Life as a 1970's Teenaged CB'er
When a young person reaches their teenaged years, all sorts of new avenues open up for them. Increased responsibilities and privileges at home, extra-curricular activities at school, the attraction of the opposite sex, team sports, the acquisition of a driver's license, a part time job, and many other activities. This is truly the period of transition, where a person grows from a totally dependant child, to an (hopefully) independent thinking adult. This is not a totally painless process as anyone, who's gone through the rite of passage that being a teenager involves and survived with their insight intact, will tell you. It would seem that with the exception of a select minority of kids who were fortunate enough to be among the popular "A" listers, the rest of us plowed through those years virtually undetected, or acknowledged by the rest of our peers. And those were the lucky ones. Many others were tormented relentlessly at the hands of the bullies, who seemed to have a sixth sense for picking out the psychologically, as well as physically, weaker of the species. The reasons for the creation and proliferation of this social "caste" system were never fully understood, but it had been around for as long as anyone could remember. It would seem that most teenagers, while frantically searching for their own identity in an ever more confusing and complicated world, tended to gravitate toward and blindly followed the easy-to-identify-with superficial trends, and were influenced far more by perception and image than true substance. Whatever the latest cool "fad" of the year was, they would flock to it like lemmings, no matter how silly it might be. Some of the outlandish clothing styles of the 70's are a testament to this phenomenon. It would seem that the more popular you were, the more truth there was in this. One dare not question the status-quo and risk losing their place among their "trendy" peers who mindlessly proliferated these silly fads. Such is what gave rise to the stereotype of the good looking, athletically adept, but vacuous and intellectually challenged guy jocks, and the equally attractive but similarly vapid and narcissistic bimbo girls, the so-called "beautiful people" as they were sometimes known. Most didn't know the difference between Andrew Johnson and Lyndon Johnson, or a polynomial from a Ramen noodle but were usually voted "most likely to succeed" (although considering their lack of academic skills, one would have to wonder how) in the yearbook. But despite their shortcomings in such areas as empathy, compassion and tolerance for those different from themselves, they usually got invited to all the great parties, had the most friends, and were generally at the top of the social hierarchy. A few brave souls tried taking a stand and spoke out against this overt superficiality and the seeming irresistible and senseless attraction to the image of "plastic" popularity. But when your viewpoint is in the minority and you're severely outgunned, the unwelcome attention only made things worse. Only in the fantasies of Hollywood (who bears much of the responsibility for creating and proliferating the superficial image issue) do the nerds and geeks ever fight that fight and win the unabashed affection and admiration of their peers in the end. In reality, that never happens. This is mostly due to the fact that one's sense of popularity is relative. It was often easier to make yourself look good, by making someone else look bad. This notion is what fueled the bullies. As a result, while most of us on the middle to lower rungs of the school social class were normally much more educationally rounded, emotionally secure, and deeper thinking people, we chose to keep a low profile and to congregate in our own small groups rather than taking on the plastic establishment and fighting a fight we knew we couldn't win. And by taking the road less traveled, we avoided drawing undue attention to ourselves and being subjected to further ridicule, or becoming another stepping stone for someone looking to elevate their own social status at the expense of putting down someone else's.
At the opposite end of the social food chain, there were the druggies and "tough guys". These scholastic slackers and malcontents disregarded most of the rules, gave the 1 finger salute to the establishment, developed a generally anti-social attitude, and held those who did succeed in contempt. They did not seek "popularity" in the same sense as everyone else, but through their active disdain and disrespect of the whole social scene, they did manage to earn a certain amount of respect, even if it was earned through fear and intimidation. So in many ways, the rest of us were stuck in-between a proverbial rock and a hard place. Too good to be feared, and not good enough to be looked up to and popular.
Neither myself, nor most of my radio friends for the most part, fell into those envied upper privileged levels of the teenaged social hierarchy. Most of us lacked at least one important trait or another which prevented us from making the "A" list. Whether it was bad acne, inadequate social skills, being really bad at sports, lack of a "cool" trendy car, not being rich, not smoking when it was supposedly "cool" (oh the irony!) to do so, lack of trendy fashion sense, being physically unattractive, or having different (read: "unpopular") interests, we were destined to remain on the outside looking in. This personal realization (even if none of us would admit it publicly at the time) is what drove us to seek out an alternate reality, a place where we could be ourselves, without fear of ridicule. A place to distract us away from the social purgatory we were forced to live out in "the real world". Seeking that alternate venue, in which to conduct peaceful and meaningful social interaction (and have fun doing it), is what attracted many of the group to CB radio.
CB radio was probably the very first social networking site, making its debut decades before the internet introduced the concept to the masses. Meeting over the radio was the great equalizer in many respects. Since you could not see each other, there was no appearance prejudice. You could have the face of an ogre, weigh 300 Lbs, all while wearing $5 sneakers, and bargain rack clothes from K-Mart, and you still had a chance of making friends without having those potential negative aspects of your physical appearance getting in the way. The difference between talking on CB radio and simply talking to friends on the telephone, was the relative anonymity and the free form open round table nature of it. You weren't limited to just talking to one person at a time. You could interact with a variety of people at the same time, as if they were hanging out in the room with you. You also didn't have to "keep up" the conversation continuously. You could sit back and listen and then throw in comments as the situation dictated. The ability to communicate for 10 or more miles also meant that you could expand your sphere of potential friends beyond the boundaries of your home school district and local neighborhood. Since there was also a bit of mystery and science involved, radio was an attractive hobby for the so-called "geeky" and "nerdy" types, who were intrigued by the wireless nature of radio signals, he sometimes unpredictable communications conditions, and the technology which made it all possible. CB also enabled those people who were somewhat socially challenged, or otherwise suffered from some form of social anxiety, to seek out and interact with others comfortably. People who were extremely shy in person found that they could open up more when they were behind the relative anonymity of the radio, while in the comfort and familiarity of their own home. These more socially humble people were actually more interested in talking to and relating with people who shared common interests, rather than trying desperately to fit in by conforming to some vague and superficial peer social "image". You could be yourself and talk "to" people instead of just "at" them. Many people developed strong friendships which eventually transcended the limits of the radio itself. How, and to what degree, someone wanted to engage with others was totally up to the individual(s). Some people used CB as simply an "ice breaker", a gateway to meaningful off-air personal relationships. Others were content (and some strongly insisted!) to keep their personal lives totally separate from their life on the radio. But despite the diversity of attitudes and backgrounds of the people who called CB their hobby in the 1970's, most of us formed bonds of friendship, some of which have remained even after 30-some odd years have passed by.
And so it was that the teenaged radio community in my local area was born. It started off first with those of us who were fascinated with wireless communication, and spread to include those friends who just looked at it as a means to socialize. Most of our local group started out in CB around 1972-73, and expanded from there. The majority of the younger members also started with hand-held 100 mW license-free "walkie-talkies". This was fine for a one or two block radius, but as my friends and I discovered more and more people further away, we started to crave more and more range. Consequently, some of us tried some innovative, if not reckless, ways to improve our stations. Some tried attaching long wires to their walkie-talkie antennas, and then draping them out the back of our homes and up into trees in the hope of making it past that initial 1/2 mile range hurdle. A few of us experimented with "volting" our walkie-talkies by using a 12 volt power supply on a 9 volt radio, in the hopes of developing more transmit power. Some of us took the intermediate step of going from 100 mW walkie-talkies, to 1, 2, or 3 watt units. Others bought up beat-op early 1960's vintage 3 and 6 channel tube CB rigs for cheap before finally making it all the way to full powered modern 23 channel sets. Even at this point, there were differences in how each of us eventually made it into the "big leagues" of full powered operators. Some were lucky enough to have their parents foot the bill for their CB equipment. The rest of us had to save our pennies and work to earn the money to buy our radios, which often forced us to kludge together many of our accessories. Guys like Mitch and myself were not above (and in fact were pretty much forced to) making homemade antennas or power supplies. Some were forced to run their radios on indoor antennas or mobile antennas clamped to a balcony rail or rain gutter due to the restriction on full sized outdoor antennas often found when one lived in an apartment. Some had walkie-talkies connected to full size ground plane antennas. The diversity of equipment was almost as vast as the backgrounds of the people themselves and their degree of radio knowledge. But despite the many differences in our equipment and the means by which we produced our signals, if anyone could be heard relatively strongly, it was enough to earn them membership in the greater CB radio community. As better and more powerful radios became the norm, our network of friends grew and expanded well beyond the limits of our little neighborhood and the surrounding areas. We also managed to befriend some older people in the process, who were instrumental in providing transportation to radio stores, coffee breaks, and other events, as well as offering a little guidance and maturity, and sometimes acting as a referee when disagreements got a little heated. We all managed to communicate with each other on a daily basis and in a relatively civil fashion, considering our ages, at least most of the time. We became a sort of "support group" for one another, long before such things became socially fashionable in the mental health circles. But like any other extended family, or close knit group of friends, sometimes we got on each other's nerves or little things happened which resulted in some bruised feelings and arguments. Usually they were short lived and eventually forgiven or tolerated. Sometimes, a really big dispute would result in one person or another leaving "our" channel, and taking up residence on another channel, and joining a different group of people.
A typical day for us on the CB radio would begin shortly after school let out, which was somewhere around 3:00 PM on the weekdays. From that point on the channel would light up with a bunch of people, all relating the little tidbits of their daily lives. There would be the predictable conversations about the just completed day in school, which usually included at least one or two complaints about a particular subject, teacher, or an activity that we were forced to endure, but had absolutely no interest in, such as gym class. There would also be discussions on certain school subjects and help with homework issues. Those of us who were into the more technical aspects of radio would often be involved in some little project, or would be talking incessantly about the radios and antennas that we'd like to run (if we ever hit that big lottery number). Most of us were obsessed with signal levels, and not a day would go by without everyone checking their signal with everyone else, even if no equipment had changed. A negative change by as little as 1/2 "S" unit over the previous day's reading would send the signal requestor frantically searching through his entire radio setup to determine where the loss was coming from. It would seem that even in the arena of CB radio, there was still that drive to be competitive, and achieving the strongest signal was usually the objective. Some sought to boost their self esteem and attain the respect denied to them in the real world through the participation in the "king of the hill" contest on the radio. On CB, the people with the strongest signals were the equivalent of the physically strong guys in the real world, and as such, commanded equivalent respect. Physical strength meant nothing on the radio. The smallest introverted and nerdy wimp could stomp on the biggest macho guy, if his radio setup was superior (which was often the luck of the draw depending on the elevation of where you happened to live). Years of social demeaning were often overturned, after a few glorious moments were spent winning a power struggle on the radio. In many ways, we created a social hierarchy of our own based on how powerful our stations were. In a great twist of irony, when CB radio later became a popular fad, and many of the "normal" people tried it out, we became the "A" listers of the CB universe and these newcomers were now the outcasts and they were greeted with much of the same contempt that they had showed us before in the real world, if they didn't conform to our "rules". That's not to say that all of the "fad people" were shunned, but if they tried projecting that air of image arrogance, and narcissistic superiority, they didn't last long on our turf.
There would be a brief lull in radio activity when the dinner bell rang which, for most of us, was sometime around 5:00 PM. After that, things picked up again, until we dropped off one by one at our mandated bed times. Some nights, out of the blue, someone would dust off the old chess board, and challenge another to a quick game of on-air chess. Sometimes a bunch of us would pair up and each pick a different channel to call our moves on. When chess got a bit old, we'd switch to "Battleship", which also translated well to being played on-air. The weekends were even better, because we could hang out most of the day and stay up later at night, and we took advantage of that to reach out to more distant stations, which became readable at night when the noise levels dropped. To us, it was a great achievement to talk to someone 20 or 30 or more miles away. I can remember many such nights, when I'd turn out the lights in my room and ran with only the lights from the radio and the glow of the tubes to see by. The patterns of the light through the slotted cover of the radio would project contorted shapes on my ceiling. Also memorable was that certain "smell" which always seemed to accompany a tube radio. It almost seemed that the smell of the rig, combined with the tranquility that the quiet darkness brought, would enhance those distant signals, and give them an almost magical allure. One never knew what they might find when searching for those mysterious signals in the distance. One of the most interesting contacts that I made back then, was to a station in a private airplane. From his altitude he could reach fantastic distances. He was easily 50 or more miles away from me, but he was still a strong S8 on the meter, and the signal was almost as steady as a base station (It's hard to have much multi-path flutter and fade from that altitude). We couldn't talk for long though, as many other people from all around were trying to work this guy too. I guess this was my very first experience working a "pile-up". Night time was also the time when some conversations got a little more intimate and personal. Since the ratio of males to females was something on the order of 8:1, the guys pretty much fought each other over the few girls who seemed interesting enough to want to get to know. Once in a while there were some mutual attractions, and many nights were spent chatting on some quiet channel. All for the purpose of getting to know someone a little better, at least until phone numbers could be exchanged, thus ensuring a certain amount of privacy from there on out. Exchanging phone numbers was tough to do without some sort of mutual "code" or method to prevent others from also getting your number. I used to give out the number of the pay phone at the local convenience store, and would bike my way the 1/4 mile to get there and wait for it to ring. Others tried to carry on a respectable private conversation on the air, while knowing all too well that there were probably at least 3 or 4 voyeuristic "sandbaggers" listening in. And all this happened before the participants even knew what each other looked like. In some cases, after many nights of "suggestive" conversations, you would eventually meet and then find that the other person was just not up to your physical "standards" (hey, even social outcasts had standards too!), and you then found yourself in that awkward situation where you now wanted to back off (fast!), but not appear too obvious about it. This led to much tap dancing and excuses, and you could usually rely on your buddies to run interference for you. But usually the girls were much more perceptive, and they would immediately sense the difference in how you treated them, and hurt feels would inevitably result. On the other hand, some face-to-face meetings led to some short or longer term relationships (and maybe even a marriage or two).
Once in a while we would let our more creative sides out and create radio comedy "bits". Since some of us considered a job as a radio broadcaster or D.J. to be the ultimate dream job, (this was before the talent sucking cookie-cutter format radio conglomerates like Clear Channel and Infinity killed that dream) many of us often emulated our favorite local radio personalities when we talked on the CB. Our radio "bits" usually either copied the style of Dickie Goodman, or consisted of parodying popular songs in the vein of "Weird" Al Yankovic, a few years before he hit the mainstream. Most of us were avid Doctor Demento fans, and we got many of our inspirations from his show, although none of us ever thought to send in our "works". In fact, very few were ever recorded at all, most were just ad-lib once and done productions. The subject of our "bits" were usually other people or activities on the CB itself, and there was never a shortage of material to base a good bit on. We also managed to get into a bit of trouble, when we performed a recurring bit where we would parody a TV show such as Star Trek, by going on "missions" to other channels and declaring that there was "no intelligent life here", and then battling the angered "Klingons", who hung on those channels and who would predictably follow us back to our home channel. Once back on our home turf, we would utilize Phaser and other sound effects, as well as some good character voice impersonations to finish the "battle". We put together these low budget bits with little more than a record or 8-Track player, a cassette recorder, and a collection of sound effect recordings, and TV show and movie theme songs. Today, with all the tools available on the internet and computers, we could've probably created some well produced, professionally sounding comedic routines, and at least one or two of us might have had some serious star potential. But that's all water over the dam now.
Needless to say, our slapstick antics and fast and loose attitudes often placed us at odds with some other CB channel groups, usually those with members much older, or those who took things much more seriously than we did. A definite generation gap as well as differences in backgrounds and maturity, was usually enough to sustain a mutual dislike and contempt. Combine that with our ever increasing signal potential, and the associated bleed over which accompanied it, and that only exacerbated an already tenuous situation. We often complained about, and felt somewhat victimized by, those who felt it their "duty" to educate (or eradicate) us on our behavior quirks. But secretly I think most of us enjoyed the conflict to some degree, as it added a little spice to the usual daily routine, which could became somewhat monotonous. It also gave us even more material for our radio bits, and an excuse to do a little "cloak and dagger" payback agitation. It was also somewhat gratifying, and a boost to our egos, to know that some of these people became far more preoccupied with us, and our actions, than we did with them. Perhaps we filled a void in their otherwise empty, and monotonous radio lives, and gave them something more interesting to talk about as well. If so, I'm glad that both sides were able to exist somewhat symbiotically and managed to provide entertainment for the other.
As the years went by, the channel groups changed and most of the people came and went. There were a few core people who hung in there for the long term, but for the most part, it was like living in a Broadway play, where the scenes and acts were essentially the same, but the characters occasionally changed. Each group that I was a part of was similar in some ways, yet unique in many others. As time lumbered on, the maturity level of most people advanced with age, and much of the playful "kid stuff" diminished. Daily clowning around gave way to more "routine" and benign conversations. I hesitate to go so far as to claim that things got boring though, as there were still little tid-bits of action and interest to keep things lively.
Today, in a cruel twist of irony, I now find myself becoming more in sync with the adults who I used to despise as a kid. Part of this may have to do with an overall degradation in social attitudes which seems to show today's CB teens with a much more rough and vulgar demeanor than what we ever had. Maybe it's just a simple case of perception. But it does seem that CB radio was much more appealing as a pass time for teenagers lost in social purgatory, than it is to an adult, with many more responsibilities on the plate than time to "play"..........