Cutting Through the Static

I grew up in the Midwest in the late 70’s and early 80’s. A nerdy, freckle-faced kid who watched way too much TV. It was the days of guys like The Dukes of Hazzard, BJ and the Bear and Burt Fucking Reynolds. Dudes with some combination of awesome hair, awesome vehicles, swagger and maybe a monkey for good measure…and CB Radios.

My father was a salesman. He sold computer software in the early days of the industry. Magnetic tape. Punch cards. Vacuum tubes. Machines that would take up half a building. I imagine that they had steering wheels like a ship and maybe some foot pedals.

He traveled a lot and he enjoyed it. He took us along from time to time. He probably spent 40% of his time on the road. That was OK with me. Things were tense when he was home and pretty relaxed when he travelled. I didn’t know why at the time — it just was.

He drove a puke-green Chevy sedan and took it within inches of the bumper of whoever had the misfortune of traveling in his path. Being his passenger was never a relaxing experience. I learned to go limp and block it out. A defense mechanism.

This model Chevy had a new safety feature where the rear windows didn’t roll down. I don’t mean that they only rolled down a few inches. They didn’t roll down at all. Now, I am the youngest of three kids, I’m claustrophic and my parents both smoked like chimneys. This means that I was sitting in the middle of the backseat (on “the hump”, as we called it) breathing second hand smoke with no escape.

Also, I got car sick. A lot.

Generally, travelling in Dad’s car was not a great experience.

He had himself a big 70’s mustache and white-guy afro. (These were also the days of Welcome Back Kotter….google it.) He also got himself a CB radio for his new ride. Somebody at his job must have turned him on to it and he dove right in.

We were all fascinated with the radio, but also felt a little puzzled by it. Like it didn’t belong with us. He mounted it under the dashboard, which instantly made the car look a lot cooler than it was. But then things got decidedly uncool. Under Mom’s son visor was a big yellow laminated card.

It was a CB lingo cheat sheet.

The card had things like…

  • “What’s your 10–20?” means “What is your location?”
  • “Smokey” means Police
  • “Beaver” means Female

Yeah. I had a lot of questions.

The kicker was the microphone. You see, Dad’s kind of cheap and I’m imagining that he took whatever 2nd hand equipment he could get for a low price. Part of what makes The Bandit so cool is how he grabs that mic and cracks wise into it. It fits nicely in the hand and becomes part of the swagger behind the wheel.

Dad decided to go with the giant stand-up desktop model. It had a wide base, stood about 9 inches tall and needed to be jammed awkwardly under the passenger seat. Getting it in and out of there was an operation that usually required Mom’s assistance. It had a huge black spiral cord that constantly threatened to throw the car into reverse or spill Dad’s ever-present Budweiser.

We were driving across the country on a real life Griswold Vacation. Mt. Rushmore, Grand Canyon, largest ball of twine. All of it. He would wake us up at 5:30 am to hit the road to our next tourist destination. We saw a lot of the country, which was really cool, but the hours were brutal.

The three of us would cringe as he cut through the static with, “BREAKER 19 for a 10–36!”. Not sure why he couldn’t just ask Mom what time it was, but whatever.

He found comfort in talking with his fellow travelers. He was a rebel — bonding with the other outlaws. Identifying speed traps and letting others know where Smokey was hiding. Listening to stories and occasionally sharing his own. Cracking wise and sharing his brand of wisdom.

The radio was on whenever we were in the car. He loved it.

Honestly, we kind of liked it too. We would take turns sheepishly pressing the oversized TALK button, squeaking out our stiff lines from the card — thrilled when we received a friendly response. It was a community. A strange culture with a language all its own. But still — it gave me douche chills when he did it.

Dad’s handle was “JD”, or sometimes “JD from the Windy City”. That was his moniker with his drinking buddies from work as well. It was a little like George Costanza trying to make “T-Bone” happen. It didn’t happen organically — it was a chosen name. Regardless, amongst ourselves we kids still call him that to this day.

As a young adult I would look back at that time and wonder. What was it about us that he felt that he needed to spend his time talking to them? We were funny. We had interesting stories. We even knew what time it was. We just didn’t know where Smokey was hiding.

Some day in the near future my tweens and younger ones will discover social media. Inevitably, they will encounter a couple of uncool personalities that sound an awful lot like Dad and Mom sharing one-liners with this strange community. Hopefully, they won’t find my laminated card.

Originally posted at Daily Dangle

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