Vacuum Tube Technology

Copyright 2012, by Paul Hawkins Excerpted from “Angels and Electrons” See also “It Had Been an American Century”

* It's 1939, and a boy on a farm without alternating current could have told you more about the world than a PhD student can now. He drank in the newsreels, he scoured the magazines left in the hotel hobby or the barbershop for knowledge, he pulled in the news from the air, from the antenna of his crystal radio hooked to a window screen. He heard the voices and saw the visions in his mind and fitted them into his bottomless thirst to reach out beyond the humdrum landscape visible from his window. The world was bigger in the 1930’s. The world was bigger both in one's mind and outside it. There were more pieces to it and they didn’t need to fit together. There were quarter-mile grey dirigibles humming transatlantic routes across grey transoceanic skies to and from grey photographic skylines; there were champagne corks popping in tall business-dealing offices; there were farmers turning soil and driving home-modified Model T’s across brown acres, proud odd timesaving home-welded metal arms clawing dust inventively and effectively while horses and mules watched and twitched their ears; there were crystal radio antennas attached to window screens in a farm boy’s stuffy boxy upstairs room in Summertime, with cicadae hatching and humming in the acacia in the yawning purple-then-black world outside, and his younger brother’s already out like a light and snoring, but this boy at 13 or 14 is just beginning to realize that out there somewhere in the sweetening and cooling darkness is something precious he is missing, something his heart has a hole in it for, something he is yearning to find. And always there were the silver signals, bounced by hucksters and amateurs alike across the invisible skies - the breath of angels, the news or dreams or bragging of a ham radio operator in Enid or Sydney or Sioux city or Cleveland or St. Louis, and the soap-sponsored radio crooners and the comedians with their guffawing but doubtless genteel audiences in some unseen New York auditorium, all laughing, the jokes like razor-thin silver signals a morse code of surrender and defiance in the blackness, leisure and desperation, a silver stab made to look easy yet resolutely made at the thing closing in, a signal fading in and out while the boy hears the distracting noise of his brother's buzzing and the prowling of justawakening cats in the alley the field on the fire escape down on the porch getting into the garbage cans or the milk pails below, oh shut up the joke just let it get to the punch line this

time please and yes, the line then the laughter, crackling like tinfoil or popguns or static in the darkness pushed back for an instant, the link made with the people all of us laughing at something, and maybe out there one who laughs at lots of things that he does, and maybe out there someone who wants to know him, before the sponsor's slogans send him off to fight for brand names and freedom. The world died in the decades after that, when the war was won and TV caught on and even the least prophetic soul glimpsed how all the pieces could be hammered together, if the market and the slogans were just right, and salesmen perfected their patriotic pitch and figured how to leash and program the capricious angels of our dreams, the necessary imps of the unseen that always had to be tolerated before, when the signals were invisible and could only be seen in dark rooms with lidded eyes focused somewhere in the blank above the sparking dial, and they tapped into the shows and showed that all the airy unseen angels visiting our vacuum tube altars were really only floating spheres of brand-name soap. Before those organizing decades the airwaves were fairs and carnivals that were home to liars and everyone knew it but wanted it - not confessors, like now, folks who drop their drawers before any camera and expose want they think are their lives or souls - not confessors, liars, showmen, each with his lie, his own outlandish world bumping the gaudy farcical sphere of someone else -- the wolf-boy the faith healer the pygmy shaman the snake oil mystic Hindu the anatomically-gifted farm girl the albino spelunker the cheesy British comedian with his parrot who won't talk on live radio, the bubble dancer the "Mister, I seen Jesus" transient the refugee the Shadow. Their lie with and against your lie you're an enigma you're special a mystery no oath no credo no uniform can confine you you're a thing; you're old you're young you're dying in the farmhouse with the grandkids shooed outside, you're on a train to meet a girl you've only written letters to before, you're in a big unfamiliar city with two dollars in your pocket wondering which way to turn at the corner, you're in a line you're bunked in a mission you're in a field you hear a laugh from the farmhouse you're in the attic with your best friend and you discover something; you're in school you're a single woman with her first real job in a new city and all the men are jerks, you're black you're Irish you're Czech you're German you're hated, you're left behind you're ditched by your friends or you've ditched them for anything new, you're a refugee but you've escaped, you've moved from the known into the unknown with no clear guide though with the silver signals, and even if you're nothing you're a dancer, because unseen signals are motion in the dark and in your mind, motion potency and potentiality, possible directions but not orders or sloganized hypnosis; you spark and fade like signals in the vacuum tubes -part of you is airy angel, and you're free. My father and mother grew up in the 1930's, did their part in WW II, then set about making the American Century.

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