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My Grandfather’s Transistor Radio Became a Lifeline During Hurricane Sandy

That radio bonded me to my grandfather, and to God, when I was a child. Decades later, it helped keep my family safe during a disaster.

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(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo Yosef Ukraincik.)
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At this time last year, my family—like most of our neighbors in New Jersey—was stocking up on bottled water and filling our cars’ tanks with gas as we braced for Hurricane Sandy. We moved the furniture away from the windows, organized a command center with lanterns and extra blankets, and packed suitcases in case we needed to evacuate.

When the storm’s fury struck in the evening of Oct. 29, the five of us sat together in the living room. One by one, our tethers to the modern world snapped. The electricity went out almost immediately, and with it, our land line. Later, our heat shut off. We resolved to extend the battery life of our cell phones by using them only for emergencies.

What we did have, though, was a stack of AA batteries and my grandfather’s old transistor radio. Throughout the night and for days after, it was the constant, steady, calm, and reassuring voice it had always been for me. At times, it sang with a low hum, like background music in an elevator. At others, it took center stage, bringing us news of the storm’s path of destruction and the devastation it wrought upon homes, businesses, and lives.

It wasn’t the fanciest piece of equipment, or the most expensive, but the radio had a long history in my life. During the storm, it carried a message that taught all of us the importance of valuing the past and reminded us that a personal legacy possesses the divine power to thread three generations of family to one another, both here and in the world beyond.

***

In the spring of 1973, I was a strong-willed 7-year-old with irrepressible opinions. But the more my parents sought to shush my fiery spirit, the louder it grew, and the louder it grew, the less they heard me. Eventually, I learned to keep most of my thoughts to myself, saving up everything I really needed to say over the course of the week in order to talk it all over with God on Shabbat.

Every Saturday morning, when my family arrived at shul, I would make my way downstairs to junior congregation in search of some alone time with him. (It was a flash forward to my teenage years, when I would pull the twisted cord of the phone as far as it would stretch toward a corner so that I could have the semblance of a private conversation with a friend.) To my young mind, praying meant that I could tell God anything and know that he would not roll his eyes, even as he judged me for my foolish ideas.

As therapeutic as it all was, the singing, talking, and praying soon wore me out. I learned to love Sundays for their quiet. Often, we would make our way across the Hudson River to the Bronx. My grandparents would light up upon our arrival, but they rarely journeyed out to visit us. My grandfather simply could not abide New Jersey with its shopping malls and Turnpike exits, though he acknowledged that the bagels we brought along were better than what they could get in their neighborhood.

After brunch, he would resume his perch by the window in the large upholstered chair where he did his own soul-searching. In one hand, he held a smoldering cigar; in the other palm rested a small transistor radio. The radio provided the soundtrack to his changing world, playing as he watched the ebb of the Jewish Bronx and the flow of Spanish-speaking neighbors.

I sat cross-legged on the rug beneath him, flipping through my grandmother’s knitting magazines while he turned on the Yankees game or the news. Listening to the radio with him was an invitation to taste a freedom otherwise beyond my reach, a feeling akin to what I experienced when I removed my bicycle training wheels by myself and returned home a gleeful, bloodied mess. Television, with its cartoons, was for children. Radio meant you were all grown up.

If static interrupted his program, he would roll the dial to adjust the frequency, and my eyes would follow his every move. Occasionally, he would set the radio on the sill, so that same hand could pat me gently on the head. The gesture was a promise, convincing me that the voice on the airwaves was God’s reply to my Shabbat morning monologue.

By the summer of 1973, Sundays were no longer enough and I began to yearn for a radio of my own. I could not bring myself to ask, but my grandfather read my thoughts. I took the one he bought for me as if he were handing me the world. Sports did not interest me, and the news did not yet hold my attention. Instead, I listened to music. More important though, it was through the radio that Grandpa, God, and I could have a conversation, wherever each of us was at any given time.

Soon after the radio came into my life, though, the Yom Kippur War broke out. Our Hebrew school teacher told my class that Israel needed transistor radios for its soldiers and citizens desperate to follow the news from the front. I was still getting acquainted with mine. Yet the next day, without seeking adult consent or worrying what my grandfather might think, I placed it in my bag and brought it to Hebrew school, together with the few coins from my piggybank.

I still do not know what made me give up my new radio so easily. Perhaps it had not yet played enough of a role in my personal history for me to have become attached to it. More likely, it was only my grandfather’s radio that really mattered to me.

Later, when my grandfather’s health and memory began to take their leave, the crackle of his radio steadied him until he became no more than a shadow of himself in a nursing home. In the end, the radio outlived him, though it could not provide him with solace or company as he passed into the Next World. Nor could it comfort us when we learned that his lodge, from which my grandparents had long ago purchased their burial plots, had run out of space in Queens. In an ironic final stroke to end the story of his lifetime, my grandfather was buried in a cemetery in New Jersey, just off Exit 130 of the Garden State Parkway, overlooking a large shopping mall. Leaning over his grave, my grandmother expressed her apologies as she shoveled the first heap of dirt on his coffin: “Harold, I know how much you hated New Jersey, and now you are here forever.”

We, including the rabbi, hardly tried to stifle our laughter. My grandfather had played the banjo in a vaudeville act, singing bawdy songs about how Mrs. Hassenpfeffer paid the rent. He would have approved of the passing moment of levity.

My grandmother lovingly offered me a few of his things after he died, but I was already 21 and knew exactly what I wanted: The radio most reminded me of who he was and what he meant to me. She wasn’t yet ready to part with it, though, which gave me time to come to terms with the possibility that it was never meant to be in my possession at all, that the idea of it—not the radio itself—held essential value for me.

Years later, as my grandmother prepared for her move to an assisted-living facility, she presented the radio to my husband, insisting that it was a gift for a man. And so, it took up residence near my grandfather once again, albeit here in New Jersey, and came as close as possible to being mine.

Although my husband prefers new-fangled electronics, he took to the old radio with surprising affection, giving it pride of place on his bedside table. There it sat for more than a decade, rarely used. Yet he tended it all that time as if it were a memorial to its former owner, changing the batteries and periodically checking that it worked. When I’d hear the voices emerging from its tiny speaker, I would know that my grandfather continued to watch over me and that God was still listening to my prayers.

Sometimes, even my sons would pick it up and examine it with distant curiosity, as if they’d happened upon an unrecognizable relic from the past housed beneath glass in an antique shop. They have their 4G network to connect them to the world, a digital vault for their music, and a widescreen television on which they watch baseball with their grandfather. A transistor radio was of no real use to them.

That is, until the eve of Hurricane Sandy, when it became the sole lifeline connecting us to the outside world. “Well, I guess that finally came in handy,” each of the boys conceded in turn, their recognition at last that the future does not hold exclusive rights to all that is worthy.

***

On that first night of the storm one year ago, amid the howling winds and pounding rain, we heard a deafening blow that shook the back of our house. The windows remained intact, though we were certain that we would discover a gaping hole in our foundation as soon as it was safe to go outside.

Rain continued to fall the next morning, though gently enough to allow us to assess what had happened. The enormous branch that lay there on the wet grass had snapped off the towering maple in our yard, slamming against the house, but miraculously leaving no remarkable damage. We were in shock, both at having made it through just fine and in knowing the tragic, irrevocable losses others had sustained.

It was Oct. 30, the birthday of the son who bears my grandfather’s name, and the day before my grandfather’s own birthday. We pulled the cake out of the refrigerator and invited neighbors, who stepped over felled trees and debris to join us. Meanwhile, the man who cuts our grass appeared out of nowhere with a chainsaw to haul the tree branch away in sections, leaving us a few souvenir rounds of wood he thought we might like to keep.

Over the next few weeks, we slowly resumed our lives in a fog. My husband returned to work when power was restored, and the boys went back to school once the traffic lights came back on and buses could run safely. Surprisingly, the radio never made it upstairs to my husband’s bedside table. Instead, it found its way to the bookshelf in the dining room that holds the seforim. From its new perch by the window, it has a perfect view of the tree in the yard and the progress of life in our home.

***

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My Grandfather’s Transistor Radio Became a Lifeline During Hurricane Sandy

That radio bonded me to my grandfather, and to God, when I was a child. Decades later, it helped keep my family safe during a disaster.