One night in 1979 a couple of 14-year-olds were fishing for suckers in the CB radio waves and hooked a truck driver who didn’t have the brains to shut off or dial away. They called him names like “Jughole” and “Dogpiss” and asked disrespectful questions about “cousins’ clubs,” right up to the moment they heard a loud rumble through the bungalow walls, looked out the bedroom window, and saw an 18-wheeler stopped on the narrow suburban street, idling with its lights on. They shut off and ducked under a desk.
The kids didn’t give their names and had no handles. They’ve since given themselves handles; they still don’t use their names. Bad air can cause bad blood, and the air over the northwest side of Chicago is more charged than it used to be. Nighthawk’s still a stationary broadcaster. He can be traced through the signal to his own brick bungalow, where he has a tall antenna on the back part of the roof, a wife and a baby upstairs, and a 14-year-old’s dream room in the basement.
Nighthawk’s bar is well stocked, the TV gets the Playboy Channel, the computer’s screen saver scrolls the words “Pink Torpedo Sucks Cock,” and the big black amplifier hooked up to the CB is capable of pushing 900 watts of power through the night air. The CB radio looks like an eight-track stereo receiver, low-slung, boxed in imitation wood-grain with a silver panel, a channel dial, digital readout, and two green-lighted meters that measure the signal going out and the signal coming in. The microphone looks like the kind used by broadcasters in old movies, with a button on the neck that the other loudmouthed kid, the Pink Torpedo, is clicking on and off as he spins in a swivel chair. The Pink Torpedo’s 30 now. He’s got better pot, but otherwise he hasn’t changed much.
When Nighthawk cranks up the amplifier to the full 900 watts, the power generated is enough to light a fluorescent bulb at 100 feet. His voice crackles through appliances in his neighbors’ houses. The last time the Pink Torpedo needed a free place to live he went to Nighthawk’s, where he’d stay up all night, playing with the power. At six in the morning the neighbors would be getting up, fixing breakfast, and a voice would come screaming out of the microwave: “Ayyyy, it’s the Pink Torpedo.” There were complaints, which Nighthawk mostly ignored, but he’s moved and rarely keys up to the limit in his new place.
The TV shows two women rubbing some kind of oil on each other, and the Pink Torpedo’s flipping around the radio dial through all the channels, 1 to 40, when the sound of a woman’s voice stops him at channel 14. A male voice answers her. Nighthawk recognizes Sinbad, a guy they’ve fought over the air several times, usually with threats, never carried out, to meet up in the flesh. Pink Torpedo breaks in: “Who do you hear? Who do you hear now?”
“Who the fuck was that?”
“Hey Skinbad, you better get some Clearasil.”
“Get the fuck out of here.”
“Hey Skinbad, this is the Dermatologist.”
The woman says something that’s garbled in transmission, but Sinbad is mad. “I get you, you fuckin’ bum.” There’s silence for a few seconds.
“Oh, come on back to this dermatologist.”
The woman’s voice comes through the speaker, “I know that’s Bozo. Go to another channel Bozo.”
Sinbad chants, “Suck my balls, suck my balls,” and the channel goes to static. Pink Torpedo waits a full half minute, clicks on the microphone, and announces, “That’s one channel silenced by the Pink Torpedo.”
Nighthawk doesn’t need a license, didn’t have to join a service, and pays nothing but an electric bill to talk on the CB. Those talking from their cars pay even less. It’s local broadcasting, or it’s supposed to be, and the FCC stopped issuing broadcast licenses for CB in 1983. Ham radio operators, shortwave broadcasters, and practically anyone else on the radio has to get a license to talk, but CB is mostly unregulated. For some, the almost free speech on CB is a chance to make friendly conversation. Others like to play talk show host.
Virtually anyone can host their own local talk show on CB and gather up a couple hundred listeners, but in a nation of talkers it’s hard for one voice to be heard. Few hosts can hold a channel for long, not without power. With a big amplifier you can send your voice across the country or drown out every other talker for miles around. You can start fights and finish them as effectively as if you had a kill switch. But the Pink Torpedo makes himself heard by getting everyone else to shut up.
Back in the 70s there was a movie called Citizens Band. There was a song called “Convoy.” There was an oil and gas shortage, but citizens loaded up their cars with CBs, helping each other out with warnings about cops–“Smokey in a plain blue wrapper, good buddy. What’s your handle?” In 1977, after the craze had peaked, the FCC expanded the number of channels available on CB from 23 to 40. The talkers left are mostly men, and they’re just as likely to call each other “scumbag” as “good buddy.” There aren’t many women, and those who do get on the radio get a lot of attention.
Now that Nighthawk’s got the computer, he’s going to get on the Internet. “If someone like the Pink Torpedo starts messing with you, two talkers can move to the Net,” he says. “Troublemakers like him won’t be able to follow.”
Why not just get on the phone? You don’t give out your phone number over the CB. In fact, you try to keep all personal information to a minimum because anything you say there can and will be used against you. This is the redneck Internet. Your address isn’t in cyberspace–it’s in real space. The Pink Torpedo says he doesn’t worry about anybody tracking him to Nighthawk’s bungalow. “The Daychicken’s got a gun.”
He taunts on another channel, “Hey Skinbad, I know you’re out there,” but all he gets in return is someone saying over and over, as if afflicted with a self-indulgent form of echolalia, “You do what you got to do, what you got to do, what you got to do.” Pink Torpedo flips the channel and whistles the theme from Flipper.
Flipper is one of the older Polish women who use 35, but Nighthawk thinks Flipper might have died. Pink Torpedo whistles “Camptown Races,” and several people whistle back. Nighthawk says, “They’re not very intelligent out there–you can pretty much get them to do anything.”
“Give me enough airtime and I’ll rule the world,” claims Pink Torpedo, amid a background chorus whistling “doo-dah, doo-dah.”
Who’s out there to rule anymore? There’s Rockman, cruising an actual superhighway, running 20,000 watts from an amplifier in the trunk of his car. The FCC says 4 watts is legal, but very few observe the posted limit. Rockman pays in other ways. The amp in the trunk is connected to the radio in the dash by copper tubes planted between the vinyl ceiling and the metal roof of the car. The wires inside the tubes emit concentrated RF (radio frequency) rays a few inches above the top of Rockman’s head. The other guys on the radio say this is radiation, and that it’s burned off all of Rockman’s hair.
Rockman’s small-time compared to Monkeyman, though. Monkeyman runs 50,000 watts out of his car. (“That’s about as much as ‘CKG,” Nighthawk marvels.) If Rockman’s had all his hair nuked off, Monkeyman must have nothing left but a mouth by now.
Among the regulars, there’s a bunch of old guys like Papa Bear and Charlie Brown. Charlie Brown’s son, Rebel, has followed his dad to the air. Some of the younger guys are Oil Minister, Snapper, and Power Slave. They all get together off the air at times, and tonight is one of those times for Rebel, who walks in carrying a can of Diet Pepsi. “Hey,” he says, checking out the TV. “Playboy Channel, alright.” There are no women on the CB, but there are two on the television rubbing oil on each other’s nipples. “Nice.”
Rebel pops his soda, and Nighthawk asks, “Say, did Flipper die?” Rebel thinks for a moment. “No, Flipper isn’t dead, but some other old lady over on 35 cashed in. She’s . . . ” He stops suddenly, noticing that Pink Torpedo’s clicked the mike on. Rebel yells, “Oh shit, we’re on channel 35!”
Rebel estimates he’s been in about 70 or 80 fights that started on the radio and moved into reality. He also plays a friendly game called “Fox Hunt,” which usually involves 15 cars with two players each–one driver, one navigator–who search out a single car by tracing the broadcast signal. The navigator reads the meter, finds the direction in which the signal is strongest, and instructs the driver accordingly. “I’ve won more of these than anyone in Chicago,” Rebel claims. Pink Torpedo laughs at him.
“What are you laughing at?”
“I’m thinking about those 80 fights you got into and the 180 times you took off the other way.”
Several of the 40 channels are segregated according to occupation, age, or race. Truckers talk on 19, cabbies on 12 and 2; 15 and 22 are Spanish channels; 11 and 20 are black. “Only big white guys with power get out there,” says Nighthawk, who has the power, but rarely goes there anyway. Rebel says that whites have to sound black to get on 11 and 20, and no one there will talk to obvious fakes. He’s tried it a few times. The same is true on 14 and 16, where the young white guys talk, but no one can remember hearing any fake accents there besides the ones they do themselves. Channel 26, which is called a “skip channel,” is open to the whole country, and the waves on 40, called “sideband,” can reach across the ocean. Nighthawk has gone to Europe on 40, but it’s difficult to tune in. “There’s hillbillies on every channel,” he says.
Pink Torpedo’s on channel 22 yelling, “Hey, bonito!”
“No bonito, es Mosquito.”
“Hey, Mosquito, you better watch out. I’m the Swatter.”
“Who’s calling Mosquito?”
“You know, you better take that dick out of your mouth, you son of a bitch.”
“Ayyy, it’s yours. I’m using it for a toothpick.”
“It’s yours. I’m using it for a toothpick.”
Static. “Another channel silenced by the Pink Torpedo.”
Rebel starts bragging to Nighthawk. “You know Tommy’s bar on Belmont? They’ve got a big dance floor, and if you’ve got enough power you can come right through their amplifier. Me and Cobra King drive up to the front of the place, key up 1,600 watts, and I say, “Hey blondie, why don’t you come out here and blow me?’ All of a sudden we see all these fuckin’ blonds looking out the window. Then we go out back of the place and start going, “Uhhhh, bluhhhh.’ They turned the fuckin’ stereo off, so I start going, “Eee-aaa, eee-aaa,’ and I can still hear myself.
“But that wasn’t as good as the night we went by the Valuemart. They’ve got a security guard in the place, and a PA system. So we go by there at four in the morning, and you can see the guy dozing off in the window, and I go, “Hey!’ The security guard jumps up, grabs his gun. We take off, go around the block, come back an hour later, he’s snoozin’ again. I go, “Hey!’ He jumps out of his chair.”
While Rebel’s talking Pink Torpedo takes some of his Diet Pepsi. Rebel notices and yells, “Hey!”
He asks Nighthawk, “Can we turn the power up?” But Nighthawk says no because of the neighbors. “Damn, I wanted to fuck with some of these people.”
Pink Torpedo sings into the microphone: “Biddly doodly diddly doodly biddly doodly dee.”
“Biddly boodly diddly doodly biddly diddly die.”
“Shit, I should work for the FCC. I’m clearing everybody off.”
The FCC is not as dangerous as some of the talkers, but it’s a source of concern all the same. If you’re caught with too much broadcasting power, you lose the equipment and can get hit with a fine. Rebel mentions that the FCC has only one or two vans in the Chicago area these days. Duke, another regular, claims to have unscrambled their channel, so staying ahead of them is relatively simple. Just keep moving.
“Most of the stuff that happens when people are traced involves cutting antennas or fistfights,” Nighthawk says. “I’ve heard people threatening to set each other’s houses on fire, but I don’t think anyone’s actually done it. As far as someone getting killed goes . . . ”
A woman’s voice enters the room through the speaker, saying, “Tell him to go suck his dick.”
Pink Torpedo responds immediately, “Hey, Penny, I got a nickel for you.”
She doesn’t answer. “Say, “Hey Penny Rottencrotch,”‘ Nighthawk suggests.
“Hey Penny, sniff, sniff, sniff,” Pink Torpedo says. “Where’s Cinnamon?” he asks the empty air.
Cinnamon is Penny’s worst CB enemy. Their fights have entertained the guys many times. A man’s voice responds to Pink Torpedo’s query: “I’m surprised she’s not out on the network.”
“Me too. I got a taste for some Cinnamon buns right about now.”
“Me too, me too, 10-4.”
Cinnamon started on the radio ten years ago, when the only man she’d ever loved packed up and hit the road. His CB was all he left her. After the neighbors complained about receiving her transmissions through their appliances, especially late at night, she bought a set for her car. She spent a lot of nights sitting outside in the parked car with the CB on, but that wasn’t enough for the neighbors. She had to move.
She’s 38, but her voice sounds like a little girl’s, which makes her very popular with the guys. Sometimes she dates them. Cinnamon has a regular job delivering the mail, but she can usually be reached on the radio. She can’t shut up. That angers Penny, who’s about 19. She’s easy to find on the radio too. Cinnamon accuses Penny of being a welfare cheat, and says Penny’s boyfriend is a gangbanger. Penny calls Cinnamon a slut. Cinnamon calls Penny a slimy whore. The guys love them both.
“Cinnamon must be out on a date,” Nighthawk offers. Penny has been chased off the air by the Pink Torpedo. A woman on TV is getting oil rubbed on her ass by a man and another woman, but Pink Torpedo tells Rebel, “Hey, switch that to Beaver.”
“Leave It to Beaver, on Channel 26.”
“Oh no,” Rebel protests, but the Pink Torpedo leans over and turns the dial. Nighthawk’s command center is his for now, but it’s Nighthawk who suggests, “Let’s check out sideband.”
Due to its long range, the signal is weak on sideband, and the babble of voices bent by long waves sounds like robots talking gibberish. After a minute, a voice comes through fairly clear. It’s a Chicago voice, extra nasal, saying, “Why don’t you pack up that little Cobra radio of yours and go back to bed.”
Another voice comes on, deep but twisted, like the mayor of Munchkinland: “Why are we acknowledging the idiot anyway?”
Then a third voice comes on, that of the idiot: “OK, let’s go. You start with this fuckin’ shit . . . ”
He’s cut off by the first guy singing, “Let’s go out to the rodeo, to the rodeo, to the rodeo, Let’s go out to the rodeo . . . ”
The first guy’s cut off by the idiot again, who has keyed up his amplifier and is singing new words to the same tune. “Go fuck yourselves, go fuck yourselves, go fuck yourselves, go fuck yourselves, go fuck yourselves, go fuck yourselves, go fuck yourselves, fuck you, fuck you, fuck you, fuck you . . . ”
Pink Torpedo recognizes the voice and breaks in: “You can’t say “fuck’ on the radio.”
The idiot stops singing for a second to say, “You all suck cock.” Then he starts singing again, “Fuck you, fuck you . . . ”
“Biddly diddly boodly diddly.”
“You picked the wrong asshole to fuck with. You know what I’m gonna do? I’m not gonna let you talk tonight you stupid son of a bitch, so go fuck yourselves, go fuck yourselves, fuck youuuuu, fuck youuuuu . . . ”
The Pink Torpedo keys up and breaks in again. “Hey man, first of all, you admitted that you’re the asshole over there. But let’s face it, we’re all brothers. None of us got anything better to do on a Saturday night but sit here and mess with each other. So if anyone’s gonna fight, at least let me in on it. This is the Pink Torpedo, and I said it.” He clicks off for a second, then clicks back on, adding, “You bunch of losers.”
“You suck cock.”
“Oh Pink Taco . . . hey, where’d everybody go?”
“They all ran away because they all know that the Pink Torpedo is a little bit explosive at this point in time, Snapper. So this is the Pink Torpedo out to ride the waves, and I’ll be catching up with you later, so if you want to say “fuck you, fuck you, fuck you,’ beedeedee doo beebe. Say it all night long, but I’m not going to be listening.”
“My name’s not Snapper, my name is Pete. But I know what you’re talking about. Snapper’s a nice person. Listen, I don’t have a fight with you Pink Torpedo, but I come on here with these sons of bitches, and they tell me to go fuck myself. So I don’t think it’s wrong . . . ”
“I don’t think it’s wrong either, but I think you got a severe problem and I don’t think you’re gonna solve it on the radio or any other way. But I gave up my advice column a couple years ago, so I don’t want to get into it. But I gotta say you have a severe problem.” He pauses for a moment, then adds, “Don’t have nothing to do with your radio, though. You’re coming through, uh, loud and proud, righcheeo.”
“Thank you, Pink Torpedo. You’re a good person.”
“Righcheeo. Hugs, kisses, leg licks, butt rubs, and endless whispers in your CB ears. Righteo, Pink Torpedo over and gone, like a motherfucker.” He clicks off and listens to the waves reverberating, voiceless, across the country and maybe even all the way to Europe. He glances at the Beaver’s freckled face on the TV screen, then pushes the button on the microphone as he turns to Rebel and Nighthawk. “Another channel silenced by the Pink Torpedo.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Randy Tunnell.