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Close Encounters with Science: Picks

The Crystal Set by Edythe Anstey Hanen

It was an infinitesimal spark, a glittering shard of light from somewhere in the Universe. It was a moment that burst my small world open and ignited my imagination like a shooting star.

This thing. A rough-edged piece of quartz-like glass about the size of a quarter; a thin copper wire that was attached to a small earpiece that my brother put into my ear. It was a crystal set, he said. A radio.

Under those steep sloped ceilings of my childhood bedroom new worlds bloomed and my heart took flight. Cowboy music from a Winnipeg radio station: Come and sit by my side if you love me; /Do not hasten to bid me adieu,/ But remember the Red River Valley, /And the girl that has loved you so true. The music was thin and tinny, sounded as though it came from far, far away. But from that tiny piece of magic, possibilities that I had never dreamed of exploded inside my head.

Though it was 1958, I had never listened to a radio, seen a television program or sat in a movie theatre. Dancing was forbidden. Pleasure was a certain road to hell. 

The world beyond the fortress of our life was a dangerous place. Our home was an ark sheltering us from the storms of life and its walls did not let such things in. My father’s faith guided us. He was the captain of the ship and he steered us through life’s narrow gorge, avoiding at all cost the dangers that lurked on perilous and ungodly shores.

My father could never know about my brother’s discovery. Though he was below us, sitting in his chair reading his Bible, our childhood room hummed with his presence. Night prayers. Kneeling in the cold dark. Making promises, bargaining with God.

The crystal set was the devil’s business.

But the music. It took me to a place of other: cowboy country, a glorious untethered freedom. A life big and wide and open that held choices I couldn’t have begun to imagine then. A place I had not yet found for myself. I lived my small life the only way I could: within the rigid confines of my parents’ authority. Raised in a world of religious fervour, my brother and I wore our parents’ faith like a hidden wound and carried it with shame.

The years drifted by. My brother and I left home and cobbled together lives of our own. Discovered not only radio but television, dances, music, movies. And we wondered: to what avail was this dedication to delivering us from evil? Still the rains threatened, the floods came, the boat sank.

But the memory of that little crystal set and the places it took me is alive in my bones, sings in my blood, even now. As does that first small childhood moment that lit up my Universe under those narrow sloped ceilings of my childhood home, and one day set me free.


Edythe Anstey Hanen is from Bowen Island, BC

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