Radio days. I grew up, as a young boy anyway, listening to Bob Steele’s dulcet, grandfatherly voice; poured, like ten-year-old Scotch, from the AM car radio. WTIC, in Hartford, a middling-city station that still ran the farm and weather reports for the shade tobacco farmers listening out in the rural satellite hamlets of Bloomfield, Wethersfield and the other Hartford, across the river to the east, years before Interstate 84 finally jumped across the shallow deer-crossing bend in the Connecticut from which the city literally gets its name. WTIC was your first real on-air gig, and Bob taught you the basics of Old School Radio 101. For me, years before, the Bob Steele Show was part of a homey mix of comforting dawn sounds. Treetop songbirds, an old car coughing to sluggish life, low voices in the kitchen. I carry memories of early morning driving, my father’s daily ferrying my mother to her nurse’s aide job, (she never drove, tried to learn, but gave up after rolling a car into the river after she panicked and popped the clutch, planting a lifelong fear of drowning into my not-very-deep, backseat passenger’s consciousness)my head dangling over the front seat, watching his sure, quick hands shifting gears, his size 13 wingtip tromping the clutch; my mother, the silent rider, lost in moody reverie, staring mutely out the window of one of a string of crappie used cars my family always seemed to be entombed in on those endless, blast-furnace pilgrimages to some crowded, litter-strewn Connecticut beach. One of my earliest sentient moments was pointing up at the enormous, red sun just bursting into full-blown dawn. We were again in the car, some car, an old car, driving to the hospital. Locked on the dial, Bob Steele was a fixture, like the windshield wipers or the hand-brake, amiably chatting the morning commuters up, tossing his faithful a soft-sell pitch for some dry cleaner or furniture store or a pot-luck dinner at the Sons of Italy. Out of the blue, I asked the question every child must get out of the way early on, or risk a petrified, lifelong inability to cut to the chase.

”Where does the sun come from?” I asked the back of the two heads in the front seat. My mother turned, probably smiled; but it was a cautionary smile, as her life’s responses tended towards warily fearful detachment. “From the big piggy bank in the ground.” She quipped, improvising, as young mothers do, and returned to staring out the window at the parked jalopies, tenement stoops, and wary, sullen black faces of Hartford’s north side floating by. We were getting close to the hospital, which was still reeling from a devastating fire several years before that began from a careless ash tossed into a laundry chute. This was before my mother, a chain smoker, began her job there, so she was never a suspect. Besides, that was the year she was busy being pregnant with and giving birth to me. We drove along. From the tinny car speaker, Bob Steele’s sonorous baritone was winding up a pitch for Sudso All-Purpose Kitchen Cleaner, or something like that, channeling the god of pithy familiarity, like Arthur Godfrey in his prime. I stared at the rising sun, imagining a piggy bank hidden beneath a misted, mysterious earth covered by asphalt and piss-stained sidewalks, and whose mighty hand might be shaking it to dislodge such an enormous penny.

And then years later you discovered Hartford, doing the wing-tuck dance with an aged and nearly done Bob Steele, who made the ideal, fatherly mentor you never really had. That was in nineteen eighty four, as George Orwell was rolling in his grave, and Lee Iacocca was dreaming up the ultimate shell game of K-Cars, and I was long gone from the city by the river.

***

The first time I heard your voice on the radio was from another car, a recalcitrant green VW van I called Hopper, short, of course, for Grasshopper, which I babied around the hill towns of western Massachusetts, doing gypsy carpentry work for transplanted uber-intellectuals and tithing beneficiaries of family trust-funds. I never once worked for the sturdily self-reliant locals. My meat and potatoes was birthing bookshelves and extra bedrooms and cheap kitchens out of rough, hemlock boards for artsy types who, before the popularization of SUVs, torpedoed their heavy, front-wheel-drive Volvos and Saabs through the winter drifts, clomped around their pungent dooryard woodpiles in Birkenstock clogs and range-fed Icelandic wool. Politically eschewing the suppressive, typically rural workplace, they instead crafted entirely new careers hammering silver and gold into high-priced jewelry or commuting down endless country lanes from the hilltowns to work as Women’s Studies professors at Amherst College or rape crisis counselors at UMass. The truly adventurous artisans taught themselves how to carve fiddles and guitars for the musical elite, morphing into some New Age, backwoods Lollypop Guild. My role was ambiguous. I was the point of the spear for the New American Male, tweaked by gender paradox, awash in the inner turmoil of a baby boomer who couldn’t distinguish between nature and nurture, blue for boys, pink for girls. On one hand, I carried Lily, my new baby in a front-strapped Snugli, like some egg-huddling penguin papa stoicly counting the days until mud season. On the other I wrestled alone twenty foot oak timbers onto ten foot walls with only my calloused mitts, a tough backbone, and a supercharged Calvinistic work ethic that had absolutely no correlation with the field-hand wages I was offered by the coyly rich, back-to-the-landed gentry. It only took one six pack of Rolling Rock beer, “from the sparkling waters of Latrobe,” just down-river from Three Mile Island, to dull the brute machismo expected of my chosen profession.

Your next job was a ten-year run at WFCR, an NPR affiliate in Amherst. Let’s call it the calm before the storm, before your drunken wraith of flying monkeys came out play. I like to believe it was a happy, inspiring time for you. You were, as your sterling resume glowingly touts, the station’s news director, where you “managed a staff of 5-8 reporters, produced and edited all regional news coverage,” and where, during your tenure, it won 35 broadcast awards and received a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation grant.” Heady stuff. All I remember is your voice, a soothing, velvety contralto, but with the slight piquant of danger, like a hundred foot waterfall just around the next rocky bend. I wanted to saturate the inside of my skin beneath that waterfall, the way you wrapped your tongue around the plainest of words, always a seduction, the way you signed off, This is Pippin Ross, reporting, the mere thought of which would continue to haunt me for nearly three decades. Without even realizing it, even deep in what I believed was a happy, contented marriage, I was tracking your voice, waiting and listening, like some deranged, but eternally loyal UFO spotter on SETI’s (Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence) odd do-it-yourself web site which allows casual visitors to monitor the airwaves for signs of you know what sent down from you know who. Your voice followed me like a puppy. Years later, on Nantucket, I would be working along, happily hanging crown molding or framing a curved deck on some vast, glandular plywood palace, and my dusty job-box tuned to the very NPR station that has now cut you so severely, Cape and Islands Radio. Suddenly, the room would fill with the sacred download I can never expunge from my inner sound file; and it would be you, narrating some Living on Earth segment about a town trying to clean up its toxic act, or wolves in Amherst, or hunting hawks in Vermont: This is Pippin Ross…reporting…and for the next one or two minutes, (radio time is not measured like real time) our sweet interlude inflated to life-size again; the summer of Mother Courage, tumbling in softly sexual gladiatorial combat in your boyfriend’s bed, and this monster rewind would rush back to fill the lost hollows of my loins, the place where all the spent fuel of unrequited longings go to die, like Sea Biscuit languishing in a field of summer clover.

This audio redux happened only occasionally, perhaps a dozen times in the twenty seven years since we had last ‘been together’ and not fought hard enough, or knew enough, or trusted enough to cast the juju stones and simply get on with the inevitable task of loving one another. My then partner Steve, who knew about my crippled and morbid fascination for you, would joke whenever we heard your voice echoing around the oddly private sawdust-and-shaving demi-world that carpenters inhabit, “Pip…pinnn!” he’d taunt, “ I love you! Come backkkk…..” I would smile, and shake my head, not amused, but with a sudden, overwhelming tsunami of loss, and then the waters would recede. And I would be adrift and alone, as if listening to a vague tuneless heavenly hiccup from the black SETI ethers, DaVinci’s fingertip just beyond my reach, a déjà vu that has not yet happened. If I knew then, what I knew then, I would have dropped everything…everything! and come looking for you.

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