Updated: Jul 29, 2020
Long before cell phones, the internet, and 24-hour cable news, the latest fad in communication was having a CB Radio. So much has changed in the world and yet it remains the same. At the height of its popularity, my father went out and installed CB Radios in both of my parent’s cars. My dad’s handle was Big Bird, and my mom’s Sparrow. What’s a handle, you ask? It is an anonymous name you go by, similar to your user ID, your twitter name, or your Instagram account. I am not quite sure why he chose Big Bird and am sad, as I wish he were here to ask. I have my suspicions though. He drove a yellow Subaru 4-door hatchback, had a bright yellow puffed out jacket, and he like many dads out there had a protruding belly.
I believe one of his friends’ dubbed him Big Bird, after seeing him in his Foul Weather Gear and it stuck (see picture). He took the liberty of giving my mother her handle, and I believe she refused to use it, or answer to her call sign, just like the intercom system we had in our house. “I don’t answer to beeps” was her reply. For some of you who don’t remember, or even know what it is, CB Radios were HUGE back in the day. My guess is that it became wildly popular after the movie Smokey and the Bandit was released in the late 1970s. Remembering the CB Radio and how my dad embraced it, evokes a warm fuzzy feeling and hope, on some level, my dad knows I am thinking of him. I sigh, as that was a very long time ago, and it really reinforces how much older I am rather than how I feel. I refuse to do the math as to how many years it really is.
Like you, I’ve hunkered down for the past four and a half months, Sheltering in Place, and spending copious amounts of time reflecting special moments and occasions spent with my father. While it is certainly bittersweet, this particular instance, made me laugh out loud. I realize it was a luxury to own a CB Radio growing up and the novelty of having one was fully embraced by my father. Over dinner one night, I was trying to explain the CB Radio to my son, and was sharing a story about the time I was in the car with my dad, returning home after a day in the city. I was trying, unsuccessfully, to describe what the CB Radio was, what it sounded like, the lingo, and the freedom it presented to us while growing up to my current day teenager. Suffice it to say, it was like speaking Greek. I couldn’t fully articulate what the crackle sounded like, how people spoke to one another, and the good humor and banter that existed between users. It was difficult to describe until I compared it to cell phones now and the unfamiliar texting phrases or secret language through “Insta” or whatever platform my son uses now. IKR, BRB, TBH, IMO and other texts I will never fully comprehend.
“Breaker Breaker 19” was the familiar phrase that would fill the space in the car - a voice coming over the radio waves announcing a person’s presence. That voice might interrupt a conversation, a song on the radio, or even the awkward silence between a father and his moody tweenage daughter. Not only was it new to speak with someone else a few miles away while in the car, it was fun and exciting. CB Radios served as a conduit to the outside world, provide traffic updates, communicate emergencies and offer users camaraderie. That CB Radio got my parents out of engine trouble when we ran out of oil somewhere in New Jersey late at night, and long before AAA was reachable by a cell phone. My dad reached the police by switching to Channel 9, knowing that channel was designated for Emergencies.
The particular memory happened after my father and I had spent the day in the city, and about to start our trek home. My father traditionally parked the car somewhere in Long Island City. He refused to take the Long Island Railroad, mainly because he didn’t want to adhere to a schedule, and so like my "don't tell me what to do" father. After taking the “7” subway to Jackson Avenue, we hopped in the car. My father knew every short cut, side road, and alternate route, including cutting through the cemetery all to avoid taking the Long Island Expressway. As we started our journey my father turned the CB Radio on. It crackled to life.
“Breaker Breaker 19, this is Big Bird. Anyone on GCP headed to the Big Apple? Hows it look over the shoulder? Copy.”
“Big Bird, Big Bird, this Seawolf, copy.”
“That’s a go for Big Bird, copy.”
“What’s your 20 Big Bird? Copy”
“Seawolf, headed out of town, on LIE east. Yardstick 4. Should I go through the woods? Copy”
“10-4 Big Bird. At your front door, doing double nickels by the nuthouse on GCP, you can drop the hammer and fly like the bird you are. You have a clean shot. Copy.”
“Copy that Seawolf, Mighty fine of you. 10-4“
The conversation took less than a minute. The guy on the other end told my father he was on the Grand Central Parkway, headed east, right past Creedmoor Psychiatric Hospital about 15 miles ahead. He was doing the speed limit of 55 miles per hour and that my father wouldn’t have any problems for at least 15 miles and it wasn’t necessary to go through alternate routes.
Every single time I past Creedmoor Psychiatric Hospital when driving on the Grand Central Parkway, that odd conversation stuck in my head. Without fail, I would glance over at the large and looming building, that unmistakable giant landmark - the one that is on the border that indicates you are leaving Queens and entering Nassau County, and could hear the my father and Seawolf exchange pleasantries, and guide us home. Hopefully when this pandemic is behind us and I get myself to New York for a visit, I will drive past the Nuthouse (so not PC) doing double nickels with a smile on my face and a warm feeling in my heart.
After that brief conversation, and my dad lowered the volume on the CB, he looked over at me and smiled as large as the photo above. My father transformed before me, he became cool, hip, and current by being able to speak a new and crazy language, and use the latest technology available at the time, all while navigating us home the quickest way possible. I didn’t tell him it was cool that day, or ever for that matter. Hopefully the smile I returned to my father said it all.