Robin On Air

by Michael C. Keith
"And through the trembling air, sweet breathing.” --Edmund Spenser

Robin Cormier was eleven-and-a-half at the time of his death, and his doting parents were understandably devastated. The despair over the unthinkable loss of her only child nearly claimed Robin’s mother, Mary. For months she was inconsolable and all but beyond the effects of several different anti-depressants prescribed by the family doctor. At one point it was suggested that she be admitted to a local mental health facility for fear she may do herself harm. Don Cormier was of little help to his despairing wife as he, too, felt as if his world had been dismantled. The freakish nature of the accident that took their beloved son’s life compounded their anguish.

At an early age, Robin had become a shortwave radio enthusiast much like his father had at a similar point in his youth. However, Robin’s fascination with searching for long distant signals had far exceeded his father’s. When most kids his age were engaged in the sports and games of childhood, Robin spent endless hours in his room tuning far away stations on the Grundig 960 classic receiver he had inherited from his father.

It was not the best shortwave radio on the market admitted Robin’s father when he dug it out of a dusty storage box in the attic and presented it to his son.

“A Watkins-Johnson can draw signals from anywhere, but this old Grundig isn’t bad,” said Don, carefully wiping the patina of years off the set’s dial and knobs with a rag dampened with isopropyl alcohol and then lugging it to Robin’s room.

After settling on a suitable location for the bulky receiver, Don connected a piece of copper wire to it and strung it out of a window a couple of feet to serve as a temporary antenna.

“That should work pretty well for the time being. We’ll run it over to the utility pole when I get a chance and that will greatly strengthen the distant signals,” said Don hitting the power switch on the old Grundig, which took a while to fire up. “The tubes have to get warm before you hear anything. No solid state circuitry or transistors in this baby.”

In about a minute, the Grundig was emitting loud static, and that excited both of them prompting them to hug each other.

“Great! The power supply is working. Now let’s see if we can find something.”

All afternoon they scanned the multiple shortwave bands picking up exotic signals from as far away as Europe and South America. With its short antenna the Grundig could not draw frequencies from Asia and the Pacific islands.

“When we get it out there to the pole, you’ll be able to get most any place,” promised Don to the further enthusiasm of his son, whose heart jumped at the prospect of hearing voices from the other side of the world, to places he hoped to someday visit.

It didn’t matter to Robin that he couldn’t understand the foreign chatter that poured from the large internal speakers. The very idea that he had the globe at his fingertips thrilled him, and he looked forward to stretching the antenna wire to the utility pole so that he could reach countries in the farthest reaches of the planet, lands that existed in his dreams.

As the days passed Robin became a true shortwave devotee. He would spend every available minute slowly twisting the radio’s tuning knob in search of another strange and curious language. When he could determine the name of the station and frequency he had picked up, he would carefully log it into his notebook. Soon page after page was filled with signals from places he didn’t even know existed. On a world atlas tacked to the wall next to his treasured Grundig, he ceremoniously marked the origin of every far away frequency, his father assisting him when he could not find a particular locale. After a couple of weeks he had DX’d dozens of stations in Europe, Africa, and South and Central America, and his desire to reach more distant continents was growing quickly.

He reminded his father about his promise to stretch the antenna wire to the light pole, but Don’s days at work had become all-consuming as sales quotas at the appliance store he ran had to be met by the fast-approaching close of the calendar year.

“Maybe next week,” replied his father, when Robin twice broached the subject. “Definitely the week after at the latest, son.”

But Robin grew impatient with the delay and decided to take action into his own hands and string the antenna wire to the utility pole when his parents were out. This involved dragging his father’s metal extension ladder from the garage to the pole and climbing it to make the necessary connection.

As he ascended the ladder it struck him that by joining the receiver’s antenna wire with the power line he would have vastly improved reach. He might even catch signals from airplanes, maybe even satellites. It was difficult getting to the line but by standing on top of the ladder he managed to reach it. There he draped the antenna wire over the power line and to insure a secure connection he tightly knotted it.

It was then that the copper wire of the antenna made contact with the hot cable inside the desiccated sheathing of the power line and Robin was electrocuted. The boy’s lifeless body was first noticed by an elderly neighbor who had looked out of a window when the lights in her house flickered. At that moment the world of Don and Mary Cormier also went dark.

Living just yards from the site of their son’s fiery demise was too much for the Cormier’s even with the drapes in the living room tightly drawn to block the utility pole their son had climbed in an effort to expand the universe of his cherished shortwave radio. To avoid encountering the site of their son’s grisly death they would enter the garage from the side door and take a quick left out of the driveway leaving the power pole receding in the opposite direction. Neither would look through the rear view mirrors of the car until long after executing a turn at the corner of the block, and even then they were reluctant to look for fear the pole had followed them like some grotesque predator.

Shortly after his son’s death, Don had made the tactical error of glimpsing out of his bedroom window, which faced the street. In that fraction of a second his eyes had fixed on the scorch mark in the sidewalk left by his son’s smoldering body. It sent icy shudders through him and a sense of remorse so deep he thought he would implode.

There was no doubt in his mind that he had caused his son’s death by putting off what he had promised and his guilt haunted him. Had he strung the goddamn antenna wire to the pole as he had pledged, Robin would be alive and life would not be the hell it now was for he and his wife.

Don knew Mary blamed him for their son’s tragic end. He could tell by the look in her eyes that she considered him Robin’s murderer. He was relieved that she had not actually verbalized her feelings, because if she had he felt he would do something desperate. What exactly he did not know, but to be accused of his son’s death by the woman he deeply loved would be too much to bear, and some act of contrition would be necessary. At the very least he would have to leave, go somewhere and hide for the balance of his pitiable existence. Perhaps he would climb the same pole his son did and in revenge and repentance drive a knife into the power line that had so savagely taken his boy’s life. It would be a way to deal with his own anger and remorse, but what effect would it have on his wife? No doubt he would be responsible for ruining her life a second time.

The weeks dragged on in unrelenting gloom, Don going to work and remaining locked in his office to avoid contact with his fellow workers and Mary in self-exile at home for the same reason. Conversation between the two had dwindled to an occasional monosyllable, mainly yes and no. They no longer shared the same bed and only rarely sat in the same room together. They were becoming strangers in their shared grief.

The day they would have celebrated Robin’s twelfth birthday was the hardest for them since his death. Mary wept all day in her bedroom and Don took to his basement workroom where he sat in the dark until the iridescent digits on his watch revealed it was close to midnight. He then slipped under the blankets on the living room couch where he had been sleeping lately and drifted into a fitful sleep in which he climbed the deadly utility pole in a vain effort to prevent his son’s detonation. This recurring nightmare always woke him and left him feeling even more forlorn, if that were possible.

But on this night as he lay in the dark he heard an odd noise coming from the direction of his dead son’s room. He rose and slowly moved down the hall toward the crackling and hissing sound and as he approached Robin’s room he realized it was the sound of static like that made by a radio. His heart began to pound as he opened the door to his son’s bedroom, which he hadn’t entered since his death. In the darkness glowed the dial of the Grundig 960. Deep inside the static he detected what he thought was a voice, and he moved the tuning knob to sharpen the reception. What he heard sucked the breath from his lungs.

“This is Robin Cormier on frequency 11.855 megahertz. Can you hear me, dad? I’m at the southern tip of New Guinea facing the Coral Sea Basin. It’s so beautiful. I wish you were here.”

Then the transmission ceased, leaving Don stunned and shaken.

“Oh my, God!” he finally blurted and ran to tell Mary. “Open up!” he shouted as he banged on the bedroom door. “ You won’t believe who I heard. Robin, our son! Sweet Jesus!”

“What are you talking about?” said his wife as she warily opened the door. “What are you harping about? Have you gone crazy? Don’t say such things!”

“I swear I heard Robin on the Grundig. He’s in New Guinea,” replied Don, tears flowing down his cheeks.

Mary felt a trace of the long dormant affection she had for her husband return as he stood before her weeping.

“It was him on the radio, and he sounded fine. He asked if I could hear him and that it was beautiful where he was. He seemed happy.”

“Look, come in and get some sleep. You’re overtired and hearing things” said Mary, but as she was about to lead her husband to their bed loud static came from Robin’s room.

“It’s him. It’s Robin,” shouted Don grabbing her arm and leading her to the source of the scratchy sound.

“No, I don’t want to go in there, Don! Let me go!” yelled Mary but he dragged her into the room despite her protests.

“Shhh, listen, I’m going to get our son,” said Don twisting the tuning dial on the big radio as Mary tried to break his grip.

“This is Robin Cormier on frequency 13.870 in Romania. Can you hear me mom and dad? It’s so beautiful here…”

Mary shrieked when she heard her son’s voice and fell to the floor sobbing.

“You see, I told you I heard him. It’s really Robin. It’s really him.”

Every night thereafter they listened to their son as he broadcast from all over the world.

“This is Robin Cormier on frequency 15.345 in Argentina … This is Robin Cormier on frequency 99.995 in Egypt … This is Robin Cormier on frequency 12.085 in Mongolia…”

The deep wounds that had afflicted their hearts soon healed for their child had been returned to them from out of the heavenly ether.

© 2010 Michael C. Keith. All rights reserved.

About the Author

Michael C. Keith is a member of the Communication Department at Boston College. He has written many stories, articles, and books.
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