Monday, November 15, 2010

Of Rubber Ducks and Englishmen

Today is the 82nd birthday of a fellow named Bill Fries.

Nearly a quarter of a century ago, he was elected mayor of a tiny town in southwest Colorado, and he served in that capacity for some six years. But that isn't his real claim to fame.

A little more than a decade before he became mayor of Ouray, Colo., in November 1975, Fries — who is more widely known as C.W. McCall — released a novelty recording, "Convoy," a half–spoken, half–sung homage to the citizens band (CB) radio fad, which reached its peak in popularity in the mid–1970s.

CBs had a reputation in those days as being the principal form of communication for truckers, but many were owned by private citizens. There was a definite subculture at the time of people who communicated from their homes with any truckers who happened to be passing through — and sometimes they developed relationships with people they "met" this way.

From time to time in the 1970s, I heard stories of truckers who frequently drove the same routes and became friendly with CB operators along those routes, communicating with them each time they went through.

CBs had kind of a mixed appeal, I guess. The language was kind of earthy and almost criminal, I guess, but it also had a lot of references to bears, which gave it kind of a Winnie the Pooh aura.

I don't know the actual release date of the song. Maybe it was released on Fries' 47th birthday. I guess it doesn't matter. Eventually, the song spent a week at the top of the pop charts and a month and a half at the top of the country charts.

I was just a young boy at the time, living in a state that was (and, I presume, still is) somewhat technologically challenged, but I had a friend who always seemed to be (and, apparently, still is) on the cutting edge of of technological advances.

And he had a CB radio.

I remember nights spent in his home or in mine, listening to his CB radio and, occasionally, listening to him to speak to other CB'ers. In hindsight, those CB'ers couldn't have been too far away because restrictions on wattage and antennas made it a short–distance form of communication at best, and any folks we spoke to on those nights must have been only a few miles from us.

But I always imagined them being far away — on an endless stretch of highway, perhaps, beneath a velvet night sky dotted with shimmering stars. I guess that image made it seem more magical to me.

Not that it wasn't already magical. The language of CB radio cast a spell all its own, and McCall capitalized on it in his song. Phrases like "That's a big 10–4, good buddy" were unbelievably popular in the 1970s — but, as a young boy in rural Arkansas, "good buddy" seemed, to me, to be not too far removed from the "good ole boy" label that was tossed around almost casually by many of the adults in my world.

I guess that made CBs more plausible for me in those days before cell phones.

And I suppose CB radios are still in use today, although they may not be quite as prevalent as they once were.

There are many more technological options available for both truckers and armchair communicators than there were in the 1970s, and my guess is that the groups who once communicated primarily by CB radio use a combination of them today.

I'm not really sure if that makes me feel more or less secure on the road.

I mean, in the days when drivers were talking about speed traps on CBs, they might have appeared to be speaking into dead air and listening to static–filled radio — but at least their eyes were on the road.

They weren't banging out text messages.

Of course, there might have been occasions when one of those truckers was so obsessed with finding the right CB channel that he failed to pay the proper attention to the road and wound up paying a price for it.

So I guess there are dangers in every era with every form of technology.

What is called for — both then and now — is at least a modicum of common sense.