My Father's Heathkit Home For Paul Harvey

I grew up with Paul Harvey. Any lunch-hour conversation with Dad had an automatic intermission in it. We could be talking about anything, including world peace, but when Dad's internal alarm went ding! and he reached for his radio, we swallowed our words to hear, "This is Paul Harvey. Stand by for news!" Any attempt to continue the conversation met with a fierce look from Dad and a hissed, "Paul Harvey!" All thoughts were held until the sign-off, "Good day!"

"All of you quit talking mid-word when your dad turned his radio on!" one of my friends marveled after eating lunch with the Millers. "As if he'd flipped your volume off!"

"Paul Harvey," I said, shrugging.

Dad liked TV all right, but he loved radio. He adored radio. So much so that he replaced our old wooden table model with its red-and-white striped-fabric speaker (the one I had once believed people actually lived in) with a portable radio he built from a Heathkit. It was the size of a big city's Yellow Pages and had a cream-colored plastic face framed in brown leather. The back unsnapped to get to the guts of the gadget. The on/off, volume, and tuner controls were the type you rotate.

I think one reason Dad preferred radio to television was the portability quotient. That Heathkit was his constant companion. He packed it around during the workday in his gas-service truck. He carried it to the garage when he tinkered with his old cars, to the "glass room" while he worked on stained-glass projects, and out to the patio when he welded his metal sculptures.

In his car, the radio was always on. When it wasn't broadcasting "the rest of the story," it was tuned to melodies his teenagers found to be in the worst of taste.

"Oh, Dad!" we'd moan, flinching at the country-western or big-band sound. "Do we have to listen to this junk? Let's find some Beatles or Beach Boys music, some good stuff, for a change! This is torture!"

"Driver's choice," Dad would say craftily. "It's a rule."

Even worse than the actual music, to our adolescent ears, was the fact that Dad would sing along. What he lacked in harmony or words, he made up for in window-rattling volume. Our eyes rolled as much as the Fairlane's wheels.

As the years went by, the old Heathkit showed signs of hard use. It developed a patina of paint splatters, barbecue smoke, dill-pickle juice, grass stains, and motor oil drops. The top corners sported twin ears of silvery duct tape, and the leather strap was replaced with something that looked an awful lot like part of a belt.

For Dad's birthday, his family gave him what we all agreed was the perfect gift: a brand-new boom box with two speakers, push buttons, and a tape player.

"Hey, thanks! Great!" Dad said. "Past time to retire my old one!" The Heathkit disappeared. I believed (foolishly, given my father's pack-rat tendencies) that he had thrown it away. I mentioned, a time or three, what a relief it was not to see the dilapidated thing attached to Dad's hand anymore. And so I had to hold my tongue when I discovered, to my astonishment, that "the rest of the story" didn't sound quite the same thundering from the boom box's twin speakers.

ONE Saturday, weeks later, I went out to the garage to call Dad to lunch. I found him puttering to Paul Harvey's latest "bumper snickers." Funny. The broadcast voice sounded more the way it used to. While I waited for the jovial "Good day!" I explored the cluttered workbench.

"The Heathkit!" I said (when it was safe to talk again). "I thought you threw it out when we gave you the new radio!"

"Ah," Dad said, sheepishly. "Uh. Well. I love the boom box, but I don't have to worry about getting this old one dirty."

"Kind of like wearing play clothes instead of school clothes?" I suggested.

"Exactly!" He said, beaming in relief.

And so, the boom box stayed by Dad's recliner in the living room. It was "for good," while the Heathkit accompanied the messy, everyday activities of Dad's life.

Today, a visitor points to the duct-taped, cream-colored-plastic and-leather box parked between my scanner and my printer, above the stereo speakers wired from the living room sound-system. "What's that?" he asks, half-laughing. "Part of your high-tech setup?"

"Paul Harvey's home," I say, not adding, "and a piece of my own."

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