Tracking the "FCC"

 

Turnabout is fair play as we turn the tables and do some of our own hunting.......

 

 

 

I've talked about the FCC and their "larger than life" reputation before (See Legend of the FCC and FCC Unmasked). Their rumored mysterious and often spy-like methods gave rise to a good deal of paranoia, and irrational fear of doing even the slightest thing to bend the rules.  In the very earliest days of my radio hobby, I actually thought that if I made the antenna longer than the 5' called for on my part 15 walkie-talkies, that the FCC would immediately know and would descend on my house and lead me out in handcuffs.  As my friends and I got older, a bit less naive, and a little more experienced, we began to realize that the FCC was not as omnipotent and omnipresent as we first thought.  Still the rumors of the FCC visiting people, confiscating their equipment and fining them, still raged on throughout the local channels, even if no one ever really knew anyone else first hand who had ever been busted.  Still, the persistent rumors were enough to make everyone take pause and ponder whether this time it might be for real.  Whether it was Dennis The Menace whispering that he had his "linear" on, to our reversal of crystals to give us "secret" out-of-band channels, or our almost no-stop chattering, without taking the mandatory 5 minute break, and not identifying ourselves in the process, we did enough illegal things that the FCC might want to investigate further, or so we thought.

 

Back in January of 1976, we had what we thought was our closest brush with the FCC to date.  Usually most rumors of "Uncle Charlie", "The Candy Man", or the "Federal Chicken Chokers", to name a few such names we had for the FCC back then, showing up were basically substantiated by nothing more concrete than a simple "Well someone on channel X, heard from their friend's brother, who knows someone who once worked at the FCC and he said....." Obviously there was not all that much reliable info to go on.  But just in case, most of us did a little quick housecleaning and tried to keep our infractions down to that which could be counted on the fingers of one hand.  Then after a week or so of "lockdown",  and pending no additional rumors, we more or less sounded the "all clear" signal and things slowly went back to normal.  At least until the next rumor. But this time, things would be a little different.........

 

During that fateful time in January of 1976, the latest local FCC rumor started off pretty much the same as always.  But by this time, we had begun to seriously doubt the validity of most of the "FCC-in-town" rumors.  You can only yell "the sky is falling" so many times before people start to become skeptics.  But this time there was a twist.  We heard follow-up rumors that the FCC had actually been spotted in the area, driving around in blue vans with government license plates.  We were even informed that they were operating out of a local military depot barely more than 2 air miles away from the bulk of our regulars.  Not knowing anything about how the FCC really operated (Ignorance is the breeding ground for wild rumors), it seemed plausible that they would enlist the assistance of the military.  After all, they were all a part of the same government right?  With the revelation of this latest rumor, we immediately became concerned.  This was the first FCC rumor which included an actual physical sighting.  Not knowing if it was already too late or not, we quickly went into our "lockdown" mode.  I even took the additional step of hiding my amplifier in a dark corner of the garage.  But while this latest rumor seemed to hit much closer to home, it was also based on some allegedly real and verifiable evidence which we could investigate to either corroborate or refute the rumor.  Because of the potentially serious consequences (Getting your parents a several hundred dollar fine, would probably be beyond that which a kid would simply get "grounded" for),  we desperately wanted to look into this before it was too late (if it wasn't already).  But there was one small problem.  Most of the regulars in our channel group were "pre-car" teenagers, my own 16th birthday still a seemingly forever 2 months away.  The distance to where the rumored "FCC" vans were allegedly parked was not all that far away, but the journey involved steep hills, on heavily trafficked roads with no paved shoulders or sidewalks.  It was also, after all, well into the deep freeze of January, where daytime temperatures hovered in the 20's and 30's and often accompanied by a biting wind.  So it was no surprise that no one wanted to be riding a bicycle very far under those conditions.  But our prospects were not completely bleak however,  as my friend Mitch had just turned 16 barely 3 weeks prior and he had his driver's license learner's permit.  Mitch's girlfriend Kim already had her license, so she could serve as the designated licensed passenger.  So in short order, we made plans to ride down and check things out.   On the day of our big quest, being careful not to reveal our plans over the radio, I quietly rode my bike over to Mitch's and we soon headed out in his mom's car to check the vans out.  I remember  that the day was typical for a Pennsylvania January; cold and gray overcast,  the weather being eerily reflective of our mood that day.  After all, we had no idea what we might find, if anything.  We were also hopeful that, while we snooped around, we wouldn't attract the attention of any lurking FCC field agents if these vans did turn out to belong to them.  The fact that Mitch didn't have a CB in the car was seen as a bonus,  a very visible CB antenna otherwise might have aroused some suspicion.  It didn't take long for us to get there (Aren't cars wonderful?) and when we got within visual range of the Army depot, the hair on the back of my neck bristled, my heart rate jumped up a few notches, and I got a lump in my throat.  Sure enough, right before our eyes, there were two 1 ton blue vans with antennas and some other curious looking apparatus on the roof, sitting there in the parking lot.  At first we didn't know what to do, but after a few minutes of sitting on the side of the road staring with our mouths wide open,  we got a little bolder and drove into the parking lot and circled back behind the vans, figuring we could always play the "I'm dumb and lost" routine, if we were discovered.  When we drove behind the vans,  we were able to verify that they did indeed have government license plates.  Oh-Oh..... heart rate increasing.........  Could this REALLY be the FCC? At first, our minds raced in contemplation of this potential reality.  How long had they been here? Had we already been busted and the damning evidence gathered?  Did they already have hours of tape recordings of our daily antics? Were the men in the dark suits and Ray Ban shades about to visit?  These were frightening thoughts for sure.  But as we sat there looking at the unoccupied vans,  with no one in sight, a few things popped out which didn't make sense if these vans truly belonged to the FCC.  The most notable thing being that the vans were parked in the very front of the Army depot, away from the building and right along the main road and, more interestingly, adjacent to an automated weather station.  Upon closer inspection, the other fixtures on top of the vans looked less like direction-finding antennas, and more like mobile weather instruments.  Wait a minute!  Nearby weather station, portable weather gear.....  It was beginning to look like the vans belonged to the national weather service or NOAA, which were also governmental agencies.  The realization that this was most likely not the FCC brought on a collective sigh of relief as we were now fairly confident that we had solved the mystery and debunked the rumor.   But we didn't completely drop our guard just yet.  We went back home with our findings and made some quiet inquiries.  It so happened that Dead Soldier knew someone who worked in the office at the Army depot and, after making a few calls, he was able to verify that the vans were indeed part of the weather service, and not the FCC.  You can hear a small mention of this incident toward the end of this radio clip, where Kitchen Maid was telling me about the "FCC vans" in town and my reply that they were weather vans.  And so another FCC rumor was put to rest.  But there would be more to take its place, although as the years wore on, they decreased in number.  But non were taken quite as seriously as this one was.

 

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