When I was a Kid

The Early Years

I came from a small town in West Virginia named Spencer.  With a population of just over 2000, everyone knew everyone else.  Sort of like Andy Taylor’s Mayberry.  Since our town was at least 25 miles in any direction from a main road, it’s isolation made it a wonderful place to grow up in.  I loved the area and the people that filled my life then, but relating to the kids my age was another story.   Most of them thought I was weird.  They were satisfied with just bouncing a basketball or tossing a baseball around all day, but I was different.  A fun day for me was dissecting an old five-tuber on the kitchen table. 

I guess my problem was my insatiable curiosity which started early on.  According to my Dad, when I was first learning to crawl, I managed to chew through a lamp cord then take the two bare wires and short them together thus blowing the house fuse, all without getting shocked!  As I became older, I wanted to learn everything I could about the gadgets that were a part of my everyday life.  What was inside the chrome box that made toast?  Why all those gears inside a clock?  How could a television possibly work?  Where were all these voices and sounds coming from that I heard on Mom’s old console short-wave radio?  These and many other mysteries kept me in trouble as I searched for the answers. 

Most people, including some of my relatives, were not very supportive of my obsession.  The local folk would say things like: “That boy’s gonna blow himself up one day” or  “I wouldn’t leave that boy alone cause he might burn down the house” or my favorite, “If he keeps foolin with lektricity he’ll end up gittin shocked to death.”  My Mom was somewhat sympathetic to my needs, however, she was always warning me of the dangers lurking in the things I thought were neat, like golf balls and flashlight batteries that were full of acid, or vacuum tubes that contained deadly poison.  Of course this just made me even more curious.  My Dad, on the other hand, really encouraged me.  He would always say: “You keep on tearing up things, boy, and someday you’ll make good.” 

I was about eight years old when my interest in old radios was first kindled by my uncle Howard who was the town’s “trash man” or what you would call a one-man sanitation company.  He drove a big old open bed truck throughout the City and surrounding suburbs collecting everyone’s trash and garbage.  Since uncle Howard knew about my interests in anything electrical or mechanical, he would keep an eye out for discarded items like these and place them in a special little pile in the back corner of his truck.  That pile was a goldmine for me.  When he came to pickup our trash on Monday I would practically run him down trying to get to that pile so I could reap the treasures.  There, waiting for me, were goodies such as old clocks, worn out kitchen appliances, fans, and sometimes a typewriter or sewing machine, but the best find of all was a radio!  Yup, that marvelous device that later in my life would thump when you turned it on and spew out a wonderful aroma of hot dust from glowing vacuum tubes while providing a means of listening to the world from right inside my bedroom!  At that time though, I just wanted to see what was inside things and get some idea of how each worked.  After the big delivery, I would proceed to our kitchen table where I could start taking things apart.  In those days my arsenal of tools consisted of a flat blade screwdriver, bicycle pliers, a pocket knife and a hammer.  Even with these limitations, I was able to dissect most of the stuff until one day when I came across something that was loaded with one-quarter inch hex head screws.  At the time, these were the latest innovation in assembly, but I hated them.  The guys that invented these must have spent many hours laughing to themselves about how there must be some kid like me out there somewhere gnawing them out with pliers.  Piece by piece, the finds were reduced to a pile of twisted metal, wire and other parts.  Ironically, when my uncle returned the following week, he got most of it back!

It wasn’t long before I began to save some of the parts, thinking I might use them for something else later.  What started as one cigar box of parts, eventually grew to boxes under my bed, in my bedroom closet, in the cellar, in the back storage room and on the back porch.  I never really did much with the parts but somehow I knew I was destined to collect them.  I just loved to be alone with my parts and dream about all the things I could make with them.  This must be some genetic disorder found in geeks and nerds like myself.  Even today, with my basement filled with tens of thousands of parts, I still like to relax down there and dream about all the things I could make with them.

When I was eight, the television was just replacing the radio in the living room.  Prior to that, we would set around and watch the radio after supper.  Another innovation, the transistor radio, was just starting to show up in the local stores.  Listening to the radio became something you could do away from home since you could now carry it in your pocket.  The used furniture stores had many beautiful old wood console radios which were selling for as little as five dollars.  Consequently, many of these tube sets were put out as trash and my uncle brought them to me.  I hate to say it now, but I parted out some really nice radios that would be very collectible today.  At the time, I didn’t understand how the sets worked or what all the parts were for, but I do remember the tube numbers such as 26, 27, 45 and 80 that I would carefully remove, clean and store away.  Another thing I remember about the tubes is the beautiful engraving of the company names on the bases.  My favorite was Cunningham.  I thought this name was so neat that I wished it was my last name.

Eventually, I did start building things with my parts collection, but it quickly became apparent that I needed something better than a nail heated over our gas stove to solder with.  Of all the people I knew, my brother, Tony, was the most unlikely to help me in any way with my projects.  At the time, he had a flat-top haircut and wore a tee shirt with a pack of cigarettes rolled up in one sleeve just to look cool.  Being an older brother, his natural instincts led him to taunt and tease me most of the time.  But, to my  surprise, he bought me a Weller soldering gun as a Christmas present.  It was one of those high wattage ones that was so heavy I sometimes needed both hands to manage it.  This thing was amazing!  I could now repair or build anything!  Or at least I thought!  But, as you would know, all neat gadgets have their downfalls.  I quickly learned that the tip on one of these behemoths stays hot for several seconds after you let go of the trigger.  This resulted in a hole in my bedspread, a burn mark on our tablecloth, several melted plastic radio cases and many burns on my fingers and various other parts of my body.  I was beginning to think the local people might be right about burning down the house!  Oh well, this is the price you pay for  professionalism…

By the time I was nine, I had learned enough to think I could start fixing things for people.  As I soon found out, folks were not exactly anxious to let a nine year old work on their radio or television.  So, my first clients were kids I met at school.  I repaired a few things for them, but what made me popular, other than selling salamanders, was a trick I could do with old watches.  I would take a few parts out that then made the hands run around the dial real fast.  The kids were fascinated with these.  But, it was short lived when one of the parents demanded that I put one back the way I found it.  You wouldn’t believe how hard it is to put all those gears in their holes and get the two halves to go back together!


The Telegraph

By age ten, I had met a kid that had similar interests, that is to say he also liked blowing up things and messing with electricity.  One thing we got interested in was making telegraph senders and receivers.  The sender consisted of  an “I” out of an old transformer core, nailed to a board to represent a key and the receiver was another “I” bent and nailed to a board in proximity to an electromagnet that was made by winding a large wad of enamel coated wire around another nail.  The wire was salvaged from an old TV focus coil.  The only power source we had was the wall outlet.  We would wind a wad of wire on the nail and plug it in.  After the smoke cleared, we would wind a bigger wad and try again until we came up with a wad that lasted about five seconds without incinerating.  We figured this would work if we learned to send code really fast.  Later, when summer arrived, we were mowing lawns and making enough to buy the hefty six volt lantern batteries at 99 cents each.  These worked much better without burning up the coil. 

Since we had perfected the sending and receiving apparatus, the next logical thing to do was put up a telegraph line from my house to his.  For the line, we settled on the rest of the focus coil which looked like there was at least a mile of wire left on it.  We decided to run the wire over the existing telephone poles that were between out houses.  Since we didn’t have a tall ladder, we just  tossed the roll of wire over the lowest existing wires on the poles.  Needless to say, this turned out to be a bad idea.  First of all, the roll didn’t fair too well because we didn’t always catch it each time it was tossed.  Secondly, we ran out of wire about a block short so we gave up.  For the next few days, we heard of people complaining about the “hair” wire that someone had left hanging about neck level around there.

After a few months of trying to find another way to run lines, it dawned on me that there were lines already run between our houses that had been right there under our noses all along, the gas and water lines!  It stood to reason that the two were metal and they both connected to our houses, so why not use them as the two conductors for the telegraph line?

So, the big test came one night.  I had the sending end armed with two, almost fresh, six volt lantern batteries and the key connected to the gas and water lines respectively on our hot water heater in the bathroom.  I got on the phone.  “Are you ready on your end?”  “All set here.”  I then ran back to the bathroom and closed the key.  “Did you get it?”  “Nothing here.”  I checked connections, still nothing.  The only thing I could think of was that the batteries were too weak to go all that way.  So, I decided to go to the next most powerful source of energy available to me, the good old wall outlet!  After installing a line cord, I was ready for another test.  “OK, get ready, you should get it this time.”  I ran back to the bathroom and closed the key…  Wham!  I was suddenly  setting in the dark!  Our old house had only two fuses, one of which was vaporized.  Unfortunately, my Dad was home at the time.  “Mike! What’d you do?”  Somehow, when anything such as a loud noise happen around the house, Mom or Dad would immediately ask me what I had done.  While my Dad was hunting for a fuse I went back to the phone…  “Gee, it acts like a dead short on the lines!”  “We’ll just have to give it up until I can figure out what is causing it.”  After a few days of contemplating, and being the genius I was, I came up with the answer.  I surmised that somewhere between my house and his, the gas and water lines crossed each other and there was the short!


Free Electricity

At age twelve, I was starting to really get into building things with salvaged parts.  I had managed to get two old RCA model 630TS television sets partially working that uncle Howard had found.  I then connected them together with a photo multiplier tube so that one acted like a flying spot scanner and the other one a receiver.  With this setup, I could wave my hand in front of one screen and see a silhouette of it on the other screen.  Back then, this was amazing, especially for a twelve year old!  But again, my glory was short lived… 

In those days, my Mom had a saying when she was frighten or excited.  She would yell out “Lord God Almighty!” or L.G.A. for short.  It wasn’t heard very often, but when it was, something serious was going on.  I heard it when my brother swung out on an old rope tied to the maple tree in our front yard and the rope broke.  Once, I got lost in the woods.  I found my way out after midnight and came home to find my Mom and half the town were gone out looking for me.  When I walked up the hollow looking for them, one of my neighbors was standing at the edge of the woods.  He informed me that the last flashlight at the top of the hill was my Mom.  As she came wading out of the chiggers and poison ivy, I heard her say L.G.A. followed by “I’m gonna kill you!”

For some reason, in our town, the older houses were wired so that power to the front porch light didn’t go through the electric meter.  It probably had something to do with the tradition of leaving your porch light on when you were away from home.  I always thought this was stupid because it was like signaling the burglars to come on in there’s no one home!  When I discovered the light wired this way, I was in hog heaven.  It meant free electricity!  All I had to do was tap into it.  That was easy, just a fifty cent adapter from the local hardware store and four cheap extension cords in series to get it into my room.  I ran the cords across the porch ceiling, down the wall and through a hole into the living room where I ran more cords under the rug and over to my room.  There, in my room, the electricity forked off in many directions…

One afternoon I was working on the old televisions that were connected together.  They were happily cooking away and sucking kilowatts from my free electricity hookup when suddenly, there was a short!  It turns out that the free electricity I was getting was not fused either!  The line cord and extension cords started smoking in my room followed by flames and more smoke which proceeded into the living room under the carpet and on to the porch.  My Mom came running to see what was on fire in time to see the cord burning up the wall on the porch.  Mom let out an L.G.A. as it approached the ceiling like a big fuse burning.  Watching this was like a cartoon in slow motion.  Thinking fast, I ran over to the porch light switch which was on the living room wall by the front door.  “Don’t worry Mom, I can shut it off here!”  I flipped the switch down and it just flipped back up!  It had welded itself together.  Mom repeated: L.G.A., and we watched out the window as the cord consumed itself in a shower of sparks and thick smoke until it ended inside the light socket. 

My integrity fell several points that day.  Mom wouldn’t let me go near the burned-out fixture until she could get the Monongahela Power Co. to send a man out and fix it properly.  The next day, an old guy showed up and proceeded to setup his ladder directly under the light fixture.  I could have told him it was still alive, but Mom told me to stay away from it and after all, he was the professional.  I watched from the doorway as he started to poke his hand into the burned-out socket.  There was a bright flash and the old guy almost fell off the ladder.  “Damn boy! Whattage ya do to this?”  Mom must have introduced me to the power company when she called.  It didn’t take long before the guy had rewired the meter and electrical box so the free stuff was no more.  Since I had watched what he did, I rewired it back to the way it was, after he left.  I never tapped into the fixture again, I just didn’t want my Dad to have to start paying for the porch light.

As I became older, I had many more adventures that left lasting impressions.  As for the town folk’s predictions, I came close, but I never blew myself up.  I almost burned the house down once when I accidentally set my Mom’s kitchen on fire.  And, I hate to say it, but I was almost shocked to death on two occasions.

I’m all grown now and have three great boys of my own.  For some reason, none of them have left me in the dark.  I guess it skips a generation!  Grandkids???

And finally, Dad, I guess I made good but it wasn’t from tearing up things but rather from putting them together.

Mike

*Update, 10-28-06: Just returned from a visit to the old home in Spencer.  The house is still standing and it still has the same electric meter and porch light after I fried it 45 years ago!  Click here for a picture.

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© 2006 ~ Michael R. Starcher ~ All Rights Reserved