30 March 2012


When I was about ten years old, my dad bought a CB radio and installed it in his car.

In case you are under thirty, and you have never heard of a CB radio, let me explain.  CB stands for "citizens' band."  A CB radio is a type of short-wave radio used for two-way communications between civilians.  Its use does not require a license in the United States, and for that reason it was popular among motorists, particularly truckers, in the 1970s.  In the days before smart phones and GPS systems, a CB radio was a great way to get traffic and weather reports, directions, diner recommendations, and updates on road conditions from other motorists.  It was a quick way to get in touch with emergency services from the road, when necessary; one channel was monitored by the police and reserved for emergencies.  And it was a great source of entertainment - a means for chatting with others - when the long road got boring.

CB users had a lingo all their own, and I had to learn the basics of this mysterious language when my dad bought his radio.  First, you needed an alias, because no one used their real name.  (It was widely considered unsafe to do so.)  My dad, with his excellent sense of humor, called himself the Padre.  I gave my new appellation a lot of thought before deciding on Snow White.

Once you had a name, you needed to master the basics of using the radio.  You tuned to a station that had people chatting on it and tried to get into a conversation.  You did this by speaking into the radio and trying to sound grown-up and savvy.  "Breaker one-seven, this is Snow White.  Does anyone have the ten-twelve?"  Ten-twelve was code for the time.  It was more fun to try to find a trucker who would tell me what time it was than, for example, to look at the clock on the dashboard.

My dad watched my CB usage very closely, because he was concerned about safety.  On the way in and out of the city, he sometimes let me ask the truckers what the traffic was like on the upper level of the George Washington Bridge.  Once, I humiliated myself by butting in and asking, "Breaker one-nine, this is Snow White, looking for a northbounder on the George Washington Bridge."

That's the day I learned, from the unmuffled laughter of the truckers and the rolling of my dad's eyes, that the George Washington Bridge runs from east to west.

Interestingly, my dad did not talk much on the radio.  He spent a lot of time listening while he drove, though.  He had to drive long distances - an hour each way down the Turnpike to his church on Sunday mornings, and at least an hour back and forth to his civilian job on weekdays.  He became great at decoding the trucker lingo, and he understood just about everything that was said.  He sometimes asked about speed traps, or traffic conditions, or local gas stations with good prices, but I almost never heard him chat on the radio.

I, as you can imagine, always had a lot to say, even when I was just ten years old, and so I spent a lot of time trying to get my dad to let me use his radio.  I drove him crazy with my constant wheedling.  Sometimes he would give up and let me sit in the car in our driveway and use the radio while he raked leaves or shoveled snow, or performed some other task that allowed him to keep one eye and ear on my activities.  I nattered on with the truckers, surely making them cringe as much as I made my dad cringe.  "I'm learning," I told my dad.  "Talking to these people is one of the ways I like to learn.  About all kinds of things."

And that's when my dad leaned over, switched off the radio, and delivered to me one of the most important lessons of my life.

"You learn much more by listening," he told me, "than you will ever learn by talking."

My dad, as a clergyman, was a professional listener.  He knew that the best way to identify a problem and to figure out a way to solve it was to listen to the concerns of the people who owned the problem.  He was also (and still is) a gifted violinist.  He always listened closely before he picked up his bow to participate.  Listening, he said, was the very best way to learn anything.  If you listen well, you are halfway there.

I heard this lesson again in my head when, as a college student, I tried to pick up the cadences of German and Spanish conversation.  I listened closely to the anti-apartheid demonstrators on my college's campus.  I went to activist group meetings and - yes - listened.  My dad's voice echoed in my head as I listened to lectures and moot court arguments in law school.  I sat in the back of the federal appellate courtroom as a young lawyer, listening closely to what the lawyers and judges said.  I chatted with my colleagues, but I mostly listened to my superiors.  As a mother of learning-disabled students, I spent hours and hours talking to experts. Not talking, really, but listening.  And I learned an awful lot.

I'm still a talker and a writer.  I'm still a communicator and a storyteller.  I still interrupt people and jump in on their conversations.  I still make people close to me cringe with the personal nature of the stories I tell.  I embarrass the teenagers by chatting them up when they'd really rather be left to their own devices.  I can't help it; it's in my nature.  My brain is wired that way.

The CB radio culture is a little bit passé in this age of Pinterest and Siri and Google Maps, but it left an indelible mark on my development.  Listening is a valuable skill - and perhaps one of the most important skills we can give our children.  I'm glad my dad gave it to me.


jhl said...

I've been thinking about this. Though I live in social media, I actually don't participate a lot. I don't tweet very often. I don't post many Facebook updates. I read, and read, and read. And I watch trends and language. I think I'm more of a natural listener, though, than a talker. Which is actually a liability in the age of Pinterest, I suspect.

michele said...

sometimes, reading is listening.

Tom Major said...

10-4, good buddy.