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Tune In The Universe!
Tune In The Universe!
by SETI League executive director Dr. H. Paul Shuch
Excerpt: Boy Scoots Off Chair

My parents divorced by the time I was nine, and according to the culture of the Fifties, it was never even questioned that my mother would be granted custody. But custody in our family was a flexible thing, and for the next five years I continued to have unlimited access to my father. This speaks well to the wisdom of both my parents, who felt their differences should never be allowed to rob me of my childhood. I can only hope that my ex-wife and I did as much for our own children's well-being.

Weekends with my father were de rigueur. Since we lived on 119th Street, and he was up on 125th, I would bicycle over with a change of clothes in my basket, sleeping on a couch and otherwise vying for living space with my two new step-siblings. If my own sister Robin, a year older than myself, was there as well, I honestly don't recall. She inhabited her own world, one of dancing and horseback riding and fantasy books, oceans apart from oatmeal-box radios, broken telescopes and dreams of the stars. Since neither of us had read the Birth Order book, I fell comfortably into the roll of eldest child, a position I've tended to occupy to this day.

Bicycling to Dad's house

Which gave me some valuable perquisites. For one, I was free to visit my father's office during the week. That was way down on 79th Street, a vigorous three-mile bike ride from home. But ah, such wonders awaited me there! My stepmother Toni (who would later teach me to fly) was a creative genius, and she worked in my father's advertising agency. When Dad was tied up with a client, Toni would put me to work with scissors and glue. From colored construction paper I cut out the outlines of all 48 states, and Toni pasted them on a wall to form a map. I cut out hundreds of paper stars, which Toni turned into galaxies on the ceiling.

48 states cut out from colored paper

Occasionally, Dad would take time off from work, and we'd all go out to a movie. We went to see Mike Todd's masterpiece, Around the World in 80 Days, together, Dad and Toni, and her kids Mike and Debbie, and Robin and me. Halfway across India with Shirley MacLaine, Debbie, the baby of the family, wailed "Mommy, I'm hungry!" Toni asked us all in what country we'd care to dine, and that's how 80 Meals was born.

For several years, Around the World in 80 Meals was an ongoing family adventure. Each month we'd pick a country and plan a meal. But this went far beyond ordering out for Mexican or Chinese. The culinary aspects of our theme evenings were only a beginning. Educators today would call 80 Meals a multidisciplinary integrated curriculum. Because we immersed ourselves, learning and living the culture of our country of the month, for weeks before and after. And there was work for everyone: costumes to make, scenery to design, decorations to fabricate, languages to learn, and research projects assigned to every child old enough to reach the top drawers of the card catalog at the local library.

One month, while applying Maori face paint, I began to wonder what it would be like to talk to a native of New Zealand. I didn't realize at the time that my life had reached a turning point.

When I posed my question to Dad and Tony, my research assignment was immediately changed to finding out how one might communicate with a Maori. I was a Boy Scout by now, having graduated from the Cubs with "Webelos" rank the year before. (Tony had been the Den Mother, and Mike and I considered ourselves the luckiest boys in the Pack.) I was building ever better radios, had just starting to learn the Morse Code, and suddenly realized that this might just be the key to communicating halfway around the world.

As it happened, Scouting was indeed one key to opening up my world. But first I had to learn the Code. Years later, during my tour of military service, I was reminded of the difference between the Air Force and the Boy Scouts: scouts got to carry pocket knives, and had adult leaders.

As far back as I can remember, I've always been restless and fidgety. Today they'd probably diagnose me with ADHD (Attention Deficit Disorder / Hyperactivity Disorder), and dose me up with Ritalin. Back in the Fifties, a kid like me was simply labeled a wiggle-worm. That day I proceeded to demonstrate why.

in my favorite chair in Dad's office
at Dad's desk
My favorite chair in the whole world was the one next to my father's desk. It boasted three degrees of freedom: tilt, swivel, and roll around on casters. I usually managed to employ all three at once. (Perhaps that's why I later learned to love the roll, pitch, and yaw extremes of aerobatic flight.) The chair was in its usual place one day after school, as we were getting set up for a code practice session. Dad opened my Handbook for Boys to the Morse Code page and propped it up next to the code practice oscillator. I perched myself precariously on the edge of my favorite chair, and scooted around the office, gathering up pencil and pad.

Dad was staring intently at the Boy Scout emblem emblazoned at the top of the Morse Code page. "B," I copied as my father began to tap the key. Then "O," and then a "Y." Meticulously, I block-printed them out during the pause between words. Next I copied "S," "C," "O," and broke out in a wide grin.

Occasionally, as you're copying code, you find yourself anticipating, writing a few letters, or even words, ahead. Professional telegraphers call this filling from context, and that's what I began to do. "Boy Scouts of America," I finished writing proudly, as the letters kept on coming.

"O," I copied, wondering why my father had repeated it. Then "T," and "S," and I began to chuckle at Dad's sloppy spelling. Next, as expected, came "O," and then "F." But wait a minute, here's another "F!"

"C'mon, Dad," I interrupted, "you don't have to repeat yourself, I got it right the first time." But he just kept on sending.

The last word in the string sent me scooting for an eraser. "C - H - A - I - R." Chair? CHAIR! I get it! BOY SCOOTS OFF CHAIR!

And I laughed so hard, I nearly did.


It's ironic that, just a few years later, my first taste of real DX was working New Zealand on 80 meters -- in Morse code, of course!

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