Coming of age on a transistor radio

Published 7:36 pm Tuesday, September 22, 2020

The essentials of life to a teenage farm boy in the late 1950s were a cold Coca Cola, a pack of nabs and — if you were very fortunate — a transistor radio.

The Coke and nabs — or salted peanuts for a change of diet — could both be bought at any country store for less than a quarter.

Nabs are still around. The true “original” variety being Lance cheese crackers. The word “nabs” apparently comes from a Nabisco cracker, but I don’t recall them. The Lance product has been around for as long as I can remember. A Coke and a pack of them has been my lunch on many occasions over the years.

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While those basic foodstuffs filled our bellies, it was the radio that filled our heads. And by the late 1950s, a growing number of us had found a way to buy one.

They weren’t cheap. In fact, they were outrageously expensive. Several transistors brought prices of roughly $50 in the mid-1950s. That’s about $475 today — a lot of money. By 1960, the Japanese were turning their post-war recovery toward electronics and were producing transistors that sold for $15 in the U.S. That still wasn’t cheap (it equaled $160 today), but it put the radios in range for many teens’ budgets. Everybody else had to drop their price to match the Asian imports and the tiny radios became ubiquitous.

In my case, a summer of chopping peanuts provided enough cash to make a trip to Hall Electronics, where I bought one. It became an almost constant companion. With a radio, I was able to join teens all over Hampton Roads as we listened to WGH’s daylong blast of rock ’n roll.

It brought more than music to my ears, though. I had the radio turned on as I worked in the yard on the morning of May 5, 1961, the day Alan Shepard rode a Mercury-Redstone rocket, named Freedom 7, into space. That flight occurred 23 days after Russia had launched a man into space and was America’s announcement to its Cold War rival that we had entered the race, and we were serious.

The radio went most places I went in those days. I would tie it down alongside the seat of the old B-Farmall we used to cultivate peanut fields, turn the volume up so I could hear it over the tractor, and listen to the Top 10 as we — the tractor and I — crept up and down peanut rows, two at a time. When the peanuts were still small, we did so at a pace just a bit slower than a leisurely walk.

Then, on Sundays, we would place a cooler of Cokes aboard an oil-drum raft that was my prized nautical transport back then. The raft had a board bolted across the end that we had designated to be the stern of our barge. With a small outboard, we would motor very slowly — just about the pace of cultivating peanuts — down Jones Creek and anchor off the Doggett farm. There we would spend the afternoon with friends, swimming and, yes, listening to that transistor.

While buying a transistor radio was expensive, in the case of mine, so was supplying it with batteries. The one I owned ran on a large, old “dry cell” battery. They were expensive and not rechargeable.

That radio was AM only, and it was soon out of style. AM/FMs came along, prices dropped dramatically as the Japanese began shipping their brands to us, and the old AM transistors were retired, but not before they introduced us to a world well beyond Isle of Wight County.

John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is