Too Tall For the Shelf

A tale of my grandfather, me and the glow from an old radio

Credit:Jon Rehg© 2021 iStockphoto LP.

It stood four feet tall, wooden, and in disrepair. The red weaving from the speaker was worn. Strands of the wires hung from the speakers. A ring stain from a glass carelessly put on the top of it added to its frail look. The cord had frayed. Plugging it in at this point would have been an act of stupidity or a unique method of suicide. The tubing inside was shot and the dial light would no longer glow. It was a relic from 1939. It was a radio that was useless now, but it spoke to me. It illuminated the old basement that both myself and it resided in. That broken radio, my grandfather’s radio, was not just nostalgic. In my deepest depression and in my isolation and unwanted solitude, it was a lifeline to a time when I could smile.

My grandfather and I were connected in a way that was unlike any relationship I’ve experienced before or since. He could do no wrong in my eyes. Even when he told stories that I later concluded were exaggerations if not tall tales made of whole cloth.

He told me of being at The Biograph the day Dillinger was shot.

“Of course I didn’t see anything. I headed out of the movie pretty early.”

He said that his mother was supposed to be on the Titanic but arrived late and missed the boat.

“Had your great-grandmother made it to that boat, you wouldn’t be here. Do you understand?”

I understood even at age ten that the likelihood of one person experiencing all these major events was very small. I didn’t care. He told me of days during The Great Depression. He told embarrassing stories of my mother and aunt’s youth. He told me secrets that will die with me.

Movies were also part of our time together. Old movies that most young children didn’t care for I would watch religiously and with enthusiasm. We would watch westerns starring John Wayne, The Duke. We watched as Jimmy Stewart collapsed on the Senate floor as Mr. Smith. We would watch both The Duke and Stewart in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. I cannot watch any western, any old film without thinking of him. And so it goes with the radio.

One day. Papa, as I called him, showed me the beautiful radio. Hidden in storage for at least a decade, he brought it out and I was able to see it in its fine form. He plugged it in and the dial lit up. I looked up and smiled at my grandfather and he beamed back.

Not long after that, my grandfather had his first health crisis. As we sat together at St. Francis hospital we talked as usual, until he suddenly broke down and cried. “I love you so much.” We often said “I love you” but I had never seen my strong, fierce, 6’4” grandfather cry. He was my Duke. The Duke doesn’t cry. I backed out of the hospital room frightened. He would never cry in front of me again.

He relapsed into an illness so quickly that by the time I realized he was dying, it was too late to say proper goodbyes. He was so incapacitated and confused that he no longer recognized me.

The pain and emptiness of his death never really left me. As dark and clichéd as it sounds, a part of me died with him. The child was gone.

For a brief time, I had the radio in my possession after my Grandfather died. It was not in any kind of working shape. It went from being beautiful to being a dilapidated antique. I looked on websites to see if I could have it repaired in some fashion. Even the cheapest quotes were too much. I put thoughts of fixing Grandfather’s radio, my radio into the back of my head.

“Someday,” I thought, “someday I’ll make it brand new.”

Before my Grandmother passed away, when I still lived with her, she asked if there was anything she had that I wanted to take as my own. I said that I wanted that radio. I wanted to be with The Duke forever. She promised me it was mine but it was not to be. She forgot that she promised it to someone else.

I know I will never see it again. But I will see The Duke again. He is here. He is always here.

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Amy Von Blickhahn

Amy Von Blickhahn

Writer of memoir essays, pop culture and all the trivia you never knew you wanted.

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