This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.
Crystal radio receiver. If those words don't open a floodgate of memories, then you are too young to have been a child in the 1930s and 40s. Back then, it was one of the rites of passage to build your own radio set.
I came across those words the other day in a reminiscence by Kenneth Norcross of Orion, Illinois. His description of building such a radio in the 1930s as a boy in Orion made me want to drop what I was doing, rush down to Trevor's Tru Value Hardware for a hundred feet of thin enameled wire, a three-inch cardboard tube, a cat's whisker, and a crystal, and return to boyhood.
As Norcross described how he and his friends ever so slowly wound the wire around the tube to make an inductance coil, careful to not scratch any enamel off and short the wire, I could feel and even smell the enamel. I remembered the crystal and the cat whisker suspended above it to tune in stations.
My memory raced ahead of his words. There I was, climbing thirty feet up the tall evergreen tree in our back yard to install the 100-foot antenna between the tree and the house. Now, I was putting the headphones on, and listening intently while trying to find just the right point to place the cat whisker on the crystal. Then, by magic, for there were no batteries to power a crystal radio, the first faint scratchy sounds of a radio station.
For Mr. Norcross, these stations were the new WOC in Davenport, Iowa, and WHBF in Rock Island, just north of Orion. He recalled rushing home from school for lunch to listen to the chimes played each day at twelve on WOC.
A crystal radio was simple and crude, barely able to pull in stations from more than twenty miles away, but it had one advantage over the boom box from Best Buy: it was homemade, as were most objects in our childhood world: stilts and scooters and gliders. We built the crystal radio with our own hands, and it worked. It worked.
I interpret Kenneth Norcross's scrap of paper as an invitation to join him in play. I need to get to the hardware store before it closes and see if they have wire and a cat whisker squirreled away in some forgotten corner. I can't resist, I'm going to drop everything and…
Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by the Scott County Regional Authority, with additional funding from the Illinois Arts Council and Augustana College, Rock Island.