Full Table of Contents
It was the wrong neighborhood in which to live if you wanted to learn something practical, like how to straighten the wheel of your bike. There were no tradesmen in the neighborhood, no mechanics or plumbers or carpenters. At the head of the street was an insurance executive. The father of one of his friends was in upper level management at General Electric. There were executives from Proctor and Gamble and companies of which Aaron didn't know the names. Aaron's own father was a vice president at RCA. There wasn't a man in sight who could tell you how to patch a hole in a plaster wall. And it was plaster, not drywall, in this neighborhood of multi-story, masonry houses. Most were brick, a few were stone or stucco; Colonial and French Provincial, Victorian Italianate and English Tudor houses, even the Greek Revival house was stucco rather than the clapboard that is normal for Greek Revival. Except for the house of Dr. Smith, the retired doctor next door.
Dr. Smith's house was the only single story house in the neighborhood, and the only wood house. And the only tract house. And the only house with drywall. Aaron's house, like most of the other houses, had double masonry walls - an exterior wall of brick with an air space separating that from an interior masonry wall. Plaster was applied directly to masonry making it nearly indestructible. At least the outside walls were that way. Walls between rooms were stud walls with wood lath holding the plaster. If sibling in an altercation damaged an interior wall, there was no one in the neighborhood who knew who to call or what to do to fix the damage. It would remain damaged for the rest of their tenure in the house if decorators were not employed at sometime in the future to take care of such things.
It would have been no different for the drywall in Dr. Smith's house. Drywall was as much a mystery to the men in the neighborhood as lath and plaster. But Dr. Smith had no children to make holes. You could tell that from his yard. Nothing in his yard or house was out of place or marred. As far as Aaron was concerned, there wasn't anything at Dr. Smith's house to mar. It was the most barren place he ever had seen. There wasn't even a tree in the yard. In a neighborhood filled with tall, full trees, his was the only yard without a single one. There also were no gardens in his yard. Every other house had flowers and other plantings around lampposts, along walks and bordering porches. Dr. Smith's house had only two square shrubs on either side of the front door.
Dr. Smith also was the only adult Aaron had ever seen who did not say hi to other people who came out into their yards. He did not look up. He did not acknowledge anyone else's presence. He did not come to neighborhood gatherings. If the mailman accidentally delivered a piece of your mail to him, he did not knock on you door to give it to you. He had his wife catch the mailman the next day to have him return it to you. In the decades that they were neighbors, there was only one time that Dr. Smith knocked on the Roark's door.
It was such a surprise to find Dr. Smith standing there that the whole family came to the event. He carried schematics and wanted to discuss something. The family gathered in the living room to watch. Dr. Smith wanted to get a variance from the zoning commission. The neighbors most immediately effected were the chief concern of the zoning commission. That was Aaron's family. Dr. Smith wanted to put a steel antennae sixty feet tall on their property line. It would be red and white and completely out of character with the rest of the neighborhood.
But what was it for?
Oh. He was a ham radio operator. It would help him communicate with people further away.
Sooooooooooo that was what he did over there all day. They never had any guests. Dr. Smith's own father, who lived only half an hour away, visited only three or four times a year and looked like he had arrived on unfriendly ground as he walked up the driveway. Dr. Smith rarely was seen himself, but it turned out that all this time he was in there talking to people all over the world on his ham radio.
Aaron's father believed in communication. It was a theme he talked about. A story he told more than once to Aaron was about what RCA did when they invented color television. RCA was sitting on one of the most valuable patents in the world, but they did not keep it secret. Their top level executives called a conference with the highest executives of the biggest television makers in the world, laid the blue prints on the table for them to see, and told them that copies had been made for them to take with them.
The idea was that they themselves would be able to sell more color televisions if the whole community was engaged. All the broadcasters and all the television makers and all the television show producers and all the appliance stores needed to share and understand and work together to make the whole community better off. It was a lesson that his father wanted Aaron to learn. In school they cared about people getting only what they deserved. But that was not the best policy for making the real world turn out for the best.
Only stingy people did not want anyone to get anything to be free. Only selfish people wanted to keep knowledge to themselves. Aaron's father wanted him to understand that if the whole community shared and communicated in whatever ways they could, everyone would be better off. So Aaron knew that his father would be in favor of this antennae, no matter what it looked like, for how it could increase communication between the man next door and the rest of the world. Later his father said to him that Dr. Smith had been a physician. He didn't know what Dr. Smith might be discussing with people on the other side of the earth, but having access to a medical professional in America had to be good for people on the other side of the world.
As Aaron sat in the living room listening to the adults discuss ham radio operation and this fascinating proposal for an antennae right next door, his mother could see how interested Aaron was and asked Dr. Smith if he would show Aaron his ham radio operation. It was clear to Aaron that Dr. Smith wanted nothing to do with him and had no interest in having Aaron see his radio, but he wanted Aaron's parents to sign a paper he had brought with him saying that they would not mind having the eyesore on their property line. So he said he would be happy to.
There was no natural light in the ham radio room. The only window had both Venetian blinds and curtains drawn shut. There was a steel shelf in one corner, a stuffed arm chair in another where it appeared to have been stored in lieu of being thrown out, and in another corner was the ham radio. It was a gray metal box with holes drilled through it where the speaker was inside. It was sitting on a beat up gray, metal desk. There was no microphone. Instead there was a Morse Code clicker.
Dr. Smith turned on the radio. The beeps of the dots and dashes played. Aaron asked what they were saying and he paraphrased a bit of it for him. Aaron asked what Dr. Smith talked about on the radio. It was another one of those freeze frame moments he always would be able to recall. For a single moment Dr. Smith stopped, then equivocated. "Oh, you know. . . " and made up something Aaron knew wasn't true. Then Dr. Smith changed the channel to change the topic. On the new channel the clicks came so quickly they sounded like a tone. Aaron asked how anyone could understand it at that speed. Dr. Smith said that they couldn't without help. Code that fast was transmitted by a machine and received by another machine that interpreted it for them.
"Why don't they just use a microphone?"
Freeze frame number two. Dr. Smith equivocated. For the rest of his life Aaron would hold in his mind mental photographs of that room at those two moments when every molecule of air in it hung with a charge that was unseen and unfelt, but known, as the shadowy light of the single bulb in the down-turned desk lamp cast an unnatural light on Dr. Smith's face. Aaron watched waiting for an answer that never would be told.
Morse Code, of course, was nothing new to Aaron. He had seen it on television. He had learned about it in cub scouts. He had read about it in their encyclopedia. He knew how to tap out S.O.S and that those letters were a call of distress that stood for Save Our Ship. All of his friends knew that too. There had been times that they had tried to learn it. It seemed like a useful skill. Now that he had seen how useful it was to Dr. Smith, he and his friends had a renewed interest. They wanted to be able to communicate with each other like that. For one thing, no one would know what they were saying if it was in Morse Code. They could say whatever they wanted without the people around them knowing what they were talking about.
Aaron was seven years old when he went to the hardware store to see how much insulated wire cost. He had an electric train and knew how to peal back insulation and make electric connections. He and his friend Bobby pooled their money and purchased hundreds of feet of two-strand speaker wire. It was good to be from affluent families. They were aware that not all seven-year-olds had in their pockets enough cash for such things.
They strung the wire through the trees along the property lines of backyards until they connected their bedrooms. They did not have Morse Code Clickers, but they did have speakers. If one of them disconnected one wire from his speaker, he could touch it to the other and make a clicking sound in the other's speaker. It was crude and battery powered, but it worked. Slowly they learned Morse Code so that they could send messages to each other without having to go to all the trouble of picking up a telephone and asking to speak to Bobby. This was more private. This did not result in their parents and siblings knowing what they were up to. They could do it when it was too late to telephone another person's house. They could do it early in the morning without waking anyone else up. They could do it without eavesdroppers knowing their secrets. This was a great thing for several months. And then Aaron was waiting by himself in his father's office.
On a Saturday his father needed to attend a meeting at work. Aaron was alone sitting in his father's executive chair behind his executive desk waiting for him to return from the meeting. While he was sitting there someone tried to reach his father on the intercom on the desk. Aaron was arrested with the thought of how much better that was than Morse Code. He turned it over. The bottom was metal with screws holding on the wooden top. He opened desk drawers. There wasn't a screwdriver anywhere in that office. But there was a letter opener that he was able to make work like one. Inside the box there were only three wires.
When he got home he ran to Bobby's house and told him that they needed only one more wire and they could talk, just like on the telephone. No, they didn't need a microphone. The same speaker that you hear through can work like a microphone. It wouldn't make a good microphone, but it would work. All they needed to do was string one more wire through the trees. Which they did, and that was the end of Morse Code.
The intercom itself didn't last long either. That Christmas Aaron's grandparents bought him a parabolic dish with a microphone in it so that he could listen to birds and airplanes and whatever other distant sounds he wanted to amplify. His first thought was that he no longer would need an intercom. If Bobby got one of these they would not need even to be in their bedrooms to communicate. One of them could be in the woods, or up in a tree, and still they would be able to communicate at a distance.
As soon as he got it, before he ran to show it to Bobby, he went upstairs to his room to try it out. With the window open and the winter air blowing in, he pointed it at Bobby's house, and the top of a tree to hear the wind rustle the bare twigs, and at a cat to hear it walk, and through trees without being able to see what might be beyond them to hear. When summer came, if he and Bobby pointed it through leaves or darkness and heard voices, Aaron always knew who it was. He recognized voices the way other people recognized faces. When playing capture the flag in the dark, if he heard people whispering in the dark, even when they were not using their vocal chords he knew who was speaking. But on this first cold afternoon with the device, when he pointed it at the window of the room with the curtains and the Venetian blinds pulled shut, there were no voices. Only Dr. Smith's Morse Code asking someone "Are your parents home? . . . What are you wearing?"
Persons, places, events, and situations in this story are purely
Rough Draft / Under Construction
Table of Contents |
It's a Path