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CB Radio Memories with my Father

October 23, 2017

When I make my way around certain stretches of highway in eastern Washington, particularly on Interstate-82, it’s hard not to conjure up road trips with Dad from days long ago….especially talking on a CB radio while he drove his sedan.

First, a little back-story about him and how we got to this place.

Before he began his manufacturing rep business with Mom, he held sales manager positions in Washington and Oregon with outfits that sold equipment for cable logging. His civil engineering background, coupled with his sales skills, allowed him to draw from a unique combination of abilities suited to this sort of work — he had the side of the brain that could deal with the technical and mathematical know-how that engineering necessitates — but he was also a very effective salesman, in that he was really good with people. It seemed like he could relate to and hold a conversation with anybody, and the accounts I’ve heard over the years about the loyalty and respect his staff had for him reinforces that.

  • Super duper frantic note regarding previous paragraph! Before I continue, I acknowledge the industry Dad sold equipment in is not, well, let’s say “kosher” with the more progressive thinking and greener sensibilities of today’s world (or most of today’s world, at the very least). That said, whenever it’s brought up I often joke with family and colleagues about how one of my missions in life is making up for the carbon footprint caused by activities of an age when such practices were not only less than environmentally friendly, but represented for a period of time the cross-hairs of environmental destruction prior to concepts such as “working forests.” Really, this is besides the point of this post, but something I felt needed acknowledgment….just so you know I’m well aware. Believe me. I am.

Before buying out the Engineering Service Co. to run as its principal, his resume involved work for what’s known today as Worthington Industries, an outfit called Black Clawson (spelling of it questionable and I’m not sure if they’re still around), and there may be another engineering firm in there somewhere. But my most vivid memories involved his time with Washington Logging Equipment, once based out of Auburn, WA along the West Valley Freeway next to WA-167….a small industrial park in a pocket just south of today’s Supermall/Outlet Collection.

cable-logging_yarder-1

A yarder (older model) used for cable logging

To ensure that the yarders and logging machinery he sold his clients was in proper working order around the region (essentially the stone age of logging equipment and methods — by now way, way outdated), he frequently drove his company car into remote areas in mountainous regions throughout the Northwest….and when he was sometimes called out on a Saturday, I accompanied him on occasion. Knowing Dad, the focus of these visits didn’t involve the workmanship of the machinery as much as making sure the operators were trained and following all the safety precautions in a hazardous occupation that’s not widely known about and completely out of the public eye — yet, it predates the steel industry in the history of how we built America.

The loggers working out in the field had to be especially aware at all times….lots of cable lines and heavy lumber bolting at ridiculously high speeds across valleys (which I witnessed firsthand — quite frightening to see), and often in bad weather….even when they were being careful and deliberate, people were killed in this line of work in horrific accidents.

These on-site visits required him to negotiate treacherous, off-the-grid logging road switchbacks….unpaved, weaving, crisscrossing in random spots on remote mountainsides without signage….one-lane corridors that were ill-maintained, steep, muddy and extremely treacherous — especially if you were in a smaller sedan-style automobile. Unless you wanted to drive a clunky Jeep or one of those old GMC trucks (heavy clunkers that could easily get stuck in the mud), something like a Chevrolet Caprice Classic or Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme was your option….there wasn’t such a thing as a SUV or crossover vehicle like they have today, and when you spent more of your time entertaining clients, you were going to gravitate toward the sedan option anyway.

cable-logging-diagram-1

A diagram illustrating the method of cable logging in a mountain valley….the piece of machinery labeled a “headspar” at the top right corner was what we referred to as the yarder, which was the “mast” that controlled the cables used in this dangerous practice. Oh, and I refuse to apologize for placing a diagram in a blog post….after all, I am a planner, so deal!

Even with all that, the logging roads themselves weren’t the most dangerous part of these adventures….the real danger involved the fella in the “other” vehicle….with that other vehicle being a BIG HONKIN’ LOGGING TRUCK OF SEVERAL TONS hurling down this one-lane road and potentially pancaking you! (How was that for a big scary effect?) As you can imagine, pretty much an instantaneous, guaranteed death if you were coming around a corner with no visibility in a dense forest and unable to maneuver out of the way quickly enough in the mud.

Therefore, enter the CB radio….and probably the only Caprice Classic in the Seattle area sporting one at the time.

CB-radio-1

An old Galaxy CB radio, although I can’t recall if this was the model we used….looks familiar!

To alert logging trucks to his presence before he attempted his climb up these twisty logging roads, Dad would pull over to the side of the road and canvass certain frequencies on the CB to communicate with the logging truck drivers. He knew in advance the frequency the drivers were on, and could alert them to his ascent. It was the only means available at the time to accomplish this life-preserving safety check.

In our age of cell phone devices and texting, many have never laid eyes on a CB radio, much less understand the range of its purpose outside of old-timer trucker culture or a Smokey and the Bandit rerun on TV. Invented in the 1940s by Al Gross (here’s an interesting read on its history), the device didn’t really take off until the 1970s when truckers used it to play smoke & mirrors with law enforcement and relay gas prices to one another to cut fuel costs; that and many more utilized ways of the CB as a reaction to the oil crisis at the time.

But Dad’s use of it in this regard gave it an entirely higher level of purpose….and while I was probably too young to realize it at the time, having lived through these experiences firsthand I can argue that this long-forgotten communications device was the greatest vehicle-based safety feature of its time, and probably saved more lives than anyone has bothered to imagine….including mine and Dad’s. I’m not sure Al Gross is still alive, but I’d buy him a drink and shake his hand if I had the honor.

I-82_near-Yakima-2-1

I-82 outside of Yakima, Washington….a small stretch of freeway in the Pacific Northwest I refer to as the “radio vortex”

Beyond the critical safety merits of the “CB in the sedan” and those parts of the road trip where Dad really earned his paycheck, it was pretty much open season to have fun with this fascinating radio gadget.

Was it a free-for-all of goofing off on the CB unencumbered and unchecked? Absolutely not, as there is an etiquette and culture specific to the use of it and your behavior “on the air.”

First, you had to figure out what sort of “handle” you were going to use — which was essentially a fictional name you went by on the airwaves — very similar to avatars used online today. In my case, I was “Tall Paul” which Dad suggested, probably adding to the fact that I was tall for my age at the time. Dad usually coached me on what to say, figuring that truckers wouldn’t be expecting to be on the CB with a 9-year old boy.

Secondly, you had to keep it clean and drama-free. I don’t recall what the licensing situation for CB operations involved at the time, but as I understand it the FCC was involved and you were made to assume a level of monitoring was in play. There was also no acting out cries for help, nor “fake” emergencies, or trouble would ensue….a bit like yelling fire in the theater when there is none. These were part of the ground rules Dad coached me on before I set foot on the radio.

The stretch of I-82 from Ellensburg to Yakima is particularly vivid and brought up many memorable moments, as Dad needed to travel this part of the state to get to logging activity east of the mountain passes. I recall a high level of trucker chatter on this stretch, probably because traffic navigates a series of three sizeable hills and twisty inclines between the two towns called the Yakima River Canyon Scenic Byway. So if you know anything about maneuvering with and around truck traffic on inclines, you can imagine for the trucker it represents a slow, involved, methodical event involving safety precautions and intense communications with your fellow truckers with all the passing, Jake brake usage, and dodging this and that….a potential for stressful hazards galore. In addition, trucker chatter was probably trying to figure out the lay of the land with cops along a larger stretch of travel canvassing three interstate freeways over two states from Ellensburg to Pendleton, Oregon….many stretches of I-82 can be long and desolate once you head east of Yakima, and to this day it seems like services for the trucking community are minimal.

During this stretch of the byway, which I refer to in retrospect as the “radio vortex,” we’d take a break from the CB to jump around the AM/FM radio dial. By this time our familiar Seattle stations were usually tuned out, and since we were in a sort of no-man’s land in a plateau near no major metro areas, we picked up a potpourri of stations across not just western states, but the central US and Canada. On one occasion, we picked up a station out of Montreal! I recall Dad being amazed at that….to this day, I still can’t believe it.

This was an event that would last about 30 minutes….then it was back to Tall Paul and chatting with truckers across the freeway corridors throughout our great state of Washington.

These were times and adventures that were taken for granted and seemed simple then — but carry with them many layers today — and a staying power and influence for a lifetime. As Dad’s life lessons and influence echo through the years, those echoes only grow louder.

That’s all for now. If any of you have CB radio memories of your own, please share!

Check it out, it's the Top Hat Indexer's top hat!

L.Sweum_2006.05.01

Lee Sweum (1936-2010) was born and raised in Everett, Washington. He graduated from Everett High School, then received his degree in civil engineering from the University of Washington. He was a husband, father, brother, and uncle to his family….and respected by his friends, business colleagues, and community. Lee was like a surrogate father and mentor to several of Paul’s boyhood friends, serving for several years as head basketball coach for the Woodridge Clippers and assistant soccer coach for the Woodridge Thunderbolts. He shines bright as an example of how folks can treat one another with dignity and respect….a day does not pass that those who loved him and knew him draw from his caring soul, sense of humor, Spock-logic methods to problem-solving, overall guidance, and his unique gentleman’s approach to everyday life. He inhabits the glacier-fed waters of Lake Chelan, his final resting spot.

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