Uh, breaker, breaker, this here's The Highroller comin' atcha on 95 North just past Rte. 50. Any Smokies ahead?"
"Hey, Highroller, this is The Big Bopper talkin', and you got a plain brown wrapper about five miles from your 10-20. Best ease up on that hammer or you'll be sleepin' in the slammer."
"10-4, that's a copy. 'Preciate it, Big Bopper. Have yourself a good one, ya hear?"
Okay, these aren't two astrophysicists chatting or a couple of career diplomats bantering, right? Wrong. Back in the mid-'70s -- when everybody in the U.S. of A. seemed to own a citizens' band radio -- just clicking on the microphone transformed otherwise sane people into Good Ol' Boys and Girls who suddenly began talking as if they'd been gargling with molasses.
I knew a proper Bostonian whose normal diction sounded as if he'd cut the inside of his mouth on a bottle but who -- when speaking as his CB persona (Codfish) -- said thangs lak shoot, how y'all doin', good buddy, and y'all have a nahs day, and may th' good Lawd bless yew and keep yew.
And didn't everybody have a CB handle? Rosalynn Carter led the way from the White House, signing on as First Mama as Americans happily metamorphosed into Foxy Lady, Dark Shadow, X-Rated, Wolfman, Yoda Toyota, Mr. Chips, Chewbacca and tens of millions of other aliases. How times change. Can you imagine Nancy Reagan (Dragon Lady?) schmoozing on Channel 19 with the truckers and four-wheelers?
I took to the airwaves back then using a battered hand-me-down 23-channel radio and the sobriquet Mr. Natural. My more dignified friends said it was a silly pastime, but maybe they'd never made a telephone out of two tin cans and some string when they were kids or had childhood dreams of owning a real walkie-talkie. Having a two-way radio was for me a fantasy fulfilled. Good clean fun. For about a month.
By then I had wearied of listening to the forced good-buddy treacle, the banal chatter of CB nerds discussing the size of their antennas and the racism and violently anti-female filth spewed out by sickies armed with microphones. Having a CB in my car was moderately useful in those days of gasoline shortages, but having to listen to low-fi garbage on the overcrowded Clown Band soon became boring and curiously demeaning.
I wasn't the only one to fall out of love. A decade ago CB was a billion-dollar business. The Federal Communications Commission issued 25 million class-D radio licenses between 1977 and 1982, and from 1974 to 1976 -- the peak of CB popularity -- 11 to 13 million radios were sold annually. But last year only 1.8 million units were sold, pulling in $62 million. And the FCC, which hasn't required licenses since 1983, estimates that only 14 million Americans are still active CBers.
Sure, it was a fad complete with its own music (a passel of godawful country ditties about puttin' the pedal to the metal) and folklore (the trucker as last frontiersman). For a time, it was the beginning of a national party line with patricians in air-conditioned BMWs rapping with peons in oil-burning Chevettes. But once they got past the novelty of mastering CB lingo, most people realized they didn't have that much to say to strangers after all.
The CB was also a victim of its own popularity. So many people blathered into mikes that getting a word in on the most popular frequencies, much less being sure anyone would respond to a distress message on emergency Channel 9, became a drag. The trend toward smaller cars -- in which clunky CBs wouldn't comfortably fit -- was yet another swipe at the craze.
The CB radio is still around -- alive, as one communications industry spokesman says, but not well. Yet many people (including me) are reconsidering putting CBs in their cars. Unless you can afford a cellular phone, a CB is still the cheapest way to get help and information while on the road -- particularly in the D.C. area.
That's because we're fortunate to have a small but active contingent of REACT (Radio Emergency Associated Communication Teams), an international organization of 750 teams of radio-linked volunteers. REACT members in the District and Montgomery, Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince George's counties constantly monitor Channel 9, report on traffic conditions and assist police by calling in sightings of drunk drivers, accidents and disabled vehicles.
REACT has only 175 members locally -- down from about 600 in the CB heyday -- but area police jurisdictions agree its impact outweighs the numbers. Let's say one night you're stranded on the Beltway. You own an inexpensive emergency CB, one of those $50 units you keep stowed in the trunk until you need it. You plug the cord into the cigarette lighter, slap the magnetic-base antenna onto the car roof and call for help on Channel 9. The odds are that a REACT member will hear your call and relay your location to the police.
(Inexpensive emergency CBs transmit reasonably well, but their magnetic antennas limit their ability to receive distant signals. If you use one to call for help, you may not be able to hear anyone acknowledge your plea. Continue to broadcast your location every 10 minutes until help arrives or you hear a response.)
Of course, REACT members aren't the only people listening to CBs and willing to come to your aid. (For information on National Capital REACT's activities, call 493-9588.) Other drivers, truckers (they, however, stay glued to Channel 19) and two major police departments also have their ears on. All Virginia and Maryland state police patrol cars are equipped with CBs, and officers routinely listen to Channel 9. The Maryland State Police also has CB units in the barracks, where they are monitored by dispatchers. Maryland troopers use their patrol cars as off-duty vehicles, which increases the chances your call will be heard. Both jurisdictions call CBs a valuable tool, one that increases their awareness and helps stop crime.
So having a CB in the Washington area is more attractive now than it was years ago. The channels aren't quite the zoo parade they once were, equipment prices are reasonable, and CB models have been considerably miniaturized. This time around, installing one under or in your dash won't make you feel as if you're piloting the starship Enterprise.
There are still problems -- interference caused by bozos blasting the spectrum with illegal linear amplifiers (the FCC investigated 1,000 cases last year) and the ubiquitous foulmouths who can make CBs unfit for family listening. Still, with the Beltway approaching gridlock and traffic tumultuous at best, it's comforting to know somebody's out there listening when we call for help. ::