For some years, my son Arthur IV, a writer too, offered a holiday story published in place of my (former) newspaper column. That tradition now continues on the web. – Arthur H. Gunther III
By Arthur H. Gunther IV
The transistor radio was black. Long ago, the small plastic piece that held its battery in place had been lost. Black electrical tape had by now done the job of the forgotten plastic piece for so many years that the back of the radio was inevitably sticky near its bottom. Max remembered with clarity the eyes of the Eveready cat peeking out from in between the loops of tape. Nine volts was all the radio needed for months of listening. It seemed to Max that the metal antennae, necessary only for FM reception, had never been there, though it must have at one time. The radio’s listeners had never had much use for FM anyway.
The radio belonged to Max’s grandfather. He lived in a small house overlooking the Hudson River, bought long before there was any cache to being near the water that bore the Dutch explorer’s name. Max would ride his bicycle over the mountain from his house on school-year Saturdays and summer afternoons and sit outside with his grandfather while the radio hummed with the sound of that afternoon’s baseball game. The announcer’s voices were both familiar and friendly, their chatter the ideal accompaniment to whatever conversation Max and his grandfather were having. The easy rhythms of the game left plenty of space for old stories, memories, reading and commenting on the articles in any of the several newspapers that were always around Max’s grandfather’s house. The radio even had an ear piece, not head phones, attached to a long white wire which Max would sometimes find stuck in his grandfather’s left ear. He always unplugged it upon seeing Max.
Around the time of his ninth birthday, Max’s mother became sick and found herself in the hospital for several months. When December arrived and it was clear that she would not be home for Christmas, Max’s dad sent him over to his grandfather’s house for Christmas Eve. Max’s father knew the value of waking up to a warm, glowing, happy Christmas morning and doubted his ability to provide it for Max that year. Though Max welcomed every opportunity to see his grandfather, and grandmother too for that matter, he lay in bed that night unable to sleep, filled with thoughts of worry about his dad and mom. Max crept downstairs at midnight, looking for distraction. There on the table that stood by the old green sofa sat his grandfather’s transistor radio. Max picked it up and brought it back to his room. The December night was clear. Max could see the moon reflecting on the river from where he lie in bed. He turned on the radio and scanned the dial for something to take his mind off his worries. The weather, Max’s room on the water and the winter night combined for ideal AM reception, and it seemed that every fraction of an inch the dial turned revealed new sounds, many from places that Max had never come close to visiting in his short life. There were call-in shows from Washington and Baltimore, weather from Buffalo, news from Cleveland, Christmas songs from Hartford, Philadelphia and Princeton, New Jersey, even a hockey game from Toronto. Eventually, Max settled on the voice of Jackie Gleason. A station from Boston was playing audio of an episode of “The Honeymooners” that Max had never seen. It was a Christmas show that was essentially a retelling of the O. Henry story, “The Gift of the Magi.” Though Max was years from reading the actual text, the story was the perfect distraction, and he quickly became absorbed in the voices of the characters until he fell fast asleep as the show ended, barely able to turn off the radio.
Max’s mother recovered and that year ended up being the only Christmas Eve he ever spent at his grandfather’s, though his family continued to visit on Christmas Day for years to come. Years later, Max was at college, in the thick of the all-night studying that was the inevitable sacrifice for surviving the December final exams of the fall semester, when he wandered down to the TV lounge in his dorm for a midnight study break. He found a girl there, presumably with the same idea he had. Max sat down and noticed that on the TV was “The Honeymooners.” After watching for several minutes, he realized it was the same episode he had heard that Christmas Eve long ago at his grandfather’s house. Though Max had always meant to, he had never seen the actual episode. Max gasped out loud at the lucky coincidence of finally finding the show. The girl who sat there turned to Max, as if just realizing he was there.
“Sorry to startle you,” Max said, “but I’ve always wanted to see this episode.” “I think I know it by heart,” answered the girl. “When I was a kid in Boston, there was this one radio station that played it every Christmas Eve at midnight. It was some kind of tradition. I used to fall asleep every year listening to it in my room. It’ll always remind me of home.”
Max sat there tongue-tied, with a goofy smile curling across his face. Two weeks later, when he was home for the winter break, Max told his grandfather the story. And when Max married that same girl five years later, he opened the gift from his grandfather to find the transistor radio at the bottom of a small box. It is all so clear in my memory. Max is me.
Even now, on clear, cold winter nights, when my wife and children are fast asleep and I just can’t seem to settle my thoughts, I’ll find a quiet room in my house, take out my grandfather’s old transistor radio and scan the AM dial, wondering what will be out there for me to find.
Arthur can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org