Pocket-sized transistor radios were probably one of the first great subversive technologies. And smuggling one into a culturally hermetic community could spark a revolution.
That’s what happened when rock ‘n’ roll invaded the cloistered walls of my seminary.
As an eighth-grader I felt God was calling me to the priesthood. Two years later I realized that he had dialed a wrong number and I had, regrettably, answered.
I went all in: a missionary order whose Latin name translated to Society of the Divine Word (SVD). The order had a very gothic looking building about 20 miles south of Erie, Pa., where they educated their high school recruits.
Because of the order’s Germanic roots, life in the seminary was filled with draconian rules. The priests gave young boys in the 1960’s the two things they craved in life: discipline and deprivation.
It was the two things priests felt high school boys needed.
In the halls of SVD, silence was not only golden, it was mandatory — except during classes, during select meals, and during recess.
We lived in a dormitory with 100 beds, the iron cot kind that masochists snapped up at Army surplus stores after the war. (Any war. Pick one.) Not unlike many overcrowded prisons today, the configuration was cot/chair, cot/chair, cot/chair … and onward for four rows.
Our dorm was eighth and ninth graders only. Because of a high attrition rate, juniors and seniors enjoyed slightly cushier quarters.
This was 1964, the beginning of the British Invasion. Our one German exchange student (a junior) returned to school that fall with glowing stories of the Beatles and other English groups that were taking his Hamburg by storm.
I got through that first year OK. The newness of it all kept me constantly off-balance and in line. On returning for my sophomore year, however, some things had changed. Over the summer, I immersed myself in two previously unknown aspects of youth culture — rock ‘n’ roll and girls.
When I mistakenly returned to the seminary a whole day early and spent the evening watching a small black-and-white TV with a bunch of flatulent and ancient priests and brothers, I knew God had totally screwed up. Maybe He was trying to reach another Hawkins?
Coincidentally, almost all of my closest friends came to the same conclusion — which they confided in me, upon arriving the next day. None of us wanted to be back there.
Fortunately, our pal Schultzie came back loaded with gadgets and snacks to make seminary life more tolerable. Schultzie looked like an older version of the actor Edward Herrmann, but with incredibly thick glasses. He responded to being half-blind in different ways. He pulled pranks. He created “gangs” modeled after Sinatra’s Rat Pack (to which we all had to belong). He smuggled in bags of candy, cool stuff ordered from the back of comic books, and transistor radios.
Schultzie brought back a cigarette-pack-sized radio with a single earplug and a set of walkie talkies that had radios built into them.
The radios embedded in the walkie-talkies evaded the detection of our priest overlords and they reluctantly approved their use, but only on weekends. We would take them on long hikes past the cornfields and railroad tracks and gobble up all the latest songs on the Weekend Hit List.
We’d all learn the same lyrics and sing them out loud as we walked down the tracks and dusty roads that pointed toward Lake Erie and away from the seminary.
We gotta get out of this place If it's the last thing we ever do We gotta get out of this place 'cause girl, there's a better life for me and you
The pocket transistor was something else. At night, when the reception was optimum and everyone else was asleep, Schultzie would listen to music for a while. When he grew bored, he would pass the radio on to the next person who would get to listen, no more than 10-15 minutes, before passing it down the line.
And so it went through the night. You would prod the next guy awake, pass him the radio and earbud, and drift off into rock ‘n’ roll dreams.
I recall one Indian summer night vividly. A Saturday in October. It was still light out and off in the distance cars drag-raced down the long straight roads that bordered the cornfields. I imagined beautiful girls seated beside the drivers, egging them on.
Way off in the distance was the neon glow of Erie, a big enough city for me then. I had the radio and at some risk, I was sitting up looking out the large open windows through which a warm breeze flowed across the room. Petula Clark started singing “Downtown.” I ached to be done with this place, to be out where real people lived, to be downtown. Any downtown. Tears of longing welled up in my eyes.
That was the turning point. I vowed to get out of this place if it’s the last thing I’d ever do. Yeah, Eric Burdon and the Animals was in heavy rotation in our hearts. So were the Stones “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction,” Dylan “Like a Rolling Stone,” and Sam Cooke “A Change Is Gonna Come.”
After Christmas break, Schultzie got expelled for hypnotizing a classmate. Well, for not knowing how to break the spell. The Duck had been an excellent subject — hula dancer, Paul Revere, and, yes, he waddled like a duck.
Afterward, though, Duck would instantly fall asleep or wake up to the sound of chimes — which happened to ring every 15 minutes to remind us of our mortality and devotion to God. Or something. He’d just collapse on the floor and start snoring. This lasted six days.
Schultzie was gone before Duck snapped out of it.
Schultzie left the transistor radio and walkie-talkies behind, parting gifts to the Rat Pack Resistance.
I went to war and became the first student in school history to flunk discipline, which was a real grade. They told me not to come back. I was OK with that. (My father wasn’t.)
At year’s end, the other 10 guys in on the contraband radio scheme also left, with more dignity than I did. By senior year, our class of 110 was down to 10.
I don’t know if that little radio helped change our lives or if we were ready for change, and it merely provided the soundtrack to our personal revolutions.
What I do know is, to this day, I will always drive through a city, rather than around it. And neon lights? I am drawn to neon, like a moth to the flame.