Gris-Gris, an online journal of literature, culture & the arts

Signal and Noise

by Vivian Wagner

We had the CB radio set up in the living room of the trailer where we lived in the California mountains. My dad let me pick a name for myself, and I chose Tadpole. He and I would talk with truckers as they drove by on Highway 178, heading from Bakersfield over Walker Pass to the desert.

“Where are you?” they’d ask my father and me, and we’d tell them we lived up a canyon nearby, and just wanted to check in with them to see how things were going out on the road.

“10-4,” they’d say. “All clear.”

“10-4,” I’d return, proud to know the lingo. “See any bears out there today?” I’d hazard, a little awkward, still, with the language, but wanting to make an impression.

“Not too many out here, Tadpole. Pretty quiet day.”

“What’s your 20?” I’d ask, and my dad would nod approvingly.

“Oh, just going by Walker Pass Lodge now,” they’d say.

I loved the radio with its little walkie-talkie-like microphone and button. I loved the sound of the truckers’ voices, scratchy and indistinct, the white noise beneath it all. I learned to adjust the knob just below the level of that noise, so we’d get the strongest possible signal for the voices.

My dad showed me once how radio frequencies work, drawing the waves and talking about how they traveled through the air. When they run into interference, he explained, they slow or bend or get deformed. That’s why our clearest signals on the CB came from the brief window when the truckers were between the lodge and the top of the pass. After they started the long, steep descent to the desert, we’d lose them.




During the war, the only communication my father’s family in Budapest had with the outside world came via radio. Broadcasts scattered through Europe’s airwaves, telling people about battles, invasions, rations, troop movements, soldiers. They listened, switching between stations, rapt, trying to make plans, trying to understand, trying to strategize. My father’s Jewish father was an engineer, an import-export specialist, a pianist, a deli owner. He dabbled in many things. Then the war started, everything stopped, and he went into hiding in the family’s apartment.

They waited.

They listened to the radio.




Tefillah is a form of Jewish prayer focused on self-evaluation and analysis. You don’t ask for anything with Tefillah. You look within. You look at the secrets only you know, your inner thoughts, anxieties, and fears, your strengths and abilities, and then you attempt to understand them. Through Tefillah, you communicate what you have come to understand with God. With this kind of prayer, you separate what you want from what you need. You understand yourself first, before looking outward. You discover what you already have before you ask for help.




My father’s ham radio call sign was KE6WJO. He last renewed his license in 2006, and it will expire in 2016. I know this because I Googled him after he died and found a listing of ham radio operators and their call signs in the town where he lived when he died.




The history of amateur radio is the history of wireless communications. William Marconi invented the wireless telegraph in Bologna, Italy in 1896, and he sent dot-and-dash signals up to 300 feet. In 1899, Archie Frederick Collins invented the wireless telephone, transmitting voices up to three blocks from his home in Narberth, Pennsylvania. These experiments laid the groundwork for amateur radio enthusiasts to set up transmitters and receivers and communicate with each other through the air.




My dad had his ham radio equipment set up on the stone fireplace in the house we built in the mountains. He liked to talk with people around the world until late at night. The radio gave him a connection to others, something that he enjoyed. I never paid much attention to his ham radio hobby, since he’d developed it after I left home. But it seemed a good way for him to pass his time. He was lonely. My mother was sick. He’d always enjoyed radios.




My father only talked about a few incidents from the war. He talked about the mechanic shop next to their apartment building, where he liked to go watch the men work on cars. He talked about the soldiers storming into their apartment searching for his father, thrusting their bayonets into the coal bin where his father hid. He talked about eating a potato for a week. But like radio transmissions from far away and long ago, these stories were broken up, deformed, difficult to hear, even more difficult to understand. I listened closely, trying to make sense of them.

The key is to distinguish between signal and noise. Between what is sent, and what interferes. You have to be able to filter out the noise to get to the original transmission, or at least as close as possible to it. This is, too, the problem of memory, of communication, of being able to understand what your grandfather did, what your father tried to tell you, what happened decades ago. The stronger the signal, the more likely you’ll receive it close to its original form. But many variables—weather, radiation, history, time, memory, anxiety, generational impatience—get in the way. The signals we finally pick up are weakened, sometimes unintelligible.

My father tried to talk to me, tried to make me understand, but much of it was lost. The best I can do is to make him and his stories seem whole, understandable, complete. They’re the fragments through the noise. They’re the trucker’s voice breaking up as he heads over the pass.




My father tried calling me on my cell phone several times in the days before he died. I didn’t pick up his calls. We hadn’t talked in the years since my mom’s death. He’d become increasingly incoherent and angry, anxious and cruel, his mind breaking down like a faulty transmitter. So much time had passed that I didn’t know how to start talking with him again. I didn’t know why he was calling. I had my own life to worry about. I let all of his calls go to voicemail.

A few weeks later, he shot himself.




You can inherit call signs when a close family member dies. It’s just a matter of putting in a request with the FCC. I’d like to inherit my dad’s. I’m reading up on radio frequencies, equipment, and transmitters, planning to take the exam to become an amateur radio operator.

I’ve been looking within, trying to figure out what I already have, what I need. Trying to take stock. Trying to do my Tefillah. And what I’m finding is this: I don’t know what my father went through. I might never know. All I can do is send my own signals out and then listen, closely, for whatever grainy transmissions come back.