Learning to Read the World Through My Radio

A tidy picture of simplicity sat in front of me.  A study lamp stood on one corner of a heavily lacquered wooden desk along with the obligatory dictionary and thesaurus. Offsetting the light in the opposite desk corner, was a radio.  The rectangular plastic box was one of my most prized possessions given to me during an earlier holiday period.  Its blackness demanded attention since the rest of the room was quite drab if honestly described; modest if the color of the lighter tan walls were added.  The radio’s presence also served as a primary companion for an only child who sometimes needed to hear voices of people other than his parents.

I was atypical of a mid 60’s teenager with a radio in their room.  There was never a moment where a parent needed to bellow, “Turn your radio down!”, while the Moody Blues, The Rascals or Jim Morrison were playing, and most enjoyed with the volume up. My radio strayed from the music scene of the FM band to the to the baseball and basketball games being broadcast on the AM side of the airwaves universe.  The secretive affair that didn’t necessitate increased volume.  The only requirement was other contents in my desk and opening my imagination to connect to a larger world.

Four drawers were available to keep needed materials and ‘stuff’ that perhaps made me an early minimalist.  The top thin, center drawer contained pencils, pens, rulers, and geometry tools; along with baseball cards, available for trade or flipping.  The top drawer to my right contained all the paper I’d need for schoolwork as well as stationery for writing thank you notes to relatives or the pro athletes of my choice.  Autographs in the 1960’s were obtained for the price of a postage stamp and the willingness to write to a star letting him know he was your favorite.  The second drawer contained an eclectic connection of important things that I didn’t want to misplace.  Items such as class pictures, award certificates and a Mad Magazine or two could usually be found in there.  The third drawer contained my spiral notebooks, which were turned into homemade scorebooks.  That bin held the real fruits of my labors and the parts of my study time that helped make real world connections to portions of my schoolwork…a sort of gateway for my imagination to overtake the mundaneness off reading and summarizing a period of history or doing the assigned even or odd numbered math problems.

Opening the bottom drawer, along with powering up the radio, opened my mind and helped me discover new possibilities beyond the humdrum learning transpiring each day between yellow school bus trips to and from a large, bricked building with over a thousand minds at various stages of receptivity.  The drawer held a year’s worth of notebooks keeping running scores of most Boston Celtics and Red Sox games.  I could have been classified as a real ‘get a lifer’, but for me it was a labor of love.  And for a time, my schoolwork became secondary to scoring games.

As I look back at that year at my desk with the radio, I’m amazed how it subliminally developed a pattern of interests and choices for me.  Teachers speak of ‘teachable moments’, and I was lucky to find a medium providing such moments. In retrospect, scoring those games motivated me  to imagine and fantasize about a world of possibilities, many which were previously foreign to me. It turned me into a pragmatic Walter Mitty of sorts, who still had time to chart a course.

The motivation to dream and indulge in one’s future has become reduced in today’s world of time pressure, both in school and at home.  There’s less time to breathe and reflect in schools driven by tests and data; and homes with sometime impractical parent expectations, a quickened pace, and daily choices that seem to multiply to infinity. The radio today, along with personal phones and devices reflect endless choices as well, whether it’s the endless streaming and playlists, the 24/7hour news, talk shows, or podcast availability.  On the AM/FM dial, the incessant chatter of information hardly gives one time to pause, never mind think, process or reflect.  Much of the commentary that existed in last century’s sports broadcasts are now filled with a commercialism that also feeds into the frenzy of this century’s consumer-based society.

My dreams and fantasies were the same as many other fans of the games at the time.  Who didn’t see themselves trotting in from the bullpen at Fenway Park in a Red Sox uniform striking out Lou Brock to help Boston when its first World Series since 1918?  Legendary Boston Celtic announcer, Johnny Most, had screamed all our names out over the radio like he did when John Havlichek stole the ball to preserve another Celtic championship run.  This type of dreaming certainly occurred for me, but it wasn’t the essence of what the radio provided.

Listening to those games took me away from a blue-collar home environment and helped me form my own set of expectations and interests rather than locking into those of my parents and other adults who may have thought they knew what was best for me.  Any choices that were presented outside my bedroom could be deliberated on in a more self-subscribed way because of the newly discovered possibilities picked up in radio broadcast game commentary and spinoffs.  When one thinks of all the pregame, halftime, and postgame interviews, along with the running admixtures during games, there’s a wealth of information about people, places, history, statistics, negotiations, architecture, adventure and the arts.

Keeping score, while listening to the radio personalized the game beyond the statistics.  When Sam Jones or Tommy Heinsohn scored in a game, it reminded me too that they were also a poet and an artist. When George Scott got a hit, I thought of a pregame interview where he related his love of his Mother’s chicken and fondness for growing up in Mississippi with a Mom who kept the family together through her culinary abilities.

It all brought meaning to my schoolwork.  The plight of poor black families in Mississippi had more significance as I read Black Like Me in a high school English class. The poetry of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wasn’t as vague because I wanted it to be relevant; especially if it was important to a professional basketball player. A field trip to the Museum of Art now had more possibilities than a visit to the snack bar or souvenir shop,

Most of that information made me think about life beyond the expectations of my parents and some of my aunts and uncles who were in the supermarket business laboring in careers in meat rooms, produce departments and at food checkout counters.  I had my taste of each area working parttime high school jobs and to this day, the idea of working in a supermarket held no interest or nostalgia. As I approached the end of my high school journey, one of their visions of success for me would have been a supermarket management or corporate position, so they were proud of my decision to major in business administration at Northeastern University.  The appeal for that major though, lasted as long as the first few days of my freshman English class.

The seeds for discovering my interests had long ago been planted through my relationship with the radio.  After switching majors, my Uncle Paul, who was a decorated WWII vet and in the sheet metal business, seemed genuinely hurt by my decision to pursue a career in education.  For me, it was a pathway to the world of coaching and sports, although I came to enjoy the nuances of teaching and writing much more as my career evolved.  To him, it was a financial dead-end career.  He still seemed bothered by my decision twenty years into my career because to him it went against the grain of common sense.

Without the radio I don’t know if I would have been driven to the extent I was to be connected to the sports world; or would have been exposed to the career paths associated with sports like teaching, reporting and marketing.  I dabbled in all of them, but as I made my way through college, teaching and coaching became a career focus and passion. Radio programming helped me push my expectations beyond the boundaries of my parents’ expectations, which were sincere and honorable, but not a good match.  It seems unclear today where or how kids break from the exterior expectations to learn more about their interior selves.  I knew myself much better coming out of high school by being exposed to the multifaceted world being presented through sports broadcasts.  Expectations today can often seem unrealistic and so too can the subsequent decisions.

I never gave thought to those scorebooks until they were discovered by my father in the depths of a household closet years later after my son, his grandson, graduated from high school.  He shared his astonishment at the diligence and persistence of the effort.  It was hard for him to imagine the time spent keeping score or why it was done.  I’m sure my parents never gave thought that a Christmas purchase of a radio was going to be any sort of formative asset to their son’s future.  They weren’t conditioned to think of an investment beyond the impact it had to live in a nicer house or comfortably afford two cars. Their unforeseen investment exposed a different type of richness to me; creating avenues for seeing past the views present in my household, neighborhood and beyond.

It’s ironic that the scorebooks of statistics discovered from years earlier had me reflect on the impact the radio broadcasts of games had on me. Even today, the statistics that generate the scores of games to which I listen or watch are not all that important to me. But the stories and places within and outside the games remain interesting, and I still find myself thinking of the possibilities and making connections.  Just a short time ago, I turned on my car radio and the first two words I heard were Minneapolis and Detroit.  I thought the next thing to follow was to get some scores of the previous night’s ballgames.  Instead, I was listening to a weather forecast highlighting a frontal system extending from Minnesota to Michigan.  The slipup brought comfort to me and jumpstarted a mental process of inquiry that harkened back to an only child’s dimly lit room of the mid 1960s.  I started thinking about the differences in those two cities and how Minneapolis would be the closest major league city for people living in Fargo, North Dakota, the Badlands, or even eastern Montana.  I thought of the demographics of those states and thought it was amazing to see my method for making connections continued to come into play as it did in my youth.

For some reason my mind drifted back to baseball and I thought of Houston, Texas.  Perhaps it was because the weather report continued, and I was trying to think of all the cities that had indoor stadiums.   The Astrodome was conceived and built in the 1960’s. I remember I became interested in science fiction at the time and the development of the dome was changing sports and opening up possibilities.  How else could baseball be turned outside in?  The radio and sports helped explain the answer to the question.  It helped me get outside my parents’ expectations and inside my own.