One Native Life: My Nine Volt Heart

by Richard Wagamese
News From Indian Country

I was given a radio when I was ten. It was an old General Electric transistor. It was brown with a vintage Fifties look and it was about the size of a pencil case. The radio was a reward for doing the chores that were assigned to me in my adopted home. I’d been there about a year and the radio was the first thing I recall ever being able to call my own.

I took it everywhere with me. It sat beside me while I trimmed the hedges and weeded the flower beds. When I did my homework it sat within reach in case a favorite song came up and I even arranged a way to carry it in the handlebar basket of my bicycle. Every week, at allowance time, I ran to the corner store for the nine volt battery that kept it going.

I heard the Rolling Stones for the first time on that radio. I heard Curt Gowdy call the 1966 World Series between the Baltimore Orioles and the Los Angeles Dodgers. China developed the H-bomb in 1967, the first heart transplant was performed in South Africa, the U.S began bombing Hanoi, Jayne Mansfield was killed in a car crash and Muhammad Ali lost the heavyweight title because he wouldn’t fight in Vietnam. I heard all of that in that first year or so with that radi

It was like the world came within my reach. I was a ten-year-old kid in a small Canadian city and there often didn’t feel like much going on. But that radio brought me the world and I came to see it as larger, more brilliant, complex and fuller.

But what I remember most were the nights. I would sit huddled beneath my sheets with a penlight and that old radio, turning the dial and searching out sounds from what seemed like an endless universe of sounds and writing down the frequencies so I would never lose them.

I discovered the blues out of Chicago, B.B. King, Ruth Brown, Big Joe Turner and the raspy, old-time sound of Robert Johnson. Another night I heard Lefty Frizzell, Bob Wills and The Texas Playboys and the high lonesome sound of traditional country music on a station out of Tennessee. It was the 1960s and I heard the great developing thunder of rock’n roll from Detroit and Cleveland, and deep in the purple midnight of my youth I heard jazz from Buffalo and Toronto and I learned the sound of jubilation, melancholy and a visceral, aching solemnity.

I heard Mahalia Jackson sing gospel late one night when the rain spattered against my window and my life was altered forever. Another night when the moon was full and the air didn’t seem to move at all, I heard Billie Holiday sing about the strange fruit hanging from trees in the southern U.S.A. and the loneliness and loss in that voice touched something inside me and I cried. And there is never a time when I hear Frank Sinatra sing “In The Wee Small Hours of the Morning” that I don’t return to my cave beneath the sheets and the awe I sat in that first time.

Everywhere I traveled on the dial of that little radio I encountered something that entered me. There were sounds and ideas, stories and images, people and places that my heart and ears had never experienced and because my life was sad then, I allowed the voice of that tiny General Electric radio to fill me and transport me. The nine volt heart that beat in me then was a heart clamoring for understanding, for inspiration and for a genuine connection to things.

That radio changed my world. It made it bigger. I was ten years old and my world had shrunk from the wilds of the north to a city in the south. There was nothing of the Indian world I remembered. There was nothing to give me a sense of myself except the nine volt heart that beat in me.

I worked in radio for a time. When I was in my mid-twenties I found a home on the dial and became at various times a disc jockey, a program director, a newscaster, commentator and ad writer. It seemed then that it was a logical place for me to be, surrounded by the stuff of radio that had shaped my world as a kid. But life called and I became a writer, publishing books and creating newspaper columns. Still, that nine volt heart has never quit beating.

These days I compose MP3 CDs that flow from jazz to rock to country to classical. When we drive somewhere that jukebox of memory plays nonstop and it always takes me back to those nights as a kid, huddled with a radio in the dark. I’ve never lost that nine volt heart even though that old radio died a long time ago. I’m still surrounded by Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra, The Beatles and Hank Williams.

I’ve heard a lot of music in nearly 52 years so life. Some I cling to and some I reject, but the point of it is, that I listen. I learn. I grow. That old radio taught me that there’s more to the world than what I can see and that I owe it to myself to seek it out. It taught me that there’s an answer for every question and that salvation most often comes through the asking and the seeking rather than in the answers themselves. It taught me that I find myself in times of solitude, to seek that and make use of it.

But most importantly it taught me that there is more to me than I can see and that it’s only through allowing myself to explore, experience, taste, touch, hear and feel that I encounter myself – and that makes me a better man, a better person and in the end, a better Indian.

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