When I remember my Dad, and I often do, my primary image is Dad and radios. He had a large, tan-colored radio that, on clear summer nights, picked up frequencies from all over the world. He would sit out on the porch at the beach, twiddling the dials, hunched over the amazing electronic device with his smoldering cigarette and cold beer. For hours on end, he would listen intently as voices of every language would travel across oceans and mountains to reach him…Russia. Germany. Japan. Italy. As far as I know, Dad never studied a foreign language in his life, so I can only imagine what this cascade of alien verbiage meant to him—but it clearly meant something, because he kept listening. Long into the night, Tom focused on the exotic and beautiful tones of strange speakers talking of unknown people and things.
1936, New York City.
It is evening in an apartment near Gramercy Park. Little Tommy is home, ready for dinner. He has tales to tell of his day at Epiphany School. But no one is there to listen. The Cunningham apartment is dark, except for the kitchen light. Veenie, the housekeeper, is fixing dinner for a solitary small boy. His parents are out on the town, as usual. Tommy eats his spaghetti and meatballs. He retreats to his room as Veenie does the dishes. On his desk is a large brown radio. He fiddles with the dials and listens. Big band music. News. A vital, exciting world. A world where Tommy can sit, in silence, and let life wash over him.
Another radio memory. Tom always owned an array of police radios and scanners, though he was never a member of the force. At night, he would sit at his desk and listen as rapid-fire codes and static filled the air. One week when he was away on business, I sneaked into his office and found a glossary of police numbers and their meanings. Friday night, I sauntered into the room and casually commented, “10-30? Guess that’s a robbery in progress, huh?” His cold response: “No, you’re wrong. Why did you think that?” Mortified, I mumbled that I’d studied his crib sheet. “Well, that explains it. That list is years old. The codes aren’t accurate anymore.” I remember fleeing the room, red faced and in tears, vowing never to try with Tom Cunningham again.
Dad will be gone 19 years next Spring. The tan radio is also history, in some landfill somewhere. Ditto the big black police scanner with its flashing lights and incomprehensible vocabulary.
But every time I listen to the radio, I remember him. The little boy in the lonely kitchen. The lonely adult in his office. I can’t remember much that he ever said to me, which makes my heart ache sometimes. But, more often, my heart aches for Tommy, every Tommy, sitting on the sidelines of life. Listening, silently, to disembodied voices in the night. Wondering if they will ever, ever connect.