America, mired in an endless exchange of angry diatribes aided greatly by the ubiquity of social media, needs to revert to a simpler, more organic form of communication.
I refer, of course, to the CB radio.
I had this epiphany recently while marveling at the profundity and scintillating syntax that define C.W. McCall’s classic novelty song “Convoy.”
(I uncover epiphanies in the most unexpected places.)
“Convoy,” released in 1975, introduced a goodly number of Americans to such piquant phrases as “cab-over Pete with a reefer on,” which sounds like it involves marijuana but, unusual for the mid 1970s, does not, and “them smokeys was as thick as bugs on a rug.”
(Surely it is also the only Top 40 hit whose lyrics include the words “chartreuse microbus,” or at least in that sequence, which I think is significant. The difficulty of incorporating “chartreuse” into the meter of a song can hardly be overestimated, even when the words are spoken, as they are in “Convoy,” rather than sung in the traditional sense.)
The historical record isn’t as clear as I would like it to be on the vital question of whether “Convoy” drove America’s CB craze or whether that strange period already had enough momentum that something like the song was inevitable.
I suspect there was a synergy at work regardless. In any case, “Convoy” was so perfectly of its time that I can scarcely imagine it succeeding had it been recorded even a few years earlier, when America was preoccupied with Vietnam and Watergate, or later, when we suddenly, inexplicably, abandoned rationality for the disco beat.
The advantages of CB radio over the internet as a way to communicate are many and varied, but chief among them is range.
Specifically the lack of it.
CB radio signals rarely extend more than 15 miles or so, even if your rig has one of those antennas so tall and so flexible that in a high wind they pose a decapitation threat to low-flying birds.
This limitation means the number of people you’re able to engage with at any given time might scarcely reach into double digits. And that’s presuming the potential listeners, as the CB lexicon so nicely puts it, have “their ears on.”
With social media you can reach almost all 7 billion people on the planet simultaneously, most of whom, even though they don’t care what you think about climate change and the dangers of vaccines, will gleefully explain that you’re not only wrong but that you hate children and that your favorite hobby is clubbing baby seals.
(While your idling snowmobile belches hydrocarbons into the nostrils of polar bears stuck on drifting floes.)
CB radios encourage brevity, since you have to hold down the microphone button, which can make your hand ache arthritically. Not for nothing does CB use, in place of certain phrases, a series of numerical codes, all starting with “10.” For instance, 10-100 indicates the need to visit a bathroom for the function which takes somewhat less time than the similar 10-200.
Besides which, most people are prone to a sort of stage fright when they know their words are going out over the public airways, so they’re more likely to stammer than to indulge whatever rhetorical talent they might have.
Twitter’s character limits aside (a term with a definite double meaning), social media instead tends to provoke a sort of word diarrhea, a noxious miasma of inappropriately used capital letters and superfluous punctuation that suggests the author earns a hefty financial reward for every exclamation point. The absence of a direct and immediate connection with another person, which defines social media, also makes it all too easy, it seems to me, to pretend, while online, that you’re not communicating with another human but rather with an “account” or a “user.”
And it’s much easier to call an account a moron than it is to say the same to a real person who can actually talk back.
CB radios, it should also be noted, have a knob labeled “squelch.”
There isn’t nearly enough squelching in social media.
But the greatest difference between these forms of discourse is that CB radio is a sort of club. And clubs, as anyone knows who has ever belonged to one, tend to foster not only camaraderie but also congeniality.
Social media fosters camaraderie, too.
But it’s not the sort of fellowship whose members share secret handshakes.
It’s more like a gang that goes out looking for people to punch out.
Although there is a type of CB radio intended to be used from home — a base station — the technology, as exemplified in the lyrics of “Convoy,” is decidedly mobile.
CB radios are made to be installed under the dashboard, the microphone connected to the radio by a coil of plastic-wrapped wire.
People don’t engage in sober discussions of weighty topics by CB.
They alert fellow freeway travelers to speed traps manned by “smokeys” and “bears.”
The terms, both used liberally in “Convoy,” refer to police. Their inspiration is Smokey Bear, whose hat is similar to the headwear that is part of the uniform for many state police troopers.
Cellphones have of course supplanted this particular function of the CB radio — and with the added utility that lets you check football scores and watch YouTube videos of people jumping bicycles off garages and landing in swimming pools.
Still and all, the shorthand of the digital age seems to me an ersatz version of CB jargon.
“LOL” conveys its meaning well enough.
But it lacks the humanity and joviality of “10-4, good buddy.”
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We had a frosted spice cake in the kitchen recently and one day when I was home for lunch I approached the plastic container with fork in hand and saliva moistening my mouth.
But when I pried off the lid I recoiled, as though I had seen a tarantula crawling across the tasty confection.
There was no arachnid.
Yet something nasty, albeit human, had gotten at the cake just the same.
A frosting peeler.
A swath of frosting had been scraped from a goodly section of the cake, the operation done as neatly as a blade clearing snow from a section of sidewalk. It was obviously the work of a creature with an opposable thumb.
I can scarcely conceive of a more treacherous culinary crime.
Without frosting, a cake is just a waste of flour and sugar.
To steal the frosting and leave the cake intact is akin to siphoning the carbonation from a bottle of beer and then putting the cap back on.
I alerted the other members of the household to this deed, emphasizing that each was a suspect.
There were no confessions.
I can only hope the guilty party, however sweet the larceny seemed in the moment, is plagued still by the bitterness of deceit.
Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.