Tell Me Something Good — ARROWSMITH (2023)

by Jacki Lyden

“There’s a saying, you know, they aren’t making any more, but that’s what you got, what the Good Lord put here. And that’s all there’s going to be. You can’t make it. And if this farm is ever tore up, I hope I’m either dead or a hundred thousand miles away from here. I don’t never want to come back."

— Farmer J. George Smith,
August 1980, Waukesha County, Wisconsin

For a long time, I talked on the radio. I talked, and I listened. I held a microphone in my hand, in the air, or I spoke into the air over a microphone, and the world seemed to be on the other side of it. This was how I knew the shimmering universe, with my instrument, and that was how I knew myself, as if the microphone were the road I was born on, or a flute that sang the world’s stories. A flute given to me by the gods to hold against strife (in reality, by an idiosyncratic NPR quartermaster hunkered down in a basement.) My destiny, I thought, would be the secrets this flute could convert like music, the world’s speech, the cries and joys and confessions of my fellow human beings. My intimacies would be the conversations I held, with you and yours, as if we were all souls created on the lyres of our voices. I would be, in some ancient Celtic tradition, a story carrier. And this, I was. I roamed from the Midwest to the Middle East, from farms in Nebraska and Iowa to ancient caves and villages in the regions of Northern Mesopotamia, Israel, Kurdistan, Palestine. I told stories on the Mississippi River, and from the catacombs of Paris, and from canoes in Wisconsin and under bridges in Nashville, amid refuse and empty liquor bottles and waste of all kinds. If it was there, whatever it was, I stepped in it.

And so, by the way of all this, from long ago things that still hum in the air, I was made a human being from the words of other peoples’ stories and passions: a glimmer of energy, a burst of light, a cataclysm which coruscates and scars, as the stories themselves are made, breath to breath. Or gasp to gasp.

The truth is there are always shadows around a story.

The time came when the flute’s magic was taken away, and I was sent back to those shadows, and I heard my voice in the air grow fainter and then vanish. And as it did, I felt the voice of my heart stop. It would be a long time before I found it again. And I wondered if the people in my baskets of stories would tumble back to Earth from the air.


The first intimation I ever had of my own words being powerful on the air came when I heard them, by way of a radio transmitter tower I could actually see, and still do, standing resolute on Lapham Peak a mile-and-a-half away. It’s a sonic and spiritual loop between Lapham Peak and me, most vivid when the tower’s lights remind me of the urgency of human existence. The peak is the tallest around, 1233 feet high, a thrust of glacial topography known as the Kettle Moraine, formed in the last Ice Age 15,000 years ago in Southeastern Wisconsin. In my county, the moraines rise above the southern shores of our lake, a lake the Ho-Chunk named before the Whites were ever here. Their words remain in the air: Neg-e-wecka, which means,there is sand there. At night our lake of language is mirrored in clouds and darkness, ringed in tamarack and oak forest, and instead of native campfires; pulsing lights bisect the sky. The radio tower is my last gaze into darkness before I put the world away, a vivid reassurance that the words and I are both alive. It is not the merest exaggeration to say that from my beginning on these shores, radio waves were in my blood. Public radio. The tower belongs to WHAD, the “D” being Delafield, Wisconsin, 90.7FM. My hometown. It transmits the WHA public radio signal—one of the oldest in the country -- from Madison to Eastern Dane county, to Jefferson and Waukesha Counties, east to Milwaukee, across Lake Michigan and up to Mars. The WHAD transmitter has stood there since 1948, a century after Wisconsin became a state, and a half dozen years before I was born.

Sometimes, the tower has one omniscient Cyclopean blinking red eye at the Negewecka’s southern vista. Off, on, on, off, reminding me of Jay Gatsby’s green light, as if this orb too glows for circumference, for possibility. Other times the tower lights are dazzling white and flowered, doubling, a pair of spangles sparkling on the horizon like a fallen star. Breathe in, breathe out. Gather a story before it’s gone.

That was my job for 34 years. Gather a story before I’m gone, memento mori.

Public radio stations, many of them, were established to give farmers weather reports and time checks in the fields, and later, to teach their children human inquiry. Even today, Madison’s WHA, founded in 1917, is known as The Ideas Network. One of its former engineers was a farm boy who listened to it from a two-room schoolhouse near Madison, Wisconsin. He would later go on to invent the program,All Things Considered, and still later, “Fresh Air.” His name is Bill Siemering, and in his case, he lived only a half-mile from the WHAD tower, whereas I lived almost two miles from the WHAD tower, so he is even more deeply imbued with radio waves than I. In 1969, he wrote NPR’s original mission statement at his kitchen table in Buffalo, on a yellow legal pad. It begins, “National Public Radio will serve the individual, it will promote personal growth, it will regard the individual differences with respect and joy, rather than derision and hate,” cancers from which America has yet to find a cure. But Siemering tried. His opus ends two pages later, with the sentence: “We are curious, complex individuals, who are looking for some understanding, meaning, and joy in the human experience.”

And those were words I tried to live by for the entire time I was on the air.

“I was broadcasting seeds, “ he told me, “throwing them sometimes by hand, behind the tractor as a teenager. And later, broadcasting ideas.”

We both listened, in our childhood classrooms, to “School of the Air,” a daily offering of exercises and talks on nature, science, history, music and books for children. I listened at Cushing Elementary, named for the civil war hero born in 1841 in my hometown, Captain Alonzo Cushing, who defeated the rebels at the battle of Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg. He died in the saddle, and 150 years later, received the medal of valor. My friend Margaret Zerwekh helped him get that, posthumously of course. Another childhood friend, Carol Held, lived on a remnant of Cushing’s old farm, and she’d ride her horse bareback up and down our lane to pick me up. If we just had a saddle, I said one day, we could go all the way to Lapham Peak and check the tower out.

We never did. But it came to us.

Radio waves have mass in them. Electro-magnetic energy. And it was this energy which took me the world over, concocting an alchemy of wonder even when I was just sitting at my second-grade school desk and letting my imagination wander off.Listening meant I’d traveled far into some other galaxy, spirited to the cosmos without ever leaving Delafield, Wisconsin, which I thought was the most beautiful place on Earth, and still do. The best thing about “School of the Air,” the most magical thing, was that once a week, on Friday mornings,its program “Let’s Write” came on, which included writing tips and a prized essay contest for school children. “Let’s Write” opened over an enthralling arpeggio of notes, which I learned was “Flight of the Bumblebee”, by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Of course, I didn’t know the composer’s name at the time. “Flight of the Bumblebee” is one of the most recognizable pieces of music in history, from “The Tale of the Tsar Saltan,” an opera written in 1899 to celebrate Alexander Pushkin’s 100th birthday. Ignorant of this fact, I sensed only the crazy chaotic momentum of the music, smitten with the way it mimicked the buzzy little bee loose in the world, just like I wanted to be, a perfect metaphor for our teeming brains. And then came the moment the female host would say, “OK children, Let’s Write.”

And off we’d go! I couldn’t get my pencil down fast enough. I was an early, eager voracious writer. I’d known how to read since kindergarten and wanted to learn to read long before that, frustrated by all the indecipherable squiggles around me, the secret language of adults. When no one had time to teach me, (“you’ll have to wait for first grade,” a century away) I scribbled with a pencil and made up the stories, which I’d then demand an adult listen to while I read to them. My usual target was the old lady down the street, Mrs. Fritz. After showing her my scribbles and telling her it was about Peter Rabbit and the bad tomato, which gave him a tummy-ache his mother cured with lettuce, we’d hippity-hop to the barbershop to buy a piece of candy. (The barber shop is still there.) But by first grade, I’d learned the alphabet from books, and that scribbling was old stuff. Like my classmates, I wrote on specially ruled paper, fit for a princess. It was magnificent paper which had a lot of pulp in it, like newsprint, with ruled red and blue lines neatly channeled with wide space between them—a dotted blue line, writing paper designedjust for me.Just for kids, anyway.We could make our own newspapers now! (Which I did, and called it The Family News, and ran off on a purple-ink filled mimeograph, distributed on our road with my mother, when I was seven. I made it look like a newspaper, a one-sheet and filled in the boxes with stories of lost turtles, sinking boats, and elaborate tea parties.) Wide spaces, small hands, and big fat pencils—you’d have to recall that paper if you’re a certain age. You can change the world with a pencil and paper. All you have to do is write.

Are you ready students? Then, like, a pistol shot. I held my number 2 graphite lead pencil aloft.

Let’s Write!” the announcer said, through the loudspeaker high up on the classroom wall, “Let’s Write,” in the sunniest, most tempting Glinda Good Witch of the North voice. By second grade, we’d learned cursive handwriting.

Years later I’d hold mypencil just beyond the microphone in the studio. This was so that in tonality, I put my voice in the listener’s ear.A pencil, a pen: in other words, the sacred writing instrument was not only a wand but represented a listener, sitting about a foot away from my voice, with big ears. This little pencil-coach and I could do anything together. Whether holding a writing instrument works to warm up other announcers speaking into a live broadcast microphone, in a studio, I don’t know. Maybe nobody gives a damn about holding that pencil in place any longer. I got the tip from a rock star deejay I worked with in Chicago named Art Roberts, who introduced the Beatles in Chicago. I’d become his producer—the producer of his repartee, which I wrote. He picked the songs. Art always held a pencil. Art’s style was rambling, honeyed and warm, something as Ring Lardner once wrote of a look, “you could pour on a waffle.” He was short, with big hair. Art knew Frank Sinatra, whom he’d interviewed. He spoke some Cajun French and could do any accent conceivable. He brought rock and roll to generations of Midwest teens at WLS and was working with me at its NBC sister, WKQX-FM, or Q-101, ensconced in the glorious Merchandise Mart, where I could scarcely believe 25-year-old me had graduated after Westinghouse. And he thought I should be on the radio, too.

Art gave me an excerpt fromHamlet, to be read aloud to him. Act III, Scene II, when the Prince exhorts his players in their “dumb show” to re-enact his father’s murder:Speak the speech, I pray you, as I announced it to you, trippingly on the tongue. But if you mouth it, as many of your players do, I had as lief the town-crier spoke my lines. Hamletalso encourages the players toacquire and beget a temperance which may give it smoothness.

I went on the air myself, on a day when my mother had disappeared.The morning before my first live radio stint, mygrandmother phoned, weeping, saying the Wisconsin State Highway Patrol had just called her to say, “You’re daughter’s dead.” While the breath drained out of me, her next words were, “cracked up out on the highway like hickory nuts."

The hickory nut game was a tipoff; it's what Sarah and Kate and I did with them, before picking out the white nutmeat. Was it a woman who called you? I said.

“Yes,” she said.

"That was Mom, Granny," I said. "Playing a game with you."

That same day,my mother published her own obituary in a local newspaper. She said she was deeply missed. And missing, she certainly was. That first night I was on the air, on a Sunday night for two hours between 10 p.m. and midnight, I pretended she might hear the sound of my voice. Talk to them, Art said. The guy getting ready to go on a date. The new mother rocking a baby. I was solo, in a public affairs show called Backtalk. (Or, as I referred to it, Backslap.) It reached the entire Chicagoland metro area, quite a job for a 25-year-old woman with no experience, but no one else wanted to do it. They wanted me to make it “just like All Things Considered.” At Backtalk, I was the producer, editor, program host, and chief booker. I worked seven days a week for a year, and then the news director took it over and I got a severance check. In not very many months, Art got fired, a radio gypsy who could not outdo his former glory. A lesson, perhaps, I should have paid more attention to.

Holding my pencil, at least for me, gives things smoothness, made a broadcaster like me feel more intimate and connected. That pencil, a mythic foot beyond the microphone, lets me hang on to a liferaft whenever the radio studio feels like a dark and lonely place, pitching about on high seas. People are dying out there, after all, Art would say. They’ve got heartbreak. They’re in crisis. We have to stay calm. Measured. Speak the speech.Smoothness. Unshakeable, even if we’re emotionally naked. My little mast. I write with a pencil still: a Blackwing 620, if I have it, and anything sharp if I don't, hardly ever a pen, because I want the graphite. I prefer to be in the coal face, as it were. In the coal face, in Irish terms, means there’s no substitution for the gritty work, you must be the real thing and make the deadline happen even under pressure.

Radio was in the coal face.

At Cushing Elementary, though,I wasthe listener. My pencil was not yet a person, though it may have been a magic wand. Then came the day, the most incredible day, when WHAD announced that the contest winner whose essay they were going to read was a writer who’d written a story about Johnny Appleseed. The writer chose for her “historical character” a man from a song she frequently sang with her mother, from a record they played together. “He was a friend, in time of need, his name was Johnny Appleseed. And he planted appleseeds everywhere. For all to share.” The writer listed all the things she knew about the apple, from Eve to Pie, to her Czech step-grandfather’s apple strudel, and mentioned that the pioneers planted appleseeds, and shared apple pie with the Indians, a fact she wholly made up.

That story, they said, was by Jacki Lyden, ofDelafield, Wisconsin.

And then I knew who I was, this Johnny Appleseed chronicler. I was a writer who wrote words for “School of the Air.”

But the radio was not only a thing of magic. It was science. And the WHAD is my campanile even today, especially after moonrise. I set the coffee to brew for the next morning and put the dog out one last time and close down the house for sleep. I stare at the Red Blinking Eye of the WHAD transmitter. Words sail over me, somewhere even above the spring and fall migrations. Though other times, I am certain I have heard voices in the air, and I tell myself, there can only be the geese or sandhills you’d be hearing, Jacki. I’m upended by the eeriness of it, because more than once, even when I know better, I could swear they’re calling my name. The Tower Eye opens and closes and blinks and glows with an infinitude of words which circle through my being. Lapham Peak’s power is such that I wonder if there isn’t a layline beneath it, on which I and many others walk. Named for Increase Lapham, a naturalist who founded what became the National Weather Service, which became the National Ocean and Aeronautics Association, which became NOAA, which is only blocks from the home I share with my husband when I’m out East. A layline. Or a songline, if you want to put it that way.

Speaking right now, however, on this page is that story I must write down before it vanishes. The light blinks on, it blinks off; the tower looms. Nothing of voices seems ever to leave me. I hear them in the glint I see on the water, a glint I see everywhere, those magnetic waves of mine. Or maybe, that’s just the Canadian geese out there, calling my name. A friend of mine, the novelist Howard Norman, a lover of radio and a translator of Inuit poetry, cites a folktale in which a man, transformed into a goose, speaks a farewell to the world he must relinquish. It’s the title of Howard’s memoir. “I hate to leave this beautiful place, ” comes the cry.

I hated to leave public radio. It was a beautiful place. But leave me, it did.

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