Hali Palombo
Jul 9 · 5 min read


At the Illinois state fair I ran my fingers along the spine of a piglet. It felt like knuckles. I imagined tug-of-war, hands gripping around a rope, pulsing and straining tightly, trying to win. The piglet’s spine felt like that. I shoved this thought down because it seemed like a grotesque thing to think.

I imagined the consequence of running your finger down the spine of the hands of several people playing tug-of-war. It would likely be met with resistance and irritation. The piglet displayed both resistance and irritation towards me, grunting and doing a little spin into a corner.

I also saw a sheep held by two leather straps while two men sheared the front end and back end. The critter bleated once but otherwise seemed fine. I felt bad for it for only a second. It probably felt good to get his wool coat removed in the summertime.

I watched this for a while but my concentration was broken by a little fucker of a kid who threw a balled up paper at me. His parents were too drunk to say anything. The day was too nice to get into some kind of genuine conflict about it, and I’m glad now that I just let it go.

It was Daniel and I’s first serious trip as a couple. It was going perfectly. He was and is my best friend. He was and is a person I do not really keep anything from because I do not feel like I need to. I gestured to the kid and Daniel said “fucker”. We laughed together. It really was a perfect day.

— — -

In our first house in Chicago on the corner of Clark and Fullerton, I used my shortwave radio a lot. I climbed out the window, leaning out halfway, and laced the external antenna wire around what I presume was a leftover bit of fire escape. Then, I would sit in my beater nightgown (it was my shitty nightgown that I ate in) and I’d smoke and listen to the world.

I got interested in shortwave radio because of my grandfather. He would sit at our dining room table when I was a kid with his Hallicrafters radio and show me what China and England and New Zealand and Arizona and Nebraska had to say. It was often preachers yelling, but sometimes it was numbers stations — spy transmissions that were coded. “Uno, dos, dos, dos, uno, uno tres, uno” would be an example of a Spanish numbers station, in a measured female voice.

It was exciting to me and the radio remained my friend throughout my entire life. I got lonely often, but would turn on my radio and felt not so lonely anymore. I often ducked out of particularly dismal high school parties to ride my bike home and listen to my Sony radio, even looping the wrist strap around the handlebars of my bike and going for a ride near the dam by my dad’s while the radio played. I would sit on the dam and listen to a man in the desert yell bible verses. I would cry because I felt awful.

I kept radio from people. It was a hobby I was very guarded about because I felt like it was a world I could turn to when I felt bad and I did not want people in on the secret, talking about what I listened to in ways that I felt to be incorrect or silly. They were my friends.

— —

The DUGA-3 array is a Russian radar system that was part of the Soviet early warning network. It’s near Chernobyl and you can’t miss it — a massive grid reaching towards the sky. DUGA-3 was known in the West, especially the states, as the “Russian Woodpecker”. This is because it habitually created KNOCK-KNOCK-KNOCK broadcasts that would stampede frequencies anywhere near it — utility transmissions, legitimate radio broadcasts such as BBC, and most of all amateur radio broadcasts.

This caused it to earn the resentment of many radio hobbyists who were trying either to broadcast or to listen to other stations. Since the purpose of it was thought to be Soviet mind control, I assume resentment of Soviets came with it, but that’s not something I can make an educated comment on.

My first experience with the Russian Woodpecker was with my shortwave radio when Daniel was asleep. I had tuned it to what I presumed was an empty station, just white noise. I was straddling consciousness and a dream when the loudest thing I have ever heard in my life exploded into the room, causing me to get so scared I sat up and gag audibly. Daniel did not wake up. I still have no idea how or why.

I grabbed my radio and turned it off and walked to the bathroom and shut the door. I could not imagine for a second why a station that had been broadcasting white noise for months suddenly exploded at me. I turned the volume knob all the way down so it wouldn’t deafen me, and then turned the radio back on.

There it was again — a sound like a hammer against a panel of wood. I was fixated. It felt like a dream. I tried tuning the station ten stations in both directions, and you could still hear the frequency — it got less and less loud the further you got, but it was still there, broadcasting from some big empty grid in abandoned Russia.

I would often tread softly to the bathroom at night and listen to the frequency. Since you could not tell when exactly it was going to broadcast, there did not seem to be a timeline that was reliable enough to create a schedule. I would have to turn the volume down very low and closely listen for the woodpecker to start tapping.

It was just me and the woodpecker in the bathroom late at night. It felt like having a lover. I put the radio in the empty bathtub to hear how it reverberated off the porcelain. I put the radio hanging out the window so the frequency would bounce off the brick of my apartment building and down into the alley. I wrapped it in towels to hear it try to force its way through the fiber and into the room.

I developed a relationship with it. When I got nervous about anything I knew that eventually it would tap on my door and I’d let it inside. The visits began to feel deliberate. I began to feel like I was hiding something from Daniel, which I started to feel badly about.

— —

On the way home from the state fair, Daniel and I got out to look at some smokestacks near Springfield. I asked him if we could stop and see and he said yes. We both like looking at industrial parks off the highway, and he understand the awe I expressed about the smokestacks, something I never talked about with anyone else.

We stood and watched the smokestacks make clouds. I looked at Daniel with everything I had while his back was turned. He sensed it and looked back at me and held his hand out for me to hold. It was a moment of profound love.

I grabbed on tightly and our hands looked like the piglet’s spine from earlier. I told him this and he looked down and said, “hey, they sure do”. I told him I had something to play for him when we got home. I asked him if he wanted to listen to my radio.

    Hali Palombo

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