The first piece of music gear I ever owned I won in a sack race. I was around seven years old. It was during a neighborhood picnic held at Lewis Park in St. Louis, a small but elegant early 20th century park at the bottom of a hill descending from Delmar Ave. Built with playing fields, walkways, a man-made pond and fountain, Lewis Park was trafficked in the summer by moms with strollers, softball games and necking teenagers. In the winter, the pond became a skating and hockey rink, and the hillside terrain provided plenty of steep, if brief, downhill sledding.
Up until about the 5th grade, I was the fastest kid in my class. This was no small achievement. Our school system was among the first in St. Louis to be integrated, and the city wide diversity included students of all shapes and sizes. My status reached its peak during a gym class in the 4th grade. The coach held a 50-yard dash runoff. The contest came down to me and a tall African-American girl. She was timed at 7.2 seconds, but I came in at 7 flat. Not bad for a steroid-free 4th grader running in street clothes. By the next year however the kids who were destined to be bigger and taller began sprouting up and my edge began to fade like Olympic glory. Still, I remained a good sprinter and for many years after, my self-image came through athletics.
During this time, Lewis Park hosted an annual summer picnic, organized by a neighborhood association and attended by the families living nearby. There was food, games, races, and at the end, a teenage rock band. The sack race I was in was close, as I vaguely remember, and I was delighted to have won. No sooner had I finished, still catching my breath, an adult came over to me and presented the winning prize. A prize, really? I opened the small box and was overcome to receive a genuine Panasonic AM transistor radio. For an eight-year-old in the mid-1960s, this was mind-blowing technology. About the size of a cigarette pack, the radio was every kid’s 24/7 access to popular culture. In St. Louis this meant DJ Johnny Rabbit, The Beatles, Motown, Sunday preachers, twangy stuff, and of course, Cardinal baseball.
In the months that followed, the radio remained my prized possession. Many a nine-volt battery died in my service, at school during the day, under my pillow at night or against my ear during our family road trips - the stations along the highway emerging from and then disappearing back into static.
At one point during this period of obsession, I expressed to my Mom how I couldn’t imagine my life had I not won the radio. “You almost lost, Carl,” she said, a little exasperated. I was shocked. “There was a girl catching up with you but she fell down.” This girl, I suspect, was the one who lived two blocks away, and who I usually saw only at our grade school. The neighborhood kids tended to cluster from street to street, and our stretch of territory were all boys, and often a bit too Lord of The Flies for most girls in our vicinity. On one occasion however we were out riding bikes and ended up on the street where the girl lived. She was playing with friends and we all hung out for a while. The kid talk got around to who was a fast runner. She said she was fast, too. So we decided to race uphill to a set of cars at the end of the block. We raced twice, as I remember, and we were basically even both times. I had met my running rival. She was cute, she was fast, and she was a girl. Sadly, I was not yet old enough to appreciate the sum of those qualities.
Since her family lived across from the park, she would likely have been at the picnic on that day, and I may have seen her at one point. So when my mother broke the news about my close call, it was this girl who flashed before my eyes. This shattering of my prowess fueled a certain guilt about winning the radio, and opened a dark door to an alternative universe without the radio. I had won, but perhaps I was not meant to win. I hadn’t yet learned that it’s okay to get lucky, and it’s no biggie if you don’t. In a competitive world, there’s always someone a step ahead and someone else at your heels. Just stay on your feet and things will work out.
In time my radio was replaced by a record player. My taste in music began to change, and as a teenager, socializing was about the LPs you owned, and not the stations you listened to. AM was no longer cool. Fortunately I kept the radio, where it lay quietly in one box or another, for the next 40 years. Most of the gadgets I had as a kid eventually quit working, and were usually subjected to a screwdriver autopsy before the plastic and wire remains were interned to the trash. But this radio was special. It never quit working, and so I kept it.
Looking at the radio now, it’s a classic of period style and design. Sleek, small, and elegant. Most striking to me is the cluster of transistors in the back side, the circuits compressed into an urban grid of beautiful Mad Men era technology.