Friday, August 01, 2008

One day I Heard Voices


Oh the joys of living in Tinley Gardens. The backyard of our home bordered on a huge open field. We are talking acres numbering in the hundreds here. It was mostly vacant space that seldom saw a tractor come by to mow it. It was separated by an easily scaled six foot chain link fence. In the middle of this vast piece of open country stood a 500 foot tall radio transmitting tower. This was the place where the signal for WLS "The Rock of Chicago" was hurled across the country side at, quite literally, the speed of sound.

WLS was not just any old radio station. In the 1960's and 1970's it was the standard bearer for rock 'n roll music radio nation wide. It was a "clear channel" station. That meant that no other station in the country shared it's frequency, 89 on the AM dial. We listened to that station at night when visiting our grandmother in Arkansas. We heard it from family vacations in Tennessee, Missouri, and even Colorado. We are talking serious power here. Even tonight I can listen to WLS at night from my new home in the suburbs of Cleveland. I don't really want to because it has sold out and become "talk radio."

There were several reasons why WLS was significant to we little ones growing up in Tinley Gardens. First, it was a great place to play "guns." Or "war." You might find that barbaric but you need to get over it. Every kid played guns in those days and I suspect they still do. But we had a real battle ground complete with high grass to hide in, a few rolling hills to sneak up behind the enemy, and plenty of room to roam. It was perfect for reenacting world war two.

The second reason was the way the tower reenacted with the weather. Specifically, thunderstorms. My brother and I would stand in our bedroom window, which faced the tower, and watch as frequent lightening strikes sent visible currents of electricity shooting down it's guide wires to the ground below, sparking and popping all the way. One day we were in school and my mom was out shopping with a friend. As they returned to our house to enjoy a nice cup of coffee mom walked to the kitchen sink to fill the coffee pot. The window over the sink looked out upon the field and the WLS tower. Mom lost her ability to speak. Her friend, Bonnie, said she could only gasp and point out the window. Bonnie joined her in time to see a full fledged tornado slide right past the tower and make a bee line for our little home. They ran to my bedroom where dad had cut a hole in my closet floor making for an easy entry into the four foot crawl space below. That was the safest place to be during tornadic activity. While mom tried with all of her might to remove the floor "plug" Bonnie stood at our bedroom window and watched the twister veer off to the north several hundred feet before it could obliterate everything we held dear. It tore up a lot of homes and property but ours was spared.

The third reason why we loved "our tower" was because once every couple of years we got to sit in the backyard with cheap binoculars and watch skilled men climb their way to the top and paint their way down. The shiny red and white paint job never saw a tarnished day on my watch. "My boys" did a good job. I suppose they even changed the ever blinking light bulbs on the way down.

And the final reason why this tower was so special to us? Well. Honestly, you might not believe this but it's true. One day my dad was eating breakfast preparing to leave for work. Mom mentioned to him that she heard a radio playing. He listened. He heard it too. Actually, they realized they were listening to WLS and its "on the hour" news broadcast. In the broadcast it was mentioned that a convict had escaped Stateville Penitentiary which was located about ten miles to our west. Dad followed the sound of the radio and discovered that it was coming from the heating ducts. Yes, WLS was broadcasting from our metal heating vents. According to their retelling of the story later in the day, mom turned to dad and said, "You think he's in our crawl space listening to the radio?" Dad replied, "You want me to go look?" Mom, in her infinite wisdom said, "You want to get your head shot off?" Dad said that he found that idea less than appealing. And so he went to work. And mom went back to bed. Actually, she pulled the covers OVER her head. This was during the summertime and my brother and I slept in late. But when we woke up we heard the radio as well. We traced it to the same heating duct. The news was not on. Rock and roll was playing. Let's be specifically clear about this. We were listening to The Beatles playing in our crawl space through our heating ducts. And so we did what any eight and ten year olds would do. We decided to go to the concert. We skipped breakfast and made our way to the outside entrance of the wonderful world underneath our house. We pulled the cover off of the little entry way and, flash lights in hand, descended into the netherworld. We saw the water softener, the sump pump, numerous pipes and duct work. No Beatles. No escaped convicts. We scratched our heads and went off to play for the day.

At this point I would like to thank my parents for going to such lengths to protect the lives of their young children on that danger filled morning. They are both in heaven now. Probably listening to WLS broadcasting through those streets of gold.

The WLS building with the big town in the background

*As a side note, we occasionally picked-up WLS on our telephone. Our neighbor got it on her mixer. This was one honken station.

**As a second side note I came across a web site recently dedicated to radio transmitters. Yes, I did. Don't argue with me about this. For the WLS portion check out . There. I told you so. As a result of this discovery I found myself emailing one of the old "disc jockeys" from those sun-filled days in the summer of my youth. I told him my stories. I confessed that "The Big Dare" among the neighborhood kids was to run all the way up to the tower, touch it, and run back. None of us mustered up that kind of courage. It's inner sanctum was guarded by multiple fences all topped with differing sorts of razor wire. The retired disc jockey replied that I should thank which ever god I worship that I never made good on that bet. To touch the tower could easily have fried me on the spot. You would think maybe they would have mentioned that on the "No Trespassing" signs, wouldn't you?


neeser said...

We used to pick up KMOX on our answering machine... back when answering machines were separate from the telephone. Am I that old?

We also used to get cross-talk on our cordless phones... with truckers. Whew, we got an earfull there. And an, ahem, education.