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Schmidt’s Radio


Harry Buschman

Schmidt stood in the middle of 110th Street, he noticed the pavement was soft under his feet. He squinted up at the fourth floor window of his apartment and checked to see if It was shut tight. “Good,” he mumbled to himself. If anybody had been there this afternoon the window would have been open.

It was a stifling August afternoon. It was 97 degrees on the thermometer in the Drug Store on the corner of 110th Street, and that meant it was over 100 in his apartment. His job in the mattress spring factory was no bed of roses in weather like this, and if he had any sense, he would turn around and go to a bar and wait there until the sun went down. By nine or ten o’clock the roof of his apartment would cool off a little and the heat inside would let up. But he reminded himself that if he had any sense he wouldn’t be here in the first place, and besides, he couldn’t wait to get up there and turn on his radio.

He was a disheveled man, and from a quick glance it was impossible to tell if he wore a beard or needed a shave. A closer look would reveal that he needed a haircut too, Then, if you looked down you would see his run down shoes and the frayed cuffs of his jeans. “Yes,” you would decide, “He’s not an elderly, eccentric Ph.D after all, he’s just a bum looking for a place to eat his container of fried chicken.

Schmidt shifted the hot container of Kentucky Fried Chicken to his other hand and pulled the lobby door open. The blended smell of the three families who lived in the apartment smothered him like a musty blanket. Three nationalities; Italian, Irish and Polish. The combination was a symphonic orchestration of food, moldy upholstery and dirty laundry. As he climbed the stairs to the fourth floor, each nationality achieved a certain temporary ascendancy until another took over. The smell of cabbage from the O’Connor’s on the first floor, the peppery smell of oregano and the sour cheese smell from the Greco clan on the second, and last, the smell of fish from old man Rabinowitz and his sister.

Schmidt never noticed the smell of himself, he was only sensitive to the smells of other people. There were times, however, when he opened the door to his apartment and thought, “someone’s been here before me,” only to realize it must have been his laundry piled high in the bathroom, or maybe food that sat in the refrigerator too long. Like many men who live alone, he wasn’t aware of his bad habits.

It was a little stronger tonight. Maybe because it was Friday, everybody was home on Friday -- a lot of fried food. Schmidt was no scientist, but he knew the symphony of smells would filter up through his apartment and find its way out the fire door to the roof. It wouldn’t be so bad if somebody would invite him down for dinner once in a while. But things were tough these days. Hard enough feeding your own family without asking a stranger to come in and share it.

Schmidt didn’t need company anyway, he had his radio.

It was a beauty, a Philco, Model 90, and he remembered the day he bought it in Montgomery Ward. The man told him he could get Philadelphia and Cleveland on it. When Schmidt brought it home he hung an antenna outside the window and plugged it in, he discovered that wasn’t the half of it. It was back in 1935 and when he turned it on that first night he heard a broadcast from Germany -- Hitler had restored universal military service. The man in Montgomery Ward never told him he would hear a broadcast from Germany. Oh, it was from Germany all right, it wasn’t just some American station giving out the news. Hitler was shouting, and Schmidt could understand every word Hitler said. German was the language he learned from his father, a sour faced shoemaker from the Upper West Side. “It is the language of your country,” the old man told him. “Some day it will be the language of this country.”

The radio was an heirloom by now, they didn’t make vacuum tubes any more and they had to be scavenged. He could probably sell it as a museum piece. The strange thing about it was it still reported the news of the world the way the world was back in the thirties. It took a lot of shaking and sometimes Schmidt would have to hit it in the back with the palm of his hand. It took forever to warm up, but when it did, all the familiar voices would return and Schmidt would sit and listen to them.

On a hot night like this he would get angry, he would talk back to Hitler. He would shout a warning to old Neville Chamberlain to take a stand and stop this madman before the situation got out of hand. He would advise Franklin Delano Roosevelt to prepare -- PREPARE – while you still have time!

Schmidt suspected something was wrong with his radio. After all, he was drafted in 1941, and he put four years of his life into World War II. He knew the war was over and the world had been unsuccessful in its second attempt to exterminate itself, but he chose to live a double life. His days were spent in the present and his nights in the past. He accepted it with a German stoicism, an obedience to a hiccup in time, and for more than sixty years he kept the hiccup to himself.

He would often shout back at his radio, shake his fist and call Hitler names – names his shoemaker father taught him. He thought there might be a chance Hitler would hear him: after all, it was a magic radio... perhaps those crazy men at the other end -- Hitler, Goebbels, Goering, Chamberlain and Roosevelt -- maybe they could hear him. Maybe there was a chance he could rewrite history, and save the ten million lives that were lost.

Then again, maybe not!

The conundrum plagued Schmidt. During the day the promises and threats of today’s politicians rang in his ears, and from the content of their words, Schmidt could tell they had learned nothing from the words of the past. “Don’t you ever learn, for God’s sake?” He mumbled to himself all day.

On this Friday night as he climbed his way upstairs to the fourth floor of his apartment, the sixty year old seed of discontent that stuck in his craw suddenly germinated. Perhaps it was the heat of this particular August afternoon, but he felt it was more than that. In short... he had it. He was fed up! and if anybody came out of the O’Connors or the Grecos or the Rabinowitzes to say good evening, Schmidt would have told him to go fuck themselves.

Schmidt stood at his front door and reached in his pocket for his key. He could hear voices inside...

He opened the door slowly thinking somebody might be in there waiting for him... but no, it was the radio. Chamberlain’s voice. An ultimatum! Hitler must stop his invasion of Poland instantly! Ha! Ridiculous! It was too late. Did that old gray headed fool with the skinny umbrella think Hitler would stop his giant Wehrmacht machine and go home to Germany? “No, old man! You had your chance three years ago. It might have worked then -- but not now. This war machine of Herr Paperhanger is on a roll!”

He walked to the radio, his crazy radio that aired the news of sixty years ago. It didn’t need him any more, it was turning itself on now. It didn’t care if he was there to listen or not.

Enough of war! He lifted the radio off the table and the plug disconnected from the wall, but the radio continued with the melancholy and familiar story of September 3, 1939. The day the end began. He carried the radio to the window and opened it with his free hand, and without thinking, he threw it into the street below. It continued to play until it hit the sidewalk.

In the sudden silence he overheard The voice of old man Rabinowitz downstairs.

“B'rukhah At Ya Eloheinu ... “

“I know it’s Friday, old man ... pray, pray loud, for God’s sake. It’s all right to pray now. Pray for me too, I don’t remember my prayers.”

But wait! There was one he remembered from a long time ago. He opened the container of Kentucky Fried Chicken and sat at the kitchen table. His father used to pray at the table... he mumbled when he prayed as if he didn’t want anyone but God to hear. But when he was finished, he always raised his voice and said...

“Im Namen des Vaters und des Sohnes
und des Heiligen Geistes -- Amen.”

That’s all that Schmidt could remember.

©Harry Buschman 2004

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