Sound Waves

by David MacWilliams

On the cluttered workbench in front of my father and me we had a black steel radio chassis balanced atop the curved jaws of the large vise. Rectangular and silent, the old radio smelled of cold metal and of dust, and to me, it seemed as hopelessly silent and dead as all the other radios stacked and slanted haphazardly on the shelves behind us. Not so to Dad, of course. Before Mom had summoned us upstairs to dinner, he’d unscrewed its back cover and had swapped out the vacuum tubes and some wiring within. Now all he had to do was solder two wires together and plug the thing in.We settled back onto a pair of wooden stools and Dad flipped on the switch of an architect’s lamp he had clamped to a shelf above us. The lamp flickered to life. “Okay,” he said, grinning broadly, so I handed him first his soldering gun and then the silver spool of solder, items we’d left ready on the bench top. Dad dipped the tips of the solder and gun into a tin of nut brown flux, then aiming both inside the chassis, he pulled the trigger. The solder crackled and smoldered and thin wisps of acrid smoke shimmied from the radio’s gut. Dad spoke to me as he worked but I wasn’t listening; I was watching the smoke rise and curl eerily into the air between us, imagining that the radio was a space ship just landed on earth, its smoky lid open with some mysterious shadow poised to emerge through its blue fog. Dad soon put down the gun and solder, snapping me out of my daydream. He pushed aside the parts and tools and junk on the surface of the workbench and then he gently somersaulted the weighty radio down, landing it on all its four rubber feet at once. He swiveled it round to face us and laid one thick hand across its top. “Now she’s ready.”

This was an evening late in autumn, 1974. I was twelve, and he, forty-seven. I think a lot about him since his death four years ago. I’m a dad with two young kids, a twelve-year-old son and an eight-year-old daughter, and I wonder about the character I’ve inherited from my father, about the traits he left me and those I may in turn leave to my children. I wonder too about those parts of my character that seem to be mine alone or things he didn’t hand down to me directly, though maybe they’ve come from some wellspring in our shared personalities.

Back then Dad and I had spent many such evenings seated in his messy workshop in the basement of our home on Long Island, huddled over metal and paper scraps talking about things like his childhood in Queens, his youth in the navy, the books I was reading, my projects in the Boy Scouts, but inevitably our conversation wound round to his hobby, repairing radios. That night he was showing me how to solder, eager that I’d see how fun a job it was so that maybe I’d adopt this pastime of his at last. This was probably the third or fourth time he’d given me this lesson. It was a hopeless cause. I never inherited his interest in anything mechanical or electronic.

When it came to instruction in these arts, I listened only vaguely if at all. I’d daydream instead, creating metaphors out of the parts he assembled or things he said. He must’ve known it too, but he’d patiently explain how the pieces fit together and why they worked. I did my best to concentrate. I’d hand him tools and run my finger down diagrams I didn’t understand, but my attention always dissolved within minutes. While Dad talked, I’d picture myself as his apprentice and him, the clever magician. We’d be in a medieval lab conspiring over potions and a cauldron. Or maybe I’d imagine myself as his copilot, lining up our wounded plane for a landing on a rain-slick runway. The objects around us inspired their own stories, too. The solder I could coil into the shape of a cobra; the soldering gun reminded me of a Colt pistol; the tubes were like small, transparent rocket ships. Whatever the scenario, my fantastic plots and metaphors only drew me further from his orbit and deeper into my own. He’d have to ask me twice for a tool or reach for it himself to call me back into our shared world.

“Let’s power her up,” Dad said. He nudged aside the tin of flux and got a gob of the brown goo on his finger. Absently he wiped it on his shirt, then plugged the power cord into an outlet in the wall. Extending from the ceiling was a lead, that is, a copper wire sheathed in black plastic except for its exposed tip. This wire connected his radios to an antenna mounted on a post in our backyard. It lay in a jumble among the heaps of resistors, capacitors, transformers, screwdrivers and pliers that were always in our way. Dad yanked it free and by feel alone, with his eyes scrunched shut, he wrapped the tip around a screw in the back of the chassis.

The relic before us, a transceiver—a machine that could send and receive—would soon pick up signals from across the globe. As Dad tightened the screws he told me that we could hook the radio up in my bedroom once we got it working right, and that I could listen in on messages, track them, and keep a log where I could note each time I got a signal from a new state, with the goal of getting one from all fifty. He gave the screw one final twist and sat back, satisfied that he’d made a tight connection. “If you get your operator’s license,” he said, “you can talk back to the senders.”

I didn’t know then why I should care about hearing someone from Oregon or Wyoming, and worse, the thought of spending hours studying for the license just so I could talk back to them nearly killed me. I wanted to change the subject. “How does sound travel to begin with?”

Dad pushed the architect’s lamp a few inches higher and he leaned forward so that the gray-black stubble on his chin glistened. “Sound travels in waves,” he began. “A sound wave is kind of like light. It starts at one point and spreads out and out till it doesn’t reach anywhere anymore.” He poked his smudged finger into the lamp’s glow and he traced the wriggly path a sound wave would make. “Some,” he said, “are short and move kinda quickly, like this,” and his finger pulsated rapidly up and down. “It’s called frequency. Others are more stretched out, but they go farther, like this,” and he made looping, lazy looking waves that cut through the air between us. “Sound waves are all over this room right now and we can’t see ’em.”

I pictured the workshop abuzz with small, vibrant, multi-colored lights like the busy shooting sparks I’d see whenever I shut my eyes tightly and suddenly. “How far do they go?”

He smiled. “Most go a few miles and die out, but others beam way up into space and keep wandering. Someone once picked up a few seconds of an old Buck Rogers broadcast that bounced off a planet or asteroid,” and he raised his eyebrows, “and the signal came all the way back to earth years later.”

Now this was something; the very notion that a voice could launch itself into outer space and return! I looked at the mess around us, at the metal, plastic, glass, and wood. “You mean, Pop, that the messages you sent out on these things once could still be traveling out there?”

He shrugged. “One day you might pick one up on your own radio. You never know, Kid.”

This meant time without end. To launch a call that could come home again way in the future. What message could Dad send into space that I’d receive even when I’d reach his age? What greeting might I send to my future self?

“All set?”

I nodded.

“Let’s give it a whirl.” Dad flipped the toggle switch, the radio lit up and scratchy static filled the room. He gently spun a dial on the face of the box and eerie tones of high and low pitch wriggled free from it until a stuttering series of beeps—Morse code—broke through the chaos. Dad teased a pad and stubby pencil from the mess on the workbench and jotted down parts of the message.

“He wants to know if his signal’s clear,” he mumbled to himself.

I imagined green and blue and golden dots and dashes pulsating through the pitch dark outside, snaking along the antenna and wire and funneling into the radio, and then spilling out as words into the air we breathed. I wondered if they had reflected off the face of a meteor and if someone had sent them moments or ages ago. Could they be, I marveled, remnants of a message Dad himself had tapped out years back, before even my own birth? Dad said something else about the message; I wasn’t listening. The chassis had become a spaceship again hurtling between stars, then a time machine squeezing centuries into seconds. I wouldn’t realize for a long time, not in fact till I was a dad, that he’d exaggerated the length of time sound waves might travel. But he gave me that evening a gift I wouldn’t open for decades; a metaphor for his legacy.

I’m pushing fifty myself now, and I think about the past and future and I wonder about the legacy Dad left me, an inheritance of attitudes and behaviors that I’m still coming to recognize. A generosity of laughter, yet the inclination towards melancholy; an urge to be alone, yet the need to be heard. I wonder if my son or daughter have become heirs to these too. Often I stop what I’m doing and listen to them as they play together in their rooms and they laugh. Laughter sounds so much like crying at first. Sometimes one or the other joins me when I work in the yard or when I sit to watch TV. They’ll take turns sitting right next to me, and I want to keep them pressed against me, their warmth along my flank. I dread the day when they won’t come over, or when they do, that they’ll occupy only their end of the sofa. Already my son sits a little further away than he did last year, but I pull him closer when he lets me.

At Dad’s wake I slipped a photo of my children into his breast pocket. And for the twelve-year-old that I once was, I brought from his home one of a pair of black handheld shortwave radios he’d been tinkering with just before he died. I placed it at his elbow and I brought its twin to my home and gave it to my son. He’s never paid much attention to it. After a stint in the garage and then the closet, the radio ended up on a shelf among toys he uses less and less frequently. Now and then I take it down and hold the thing, small and solid and smooth in my palm, but silent as dreamless sleep.

You never know. Maybe he or his sister will power it up one day and hear their grandfather’s voice bouncing off some planet’s moon in its relentless orbit.

Or maybe they’ll read this and hear both our voices echoing from some corner of space, in a universe no longer pitch black but peopled instead with those whom their memories and imaginations make alive once more.


DaveMacwilliams_SoundWaves_Photo_lgeDavid MacWilliams lives in Alamosa, Colorado with his wife Pilar and their two children. He teaches writing, literature, and linguistics at Adams State University there. He received his MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Ashland University in August, 2011. He has been published in Pilgrimage and has an essay forthcoming in the anthology Littlest Blessings (Whispering Angel Press). He’s now working on his first book, a collection of essays on fatherhood.

One thought on “Sound Waves

  1. Jon Kerstetter says:

    Powerfully said, beautiful word choices, and nice ending to tie it to something of deeper meaning. Well done, Dave. JK


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