Tuesday, May 19, 2020

CALLS TO THE OTHER SIDE - In Touch With the Mystical

It started with that old tin-cans-and-string “walkie-talkie” sham. I wanted it to work so badly that it never dawned on me that I was simply hearing my little buddies’ voices through the air.

Technology wasn’t advancing all that fast back then. So when an ad for what sounded like a real walkie talkie appeared in Boys Life, I had to have one. Now I could actually talk with someone I couldn’t hear otherwise—as long as we were no further apart than the length of the 30-foot cord.

Looking back on those precious games, I can now see that they were the genesis of a life-long fascination with communication. Well, not so much the kind you engage in face-to-face—or through a string—but communication that broaches one or more “membranes” of separation: great distances, long periods of time, physical barriers, different environments or mediums. Communication that feels like you've just discovered buried treasure.

    That little Emerson radio might as well
    have been some deep space receiver developed
    by NASA.

When I was about ten, I discovered a magical thing called “skip,” in which AM radio waves, prevented from dissipating into the atmosphere by the electronically-charged ionosphere, can travel phenomenal distances, especially at night.

I’d sit for hours with my ear pressed against the dark brown Bakelite speaker grill of our old Emerson table radio. I’d start turning the tuning knob and, bypassing the clear, strong stations, listen for the faintest signal I could make out.

The reception was intermittent, fading in and out. My goal was to hear a station break while the signal was strong enough to recognize its location or call letters. (Of course, my chances would spike on the hour and half-hour, when stations are required to give their IDs.)

Those faint voices brought down the walls of my room. That little Emerson radio might as well have been some deep space receiver developed by NASA. How mysterious and satisfying to learn that some of the radio waves had traveled all the way across the country—and even a few from other countries. I imagined them as sheer curtains, undulating through a thousand miles or more of starry skies.

Even more seductive was short-wave radio. One of my friends had a rather elaborate set-up for a kid. With his radio we could not only listen in on distant signals, but actually talk with a real person thousands of miles away.

Much later it was the CB (Citizens Band) radio fad. My boss at the ad agency I worked for in New Hampshire had one in his car. With no real need, he’d just put a shout out to any interstate trucker lonely enough to pick up, and then ask about road conditions and speed traps. This medium, though it couldn’t touch short-wave in its reach, had it beat by a mile in the relatively compact size of its apparatus.

When I enlisted in the Army, as luck would have it, I was assigned to the Army Security Agency. Our top-secret mission was to listen in on our own forces’ communications and report any security violations. To do this, we had to become proficient in Morse code.

I got very good and very fast at transcribing code. My motivation, besides getting let out of class early to go play pinball at the PX, was, I’m sure, this continuing intrigue with otherworldly communication. And the secrecy element, sending and receiving messages in code, just added to the enchantment.

         If the sender hit an X instead of the C,
         that’s exactly what would get typed out
         on the recipient’s paper scroll.

In my late 30s I worked for a manufacturing company here in Minneapolis. One of my job assignments there involved sending and receiving Telex messages with customers around the world. That precursor to email would transmit directly, typewriter to typewriter via telephone, messages the sender pecked out on the machine’s keyboard.

Of course, I thought that was pretty exotic. Part of the immediacy of Telex communication was that messages were received exactly as they were typed, character by character. If the sender screwed up and hit an X instead of the C, that’s exactly what would get typed out on the recipient’s paper scroll.

If technology had been plodding along all those years since my cans-and-string walkie talkie, it hit warp speed with the development of the Internet. Now, with e-mail you could review what you’d typed, make corrections—or let your computer’s spell-check do it for you—add attachments, and send it off in a neat little package. Before long, some people's idea of communicating got distilled to a 140-character "tweet."

Then, along came the cell phone, and one’s window to the world and to all the information ever recorded was reduced to a device the size of a deck of cards. And today, with video conferencing via FaceTime or Zoom, we just take for granted both hearing and seeing the people we’re communicating with in real time.

In this rapidly changing milieu, it’s only a matter of time before the device will evolve to something the size of a pea implanted into one’s brain at birth.

      If there’s something down there in that
      cold, dark, liquid place, it eventually sends  

      you a message through the line.

There are other kinds of communication with mystical qualities. Ones far more tactile than technical, where the message is sent in ways other than words or pictures. For example, during the boyhood summers I spent in Franconia, a little village on the banks of the St. Croix River, I’d dig holes in the ground just to see if I came across some old square nail or pottery shard. I was always on the lookout for Native American flint or chert arrowheads.

I imagine what it must be like working on an archeological team that discovers artifacts of long-since-vanished civilizations. Or on a paleontological dig unearthing bones of creatures that walked the earth millions of years before man.  

Fishing is another example, one I fully and frequently indulge. You throw out a morsel of food that sinks deep into a hidden, alien world, connected to you by a thin filament held between your fingers. Then you wait for the offering to be acknowledged.

If there’s something down there in that cold, dark, liquid place, it eventually sends you a message through the line. Is it a kind of fish you’ve caught a hundred times before or one you’ve never seen? Is it big or small? Is it even a fish at all, or maybe an eel or turtle?

The clues might come in the form of cautious nibblings or a reckless attack. The creature might pull on the line or it might carry the bait toward you, slacking the line. Some fish gingerly gum the bait to see if there’s anything that doesn’t taste or feel right. Some grasp the bait between their lips, run a few feet and drop it—I guess just to see what happens. Others greedily gobble up the bait and run as fast as they can with it, perhaps chased by rivals.

        It's only a matter of time before there'll
        be some kind of teleportation, and the word 

       "virtual" will fade from use.

Now I don’t know what the next chapter of my mystical messages kick will look like. It’s hard to imagine what wonders technology will unleash next. Perhaps a way to make distance messaging feel more immediate, more personal.

Long-term, I suppose it's only a matter of time before there'll be some kind of teleportation, and the word "virtual" will fade from use, along with our other apologies for all these little glowing screens. And time travel won't be far behind.

Or just maybe one day we'll see a global cultural epiphany. A realization that our obsession these past few decades with all things faster, farther and slicker, despite its sexiness, has taken a toll. And just maybe that will open a creaky old door behind which ten-year-old kids will once again be mesmerized by digging holes and fishing.


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