Memories of a barn radio
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.