was full and the air didn’t seem to move at all, I heard Billie Holiday sing about the strange fruit hanging from trees in the southernU.S.A.and the loneliness and loss in that voice touched something inside me and I cried. And there is never a time when I hear Frank Sinatra sing In The Wee Small Hours of the Morning that I don’t return to my cave beneath the sheets and the awe I sat in that first time.
Everywhere I traveled on the dial of that little radio I encountered something that entered me. There were sounds and ideas, stories and images, people and places that my heart and ears had never experienced and because my life was sad then, I allowed the voice of that tiny General Electric radio to fill me and transport me. The nine volt heart that beat in me then was a heart clamoring for understanding, for inspiration and for a genuine connection to things.
That radio changed my world. It made it bigger. I was ten years old and my world had shrunk from the wilds of the north to a city in the south. There was nothing of the Indian world I remembered. There was nothing to give me a sense of myself except the nine volt heart that beat in me.
That old radio taught me that there’s more to the world than what I can see and that I owe it to myself to seek it out. It taught me that there’s an answer for every question and that salvation most often comes through the asking and the seeking rather than in the answers themselves. It taught me that I find myself in times of solitude, to seek that and make use of it.
But most importantly it taught me that there is more to me than I can see and that it’s only through allowing myself to explore, experience, taste, touch, hear and feel that I encounter myself — and that makes me a better man, a better person and in the end, a better Indian.