Tuesday, December 21, 2010


One of the perks upon entering junior high from grade six was the opportunity to take Shop class, or, as it is called now, Industrial Education. While the girls went to Home Ec, we boys ventured off to the old converted skate house behind the school. The building had been transformed into a wood working shop. A lathe, drill press, table saw and other power tools adorned the east wall. Along the west wall were a series of numbered boards, each with it's own set of hand tools all with matching numbers. Screw drivers, squares, chisels, hand drills, etc. were all neatly arranged. Below each tool board was a small work bench. The class, taught by Bud Kowalsky, embarked on various projects including a spice rack and a lamp to varying degrees of success. Toward the end of the year we were each allowed to build a project of our own choosing.

I chose to build a stereo cabinet. In my mind this was to be the stereo cabinet to end all stereo cabinets even though I didn't even own a stereo of my own, but that's where faith comes in. I drew up a little plan on graph paper and presented it to Mr. Kowalsky. He probably thought I was nuts but with that typical twinkle in his eye, he nodded his head giving me the green light to go ahead. To save costs, we decided that the "box" part of the cabinet would be Arborite laminated on plywood. The doors were constructed out of nice veneered oak plywood which I would stain to match the rest of the cabinet. I selected some good heavy hinges and door handles and set to work. constructing each shelf to be pulled out for easy access to my as yet to be acquired stereo. With some hard work, a lot of advice from Mr. Kowalsky and some trial and error, by the end of the school year I was the proud owner of a very large stereo cabinet. Valuable lessons were learned such as measure twice, cut once and a little about laminating, sanding and staining. My poor mother had yet to lay eyes on the behemoth, but I would be introducing it to her in short order. I wasn't sure where I would put it, but that seemed a rather minor concern at the time.

George Martin had been our next door neighbor for many years when I was growing up on Prairie Crescent. His wife, Avonelle and my Mom became life-long friends. Hailing from Johnstown, Pennsylvania, where George had been in the automotive business, the Martins moved to Prairie in 1962. After enrolling as students, George became the foreman of the garage in 1962. Later he worked in the Stewardship Department and then the Post Office, retiring in 1974.

Not unlike the George Martin of Beatles fame, this George Martin loved electronic gadgets of all types. He would acquire all manner of radios, electronic clocks and tape players and resell them out of his little garage. I first became acquainted with George's shop when my Dad paid him a visit and purchased a small, light green, battery operated transistor radio. This little Sony radio, with the brown leather strap, sat on the kitchen table and brought the nightly CBC news and As It Happens into our little home. For some reason, Dad thought the back of that little radio would be a good billboard for the Chiquita banana stickers and adorned the back with a bunch of them.

I don't recall how I got the stereo cabinet home, but after seeing it, my Mother graciously suggested that maybe it could go in my bedroom. Maybe that was to insure that it didn't end up in her living room . . . I'm not sure. I cleaned up a corner of my rather small bedroom and proudly made a place for my latest piece of furniture. No stereo to put in it, but I sure thought it looked good sitting there. I had been saving my pennies and thought it was time to go and visit my friend George Martin and check on what he might have in stock. George who by now had moved out to Grantville where he had a bigger house and an even bigger garage.

I could have lived in his garage - shelves piled high, stuff hanging off the ceiling and piled high on the floor, really eclectic stuff. Weird colors, odd shapes, off beat brands. I loved it! After explaining what I was after, George rummaged around and came back smiling from ear to ear. In his hands he held a stereo receiver. A Lloyds 8-track stereo complete with AM and FM tuner and amplifier. He plugged it in and the dial glowed a soft orange color. The little black buttons along the bottom lit up with red lights when you pressed them in. WOW! This thing was calling my name. "How much?", I asked George. "Well, Stevie," (he had called me Stevie since I was knee high to a grasshopper), "There is just one slight problem."

"O no", I thought, "What now?". "There are no speakers," he continued. "Well", thought I, "Who needs speakers anyway? I can get those later . . . maybe I can build some . . . maybe Dad woudn't miss his if I borrowed the ones from the living room."

"No problem, that's fine", I said, "I'm sure I can work something out." George then said, "Well, I do have this really nice pair of headphones that I could sell you to go along with it". "Aha", I thought, "Of course, I would be needing a pair of headphones. They would be ideal for listening to rock music late into the night and I wouldn't disturb anyone."

He proceeded to produce the largest pair of headphones that you have ever seen. They were Quad phones, meaning they had two speakers in each earpiece and looked every bit like two gas masks stuck on either side of my head. Quad was a very short-lived attempt at surround sound and never really caught on. I thought those headphones were the coolest thing I had ever seen and struck up a package deal with George on both the stereo and the headphones and returned home a very happy camper!

Arriving with my new acquisition, I rushed into my room carefully placing it on the top of my stereo cabinet. Plugging in the monster headphones, it suddenly dawned on me that I had nothing to listen to as the unit only played 8-track tapes. Disappointed, I realized that I would have to fashion a makeshift antenna and be satisfied with listening to the radio until I could purchase some 8-track tapes. I began to collect a few 8-track tapes, but was never very happy with the sound. "Borrowing" Dad's new Sony turntable I recorded some of my LP's onto blank 8-track tapes, purchased from the Prairie Bookroom.

One of the very first LP's I bought was the brand new Olivia Newton John release, "Have You Never Been Mellow". This mega selling album had the song, "The Air That I Breathe" on it and I fell head over heels in love with the song . . . and with Olivia. Many hours were spent trying to figure out how to breathe some of her air. The song, initially written and recorded by Albert Hammond on his 1972 album, "It Never Rains In Southern California", was later covered by the Hollies in 1974 and became a smash hit for them. I had pretty broad taste, even in those days, and went through a big Irish Rovers and Peter, Paul and Mary phase as well. The summer of grade nine, I was out at Camp Homewood off the coast of Vancouver Island, where Olivia Newton John's yacht was docked in Gowlland Harbour. We could see the boat from the camp and visited with the crew one day. I never did meet Olivia.

Over the next few months, I built a set of speakers in rather crude boxes. They got the job done if Dad telling me to turn them down was any measure of success. Cassettes were just coming into fashion and I thought it would be really cool to be able to record some of my LP's onto cassettes to share with my friends. Again, there was a slight problem in that I didn't own a cassette player. After puzzling over this dilemma for a while, I remembered that in my Dad's office was a small mono Sanyo portable cassette deck. By portable, I mean only 20 pounds, not ipod portable. The origin of this cassette deck is a bit of a story in itself. Evidently some years previous, a Prairie college student had gone to our local drug store, owned at that time by a man named Austin Sawdon. He confessed to Mr. Sawdon that he had stolen the cassette machine in question from his store and was there to return it and make amends. After the student left, an inventory was taken, and there was no record that they had ever even carried such a model, let alone were missing one. Mr. Sawdon called on my father and brought the machine to his office explaining that perhaps the student had the wrong store. Dad made contact with several of the other stores in town, but the origin of the cassette recorder was never discovered. He saw no reason why I couldn't borrow it and so I added it to the growing collection of gadgetry in my room.

One evening just before supper, Mom and Dad were in the kitchen when I decided to make a couple of modifications to my rig. By then I had wires and cables going every which way in my room. I'm sure it looked like a complete rat's nest. I had seen David Hartt, one of the electricians at Prairie, wiring all manner of appliances in the electric shop and thought I could follow in his footsteps. On several occasions "Grandpa Hartt", as we called him, would grab a live electrical wire and as his hand would shake he would exclaim, "I think there's a little power there". In later years I would watch him as he would lick his finger and stick it in a light socket to check if it was live. I guess his skin was so dry that there was minimal conductivity occurring and he wasn't hurt.

The little Sanyo had a white electric cable with the plug that went into the wall on one end and a small rubber nub with two recessed holes that mated up with the two pins inside the case of the machine on the other. Trying to be as efficient as possible and utilizing all of my resources, I decided that as I was moving the little machine onto another shelf, I would hold the corresponding cable between my teeth for just a little bit. Now I was smart enough not to get my tongue in the way, but I forgot about the moisture equation. I had barely started to lift the cassette machine when there was a loud exploding sound followed by a WHOOOOSH! and a huge ball of blue flame shot right out of my mouth. I was facing my Dad who was sitting at the kitchen table and saw a look of great horror written all over his face. There was a black scorch mark on the end of the cable. I felt a tingle in my mouth and tongue and a strange aftertaste, but other than that I wasn't really hurt. I have however, never put another electrical cable in my mouth.


© 2010 Stephen J. Rendall - All rights reserved

No comments:

Post a Comment