What to do with my life?

What to do, what to do? Junior high was where I decided what I wanted to be when I grew up. I had read every science fiction book in the library and most of the astronomy books as well. So it was obvious; I would become an astronomer. This held for a short while, until I figured out that nobody much hired astronomers and they had to work at night. That was not for me. Could there be something else? Science was interesting. I had no artistic abilities. What would I do? Weighty questions for an eighth grader. The insides of things fascinated me. Toys. Clocks. Radios. Televisions. I started taking them apart every chance I had. Radios and televisions became my favorite. I learned about the tubes and parts that made up most home radios of the fifties and sixties. These were little radios that sat on the kitchen counter and played only AM stations.

From Wikimedia commons. Public Domain photo.

A vacuum tube, similar to the ones I played with.

I was also the proud owner of an old AM broadcast and shortwave radio, one of the old floor standing models that you see in pictures from the thirties. That’s the one I used to scan the dial for clear channel stations like KOA in Denver and KOMA in Oklahoma City. I strung a long wire from the radio’s antenna connector into the back yard to get a better signal, then looked up possible stations in the amateur radio magazine to see which frequencies the clear channels broadcast on. I enjoyed listening for their call letters, and hearing the latest music (even on WSM) and news updates. Stations only broadcast their call letters on the hour and half hour, so it was a challenge to verify which station I was listening to. Static and distant thunder storms added to the challenge.

By the time I was in high school I had taken apart enough of the table radios to know how they worked and how to repair them. Just about every radio set used the same design, based around the “All American Five” tube set. (Nerds, please look it up on Wikipedia.) I could turn on the radio, look in the back and usually guess which tube was bad or what the problem was. Numbers like 50C5 and 6AV6 were second nature to me. Radios soon gave way to television sets. They were a little more complicated, a couple dozen tubes instead of five. Some high voltage stuff and the picture tube. I loved getting two nonfunctional sets and ending up with one that worked. These were a little tougher to diagnose, but I got pretty good at identifying which tubes to check at the drug store.

All this activity presented an opportunity. Maybe TV repairman was in my future? I was making good progress figuring these things out on my own. There were a couple of repair shops in town, as televisions broke down regularly. Repairs were usually quick and relatively inexpensive. Maybe that would be the life for me?

Advert from 1941

Advert from 1941

To cement the decision to become a TV repairman I signed up for a correspondence school class on radio-TV repair. My mother agreed to pay for it. It was offered through an outfit called NRI, National Radio Institute, who advertised heavily in comic books. They sent me one little booklet a week. I read each one and then answered the few questions at the back of the book. Nothing to it. The problems began when parts showed up to build my very own radio! There had been little experiments before that, but they were pretty trifling. There had also been projects from magazines, such as the one to build a coin tosser simulator with transistors and light bulbs. They were nothing compared to a real radio. It consumed all of my time, so I fell far behind reading the books. The radio didn’t work terribly well, but it served me well for many years, and may have even made it to Rochester. The brand was CONAR, an anagram/acronym for National Radio Company. Soon after the radio was complete we sent in the last payment for the course. When that happened the school sent all the remaining books covering everything anyone could ever want to know about radio and TV repair.

More exciting was the collection of large boxes containing parts for a nineteen inch television. Now there was no way that I would ever get back to the books. I spent countless nights building that darn TV set. Again my lack of soldering skills and over confidence got in the way. Who needed to read the books on theory anyway? How hard could this be? All I had to do was follow the instructions. Even that was partly optional. Why would you want to check off those little boxes as you soldered the parts in? Didn’t they think that I could keep track of all of this in my head? With the combination of arrogance on my part and the apathy and greed of the school, the course was a set up for disaster.

As I think about it today, NRI may have been similar to today’s for profit colleges. The darn television set never did work. The books went unread. By that time I had heard that electrical engineers could earn as much as two hundred and fifty dollars a month! That got my attention. Just go to college for a couple more years and then the money would roll in. I was already in the college bound track, made the National Honor Society and belonged to the Science Club and the Photography club. Engineers didn’t have to work nights like astronomers. And when was the last time you talked to a TV repairman? Who in this room has adjusted the vertical hold on their television? That was it. I made the decision. My mother came through with a little financial aid.

Somehow, I made the right choice. How did that happen?Grandpa Guy Havelick


PS …

According to Wikipedia, NRI shut down in 2002. That was about the time I started thinking seriously about retiring from a lifetime career with IBM as an electrical engineer. Here’s a YouTube video describing a later version of the radio I built. Mine was a tube set, but the outside case and knobs were identical to the one described in the video.