Written by Michael Shannon
Jackie made a radio. You might think that it was no big deal and perhaps it wasn’t. But when he told me about it I was pretty impressed. I was just a kid myself then. We didn’t have a television until I was eleven so I grew up very familiar with the radio. It lived in the kitchen where we spent most of our family time until television came along and broke apart family conversation and time spent together. Not just being in the same room but talking to each other, sharing and listening to my parents talk.
The thing about the radio is that, like books, you have to use your imagination to fill out the story. With TV its all done for you. No imagination necessary. What you see is what you get. Radio was better, way better.
But, I digress. If you know anything about the history of radio particularly the technical part, how it works and how it’s made your are ahead of the game. You don’t though, do you?
Prisoner of War made radio, Stalg Luft 17-B, WWII. The crystal radio set belonged to Sgt. James L. Cast, an American gunner whose plane was shot down during a bombing raid over Germany in April 1944. Hidden in a soap dish. If found, immediate execution.
Politicians are always complaining about how things used to be so much better in the olden days. As usual they are full of manure. They’ve, if they ever knew at all, what things were really like in the past. My dad nearly died from Rheumatic fever when he was a little boy. That would have been in 1922. My dear aunt Patsy was the first person in Los Angeles county to contract polio. She was married with two small children and pregnant. That was in 1957.
Consider that my uncle Jackie; born in 1909 he was at risk for Measles, Mumps, Rubella, Strep throat, Chickenpox, Whooping cough (pertussis), Rotavirus, Tetanus, Influenza, Hepatitis B. Diarrhea killed thousands of children each year. Of course Old Yeller had to die, Hydrophobia was fatal. The plow horse could take a child’s head off with one kick. Mothers and babes died in childbirth all the time.
A trip to an old cemetery will show you how dangerous it was. Life in the first half of the twentieth century was a risky business.
The only thing I can think of that was good for kids like my dad and uncle was the lack of almost anything you might consider “Modern.” If they wanted a toy, they had to build it themselves. On the old ranch, both my father and his brother would point out to us, when we were growing up ourselves where they dug a cave or built a fort in an old Oak tree. Behind the house, built in ’23 were rows of home built cages where they kept the squirrels, raccoons, weasels, possums and any other creatures they could trap. They didn’t kill or eat them. They would take care of them for a while and let them go. It was a game. There was a big cage at the end of the row where they kept the screech owl they caught in the grain silo.
My dad said that in 1920 they had a hog, they named him Flu, that was right after the Spanish Flu which had killed an estimated 21 million people around the world. People were helpless against the virus so naming a pig after it was like a spit in the eye of fate. People used to do things like that. Dad used to lead Flu around with a rope. Flu carried a passenger; a goat who stood on his back. The three of them were friends as he told it.
Pleasures were simple then. An orange and a new pair of socks knitted by your aunt Sadie was what you got for Christmas. If that seems. well I don’t know what it seems but dad always said he was glad to get them.
So kids got by.
On Christmas 1920 the boys received a book from family friends, the Gavins. Printed in 1913, it was titled “The Boy Mechanic.” It was illustrated with 800 separate drawings and not a single photograph in the lot. Dad said it was the best gift he ever got until he met my mother 22 years later. He kept her and the book all of his life.
The Boy Mechanic, Shannon Family Treasure.
The book was essentially a book of instructions from which a boy could make nearly anything his little heart desired. It was a long list of how to’s. Build a boat, build a windmill, a bow and its arrows, a device for electroplating, a dog cart. How to build a dry cell battery, necessary because the ranch had no electricity, so if you wanted build a wireless set you needed the battery.
The book spells it all out. Uncle Jack built both. Like thousands of other kids across the country he worked his way through the book. He said that it was one of the best presents her ever got. That’s saying something for a man who lived to be 95.
Jackie Shannon, 1928. Shannon Family Photo. ©
As they were growing up in the late twenties, kids made things. With nothing to distract them they taught themselves the things that quite literally won WWII,
When have you ever seen a movie about life in a Nazi Stalag Luft camp where the American prisoners didn’t build a radio receiver in order to follow the BBC’s nightly broadcast? The commandants strictly forbade the practice in order to keep the prisoners ignorant of the wars progress. Do “The Great Escape,” “Stalag 17” and Hogan’s Hero’s, ring a bell? In a place where there was literally nothing to build a wireless, they did.
When Sherman tanks were being killed by the dozens in the hedgerows of France, A Tennessee hillbilly named Roberts, who during a discussion about how to overcome the bocage, as the built up hedges were known, said “Why don’t we weld on some saw teeth like and put them on the front ah the tank and cut right through them damned hedges?” A sergeant in the 2nd Armored Division’s 102nd Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron, Curtis G Culin thought it was a good idea. Some destroyed German hedgehogs dragged up from the beaches of Normandy were cut up and welded to the front of the tanks and they began busting right through the barriers.
When B-25 bombers were being used for ground support strafing in the Pacific, pilots complained about the lack of firepower in the nose. Grounds crewman didn’t put in a requisition or ask permission they simply installed six machine guns in the nose and the problem was solved.
My bosses in high school, Tom and Bill Baxter were both Navy aircraft mechanics in the Pacific. Bill told me stories about how they would cannibalize smashed planes, wrecked jeeps and any other scrap they could find to repair the F-4U Corsairs they worked on. He said woe to the pilot who left his plane to go into the headquarters building to deliver mail because when he came back out he was likely going to be missing some essential part. He said they would swarm the plane and strip out whatever they needed in just minutes.
A European veteran who worked for my dad after the war was some kind of creative mechanical genius. I realized when I was older that many of the tools and machine we had were crafted by him. Once he went to our little airport , bought a Lycoming engine which had been removed from a wrecked aircraft and brought it home, He made it run, mounted it on a welded steel frame bolted to the back of a Caterpillar tractor and dad used it as a wind machine on our fall tomatoes. He invented a device which could top four rows of celery at one time saving labor in harvesting, no more hand work, no more hacked fingers. One winter he bolted three foot length of 4 x 4 lumber to the tracks of a Cat so it could be driven through flooded and muddy fields. It worked so well that other farmers wanted to rent it.
He had come out to California during the depression from Missouri on the back of a Ford flatbed with his parents, brothers and sisters. A 1700 mile trip riding up high on piled mattresses and furniture. It was a marvelous thing to watch him work. I didn’t know until I was nearly in high school that he could neither read nor write. He’d use a length of wood, a stick actually, to measure with.
This was in the days when you could ring Bert Cattoir at his garage on Bridge Street and describe the sound your cars engine was making and he could tell you what was wrong with it and how to fix it.
It strikes me that an entire generation of kids grew up learning the art of Make-Do. They went off in 1941 and won the greatest war in history. Many came home and used the GI Bill to go to college. It was the most consequential explosion of invention ever seen.
Those folks never questioned the value of an education. If you were their kid you had better do well in school. My parents would have never, ever questioned a teacher or the curriculum. They understood that school was to teach you to think; to analyze, to build a foundation on which you could build a life. They weren’t wrong either. From the early fifties until the seventies, schools produced the people who sent us to the moon. For a while in our history, education of that sort took on a value not seen since.
I think that The Boy Mechanic and books like it were the reason. Today it’s still in print. You can get one for your kids. Better yet turn off the TV and the I-Phone, send them outside and lock the screen door. My mom did.
Colin Patrick Shannon, Ben Hodges. Shannon Family Photo ©
Kids will find a shovel and dig a hole, they will take two sticks a nail and hammer together an airplane. Let them use their imaginations.
Cover: Learn by doing. Miss Hollands 8th graders, Branch Grade School 1956. Gene Terra, Ruben Cavanillas, Don Talley and Billy Gularte. Shannon Family photo.
Michael Shannon is a World Citizen, Surfer, Sailor, Teacher, Builder and Story Teller. He lives in Arroyo Grande, California, USA. He writes for his children.