@

The opening closed the fall before. About the time I put up the storms and started with the leaves, the lesser Pacific voices fell away into a great hissing sink. I had not found the ones I longed for, the Melanesian voices, Bougainvilleans, and by raking time Hispanic ones drowned them out, if indeed they were ever there.

In winter, 75 meters is a Spanish band.

I thought about my friend, a Colombian. If she wanted voices she could pick up her phone, dial, listen. Talk back, too. To get voices that’s all she’d have to do. Or she could get a big dish, point it at the bird, tune her sat receiver, find where in the spectrum it splashed down the Spanish it had sucked up from another continent. No problem.

The tropical voices I wanted would arrive by other routes: by polar scatter, by ion bouncing, meteor trails. I visualized lines, sines and cosines, theta, an electromagnetic latticework. I thought they would arrive sometime.

My friend’s voices came with pictures, Spanish evening news, something I’d never seen until Peru, Fujimori, hit the US networks – the fat judge, the red-dressed anchor woman, I remembered her well, speaking excellent English with who? Rather? Brokaw? Well, that I couldn’t remember, but all that fuss, so exciting, We’ve been staying up for twenty hours following that story, Dan. Or Tom. Shining Path was it? No, Tupak Amaru. Shining Path is a better name.

But nothing happened, did it? Nothing happened for weeks, was it months? The newscaster, her English speech so fine, her dress so red, she was pretty, too, and I wondered, What is her life like? Does she have a lover?

She stayed up twenty hours for guerrillas, working, excited. Stayed up twenty hours for nothing except an appearance on NBC. Or CBS. And the thing then pushed off the screen by other news, pushed off maybe even in Peru, going from Spanish news to nothing, then rescue, killing, news again. Years later, a novel. My friend got all this by pointing the remote, and in the language she wanted, too.

For her it was like a multilingual instruction book. Section Five, Spanish. Section Six, Italian. Section Seven, Serbian. But I would never find Section Eight, Neo-Melanesian, never surf through, point and click through to the voices I wanted. Never, no, they were down in the tropical bands, so low down there, and power? Forget it. The Bougainville transmitter was a converted amateur rig putting out eighty watts into a makeshift antenna hidden in the rebel hills. Shining Path? No, nothing so beautiful: my voices would be the Bougainville Revolutionary Army, the BRA.

And I thought I’d receive this in a city more than eight thousand miles away with a cheap receiver?

But I had to keep trying. When my longing overpowered me I called an 800 number, gave my credit card, paid for Fed Ex because I wanted the voices tomorrow, so naive, the overnight forty bucks extra, but since the receiver itself was fifteen hundred that seemed trivial. For fifteen hundred bucks I could have flown to Bougainville but it was blockaded, under siege, I’d never have gotten there anyway.

I called my friend who was good on ladders.  We got the antenna on the roof, up three stories, drilled holes for the coax, passed wires down the laundry chute to the cold water line in the basement for ground.

The doorbell rang, the radio came. Unpack the glorious Japan Radio Corporation NRD-525. Nerd-525, I thought, but I didn’t care. Check Zulu time, the BRA should be on in fourteen hours.

I turned the thing on. Who among us reads instruction books?  Powered on, it worked, no warmup anymore.  Just a little thermal settling-in. The old Hallicrafters I had as a boy took ten minutes to stabilize, this new one about five seconds. Later I had a Collins that settled faster than the Hallicrafters, and the Nerd beat both of them, but to what end? It couldn’t hurry the signal.

Punch the frequency in, not like the old days, those fifties days of analog knobs, main tuning and bandspread, no, now I just key it in, press Enter, that’s it. Provided there’s a signal, it’s time to notch and filter, fuss with bandpass, choose the right width, decide whether to use the upper or the lower sideband, or both. Maybe blank the noise with the Noise Blanker. In a city there’s always noise.

No. Nothing on but Spanish and Jesus and probably Spanish Jesus, how would I know? Then I realized my  blunder. The time’s right, the season’s not; I’m a third of the world away. All right, grab the propagation handbook, check out the charts. Oh. It’s hopeless in the winter. How did I forget? Fortunately the equinox is just a month away.

In the meantime, bleeding money, willing to bleed more, I sent for a sophisticated detector, Kiwa (Oregon-made, Oceanic-sounding). Installing it required opening the Nerd, doing a little wiring, but I hadn’t forgotten how to work delicate copper.

I listened for my voices well before the equinox. There’s grey area there, where is it written that the band should open on the very 23rd? No, it’s around that time, around the equinox, somewhere in there. Only listen my children and you shall hear.

By the Ides of March I was awake listening, hearing beats, heterodynes, whistlers: the higher spectrum’s own dawn sounds. Five fifteen seemed early enough to check. I listened drinking coffee, Colombian of course, but brewed before listening. The coffee maker carried the familiar warning: This device generates and uses radio frequency energy. Well, I wanted radio frequency energy too, but not from a coffee maker. I wanted it, I would use it, all I needed was about tenth of a microvolt.

Each dawn I sat in my room, standing stooped sometimes, waiting in that bluish crepuscular light, the  display flickering on my glasses, reflected in the window. Nothing, nothing. Nothing.

One morning, impatient, I grabbed a yellow pad and wrote a prayer to Saint Marconi of the Kennelly-Heaviside Layer.


Oh Guglielmo, I pray to you, let the signal through,
raise it from the noise, as I raise my prayer to you.

Bless this sloper antenna, bless its traps and dipole
thick black co-ax, RG-8U, bless
this receiver, Japanese, triple conversion,        
bless this detector, American, synchronous,
an added-on, unauthorized modification
Let it not invalidate my warranty.

Only let the voices through and I will pray until
the superheterodyne conversion
of the Heathen. Also I will publish this prayer
three times or more.


I rose from sleep into bird song, more as winter passed into spring, woke mostly into car alarms, their chirps, opening doors, slammings, the urban sounds of dawn. Then to the radio, hissing, gurgling even with faxes. I wouldn’t use the memories or keypad, instead each time tuned by hand as if the ritual might make it happen. I’d slide up, wide band, 3880, 81, 82, 83 — a hint of carrier? — 84, lock on 3885. No joy. Try narrow. Shift the bandpass. Sit on the frequency and wait. Nothing.

In my memory the village eased into day with human sounds, tempered perhaps by a cock crowing under someone’s house, an old woman beating a pot to call her pig. In the village I rose from sleep into voices, a snatch of song, a little trill. Barking, grunting, wood being split. Children calling to each other.

One peri-equinoctial dawn that distant station rose from the noise, the suddenness of it all but stunning me, bringing me voices for an hour or so, voices forty milliseconds delayed from the village’s whirring night. Three eight eight five, risen, finally alive. Radio voices, familiar tones, cadences; I heard pieces in the old style, I heard songs. I heard reports of soldiers killed, of fire fights, of villages burned, of blockades, starvation, death. I heard the names of people I knew.

In the village it was fully night. If their radios survived, if there were batteries, Five Rams or Duck, they’d be listening too.

In my dawn I celebrated our ritual of long ago, not sitting with them on slatted benches, not smelling wood smoke; I performed it hunched over my set, notching, filtering, blanking, solo. No one laughed with me, no one exclaimed. No one called an old woman to hear, a schoolboy to explain, someone’s child to dance. There may be no dancing anymore, no school, I thought, and the old men and women teach the young  survival in time of war.

Vibrating ether’s a century gone, no matter. Against all physics I conjured a medium conducting voices, linking us: fluid, listening together, rejoined.

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Don Mitchell DON MITCHELL is a writer and ecological anthropologist, born and raised in Hilo, Hawai'i (where he graduated from a public high school -- in Hawai'i, that's important). He has published academic works, poetry, fiction, creative non-fiction, and both published and exhibited photographs. He recently published a story collection, A Red Woman Was Crying, and is working on a novel set on Bougainville Island, Papua New Guinea, where he did fieldwork. He lives happily in Hilo with his college girlfriend, a poet and yoga teacher, whom he lost for forty years but, lucky for him, finally found.

45 Responses to “Voices Return at the Vernal Equinox”

  1. A nice sense memory Don. A piece about distance and longing and community hidden in folds of tech. Reminded me of one of my favorite documentaries, Genghis Bluesabout the phenomenal Paul Pena learning to throat-sing by listening to Radio Tuva on short wave in his San Francisco basement.

    • Don Mitchell says:

      I have his Genghis Blues CD, but never saw the documentary. I like Tuvan music.

      I’m glad you liked it. It was meant to be precisely as you described it – longing, community, distance, tech. These days I get a RSS feed from Radio Bougainville (no longer a clandestine operation) but it’s not the same.

  2. Lenore Zion says:

    don, your writing is so earthy that sometimes i think you’re made out of a pile of leaves. that’s a compliment. not that being made out of a pile of leaves is good, but i know you aren’t made out of a pile of leaves because i met you in person. the point is, i like your earthy tone. i don’t think anyone could pull it off but you.

    • Don Mitchell says:

      I take it as a compliment, Lenore, and I think I know what you mean. Piles of leaves are good, earth is good, decomposition is good. Maybe I’m good and maybe not (I do take many extra twist-ties from the supermarket, yes, I admit it here publicly) but in any case the interplay between earthiness and tech has always fascinated me. I don’t think they are necessarily opponents, though they can be.

  3. Stefan Kiesbye says:

    “In my dawn I celebrated our ritual of long ago, not sitting with them on slatted benches, not smelling wood smoke; I performed it hunched over my set, notching, filtering, blanking, solo. No one laughed with me, no one exclaimed. ”

    I love the way you describe rituals, and your piece is very atmospheric, like static of the magic kind.

  4. Nathaniel Missildine says:

    “bluish crepuscular light, the display flickering on my glasses, reflected in the window.”

    I like that image and your kind of devotion. And I never read the instruction manual, perhaps why I prefer to imagine my own definition for things like ion bouncing.

    • Don Mitchell says:

      Thanks, Nab.

      You’re right about that being a kind of devotion. I felt it at the time, that somehow my constant trying, trying would lift their spirits. Of course nobody had any way of knowing I was trying to listen, but even so, it felt good.

  5. Simon Smithson says:

    Ahhhh, Don. I’m sorry for the friends you lost; I’m sorry for the chaos and the war.

    As usual, a piece well-told, if a saddening one. I can’t believe the change in communication between then and now. In some ways I feel blessed, to have grown up in one era, and become an adult in another.

    • Don Mitchell says:

      The numbers of people directly-killed in fighting was not great, but there were many indirect deaths from disease. But the chaos produced an entire lost generation, which is very sad.

      The communication differences are extraordinary. There’s now cell service into my old village.

      It’s interesting that plain old high-frequency radio, a technology that’s been around for many decades, remains useful. It’s cheap and reliable, and generally easy to maintain and power. When I was last on Bougainville, in 2001, there was a sat phone setup at what used to be one of the local government centers. The E.U. contributed it. But it never worked properly and for all practical purposes it was useless. There was always something wrong with the solar panels or the batteries or the transmitter. It was a fine gesture but it was an inappropriate technology for that area at that time. It really needed an on-site tech person.

      In the local-materials building next to it there was a standard HF transceiver that always worked, always made the connections to the rest of the island and usually could connect to other parts of PNG. I sat there and watched one of my “sisters,” who had been a little girl when I was first there, turn it on and without the least fuss order a shipment of vaccines for the local medical outpost where she was a nurse.

      So I think a place like Bougainville needs a mix of communication technologies. A solid base of older, simpler, well-understood, reliable radios overlain with the newer technologies which are not yet reliable (and are expensive).

  6. Reno j. Romero says:

    don:

    this was great. the whole pace of this piece was nothing short of great. reminded me of something william kittredge would write. wait! are you mr. kittredge saying you’re mr. don?

    your memory is right on. i loved the choppy sentences. your minimalist style on this one is a keeper. thanks for the morning read, don. i’ll never look at a radio the same ever again. cheers.

    • Don Mitchell says:

      Thanks, Mr. Reno.

      Somebody recommended Kittredge to me, within the year. I got one of his collections (”The Next Rodeo”) but it slipped behind other books and I didn’t read it. Just now I went looking for it and found it, so I’ll crack it.

      By the way, our victory over Cleveland Sunday seems to have taken us out of the running for Andrew Luck, if he comes out this year. Damn.

      • Reno j. Romero says:

        don:

        i love kittredge. i have a collection of his stories called, uh, “the best short stories of william kittredge.” i think you’ll like him. writes about people and their land. very organic. and like lenore mentioned about your writing: very earthy. i think annie proulx (one of my fav writers – check out “close range.” it’s a beauty.) may have lifted a few of his things. i saw the bills score and thought of you. hey, as you know, the bills are not THAT bad. they had some close games this year. their record doesn’t reflect how good they actually are. oh, well. that’s the game of football. AND they sent favre into retirement. well, maybe…

        ok, sir, have a great day and i’ll do the same.

  7. Joe Daly says:

    >>Who among us reads instruction books? <<

    Amen, brother. Amen. Certainly not I.

    Beautiful tapestry of emotions, anticipation, and enough gadgetry to make the most hardened techie blush. Very strong sense of loneliness here. Really enjoyed this, Don.

  8. Richard Cox says:

    When I think of the effort undertaken to hear these voices half a world away, whether you know the exact frequency or have to find it among a known range of them, and the tiniest, short-lived broadcast you finally found, I think it’s no wonder our friends at SETI have such a gigantic challenge before them. Pointing a radio telescope at the sky, with no idea what or how or from when a signal might be originating, for how long, in an unknown frequency range, it seems an almost impossible task to find something.

    I enjoyed reading about your experience, in such beautiful language. A well-realized, atmospheric memory.

  9. Don Mitchell says:

    Thanks, Richard.

    I read from an earlier version of this and some people in my audience were really taken by “Sit on the frequency and wait,” as if it were meant as useful advice on how to live. Maybe it is.

    I was reading somewhere that when petaflop computers become fairly common, the SETI folks will want one, for obvious reasons.

    • Richard Cox says:

      “Sit on the frequency and wait” is a great display of patience, I suppose.

      For a while I participated in the SETI @ home program. The blocks of data downloaded to my machine were relatively small and yet the decoding of them ran my CPU up to 100% capacity for hours. Amazing how much computing power it takes for even the tiniest samples.

  10. Andrew Nonadetti says:

    Take heart, Don – there is always dancing. Count on it. Whatever else is discarded to survive, it takes a lot to beat the simple joy of humming a tune, moving your body, creating something from nothing out of the human soul. Even if it’s forgotten for a long while or happens only in your head.

    You’re a good friend, Don, and this was a very touching piece for me.

  11. Don Mitchell says:

    Indeed there always is, Andrew. And almost all of the people I loved came out of this if not dancing, then at least ready to dance.

    I probably dropped the chronological ball a bit here. The really bad times were in the nineties, which is when I was trying to listen. Peace has held since about 2000, and I feel confident it will continue.

    This was a secessionist war, although a very complex one with several armed groups, and to the extent that there was a victory, it was that the island will have a binding referendum on its independence from Papua New Guinea, most likely in 2015.

    Anyway. If it touched you, my friend, then I succeeded. Thanks.

  12. Erika Rae says:

    Bravo, Don! This is different than your normal. I loved the poetry in it. Also, the humor. Dan. Or Tom. Heh.

    I visualized lines, sines and cosines, theta, an electromagnetic latticework. I thought they would arrive sometime.

    You remind me of the quote by Richard Feynman in this post:

    “Poets say science takes away from the beauty of the stars – mere globs of gas atoms. I too can see the stars on a desert night, and feel them. But do I see less or more? The vastness of the heavens stretches my imagination – stuck on this carousel my little eye can catch one – million – year – old light. A vast pattern – of which I am a part… What is the pattern, or the meaning, or the why? It does not do harm to the mystery to know a little about it. For far more marvelous is the truth than any artists of the past imagined it. Why do the poets of the present not speak of it? What men are poets who can speak of Jupiter if he were a man, but if he is an immense spinning sphere of methane and ammonia must be silent?”

    Also, thought of you watching the geminids last night!

  13. Don Mitchell says:

    Erika – glad you liked it. That Feynman quote is excellent. I must be doing something right if my piece put you in mind of Feynman. Did you ever read James Gleick’s book about him, Genius?”

    “It does no harm to the mystery to know a little about it.” Man, my credo.

    Last night we had a couple of feet of snow, so no star-gazing happened here (I’m not in Hilo just yet, even though I changed my profile residence). Mauna Kea has snow, though.

  14. Matt says:

    Don,

    I’ve got this old, dial-operated transistor radio I picked up somewhere. It doesn’t work very well, but when I can get it to operate it always picks up stange, ethereal broadcasts that are somehow missed by the modern tech at my disposal. This essay really brought out that feel, of whispers from unknown, foreign places, and the way they can just entrance you. Well done.

    • Don Mitchell says:

      Matt, Thanks and I know exactly what you mean. That same thing captivated me as a kid, which is when I got hooked on radio (about age 8 or 9) by building a “crystal set,” which is this antique thing where the operator picks up and drops a wire whisker on a crystal (not a woo woo crystal, but a radio crystal) and depending on where the wire touches, you either get audio or you don’t. When you don’t get it, you get strange sounds. To me that was just astonishing, because there was the crystal, a physical block, and yet somehow . . . .

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crystal_radio

      Then I graduated to dial-spinning, just as you describe. I still love the dial-spinning sounds.

  15. Tom Hansen says:

    Very nice writing Don. Wonderful sounds and rhythms. Reading it I was kind of floating in and out of the present reality of the story, if that makes any sense. Very cool

  16. Great Stuff, Don!

    Brought back memories of all the stories the Salvadorans used to tell me about Radio Venceremos…

    • Don Mitchell says:

      Ah, I never thought about that kind of US-Central America connection, Tyler.

      But of course the Salvadorans would have listened, and it would have been somewhat easier to receive. Of course, maybe it was jammed. That would have made it tough.

  17. D.R. Haney says:

    There are no atheists when machinery fails to deliver. I’ve found myself praying to the machine at hand and not even to an intermediary: “Work. Won’t you please work? What do I have to say or do to make you work?”

    There’s something spooky, in the best sense of that word, about hearing far-away voices that I don’t feel about written messages on the Internet, and I don’t get from the phone either. There’s something romantic about it, too, I suppose because I always thought of ham-radio enthusiasts as people marooned for one reason another and seeking signs of life.

    Brando, when he lived on his atoll in Tahiti, apparently spent a lot of time on a ham radio. I wonder if anyone knew they were speaking to Brando. I doubt it. For Brando, communicating without the weight of celebrity, must have been part of the appeal. And then there was his literal weight…

    • Don Mitchell says:

      It’s the reverse of those signs I used to see in photocopy rooms … “This copier has a stress detector and if you’re in a hurry it will fail ….” I can’t remember entirely how it went but most of us have seen them.

      When I was in the race timing business I was more drill-sergeant-like than supplicant. I’d hook stuff up and command it: Now come up, you sonofabitch! Connect! Synch! Read chips! Yes!

      One thing about amateur radio that turned me off when I was one (as a teenager, KH6CMN) is that there’s rarely anything interesting to talk about except equipment.

      Yeah, roger that. Whatcha running there? Yeah? That’s a good rig. Yeah, 20 over 9 here.

      I did have a friend here in Buffalo who was a left-wing radical but adored low-power morse code ham radio, and had contacts all over the world. For him, if the FCC allowed you 1000 watts output, he’d go with 10. If you were allowed all sorts of slick voice and data stuff, he went with morse code (“CW”) and didn’t even use one of those fancy keys. He built as much of his own equipment as possible. I was impressed but not enough to re-license myself and start dot-dashing my brains out.

      It gets old, but having said that I’ll say that hams perform any number of really useful services, especially disaster-related ones, so don’t anybody read this as criticism.

      As for “working” Brando, I’d guess that a lot of people actually did know. Call signs are always associated with individuals and so if you worked FO5GJ, FO5SK, or KE6PZH you knew it was him, provided you knew that “Martin Brandeaux” was Marlon Brando. Evidently quite a few people did know this.

      http://www.eham.net/articles/8733

      Check out the 14th comment.

  18. Zara Potts says:

    Radio’s are such queer things.
    There’s something altogether spooky about them. My dad is totally involved in ham radio and he loves it. I kind of get it – when I drive long distance I like to have talk radio on – it makes me feel less alone. Plus, I like shouting at the stupid people who ring in.
    Don, I can’t wait to read your book about your time in the Pacific. Everytime you post something that mentions it, I want to read more and more…

  19. Don Mitchell says:

    Ah, a fellow shouter-at-the-radio? Do you do telly-shouting too?

    Zara, there’s no need to wait. Surely this one will do:

    http://www.paperbackswap.com/Land-Agriculture-Nagovisi-Donald-Dean-Mitchell/book/0724702024/

    No?

    • Zara Potts says:

      Yes! I telly shout all the time – especially at the news.
      But talkback is my favourite, particularly in the car. My ‘stupid caller’ rage goes very well with my road rage!
      Aha! A link.. let me go and look now, Donald Dean Mitchell!

      • Don Mitchell says:

        Don’t forget the “II.” Why my parents didn’t give me my own name I don’t know. I always hated being a II and so I never use my full name unless I’m forced to for legal reasons. I always hated “Dean,” and I always hated “Donald.” Whoa, self-hatred alert! No, just the long name.

        Thus when I get to choose my name, it’s invariably as we see it here at TNB. Short form.

        It’s true, though, that my father’s older brother (after whom I was named) was a wonderful man. He spoke fluent Hawaiian, taught his entire life in a Hawaiian school, and was no doubt a big part of the reason I went into anthropology. Even so I’d rather have had my own name!

        You won’t find much in the link. Copies are available here and there. It’s a cult classic!

  20. This is great Don! I love the prayer!

    • Don Mitchell says:

      Glad you liked it. I went back and forth with the italics, trying for that — is it 18th century? — feel.

      I’m anxious to read Drinking Closer to Home. Kindle rules! When it comes out, I’ll have it that day.

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