Back in the day, as those of us who are of a certain age often say, you could fix electronics yourself. If the TV set had a problem, you could pull out the vacuum tubes and take them to a neighborhood store that had a tube tester, plug them in one by one to find the bad one, purchase a replacement, pop it in, and you were back in the business watching programs coming in via a rooftop antenna in spectacular black-and-white.
Back in the day, you could also build your own electronics, and that reminds me of the coolest thing I ever did with my Dad.
Building a shortwave radio.
It was probably the most unique birthday present ever. A company called Heathkit sold kits which enabled you to build a radio. I was around 10 and beamed as I opened the box.
Then my eyes filled with fear as I saw the ton of parts inside. “We’re actually going to build this?”, I asked.
My Dad nodded, “It will take a while, but we can do it.”, he said. Dad began to unpack, spreading the parts all over the dining room table, which soon covered about half of it. Mom soon walked into the room and saw all of those parts on the table. “Guess we’re not eating here for a while.”, she said.
That was an understatement.
Then my Dad set up a soldering iron on top of an old tile and plugged it in. I was still a bit frightened, but he assured me it was perfectly safe when used correctly. It was at this point Mom thought we were going to burn the house down. I soon learned from my dad that a “cold solder” looked different than one done right, and it would not work because the solder hadn't melted properly.
The radio project went on for months. As my parents were divorced, Dad dropped by a couple of times each week to work on the radio. It slowly began to take shape as things like capacitors and transformers took their place in the circuitry. We finally finished with the internal stuff and then placed the radio case on top. The radio was completed.
It was in that moment that a question suddenly occurred to me that I hadn’t thought of during the whole process… would the radio actually work?
Dad brought the radio next to a window and ran 30 feet of antenna wire out to a pole in the backyard. Now for the moment of truth.
“Go ahead, plug it in.”, he said.
All of a sudden I felt too scared to plug in something I had built that involved electricity. “It was your idea, Dad, you do it.”, I told him.
We looked at each other and we immediately knew what the other was thinking. My Dad and I shared a healthy fear of electricity stemming from the time he tried to fix a television picture tube. He touched the wrong wire while replacing that tube and was knocked backward off his chair even though the set wasn’t plugged in at the time. We later found out that picture tube circuitry can store enough juice to kill a person even when a television set is not plugged in.
Dad came up with a solution. He plugged the radio into the longest extension cord we had and ran it into another room. If the thing exploded, at least we’d be out of the way.
He slowly plugged in the extension cord. The radio turned and the dial glowed. It worked! All we could hear at first was static, so I started turning the tuning dial. An instrumental song soon filled the air in the room, but where was the origin of the broadcast?
We waited for the song to end and then a disc jockey with a foreign accent started talking.
He was broadcasting from Australia!
We couldn’t believe it. A build-it-yourself radio actually picked up a transmission from halfway around the world.
That radio picked up all sorts of interesting stuff from other countries over the years, sometimes in a foreign language that I couldn't understand, but I could eventually figure out the source location of the broadcast.
I've actually found people selling that very radio on eBay, and learned that the Heathkit company still exists, so if you’re a Dad looking for something cool to do with your son or daughter, check it out.
As for that old radio, it probably ended up in a garage sale when Mom sold the house. However, the memory of that time with my Dad, just like the radio transmissions in the airwaves, is still bouncing around in my head.
Randy Tatano is the author of more than 20 novels, writing political thrillers under the pen name Nick Harlow, and romantic comedies as Nic Tatano. He spent 30 years working in television news as a local affiliate reporter and network field producer. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of 1819 News. To comment, please send an email with your name and contact information to [email protected].