That One About the Old Radio


I couldn’t pass up the old Bakelite radio. Because it wasn’t working, the dealer wanted next to nothing for it, and my father can fix anything — anything. The man can restore a car on his own — interior, body, engine, electrical, and paint. He can turn a tree into a piece of fine furniture. There’s nothing  my pops can’t do with tools, so I gave the man his five bucks and we headed back to my folks’ house.

We took the little radio down to his basement workshop and weaved our way through the power tools, car parts, old couches, and stacks of lumber. He made his way to the row of metal cabinets that he brought home from a business that was dumping them,  and then he dug through a basket of vacuum tubes.

When I was a little boy, my father was a repairman for a department store chain, the kind of guy who wore a uniform, drove a van and smiled while your chihuahua chewed on his trouser leg. The tubes were leftovers from those days, moved from house to house over a period of 35 years only to be entombed in the dark recesses of a salvaged cabinet until the next move.

Pop grabbed a tube, removed it from its box, and plugged it into the old radio. The vacuum tubes glowed and the little radio squawked to life.

“Well, there’s your problem,” he said, and he unplugged the tube and stuck it back in its box. “You just need to find you one of these tubes somewhere.”

“But you have one right there,” I said.

He stared at me for a moment, genuinely confused. “But if I give it to you, I won’t have it anymore,” he said.

That was the moment when I realized that my father was a hoarder.

Our house was always filled with things that people gave my handy father. If he could fix them he could have them, so we were awash in televisions, freezers, and whatever else you can think of. We even had a church organ in our living room for a few years.

I never thought anything of it. “Hoarding” wasn’t even a word that people used back then, opting for the more charming “pack rat.” Pack rats were frugal, practical –they saw value where others didn’t. It’s hard to argue with results; after all, my father had the radio tube I needed, if only he could bring himself to let go of it.

The next time I visited the old man wasn’t doing so well.  In fact, I was summoned back home because it looked like he might not survive a particularly nasty illness. I spent the day at the hospital, then drove back to my folks’ place to feed their pets.

I walked down to his workshop, which was even more packed with stuff than the last time. The sight of all the miscellaneous parts, hardware, and junk overwhelmed me.  I went outside to clear my head and noticed the shed behind their house — more stuff. Everywhere I looked, stuff.

There are moments in life that nobody prepares us for. We have plenty of models for deathbed grief — books, television, and movies have shown us for years how to handle that stuff.  There’s a script one can follow, at least mentally: here’s what end of life moments look like.

But there is no script for dealing with a parent’s mountain of stuff. He wasn’t even gone yet, and I was near panic at the thought of what to do with all of this stuff. It would never fit in my house, and I had no use for 98% of it anyway. On the other hand, he spent decades accumulating and caring for these things. Could I in good conscience call in a liquidator to take it all away?

Fortunately, I didn’t have to find out. My father’s health turned around rapidly, and he’s been humming a long like an old radio ever since.  And speaking of radios: Pops gave me that tube. He may be a hoarder, but he’s a pretty okay guy.

Categories: Memoir

3 replies »

  1. This reminds me of the time after my father passed away. My sister and I were at his house cleaning things out and getting rid of the junk. In the garage we found several old used radiator hoses that clearly had no useful purpose. I commented on this and my sister said that she had tried to throw those out a long time ago, but Dad insisted that they might come in handy some day. You never know when an emergency calls for a piece of brittle radiator hose. It’s hard to argue with the logic.

    On the other hand, I had been a comic book fanatic when I was young back in the late 50s and eventually accumulated a footlocker full. I had read them with care and they were in amazingly good condition the last time I saw them. Many years later I searched for them, mostly because they had become valuable and I had visions of selling them for big bucks. I found the footlocker in the garage and opened it eagerly, only to discover that at some point my father had thrown all of the comic books away. I guess he was selective about his hoarding.


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