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Memories of Radio Tubes

By Chuck Clegg - | Jan 13, 2021

A while back Mary and I traveled to an antique flea market in nearby Pennsylvania. It had been many years since we attended the antique fair, and it had changed since we were there 20 years ago. Back then, dealers from New York, New Jersey, and other states in the north east, brought items not usually seen in traditional flea markets. I just enjoyed seeing all the different items. This time, when we attended, it had become a lot like most other flea markets in the area – not so much unusual items as someone’s old stuff. Still, we wandered through the rows, looking at the items.

Mary looks for antique jewelry and I look for old pictures and cameras – mostly pictures that have been sold off in a family estates sale when no one wants them anymore. I somehow feel I need to give a home to the forgotten images.

As I passed through the rows of stuff, I saw a box of old vacuum radio tubes. The price on the box indicated 50 cents each. The man who owned the box said, “If you’re interested, I’ll give you the whole box for $10.” Now, I didn’t need a whole box of old vacuum tubes, but still I bought them. I wanted to show them to my grandson, Cameron. You have to understand, my grandson enjoys learning and has a great wanting for knowledge. He was looking forward to this year in school, because he was taking chemistry, advanced algebra and history. With all his knowledge of things, I was betting when I showed him a vacuum tube, he would be stumped as to what it was.

Sure enough, the next time I saw him, I showed him one of the smaller tubes. I explained that I had a special antique gift as I handed it to him. He looked at me and asked, “What is it PaPa?” I knew I had a chance to teach my grandson a small piece of science. Science magic from my world that I discovered years ago.

I first remember seeing a vacuum tube in the late 50s. When I was a very young boy, I was troubled with frequent ear aches at that time in my life. I still remember the pain even today. When I had a bad spell, Doctor Gordon would make a house call and give me medication to help with pain. I’m not sure it helped, but with time, the pain went away.

It was one of these times, when I was laid up in bed with an ear ache, that I first saw the electronic glow of a vacuum tube. On the table, next to the wall was a radio I listened to during the day. I was not supposed to use it at night, in case I fell asleep. But, one night when everyone was a sleep, I turned on the radio in the darkness. From inside the radio, a light escaped through holes in the back. I turned it down low, so I could listen to an old radio show. Do you remember those broadcasts where people played parts in a story? It may have been the Green Hornet, or even the Shadow. It was that kind of broadcast. As I lay there in the darkness, I was fascinated by the glow pulsing from within.

Finally, I turned it, so I could look through small holes in the back of the radio. Inside I could see glowing vacuum tubes. I wondered how the tubes could bring voices from inside the radio. To me, it must have seemed like magic. With time, my ears got better, and I forgot the mystery of the glowing tubes.

A few years later, I got a job cleaning the Dairy Queen before school in the early mornings. I took over the job from a great guy named Emo Schupbach. He had graduated and was heading to Morgantown to play football for the Mountaineers. He was so proud he was going to WVU he could just bust. But, before he left for college, he wanted to help get me started on the job. He didn’t have to, but he just felt it was the right thing to do. That’s the kind of guy he was, and why I remember him so fondly. Every morning before we began our work, he turned on an old gray radio that he kept under the front counter and would say, “You ready Governor?” I never did know why he called me governor.

Being that it was still dark outside, the radio lit up the underside of the counter. It had been damaged and glued together, and the back side covering was gone. The light from the tubes was not trapped inside and made a warm glow in the early morning darkness. When Emo left for college he said the job and radio were now mine. It was not much of a radio with its cracked case and exposed insides. And the only station it could pick up was WETZ. After Emo headed off to college, I carried on his tradition of turning on the radio each morning and listening to Swap and Shop by the glow of the radio tubes. I still smile when I think of Emo Schupbach.

When Mary and I got married, we moved to southern New Mexico where I was stationed in the Air Force. We started off with very little. When we got off the plane in El Paso, we had her life’s savings and my old car – not a pot, pan or a roof over our heads to begin our married lives. We spent the first few weeks in a hotel until we found an old trailer to live in. It was clean and the doors locked. That was enough to begin with. I know Mary had to spend some of those first nights away from home, wondering what had she gotten herself into. We ate chili and Hamburger Helper more times than I can count those first few years. Hamburger Helper is still off our menu.

A television set was outside of our financial ability that first year. But, by some luck, we found an old television sitting out for the trash. Trouble was, it had no outside case and no knobs to turn it on or change channels. However, I managed to get it to work. We kept a pair of channel locks beside the television to turn it on and change channels.

I can remember watching fuzzy images of men on the moon. The television sat in the corner and was surrounded by light from its electronic tubes. There was a lot of snow in the picture. I’m not sure if it was the picture from the moon or our sad excuse for a television. In the evenings, we turned off the table lamps, and the room took on a warm glow from the tubes in the back of the television. Once again the glow of vacuum tubes created a memory in my life.

When I gave my grandson the vacuum tube, I hoped he could understand that the small glass device in his hand was more than a piece of old history. It was part of my life. He asked, “PaPa, how does it work?” I started to explain…“Inside there are cathodes, electrodes and filaments, and electrons pass between them, creating” Then I stopped my technical explanation and said, “In my life, radio tubes have produced a warm comforting glow filled with memories. I hope this tube is filled with memories of this time in your life. The glow of warmth is from family memories.” I don’t think he understood either explanation. Finally, I told him to Google vacuum tubes and discover the magic for himself as I remember back Through The Lens.