Mem­o­ries of a barn ra­dio

The Glengarry News - Glengarry Supplement - - News -

BY STEVEN WAR­BUR­TON

News Staff Ev­ery now and then, I think about the ra­dio in the barn. And for some rea­son, it makes me sad.

Grandpa had a farm near Rose­town, Saskatchewan and he had lots of friends who were farm­ers too.

Once, when I was eight, we went to visit one of them.

I don't re­mem­ber the farmer's name, what his house looked like, or even what kind of farm he op­er­ated. But I do re­mem­ber the barn.

The barn smelled of old hay and dust. There was a cal­en­dar from 1958 nailed to a wooden post. The pic­ture on the cal­en­dar was a draw­ing of a buxom red­head driv­ing a trac­tor and drink­ing a Coca Cola. Next to it was a wooden shelf and on the shelf was a ra­dio.

There was noth­ing fancy about that ra­dio. It didn't tell the time, it didn't have a tape deck, it didn't even have an LCD dis­play so you could see what sta­tion you were lis­ten­ing to. There were two di­als - one for the vol­ume, one for the fre­quency.

There was one speaker that was about the size of tea saucer. The speaker crack­led as it belched out com­mer­cials and coun­try mu­sic.

But it wasn't the ra­dio's age or its con­di­tion that fas­ci­nated me – it was its im­mor­tal­ity. The farmer who owned that ra­dio said he'd bought it in the late 1960s. He'd plugged it into an out­let in his barn shortly there­after and, since then, had never shut it off.

I was be­wil­dered. I thought: Holy smokes, that ra­dio has been on con­tin­u­ously for longer than I've been alive.

I looked at the ra­dio. I wanted to switch it off, just for a sec­ond. I didn't though. I thought that would be a sac­ri­lege.

Thanks to the in­for­ma­tion this anony­mous farmer had shared with me, I could only re­gard it as a holy ar­ti­fact. I thought that if I switched it off, I might also be switch­ing off my heart and – in­deed – the hearts of ev­ery­one else in the world. That ra­dio (to bor­row from the Norse) was as pow­er­ful as the Norns.

I got older and my trips back to Saskatchewan grew less fre­quent. But some­times, we'd go back to that old farmer's house and I would al­ways make a point of vis­it­ing the barn. There were changes – the cal­en­dar was gone, for in­stance – but the ra­dio was still there. A brown elec­tri­cal cord snaked from its rear, end­ing at an elec­tri­cal out­let that was caked with dead in­sects and farm grit. I knew that out there in the coun­try, the only sta­tion that could be picked up was the one ra­dio sta­tion in Rose­town. But I also knew that sta­tion had gone through a num­ber of for­mat changes over the years. I knew that sta­tion had let its lis­ten­ers know about the Chal­lenger space shut­tle ex­plod­ing, Rea­gan's elec­tion and sub­se­quent re­elec­tion, the Saskatchewan Roughrid­ers' 1989 Grey Cup vic­tory, and count­less other top news sto­ries from the end of the 20th Cen­tury.

And I knew that for so much of that time, that ra­dio was broad­cast­ing in vain. What good is a ra­dio broad­cast if there are no ears to hear it? In that sec­ond, I felt bad for that poor ra­dio, which had no choice but to hang out in that shel­tered but un­heated barn - blar­ing out an end­less stream of small town ads, static, yam­mer­ing disc jock­eys, Rose­town Red Wing broad­casts, and ev­ery­thing from golden oldies to top forty fare. Did it ever air any­thing so in­ter­est­ing that the farmer stopped work­ing for a minute so he could fo­cus all his at­ten­tion on the ra­dio? Or was its eter­nal des­tiny slated to be noth­ing but back­ground noise?

Once I asked the farmer if he was scared some­one would steal his ra­dio. He laughed a lit­tle and said no, of course not. He said he doubted that ra­dio would fetch a dol­lar in a sec­ond hand store; that it was pretty much worth­less. Worth­less. I don't know, but some­how, that ad­jec­tive hit me like an in­sult to­ward my own mother. I re­al­ized that ra­dio had been work­ing tire­lessly for my en­tire life. It never took a break (ex­cept for the in­fre­quent black­outs that as­suredly struck now and then) and, for the most part, its lis­ten­ers were the barn cats and the mice and the bugs and the crows.

Grandpa is dead now and his friend may well be dead too and the farm has prob­a­bly been sold and the ra­dio has prob­a­bly been un­plugged and if that's the case, my dark child­hood fan­tasy was false be­cause I am still alive.

But some­times I think about that old ra­dio. I know that to­day – in this era of smart­phones and Sir­ius and the world­wide web – a ra­dio like that is ...well... use­less. There are only two suit­able homes for it: the land­fill and the mu­seum.

There is also my heart, of course, which, I note, still goes on beat­ing even though that old ra­dio is now silent.

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