SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
November 15, 2015

The Knight’s Head Radio

 

We moved to Green Bay from Upper Michigan in late December 1968, and I still remember the headlights of the little beige Corvair shining on the garage door of the single story brick duplex when we pulled into the driveway that first night. There was heavy snow on the ground and everything was glowing an eerie electric blue.

            I was three years old and maybe a little susceptible, but the moment my dad carried me into the new house I sensed immediately it was haunted. In a literal sense, yes, I knew those were just white sheets draped over the furniture in the living room, but to my mind they were ghosts, and only the first of many.

            Over the next six years in that little duplex, I was besieged by phantasies and visions, otherworldly apparitions of all kinds. There was the phantom in the long gray hooded cloak who lived under the basement stairs back around by the washer and dryer. Every time I was headed back up to the kitchen from the chilly, cement-floored basement I saw him out of the corner of my eye, sweeping out of the shadows beneath me and grabbing for my ankles. There was also the singing cowboy who lived in the closet in my room in and amongst the toys. I never actually saw him but I knew what he looked like. He was tall and gaunt and pale, dressed in a red cowboy shirt and white ten-gallon hat. Every few months in the middle of the night he would pull out his guitar and begin strumming some dreadful country western tune as I cowered under the blankets and cried until he went away again. There was the giant white wolf who would poke his head through my bedroom window on warm summer nights and look around. And of course there was that single, terrifying visit from Jesus. I moved through that house accompanied by all sorts of spirits of the ridiculous dead. I spent those six years scared to death and tickled at the same time. Loving horror movies as I did even at that age, it only seemed to make sense they would somehow bleed over into my daily life.

            Part of the problem, I think, was that my tiny, wood-paneled bedroom was on the other side of the house from my parents’ and sister’s rooms. I was very consciously isolated back there in the distant corner by the garage, with help, should I need it, a whole house away. Worse, I filled the room with things I loved, but which scared the shit out of me. There were all the monster models on the dresser (Godzilla, King Kong, Creature from the Black Lagoon, Phantom of the Opera), and the six-foot-tall glow-in-the-dark skeleton hanging on the back of my door. Even the embossed cardboard cutouts of astronauts and the Apollo Command Module which I’d pinned to the wall above my bed made me uneasy. The worst (and best) thing of all, though, was the radio.

            There were two things on the nightstand next to my bed. One was a small table lamp shaped like a young cowboy and painted in child-friendly pastels. Even at four or five I was a little embarrassed by it. Among all the monsters and astronauts it was an anomaly and I hated it, finding it childish and dumb. Thinking back only now I wonder if it was the spirit of that lamp, recognizing my hatred, that took the form of that singing cowboy in my closet.

            Next to the cowboy lamp was the radio. I have no idea where it came from, but I can’t remember a time when I didn’t have it. I’ve never seen anything like it before or since.

            I was a kid with a multitude of obsessions, one of them being the Middle Ages and Arthurian legends. I had books about knights, pictures of different suits of armor, and more toy knights than you can imagine, the centerpiece being an amazing and baffling play set called simply “Knights and Vikings”. In response to this, I’m guessing, my parents must’ve picked me up a radio in the shape of a knight’s helmet.

            It was an elaborately detailed piece of work made of brushed steel, complete with a visor you could raise and lower. Beautiful thing. It stood about five inches tall, but to my small hands it was still incredibly heavy. It was a simple AM job with two dials on the base—one to turn it on and control the volume, the other to tune it. There was no visible standard antenna, but it worked quite well in its own tinny, staticky way.

            Like the varied household ghosts, phantoms and otherworldly creatures who haunted me in that duplex, I both loved and feared that radio. For one thing, every time I flipped up the visor (which I did several times daily), I expected to find a human face hidden behind it—a sculpted metal face, but decidedly human, with steely eyes, a long, crooked nose, and a neatly-trimmed mustache and beard. That would have been fine. Instead what awaited me behind that visor was the featureless circular flat mesh of the speaker.

            Every time I saw it I was reminded of Yul Brynner’s faceless Gunslinger at the end of Westworld, or any number of other faceless evil robots I’d seen in the movies. Everyone knows that once you remove the human mask from an android, it automatically becomes an unstoppable killing machine. This was no gallant, stout-hearted knight of the Round Table, my radio—it was an evil armored robot out to kill me.

            I still left it on the nightstand, as much as it terrified me. Again, as with the other spirits plaguing me, every time I awoke in the morning without having been hacked to death by a killer robot knight, it was some kind of victory, same way it was a victory every time I made it back upstairs from the basement without the laundry room phantom dragging me back into the shadows.

            The facelessness was just the start of it, though. Beginning at age four or so, I started listening to the radio as I fell asleep at night. I think part of me figured the sound would hold the spirits at bay. If nothing else it would at least cover all the creaks and groans and footsteps and whisperings I heard all around me in the silence.

            As it turns out, listening to the radio only amplified my fears. The knight’s head radio didn’t pick up that many stations, so I settled on WDUZ, which at the time played Top Forty. I would’ve done much better sticking with static.

            See, Top Forty radio in the early Seventies was awash in songs deliberately designed, it seems, to scare the bejeezus out of little kids with overactive imaginations. There was Alice Cooper with songs like “No More Mr. Nice Guy” and “Welcome to My Nightmare.” Blue Oyster Cult had their big creepy hit with “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper.” Deep Purple’s stoner classic “Smoke on the Water” was, to my mind, a vision of Hell. That lovable Jim Stafford, who’d had a few gentle, lighthearted novelty pop hits came out with the mumbled and sinister ballad “Swamp Witch.” Even supposedly innocent songs, like Bowie’s “Fame,” and America’s “Sister Golden Hair” took on sinister overtones within that context. As I lay there praying for sleep, I became convinced the evil knight robot on my nightstand was actually singing all these terrifying songs in order to poison my mind before it killed me.

            To me, though, the king of paralyzing early Seventies pop hits was the Edgar Winter Group’s “Frankenstein.” Yes it was a psychedelic instrumental, but that made it all the worse because I was forced to make up my own story for which the song became the soundtrack. And given my susceptibility, the imaginary movie in my head (the initial plot was triggered by the song’s title but went way beyond that) became very, very real. Every time they hit that descending synth break in the middle of the song, I was absolutely convinced the aliens were landing in the backyard outside my bedroom window—so much so that I could see the intense flashing red and white lights on the walls all around me.

            I don’t know how much sleep I got in the six years we spent in that house. Not much, I’m guessing. Still and oddly, it was worth it. They were endlessly exciting times, and I loved that damn radio, though when we moved to the new house in the winter of 1975, I did replace it with a regular, boring old clock radio that wasn’t plotting to kill me.

 

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