Hit Parades and Overcoming a Gambling Problem
As time went by, my projects advanced from simple radio and amplifier circuits to a transmitter, which I successfully wired to my record player. Soon rock n’ roll music of the late fifties was broadcast on the AM band. The radio waves easily penetrated the walls of our apartment building. Fortunately, the transmitter signal provided radio reception only up to a hundred meters or so. Otherwise, sooner or later, I would have been caught for operating a radio station without a license. The fun lasted until my friends were getting tired of listening to the same old records. Most of the used records were coming in as presents, but occasionally I bought one myself from my pocket-money. For my 16th birthday, my friends Hans, Rainer and others gave me the latest single hits in the very popular 45-rpm format of those days. Throwing the records including the old ones onto one pile, we selected randomly one and played it. Each of us was to give a score on a scale from one to ten according to our likes and dislikes. When all the records were played and evaluated, we averaged out the scores and thus determined the five top songs. To finish off the party, we listened one more time to the five winning hits. I must not forget that by now we boys were considered ‘semi-adults’ (Halbstarke – meaning literally half strong). To ease us gently into the domain of responsible drinking, Mother in her wisdom served us each one glass of white wine and thus enhanced the merry atmosphere we created with our pop music.
The Allure of Gambling – Photo Credit: basicblackjack.org
Just as there are many good qualities in the human character that wait to be fostered and developed, there are just as many vices lurking deep inside us. They may never surface and may go unnoticed for an entire lifetime. But when the right occasion arises, they pounce on you with sudden force and threaten to enslave you. One of these vices that I had to deal with was gambling. Some of my classmates – not my friends who generally had little money to spare – invited me to join them in one of their favorite restaurants to play ‘Seventeen plus Four’, a variation of the American casino card game ‘Black Jack’. Whether it was good luck that enticed me to keep playing or the crafty design on the part of my classmates, I cannot ascertain. But the fact was that I won most of my early games with relatively low bets on the table. Suddenly the intoxicating feeling that all compulsive gamblers know so well rushed through my veins prompting me to put my entire monthly allowance on the table. I felt quite smug about the two tens on my hand and enjoyed for a brief moment the admiring glances and remarks of the other players who had wisely dropped out of the game. The dealer’s hand was a ten and a seven. He pulled another card from the stack. It was a four and I lost. I tried to keep a straight face; yet I smarted from the painful loss of five marks. One classmate offered me a lit cigarette, which I accepted in the hope that it would calm me down. I took one puff. That was enough to make me instantly sick. Body and soul were violently rebelling against the noxious fumes. My face turned pallid green. I got up and on wobbly legs walked out of the restaurant in search of fresh air and recovery from the double whammy on my health and wallet. In hindsight this was a good experience for me, because I never smoked nor did I gamble for money again.
Tinkering with Radios – Early Learning in Electronics
One of the ‘little piglets’ from our schoolyard games was Hans. He belonged to the so-called Ancient Language branch of the high school program with ancient Greek and Hebrew in addition to Latin as part of the prescribed curriculum. He was one of my closest friends. He excelled in every subject and later on graduated with the highest average mark the school had not seen for many years. In contrast to the rest of us he did not have to work in order to achieve such fame and glory. Barely an hour after school while I was still laboring over a math problem or hastily finishing a Latin translation, Hans stood two stories below on the sidewalk and whistled our secret code tune by which we recognized each others’ presence. He held an electronic kit under his arm and waited to be let into the apartment building. By this arrangement he did not have to ring the bell and disturb Mother in her sacred afternoon nap.
We spread out all the electronic parts needed for the next experiment on the kitchen table, studied and discussed the instructions in the voluminous manual, and then went ahead with the experiment of the day. After several weeks we have come to the last and most demanding project in the kit, the building of our first radio. Unlike today’s kits with their ready-made plug-in parts, ours was primitive. We had to wind our own coils on cardboard spools, which we procured from the empty rolls of toilet paper. We scraped the lacquer off the copper wire to make the ends conductive. But most challenging of all was the endless tinkering with the crystal that served as a diode that even then would have been available in electronic hobby shops in the big cities for as little as a dime. To make a long story short, we never got the radio to work no matter how hard we tried. But what we gained instead was far more valuable, a meaningful friendship and companionship that lasted until we lost track of each other when I immigrated to Canada. As for me, I had just added another fascinating hobby that engendered a passion for the world of electronics, a field that on a number of occasions promoted personal and professional growth and almost became a life-long career and had certainly – no maybe in this case – an all important impact on the direction that the trail of my personal life would take me.
Hartmut on our Balcony
Quite early into my adolescent years Mother and Aunt Mieze decided to pay me a monthly allowance the equivalent of about ten dollars in today’s buying power. The purpose of this generous plan was to teach me to handle money in a responsible manner. Indeed I quickly learned to save money only for more valuable items rather than to spend them on candies and ice cream. Typically my first purchases were books on electronic circuits and theory. Then I spent a few marks on discarded unrepairable radios, which the local radio and TV stores wanted to get rid of. It did not take me very long to have in my possession one of the fancier American models, which even had a so-called magic eye indicating the strength of the tuned-in radio station. Aunt Mieze, always prim and proper with rules and regulations, promptly registered the radio, which with a little bit of tinkering was working very well. She paid the monthly fee at the Post Office, at the time in charge of licensing the use of radio and television reception. Unfortunately, only a few weeks later, she had to cancel the subscription, because of the ‘improvements’ I had made to the radio. After another debacle resulting from obsessive tinkering, Aunt Mieze had enough and bought a very fine Grundig radio with FM, which was placed safely out of my reach in her room. One day a promotional LP from a record company arrived in the mail. Of course, now I had to have a record player. I pestered the three electronic store owners in town, until one of them let me have an old broken-down record player without amplifier and loudspeaker. I played the record and listened to the faint, but quite audible sound of the Hallelujah Chorus from Händel’s Messiah. To make the music louder I took an empty open cocoa can, attached a record needle near the bottom and the entire contraption to the take-up arm of the record player. The sound of the classical music was now considerably louder, but also tinny and unpleasant to listen to. So this prompted me to build my own amplifier complete with volume control from the leftover parts of all my ‘improvement’ projects. My friend Hartmut was impressed, except that he did not like the Hallelujah Chorus, with which I greeted him each time he dropped in to borrow some money to go to the movies.