Wednesday, April 7, 2010

CALLING OCCUPANTS


Robert Portway, or Uncle Bob as we knew him, was a short, balding, jovial character. Uncle Bob along with his wife, Aunt Vi, would travel around the country holding children's meetings. These rallies were meant to entertain, encourage and evangelize all in one package. Aunt Vi would play the piano and Uncle Bob would play the most outrageous instruments you had ever seen. Having certain creative skills of his own, Uncle Bob made his own instruments like the clarinetsaphone. This was nothing more than five or six clarinets glued end to end with a kazoo jammed into the mouthpiece. These instruments would leave us in complete bewilderment as to what we had actually seen.

As a matter of fact, each of Uncle Bob's instruments had a kazoo in them. Whether it was a bunch of tin cans strung together, a brightly painted piece of pipe or some other-worldly creation, at the heart of every one beat a small kazoo. Every time Uncle Bob would grab a new instrument and Aunt Vi would strike up the piano, he would play his entire arsenal of unique instruments with the utmost vigor. These instruments may have all looked different, but they sounded exactly the same. He would often invite a half dozen children up on stage, hand them one of his "instruments" and the kazoo choir was born. Throw in some singing, a chalk talk with a mandatory black light, add in some puppets with really bad ventriloquism, courtesy of Uncle Bob, and you had yourself quite a show.

When Uncle Bob arrived at PBI, sometime in the seventies, his entertainment career was in it's sunset years. He would do his best to muster the troops, but the routines were getting tired and so was Aunt Vi! One thing that Uncle Bob owned that would go on to have another life was a wireless microphone. I am sure he had no idea . . .

In those days wireless microphones were large, boxy looking devices that looked more like an appliance of some sort than an elegant microphone. These microphones would broadcast onto the regular FM band allowing for anyone with a FM radio within range to receive the signal. The frequency on which this transmitted was fixed, so if your local station broadcast on or near that frequency, so sad, you were out of luck. You had to actually open up the transmitter to get at the control that would allow you to change the frequency. One Thursday afternoon a small ad appeared in the Prairie Post advertising a wireless FM microphone for sale at the bargain price of ten dollars. I didn't waste a minute getting on the phone and telling Uncle Bob that I was on my way over and would buy his wireless microphone sight unseen.

I have loved gadgets of all kinds as long as I can remember and my new microphone was no exception. This microphone was about a foot long, housed inside a leather case. An antenna wire hung another twelve inches from the bottom. I got to work immediately dismantling the entire thing. My love of gadgets was particularly centered around any device that had to do with playing or recording music.

Some of my earliest memories of electronic devices are of Dad's old record player, kept in the living room. His stereo had two speakers stretched out from either side. The whole rig made the most glorious sounds when my brother and I would crank it up. My Father loved music and often came home from the Prairie Book Room with the latest Sixteen Singing Men, Dick Anthony or Melody Four Quartet albums. He took great pride in and care of his record collection. Dad had purchased a special cleaning kit with brushes, cloths and some type of liquid stored in it's own little box. To this day Dad maintains and enjoys an impressive collection of vinyl from that era.

My brother and I had our own turntable that looked something like a small suitcase with a hinged lid and one speaker. This was the perfect "toy" to have in our bedroom. Hours and hours of listening was enjoyed on that old turntable as we spun our records. Black Beauty, Andy the Accordion and The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins were some of the titles I recall from those days. We would wear these records out and often drifted off to sleep with them still playing. Mom would come quietly into our room after we were asleep and lift the needle off the record and shut the machine off, as it didn't have an automatic shut-off. A certain Aunt, whose name I won't mention but whose initials are RJ, had left a few of her albums with Mom and Dad for safe keeping. The Sound of Music was one of those records and occasionally we got to listen to a taste of this "worldly music", thoroughly enjoying every minute of it. You could say that the Three Hills came alive with the sound of that music!

When I was in High School you could get extra credit for what was termed "special projects". These may have taken on the form of rebuilding an engine, a wood working project, or pretty much any other creative idea that you could sell to the powers that be. This project idea was right down my alley! I got to work on a proposal to build and operate a small radio station. John Binet Sr. agreed to be my adult sponsor and promised to help guide the project and keep an eye on things. This proposal was submitted first to my student adviser and then sent on to Edmonton to the Alberta Department of Education for their approval. Several weeks passed and one day a letter arrived on ADOE letterhead indicating their excitement and support for such a creative idea.

Recruiting my friend Calvin Zwaan, we immediately went to work building our new radio station. We received permission to set up shop in the south end of a building that used to house the campus electric shop and had space available. The ground floor was originally a blacksmith shop and later became the carpenter shop for the Institute, eventually becoming storage for the electric department. In later years the space was used for the landscaping crew. A room in the building was selected and work began.

In those days the Tilly Shop sold material in addition to their huge selection of used clothing and household items. I discovered that the Tilly had several bolts of light brown cloth with small white stripes running the length of the material. We "wrapped" the entire control room with this cloth hoping to deaden the sound. It probably wasn't the most effective acoustic treatment, but at the time, what did I know? It looked cool and made it appear that we knew what we were doing. Doug Kirk lent us a couple of the school's old turntables. We were able to scrounge several old reel to reel and cassette machines to add to our arsenal. That fall I had purchased a small Sony mixer and microphone and brought those over as well to complete our collection of broadcast equipment. Rounding up some old tables and a desk, we set up all of our equipment and prepared for our first broadcast.

John Binet, a very skilled electronics technician, was an enormous help in getting us on the air. In grade eight, I had enrolled in a ham radio course taught at the local high school. This was an evening course and John was one of our instructors. By this point I knew enough about electronics to be dangerous and John patiently helped me as I embarked on this new adventure. Now, a wireless microphone is not exactly a radio transmitter that is going to reach out to the world let alone to the town. With a few tricks we were able to increase it's power significantly and make it a viable device that would certainly serve our purpose. After I replaced some resistors and a transistor or two it was ready for business.

I remember during the "testing phase" of this project I took the transmitter home and hooked it up in my little "basement shop". By carefully tuning the transmitter in over top of the same frequency as the CBC, I could completely block out or jam the signal. This would greatly confuse my Dad as he was trying to listen to his nightly CBC Concert Hall program of classical music. For a while he couldn't figure out how it was that he was hearing the Eagles, ELO or Alan Parsons on his stereo in the living room. He tried another radio and the same phenomenon occurred. Finally clueing in, he appeared in the doorway of my shop inquiring if I might know anything about this particular problem he was having with the CBC?

After this brief period of testing, I mounted the entire transmitter inside a Kleenex box and poked several holes in it to allow the wires to go in and out. The next thing on the agenda was an antenna. John helped me design what is known as a folded dipole. This is an antenna that is designed to be very efficient at the chosen frequency you are transmitting on. Using a simple formula, we cut wire legs that were the optimum length for our set up. A small tower was installed at the end of the building, the antenna hooked up and we were ready to conquer the world.

Not so fast! We hooked everything up, tuned in a small FM radio receiver, dialed it to the chosen frequency and there was a terrible sixty cycle hum coming from the radio speaker. Discouraged, I wasn't sure what to do. John suggested that the source of our problem was the power supply for the transmitter. I had built it using inexpensive parts without using any filtering circuits and that was causing the horrible hum. There was no way I could afford a proper power supply so I looked for another solution. That solution came in the form of used car batteries. I went down to the PBI garage and talked to Clarence Creasser and he kindly gave me six old batteries that still had some life in them. Lugging all the batteries back to our studio, I hooked them up in parallel, placed a trickle charger on one end of the batteries and presto, the hum was gone!

We set to work making up reel to reel broadcast tapes of music that we could transmit while we were in class. After school and in the evenings and weekends we could actually be there manning the ship. Not wanting to alienate our supporters and the administration it was decided to leave our "wilder" records at home and go with tamer selections like Evie, Praise Strings and Dallas Holm. Even Dallas was pushing the limits, but we were prepared to live on the edge! At that age Calvin had a fairly deep radio jock type voice. He did an impressive job of becoming a radio personality. I sure didn't have the voice, but did I my best and put in my shifts. I absolutely loved the technical side of the whole operation. We really got into our new roles as disc jockeys and took great pride in learning how to effectively fade one song into another, as well as other techniques we had heard on CKXL, the big rock station in Calgary.

Between classes and during lunch we would run over to the radio station and change the reels giving us a couple more hours of programming before they would need to be changed again. After school and in the evening we would run contests, hold phone-in shows and come up with whatever creative programming we could. Pulling a few strings, we were able to have several campus phone lines installed. We took requests, talked to our "fans" and generally felt like we were the real deal. The range of our little station was probably less than a mile, but that was enough to take in all of the dorms and most of the homes on the core campus. At night, when we would open the phone lines for requests, we would get a ton of calls, especially from the girl's dorms! We were having a lot of fun and the bonus was that I was getting five high school credits for my efforts.

Accounting 10 was never my idea of a good time and I don't recall ever choosing that particular course. The fact, is I probably needed the credit and most likely the other option for that time slot was equally as torturous, so Accounting 10 it was. I'm sure if you talked with Mr. Wright, my teacher for that class, he would not have chosen me either. One afternoon while sitting in class there came a knock at the door. Mr. Wright opened it and there was Principal Ken Penner. Ken asked to speak to me and so I was sent out into the hall.

There stood Ken accompanied by two uniformed officers who looked uncannily like RCMP. Panic set in as I wondered to myself, "What have I done now?" One of the officers said, "Are you Steve Rendall?" I replied that I was. I thought for a second about pointing out my friend Phil Callaway, but realized that probably wouldn't work! "Are you the kid that has the radio station?", he asked. "Yes I am," I said, wondering what that had to do with anything. "Could you take us to the station?" The officer looked and sounded as if he were on a serious mission. It didn't seem to me like there was an option. "Yes I can," I said,"Follow me." Our little party walked down the hall, up the stairs and out to the sidewalk. Parked outside the school was a police cruiser that looked very much like an RCMP car with a half dozen antennas attached to the roof and trunk. I was completely puzzled by this and not sure what was going on, I continued in the direction of our little radio station about a block away. Arriving at the building, we entered the control room and one of the men said, "Do you have a license to operate this station?" I replied, "Yes, I have a letter from the Alberta Department of Education giving me their permission to operate the station for credit."

I can't even imagine what these two men were thinking as they stared into our little cloth cocoon in the middle of this old shop. With car batteries on the floor and equipment that looked like it had been owned by Marconi himself, it must have been quite a sight! The other officer informed me that they worked for the Canadian Department of Communications (DOC). He said that they had been tracking our signal all over town before coming to the school that afternoon. I was informed in very serious tones that the ADOE had no right and no jurisdiction to have given us any such permission. Furthermore, what we were doing was strictly illegal and against the law in several ways. We could face jail time and/or fines under the criminal code of Canada. WHOA! I hadn't signed up for that!

Under Canadian law, to operate a radio station, you not only need a license from the DOC who look after the technical side of transmitters and antennas, but you also need a license from the Canadian Radio and Television Commission (CRTC) who regulate content. At the time, Christian stations in Canada were illegal. Well, not exactly illegal, just not allowed! To this day I'm not sure whether one of my "fans" phoned in a complaint or if this was a random patrol and their scanners just happened to pick up our signal and they were able to track us down.

The officer then asked who was helping us with this operation and I no choice but to give up my friend and mentor, John Binet. John's office was in the north end of the same building and he was rounded up and brought into the control room. The officer asked to see the transmitter. I pointed to the Kleenex box in the corner by the batteries. I think he thought I was being disrespectful so he asked again to see the transmitter. I finally was able to convince him by showing him the wires going in and out of the box that this was indeed the evil monster. Growing very serious, he then said to John that he wanted him to dismantle the transmitter right then and there. He then had to swear on a stack of DOC licenses that he would never, ever allow something like this to happen again. If he did not comply, he was told that they would take away his ham radio license for life. John took his ham license very seriously and a sober look came over his face. One of the side benefits of his ham equipment was to help dorm kids keep in touch with their missionary parents around the world.

John immediately got busy de-soldering the various wires from the little transmitter. and un-hooking the antenna. He took the transmitter and disappeared back down the hall to his shop. I'm not sure if I returned to class that day or even to school for that matter.

Many years later I received a phone call from John Binet asking if I would drop in and see him. When I arrived, he held a small plastic bag in his hand. Contained therein was my little transmitter. "I thought you might like this back," he said, grinning as he handed me the small package.

If you should happen to hear a mysterious station crackling over your radio . . . don't come looking for me!



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© 2010 Stephen J. Rendall - All rights reserved.

2 comments:

  1. Regarding Uncle Bob and Aunt Vi... I recall a session with a hundred elementary aged kids in which part of his speech somehow included a small game trap as a prop. But it didn't go as planned and it snapped on his foot! He tried to keep the show going with his foot, no doubt with broken bones, caught in the trap. He looked helplessly over at Aunt Vi who also wanted to keep the show going as though nothing ever went wrong if you were preaching about our good lord and savior. It seemed that most people thought it was part of the show. Eventually he called out for help as cooly as an old man with his foot caught in a game trap could be.

    I think he was freed eventually, but the show did not go on. It was one of his most entertaining shows at least!

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  2. AH maannnnn --- how *could* they (police) not simply look at you, look at your ... what shall it be called ... jerry-rigged? macgyver-esque? ... radio, look back at you and just walk away?

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