First posted 2007/08/03.
by Erin Halfelven
We'd talked our parents into letting us put up a ham radio station. The Parkers had a stand-alone unused garage on the alley behind their house so that became our chosen radio hut and Tommy Parker and I had spent most of the summer working on the installation and earning money for the stuff we needed.
Back before cell phones and personal computers, a ham radio could put two kids in a small desert town in touch with the world like nothing else. We had big ideas and Mr. Mowbray, science teacher at our school, worked with us to help us keep things real.
We climbed up onto the roof for probably the thousandth time and checked all the wiring, the guys and the stays and the little triangular tower that lifted our antenna array thirty feet up above the garage roof. August is hot in the California desert but we didn't really notice since we'd grown up with it. Besides, we were too excited to notice anything as mundane as normal summer weather.
From the roof we could see across most of El Perdido, California, population thirteen thousand. Back in the forties, when my parents moved to California as kids, the town had just been a widespot on Route 66 with a gas station and a post office. By the late seventies, the freeway going in had made it possible for people to live in El Perdido and commute to work in San Bernardino, Riverside, or Ontario, or for the really masochistic, Los Angeles.
The Parkers were that sort of people. Tommy's dad, Nathan Parker, taught biochemistry at UCLA -- not just in Los Angeles but on the Westside. He had a government grant to investigate the effects of disco music on the absorption of pollution byproducts in piebald rats or something like that. Tommy's mom, Cynthia Parker-Valentine, worked as a Peon First Class, aka associate partner, in a big law firm in Pasadena. They were both gone a lot so Crystal Valentine, Tommy's aunt, lived with them and ran the household. Crystal was in her twenties and a bit of a flake, sort of a suburban hippie, but she was okay.
My folks seemed a lot more ordinary to me but some people might disagree. My dad, Lawrence Presley, had worked as a cowboy and even rode bulls in the rodeo for awhile but after serving in the Army as an M.P. he came back home and became a deputy sheriff. Later, he'd transfered to the Perdido Police Department and had just been promoted to captain, but effectively Chief since the real chief had taken disability and retired. The City Council had to meet and decide to make it official or hire someone to be Dad's boss.
My mom, Kate Sweet Presley, worked part-time as a librarian for the county but had once been a Country-Western singer. She sometimes joked about having married the wrong Presley. And yes, we're distantly related to Elvis so it's not just a coincidence that my first name, Aaron, is the same as Elvis's middle name. My middle name is the same as Mom's, which was her maiden name and the one she used onstage with her sister, Aunt Becky. Yes, my aunt is Rebecca Sweet, who sings all those corny ballads about drinking husbands who drive thirty-ton trucks into mountainsides. And my granddad is "Reverend" Eli Sweet, the hillbilly comedian who ran for president on the Moonshine Party Ticket in 1976. The funniest thing is, Granddad was born in Columbus, Ohio; the hillbilly accent is an act.
I used to get a lot of kidding about my name and my relatives but ignoring the stupider comments usually worked.
Tommy Parker and I had been friends since he and his folks had moved to El Perdido six years ago when we were in the third grade. We sat next to each other in class because of the alphabet, and one of our teachers had called us "two Ps in a pod." Tommy had all kinds of smart and I did okay in school so teachers tended to like us. We both played in the school band, saxaphone for me and trumpet for Tommy and we both sang in church choir. We were always doing something together.
So when we got the ham radio bug it turned into a big joint project. We put together a couple of Heath kits and when we tuned in Singapore, we were hooked. Our folks decided this was safer than motorcycles or girls at our age and helped us out a lot with gifts and advances on our allowances. We'd put a lot of work into our little radio hut.
The day had finally come to test everything. Our folks had bought the tower, Mr. Mowbray had contributed a lot of wire and solder and loaned us tools but the key piece of our installation was the big multi-band transceiver we'd put together. It looked enormous sitting on the work bench, chrome and black glass with dials all over it and wires sticking out of the back. We had two sets of headphones and one nice microphone and we couldn't wait to chat with our new friends in Sydney and Berlin.
But nothing worked.
"Hum, mmm," said Tommy. "That's all I get." I could hear him through the open side door of the converted garage.
I'd made another trip to the roof to check things out but all the connections seemed solid. "You ought to get something," I said, loud enough for him to hear.
"Yeah, but I don't."
"Try the CB channel or plain old AM?"
"I did, nothing but a hum," he said.
"Well, you've got power or you wouldn't have a hum and the antenna is connected." I tugged on the little tower and tested the main connections one more time. "Has the ground come loose?" Meaning the grounding wire supposedly connected to the plumbing in the garage.
"Oh," said Tommy.
I remember it distinctly. I had one hand on the frame of the antenna and the other on the wires coming up from the transceiver. I had unwrapped the insulation to check them and they were partially bare. This kind of radio doesn't normally have much current but you can get a shock from anything electrical.
Just as the music of a powerful Mexican AM station blared out, a jolt went through me. I'm sure my hair stood on end and my right arm went stiff and rigid, straight-arming me away from the tower and right off the roof. I fell onto some cardboard boxes and lumber we had made a pile of to be thrown away. Tommy heard me fall and rushed outside.
It knocked the wind out of me, I thought. I couldn't breathe. Tommy asked me if I were okay and I think I shook my head before I passed out.
* * *
When I came to, I thought Tommy was kissing me but he was doing CPR, breathing for me. My eyes got wide and when he pulled away to breathe in himself, I said, "Gosh, I didn't know you cared." Then I coughed right in his face.
He put his head down on my chest, I guess to listen for my heart. I took a couple of deep breaths and wondered if I'd been badly hurt. I ached all over, especially my head and my left hand felt burned.
Tommy straightened up and help up his hand, "How many fingers?"
"Three," I said, tempted to say something silly like, "Fingers?" Besides hurting, I just felt very strange.
Tommy sat back, then leaned forward to listen to my chest again.
"I'm okay," I said. I sounded weak though, or like I'd just been brought back from the edge of death or something.
"You scared the shit out of me," Tommy said, sitting back again. "You weren't breathing and I couldn't hear your heart." He looked scared, his face pale, his eyes wide and his hands trembled a bit.
"How long was I out?" I coughed again.
"Not even a minute; I'd just started breathing for you." He wiped his face; he'd been crying. I felt an amazing love for him in that moment. "I yelled at Cryssie to call 911. Can you...can you move your hands and feet?"
I tried and felt very relieved that I could. "Those boxes broke my fall; I didn't hit that hard. I think I'm just bruised."
"What the heck happened?"
"I don't know but it felt like 110 volt AC, straight house current. Have we got a short?"
"I'll look later," he said. "With rubber gloves on. Let me turn off power to the hut." He stood and went to the outside power box on the building.
Cryssie, Tommy's aunt who was only ten years older than us came out the back door of the house. "Were you guys yelling about something?" she asked.
Tommy rolled his eyes. "Yeah, Ronnie got shocked and fell off the roof." My name is Aaron but mostly I'm called Ronnie by friends and family.
Cryssie stared at me then looked up at the roof -- of the house -- then back at Tommy and me beside the radio hut fifty feet away. "How'd he get all the way over there?" she asked.
* * *
I got myself up and Cryssie drove us to the emergency room after a call to my mom who met us in the hospital driveway. After lots of fussing over me by Mom, and an examination by the emergency room doctor, they sent me home to rest. I didn't need to rest; I felt pretty good other than a nice set of bruises and the burn on my hand but it was easier to go along. After lying quietly in my room for a few minutes, I dropped right off to sleep.
I had a very weird dream. In the dream, Tommy kissed me again, but this time it was a real kiss. But that was okay because in the dream, I was a girl and I loved Tommy very much. This didn't seem at all strange but perfectly natural.
We were both older in the dream, old enough that Tommy had his driver's license. He came to my house and picked me up for a date. He looked so handsome. We went to the movies and saw a new Harrison Ford film about Nazis and hidden treasures. I had long hair to my shoulders and I wore a lavender dress and he kissed me at the door of my house when he brought me home.
When I woke up, I felt very confused. I knew I had been dreaming about having a date with Tommy but that didn't seem half so strange as the boy's room I woke up in with sports trophies on the shelves and pictures of jet planes on the walls and a model of the Millenium Falcon hanging from the ceiling.
I lay on the bed trying to think my way through it; had I dreamed I was a boy dreaming I was a girl? Nothing made sense.
I looked at the clock; I'd been asleep less than half an hour, it still was just past four in the afternoon. I lay there a while longer. When I finally felt awake enough to maybe get out of bed, I realized that I was a boy and had been one all my life. And that just felt so wrong that I started crying. I tried to be quiet about it but it hurt worse than the bruises or the burns. Tommy hadn't really kissed me and he never would.
After a bit I had to get up to find some tissue to dry my eyes and blow my nose. I went down the hall to the bathroom I shared with my brothers, washed my face and just stared at myself in the mirror.
Dave and Josh had summer jobs so they weren't home yet which was just as well since I shared a room with Josh and he would have been insufferable if he had seen me crying. Not that he wasn't insufferable in the ordinary course of things. Dave was 19 and in the fall, he'd be going away to college and I would be moving into his room. I looked forward to that now even more than I had in the past; sharing a room with my brother just seemed wrong.
I looked at my face in the mirror and thought about how I would look if I were a girl like I had dreamed of being. At only fourteen, I hadn't really hit puberty yet so I had no facial hair, and my voice hadn't changed. If I had longer hair with some styling, I thought I would make a cute girl. And that made me cry again because I realized that in maybe as little as a few months I might start changing, turning into a man.
How in the world would I be able to live with that?
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