This is a story told to me by my grandmother. It takes place during a bleak time in our nation’s history. We were engaged in World War II, and the men of Long Island had marched off to war with a fierce pride in their hearts, leaving the women to take up the war effort at home.
The men were missed. Oh, to hear the clump of a heavy boot on the stair, a distinct male whistle for the dog, or the soft humming of their man! And so it was that in a little brick house in Massapequa two women waited anxiously.
Many years have passed since that time, but I know what it is to wait for word. As a mother of a soldier, I know how a heart leaps at the ring of the phone, or how a glimpse of your child’s handwriting or a snippet of news brings tears or a catch in your throat.
My story is about a son’s voice from miles and miles away, sunset, the bending of sound waves, a mother listening — and cat’s whiskers.
“Cat’s whiskers!” you might say as you laugh.
I laughed, too, with my cousin as we shared the story. I imagined my grandmother with a cat on her lap, and I wondered how a cat could help her hear my uncle’s voice.
A cat’s whiskers detector was so named for its thin wire that was used to receive radio waves. It was used in early crystal radios through World War II. Cat’s whiskers was just what my grandmother called the radio, which was their lifeline to the news.
Did you know that AM radio waves change dramatically at sunset because of shifts in Earth’s ionospheric layers? During nighttime hours an AM signal can travel hundreds of miles by
reflection from the ionosphere. It is a phenomenon called sky wave propagation.
My grandmother knew nothing about physics on that cold late autumn day as she sat by her radio with my mother. (There weren’t many televisions in homes then.) I can see her hands as she played with the dial, turning it to her local station.
The setting sun bent the sound waves of a little radio station in Chicago that was at a local hot spot interviewing soldiers on their way home for the holidays. Grandma’s radio suddenly crackled. Above the background noise of voices and laughter, a radio host introduced himself and said that he had some Navy boys who wanted to say hello to their families.
At that moment, as clear as if he were standing in that little living room, my uncle’s deep voice filled the room: “I want to say hello to my mother and sister in Massapequa, New York!”
Shocked, my grandmother leaned in to hear more, but just as suddenly as the radio picked up the far away station it crackled again and returned to Long Island. Try as she might, she could not find the voice again, but she had heard it. She heard it clear as day. Her boy was safe! He was on his way home. Oh, the joy! There would be Christmas after all!
You might say it was just physics, a combination of a winter sunset and sound waves. But I believe it was a miracle because miracles happen when someone listens with hope in their hearts.
Dana Lynn Zotter,
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