This is part of an 8-part series about growing up with Asperger’s in a different era.
1943 – 1946
On the fifteenth of May, 1943, when I was not quite ten our family moved into a summer cottage in the then-rural hamlet of Woodside, situated about thirty five tortuous miles south of San Francisco nestled in the foothills behind Redwood City. This was to be our family’s first-and-only free-standing home since coming to California in 1941, four months before Japan’s sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. My parents put $1000 down toward the full price of $4500 for this hybrid four-room, wood-frame dwelling onto which had been grafted a long stucco garage with an unfinished room tacked onto its rear. Half of the one-acre lot had once been given over to a small orchard, or rather the attempt at growing such on impossibly rocky soil.
I claimed the unfinished, unpainted room in back for myself, and well I did considering subsequent events. Its unfinished floor consisted of a single layer of rough pine boards laid at a 45o angle. Since the splintery boards were spaced about half an inch apart and had numerous knotholes, it was lumpy even with a heavy carpet laid atop cardboard salvaged from packing crates. No provision was provided for heat anywhere in the house so it was cold, especially in winter. While coastal California’s climate is mild compared with much of the U.S., nighttime temperatures in winter could dip to the mid-20’s in the hills where we lived. During an unusually cold spell in 1948 the temperature fell to four degrees above zero, duly recorded by my maximum-minimum thermometer which I had to reset daily. Moreover my room hadn’t been wired so it had no outlets, no lights; the nearest source of electricity the back porch light twenty-five feet toward the front. I quickly remedied that by adding an adaptor and running a concatenation of extension cords to my room. Now I had light—but only when the porch light switch was in the up position.
Prior to moving we lived on a steep hill in San Francisco, a street that sometimes became so slippery when it rained my mother couldn’t drive up, the car’s rear wheels spinning uselessly on the smooth bricked surface resulting in our going nowhere—or sliding backwards. She’d back down slowly which always scared me since no guard rail stood between where the bricks ended and a sharp drop a few feet beyond, whose bottom I couldn’t make out, only rooftops far below. After a few more attempts she made certain to leave the house in the downward direction on rainy days, return from the opposite direction so it was downhill both ways. Nothing like this ever happened on Detroit’s icy streets in mostly-flat southern Michigan, where I was born.
In the first year or so after moving to Woodside, my father and I got along fairly amicably. He landed a job so we had income, not much but enough for basics. Gasoline was rationed on account of the War Effort so we had to make the most of each trip for supplies and groceries. His sudden and sometimes violent flare-ups of rage had subsided some and I became less fearful in his presence.
One thing that helped was his determination to finish the floor in my room. Presently a truckload of oak flooring arrived at our door. The boards had been finished on one side ready for laying, no need for sanding, staining or varnishing. It was tough going since the boards were half an inch thick and keyed which meant they had to fit together. The oak was so hard attempting to drive in the nails caused them to bend or split the wood. And many of the boards were warped, so as we laid each row the cumulative warping grew more unmanageable. I suggested we take up some of the boards we’d just laid, pick and choose so half warped one way, half the other, nail them back down in alternate rows. It went smoothly after that outside a growing pile of nails too bent to straighten and reuse. Today an electric hand drill would’ve taken care of that nicely. He varnished the finished floor for extra protection before applying a coat of wax. Now I had a real floor, no more knotholes or gaps to fuss over.
Installing and connecting the furnace presented the next challenge. Dad cut a rectangular hole in the floor in one corner of the room and we carefully slid an oversized monster of a floor furnace into place. He rented or borrowed a set of plumber’s tools, made some measurements and bought piping. Then cut and threaded one of the pipes, allowing me to do the remainder. We dug a long trench to the main part of the house, joining and laying pipe. It was uncomfortable, lying on our backs under the kitchen on the cold damp ground as we struggled to fit everything together. When done he turned the gas back on and tested for leaks with soap bubbles along the way to see if any bubbles got bigger indicating a leak. No leaks, and we filled in the trench.
Now for the test. Under his supervision I took a coat hanger, bent it out straight and curled the end opposite the handle with a pair of pliers to hold a match. I attached a match, struck it, lowered it slowly into the furnace’s interior. It took several attempts to light the pilot, each time starting over with another match. When I first turned on the furnace a huge yellow fireball gushed up toward me and I jerked back. Within a second or so the flame shrank into a neat row of blue-tipped, hissing flamelets, whose intensity could be regulated by turning a handle. I replaced the grill, stood on it feeling the delicious warmth on my bare feet. The monster was too big for my room but that was okay because it took only minutes to warm things up from a cold start. Since it had no thermostat, I experimented with various settings to see how long it was before I had to turn the heat up or down. Arriving home from school on cold rainy days, I appreciated how quickly the furnace heated the room. On the small side and skinny, I was almost always cold. But not in my domain.
At first little more than trees and grass could be seen from my room. The war over, a frenzied building boom quickly got underway. At first we took our trash across the street over a hill and dumped it in a growing pile of other people’s trash approximately a mile away. Sometimes I’d find something interesting and bring it back.
Some days I’d wake to the early morning sun on my face, bound out of bed eager for the new day, doubly so on Saturdays because I could shove all thoughts of school aside. The quality of air was pristine, sky becoming deep blue after an occasional early morning fog had dissipated. School went relatively well at first, a small two-room, gray stucco schoolhouse with grades one to four in the room on the right, four to eight on the left. Things gradually deteriorated because I did so poorly on my exams I had to repeat fifth grade. Also I’d become a target of teasing and bullying, a situation I’d run into before and would again.
I loved my room with its two small windows facing south, two oversized, single-paned sash windows facing forested Kings Mountain to the west, and a tiny window facing north I seldom opened. Kings Mountain partially shielded our region from chilly ocean breezes. Billowing white clouds often formed above its crest, the same clouds that would’ve enshrouded us in cold fog as frequently happened in San Francisco’s Western Addition bordering the Pacific. Sometimes I’d come home after school to a room blazing hot from the afternoon sun, floorboards creaking in loud protest as I entered.
Each night when it came time for bed, Mom would switch off and on the light a couple of times. I’d hop into my pajamas, dash into the house to brush my teeth and say goodnight. Five minutes or so after my return, the light was switched off, flashlight handy in case I had to get up during the night. Sometimes I’d awaken to the moon shining on my face, gaze out wonderingly at the bright, twinkling stars. Was anybody out there and what might they be like?
For a brief spell I had a console radio in my room since my parents had gotten a bigger one second-hand for the living room. One radio station, KPO, was particularly strong, nearly drowning out the others. Those were the days when radio drama was king. Many was the time I’d find myself captivated by these plays as they unfolded in my imagination.
Mom didn’t always turn off the light right away so halfway through a radio play the light would suddenly go out. No more light, no more radio, no more play. I thought of running a second extension but where could I plug it in unnoticed? I awoke one morning with a possible solution. The more I thought about it, the more excited I grew.
Since the garage and my room had no electricity, I would wire them myself befitting a professional electrician. I got hold of a manual at the public library detailing how to wire houses, learned about armored cable and their fittings, outlet boxes, black wires being hot and white ground or neutral, fuse-boxes, three-way switches and how they worked, how to cut rectangular holes in walls for outlet boxes and switches, snake wires to the cutouts, mount outlet boxes and wall switches and plates. The manual had a section on wiring codes in the back. Since it had been published fairly recently, I surmised the codes might not be too far out of date.
But would my parents allow an eleven-year-old such an undertaking without supervision? This was clearly a job for an electrician but they couldn’t afford one for a job on this scale. I’ve forgotten how I convinced my father, who knew nothing about electricity, perhaps waiting until he was in a particularly good mood upping my chances. Finally winning his approval after he’d thought it over, I made a list of materials and we went shopping. Early Saturday morning I was already at it. A few Saturdays later I’d installed three outlets in my room and a wall switch to turn them on and off. I didn’t tackle the ceiling because that would’ve meant making some big holes and ceilings are hard to work on, besides this one had no attic hence no crawl space. I wired the garage with outlets along unfinished walls and installed overhead lights with pullchains, worked my way toward the front diagonally joist-by-joist under the house with less than two feet crawl space in some places.
I stopped short of the fusebox, refusing to go further. Doing so would’ve been suicidal since there was no way of shutting off the electricity before the fuse-box. A short circuit at that point could’ve blinded or killed me instantly besides possibly starting a fire nearly impossible to put out until the power got turned off at the utility pole across the street.
When I explained this to my father, he hired an electrician for the hookup. Just as well because when the electrician saw the original setup he insisted it be replaced pronto. A lineman from the power company arrived and climbed up the pole across the street and cut the power, followed by the electrician’s swapping a closed four-fuse box (two fuses for the house’s original circuits two for mine) with a built-in master switch. The original was an insanely dangerous affair consisting of two open fuses and a naked knife switch, all that stood between the house’s wiring and the power coming in from the street. What was the person thinking who’d installed this primitive layout in 1937 when the house was built?
It was a slip-of-the-finger-and-you’re-dead sort of thing, particularly following a good rain resulting in pools of standing water everywhere. To gain access one had to crouch through a narrow opening on the house’s south side just behind the front porch. Imagine going down there some rainy night fuses in one hand, flashlight in the other, stumbling and fumbling in the soggy darkness meanwhile trying to avoid contacting the exposed fuse holder and/or knife switch. Indeed just going near the thing was courting disaster. Perhaps my wiring the new addition had averted disaster by necessitating replacement of the original hookup with an enclosed safety switch and master fuse. The electrician hooked up my two circuits and everything worked perfectly, as I knew they would.
I told everyone whenever a fuse had to be replaced, be sure to pull the master switch first, cutting power off to the entire house. While inconvenient since that would plunge everything into darkness, I deemed it vital for safety’s sake. Since the fuse sockets were partly exposed inside the box but not the switch, killing the power removed the potential for a nasty shock or worse.
Emboldened by success, I further took it upon myself to install a ceiling fixture over the kitchen sink. That meant cutting a hole in the ceiling, tracing the wiring in the attic to locate an always-on circuit. I chose a pull-chain affair obviating the need for cutting into the wall and cabinets to mount a wall switch.
While my mother boasted about these feats for years afterwards, usually to my chagrin since I didn’t regard them as anything special, she said little about my failing grades. This didn’t trouble me much initially since that was all I’d known. I beheld school a bewildering jungle, a maze where I could never seem to find my way. As pressure was mounting on me to do better, I was driven out of a mix of curiosity and dread to see if I could find out how others in my class got high marks. The few times I screwed up sufficient courage to ask these wizards, as I’d come to view them, how they did it, the answers were essentially the same: “Nothing to it,” or “I don’t know—it just happens.” Nobody had a clue beyond that; in time I came to the conclusion that while some people have the requisite intelligence, others don’t. It was clear which camp I was in, and nothing could change that.
Now that I’d achieved my goal of uninterruptible electric power to my room, I directed my attention to the radio. After climbing under the covers and turning off the light, I’d turn on the radio and soon become absorbed a radio play. Occasionally I’d fall asleep with the radio still going. One night I chanced to awake after the station I’d tuned to had signed off for the night. But I still heard a voice, fainter but distinct enough that I could pick out most of the words. I didn’t pay particular attention at first, figuring it was bleed-through from other locals still broadcasting.
One night out of curiosity I put my ear to the speaker and was astonished to hear announcers reeling off unfamiliar call letters like KFI. KFI?—where was KFI? KPO, the station I’d been listening to earlier, now off the air, sent out its signal at 680 kilohertz. Turned out KFI was at 640khz from Los Angeles, approximately 400 miles south. That caught my attention. Soon I was on a quest for other distant signals, possible only at night for two reasons: some local stations signed off at midnight clearing the way, and AM signals can travel great distances after dark. I was soon launched on an activity that would help shape my later years.
I became an avid nighttime DXer, that is one who seeks distant stations for the pleasure of it, farther away the better. One outcome was I was soon falling asleep in class, not hard because I was bored most of the time. Word eventually got back to my parents. That, along with my stubbornly poor grades, resulted in their whisking away the radio. I was told I could have it back if my next report card showed improvement. No more faint whispers out of the night, no more adding to my growing list of states whose stations I’d logged. The biggest loss was the radio plays, a few making a big enough impression that I still remember them.
Something new and wholly unexpected was soon to enter my world, a simple device that would alter significantly the course of my development.
I’d seen Uncle Henry only once or twice since our moving west, when he came to San Francisco to attend a medical convention or whatever. Each year he’d send me and my brothers Christmas presents, toys mainly.
One year I unwrapped mine to discover a kit of items, many I’d not seen previously: fahenstock clips, a roll of enamel-covered copper wire, single earphone with headband, hunk of galena (lead sulfide) set in a round lead cup with its top partly exposed, a hollow tube made of shellacked cardboard, copper slider and screw-on knob, cat’s whisker and holder, small square of sandpaper, assorted hardware and base made from Masonite with holes drilled in strategic locations and labeled. I studied the instruction sheet detailing how to assemble these components into a crystal set. The galena would serve as the detector, requiring one to probe its craggy surface with the cat’s whisker for the loudest reception.
I followed the instructions, winding the wire around the cardboard tube exactly as described, sanded the top until I could see the bright reddish-orange of bare copper for the slider, mounted and wired everything together. I erected an aerial, a wire running out the window diagonally to a far corner of the house thirty feet away. Next was to run a second wire to a two-foot-section of pipe left over from the furnace installation, which I’d hammered into the moist ground.
With eager anticipation I clamped the single earphone to my ear, tweaked the cat’s whisker. Nothing. Moved the slider back and forth across the coil, nothing, not a peep. Disappointed, I checked the wiring and everything appeared in order. Another try resulted with the same results. What did I do wrong? I stared at the board glumly, wondering what to do or try next. Then it hit me; I’d neglected to sand the enamel off the coil’s ends as directed. I pulled out its leads from the clips, sanded each to where I could see bare copper, reconnected them, put the headphone back on, once again tweaked the whisker.
Imagine my surprise and delight when after a few crackling attempts, I heard a voice, loud and clear. KPO boomed in drowning out several weaker stations barely audible in the background. I moved the slider back and forth, left it where the sound was loudest. Now I had a working radio requiring no external power or batteries, that would run as long as KPO remained on the air. Only one station to be sure but my favorite with its superb dramas, the regional outlet of the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) with its three chimes immediately preceding station identification. I’ll never forget my first night after I’d adjusted the whisker, snuggled under the covers to enjoy a drama about a ship that had run into a storm far at sea and was in danger of sinking. What a difference it made, hearing everything delivered straight into my ear thanks to that single earphone!
I was enthralled by the magic of this free-running device that never needed to be plugged in unlike an ordinary radio. The earphone usually fell off after I’d gone to sleep, its faint chatter beyond earshot. And no more nighttime DXing causing me to fall asleep in class. I had something far better—an uninterruptable passage to a magical world of make-believe that could never be turned off because it had never been turned on, each night initiating a new round of wondrous adventure. And it was all mine, something I’d put together and got working on my own, no help needed.
I was hesitant telling my parents about this minor miracle, fearing they’d take it away like the radio. My mother caught sight of the earphone one day and I thought that was it, since I’d forgotten to tuck it under the covers along with the crystal set. In a moment of inspiration I told her to put it up to her ear, explained that she was hearing the simplest radio in the world that required no source of power outside the radio station itself. But the surprise was on me when she explained crystal sets were fairly common in the 1920’s because the first radios were too expensive for all but the well-heeled.
I explained further the earphone always fell off after I’d gone to sleep. And that KPO signed off not long after. She came to see it as an advantage because it lessened my resistance to going to bed on time, an issue since it appeared I required less sleep than most my age. I was seldom ready for bed at the appointed time before but now was eager for the world of adventure to unfold. My parents saw little harm so let me keep the set. They probably figured I’d soon tire of it anyway since I had a history of switching abruptly from one obsession or near-obsession to another. Little did anyone know!
My parents were right in one respect: I soon moved on, but not in a direction anyone might’ve foreseen.
I started experimenting with that simple radio. I wound new coils, hooked them up different ways, nary a clue as to what I was doing at first. I erected higher and longer aerials, one high up in a gigantic eucalyptus tree in the front yard I dared not climb until I was alone so nobody would see me sixty feet above ground. Its lowest branches were twenty feet up, necessitating a ladder to reach them. I had to be careful because some branches were farther apart than my height, and after gaining some altitude, I felt the tree swaying in the wind.
Gradually I succeeded in teasing out a second station, KGO, 810khz, American Broadcasting Company’s (ABC) outlet, a second tier of fine radio plays. Problem was KPO at 680 was much stronger so I’d hear both simultaneously, trying to concentrate on one play or the other. Sometimes I’d switch my attention to whichever was more interesting or captivating at the moment. That usually worked unless both were equally exciting, forcing me to try taking in both at once.
Around that time I happened upon a Boy Scout book someone had tossed in the trash, detailing various projects suitable for one my age. How To Make a One-tube Radio immediately caught my eye. It touted reception up to twenty miles, twice the range of the typical crystal set. But where would I get the components needed to construct such a device? I would need a pair of 22½ volt B batteries and a single 1½ dry cell for the A battery to power the tube’s filament, a variable capacitor (condenser in those days), an 01A vacuum tube and socket, grid-leak resistor and blocking capacitor, plate bypass capacitor, along with sundry other items like forms to wind coils on and so forth. I already had the earphone, but that was about it.
As luck would have it, someone my father knew had recently died and his wife wanted to know how best to dispose of a carton of old radio components. I begged him to accept it, which he did. Imagine my joy at finding a large variable capacitor with brass plates albeit a mite tarnished, knob for tuning the capacitor, coils and coil forms, various lengths of enameled copper wire, a pair of headphones, tube sockets, fixed capacitors and resistors among other items. Its most prized item was a pair of 01A tubes taped together in their original boxes, exactly what I needed! Mom gave me some money and I bought a dry cell and two 22½ volt batteries from the local hardware.
But it wasn’t all smooth sailing: a conflict was developing between what interested me most and would soon consume me utterly—and something that interested me not a whit. While I was eager to mount my new-found components and wire them together, I ruefully put everything back in the box and slid it under the bed. I feared were I discovered working on my new project instead of toiling away at my hated schoolwork, these beloved components could be taken away like the radio. Since it mattered little whether I studied determinably or negligently, my grades remained essentially the same. Why knock myself out for naught? But my parents didn’t see it that way, roundly believing I wasn’t applying myself diligently enough.
Finally, long-awaited Saturday arrived. First was to construct a table from scrap wood left behind by the house’s previous owner. That would become my work area, keeping everything separate from my study desk. I figured if they were on opposite sides of the room that could lessen the chance for conflict whether from parents or studies. And for show: if my parents viewed the radio project in its unlit corner on the far side of the room, might they be less inclined to raise a fuss?
But everything got put on hold because Mom had other designs. She’d recently received my latest report card which showed no improvement since the radio’s disappearance. As a consequence it was deemed I’d spend two hours of my precious Saturday mornings toiling over History and Math, my weakest and least-liked subjects. I dreaded the thought of having to spend my favorite day of the week slaving over books whose contents might as well have been in remote Africa. But if I did that convincingly, my reward was to have the rest of the day to myself. I grudgingly saw my mom’s point: fail to get my grades up enough and I could end up stuck in the same grade next year. By the time I graduated the older of my two younger brothers by three years was only one year behind and fast catching up.
Released from torture at last after my forced study session, I made a beeline for my room. It was cold because I hadn’t turned the heat on since I had to study under my mother’s watchful eye in the kitchen. Outside a layer of frost covered the grass save where the sun’s rays fell. I cranked the heat up full; while the room heated up quickly everything in it was still cold including me. I wrapped myself in a blanket and began to draw plans for my new table. That done, I turned the heat down, set about measuring and cutting the boards in the garage which warmed me up some. Mom had to call me several times to come in for lunch, finally coming out to fetch me. I was nearing the end of the sawing and didn’t want to stop until after I’d finished cutting the last board. Imagine my showing the same determination toward schoolwork!
After gulping down lunch in seeming record time, I returned to sawing the boards and proceeded to nail everything together. Next was to file off the splintery edges and sand the surfaces, apply a coat of red paint I’d found in the garage, wait for it to dry before applying a second. While waiting, I arrayed my newly-acquired components in a number of ways atop the bed, took some measurements and cut down one end of an orange crate to serve as the radio’s base. The crate’s thinner side boards would be used for the project’s enclosure later.
By the time I’d gotten the base cut, sanded and stained, a few of its components securely into place, it was already growing dark. I still had homework for my other classes, okay now that I felt a keen sense of accomplishment.
Sunday dawned bright and sunny but cold. But this time I was toasty in my haven. I still had homework to do which I usually put off as long as I could, usually caving in after dinner. Since it was early I might get a running start on my project before my parents got up. I felt the pressure of time as I knuckled down to the task of mounting the remaining components and began wiring them up.
When called for breakfast I was nearly done. Again I’d accomplished more than anticipated. After a hurried breakfast I finished hooking everything up, connected aerial and ground. But when I connected the A-battery, the little tube remained cold and dark. I cupped my fingers around it and searched for a sign of life. Nothing. Maybe the poor thing had burnt out or suffered some other misfortune before coming my way. A quick inspection revealed one of the leads had pulled loose from the socket’s base, easily remedied. This time the filament, in the shape of an inverted V, emitted a beautiful, soft orange glow. But still I heard nothing. Further inspection revealed I’d wired one of the B batteries backwards resulting in zero volts applied to the tube’s plate circuitry, another easy fix. After connecting it the right way this time, sound exploded from the headphones so loudly I reflexively threw them off. KPO was so loud I could easily make out individual words with the headphones several feet away.
Glowing with a renewed sense of accomplishment, I disconnected the batteries and returned the aerial and ground to the crystal set in preparation for my nightly trek into the world of make-believe. I studied an extra hour that night, I was so elated.
I was at it even earlier Monday morning, hoping to get in an hour’s experimenting before downing breakfast and dashing off to school. So much to learn, so many things to try: just thinking about it was captivating. I was a having a grand time—but only when free of pressure forcing me into what I didn’t want to do.
School lay one-and-a-half miles away in those pre-school-bus days so I had to leave early. We had only one car which my father needed for his job in San Mateo, twelve miles in the opposite direction. Gasoline rationing meant walking to and from school each day which I enjoyed. I dreaded arriving late because I’d feel overly self-conscious tiptoeing in, interrupting the teacher, more feeling than seeing twenty-five pairs of hostile eyes boring into me as I’d slink as close to the wall as I could toward the rear where I sat. Some teachers assigned us seats alphabetically, making me uncomfortable even if I arrived on time. I hated being surrounded by a hoard of disagreeable, rambunctious classmates.
That Monday was a long, seemingly interminable day. My head bulged with visions of coils, wires, the tube’s orange glow and the like. Since Mom knew what was about, she insisted I do my studying in the kitchen under her watchful eye after dinner. Though onerous, in return I was granted two hours to do whatever I wished before bedtime.
Eventually I was allowed back into my room the entire evening on condition I tended to my studies. To make certain I was following the straight and narrow, Mom would occasionally make spot checks by coming out to my room unannounced. That presented no problem at first because of my acute hearing; I’d hear her open the back door, close it softly behind her, count her measured footfalls one by one on the hard concrete as she approached, followed by a brief silence before the door suddenly sprang open. She didn’t knock as we’d agreed upon, so I had little time to beat it to my desk and assume a study stance. That worked fine until she began wearing slippers and tiptoeing to my door and jerking it open at random. That did it: it wasn’t long before she caught me at my new table with the earphones clamped to my ears. So it was back to studying in the kitchen or see my precious radio confiscated. I chose the kitchen.
I knew she wasn’t bent on punishing me, saving that as a last resort. Though her actions were for my benefit, I loathed them nonetheless. Everything I did in terms of school was to little avail so my grades remained essentially the same regardless of my efforts at pulling them up, with one notable exception. In my senior year in grammar school, a new teacher showed up, a kind, intelligent guy who took a liking to me. He gave me extra assignments and sometimes I stayed after school to chat or help put things away. As a consequence my grades soared in science. He encouraged me to give a talk before the class on Thomas Edison, my boyhood idol. I was called Edison by my classmates thereafter, then Marconi on account of my budding interest in radio and the similarity of our names. That resulted in my receiving an S, equivalent to an A today.
My single-tube radio gave me what school couldn’t: a feeling of accomplishment. Here was something I could do on my own and succeed. If I didn’t succeed right away that was okay because sooner or later I’d hit on a solution, or failing that pursue something else. Out of that came the knowledge it wasn’t always necessary to succeed, a lesson not learned in school but on my own. Unlike with school, my self-esteem never got whacked.
A neighbor gave me an old-fashioned horn which consisted mainly of an earphone attached to a lotus-shaped device that flared out to an opening about a foot in diameter. I hooked it up to the crystal radio and through experimenting made it loud enough to hear all the way to the middle of the garage even if I couldn’t make out all the words. Not bad for a radio requiring no external power. With the one-tube set I could hear it all the way to the garage doors and beyond, up to thirty feet away.
Since the tube’s filament drew as much power as a flashlight, the A-battery became progressively weaker, as did the radio. Finally it stopped working altogether. Rather than spend my meager allowance on another dry cell, which would soon die anyway, I returned to the crystal set. Through that I was to develop techniques I’d later apply to the one-tube set to enhance its performance.
In my library research, I came across a circuit describing a wavetrap, consisting of a variable capacitor and coil connected in parallel, one end of the juncture hooked to the antenna (aerial in those days), the other to the crystal set. That allowed me to null out KPO to a large extent, at the same time slightly boosting KGO. Now I had both stations relatively free of each other so listening to one or the other was easier: no more struggling to track two dramas simultaneously. Exciting as all that was, I wanted more. I tried two aerials strung in different directions with and without ground, each with its own trap. I was about to return to the one-tube set despite its appetite for dry cells but received bad news instead.
My latest report card was even worse than previously. Mom was summoned to school for a powwow with my teacher. Since I wasn’t present I didn’t know what transpired until later. That was in the days when few schools had counselors, usually none in rural areas like ours.
The outcome was I had to put all my radio components into a box which was spirited away, probably to someone else’s house since I was pretty good at sniffing out things hidden in ours. Other items were probably stashed in Mom’s dresser, an area strictly off-limits—where I never ventured having developed a strong sense of other people’s privacy not to be violated. And this time I didn’t get my radios back, not even on Saturdays because, as Mom explained, I’d get to thinking about them to the exclusion of everything else. I didn’t argue the point because she was right and we both knew it.
But studying more wasn’t the solution. Mom sensed something was amiss so hied me off to the Psychology Department at nearby Stanford University for an evaluation. But nothing came of it. She took it upon herself to help me with my studies. Afternoons were devoted to my memorizing materials, learning to comprehend more of what I read, vocabulary building and the like. My father, quickly given to anger, exploded in frustration trying to teach me long division. Curiously, both parents regarded me as bright beyond my years, my mother in particular. But not I, who felt I had more in common with the proverbial village idiot. My classmates got it, I got nothing. Times were when I felt utterly alone, swallowed up by life’s complexities.
In time my grades nudged upward, enough to where I was presented with my radio projects one fine Saturday morning. New rules were established: two hours of study Saturday mornings, and now two more on Sundays, my parents likely concluding more as unproductive. And no radio during the week.
Soon after, I speculated what might be the outcome if I inserted a coil between the 01A’s plate circuit and the headphones. I had no understanding of what I was doing so had taken the Thomas Edison approach—try everything I could think of, learn as much as I could from each effort. If something worked better than before, find out why if possible. Edison had no formal college or university degree and to him mathematics was as incomprehensible and opaque as with me.
I’d been collecting empty toilet paper rolls which served as coil forms. I wound a coil with about forty turns, connected one end to the tube’s plate circuit, the other to the plus terminal of the battery. When I picked it up KGO suddenly grew louder. When I lay the coil back down KGO returned to its usual loudness. Pick it up again and the volume increased. I soon discovered harder I gripped the coil, louder became the sound emanating from the earphones.
I wound more coils. One worked so well I had to push the headphones away from my ears. But when I hooked up the other, it was the same as before. Or was it—it seemed the tighter I gripped the second coil, weaker grew the sound. Why was that—to all appearances the coils looked the same, about forty turns each.
Experimenting further, I soon discovered that if I stood up instead of sitting on the bed while holding onto the coil, the sound level decreased. Sitting back down brought the volume back up. But only with coils boosting the volume, the others having no effect whether I stood or sat. What was going on here?
I couldn’t find any reference to what I dubbed magic coils, not knowing what else to call them. Some had the magic and others didn’t. What was the difference between them? The way I wound them, the directions the windings took? All the books I consulted were rife with mathematics and diagrams and little else. Sometimes when Mom went on errands to the City I’d go along and she’d drop me off at the S.F. Public Lsibrary, a massive granite building adjacent to the War Memorial Opera House on Civic Center, where I’d burrow into the stacks in my never-ending quest for knowledge.
Undaunted, I wound a new coil with twice as many turns this time, surprised to encounter an ugly screeching whenever I squeezed it hard enough. Why was that and where did it come from? This was something new. And, that was just the beginning.
Here came my second discovery: between KGO at 810khz and KPO at 680khz, existed a third station I’d only heard on a full-size radio: KQW at 740khz in San Jose, Columbia Broadcasting System’s (CBS) outlet, a third source of radio plays. Its weaker, 5000-watt signal lay twenty-five miles away whereas KPO with ten times the power was twelve miles away. KPO pretty well swamped out everybody else. On rare occasion I could just make out KQW’s faint whisper, catch a word or phrase during one of KPO’s infrequent pauses.
Grasping the coil just so with one hand, rocking the tuning capacitor back and forth with the other, I was eventually able to coax KQW to where it was nearly loud as KPO. But if I squeezed harder I was greeted by that awful screeching and the audio would become so distorted I couldn’t make out much of anything. While exhilarating plucking KQW out of the ether, it was tiresome having to hold onto the coil just so without flinching.
That’s about as far as I got that day because once again I had to surrender my goodies and make with the books. Or tried to, my thoughts riveted on coils and KQW. I’d made a discovery none of books I’d consulted mentioned. (Actually a few did but I didn’t see it at the time.) Excited as I was over this discovery, I couldn’t tell anyone because who’d understand? Or give a hoot.
This journeying into the world of discovery became my only friend, a resource of my own making that nightly brought new worlds of imagination into my life, illuminating avenues I couldn’t have known otherwise. It was a treat beyond compare, an experience of a lifetime that seldom comes twice. For all knew I was the only one in the world with this discovery. And it didn’t end there.
Getting KQW properly tuned in became easier with practice though keeping it tuned in remained challenging. I launched a search for other stations, in the process dredging up KSMO San Mateo, KLS and KROW in Oakland across the Bay, KYA from downtown San Francisco. I wanted KFRC at 610khz, the Mutual Broadcasting System’s local outlet because it offered top-notch sci-fi dramas. But for some reason my coils wouldn’t work their magic at the longer wavelengths.
Since I had no calibrated dial as a guide, and having previously memorized the station layout from the living-room radio, I knew where each was in relation to the others. I found these weaker stations by gripping the coil hard enough so as I tuned across each I’d hear a whistle indicating its carrier. With painstaking adjustment I’d slowly back off from the coil, meanwhile rocking the capacitor’s knob for best sound. By dinnertime I’d logged half a dozen new stations. While some were too faint to listen to regularly, each was a conquest of sorts. Just detecting them was excitement enough.
After dinner I dashed back to my room, slapped on the earphones, enjoyed once again seeing the O1A’s filament come to life which required half a second or so. I soon had KQW tuned in to make sure everything was working properly. I held onto the coil firmly enough so all stations squealed as I tuned through them. But something was different—now I was hearing many more squeals. Could it be what I thought it was? Impossible, I told myself, and yet. . . .
Scarcely able to contain my growing excitement I zeroed in on a faint signal and waited for station identification. My hands ached since I dared not move them for fear of missing the station ID. Sometimes I could make out the announcer’s words distinctly, other times they became so faint I couldn’t make out anything. That told me it could be a distant station since distant stations fade in and out but never locals. Patience paid off: You are tuned to KSL, Salt Lake City, Utah, 1160 on your dial.
I let out a whoop. Salt Lake City, over 600 miles away on twelve-year-old’s radio he’d made himself? Impossible! Thirty times farther than the twenty miles purported for the one-tube set. How was that possible? The magic coils couldn’t have contained that much magic. But it might as well have been magic given my meager knowledge. Yet there it was—my ears weren’t lying. I chose another faint whistle, zeroed in, was rewarded by detecting KEX, Portland, Oregon. By bedtime I’d logged KOA Denver over 700 miles distant, KOB Albuquerque at 800, KNX Los Angeles, XERB Tijuana plus others. By whatever means I was receiving the same stations as the living room radio with its nine tubes against my paltry one.
Unable to contain myself further I threw off the headphones and dashed into the living room to announce my wondrous discovery to the world. I explained to my parents that I’d just received stations hundreds of miles away on my one-tube radio. My father came out to investigate, and once I got a distant station tuned in, instructed him to remove the headphones from my head and transfer them to his. He listened intently but couldn’t hear anything. He replaced them over my ears and I heard nothing either; the station had faded out. And his removing the earphones from my ears and putting them on his changed everything, I later learned; the only way to hear anything would’ve required his making the same adjustments as I. I tried explaining how but it flew over his head.
Still, I was too excited to be disappointed. I stayed up nearly all night DXing. Just before dawn I’d logged a dozen more distant stations. Albuquerque and Denver remained the farthest; for some reason I never heard anything farther east even on the living room radio. I was to learn doing so required a double hop of the radio waves between ground and the ionosphere, which usually worked best during high sunspot activity. This was heady stuff, more thrilling than anything I’d encountered, would likely encounter again. Looking back I see that was one of two highlights of my childhood, the other my visit to Lick Observatory atop Mt. Hamilton.
A possible answer as to why some coils led to the boost in volume and not others came to me one day as I sat in class staring glumly out the window. What would happen if I reversed the coil’s leads? One lead to the tube’s plate, the other to the battery’s plus terminal, then reverse the two. That did it, at least one part of the mystery solved. Now all my coils were imbued with magic. One way resulted in positive feedback, the other negative. Done right positive feedback allowed that single tube to amplify a given signal thousands of times instead of the usual ten or fifteen.
But it didn’t end there. Curiously, I still couldn’t receive stations below KPO; territory between 540khz and 640khz might as well have not been present. How come no KSFO at 560 or KFRC at 610, lower-power stations in San Francisco that came in fine on the console? Herein lay my fourth discovery, not as exciting as the others yet instructive.
Around that time my father decided to repaint my brothers’ room. That meant one brother had to sleep with me since I had a double bed. That night after I’d gotten under the covers and put on the headphones, I discovered I could now pick up stations on the low end of the dial as well. I tuned in KFRC for the first time. Just after the announcer give the call letters, I became aware of one of my brother’s feet pulling away from mine; the instant he did KFRC vanished! I moved my foot to contact his again and back came KFRC. He pulled it away again and no more KFRC. Weird!
Next morning before we got up I asked him to grab my arm because I wanted to try something. Sure enough KFRC was back. Since we weren’t close I did not experiment further with him. But I had an inspiration. A large piece of galvanized flashing left over from construction lay in the basement. I washed off the dust and loose flakes of plaster with a damp cloth, brought it upstairs and laid it on the bed. The instant I touched it and made the adjustments, KFRC was mine once more.
Only later did I learn what happened, and why. I had connected the bedsprings to the radio which served as a floating ground. Since the coil was in the plate circuit of the 01A, my grabbing the coil and sitting on the bed acted like a giant capacitor, my body completing the feedback loop.
Now I was reading everything I could find about radio and how it worked. I came across plans for a regenerative one-tube set which did exactly what mine did without the extra coil, without having to make so many fussy adjustments. Instead of the coil controlling the level of regeneration or feedback, a single knob was all I needed. Later on I added wavetraps, loading coils, multiple antennas including a room-sized loop, a tuned radio-frequency amplifier—which KPO promptly swamped.
Over time as I moved up the tree of knowledge, I came to understand superheterodyne radios and their merits over simpler circuits, short waves, beat frequency oscillators, power supplies and a good deal more. I’d entered a world of discovery upon discovery, a marvelous time.
Now it’s my turn to assign a grade: Radio A, School U, or in today’s terminology, F.