The Radio.. my childhood room and my dad and mom
Wolf spiders. Wolf spiders on my blankets.
They look like scaled-down tarantulas, chopped and channeled like tarantula hot rods, but unlike their lumbering bigger cousins, wolf spiders are frantically fast. That’s part of the problem; you take your eyes off of them for a second, to get something to swat or catch them with, and they disappear. But where do they go? Under the other blanket? Back in the corner where the wooden bunk-bed frame doesn’t quite touch the wall, that place of unspeakable web-wrapped darkness? Tarantulas, of course, are gentle creatures; you can hang them on your sweater or even let them amble over your slowly moving fingers. But wolf spiders are lightning killers, even if only of other wolf spiders. Their only other known function is to act as nightmare stalkers of seven-year-old boys.
I lay in the darkness in my little basement room. Off in the distance there was the ominous deep rumbling from the new “jet” planes flying somewhere in the night. I was under the covers, drenched in a cold sweat, hiding from wolf spiders and rigid with terror that H-bombs would fall out of the sky. I was waiting every second for it to happen. That was what they’d been feeding us kids: Commies and H-bombs.
I had the blankets pulled up around my head, because besides the H-bombs and the wolf spiders, there were the mice and rats and other short-and-long-legged crawling, creeping scaries waiting to get me down in that basement room.
My dad never got around to finishing this part of the house. It was on his list, but the list was years long and filled the blue-lined pages of notebook after notebook, each entry neatly written in his crabbed writing, each notebook held closed with a rubber band. There were a great many things on that years-long list that never got done. He was a big starter but not much of a finisher, a man of many dreams, but not so many fully realized accomplishments. So I, who my dad called Charlie Owlbox, the Dog-Faced Boy, number three of four kids, ended up being stuck in this unfinished afterthought of a room. My older brother and sister lived down the hall, in finished rooms. My little sister lived upstairs with my parents.
The basement had a semi-smooth concrete floor that was supposed to be polished but wasn’t (that was a fifties thing, polished concrete, very modern (now it’s au courant again: Whole Foods floors), and there were missing acoustic tiles in my ceiling, which left holes from which mice and rats would sometimes peer down on me as I lay in my bed. I once woke up to find that a big, fat mama rat had brought her newly spawned brood to nestle in the comfy folds of my satin comforter. At first I thought they were kittens, as we had up to a dozen cats at any one time in our house, and there were kittens everywhere, but as I squinted at them in the dim morning light, I suddenly realized that these tiny squirmers were of a more feral species. I ran, I suppose yelling, from my room. My dad came to the dramatic rescue, in typical Hughes Call fashion, with his ceremonial Navy sword in one hand and our black cat in the other. He flicked back the covers with the tip of his shiny sword and tossed the cat on the rats, which scattered in all directions. Black Kitty might have caught one of them.
Right at the foot of my bed there was also a dirt- floored “alcove”, full of dusty, cobwebby cardboard boxes, that was really a crawl space that led back under the house. This creepy, dark place was home to many kinds of critters, including the black widows that my older brother and his intrepid pals sought with jars. A flimsy little curtain only partially covered this nasty gateway to a child’s night terrors.
But my room was a well-lit refuge compared to what waited beyond my pocket door with its little hook latch. Outside the door, there was a dimly lit, narrow hallway with no wall paneling, just exposed rough joists strung with Romex electric cabling and draped with dusty spider webs. Directly across from my door was the open black hole of the highly ironically named “playroom”, another unfinished space filled with partially started projects such as my dad’s “catamaran”, the one he planned to sail to Hawaii, which was never more than a few two-by-fours tacked together and leaned up against the windows, which couldn’t be seen out of for the clutter.
There were piles of cut-up sheets of plywood, stacks of boxes and old newspapers dating back to the thirties, three-legged chairs waiting forever to be re-glued, a couple of eight-inch black-and-white TV sets, an old wind-up Victrola, uncountable broken vintage electric fans and light fixtures, and God knows what else, everything covered in spider webs and a light fall of slightly smelly grime that I came to call Mummy Dust. It just had this strange indefinable odor. I’m sure Indiana Jones would be able to relate. This unkempt jumble was naturally home to myriad species of arachnids, including my unfavorites, the wolf spiders, and all the other web makers, big and small.
You see, my father was one of those people who couldn’t toss anything out, and I mean anything. Each old box full of whatnots, each partially cut piece of lumber, every hanging garment bag full of old, never-to-be-worn-again clothing (I knew there were corpses in them) had its own old memory or a future use. At its most organized, the playroom was a place of labyrinthine, box-lined trails through the piles and stacks. This only got worse over time, until the tortuous paths themselves were filled to the ceiling. Nowadays, a person who collects stuff in this fashion would be labeled a compulsive hoarder, which is quite accurate, but the old name for the compulsive hoarder is more descriptive: packrat. Actually, both names are sadly correct.
You might think from the above that I grew up out in the hills of Appalachia or in some rotting urban tenement, but this was in Mill Valley, California, one of the most urbane pieces of suburbia that ever was. And my dad wasn’t some undereducated hick from the sticks or faceless denizen of a forlorn cityscape.
What he was was quite a complicated man. His mother and father had divorced in 1919 when he was two, leaving him to be raised by his wealthy grandparents. His mother’s father, my great-grandfather, George Alexander Hughes, was the inventor of the electric stove, if you can get your mind around that. A third-generation Irish Protestant immigrant, Mr. Hughes started an electric appliance company that went on to become Hughes Electric and he was the Chairman of the Board of General Electric at some point back in the twenties and thirties. I keep telling my brother that sooner or later a few hundred old shares of GE will be found in some old pile of papers (my brother took many of my dad’s boxes with him after dad passed away) and we’ll be rich. The shares have as yet not been unearthed. When we find them, I’ll let you know. From Maui.
My dad grew up in a big house near Chicago, where he got more attention from the liveried, “colored” servants and cooks than he did from his older-generation, distant grandparents. He was shunted off at age five to a fancy, waspy school or two and then to Harvard and Harvard Business School. From this high-altitude springboard he could have bellyflopped into a cushy corporate job. All he had to do was toe the line and follow vaguely in Grandpa’s footsteps. But while serving as a young Lieutenant Commander, U.S. Navy in a strictly non-combatant role (no doubt through his grandfather’s political connections) as a junior adjutant and tennis partner for Admiral Chester W. Nimitz in Pearl Harbor during WWII, where in addition to his forehand my father finely honed his already considerable cocktail-party skills, my father saw Golden California. When the war was over, he turned his back on his guaranteed-to-be-boring corporate job prospects and left the Midwest for the wide-open sunny life of San Francisco.
He was, despite his blustery protestations to the contrary, a black sheep who tried for a long time in vain to wear white; a lifelong failure at business and a staunch anti-Roosevelt Republican who finally came to his senses during the Vietnam War and became a Democrat and an anti-war, civil rights advocate. Should he have been surprised to have spawned a rock musician?
As for Hughes Electric Company and the George Alexander Hughes,” Father of the Electric Range”, family fortune? My lovely grandmother, the party-loving-almost-good-enough erstwhile concert pianist, spent all the dough traveling the world on board Cunard liners while draped in minks and pearls and on entertaining Broadway’s and The New York Philharmonic’s stars at her autographed- photo- filled 57th Street apartment, right across the street from Carnegie Hall.
Shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations: that’s what they say.
My dad was also an alcoholic, largely of the charming variety, who couldn’t find the time to play catch with me or teach me how to drive. He was always too busy either sleeping a big night off or winding up to become Mr. Gregarious, the guy who lived for the next wild, imaginative party coming down the pike. My parents both sang and my mother played piano; we had three of them in the house, with two back-to-back grands in the big living room, the curves matching like musical yin-yang pieces. Above the pianos was an abstract painting done by one of their artsy friends. It was an oddly stretched-out rectangle three feet high and fifteen feet long that was mounted above the Steinway and the other grand. The male cats would get up on the pianos and pee on the painting, their pee trails streaming down the walls from the swirls and splatters of the abstract painting. Life imitates art.
My folks belonged to a theater group that did Gilbert and Sullivan and other light musicals, and our house was party central for the cast. Our parties were legendary. My dad cut an eight-by-ten-foot hole in the living room floor and rigged a “stage” that could be raised with pulleys up from infamous playroom to the living room. Virtually everyone at the party, and we often had a hundred people or more at our soirees’, was required to have an act, which could be raised from the depths, the partygoers singing or doing a funny scene from a play. My father had rigged colored spotlights near the ceiling of the living room that would illuminate the performers as they rose from the depths.
As a kid, I could only watch the grownups at their play, though they trotted me out to sing a Broadway song or two. I had a good voice even as a little boy. But the world of grownups was basally off-limits to us kids. We had to go to our rooms early. In the morning I would sneak upstairs and gaze upon the detritus of the parties: glasses everywhere, many with cigarette butts stuck in white wine, the kitchen a mess. There were usually two or three snoring bodies on the couches. They must have had a grand time.
Often I would get a book or two and tiptoe back down to my room. There was a library in our dining room with floor –to- ceiling books that came down from both my mother’s and father’s childhoods. There must have been hundreds of books. I learned to read early and I loved the Greek Myths, the Arabian Nights, and anything about history. I still do. I have some of those old books today. I also loved comic books, especially Uncle Scrooge, because of the fantastic adventures, and my favorite, Superman.
Superman is a lonely character. He can’t reveal his true identity to even his closest friends. He exists to right wrongs and to save the world from Lex Luthor and Mr Mxyzptlk. Superman has a weakness, deadly Kryptonite, pieces of his home world which are poisonous to him. How true that is. The stuff that follows us around from childhood can be very toxic; it can even destroy us. He had a place where he went to recharge his batteries when he was at the end of his endurance, the Fortress of Solitude. Even Superman has his limits. I guess the creators of Superman were brilliant. I wanted desperately to be Superman. Even then I knew the world needed saving. I spent long hours wandering in the worlds of books and comics. The moral choices and the circumstances of the characters were easier to understand than the real world I saw around me.
You’d think my father could’ve taken a little of his social energy to fix my nasty room up. But he couldn’t find the time; he was the party master: he loved the ladies, he lived for the laughter; his nickname was Hugs. He had a clock that said: no drinks served until after five. The clock face was, of course, all fives.
My Father was much loved by his witty, creative, and simpatico friends, but his own early childhood abandonment by his mother no doubt left him with deep, unfaced issues. Kryptonite. His dark, wounded side found expression in the scary bowels of our house, the basement of Dorian Grey. I needed my own Fortress of Solitude.
Of course, I didn’t know any of that when I was a young boy. I only knew that everywhere there were piles of stuff too important to be tossed out, projects too far down on the ever-longer list to ever be dealt with. At night the doorless playroom was a seething black pit full of lurking horrors. The laundry area, with its single, hanging bare light bulb and the dark and creepy old blanket-draped doorway to dad’s “workroom” (where he hid his cases of cheap Tom Moore bourbon) was just as frightening. There were two more of those scary, unlit, cave-like alcoves that ran off under the old house. The stairs that went up to the main floor had only steps, no facings, since they had been built by my dad, who we now know never finished anything. I imagined bony hands reaching out of the blackness for my ankles as I ran up to my parent’s bedroom in the middle of the night when I was too terrified to stay downstairs any longer.
All this and H-Bombs and wolf spiders, too.
So, I snuck my hand out of the blankets and clicked on the green plastic Zenith radio. Wish I still that radio. It looked just like the front of a ’55 Oldsmobile, with chromish mesh over the speaker and a pea -soup green body. Two dials: volume and frequency. I turned it just on a click, didn’t turn the volume up at all. At first, there was only a very faint buzzing noise. But after a few minutes, as the tubes warmed, there was KYA coming in, too quietly for anyone to hear but me. The sound of the smooth-talking DJ was reassuring to a child who felt as if he had been abandoned to his cellar-dweller fate, and the comforting top-forty hit singles played all night.
There were songs that I loved: Don’t be Cruel, El Paso, Hello Mary Lou, Bye-Bye Love, Pretty Woman. There were many more songs I couldn’t stand: She Wore Blue Velvet, Hats Off To Mary, Tell Laura I Love Her, Itsy-Bitsy Teeny-Weeny Yellow Polka-Dot Bikini. But good or not, each song was three minutes long: verse, b-section, and chorus. We were a musical family and I was already at a tender age a discerning critic. My older sister was a bobby soxer who had the latest 45’s on her little record player. I listened to them more than she did. I waited for the songs that had cool guitar leads, songs that sounded like a band was playing them. Roy Orbison, Ray Charles, Ricky Nelson (with James Burton on guitar), The Everly Brothers, Elvis Presley. I switched over to KEWB or the black station KDIA when Frankie Avalon, Neil Sedaka, or another one of those horrible teen idols came on. KDIA played Bobby Blue Bland (Lovelight, one of the best singles of all time), James Brown, Barret Strong, Mary Wells, Jackie Wilson, The Coasters and Drifters, and my favorite, Ray Charles. I liked the real stuff, no lush strings or oboes.
The songs were my own private musical Fortress of Solitude; if I listened hard enough, the night, the spiders, and the H-bombs went away. Eventually I would fall asleep, but the old Zenith stayed on while I dreamed. The songs sank into my consciousness.
I was terrified down in that room, but as I drifted into dreamland on the waves of the old Zenith I was unknowingly uncovering something inside of me: music, a place of refuge. And it was my own Berlitz course: Learn to write hit songs while you sleep.