The Shanty Shaker From Monkey Town: A Memoir

Look... LIFE cereal tastes like beach sand!

Have you ever tried to indulge some secret desire? Given in to a little voice somewhere that keeps telling you to just go ahead and join that Mail-In Harmonic Convergence Study Group? Perhaps when you were younger, you convinced your mother that you loved LIFE cereal, and choked down over a dozen boxes in a desperate attempt to obtain all five collectible Where’s Waldo medallions. Thinking back, I remember several kids getting in some trouble back in elementary school – someone got it in their head that the plastic NFL pencils for sale in the office 25 cent machine were going to be worth a lot someday, and soon half the school was in line at the pencil dispenser instead of the lunch line. Usually, these little desires are quick to get out of hand.

I’ve had some ill-fated hobbies over the years myself. In fact, it seems now that they usually involved my friend Jeff, and that they were also generally his newest scheme to make money “off the books”. After we both got multi-colored vibrating pens for Christmas in 1991, we hit the playground, peddling tattoos to our classmates; a nickel for one shade, a dime for multi colors. After two days, our operation was shut down following a stern warning from the school administrators. At the time, I was scared so shitless I thought I was headed for Riker’s.

The following year or so, ’92 or ’93, Jeff devised a plot to prey on our intellectually challenged neighbor, who we’ll call Barney. Barney lived with his family directly in between me and Jeff (as the crow flies) in a little house with a dirt back yard and a wool blanket for a back door. Jeff, taking Barney’s gullibility for granted, hatched the somewhat unsavory postulation to start a fake club that was really a money-making scheme and initiate Barney. “We’ll call it the Candy Club,” Jeff announced to me one day at our weekly tree house meeting.

The idea sounded a bit far-fetched, but if it worked I wanted a piece of the action – we would buy penny candy downtown at Ben Franklin, then make some fancy club materials with our myriad art supplies. Barney would find this all very intriguing, and we’d tell him that, after careful consideration, we’d decided to allow him to join our club. The dues would be reasonable; something like a dollar at the start of every meeting, and the candy would be in plentiful supply, and would be available at a “reasonable price” (approximately 2-5 times the retail price).

Where Jeff excelled in concocting these capitalist stratagems, he needed improvement in both the Assumptions and Math departments. First, he told me that even though the start-up capital would be mustered between us 50/50, he was the Founder and CEO of said “Candy Club” ponzi-like outfit and thus would be splitting all profits with me “65, 45”. If the idea had even gotten off the ground the paperwork would have been a nightmare, and try as we might we probably would have lost money in the failed endeavor. As it were, his shortcomings in the Assumptions department prevented the Candy Club from ever truly coming to fruition when Barney ended up having absolutely no money to his name, and really wasn’t that concerned about being in our “bitch club”. Instead, we lit kitchen matches in Jeff’s driveway and wished we had money to spend on candy.

I don’t know what ever happened to Jeff after he moved with his family to Marquette, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he went down with the Bernie Madoff ship. But after he and I drifted apart, I began finding hobbies of my own. After a few years I had over a hundred PEZ dispensers, five hundred POGs, and several dozen issues of Uncle Scrooge Adventures.

My collection circa July 2009

These were all fun and harmless pastimes for me, but when I found that I could not play with my PEZ dispensers, could not compete with myself at POGs, could not re-read every Uncle Scrooge comic for the dozenth time when I was bored, I discovered that these weren’t true avocations; they were merely worthless collections. It was a hard lesson to learn, after years of leaf raking and boat bailing money spent, but its magnitude was valuable. I learned that a hobby is doing something you’re passionate about. That’s when I decided it was high time I hop on board something cutting edge. What better than the emerging world of CB Radio?

I was driving a 1993 Chevy Silverado at the time I got my hands on the CB device, and with the magnetic antenna atop the cab, I could hardly clear overpasses on the freeway. I knew nothing of this new and exciting universe except that truckers used them to communicate with one another while on the open road, and that “Breaker 1-9” meant, “I’m a CB user; listen to me!”

Gasoline was $1.26 a gallon back then, so I thought nothing of taking a leisurely highway drive to test out my new device. Flipping it on and landing the dial on Channel 1, I announced confidently into the handset, “Breaker 1-9, Breaker 1-9.” Smiling, I leaned back and waited for the fun to begin.

But begin it did not. I heard nothing. I surfed the channels, up to eighteen, and heard nary a peep from any gruff truck drivers or hardened highwaymen. With only three channels left to go, I glumly clicked to Channel 19. And suddenly, my speaker crackled to life.

hssssfff.. ppsshhhshh-shhsh–seen a flatbed two miles back, think I’ll turn a flip at the next one off and rig it up, over.”

tffshsh-tshhtshh-Roger that. Indiana plates? Drop it in Circle City. Over ‘n out.”

My eyes widened. I clutched the handset and engaged it, determined to infiltrate this underground community.

“Breaker 1-9, Breaker 1-9.” My voice shook slightly, and I silently cursed my unease.

Silence. After a few moments, I cleared my throat, furrowed my brow, and tried again.

“Breaker One Nine, this is.. Bazooka Joe.”

The speaker crackled magically again, and I listened intently. A chuckle through the airwaves.

“Go ahead, BJ.”

“Who’s this?”

“Ha! You hear that, Cue Ball? I think we got ourselves a bubblegummer! Hey BJ, this is California Quail. What’s your twenty?”

I’d choked. Here I was, swimming with the big fishes, in way over my head. I contemplated hanging up the handset and retreating into the infinite silence of the band, but something stupid and teenaged in me pleaded to redeem myself, to rectify this situation before all was lost.

“Twenty? Try forty, California Quail. I’ve been haulin ass all night long.”

That would surely be cryptic enough to throw them, right? After all, CB lingo was just a bunch of jibberish. Make up words so the cops can’t figure out you’re running dope and illegal immigrants inside your tow-behind. But California Quail was one bad mother.

“…Get the fuck off this channel, punk, or I’m gonna find you and bust your fucking windshield out with my goddamn fist.”

I dropped the handset like it was a hot iron in my puny, undeserving palm. I gulped, hard. Like that, in the blink of an eye, I’d gone from a CB enthusiast to a staunch opponent, on the straight and narrow. No more trouble for me, I thought as I lit a Camel to calm my nerves.

It was weeks later before my dad brought up my ill-fated hobby.

“That big antenna on top of your truck sure is an eye sore,” he lamented. “You using the thing at all?”

“Oh, all the time,” I lied. “In fact, just the other day, a fella warned us of a speed trap between here and Big Rapids. Saved me a ticket, for sure.”

“You were speeding that bad?” Dad inquired disapprovingly. He has a great propensity for trapping you into admitting guilt. “Not that bad,” I mumbled.

“Well anyway,” he pulled out a small, dog-eared book from his back pocket. “I found this in the work shop. You want it?”

Hot off the presses.

And suddenly, there it was: my key back into the world of CB radio. Just like that, I flipped from hardened skeptic to eager interloper once again.

“Whoa,” I proclaimed. “Thanks Pop!”

He smiled knowlingly, almost too knowlingly, but I paid no mind. I flipped off the PlayStation 2 and flopped down on my bed, disregarding my impending chemistry homework and instead began studying for life’s greatest test: Acceptance.

That weekend, while on my way to work in the next town over, I clicked on the squawk box and waited.

tsssss… fsfshhh- Alright then. Sounds like Big Bart’s first sergeant’s gonna have his balls in a vice tonight.”

Laughter on the band. Light-hearted commentary was underway; now was the perfect time for me to break into the convo.

“Bazooka Joe here keying the lollipop. Looks like a loose boardwalk for ya, Big Bart, just don’t be a Harvey Wallbanger doin’ a roger roller skate or you’ll be sure to feed the bears.”

Silence for a moment, then, “…Eh, yeah, Big Bart here. Who’d you say you was?”

I grinned. “Bazooka Joe, just keeping my nose between the ditches and Smokey out of my britches. Just callin out, County Mountie with a bubblegum machine up two clicks, so brush your teeth and comb your hair, and hide the Colorado cooler!”

Another voice chimed in then. “What the hell is this guy talking about?”

Big Bart: “Ship and cripes, I dunno. I think my channel’s breaking up. Catch you on the flip-flop, Strike Eagle.”

Strike Eagle: “Over and out.”

Amateurs, I thought to myself.

My interest in CB quickly waned when I couldn’t seem to find anyone competent enough to communicate, and most truck drivers I passed were talking on their cell phones without a box and ears rig in sight. It wasn’t until months later that I dug my CB Slang Handbook out of the glove box, and wondered how I hadn’t realized it before – it must have been from the early 1800s, it was so damn antiquated.

In the end, my dad was too embarrassed by the 6 foot antenna on the top of my truck that he removed all the gear without even asking me, hiding it deep within the garage. Something told me it just wasn’t right, him crushing my dreams like that, but I cared so little about it anymore. I think I was madly infatuated with a cheerleader and was having trouble concentrating.

“Hobbies are like doughnuts,” a really famous and smart celebrity recently told Us Weekly. “They’re pretty sweet, but they have a big hole in them. It’s finding the hobby hole that’s key. It’s sweet and solid.”

Well said, Matthew McConaughey. It truly is by your words I live.