May 4, 2014

Tube Testers

When I was growing up radio was king. Many a hot summer day found my parents lounging in their swimwear out in the back yard in South Pasadena – happily listening to their portable radio, either Your Hit Parade or a baseball game.
          Those were the days before the Dodgers. Los Angeles did not have a major league team, but there were two Pacific Coast League teams, the Angels and the Hollywood Stars. I used to love the sound of the players names, Steve Bilko, Gene Mauch, Ed Wincineak, and I would pretend to be an announcer, playing with their names. When we moved to Berkeley, my dad took me to a San Francisco Seals game, and once we went to a Beavers game in Portland. It was lots of fun, because the crowd really loved baseball, loved to yell, to smoke, to drink, and loved to laugh out loud.
          The radio program Your Hit Parade used to play all the pop hits – Teresa Brewer was a favorite, but I was in love with Gisele MacKenzie. She made my blood boil. My mom and dad would be smiling at each other and all of life as they relaxed in wicker patio chairs and sang along to the radio, sipping a Ballantine from tall glasses. They were happy, so I was happy.
          Of course the big radio was in the house, housed in a beautiful wooden cabinet. It was THE entertainment center and worshipped as such. It played AM stations and records, and it was listened to every evening for several hours, almost always KFAC, the classical music station. After turning it on it took about a minute to warm up and then gradually produce sound.  When I asked my dad why it took so long to warm up, he was pleased. He was smart and patient and, luckily, enjoyed teaching me.
He moved the heavy cabinet out away from the wall so we could stick our heads into the darkness in back and see the inner workings. It looked like a little toy city at night, with round glass buildings, lit up inside with tiny little wires all glowing different shades of color, together with metal parts of every description, all radiating a warmth and a dusty smell. A world of vacuum tubes.
          Whenever the radio wouldn’t work he fixed it himself. It was an era of fix-it shops and repairmen, but the prevailing idea seemed to be that you could do it yourself.  The trick was to find which tube was not lighting up and then replace it. After removing the cold culprit he would pocket it, and we would walk to Thrifty’s.
Thrifty’s was the corner drug store a couple of blocks from our house. In the same building were two small businesses, a hair salon and a shoe repair shop, and upstairs were little apartments which overlooked the street. Whenever I walked by the salon, an awful smell came out the door, and I had to hold my nose. “It’s probably just a permanent,” my mom would tell me, but I had no idea what she meant. The shoe repair shop was much more interesting with the sound of machines humming, the smell of leather and shoe polish, and the loud, continuous conversation in a foreign language between the husband and wife who ran the shop. We were regular customers, and it was a fun place to go.
But Thrifty’s was even better. There was candy, toys, ice cream, and lots of other stuff, not to mention a very friendly cashier who always wore tight sweaters and lots of turquoise jewelry. She was a standout. Outside on the corner was a newsstand where Mr. Echebarne made his living selling newspapers and magazines, stored in a homemade wooden closet. Drivers could just stop at the curb and shout out, “Examiner!”, and Echebarne would hustle over the latest edition.
So my dad and I walk into Thrifty’s with a dead tube and head for an industrial looking metal display, shaped like a small pinball machine. It was all self service - you were supposed to know what to do with the tube tester. There was a gauge on top surrounded by about 50 different sized plugs for different sized vacuum tubes. Each tube was a different size, a different configuration, and each with a different function to make the radio produce sound. The customer’s job was to find out which of the display plugs fit his faulty tube. That took a little trial and error, but finding the right fit, the gauge was used to determine the remaining strength of the tube. Down below was a cabinet with thousands of different boxes of various tubes. So, just find the right tube and presto!
Back at home replacing the tube and restoring the music was an immensely satisfying experience for dad and brought forth sincere gushing admiration from mom. And after a minute to warm up…“Oh, the wayward wind, is a restless wind…” 

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