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IT ALL BEGAN at age nine with an AM radio. By ten, it was an air mail letter.
And by age eleven, I was a device of the Cold War.
Now that the powers-that-be have confidently declared the End of the Cold War, along with the end of ideology and the end of history and the end of nature, I can finally tell the sad but true story of how a small boy from suburban New York conspired with the communist dictators of Eastern Europe and Communist China, nearly mortgaging his future in the process. But I digress.
As a boy, I always had an unusual fascination with the radio. I would sit for hours listening to static, trying to tune in distant stations on my small AM radio. The results were seldom thrilling. On a typical night I could hear stations from exotic places like Philadelphia and Troy, New York. One night I tuned in Buffalo and nearly ruptured a vein with glee.
For my next birthday, my parents bought me a gift that has enchanted youngsters for decades--a shortwave radio. Those fruitless nights of searching for stations from Trenton were over. This was the big time!
A quick scan of the dial revealed the secrets of the world: The distinctive tones of BBC announcers. The signature tune of West Germany's Radio Deutsche-Well. The programs on Swiss Radio International that were so, well, neutral.
But amid the bland voices emanating from these friendly stations were others that sounded a bit different. They were the voices from Radio Moscow, and Radio Sofia Bulgaria and Radio Tirana. Their American accents were usually flawless, but the news they read always sounded suspicious to my American ears.
In those dark and chilly cold war years, the mysterious taboo surrounding the communist world fascinated me, and I took to monitoring these stations with a passion. Why settle for a bland rehash of the CBS Evening News spouted by Voice of America bureaucrats when you can hear news from the Evil Empire itself? With the secret fervor of a teenager sneaking his first drink of alcohol. I listened to the dark echoey voices of Bulgarian news broadcasters parroting the party line, the cheerful banter of Radio Habana Cuba's hosts touting the glories of the revolution.
IT WAS FROM these voices that I learned my first lesson in the elusive nature of "truth." News reports from the Voice of America and the BBC and Radio Canada were pretty much identical. But Radio Moscow's versions of incidents such as the downing of the Korean Air Liner in 1983 were certainly different. And the notion that somebody was lying gave the whole activity a certain ominous air of danger.
A vital part of shortwave listening is the pursuit of QSL cards--postcards that stations send to listeners who write in with reception reports. For most stations, the QSL ritual is simple. If you hear, say. Radio Netherland, you write them a letter describing the reception with some obligatory flattering remarks about the quality of their programs. Some months later they send you back a postcard depicting people in local costumes doing a customary dance.
I took to requesting QSL cards in a fairly efficient way. I set up my word processor so that I could send a form letter to any station I wanted. "Dear Radio Brasilia," I would write. "I have been listening to your station recently and I very much enjoy the high quality of your programming. I recently heard a broadcast at 0800 hours..."And so on.
I SENT these letters to almost every country in the world, regardless of their position in the Cold War. Radio Bucharest and Radio Moscow got the same letter as Radio Paraguay did. Most stations replied politely with the standard QSL card. But little did I know that our worst enemies in the Cold War would turn out to be a shortwave listener's best friend.
First there were the magazines from East Germany. World Marxist Review and Radio Berlin magazine flooded my mailbox. Next a huge package arrived from Radio Beijing complete with expensive handmade origami cuttings depicting "friendship pandas," large banners with scenes from mainland China and a wall calendar that I think I saw recently in my local Chinese restaurant.
The folks at Radio Sofia Bulgaria were into seasonal gifts. They sent me gushy cards on almost every occassion and each spring sent me a pair of red and white good luck tassles. Every year, a pair of tassles. I hung them on a pushpin in my wall until too many had accumulated. Then I began keeping one in my wallet for good luck.
The PR department at Radio Habana Cuba was the most prolific of all. One time I got I deck of "Heroes of the Revolution" playing cards with Fidel and Che on the backs. The station periodically sent me contest applications: "If you write in telling us what the most enduring legacy of the revolution is, we'll give you a trip to Havana! Courtesy of Fidel Castro!" Oh, joy.
Perhaps I'm overestimating our intelligence capacity, but in those Cold War days, I wouldn't be surprised if the CIA had kept a thick file on me. I can see my Supreme Court nomination now. "Correspondence with the operatives of Nicolai Ceaucescu. Called Castro's propaganda 'fascinating.' Took gifts from Yuri Andropov. In possesion of Bulgarian tassles." Guilty, Guilty, Guilty!
The folks on the other end of the Iron Curtain must have had a field day with my correspondence too. "Look, we've got another idealistic American youth," the Bulgarian minister of information probably gloated. "We can count on him when the revolution comes around. In the meantime, give him the Tassle Treatment!" Then he cackles like Bulgarian assasins do in bad spy movies.
I stopped requesting QSL cards when I was about 13, and the stations from Western democracies promptly stopped responding. But the stations from Communist nations knew they had a good thing going, and wouldn't stop writing. Up until last year, I still received my annual Bulgarian tassles and Chinese wall calendar.
I'M HAPPY to say that the end of the Cold War has touched my life in a very real way. I no longer receive the mailboxes full of propaganda that I once did. My East German subscription to the Marxist Review has apparently been terminated, and I suppose I'll have to request a Radio Moscow program schedule if I want one.
I had assumed that all my "propaganda mail" would stop as the socialist world began to crumble. But while I was home last weekend, I heard a familiar call from my mother. "Brian you got mail," she said. "From where?" I asked. "Cuba."
Lest I assume the Cold War was completely over, I was happy to see that my quarterly letter from Radio Havana had arrived right on schedule. And, much to my delight, I still had the opportunity to win a trip to Havana.
And as usual, it was courtesy of Fidel Castro.
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