Depending on how much time you’ve spent with me you might think I’m a perfectly normal person or I have the strangest existence you’ve ever heard of. I don’t think it was ever going to be a smooth ride. That’s ok.
I spent hours of my youth in isolation. I grew up in a small North Dakota town. (Frankly, there aren’t a lot of big ones.) Some people don’t get how rural this place is. I once spoke with a person who did not believe didn’t have a CVS in my town. I had to travel an hour and a half to get to the nearest McDonald’s, shopping mall, or movie theater.
My home was fifteen miles from town and my family wasn’t rich enough to afford either a car for me or gas money to just drive around. So during the week I primarily spent my time watching TV or listening to music alone in my room.
To hit the isolation grand slam, I began working at the local radio station early in high school. The whole deal worked out great for everyone because I loved the job and the management scheduled me for the shifts no one else wanted to take. I worked weekend mornings as a DJ.
Being completely honest, I don’t know how other radio stations work. This was a public station. It was very local and poorly run. It was a variety station. The control board looked like it was something left over from the seventies, all knobs and switches. I once had a guy take pictures to show his friends what we were still using. Hell, they had a 15 year old running the place, by himself, 24 hours a week.
For the most part, I was completely alone for those hours. Sometimes my mom might bring me food. Every now and then there might be an alarm that went off and I didn’t know how to handle it. I was instructed to call John if that ever happened.
John was a really smart guy. I think he should have been doing much more with his life than spinning CDs Monday through Thursday evenings. Thankfully he lived only about five minutes away from the radio station.
On a Sunday afternoon near the end of my shift one of the alarms began buzzing. I looked to this big black metal box we had sitting in the corner of the studio that held all of our really technical stuff. Sure enough, there was a little red light on. I turned a knob on the control board to hear what would be heard on anyone else’s radio: static.
I went to the box, which also displayed our broadcasting license and phone numbers for all the staff, and found John’s number. I called him up and he agreed to be there in a few minutes.
When he showed up he looked at the light, hit a button, and the constant “eeeeeeeee” sound ceased. Without saying anything he went to work.
As I said before, John was a bright guy. So his “conversations” were pretty advanced. It was hard to keep up with as a fifteen year old. He had an unusual voice. It was very monotone with the tiniest bit of a rasp in it. He would often begin talking about a subject for minutes at a time without allowing you to respond. I once, honest to God, became hypnotized when he was talking about the difference between different types of formats of photographs you could use on a computer. I don’t know how long it was but I suddenly realized I hadn’t been thinking for some time. However, I thought he was a good guy and always tried to engage in the conversation when he began one.
Today John reached down into his tool bag, pulled out a flathead screwdriver, and got to work without a word.
There was less than an hour left of my shift and with the station off air I decided to start cleaning up. I put away the CDs, a couple cassettes, and, showing how out of date the radio station was, a tape reel.
It seemed John was waiting for me to finish cleaning because the moment I sat down again he spoke.
“Do you want to hear something cool?” John smiled.
“Yeah, of course.”
John always showed me ins and outs of the equipment I didn’t know. He also taught me a lot about public radio policy. I was eager to learn more.
John reached into his tools and pulled out a precision screwdriver. He looked into the panel he’d opened and poked around inside. The static that had been playing over the speakers stopped.
“Are we back on air?” I asked, getting ready to resume programming.
He shook his head vigorously. “No, no, no, no, no.”
“It sounds like it’s dead air,” I said.
He ignored my statement.
“The way things work here is that we play music, this box here,” he motioned to a slim gray box set into the large black box. “This box is a microwave transmitter. There is a receiver at the transmitter building, where the tower is. That box takes it and broadcasts it through big transmitter that everyone hears in their cars.” He was still turned toward the open panel, both hands inside, working on something.
“When you turn the monitor knob to auxiliary you’re switching the speakers to a radio I have hooked up in the back. It’s a receiver. But designed my own receiver a while back and I like to play around with it now and then and I found this.”
John pulled his hands from the panel and held them up as though he had just stacked building blocks in an intricate way and didn’t want his own interference to cause them to fall.
The speakers in the studio hissed. A low rumble entered the studio.
“Turn it up,” he said, grinning.
I did so and heard my nightmares for the rest of my life.
Tens of thousands of screaming souls at the height of pain roared in my ears. Men and women, all of distinct voices and ages, wailed and howled. It sounded like the agony of thousands of animals caught in traps from which they could never free themselves.
My mind went to the place where they all were. It was not a sea of human forms in a lake of fire. They were souls. Amorphous and immaterial, they were shattered and torn and scalded in the dark light of magma. Every time a piece of a soul was lost to the heat, more grew. There was always enough of the soul to remain tortured.
In my mind the screams grew louder and indistinguishable from one to the next. It was the sound of all of humanity screaming at once, as one. The entire chorus remained on the same note until my mind refused anymore input.
I don’t know how long I had been listening. It could have been seconds or minutes but when I opened my eyes my body began breathing again. I felt lightheaded, my vision unfocused and I involuntarily leaned forward as I gasped for breath.
John stood by the black box. He grinned like he was watching a novice get high for the first time.
“I had to kill the receiver,” he uttered in his monotone voice. “You were doing some pretty weird stuff.”
I managed to catch my breath just enough to half-yell “Where in the hell was I?”
“I think you just answered your own question.”
“I hate you, John.”