Sounds In My Life
by Irwin Gonshak for The Sound Palette
There are certain sounds in my life that remain with me to this very day. Why these sounds? It’s hard to say. Perhaps Freud could give me some answers. The great man had to delve into his own subconscious to learn why the roar of a train gave him panic attacks. But that’s another story. Now to review the significant sounds in my life…
As a kid listening on the radio to the Uncle Don program in the early evening, I would sing along, “This is your Uncle Don, your Uncle Don… Hello little friends… Hello.” Never forgot the song. Years later I learned that Uncle Don at the end of a program thinking the mike was off said ,” That ought to hold those little bastards!” And then was fired. When I researched the incident, I learned that it was all a myth, never happened. So my faith in the goodness of Uncle Don remains… and anytime you want me to sing his ditty… just ask.Living in Brooklyn, I would hear a peddler every day call out, “I buy and sell old clothes! Old clothes for sale!” as he trudged through the lonely streets. Poor peddler! Makes me sad to think of his plaintive call… but I’ll never forget him. Probably still calling, “I buy and sell old clothes! Old Clothes for sale!” in peddler’s heaven somewhere.
Will I ever forget the sound of hoofbeats and “The William Tell Overture” beginning the Lone Ranger radio program? Thrilling! Masculine! Exciting! Adventurous! Just what a little boy longs for. And I guess I still do.
As an older boy, I was able to listen to radio programs broadcast later in the night. I would hear the creaking door that began the Inner Sanctum Mysteries plays. Scary! I now always oil my doors so they don’t creak. Just kiddin’ But this is true: today I know the producer of Inner Sanctum Mysteries — Himan Brown— still going strong in his 90s– still creaking doors wherever he goes.
When I was 16, I worked on a farm upstate in the summer to gain credits to enter Cornell Ag School (free tuition) and early every morning I would wake to hear the cows mooing to be milked. A pitiful, mournful wail that still speaks of the sorrow of all living creatures on the planet. Moooooooo….
Then when I was a freshman at Cornell, walking across the quadrangle, I would hear the chiming of the bells from the Bell Tower announcing the hour of the day. All’s well with the world… still I was long way from home in Jamaica, Queens… and just a little homesick. Years later as a scriptwriter, I would use the chiming of Big Ben to indicate that my private eye Johnny Nickel was in London.
Enlisting in the US Navy when still 17, I was stationed on the USS Rawlins bringing home the troops from Asia after the end of World War II. On ship I would hear the tinny whistle of the bosun’s pipe… wondering what it meant… asking the old salts on board what was the message. I just wanted to hear that we were headed for the Panama Canal and up the East Coast to a port in Virginia… going home at last. But I did have a great job aboard ship–I was in charge of the deep sink. I can still hear the sound of the brillo pads scrubbing the pots and pan clean… and once they were cleaned, I could go back to reading the Great Books of Western Civilization. The USS Rawlins was my Harvard and Yale.
In my 20s I would listen to radio drama from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). I remember one infused with the call of the loon… across the lake… I remember that lonesome call… but nary a word of the play itself . Why? Sigmund where are you when we need you?
Finally I myself became a professional radio drama writer with hundreds of my scripts performed on the airways. I will always remember a script called “London Killer Smog” from my series PRIVATE EYE ON THE ENVIRONMENT– where the tapping of a cane on the sidewalk was a key element of the drama. My private eye is stuck on top of a smoke stack examining the cause of the killer smog engulfing London. Because of the dense fog, no one can find Johnny Nickel to rescue him… but the little old blind housekeeper of Sherlock Holmes can tap her way– listening to the echo of her tapping from the buildings… to guide the rescuers through the smog to Johnny. Tap, tap, tap… The broadcast won the Ohio State Media Award which was presented to me in D.C. by the widow of Edward R. Morrow. Tap…tap… tap…
But I shouldn’t leave out my daughter’s cry when she was a couple of days old… and I was sleeping by her on the couch to give my wife a rest… I awoke in the middle of night to what seemed to me was the meowing of a kitten… meooow…but we didn’t have a kitten… no pets allowed in our development, Parkway Village, in Queens… I rubbed the sleep out of my eyes… and gave the little “kitten” a bottle of milk…and the meoooowing ceased.
Now I’m deaf in one ear… from an infection I had when I was in my 40s… and now when I put a phone to my left ear, I don’t hear the tone… but when I put a hand radio to my deaf ear… I can make out what is being broadcast… strange… spooky… are the gods of radio trying to tell me something… but please don’t shout at me… my right ear is perfectly A–OK! And off in the distance… in my imagination… I can still hear the lonesome whistle of the train off in the distance… coming to take me home from where my ship docked in Virginia… home was the sailor ready to scrub the pots and pans with brillo pads in his own deep sink in Jamaica, Queens.
- Irwin Gonshak, Teachers & Writers Collaborative radio producer and chair of the WGAE Short Radio Drama Committee. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Postscript: Recently I read the following in a magazine: When actress Sharon Stone was asked which great American she’d like to make a movie about, she answered, “My high school art teacher, Mrs. Virginia Kutz. She was so interesting and modern. She traveled in the summer, which was unheard of in our small town. She would bring back recorded sounds and have us paint what we heard or guess where she was. She expounded the possibility of possibility.” One wonders what sounds the art teacher brought back from her summer journeys… if she went to the Big Apple… was it the cacophony of car horns on Fifth Avenue… or the cooing of pigeons in Central Park?