A few lazy snowflakes drifted by his long wire antenna, stretching from the garage peak to his bedroom window, as an excited Danny Langford made ready to attach the headphone leads to the terminal posts. Downstairs, “I can’t give you anything but love, baby”, played on the big console radio, and he heard his mother humming to the music.
The crystal radio was his Boy Scout merit badge project, and with a war on, most of the parts were scavenged from trash and discards he found lying around. The coil was wound on a Quaker Oats box, and the condenser was alternating layers of gum wrapper tin foil and waxed paper. The wire for the antenna and tuning coil came from a burned out motor he found in the garage, and the insulators were glass rings carefully struck off the tops of pop bottles. The galena crystal was purchased from the Boy Scouts catalog, and the headphones were a prized gift from his grandfather. A safety pin served as a cat’s whisker to find a good spot on one of the crystal’s facets.
The phone rang in the downstairs hall.
“It’s Mister Winkle. He’s home from work and can’t find his paper.”
Danny had a morning paper route, delivering the Cedar Rapids Gazette. Ralph Winkle always left for work at the Wilson meat packing plant at three in the morning. He was a widower and a shift supervisor, a job he took seriously, especially since the war began. The troops needed meat, and Mister Winkle was determined that a meat shortage would never be due to his negligence.
“Tell him it’s in the flower box on the porch. It was snowing, and I didn’t want it to get wet.”
Danny heard his mom talking and then a long pause, before she talked again and hung up the phone.
“Ok Danny. He found it. He said thank you.”
Danny always left the paper in the porch flower box if it was foul weather, but Mister Winkle never looked there before calling. However, Danny liked the old man, so he just smiled at his forgetfulness.
The magic of a crystal radio is that it requires no power, no batteries, and no plug in the wall. The long wire antenna pulls an incredibly small amount of power out of the air from the radio station’s transmitter, and then sends it to the crystal radio through a lead-in wire. The only other connection needed is a ground wire and Danny attached his to the radiator pipe.
The coil wound on the Quaker Oats box and the condenser made from foil and waxed paper, formed a tank circuit, which resonates at a certain frequency, allowing it to tune in one station while partially tuning others out. The tuned-in station was then rectified by a naturally occurring galena crystal and changed from radio frequency to audio, and then sent to the headphones, to the delight of millions of small boys.
Danny came by his enthusiasm for radio honestly. His father’s first job was assembling radio kits ordered from a Sears and Roebuck catalogue. He had built hundreds of battery operated radios for farmers, who at that time had no rural electric. He then opened a shop and repaired radios, studying at night and then applying what he knew during the day. By the time the war came to America, he was prospering in radio sales and repair and had earned an electrical engineering degree. He also became a ham radio operator. Now he was stationed somewhere in Europe, as a P-51 fighter pilot.
The attic had been converted into a ham radio shack, and Danny was free to use any of several receivers, including his father’s own crystal radio set, built so long ago, but Danny wanted to build his own, and he was almost ready to try it out.
There was a time when he would have childishly protested such a mundane thing as supper when he was so excited about trying out his new radio, but that too was before the war. When his dad was ready to leave in his new uniform, he took Danny to the attic, and they had a man to man talk.
“I know that you’re just thirteen Danny, but boys only a few years older than you are off to war, so you’ll have to be the man of the house until I get back. Your mom will be depending on you, and so will your sisters, so I’m telling them to respect you, and I’m telling you to think before you act, and then do the right thing. Don’t abuse your authority, and respect your mother. Do you read me?”
“Loud and clear, Daddy…Dad.”
A smile crossed his father’s lips, and only partly at his only son’s use of radio jargon. Danny understood the enormous burden he had just assumed and was already maturing by the way he had just addressed his father. Danny would be fine. He hugged his son and said a silent prayer.
“I’ll be right down, Mom.”
He took a last look at the completed radio, and left to wash his hands for supper.
“Don’t play with your food, Amy”
Five year old Amy gave Danny her best scowl. “You’re not the boss of me, Danny.”
Doris Langford placed her hand over Amy’s small one. “When your Daddy left, he made Danny the man of the house, so yes, you do have to mind your big brother. Remember when Pug Wilson was going to throw mud at you?” Amy nodded. “Who was it that made him stop?”
“Amy grinned. “That old Pug Wilson is so a-scared of Danny. Boy did he ever run away.”
“I won’t boss you around Amy. I’m just going to do what I think Dad would do, and I know he would not want you to play with your food.” Danny patted her small head.
“Is Danny also the boss of me?”
Eleven year old Melissa was sporting her usual good-humored and devilish smile. She was the delight of the whole family, and they all adored her. Her girlfriends all had a crush on the happily oblivious Danny, and she was very proud of her big brother.
“Danny is the man of the house, and I am counting on you, Mel, to help him when you can. Being the man of the house is an awesome load. Here, pass the potatoes.” His mother smiled at Danny. “How is the radio project coming along, son?”
“I’m done. I’ll try it out after supper.”
The two girls spoke up excitedly at the same time. “Can I listen too? Can I? Can I?”
“I haven’t even heard it myself, for Heaven’s sake. You can listen tomorrow.”
He instantly regretted his attitude. His father would have smiled and said, “Sure you can!” Maybe he wasn’t so grown up after all.
“Well, on second thought, let me get a station in and then you both can listen. OK?”
Danny saw his mom smiling at him in approval, and he was strangely embarrassed.
With the girls waiting breathlessly, Danny attached the antenna and ground wires, and finally, the headphones. He gently swiveled the bent safety pin until the point was over one of the thousands of facets on the galena crystal. Then he lowered it and was delighted to instantly hear WMT, radio, loud and clear, He tried other facets, but the first seemed loudest, so he left it there. He listened to it for a moment longer and then stood, removing the headphones and waving Amy into the seat. He gently placed the headphone band over her curls. Her mouth dropped open, and she turned to look at him, a big grin plastered on her face.
Melissa waited patiently for her turn, and then she too wore a big grin. Danny showed her how to use the safety pin ‘cat whisker’ on the crystal and the slide on the coil to tune in a station. Unfortunately, one of the drawbacks to a crystal radio was its inability to completely tune out other stations very well, so a listener had to just ignore them.
After the girls left and before going to bed, Danny logged the stations he could get and it wasn’t many. He heard WMT, Cedar rapids, WHO, Des Moines, and faintly, WLS, Chicago.
Danny was a sound sleeper, but something woke him about three in the morning and for a few minutes, he stared at the warm yellow glow on his ceiling, confused. Then he got out of bed, looking for the source. It was a tiny facet on the crystal, off to one side and glowing a bright yellow. He sat in the chair and stared at it for several minutes. Then he put the headphones on and heard a faint, station somewhere.
Danny flipped the light switch on, but the glow instantly disappeared, so he turned it off, and it reappeared. He sat down again, and finally, he gingerly moved to point of his cat whisker to the glowing facet. What happened next stayed with him for the rest of his life.
“Jimmy! Break right hard…bandit on your twelve o’clock…I’m at your nine on top and coming down hard….got the bastard!”
It was his father’s voice, and then there were loud bangs, followed by silence. Then his father’s voice came back once again, but it was strangely clear and without static, like he was standing by Danny’s shoulder.
“Well Danny, looks like you’ll be taking my place for a while longer. I’m hit and I’ll need to jump. Take care of mom and the girls, son, and I’ll get back to you when I can.”
The yellow glow on the facet flickered and went out.
“A penny for your thoughts.”
Danny looked up from his cereal. “Mom, do you ever dream about Dad?”
His mother walked behind him and placed her hands on his shoulders. “I dream about him day and night, Danny. I never thought I could miss anyone so much. Why do you ask?”
“No reason,” he lied. “I was just wondering is all.”
Had it all been a dream? It seemed so real, but he had no memory of going back to bed or going back to sleep. He examined the radio before coming to breakfast, but it looked like any other Boy Scout radio. Still, it seemed so real.
Amy was five, but she had missed the cutoff date, so she would wait to start school next fall. Danny and Melissa attended the same neighborhood school, so he walked with her. On the way, they each ran into friends, and while Danny and his friends talked about boy things, the girls whispered about the boys and Danny in particular.
Danny nodded at Mrs. Hartman, his homeroom teacher, and she smiled a faint smile in response. Several months ago, she had made him stay after school, and he wondered why. He was careful not to cause any trouble and to do his work. She seated herself on a corner of her desk with folded arms, and regarded him for a few moments.
“You are not doing well in school, Danny.”
He was stunned. He had all A’s, and his report card always thrilled his mother.
“I don’t understand, Mrs. Hartman. My grades are good, and so is my conduct…most of the time”
“Yes, I know that Danny, and that is commendable, but every so often, I have this conversation with a student I deem special. This time it’s you.”
“You see, Danny, you are capable of much more than just a good report card. You are capable of doing really big things, but to do that means doing more that just what is required. What I want you to do is pick something that really interests you and pursue it above and beyond school. I want you to pick a topic and I will teach you how to research it, how to come to a reasoned conclusion, and how to write a scholarly paper on it. We will then enter it in the University’s scholarship program. I will say nothing about it if you wish.”
Danny blinked again. Attending the University of Iowa was a secret but impossible dream, and here was a path being offered!
Mrs. Hartman spoke again, “Can you keep a secret, Danny?”
“George Holliman was my last special student.”
Danny was stunned. George Holliman graduated with honors and received both an academic and a sports scholarship. To Danny, George Holliman was just one step down from being a god. And now he was being offered the same chance.
“Thank you, Mrs. Hartman. I’ll do my best.”
“You’ll have to Danny. It will take your very best.” She stood and walked to him, extending her hand. He had never shaken hands with a woman, and he hesitated. “It’s a formality, Danny. We shake on a deal.” He shook her hand, and she smiled. “It’s a deal, then. Now go home and discuss it with your mom.”
His chosen topic was television. It was a new and exciting field, and he had some ideas on a better system. He researched at the library, and the librarian had ordered several books on the topic. Danny had never seen a television, but that made it all the more exciting. The notion that a moving picture could be sent through the air fascinated him, even though he now knew quite a lot about how it was done. His paper on it had been written and rewritten several times, and he was surprised at how knowledgeable Mrs. Hartman was. His respect for her had grown enormously.
The school day passed quickly and Danny was still a block from home when he spotted the Army staff car in front of his house. He paled, then grabbed Melissa’s hand and began to run.
His mother was seated in the parlor, her face stiff. There was an officer standing in front of her when Danny burst through the door.
“These are my other two children, Danny and Melissa. They are perfectly capable of hearing the news for themselves, so would you kindly repeat it, Captain?”
The Captain was a redhead, and it looked like he had not yet started to shave. He nodded at Mrs. Langford and turned to Danny and Melissa. Danny was sure he already knew what was about to be said, and he was right.
“Major Langford was escorting a flight of B-24’s on a mission to Germany when his aircraft was hit and set on fire. Other members on his flight saw him bail out and confirmed that his chute did open. In the ensuing battle, they lost sight of him but he is presumed to be down safely. That is all we know at this time.”
Danny nodded without replying, and rare tears welled in Melissa’s eyes. Danny put his arm around her. The Captain approached and offered his hand to Danny. “Your mother speaks highly of you, young man. I’m proud to meet you.”
Danny shook his hand awkwardly. He was surprised that the Captain even offered it, but he was both grateful and proud that he did.
“So that means that my Dad could be OK?”
“He sure could be, son. All we know is what we received on the telegram this morning.”
The Captain smiled. “I’m amazed at how far we have come. Something happens halfway around the world and we know about it back here in the states the next day.”
Supper that night was subdued. Doris Langford was deep in thought, as was Melissa. Only Amy was happily unaware of the day’s events, and Danny idly listened to her chatter as he wondered whether to tell his mother about what he had heard using the glowing yellow facet. Like his father, he kept a log of important communications, so he had written down what he heard his father say:
“Well Danny, looks like you’ll be taking my place for a while longer. I’m hit and I’ll need to jump. Take care of mom and the girls, son, and I’ll get back to you when I can.”
In the end, he decided to keep it to himself. He wasn’t even sure that it actually happened. Maybe it was just a dream.
He listened that night, and fiddled with the cat’s whisker and the facets, but all he could get was WMT, Cedar Rapids. A winter storm was brewing, and reception was poor, so he said his prayers and went to bed.
He wasn’t sure if it was the shriek of the blizzard outside his window or the strange yellow glow on the ceiling that woke him up. For a moment, he waited, clearing the fog from his brain, and then he bolted to his desk. The facet was glowing a bright yellow, and his shaking hand guided the cat’s whisker to the facet. He put on the headphones and listened.
“Well Danny, your old man is in a bit of pickle. I broke my right ankle on landing, and part of my foot on my left leg was shot off before I bailed. I didn’t even know it until I looked down while in my chute and noticed part of my boot was missing and quite a bit of blood. I was scared, but some good folks picked me up and hid me. One man who speaks a little English has contacted someone who is supposed to get me back to our lines, but everything is real hush-hush. What I don’t know I can’t tell if I’m captured, I guess. I understand that. God is with me. I’ll be fine son.”
The glowing yellow facet flickered again, and then slowly faded away.
Danny logged what he heard, and that was that.
For weeks, Danny slept fitfully, waking occasionally to look up at the ceiling, but the only glow was from the dim streetlight. The radio still worked fine, but all the facets on the crystal were a dull lead color. There was no yellow glow.
There was no further word about his father from the Army, and his mother’s face was now pale and drawn. He had heard others say it was almost easier to hear that someone was lost than to wonder what became of them. He would not allow himself to think his father was not coming home. He simply could not imagine life without him.
His paper had been entered in the scholarship contest, and Mrs. Hartman had seemed pleased, although she had said nothing. He supposed that she did not want him to get his hopes up, and he understood. He had little chance no matter how good it was, and he knew it.
Late August in Iowa is hot and sticky, so most people slept with the windows open. To the south, heat lightning flashed soundlessly, and Danny was hoping it would develop into a cooling rain. Around midnight, he got his wish, when the first sprinkles blew through the open widow and onto his face. He got up, and for several minutes, he watched the lightning and the sheets of rain. Then a close bolt lit up the room, followed almost immediately by a loud clap of thunder. He hastily closed the window, and was surprised that the room seemed still lit up from the yellow afterglow of the lightning flash. Then reality dawned on him, and he ran to the radio. The facet was glowing a brilliant yellow. He slapped on the earphones and put the cat’s whisker on the yellow dot with shaking hands.
“Well Danny, this is it. We’re ready for the final dash to our lines. I’m in a horse drawn cart, inside a wooden box and the whole thing is covered in horse manure and moldy straw. Not exactly pleasant accommodations, but it sure beats a German war prison. God is with me, Son. God is with me.”
He logged it and placed it inside the binder with the others. He was baffled by what was happening with the radio, and he wondered if perhaps he was crazy or something. He had told no one about the strange messages, but he was absolutely certain that they came from his dad.
Fall in Iowa is beautiful, with crisp days, fall colors, and of course, the harvest and the fairs. Melissa wanted to go to Hawkeye Downs for the Linn County Fair, and she wanted Danny to take her. She did not mention that Ruth Devers was going too, or that Ruth had a huge crush on her brother. Danny agreed to take her on the bus. There were several exhibits he wanted to see.
He was instantly alarmed. His mother’s quavering voice was on the edge of a sob. He ran to the window that faced the street, and his fears were realized. Another Army staff car was at the curb.
He ordinarily took the stairs two at a time, but he saw the same redheaded Captain solemnly standing in the hall looking up at him, so he slowed down, approaching cautiously.
To his amazement, the Captain suddenly grinned up at him. “Your dad is in the hospital here in the states, Danny. He’s recovering from his wounds, but he escaped from behind enemy lines, and I’m sure there’s a medal in his future. He should be home in time for Christmas.”
It was better than that. Danny’s dad was home for Thanksgiving, and other than a pronounced limp, he was no worse for wear.
A full week went by before Danny asked his dad if he was well enough to negotiate the stairs.
“I built a crystal radio, Dad, and I want you to see it.”
His father solemnly examined Danny’s work before he grinned and slapped him on the back. “That’s a great job, Danny! Neat and well built as anything I’ve seen. How does she work?”
His father was seated in the chair in front of the radio, so Danny handed him the headphones. He fiddled with the cat’s whisker for a moment, and the suddenly turned and glanced up at Danny, with a smile on his face. He listened a moment and then removed the headphones. “WMT, loud and clear! Congratulations son! You are a radioman!”
Danny nodded and then opened the binder with the logged messages. He read them one more time silently and then handed them to his puzzled father, explaining the circumstances and the glowing facet. For a moment, his father just stared at him, and then his eyes dropped to the logged messages. He read them silently and then read them again, slowly. Finally, he looked at Danny, awe in his eyes.
‘I remember thinking these very things! I remember these exact words. They were silent prayers I was uttering, and I have no idea how they could possibly have come to you.”
He turned and stared at the silent radio. He caressed the crystal softly with his fingertip, and then looked again at his son.
“And you never said a word to your mom?”
Danny shook his head.
“So you carried this burden all alone?”
“I’m probably the proudest father on earth right now, Danny.”
The doorbell rang downstairs, ending the moment. It was Mrs. Hartman, and she congratulated Danny’s dad on his safe return home and his pending medal. Then she turned to Danny, her hand extended. Bewildered, Danny took it and, she shook his hand vigorously, a huge grin plastered on her usually stern face.
“You won Danny! You are going the University of Iowa on a full scholarship!
The week before Christmas, the family drove to the lot through gently falling snow to pick up their annual Christmas tree. Danny and his dad tied it on the top of the car and they were still several miles from home when his dad announced that a tire had gone flat. They were in the process of changing it when a patrol car pulled in behind them, his red light on. The officer got out of the car and approached them carefully, one hand on his service revolver.
He shined his flashlight inside the car, and then on Danny and his father. He stepped back and addressed Mister Langford.
“You folks aren’t from around here. What’s your business?’
Danny’s father grinned. “Just taking our Christmas tree home, Sergeant Kula.”
“What? How do you know my name and that I was a sergeant? Do I know you?”
The officer directed the light directly into Mister Langford’s face, and then did a very strange thing. He paled and put his hand to his mouth, with sudden large tears welling in his eyes.
“Oh my Lord! It’s the Major!”
He dug into his back pocket, and pulled out his wallet. He took out a picture and handed it to Danny’s mom in the car, shining his light on it excitedly.
“See? That’s me and the Major here, shaking hands!”
He wiped his eyes, suddenly embarrassed.
“I was a tail gunner on a B-17, ma’am, and we were getting the sh…hell kicked out of us by a flight of ME-109’s when your husband here and his flight of 51’s jumped them and saved our ass…behinds!”
He stopped and removed his billed uniform cap, revealing an unruly shock of blond hair. He tucked it under his arm and almost came to attention.
“I’m real sorry for the hard language and my poor manners, ma’am and kids, but we was on fire, see, and your husband here escorted us all the way back to base. We all thought we had bought it! When we finally limped back home, he was real low on fuel, so they gassed him up and our entire crew went over to meet him and thank him. That when I got my picture took with the Major here!”
He turned to Major Langford.
“I know your fighter group was the three-thirty-second, Major, but what was the name you boys went by? I never knew.”
Danny’s father smiled. “We were called the Tuskegee Airmen, Sergeant.”