We belong to the light, we belong to the thunder
We belong to the sound of the words we’ve both fallen under
-Pat Benetar, “We Belong”
“All the best things start in garages.”
My dad threw this line around proudly whenever he’d walk into our garage and see five-year-old me in my pretend cardboard radio station, complete with oversized headphones and a set of turntables that hadn’t worked since the garage flooded two years before I was born. It was another couple of years before I figured out that radio station call letters begin with “K” or “W” depending on what coast they were closest to, and that the “LCEY” written in thick, black, smelly marker on the cardboard couldn’t possibly be a real radio station. It was three more years before I got my first real signal out of the garage. It didn’t reach more than a mile at first and the only listeners I had were a few friends who lived in the adjacent couple of blocks and my parents sitting quietly in our living room, whittling or reading trashy romance novels bought from Good Reeds, Franklin Reeds’ funny little second-hand bookstore in downtown Painter’s Brush, Colorado .
LCEY had a couple of my Dad’s favorites, but its sound had my Mom’s name all over it. Mom loved music as much as she loved me and Dad. She loved the old cheesy radio love songs from the ‘50s and ‘60s and ‘70s, stuff like “The Great Pretender” and “On Blueberry Hill.” Mom lived most of her life in England before meeting my Dad, working for the BBC station in Elstree. She was beautiful, and wise, and she had more charisma than anyone I’ve ever known. She even did a couple of B movies at Elstree studios in the ‘50s. One of them was a period piece called The Fishermen that she had a fight scene in, and the other was a goofy romance called Oh, Vienna! that we used to watch and laugh at together. It was a funny movie, but I still think Mom killed it. The last time we watched the movie was September 12, 1983. The next day mom was shot in a burglary-gone-wrong. They never caught the guys who did it.
LCEY changed a lot after that. I took out all of Mom’s old favorites and replaced it with top 40 stuff. Don’t get me wrong, the music in the ‘80s was magical, and I love it now after everything that happened. But, at the time, it was muted and flavorless, exactly what somebody fighting to keep from remembering needed. I had to do what I could to keep me in my garage, belting out a broadcast, because that was my home and where I belonged, even if it didn’t feel like it anymore. LCEY got more listeners, I got a little locally famous, and I kept pumping out Journey and Flock of Seagulls.
Well, until the FCC came and shut me down.
The doorbell rang one day at the beginning of summer. Of that summer. Of the summer. I don’t remember why Dad was home. He opened the door. There were the suits. Both were men, one with slicked-back hair and a trim build that looked excellent in his black suit and black tie. The other man was older and balding. His pudginess didn’t fit quite right into his navy blue suit. I liked his stripey tie, though.
The agents had a weird sort of good-cop-cool-cop thing going on that really worked for them. When my Dad answered the door with a nervous “…Hello?” Johnson smoothly flipped open a badge holder and introduced himself as “Agent Johnson from the FCC Enforcement Bureau Regional and Field Office.” His voice projected perfectly. It was an excellent voice for radio. I told him that. He turned his neck ever so slightly so that his sunglassed eyes were now turned a little more toward me, but weren’t actually quite looking at me.
“Thank you, miss,” he said politely and sternly. I wanted to be his best friend forever. “This is my partner, Boscoe.”
Boscoe stood behind Johnson’s left shoulder. He gave a shy, awkward wave and a little grin. I loved him like an uncle immediately. Johnson returned the badge to his inside jacket pocket and folded his hands in front of him. Dad hadn’t said a word; he was just standing with the door in his right hand and his mouth hanging a little open. I feel bad saying it, but he looked a little silly next to Agent “The Boss” Johnson.
“We are investigating a possible violation of Section 301 of the Communications Act,” Johnson said.
My father managed an “uuuuuuh” in reply.
This must have been rehearsed, because here came Good Cop Boscoe right on cue. He smiled and waved his hand through the air as if fanning the tension away before saying “That just means we’re looking for an unlicensed radio station.”
My father’s head whipped toward me and I felt a little sick. I was pretty pleased with myself, like I said, but I didn’t want Dad to be mad at me. I needed him to understand that this was awesome.
“I didn’t realize radio stations had to have a license,” Dad said, pointedly, while glaring at me. “Did you, Lacey?” That’s me. I’m Lacey. He was talking to me. Yes, I named LCEY after myself. No, I don’t have an explanation for why I didn’t name it LACY.
“I did,” I said plainly and, I hope, bravely. Truthfully, I had been waiting for two black hats to ride up to our door and shut me down. I had been counting on it. And my plan involved total cooperation and honesty from me.
My father raised both eyebrows. I tried to stay confident, to look like I knew exactly what I was doing and that this was completely within the normal course of events. I think he expected me to say something more, but when I didn’t he turned back to Good Cop and Cool Cop and invited them in by stepping aside and gesturing his hand into his home.
Johnson and Boscoe followed my Dad and me into our den. We sat on the sofa and the agents pulled two chairs around so that they were facing the sofa instead of the TV. Boscoe sat back in his chair, gripping the armrests and letting his gut poke out. Johnson sat forward with his elbows propped on his knees and his fingers intertwined together. He was still wearing his sunglasses. His long, lanky legs were spread wide. They were both quiet for a moment. Boscoe kept glancing at Johnson, waiting for him to start their scripted interrogation.
“Lacey, was it? Lacey Gibralter?” Johnson said in my direction.
“Yes, sir,” I said, perfectly professionally.
“Lacey, do you have a radio station in your garage?” Johnson said.
My Dad scooted forward in his chair and pointed an angry hand at Johnson. He wasn’t happy with me, but he had no patience for attacks on his daughter.
“Now, you wait a minute, Mister John,” he said, finger poking the air angrily.
“Johnson,” said Johnson.
“I don’t care. This is my house and that is my garage and this girl is a minor,” he said, his volume rising with each item on his list. “Now, I’m happy to cooperate, but you are going to address your questions to me.”
Boscoe chimed in nervously. “Hey, hey, nobody is in trouble, yet, Mr. Gibralter. We’re just trying to gather some information.”
“Yet?!” Dad spat. I thought Johnson was going to shoot Boscoe a dirty look through his sunglasses, but he didn’t. The “yet” must have been part of the script. Spook us into realizing there was trouble ahead, and that there was an easy way to avoid it.
“I am not a fool. I know you are not cops, no matter how badly you want to be, and you can’t charge us with a crime,” my Dad said, a little more calmly.
“Well, that’s technically true,” Boscoe squeaked and sweated. “But, we do assist the Department of Justice in an official capacity, and they do take our recommendations seriously. Mr. Gibraltar—and Miss Gibraltar, if I may—the best thing would be for both of you to be honest with us.”
Dad was silent for a moment. I was, too. If this was going to work, I needed him to be cool. And he was only going to be cool if he felt like he was in control, so I was gonna let him drive for a minute.
“I am happy to answer your questions,” Dad said flatly after a few seconds.
Johnson shifted his body around in his chair before settling in the exact same position as before. “Mr. Gibraltar, do you know what a pirate radio station is?”
“Is it, like, a radio station that…” Dad paused for a moment. He seemed to resist the urge to look at me for help.
“…steals stuff from other radio stations, or…”
Johnson interrupted him. “It is, by definition, a radio station that operates with no intention of obtaining a license. The United States government also usually profiles a pirate radio station as being a clandestine operation whose goals are anarchic.”
The blood drained from Dad’s face. Good Cop noticed.
“We are not accusing anyone of anything right now. We are just asking questions,” Boscoe said.
“We have reason to believe that there is an unlicensed radio station operating from this home, but—“ Johnson said, stopping in the middle of his sentence to share a look with Boscoe, “—we don’t think we would characterize it as pirate radio.”
I wrinkled my brow. This wasn’t part of the plan. I needed them to throw the book at me! I was a big deal, damn it!
“Why not?” I asked, then cursed in my head. I had accidentally taken control. Fortunately, Dad grabbed the wheel again immediately.
“No, the real question is, why do you have ‘reason to believe’ there is a radio station here?” Dad said, scoffing on the last few words.
Johnson leaned back in his chair and clucked his tongue once. He reached into his infinitely deep inner coat pocket and pulled out a small Philips radio. He switched it on and gently rolled his thumb over the side until the static turned into my voice.
“—EY. This is Rhythm and Lace, announcing I’m taking a break, but I’ll be back with more music later. It’s just me in my Dad’s garage, and I gotta do other stuff sometimes!”
The radio was silent for a moment before my looping station ID started up again with “You’re listening to LCEY…”
Johnson clicked the radio off dramatically and returned it to his coat.
“You have to admit, that certainly sounds like you, Miss Gibraltar,” said Boscoe. “We assume you made a long tape of that message that you could broadcast for long periods of time? That’s very clever. Didn’t really understand your DJ name, though.” He chuckled nervously. Johnson was silent.
“Look,” Dad said, adopting an amicable tone and using both of his hands to gesture widely and warmly. “We just didn’t know about the regulations. I’d be happy to purchase a license. Can we just go to the courthouse in Columbus? Or is this more of a federal thing that has to be handled in Denver?”
“Mr. Gibraltar, a station license is not like a fishing license,” Johnson said. “The licensing process is extraordinarily selective and, even if a station is selected, the licensing fees are not something that can be afforded by a simple household income,” Johnson said.
“Well…” my Dad faltered. His head dipped and he stared at a spot of carpet for a moment before raising his head again sharply and snapping his fingers. “What about college radio stations? There’s a ton of those. There’s no way they all have a license.”
“You are correct, Mr. Gibraltar,” Johnson replied almost immediately. He had expected this rebuttal. “College radio stations are classified as low-power radio stations, and getting licensure for those is difficult since the FCC eliminated class D licenses seven years ago. But, we don’t pay much attention to those since they only have about 100 watts of juice shooting through their antennas. I would be surprised if there were 10 watts moving through the wires in this room right now. But, the station in your garage—“
“Allegedly in your garage,” Boscoe cut in.
Johnson scoffed. “Yes, thank you, Agent Boscoe. The station allegedly in your garage is by no means low power, is it?”
I hesitated. I had underestimated the thoroughness of their investigation.
“Miss Gibraltar, how many watts hypothetically power your alleged radio station?” Johnson said.
I shook my head. I truthfully didn’t know, but I understood what he was driving at. I was drawing power from all over the neighborhood, and the setup was neither legal nor safe. You could hear the eyelids click in the room. Dad finally broke the silence.
“So, what now?”
Johnson turned to face each of us, then said, “Boscoe, do you want to answer this question?” Was this part not rehearsed?
“This is a very unusual case,” Boscoe said carefully. “Mr. Johnson, nor I, nor any of our colleagues at the field office have ever dealt with anything quite like it. We’ve dealt with the odd college radio station interfering with licensed broadcasts and actual pirate radio stations, but we’ve never quite handled the in between.
“Miss Gibraltar, I think you want to be cooperative, and we have no interest in pressing criminal charges against someone who is being cooperative. Let us ask you again, directly: Do you have a radio station in your garage?”
“I do,” I said.
“Miss Gibraltar, we have to shut down your station. It is the law. If you cooperate with us and do as you’re told, I’m sure we can avoid criminal charges since there was no malicious intent.”
I exhaled, smiled, stood up and clapped my hands. “Excellent, yes, do you need me to show you to the equipment? I imagine you will be hauling some of it off,” I said cheerfully. Even Johnson seemed surprised, and perhaps a little disappointed. I was going way off script.
“Yes, lead the way,” he said with some of Boscoe’s nervous politeness in his voice.
“I have a big favor to ask before we start, though,” I said. Johnson cocked an eyebrow over the rim of his sunglasses.
“Will you write a very detailed report of this and allow me to have a copy?”
An FCC van pulled up next to the house two hours later. When the last of the equipment was loaded on the van, Johnson produced an envelope from the bottomless black hole he hid inside his jacket. It was a copy of his report, which he had somehow magically produced in the short time since he had first arrived at the house. Both he and Boscoe had signed my copy of the report, a thing I assume they did not actually have an obligation to do. I kept up my cheerful appearance as the last of the equipment was loaded into the van. I had expected and even looked forward to this day, but it still broke my heart to watch my gear get hauled away. The suits did let me broadcast a farewell before unplugging everything, and I will always love them for that.
As the van drove away, I steeled myself for the conversation with my father I had been dreading. I would enjoy the conversation’s result, but getting there would be tiring and likely involve a lot of yelling. I stood in the middle of our driveway, fists clenched and eyes shut. I was buckling my knees and my elbows and praying I wouldn’t pass out. I heard my Dad quietly clear his throat a couple of times. I could tell he was pacing a little, scuffing the ground with his shoes as he thought about how to open the conversation. I think he was trying to figure out how to be angry without being mean. I love him.
“Lacey,” he said in his Dad voice. “Lacey, the government was at my house.”
I nodded vigorously but did not make eye contact.
“Lacey, I thought the signal barely made it to the Jacksons’ house!” he said, anger rising just a little in his voice. “Where did you get the stuff to—I mean, how were you able to rig that up?!”
I summoned my courage and turned toward him. I wasn’t quite ready for eye contact, yet.
“I mean, I got some engineering books and tech manuals and stuff,” I said. “And, you know, there’s that electronics club at school I’ve always been friends with.”
“This was dangerous, Lacey. This was illegal,” Dad said, pointing at where my setup used to be. “And not jaywalking illegal. It was illegal because it was dangerous. You were stealing electricity!”
He had me there. “I know, that part was bad. I’m sorry, Dad.”
Dad’s eyebrows went all the way up. He put his hands on his hips. “That part was bad? Not the whole thing?”
“No,” I said confidently. Dad straightened up. He took his hands off his hips and folded them on his chest, waiting for an explanation.
“The electricity thing was bad,” I said. “But, I’m not sorry about having a real radio station that broadcast all over town.”
Dad was quiet for a minute. He was fishing for another line from me, and his patience paid off.
“And I’m sorry I didn’t tell you,” I said sheepishly.
Dad’s brow relaxed. He threw a hand toward me. “That’s what I wanted to hear. I thought we got past this, Lacey. I thought we weren’t having problems talking, anymore.”
Oh, that stung. That barb buried itself deep. I liked my privacy, and it may have been a low blow to drag Mom into this, even if he didn’t name her, but he was right. I had a tendency to keep too much to myself. Tears welled in my eyes, but I wiped them away.
My Dad sighed and put a hand on my shoulder. I stared at the ground. “This isn’t just a hobby for you, is it?” he asked. I shook my head.
“Why did you do all this?” he asked. His tone was genuine now instead of rhetorical.
I thrust the letter from the suits toward Dad. “I needed this.”
One of Dad’s eyebrows was raised in pure confusion. “You wanted the cops to shake you down?”
I gave my Dad a look of annoyance. “They’re not cops, Dad.”
“They’re basically cops, Lacey,” Dad said, apparently having changed his mind from before.
“Okay, sure, but I needed this report. This is physical proof that I did something significant. That I did so much… radio by myself that the FCC noticed and had to take action. This is my résumé!” I said, shaking the document as I spoke.
Dad looked at me. He drummed his fingers on one of his crossed biceps. His mouth and moustache twisted. He spoke finally.
“Okay, first off, I’m proud of you. Okay? You really did something. Raising a lazy kid is the worst, and damn anyone who accuses you of that.”
I beamed. He continued.
“I am also very proud of you for having a passion and taking risks to achieve that passion. Do you understand the reasons I am proud of you?”
I nodded enthusiastically. He put his hands on his hips again.
“Good. Because I am not proud of the kind of risk you took. You do not do things that are justifiably illegal or put yourself and others – especially others! -- in danger. Go find a real radio station, put your foot in the door and bug them until they give you a job or an internship or something. Okay?” he said. I nodded my head again and hugged him.
On Sunday evening I informed my father of my plan for the next week: Go to all the radio stations on my list, introduce myself, and tell them I’m looking to get some experience.
“Well, that sounds great, Lacey!” Dad said exactly like every Dad would. “I’m proud of you.”
The FCC let me keep a couple of my babies, most notably my expensive and powerful Grundig Satellit radio and my favorite pair of headphones, named Gerald. I wasn’t allowed to leave the house, but the restrictions ended there. I spent the next week clicking through each signal on the FM band, listening to each station on Grundig and Gerald, taking notes on each.
At the top of the list was a top 40 station called “The Buzz,” which was the closest in format to LCEY. It was fine enough. Pretty good music, entertaining commentary from DJs. Everything was crisp and well-produced. It’d be a great place to start, and I could see myself being happy to get a show on it.
I dressed in a nice long shirt that sortof worked as a dress and put on a huge belt and leggings. I felt like the best look for a radio station was professional, but not stuffy or fancy, so no jacket with shoulder pads for me. The room immediately inside 95.7 “The Buzz” was a sort of waiting room, less designed for serving the public and more designed for creating a barrier for them. There were chairs and posters of bands and a desk with a young woman behind it. She looked like she was in her early 20s, with a soft face that put her in the twilight zone between “girl” and “woman,” and curly hair with a shocking blue streak dyed into it. She was wearing a Tears for Fears T-shirt sitting behind it. She did not look up when I opened the door.
The room smelled musty and a little rotten, and the walls were stained, like they had survived a flood. The air was stuffy and somehow hotter than outdoors, even with a window open behind Tears for Fears girl. I walked up to the desk. The girl looked up.
“What’s up, how can I help you?” she asked. It wasn’t the hollow insincerity you hear when a fast food worker asks you the question, but I did gather its meaning to be “I probably can’t help you.” Her voice was in a pleasing low register.
“Hey, my name’s Lacey Gibraltar,” I said amicably, but professionally.
“Hey, I’m Danube,” she said.
“Is that your whole name? Just Danube?” I asked, not realizing I was veering away from why I’d come.
“That’s beautiful,” I said. I meant it.
“Thanks, I picked it myself,” she said. You have to remember that this was 1986, and renaming yourself something other than what’s on your birth certificate was pretty much unheard of outside of Hollywood. So, I assumed she was joking at first, and nervously laughed until I realized she wasn’t.
“That is beyond cool,” I said.
“The ‘Blue Danube Waltz’ is my favorite piece of music,” she said. I think she must have seen my eyes dart down to her Tears for Fears shirt, because she followed this up with “’Shout’ is my second favorite, obviously.” She exaggerated “obviously” so much it made me laugh. She laughed, too, then abruptly stopped.
“So, really, what do you want?” she said, suddenly business again. I launched into my speech I’d practiced in front of the mirror.
“I’m a freshman at Painter’s Brush High and I’m interested in radio. I’m hoping to get some real experience so I can get a head start on my career, or maybe put it on a college application.”
Danube twisted her mouth. “Freshman,” she repeated. “How old are you?”
I sighed. “Fourteen.”
“I’m not in charge or nothin’ and I’ll give your stuff to who is. Or I can see if they’d actually want to talk to you. But I can tell you that they’re not looking for somebody inexperienced from right off the street.”
“Also,” I continued, barreling through her pushback by pulling out my FCC takedown report, “I ran a 10,000-watt radio station out of my garage for two years.”
Danube’s eyes bugged, her brow furrowed, and her mouth hardened into an incredulous frown. The face was so funny that it took everything I had to stifle a giggle.
“Is that… legal?” she asked.
“It is not,” I said plainly.
“Cool,” she said, sounding genuinely impressed. She looked at the letter. “Hoo, you weren’t kidding. This letter says the feds carted your stuff away in a van.”
“Do you think that will make a difference?” I asked.
“Sorry, sister. I doubt the big wigs will go for it,” she said. “But, I’ll let ‘em know, anyway.”
I was disappointed, but the way she called me “sister” felt genuine, and it made me feel warm. As I walked out the door, she called after me, “But, come hang anytime you want. We’ll talk music.”
Every other station was the same, though lacking fun, beautiful receptionists. Dad burned through gas driving me as far as two towns over, sometimes, but I always got the same line: They were happy to meet me, they were fans of my broadcast, and they were impressed by the copies of the FCC takedown report I brought with me, but 13 was too young. Come back in a couple of years.
Eventually I ran out of road on the FM band. I turned to AM next. I almost didn’t bother with AM since radio stations were all but abandoning it and it meant 106 frequencies to tick through. I almost wouldn’t have, but I was “young and restless and bored,” like Bob Seger would say, and Dad was a pretty bad TV hog. I tuned Grundig to 540 and started rolling through 10 kHz at a time.
The first signal I found (at 720 kHz) was a sports talk radio show. I didn’t know anything about sports, but I wrote them down anyway because I know plenty about the technical side of things and a wire runner might be just what they needed. Most of the AM band was talk and religious radio or mirrors of the FM broadcasts I’d already heard.
I clicked to the last frequency on the AM band – 1605 kHz – and almost turned Grundig off and pulled Gerald off my ears to go downstairs and eat my boredom. At first, I thought I was just hearing static like the last dozen or so frequencies, but just as the headphones were leaving my ears, I heard something new.
Have you ever really listened to static for a while, or stared at it on a TV screen? For such a conceptually simple thing, it is surprisingly complex in reality. Just try it sometime. There are layers of sound and the image is impossible to keep up with. Now, imagine a sound 10 times more complex and you will have an idea of what The Signal sounds like.
Of course at the time, it was just “the signal” to me, no capital letters. I sat, a dumb expression probably on my face, listening to The Signal. One of my earliest memories is staring at our old wood-paneled Zenith color TV in the den, just staring at the static, at the ghosts dancing inside of it. I don’t know why I was so transfixed by it, but that’s exactly how I felt in this moment.
So, static is just noise, right? It’s just the stuff going through the antenna when it’s not picking up a real signal. Static on a television is just a visual representation of that noise. The Signal wasn’t chaos like static is, it just seemed that way at first because there was so much going on with it. I also couldn’t make out any real information, I just had a feeling that I was listening to real information. Like it was compressed somehow, and that if I could stretch it out somehow it would make more sense. There’s a scene in WarGames where Joshua, the computer, is running through a bunch of alphanumeric strings, trying to find launch codes for the US’s nuclear missiles. Matthew Broderick is looking at the letters and numbers and knows it’s data and it’s important, but otherwise it’s gibberish. This was like that. It was like looking at tadpoles in a pond. There’s thousands of them and there’s no way to keep track of any single tadpole, but you take in the whole of it and you understand there’s something happening there. It was like looking at a tapestry and seeing that it was knitted from thread, and each of those threads was, itself, made from smaller threads.
Analogies can’t really describe what I was hearing, though. It was somehow subtle while being extravagant in its vastness and complexity. I wouldn’t call it beautiful – it didn’t seem like it was supposed to be art, but it also didn’t have a sinister quality. It was… satisfying. Fascinating. I think I even whispered “What is this?” out loud.
I needed Behir.