The automobile that I drive is more than 30 years old, a 1951 Chevrolet. The house in which I live is nearly a hundred. Often I find myself reflecting on the difference between the way things used to be and the way they are now. I used to think that, at such times, I was reflecting on technology. Five years ago I drove the same car, but lived in a different house. It was a boys' dormitory in a Massachusetts preparatory school. Eight wonderfully sophisticated, thoroughly jaded ninth-graders and two senior proctors lived on my floor. It is a nearly universal truth that ninth-grade boys, who know little of the way things used to be, never reflect on the difference between then and now. They couldn't care less.
Thirty years ago I was 10, so I didn't drive any car; and I didn't live in a boys' dormitory. Nor did I reflect on present and past, feeling rather unconsciously that there was plenty to recommend the present and the past could take care of itself. At night after I was in bed and supposed to be asleep, I used to listen to the radio. ``Gunsmoke.'' ``Boston Blackie.'' ``Mr. Keene, Tracer of Lost Persons.'' ``The Green Hornet.''
The one that really made me sweat, though, was ``The Shadow.'' Remember? Lamont Cranston? His lovely companion, Margo Lane? ``The weed of crime bears bitter fruit''? The Shadow conducted a war on evildoers on network radio for 12 years, retiring finally in 1954, a victim to the new technology, television. Although I came in only on the tail end of his career, his vanishing abilities and screechy organ music and hollow, echoing voice filled me with dread. I remember an adventure in a house of mirrors . . . ah, well.
Four actors played The Shadow during the show's history: Arthur Vinton, the first; Orson Welles, the most famous; Bill Johnstone;. and Bret Morrison, the last, to whose maniacal laughter I quivered in the darkness of my bedroom. ``Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?'' Who indeed?
And then, early one fall while living in the boys' dormitory, I bought a three-record set of radio broadcasts of ``The Shadow,'' starring Orson Welles. In the darkness of my apartment I put on ``The White God'': The organ caterwauled and The Shadow asked, ``Who knows . . . ?'' and I thought of my old Philco table-model radio for the first time in a quarter of a century. In my mind's eye I saw Lamont Cranston in the jungle call for The Shadow and disappear -- amazing paradox, to imagine the sight of someone turned invisible!
What, I thought suddenly, could the boys think? Would The Shadow be to them just another quaint but irrelevant oddity, a stereopticon view of the 1893 World's Fair? Halloween was approaching, so I scheduled a party. They came in, all eight plus the proctors, infants of the global village, nourished by the electronic paper of television. I gave them large quantities of cider and doughnuts, sat them comfortably on the floor, and turned out the lights and put on ``The Creeper'' in the same instant. The organ, the hollow voice, the laughter: ``What is this?'' asked one of them.
``Shut up,'' suggested three others.
``The Creeper'' is about a crazed collector of persons, who out of loneliness kidnaps half a city, locking his victims deep in a subterranean cavern. The boys sat listening to this tale in the dark, in utter silence. Halfway through, The Shadow stepped out of character to plug Goodrich ``Silvertown'' tires. The boys laughed nervously and stirred about, and I was reminded that comic relief doesn't relieve at all, but instead brings moments of tension into greater highlight, like a woodcarver creating greater relief in a sculptured face. Then, as The Shadow returned to the deep underground tunnels to rescue Margo Lane and defeat ``The Creeper,'' they fell motionless and mute once more.
Finally, ``Crime does not pay. The Shadow knows. Heh, heh, heh. . . .''
The room was silent until I turned on the lights. Then they began to speak:
``The Shadow knows. . . .''
``Gah, Sir, that was excellent.''
``Can I borrow the other records?''
``Heh, heh, heh, heh.''
``That was excellent.''
What I have learned from this is that the real value of things, past or present, even antique radio melodramas, has very little to do with technology after all. We appreciate these artifacts for their own sakes, not for the technological marvels that bring them to us. And, when the technology seems to remove us further and further from those things we used to love, we are solaced to discover the things themselves endure yet: old cars, old houses, even old Lamont Cranston, who years ago in the Orient learned the secret that the weed of crime bears bitter fruit and that crime does not pay.