I can’t really say where it all began, but I know
for sure it was at a very early age. I was the kid who stuck a screwdriver
in the light socket, tried to assemble model airplanes and cars after
discarding the instructions, poured water on a desiccated earthworm
and watched it plump up and come back to life (or so I thought), attempted
to dig a hole to China, unsuccessfully tried to manufacture gunpowder
and endeavored, on multiple occasions, to defy gravity.
Apparently I was simply born with an unrelenting
curiosity. Almost simultaneously that curiosity was married with the
desire to create. Honestly, I really don’t understand how my fellow
humans can get in a car, turn the key and motor off to Safeway without
knowing what the hell happens after they turn the key. They have no
desire to know about fuel/air mixtures, pistons, spark plugs, crankshafts
and differentials. Sigh. How can you not want to know?
Admittedly, I’m also infused with the desire for
attention. I was the kid that said, “Hey mom, watch this.” As I cannonballed
into the deep end of the swimming pool.
The Holy Grail of creativity, curiosity, construction
and self-aggrandizement came to marvelous fruition in the summer of
1966. My creation was simply known as The Machine.
A couple years prior to my creation, I became
an avid advocate of all things electrical. Sparks and jarring jolts
were my constant companions. If it could be plugged into the wall,
I was interested. My downstairs bedroom was cluttered with malfunctioning
motors, scratchy radios and dissected televisions.
Much of my collection of eclectic electronics
was the result of the generosity of my father’s friend, Pinky Hampton.
Both my father and Pinky were under the employ of Gold’s department
store, which occupied almost an entire city block in downtown Lincoln,
Nebraska. My father lorded over the floor covering department on the
fourth floor while Pinky managed the furniture department on the third
floor. Their friendship extended beyond the work environment: during
their non-work hours the duo were avid consumers of charred meats
and adult libations.
So, how does this bit of information segue into
my obsession with electronics? Well, it requires a brief trip in the
Wayback Machine; destination mid-20th century America. Nowadays, consumers
of televisions journey to stores that sell televisions and other assorted
electronics or to the television departments of department stores.
Not so in the 1950s and 60s. During that era, if you wanted to purchase
a television in a department store, you found your way to the furniture
Bear in mind, during the dawn of the consumer
electronics era, televisions were to mid-century families what the
Model T Ford was to early 20th century families. Televisions and Model
T’s were testament that you had “arrived.” Family portraits often
included the television as a treasured member of the clan. Thus, most
televisions were dressed up in elegant cabinets of the finest veneers
of mahogany, walnut and oak. The 1950s also saw the popularization
of the “console”. These leviathans of lumber not only housed televisions;
record players, stereophonic amplifiers and multi-band radios were
nestled into their recesses. Top-of-the-line models frequently sported
massive thumping bass-reflex speakers and storage space for the family’s
collection of high fidelity long-playing records.
Ah, but back to Pinky and the furniture department.
Televisions, being in the same class and reverence as automobiles,
were not to be discarded when they were a few years old. Thus, when
the family went to the store to inspect the latest televisions and
consoles, they were frequently offered a small amount of money for
their old model. A pittance to be sure, but still a modest discount
to lure the customer into upgrading to the latest model. Truth-be-told,
after Pinky negotiated the deal and the family bid a tearful goodby
to the behemoth that had given them so much entertainment, the old
(and essentially worthless) beast was transported a few blocks away
to Gold’s warehouse, AKA the television graveyard. The Gold’s warehouse
was a place where all things distressed went before they died or were
foisted off to the monetarily unfortunate or were shipped off to second-hand
stores, orphanages and old-folks homes. Not known to visitors to the
Gold’s warehouse there was a backroom where the televisions deemed
unfit for sale or consumption were carted off, never to be seen by
anyone except the local parts salvagers. These parts-picking vultures
viewed the assorted expired electronics as carrion to be harvested
for tubes, knobs and wire that could be repurposed for other uses.
That’s where I come into the picture.
During a moment when my father was bemoaning his
frustration with my lack of positive motivation and direction, Pinky
suggested that I might find dabbling with unworkable and usually unrepairable
electronics to be something to sooth my melancholy or at least channel
my angst into something productive or, minimally, at least harmless.
Aided by one of Pinky’s underperforming subordinates
who had been relegated the Gold’s warehouse, the Keister basement
soon filled up with under and nonperforming electronics. I was happy,
Pinky was happy. My father was happy. My mother was not happy. Still,
three out of four wasn’t bad.
I dove into the hulking carcasses of discarded
televisions, consoles and radios with gusto. Days turned to weeks.
Weeks turned to months. Every now and then I coaxed one of the beasts
to flicker back to life, only to have its snowy black and white image
sputter and dim. Still, I persevered and eventually got one television
and one radio to weakly perform.
During what could best be described as “experiments”
I discovered that there were companies that had catalogs jam-packed
with all manner of parts and even ready-to-assemble kits. I poured
over Radio Shack, Heathkit and Allied Electronics’
offerings. Although my personal resources were minimal I eventually
scraped enough money together to purchase an Allied bottom-of-the-line
Knight-Kit amplifier. Owing to my lack of soldering skills, my Knight-Kit’s
performance was, at best, sub-par, rendering it well-aligned with
almost everything I created.
My cache of equipment and the rat’s nest of wires
connecting it all mushroomed to monumental proportions forcing me
to craft a plan to house it all in one colossal construction. Luckily
I had secured a perfect summer job at the end of my senior year at
Lincoln Southeast High School. I was installed in the hole-drilling
department, a job well-suited to my skill set, at ISCO (Instrumentation
Specialties Company). Somehow the owner of the company, a Dr. Robert
Allington, took a liking to me and my project and let me use a drill
press, some surplus toggle switches and indicator lights and a large
sheet of aluminum to craft the control panel for my project. The panel
was painted a bright white using the company’s paint booth.
My off-hours project did generate a bit of interest
at ISCO, but not enough to get me a raise or warrant an offer of employment
when my summer job came to an end.
Nevertheless, the final result of my labors was
a sight to behold. Absolutely no one was allowed to enter the Keister
household without being led into my basement bedroom to gaze and praise
The Machine. I’d rattle off dimensions and weights, detail the nuances
of ohms and watts and amperage and decibels of the components. I’d
flip switches and pull levers; turn knobs. But mostly I’d just nod
to myself about the astounding elegance my creation.