Whitesburg KY
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Mostly cloudy

Transistor radios were big deal and big threat in Letcher County

Points East

Steve Adams worked on radios. He had a little 8 by 12-foot work shack with a roof over it out behind Uncle Stevie and Aunt Nan’s house and in the wintertime he used a little Ben Franklin stove with a pipe stuck through the roof to heat it. We would fry ‘taters and onions and cornbread fritters in a cast iron skillet while Little Steve mused over the latest tube catalogue from Stromberg Carlson or RCA.

That was in the 1950s and every radio on Blair Branch consisted, inside its cabinet, of a big board with numerous slots and holes where electronic tubes had to be plugged in to make the damn thing work. . Said tubes were glass encased, shaped sort of like short corncobs, and they lit up like bulbs on a Christmas tree there inside the works of the radio.

You didn’t just turn the radio on and go to listening in those days. It took at least a minute or two for the tubes to warm up and then you had to have a steady hand to make the dial set precisely on your favorite station. The dial was controlled by a rubber band attached to a knob that adjusted the radio frequency and said bands frequently broke.

Little Steve had a shoebox full of dial bands and for 25 cents, he’d have your radio working like a top while you waited for him to install it so you could dial in 670 WSM all the way from Nashville and listen to the Friday night Opry. Pretty soon Patsy Cline would come on and huskily whisper to the steel guitar, “Crazy. Crazy for thinnnnnking about you. Crazy for lovinnnn’ you.” Or Johnny Horton doing “Way up north to Alaska, going north the rush is on.”

Little Steve did brisk business on Friday and Saturday evenings and he fixed radios about as fast as people brought them in. Most often it was a blown tube, if not a tuner band. And folks on Blair Branch and other communities bought their radios mostly through mail order catalogues or from Salyer Radio & TV in Whitesburg.

Point being, you never really knew what you had if it was not a Stromberg-Carlson. But Little Steve knew radios, and he knew exactly which tube was apt to go out and when, no matter where the radio came from. He used to say that “Monkey Wards” ought to ship a certain number of soand so tubes with their radios because they blew so fast, but he ordered the tubes by the case and promptly fixed anything that was blown before the Opry came on.

So he had all the work he wanted, did my favorite cousin and my hero, Little Steve, and he was content and happy to do it and it made a decent, if not excellent living. If he was not working on radios he had his nose in record players and he played guitar and sang old Hank Williams songs on the side to anyone who would listen.

And then, one day in 1963, I went to Hoover’s in Whitesburg. I’d just got paid for a month’s work and Hoover had on sale, as he always did, a transistor radio that operated on eight D-Cell flashlight batteries. I bought it on the spot for about $30 and brought it home to show Little Steve. WTCW-AM on the dial out of Whitesburg. It coming in loud and clear withJohnny Horton singing “Whispering Pines” when I pulled up the telescoping antenna and turned it on. Instant play.

Little Steve took one look at it, opened up the back case and looked at its innards. And then he shook his head and looked at me and said, “This damn thing is gonna put me out of business.”

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