Sunday, July 10, 2011

Tadpoles and Polliwogs

I can't say polliwog without smiling.  C'mon, say it with me:

Polli-wog.  Pah-lliwog.  Polliwog.

Not only is it just fun to say, it evokes summers - past and future.  It's 1971 again, I'm in Mrs. Johnson's kindergarten class again - bringing home a whopper of a polliwog with his big ol fat belly, legs just beginning to emerge in front of his strong tail whipping rightleft rightleft.

So when Karen leaves me a message, all in a rush,

Hey Nick so we're bringing some tadpoles home (laughter) from the birthday party so we're headed to Petco.  Talk to you later bye.

I shoulda been happy.  Tadpoles and polliwogs?  I don't know about you, but again, for me?  That was Modesto in the '70's.  Skipping around, looking in puddles for that day's wonder.  Baby frogs coming out of the ivy after the sprinklers had doused the clinging vines.

But then I thought, tadpoles and polliwogs?  I couldn't remember just exactly.  Had my polliwog finished his metamorphosis?  Or not?  And if it did, then what happened?

In the full throes of this Dad-worry - would the girls cry when the buggers died?  Would we have to do the pet-funeral thing, replete with a cross made out of Popsicle sticks?

(There's another one that's great to say:  Popsicle stick.)

In the midst of that grumpy Dad moment, I shot Karen a text:  WTF?

Only after I sent it did I see it for what it was.  Cold, overly terse.  Brusque.  Clipped and curt.

So I thought about it, and started to warm to the idea that a polliwog would be fun - life-span be damned.

I mean, it's July 10th.  The middle of summer.  Why am I being such a grump?

I'm picturing my girls running into Petco, their little sandwich bag sloshing with water and polliwogs.  Holding the bag up for inspection, asking what they needed to keep the dinky blokes happy.

Now I'm wondering if Karen is getting a fishbowl or if she'll just use one of our Mason jars.  Colored pebbles for the bottom?  We couldn't put one of those little divers - the guy in a full Jules-Verne suit, inspecting a chest of gold, the chest opening and closing as the diver bubbles there underwater - we couldn't put one of those in a jar, but if Karen got a little aquarium, we could rig one up, no problem.

Before I can go the full 20,000 leagues down, my phone rings.  It's Karen's number, but it's not Karen on the other end.

Dad? Elizabeth says.  The man at Petco said they weren't tadpoles.

What's that, honey? I say, because Kristina is in the background, yelling about squishing something.

Dad? Elizabeth says again.  The man said they were mosquito larvae.  He said we shouldn't take them home so Kristina squished some.  Then we threw them away in the garbage.

Mosquito larvae?  I'm processing that.

Mosquito larvae?  I'm processing that Elizabeth sounds bummed, but not ridiculously so.

Mosquito larvae?  Like my friend Mia said, helluva thing to put into a goody bag at a birthday party.

Or Tracy's response - Hey kids!  Know what I'm gonna get you for your birthday?  Malaria!

Dad? Elizabeth says.  Kristina wants to say something - and then there's the fumbling of the mobile being handed from a seven-year-old to a four-year-old.

Kristina's voice comes along the wire - at about 180 mph.  Dad-they-weren't-TADpoles-they-were-bugs-and-I-squished-one-Mommy-said-they-weren't-good-can-you-believe-it-bye-I-love-you.

Wow.  I'm thinking out loud here, and what I'm thinking is - they're not bringing home an aquarium from Petco.  Really, I'm going to hazard that guess.

But now I'm all geared.  I really want one of those diver-things.  If not an aquarium, maybe hermit crabs?

I forget, how long did my hermit crab live?

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Philco Model 620F

This Philco, Model 620F, went on sale in June of 1935.  It originally sold for sixty-five dollars - about a thousand dollars today.  It has three bands:  standard AM broadcast, shortwave, and a police band.

I love its Bakelite knobs.

The V pattern of the cloth covering the speaker.

I love that after you turn it on, you have to wait a few seconds for the Philco to warm up before you hear anything.

But what I really love is that, if you were to turn this particular radio around, you'd see, written in pencil on the cadmium coated chassis:

George Petrulas
Price Trading
Hiawatha Utah

George Petrulas was my grandfather, my Papou.  I don't have the full story on when our name got shortened and then lengthened back.  But when Papou bought the Philco, his name was Petrulas.

The Price Trading Co. was the company store in Hiawatha, Utah - the coal mining town where my father grew up.  I'm guessing my Papou had to pay for his Philco before it was shipped to the store, before someone scrawled his name and the radio's destination onto the chassis.  A thousand dollars?  For a coal miner?  Yeah, I'll presume they made him pay before placing the order.

 My brother Dean spent three years in Utah when he went to law school.  I envy him those years - years spent with our YiaYia, with our uncles and our Thea, hearing stories I'll never hear - living where my dad lived.  So it only made sense that Dean would get the Philco - the Philco that had been relegated to the basement in the house on Ramona Avenue in Salt Lake City after the family left Hiawatha and headed north.

The Philco was always there when we visited, always there in the basement - the basement where my brothers and I slept during those visits in the '60's and '70's.  The radio mute, a silent link to my dad's childhood.

That's why I also especially love those four Bakelite knobs.  Love thinking about the people who turned them.  My Papou and YiaYia.  My Thea Sylvia.  My uncle Dean, my Uncle Pete.  And my dad.

Of course, my dad.

I talked to my Uncle Dean the other night.  He still lives in Salt Lake City.  During our talk, the Philco came up.

I remember the dial glowed orange, Uncle Dean said.  Guess it hasn't glowed in a long time.  I loved that radio, all of us did.  It was in the front room of our house.  House #402.

What was your street called? I asked, and that made Uncle Dean laugh.  The streets didn't have names, he said.  We just lived in #402.  In Greek Town.  Hiawatha had neighborhoods, not streets.  There was Greek Town.  Jap Town.  Silk Stocking Row.

Our house, he said, had four rooms.  Probably all 10x10.  Three of the rooms had closets - small closets - the two bedrooms and the kitchen.  The front room didn't have a closet.  Your dad, me, and your Uncle Pete slept in one of the bedrooms.  Mom and Dad in the other.  Syl slept on the couch in the front room.  Otherwise, that room was off-limits.  Except on Sundays and during Christmas.  Sunday was radio day, and we got to sit in there and listen to shows like the Shadow.

I'm picturing my dad and his brothers huddled around the Philco on a Radio Sunday (Sylvia wasn't much interested in those programs, Uncle Dean said) fighting over who got to tune the dial, who got to lower the volume when it occasionally spiked.  The three of them sitting there in the middle of Greek Town listening to the shows.  Did any of the Pallios boys join them?  A Patterakis cousin?  Maybe an Orfanakis?

One time, Uncle Dean said, his voice over the telephone growing stronger as the memory took hold, Dad and Maragakis were talking.  Maragakis was a strong Greek, like Dad.  That song 16 Tons came on the radio - You load sixteen tons and what do you get?  Another day older and deeper in debt.  16 tons?  And Dad and Maragakis just shook their heads.  If you didn't load 30 tons, and there they both laughed, the Boss would be there to remind you that you were supposed to be working.

Saint Peter don't you call me 'cause I can't go
I owe my soul to the company store

Tennessee Ernie Ford could have been talking about Price Trading.  Uncle Dean said that my Papou and YiaYia would fight, near the end of the month, over what was owed to the company store.  YiaYia covering for the kids, covering for a little gewgaw that one of them may have picked up during the month.  Then their discussion would be over, Papou would go and pay, and nothing more would be said until the end of the next month.

So it only made sense that my brother Dean got the Philco, I said that, right?  Except now Dean awaits the arrival of his second child in as many years.  A girl then, a boy now.  The boy will be Anthony, for my dad.  So it only makes sense that Dean got the Philco, because he lived there in Salt Lake.  George and I don't have that kind of claim.

But Dean and Laura are in heavy nesting mode, and they're clearing out space for the new arrival.  Getting rid of things that they don't need to make room for things they do.  Need.

Dean calls me and says he's got two things that he'd like me to have.  The trunk that we hauled back from Utah after my YiaYia died, Dean and I driving a much-too-big cargo van - which was fine through the flat of Nevada.  Dean had the good sense to hand over the keys when we rolled into Reno.  There I was, happy to do my part, with no idea that it was soon gonna be all downhill.

In a much-too-big cargo van.

Much-too-big cargo vans have a tendency to fishtail when you're going too fast, downhill, through the Sierras.

It doesn't help when you're brother is laughing at you, at your inexperience behind the wheel of a much-too-big cargo van.

One of the things we were moving from Salt Lake to Modesto was the trunk (more on that later).  And now Dean didn't have room for it.

He didn't have room for the trunk, or the Philco.

I told him that was hogwash.  He told me to shut up.  I told him he'd regret it if he gave the Philco away.  He told me to shut up.  I told him if I did accept it - which I didn't want to, because it was his - that I would get it fixed.

He told me to shut up.

And then he delivered it and the trunk just a few days later.

It's harder than you'd think to get an old Philco radio fixed.  But if you're persistent, you'll find the website for the California Historical Radio Society.  You'll make some calls, maybe talk to a widow or two (the list of contacts for radio repair has been updated, so you might not talk to the bereaved like I did), but then you'll find someone who'll be happy to help.

I found Sam, down in Fremont.  I took the radio to him and he was surprised at the condition.  The plug, with its cloth-covered cord, was still sound.  All the dials were intact.  The cabinet was a little worn, hazed by some water stains, but nothing a little work-over wouldn't fix.

Sam and I got to talking, and it turns out that he worked and went to school at MJC - Modesto Junior College - in the early '60's.  He loved his time in Modesto, he said.  He was working hard for a steel company, but getting paid $2.25 an hour - just a quarter under the foreman's pay.  Sam had more money than he knew what to do with.  He had a fancy car - often drove it to Vegas on the weekends - girls galore.  Who knew the sixties were swinging in Modesto?

And did it seem too perfect that an old man with ties to my hometown would be the first one who returned my calls?  Sure.  Sure it did.

So Sam got the Philco, and I got to go on a cruise.  While I consumed Manhattan after Manhattan - rye, straight up - on the (not so high) seas, Sam snipped capacitors and resistors, replaced the old and worn out with the new and working.

I received Sam's call that the radio could be picked up - on Father's Day.

Of course, Father's Day.  Too perfect, right?

I got home, plugged the Philco in, stretched the wire that will serve as its antenna to full extension, turned the leftmost Bakelite knob, and waited.

First, the dial began to glow.  At the prompting of a Petrulakis, the dial on this Philco, Model 620F, began again to glow.  Orange.

Then, static.  The topmost knob is two knobs - one hidden inside the other.  The outer knob turns the tuning dial quickly - the inner is for fine tuning.

I sought out KNBR - 680 on your AM dial.  After a little of that fine tuning, the dulcet voice of Jon Miller filled the room.  He was describing a tight San Francisco Giants' game, one that Tim Lincecum would win 2-1 by striking out 12.  Not a bad contest to re-christen the Philco.

Karen wasn't home yet, so I called the girls into the office.  We three sat there in the coming dark, surrounded by the books on our new shelves.  The orange glow of the dial getting brighter as the light of dusk grew fainter.  Daddy? Elizabeth asked.  Are you okay?

Of course I wasn't okay.  I was sitting in our house.  In Alameda, California.  700 miles from Hiawatha, Utah.  Sitting with my daughters.  Just listening to the ball game.  On this Philco that went on sale the month my father turned three.


My father must've followed ball games on this Philco - must've listened to the Salt Lake Bees.  They played Pocatello on Friday, August 22, in 1947.  The program guide that Uncle Dean sent me, in the book Hiawatha Memories, tells me that KALL 910 began their broadcast that night at 9:30 pm.  8:30 in California.  About the time I turned on the Giants' game.

Come over, any time.  We'll tune in some baseball.  Maybe Perry Como.  His platters were spinning on KDYL 1320.  I'll pour the drinks.  The finest Manhattan you've ever had, or - just name your poison.

We'll sit, sip, and listen.

It's amazing what you can hear, if you just listen.