The little Pennsylvania town where our shack was located had, and this is a rough guess, a population of 40 families. There was a grocery store with no electricity or refrigeration and a gas station that had a generator to work the pumps, and that was it, so far as businesses were concerned. The town serviced the needs of the small farms in the near area, provided the requirement was not too special. Otherwise folks traveled to the city some 14 miles from our town. In the fall of 1932 my mother and I, along with almost everyone in town, assembled at the Helwig place to listing to the presidential election results. The Helwigs were a middle aged German couple who spoke English with a very heavy accent and we children mocked them when no adults were around to hear. The attraction at the Helwig place that day was they owned the only operational radio within miles. At the time I had no idea what a presidential election was all about, nor did I much care, but it was like a big party with pies and cakes, and potato salad that people had brought. There was 55 gallon barrel of fresh apple cider and rumors that home brew beer could be had for a price. Remember beer was illegal back then but the Helwigs were German. (Think about it.) Both mother and I hit the free food line like we were starving, because, well, we were. Anyway when the election results were announced all the people cheered for at least 15 min. It was perplexing for someone my age. When the volume of noise finally dropped to a point one could talk again, I asked "Why is everyone so happy?". A man said, “Hoover Lost!” Still very perplexing, I had no idea who Hoover was.
After that, a few of the more affluent people in town began to acquire radios. I made friends with Dick White at school. Dick’s father had a job which put him in the upper social strata of the town, and they had a radio. They lived much closer to the school than I did, so I would stop at Dick’s place on my way home to listen to the radio. On hot days Mrs. White would serve us Cool Aid. (I told you they were rich!) Anyway, the programs were 15 min long with commercials at the beginning and end. In my mind I became one of Tom Mix’s “Ralston Straight Shooters” even though my family never bought the product. We lived on oat meal porridge or boiled wheat. (The wheat, by the way, was much tastier than the porridge.) Orphan Annie kept me on the edge of my seat with her adventures and gave me a tremendous respect for girls. Leaping lizards, Annie was the best! I named my dog Sandy even though he was black. My childhood dream was getting my hands on one of those gold seals off an Ovaltine container (or a reasonable facsimile thereof) so I could send it in and get the device that decoded the secret messages the announcer read at the end of the program. All numbers. That never happened and Dick was not all that much impressed with Annie, so no help there. (Do they still make Ovaltine?) Jack Armstrong (The all American Boy) was one of my favorites along with his sidekick Billie and Billie’s sister Betty and their Uncle Jim. Wheaties the breakfast of champions was the program sponsor, but again we could not afford the product at our place. Jack was in high school (Hudson Hi) and fooled around with Flying Fortresses air planes and Uranium 235. The Mystery of the Seven Dorchains really impressed me. I never quite figured out what a Dorchain was (I missed a few episodes) but they did this chanting thing that I memorized and used it as a charm to cure hiccups. Hey, it worked! Well, not every time but it did on occasion. If I could just get through the chant without a hiccup I knew I was cured. Magic – nothing like it.
My father got work with the WPA and we became affluent. We moved from the shack to a rented farm house and eventually got our very own radio. You needed several different kinds of batteries to operate a radio back then so my listening time was limited, lest the batteries be used up. I had half an hour after school. Jack Armstrong and Annie were my everyday choices and the Lone Ranger once a week. I remember my father listening to the Max Smelling – Joe Lewis fight one evening. Exciting!
The Tennessee Valley Authority program brought electricity to the area and the landlord had the house wired for electric service. The electric bill was a little steep, some month close to 3 dollars but just the radio alone was worth it. We even bought an electric washing machine and I remember the joy my mother expressed when she ceremoniously threw the old washboard away. The radio was on most of the time now with soap operas during the day, “Ma Perkins, Portia Faces Life, Lorenzo Jones (the inept inventor) plus David Haram” and many others. Mother didn’t pay much attention to the programs but for some reason, found it relaxing to have an adult voice to listen to during the day. (Actually my two younger brothers and I were very well behaved.) All my favorites were on after school and a few new ones “Don Winslow of the Navy” – we were getting ready for war. My very favorite program back then was “Let’s Pretend”. I still get yanked back to my childhood days when I hear the melody, “In a Country Garden”, Let’s Pretend’s theme music. The evenings were wonderful with the Inner Sanctum, Jack Benny, Bob Hope, I love a Mystery, Fibber McGee and Mollie, The Chase and Sanborn hour with Charley McCarthy, W.C Fields, Fannie Bryce, Frank Morgan, and Edgar Burgan. The music available 24/7 was fantastic. Glen Miller, the Dorsey brothers, Hoagy Charmichael, Kay Kyser and lots of others. From Swing and Boogie Woogie to Gilbert and Sullivan, it was great. I could go on page after page.
The radio united us with the world. It changed us from ignorant country bumpkins to, well, informed country bumpkins. It gave us new ideas and new ways of thinking. The 15 minute morality plays I listened to as a child did more to form my character that any Sunday school or Church service ever did. Tom and Annie, Jack and the Lone Ranger (as well as Tonto) plus the Let’s Pretend guys were all my close friends and I would not think of doing anything that would disgrace me in their eyes. As I grew older and listened to the more adult shows, they helped me become the cultured, sophisticated person that I am today. And BTW,
I eat my peas with honey,
I’ve done it all my life.
It makes the peas taste funny,
But it keeps em on my knife.