Long before any current television series the phrase Mr. In-Between was the title of a folk song written and performed by legendary folk singer Burl Ives. The tune originally referred to a young adult but my parents thought it to be a perfect description of me1 during the age now referred to as the “tweens”.
“Mr. In-Between / Mr. In-Between,
Pickings mighty lean / Mr. In-Between,
I’m too old for girls / too young for women
I’ve looked all around / my hopes are a dimming
I feel like a fish not allowed any swimming
…and it makes a fellow mean.”
To be honest, at that point in my life the part about girls was wishful thinking, but the heart of the message was right on target: at age 13 I was the proverbial fish out of water. When combined with the innate chaos of a screamingly bipolar household, the nomadic life we’d led up to the time of this story had left me with little in the way of a support system, and I trailed sadly behind my classmates in growth, coordination, and relative coolosity. Fortunately by the end of eighth grade I’d learned to blend with my more sophisticated classmates, but then December 25th appeared on the calendar and triggered an existential crisis.
Dad was never able to reconcile his Depression-era childhood with what he felt to be the lavish living conditions enjoyed by his own children. If he had his way Christmas would have had a decidedly Dickensian flavor, but in past years we’d been repeatedly dealt a definite ace in the Yuletide poker game through my Grandma Esther. When it came to her grandchildren her reliability/certainty ran in the same league as death and taxes, which meant if you asked for it you got it.
For example the year before she’d send me the Holy Grail of toys in the form of Ideal’s Man from U.N.C.L.E. gun which I must have enjoyed too much as my parents had intervened in the current Christmas wish-list process; chronically stressed/obsessed by social appearances, they ruled that by this point in time (late 1966) I was too old for toys, so the holiday was shaping up to be underwhelming at best.
…until 6:00 A.M. on December 25th when a Christmas miracle arrived in the form of a Westinghouse Lumina clock radio equipped with an adjustable high-intensity study light. Given my Celtic heritage it is all too easy to anthropomorphize inanimate objects, but the wonder of combined timekeeping/entertainment that emerged from the box was so sleek and functional in a sort of Star Trekish2 manner that any attempt at a nickname slid from the off-white and avocado exterior like an egg off of Teflon, and it was immediately dubbed in hushed tones as David’s Neat Clock Radio or DNCR for our purposes here.
Music had always been an important part of my life, but it wasn’t until my tenth birthday that it became my go-to drug of choice. That was the year that I first got my own radio – a small transistor radio slightly larger than a pack of cards and equipped with a leather case and an earphone. That latter accessory was perhaps the most important feature because it meant I was no longer subject to the tyranny of the majority3 and forced to listen to the adult standards endlessly playing on the kitchen radio – I could now curl up on my bunk and plug into Kyu Sakamoto singing Sukiyaki while blocking out the 1940s big band music which continued to echo through the house.
Having my own radio gave me a wonderful sense of freedom, but it came with a price in that it was battery-powered, and on days of heavy listening I could rapidly burn through batteries – by the end of the day I discovered the Beatles I had piles of those little rectangular nine-volt batteries scattered all over my bunk and adjacent floor like spent shell casings around a machine gun nest on the Western Front. Unfortunately when we moved to Sterling the nearest store carrying nine volt batteries was fifteen miles away so I was once again stuck with the kitchen radio…
…until that fateful Christmas morning and the arrival of the DNCR.
Ignoring the other gifts I immediately took this wonder of combined entertainment and time-keeping up to my loft bedroom where I set it up on a box at the head of my bed, switched it on, and left it playing for at least a week. It would be still there playing to this day had my dad not threatened to “drop-kick that damn radio to the burn-barrel if that that ‘ya-ya’ crap wasn’t turned down.” But after a protracted period of testing and adjustment I found a volume setting that was simultaneously loud enough to resonate in my room yet still be “unhearable” in the rest of the house.
It was also at that time when I began “timestamping” the music in my life. I don’t know if it was the constant access to music through the DNCR or the onset of my mutant memory4 – but from then on the mention of a song title or just the sound of the first few bars never failed to trigger a trip back to the day I first heard the tune. Having that radio playing was like having an old friend – or the brother I never had – in the room with me.
The DNCR became even more important the following Christmas when I came home at the semester break with the absolute worst report card of my life. In my defense I was at the time dealing with:
- Recovery from mononucliosis5
- Life as a walking punching bag by a couple of upperclassmen
- The plethora of awkward questions swirling about my older sister’s precipitous departure after her sudden marriage to a guy not her boyfriend
…but none of that mattered. I’d embarrassed my mom so I was grounded, all my comics, records and books were taken away, and I was allowed only three hours of television a week. How they missed my radio is nothing short of a miracle, but the omission probably saved my sanity if not my life. I made sure it was out sight and kept the volume turned very low as I took to setting my alarm for the middle of the night when everyone else was asleep and unlikely to hear anything untoward.
For an hour or two each night/early each morning I was granted a respite from my oh-so-craptacular life. This was long before the advent of Dr. Demento, and with few exceptions parody/novelty records got played at most one time before going to the radio station’s library while the 2:45 standards such as Michelle, For What It’s Worth and MacArthur Park were played so often they could be used as timers for cooking three minute eggs. Fortunately most overnight DJs worked with such minimal supervision that their playlists routinely included records that would never get airplay during normal broadcast hours, including such gems as:
- Bears – the Royal Guardsmen’s little-known follow-up single to Snoopy Vs. The Red Baron.
- Runaround Kind – The lone single release from the Hartbeets who at the time were the hottest band in Anchorage.
- The Ballad of Walter Wart (The Freaky Frog) by Thorndike Pickledish Pacifist Choir.
I eventually stopped caring about what was happening to me during the day at school or even at home in the evening after dinner. It didn’t matter that my loft bedroom was cold and dark and that I could feel every bump and nail head in the wooden platform underneath my skinny mattress. As I snuggled down into my covers I felt safe, secure, and happy while my radio bore testimony of a better world far from Sterling.
When I left Sterling in 1971 the DNCR came with me, and with few exceptions it accompanied me in my journeys all over the country5, and with every move my first action was to plug that radio in and dial up a radio station whose hollow sound and the hiss and crack of the AM signal lent a bit of familiarly to a new home. Now that wonderful device sits in a box on a shelf in my shop (there are very few functioning AM stations in my area, and those that are here broadcast political crap) when a miracle of sorts came about the other day.
I had tried – and failed – to get some work done out in my shop, but after growing weary of repeated failures to hobble around on my crutches I pulled out the DNCR, plugged it in, and started playing with the tuner, only to be met with a static hiss that was occasionally broken with a snap, crack, and pop.
But then for a blessed few seconds I was graced with Stephen Still’s pure tenor
There’s something happening here,
But what it is ain’t exactly clear.
There’s a man with a gun over there
Tellin’ me, I got to beware.
It stopped just as quickly as it had started – but the music had played long enough. It was late in the day and the gathering of the shadows emphasized the crisp chill of the unheated shop. The air was rich with the pungent smell of plywood recently pushed through a table saw, and as I sat on the bench my arthritic hips could feel every inch of the surface.
…but I felt safe, secure and happy.
- I had been holding out for No-where Man, but after the “bigger than Jesus” debacle, my dad refused to even acknowledge the existence of the Beatles much less their music.
- My other life-changing discovery for 1966, Star Trek caused me pain just one time when I noticed the resemblance between the DNCR’s adjustable study lamp and Sulu’s equally adjustable navigation viewer on the bridge of the USS Enterprise. There’s still a faint scar just to the side of my eyebrow.
- Thank you Lani Guinier. We might not totally agree on political matters but you turn a mean phrase.
- Hyperthymesia: a highly superior but extremely rare autobiographical memory that enables a person to recall life experiences in vivid detail. Rare as in only 60 have been officially diagnosed. Best known case is actress Marilu Henner of TAXI fame.
- Mononucleosis AKA “the kissing disease”, an infection transmitted by saliva (or in my case obviously) a shared drink. This requires a medical diagnosis, and symptoms include fatigue, fever, rash, swollen glands, and body aches. This is a member of the herpes virus family which may explain the coaster-sized canker sores that plagued me at the time.
- To include Idaho, Utah, Virginia, Alabama and multiple locations in Alaska – everywhere except military deployments and m