The CB Radio Craze

Vintage CB radio

Burt Reynolds and Richard Nixon might seem like unlikely partners, but together they teamed up to start a craze. An unknown songwriter named Bill Fries was also a major contributor, as were a couple of country boys named Bo and Luke.

Nixon did his part by enacting into law the nationwide 55 MPH speed limit, putting the federal government in the business of determining how fast you could drive on highways, a job that belonged to individual states before Tricky Dick signed the papers. His other bone-headed proclamation, year-round DST, was mercifully gone within a year.

Arguably, driving 55 saved gasoline. It also wasted our lifetimes, turning eight hour trips into ten hours. Many say it saved lives. That is a dubious argument at best, as the evidence points as much to improved safety features in cars as much as the reduced speed limits.

Truckers were livid. Their livelihoods depended on getting their loads to various destinations in a timely matter, and the nationwide speed limit put a serious damper on that. By and large, non-professional drivers grew to resent the law as well. The interstate highways were designed to be safely traveled at speeds of 70 MPH and faster, and tooling along at 55 just didn’t seem right in many ways.

So, the nation rebelled. And their main weapon in the non-violent coup was the CB radio.

Citizen’s band radios were originally intended for public and small business communication. It took an FCC license to legally operate them. The 1960’s saw them used by contractors, taxi drivers, and especially truck drivers. They developed their own slang, as well as a protocol that was to be followed at all costs.

The aforementioned speed limit in 1974 brought them to the forefront in the trucking industry. Fellow drivers warned each other of speed traps over the airwaves.

Smokey on the CB

That’s where Burt Reynolds, “C.W. McCall,” and the Duke boys stepped in. As tales of the trucker’s circumvention of the cops and their radar guns began to circulate, a pop culture formed around their communication medium, the CB radio.

Burt, of course, was the star of 1977’s Smokey and the Bandit, a movie which was a huge hit, and which featured use of CB’s throughout its length. The Dukes of Hazzard also used the device to foil Boss Hogg. And Jim Fries noticed the character of C.W. McCall, created to sell baked goods in the Omaha, Nebraska area, and took his persona in performing one of the biggest hits of the 70’s, Convoy.

When I was a junior in school in late 1975, the CB radio craze hit my little town of Pea Ridge, Arkansas. Lunch hours were spent ratchet jawing with truckers. Nights were spent doing the same. And we all adapted handles. I was Trapper John, BTW.

Longtime CB users were outraged. They had paid good money to get their licenses, and here were a bunch of people using their bandwidth illegally, and completely ignoring their protocol! So many CB’s were sold that the government ended up lifting the license requirement, infuriating the old-timers even more.

Other abusers bought devices known as linear amplifiers to magnify their signals from the legal five watts to a thousand or more. These would interfere with neighbor’s TV reception, and would also bleed over onto other channels within the bandwidth.

Linear amplifier from the 70’s

However, many amplified home base users were foiled by a simple straight pin thrust through the coaxial cable leading to the antenna. When the mike was keyed, the amp was instantly smoked. Frontier justice at its finest!

In many ways, the original users of the internet were like the early licensed CB users. Posting on USENET required that you know the rules of behavior beforehand. That was brought to a screeching halt by two lawyers from Phoenix. I quote from net historian Brad Templeton:

In April of 1994, the term (spam) was not born, but it did jump a great deal in popularity when two lawyers from Phoenix named Canter and Siegel posted a message advertising their fairly useless services in an upcoming U.S. “green card” lottery. This wasn’t the first such abusive posting, nor the first mass posting to be called a spam, but it was the first deliberate mass posting to commonly get that name. They had posted their message a few times before, but on April 12, they hired a mercenary programmer to write a simple script to post their ad to every single newsgroup (message board) on USENET, the world’s largest online conferencing system. There were several thousand such newsgroups, and each one got the ad.

CB usage faded away, until it was back in the hands of the original folks who found practical value from it. However, protocol has slipped badly. It was once seriously frowned upon to use even mild profanity on the air. Alas, listening to channel 19 these days will make your ears turn blue.

The internet, however, is only growing larger. It is becoming more and more a part of our daily lives, and in fact will likely need to be redesigned as it gets more and more stressed by its daily addition of tens of thousands more users.

Oh well. Even CB radios had to be ramped up from 23 channels to 40.

The Cassette Tape Takes Over from Eight Tracks

Four track players and tape

Recording tape is barely older than the senior members of the Boomer generation. It was introduced in the 1940’s as an alternative to direct-to-disc recording, which was how records were being produced prior to then.

The idea of putting music (or whatever) on a strip of magnetic tape was quite revolutionary. Recording studios embraced it at once. But tape for the home consumer was a different matter. It had some growing up to do before it would be widely embraced.

Tape came on big reels. It took a long time to rewind or fast-forward, as opposed to quickly moving a tonearm to different tracks on a record.

But the concept of recording tape for the consumer was too good to be ignored. As the 60’s debuted, several tape cartridge systems were under development, including a four-track, continuous-loop cartridge devised by the Lear Company, the Fidelipac system used by radio broadcasters, and the “Casino” cartridge introduced by the RCA company for use in its home audio units.

Phillips tape and player/recorder, 1963

In 1962, Philips introduced a cartridge which held a tape 1/8″ wide, as opposed to the 1/4″ wide reel-to-reel tape that others were attempting to integrate int a self-contained cartridge.

The 1/8″ tape had crappy audio qualities when first introduced, and sales crawled. But Philips felt like they were on to something. They encouraged other companies to develop the cassette technology, but to observe the standards that they had laid down by licensing its use. The result was a swarm of development on the cassette.

By 1968, nearly a hundred different manufacturers had sold more than 2.4 million cassette players worldwide. The cassette business was worth about $150 million. Thanks to worldwide adherence to the standards established by the Philips company, the compact cassette was the most widely used format for tape recording by 1970.

Ferrichrome cassette introduced in the 70’s

But the sound still sucked. There was a lot of hiss on the slowly-moving narrow tape, and audiophiles either listened to records, or four- and eight-track tapes. Some of them purchased music on reels of tape. For cassettes to take over the world, their fidelity would have to be improved.

That year, top-end cassette machine manufacturer began selling units with Dolby noise reduction. The idea was that high-end sounds would be amplified during recording, then muffled a bit during playback. The tape’s hiss would fade into the background.

It worked fairly well, but not as expected, in many cases. The first automobile cassette players were notoriously weak on high end sounds, and playing the Dolby-encoded tape with the Dolby compensation shut off would make the highs blast forth. The tape hiss would disappear as the highway noise would mask it. But when you listened to cassettes with the engine off, it was obvious that there was a ton of background noise.

But cassettes gradually nudged eight-tracks aside, and by 1980, dominated the market.

Nowadays, I listen to high-fidelity mp3’s on a car stereo that reads memory cards. I put sixteen hours of music on a single gigabyte card. And it sounds perfect.

But I grew up with cassettes loaded with hiss that also played beautifully, as long as you were going at least fifty miles per hour.

The Automotive Store

Western Auto store

Time was, usually located on Main Street within walking distance of the Dime Store, there was an establishment that carried generic automotive supplies like oil, gas treatment, tires, freon, anti-freeze, windshield wiper blades, and wheel covers. Additionally, they offered diverse non-automotive items like lawn mowers, gardening equipment, higher-end toys (e.g. Radio Flyer wagons), major appliances, and even firearms!

Every town big enough for at least one traffic light had one, and quite a few burgs that lacked an automated traffic control system still managed to support a Western Auto store, or in the central United Sates, an Otasco.

There were probably other local versions of the ubiquitous retail establishments in other parts of the country, as well, If so, please share your memories of them, readers.

They were located everywhere because they offered what people wanted and needed. After all, our fathers all had cars, and you certainly couldn’t buy anti-freeze at the IGA. And not every town had a Sears or Montgomery-Wards either, so lawnmowers and clothes dryers had to be obtained elsewhere. Thus thrived the automotive store.

They were fun places for the entire family to visit. First of all, they smelled like new tires. What a great ambience that was! Second, they were brightly lit by their fluorescent fixtures, their white vinyl-tiled floors would spread the illumination far and wide, and the staff was always very friendly and patient, even with highly active seven-year-old kids like me running all over the place.

Otasco store

And the amazingly cool stuff they sold! Dad was impressed with the beautiful riding and self-propelled mowers, although it would be many more years before he would spring his hard-earned bucks for such luxury. Mom enjoyed the shiny new refrigerators and washing machines. And then, there were the VERY nice toys that captured the attention of Yours Truly!

Otasco, founded in 1918 by three Jewish Lithuanian immigrant brothers living in Okmulgee, Oklahoma (amazing, huh?), had branch locations all over what was known as the Four State area (Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, and Arkansas) in the 60’s. Miami had one, so did many other small towns in twelve different states. Some even offered groceries among their wares for sale.

Otasco used to send me into a frenzy every winter. They would begin TV commercial campaigns every November complete with a catchy Christmas tune and two or three nice toys. Our parents were then barraged with requests from kids who would see the ads four or five times every Saturday morning. Our poor mothers and fathers!

But the strategy worked. I remember getting a VERY nice fire truck that had been featured in an Otasco Christmas commercial that my parents were told about at least a hundred times.

OTASCO store in Marlow, Oklahoma, 2014, it’s apparently still open!

Automotive stores thrived throughout the 50’s and 60’s, but with the economic downturn of the 70’s, many of them went belly-up. The appearance of discount store chains like K-Mart and Wal-Mart was also a nail in the coffin. K-Mart sold everything and more that Western Auto or Otasco did, only cheaper.

Interestingly, automobile parts stores began spreading like wildfire at about the same time, with AutoZones and NAPA’s coming to occupy many of the now-abandoned downtown buildings once home to the automotive stores that we grew up with. While they don’t sell appliances or lawnmowers, they have taken the concept of automotive supplies to the next level, offering specialized items like emissions control sensors, alternators, and water pumps.

But as sure as 30-cent-a-gallon gasoline is gone forever, so are the automotive stores that were once located on Main Street of practically every small town in America.

The AMC Pacer

AMC Pacer, complete with wood trim

What strange evolution took place among cars during our time. I remember growing up with two kinds of cars running around our streets: the old ones built like boxes, and the newer sleeker ones. But they all had one thing in common: they were BIG! Volkswagens were plentiful, but you didn’t see too many other cars that were small.

Then, in 1973, those blasted Arabs punished the US for its support of Israel. The oil embargo caused prices to triple. Suddenly, bigger was no longer viewed as better.

A forward-thinking auto company called AMC saw a market for a compact car that got good gas mileage. Not wanting to spring too much on its intended American customers, they chose to shorten the wheelbase while maintaining a standard width.

AMC also wanted a futuristic look to the car. And they wanted a powerful, fuel-efficient rotary engine to power it.

Unfortunately, the rotary engine idea had to be scrapped. GM, who was to sell the motors to AMC, suddenly canceled their production. AMC scrambled and came up with a small inline six that wasn’t very powerful.

The car was presented to the public in 1975. They made fun of its squashed bug appearance, but they also bought nearly 150,000 of them. They were a common sight on American roads in the 70’s.

That small engine got good mileage, but was notoriously underpowered. AMC reacted by offering a larger I-6 and a V-8 the next year, but sales never approached that initial promising first year. It was discontinued in 1980.

Many reviled the Pacer, but look for them to become popular as restored retro vehicles in the future. Anything that looked that funky has to make a comeback sooner or later.

The AMC Gremlin

The AMC Gremlin

AMC was by far the most innovative car manufacturer out there after the death of most smaller car manufacturers in the 1950’s. They weren’t afraid to put out designs that looked radically different from what the big boys were offering. And they also sold a boatload of cars! It’s a shame they’re not still around. They were swallowed up by Chrysler in 1987.

The Gremlin’s basic design was penned on the back of a Northwest Orient air sickness bag about 18 months before the car was introduced. Its designer was Richard Teague, who designed many other AMC models including the Hornet, the Javelin, and, of course, the immortal Pacer. The Gremlin first appeared in 1970, beating rivals Ford Pinto and Chevrolet Vega by a year. It was produced until 1978.

Tom McCahill, Mechanix Illustrated’s car columnist, tested a Gremlin that year and declared it to be the best American buy of the year. The public listened, and started buying.

Gremlins were a common sight in the 70’s. Their owners were given grief by others wondering where the rest of their cars had gone. Indeed, the chopped-off rear end look attracted a lot of attention, and lives on today. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, after all.

They also made for some bodacious tricked-out street rods. There are still a few around, as can be evidenced by this site.

Like the pacer, I predict that the Gremlin has a future as a serious collector’s car. If you have one stashed a barn somewhere, hang onto it.

Steering the Car on Dad’s Lap

Steering on dad’s lap

I’d sit on his lap in that big old Buick
And steer as we drove through town
He’d tousle my hair and say son take
A good look around
This is your hometown . . .

The first time I heard the great Bruce Springsteen’s My Hometown I picked right up on that line. I used to steer the car all over town myself, sitting on dad’s lap and very conscientiously keeping the big Plymouth safely centered in the lane.

Today, of course, such irresponsible behavior by a parent would likely land them in court facing charges of child neglect.

But let’s be honest. Not only have times changed, so have cars. The cars we Boomer kids rode around in were big mobile masses of thick steel. They could survive impact a lot better than the little Tercel I drive to work (and get 35+ MPG while doing so ;-). Our grandchildren are certainly safer nowadays buckled into their car seats.

But at the age of seven, I had one of my earliest tastes of responsibility. It’s a shame that learning experience is no longer possible.

When my daughter was born in 1986, mandatory car seats had just been enacted in Arkansas for children under the age of two. So we purchased one before she popped out into the world. Nowadays, they have to be used until a child is six or so, and anyone older than that must be buckled in.

But flash back to the 50’s and 60’s and automobiles were much less regulated places to be. Seat belts showed up on new cars early in the 60’s and were largely ignored. If you wanted to use them, it often meant digging them out of the crevice formed by the seat meeting the back support.

However, their use was advocated by public service ads on TV and in magazines. But my stubborn Norwegian father would never hear of wearing them, even though he didn’t object to my doing so on occasion.

One day, when I was just tall enough to see over the steering wheel on his lap, he turned the wheel over to me. I knew the day was coming, because one of my friends had told me about doing the same thing with his father, and I had asked dad for the same experience. He told me that some day I could.

I had since observed his technique for keeping the car nicely on the road. On straight stretches, he wouldn’t simply hold the wheel still. No, he would make subtle corrections to the course as we motored down the highway. I took note of that, and would sit in the car while it was in the driveway and meticulously imitate his artifice.

Then, one day when I was seven, I finally had my chance to steer the car. And I was up to the task, making those same little adjustments that my father did without his realizing he was doing so. I, on the other hand, was acutely aware of their importance.

I steered the car many times after that, and was even given full driving privileges with our 1965 Chevy pickup on our farm property when I was twelve. I highly esteemed the honor, and was very careful about avoiding both stable obstacles like gates and fences, as well as the mobile versions like cows.

Nowadays, for better or worse, a kid may take the wheel in their hands for the very first time when they obtain a driving permit as a teenager. But some of us Boomers can look back on being quite experienced at maneuvering automobiles through traffic long before leaving the ranks of childhood.

Riding in the Back of the Pickup

Kids in the back of the truck

Oh, what horrible, neglectful parents we had by today’s standards. First of all, they smoked! In the house! Second, they would let us head out the door in the morning, and not give a second thought to us until we wandered in at suppertime! And, horrors of horrors, they let us ride in the back of pickup trucks!

Oh, the PC police would have them arrested and flogged nowadays. But nobody gave a second thought to any of that stuff in the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s. Life was an experience that required a bit of common sense. On thew other hand, lawyers have turned present-day life into an experience of needing, indeed DEMANDING protection from one’s own stupidity.

When I was eight years old, my father obtained a blue-green 1966 Chevy pickup. We had just moved to a farm in rural Missouri, and a pickup was a necessity. I rode in the bed of that truck for countless miles. I would sit against the cab of the truck (dad insisted on that, we’re back to common sense) and savor the wind blowing through my summer-bleached-blonde hair. Riding in the back of that truck was a lot of fun.

Dad bought a stock rack for that pickup as well. That allowed the hauling of one or two cows. When the rack was on, the sitting-against-the-cab restriction was lifted. I could climb the rack and face into the 60 MPH wind. That was cool, too.

I loved that old truck. In 1973, when I was thirteen, dad let me drive it in the pasture. I was able to master a three-speed-in-the-column transmission at a very early age.

In 1978, Subaru introduced the Brat, a small pickup with actual seats installed in the bed. The seats were gone after 1985, and riding in the bed began to be viewed as taboo.

In local communities, tales were shared about drunks who fell out and were instantly killed. Soon, laws were passed that made criminals out of fathers who did exactly what MY dad did,

Nowadays, we get ticketed if we don’t have our seat belts on. Ironically, if you rode a motorcycle in Arkansas during the 70’s, a helmet was required. IMHO, that’s common sense. If you take a tumble on a bike, road rash hurts for weeks, but brain damage is permanent.

But nowadays, Arkansas bikers have fought for and earned the right to ride helmet-free. But if you get caught driving with passengers back of a pickup, you’d better get ready to cough up the price of a steep fine.

Somehow, it’s all politically correct.

Revell Model Cars

1966 vintage Revell model car

Aargh, I write a column ONCE. But due to fumble-fingeredness, I lost my original copy of today’s column. So here goes try #2:

Boys love two things: building things, and cars. So it was kind of a no-brainer decision by Revell founder Lewis H. Glaser in 1947 to take advantage of the new technology of molded plastic in order to create model car kits.

Revell, located in Venice, California, had enjoyed moderate success in the toy market up until that point. But Glaser’s farsighted decision would make them giants in the model car market until our present day, not to mention selling millions of plastic molded kits for airplanes, military equipment, sailing ships, modern-day ships, and countless other objects requiring the help of a human and airplane glue to achieve completion. But today, we concentrate on the Revell model cars.

Here’s how the scenario would unfold: A kid would convince his mom or dad that he just couldn’t live without his Revell muscle car model. The relenting parent would part with the $2.99 or so to purchase the prize. The kid would unwrap the plastic outer covering on the ride home, and take out each immaculate sheet of plastic parts attached to frames with each part number stamped next to its owner.

When he got home, here’s where modelers would go one of two paths. You either painted the parts with bright Testors enamel and a tiny brush, or you just got started creating your Camaro.

Vintage Revell model car

I was of the latter persuasion. I didn’t have the patience to sit around and let enamel dry. That carries forth to the present day in my type-A personality. No, I needed to start separating parts and creating an automobile.

Of course, life lessons were taught, as was the case with so many of our playthings. For instance, you didn’t separate ALL of the plastic parts at the outset, or you wouldn’t know where some of the smaller, more obscure parts went. And you didn’t glue parts together until you were SURE they went together, because that airplane glue didn’t react nicely to having cemented parts pulled apart. It showed its rage by eating and deteriorating the parts themselves.

You were also neat with your glue, because it would dry clear, but manifest itself by making a child’s fingerprints obvious once dust began collecting on the model.

But we learned the lessons, and had a wonderful time assembling model cars out of some amazingly detailed plastic parts.

Even today, we might get a chance to exercise what we learned as children when our wives bring home furniture that requires assembly, or perhaps a new bike for a grandchild. Slow down and follow the instructions, even though you might think that any moron should be able to transform a flat box full of parts into a computer desk.

Perhaps one day, when i have some free time, I’ll reward myself for the accomplishment with a Revell model 1968 Camaro kit.

Radar Detectors

Original Fuzzbuster

It began with a bunch of Arabs with attitudes. It ended with a law forbidding us from traveling over our highways, many of which were designed to be safely traversed at 75 or more miles per hour, at a maximum speed of 55.

The 1973 oil embargo changed history. It forced the passage of energy saving laws, or perhaps laws that intended the saving of energy might be a better description.

The public wasn’t nuts about it. Imagine being forced to drive 15 or more miles per hour slower in the name of energy savings that may or may not be taking place. It was certainly an inconvenience for commuters in general, but for the nation’s trucking industry, which was based on getting loads hauled to distant locations as quickly as possible, it was intolerable.

Even worse, the radar units themselves that cops used could give whacked readings, so you might find yourself being hit in the pocketbook by a device that misread your speed. Guess whose side the judge is going to take with THAT argument!

So a market was quickly created and addressed for devices that would warn all, especially truckers whose livelihood depended on speed, of invisible radar waves that could cost you a hundred or more bucks. Thus was born the Fuzzbuster.

Radartron radar detector from the 70’s

Radar detection is as old as radar itself, born in the 1930’s. But inventor Dale Smith created a portable unit small enough to sit on the dashboard and plug into a cigarette lighter. It was also fairly cheap, the price of a couple of speeding tickets.

So it wasn’t long before Fuzzbusters were seen all over the country. And they certainly helped in the struggle of cop vs. speeder.

What’s sad is that the nation took this turn in the first place. Did the law save lives? Arguments could be made both ways. Did it save gasoline? Probably, although, once again, the evidence is not clear. But there’s no doubt that what it DID do was turn the average American into a lawbreaker. And that was a nefarious effect that should have been taken into consideration before clamping down on highway speeds.

So, alongside truckers, average Joes started equipping their vehicles with radar detectors.

The police fought back. New radar technology was undetectable to X band radar detectors sold early that decade. Instant-on guns caught speeders red-handed at strategic locations where cops could hide. And lawmakers got in on the act, too, banning radar detectors in certain states.

Now I live on a normally quiet street that turns into a shortcut for hundreds of speeding commuters in a hurry to get home from work at 5:00. I hate it when speeding takes place in residential areas where people could get run over. But I also believe that if a police officer has the right to detect a driver’s speed via radar, the driver has the right to know when he’s doing so. So I feel statewide bans should be tested for constitutionality.

That being said, many of us who drove during the polyester decade did so with the assistance of small electronic units that let us know when our speed was being judged by radar waves.

Putting Stereo Music in Your First Car

Underdash eight track player, complete with exposed add-on wires

Our kids are starting out, for the most part, like we did, with their first cars being older and cheap. It’s a rite of passage. When you start out with an old piece of junk, you learn to appreciate a nicer car when you can afford it.

However, a key difference between our kids’ first cars and ours is basic and fundamental: We likely had an AM radio with a single front dash speaker in ours. The old Toyotas and Hondas MY kids started out with had decent FM stereos that also played cassettes.

That would have been a dream to many of us, to get that first car already equipped with stereo. No, we had to install that first one ourselves. And we had to do it on a budget

So, tired of hearing that scratchy AM radio in my 1966 Ford Falcon (although it DID pull in WLS!), I went to the local Wal-Mart (and this was 1976, before the rest of the world had ever heard of the store chain) and purchased myself an under-dash eight track player and a set of plastic wedge speakers. Total investment: about 50 bucks.

But no 50-dollar investment ever enhanced an automobile as much, I assure you.

70’s wedge speakers for the rear deck

Installation consisted of finding a place under the dash of the ancient four-door Ford where two screws could be affixed and the player would sit within easy reach of the driver. Then, a wire was to be run to the fuse box to pick up power (you preferred an always-on lead, so you could listen to tapes at lunch without turning the key on). Next, you snaked two wires under the carpet and along the edge of the back seat until they finally appeared at the rear deck, where you placed your wedge speakers as far apart as possible. They had screw holes to mount them solidly, but I didn’t bother.

Get all the wires screwed down in the back of the player, then you hold your breath while you plug that first tape in.

To this day, I’ll never forget the rush I felt when the first notes of the cheap sound-alike tape I had also purchased filled the interior of that car. The song was Sweet Thing, sung to sound like Rufus. To this day, I have never been as thrilled to hear stereo music as I was that summer night in 1976, with my 50 dollar eight-track setup in that 500 dollar car.

The wedge-mounted speakers, about four inches in diameter, had little treble and absolutely no bass. But the difference between a single speaker in the dash and sweet stereo from the rear deck was profound.

Some things never change. I still drive an inexpensive car (to work), a 1990 Tercel that cost me $2400, a new engine included in that price. However, it has a sweet sound system, including an amplified subwoofer, nice front and rear speakers, and a player that lets me load up a flash drive with mp3’s and have many hours of perfect quality tunes.

But as much as I love that system, there was something about the way Sweet Thing sounded in 1976 that was better.