You know those double images on the old television sets that we used to call “ghosts”? Well, there’s a ghost in my radio. What happens is, it can be tuned to either the AM or FM band, and suddenly it switches. Last summer, for instance, a silly argument on a sports-talk show about a bench-clearing brawl turned into a sober analysis of a massacre in central Asia on Public Radio. (Why does this remind me of the notorious 1938 broadcast of War of the Worlds?)
I think the problem is electrical. In the 1950’s, the same thing happened to a multi-band German radio my mother, a beautician, bought off the back of a truck. The (also-German) repairman I took it to thought there was a defect in something called “the klang.” Although he fixed whatever it was, when I recently googled klang, all I got was “sound,” and “tinny sound.” Maybe, the shifts are caused by something else, but, for simplicity’s sake, I’ll stick with “the klang.”
The problem seemed trivial until about a week ago, when I invited three of my friends over to listen to a debate about the shrinking rain forest. After the program, fueled by what we had heard, and by beer and snacks, the plan was to hold our own debate. But, in the midst of the moderator’s opening remarks, the klang kicked in.
Whereas previous klangs had sometimes been funny, sometimes not, this one was both very funny and not funny, at all. A comedian whose voice I did not recognize was launching into a long joke. As usual, I fiddled with the dials, but no luck. Why didn’t we turn the thing off? Either because we were hoping the klang would snap out of it so we could listen to the debate, after all, or because we wanted to hear the joke:
One day, uttering his patented cry, Tarzan was swinging through the trees, when the vine suddenly slipped from his grasp. Down he plummeted, shattering an arm, a leg, and his penis. Crawling to the hut of a local shaman, he was fixed up with new body parts: a chimpanzee arm, a kangaroo leg, and an elephant’s trunk. (Where was this jungle?) Weeks later, he ran into the shaman, who asked how things were working out.
“There’s good news, and there’s bad. With my new arm, I can swing high above the jungle canopy. (The jungle what?) And with my new leg, I can leap across crocodile-infested waters.”
“So what’s the problem?”
“Well, my dick keeps shoving peanuts up my ass.”
Not everyone laughed. In fact, my most zealous, deeply political guest took umbrage. Since I hadn’t mentioned the klang, she thought I was playing a trick on them.
“You asshole!” she cried. “You must have figured out a way to record that dumb joke on your radio.”
“Or, maybe,” suggested our resident wag, “the joke was his comment on the shrinking rain forest.”
“It’s the damned klang!” I said, and explained.
We messed with the dials again, but not only were we unable to get the climate-change debate back; we lost the comedy show.
“Why don’t we just hold our own debate?” suggested the group’s Stoic philosopher. “Don’t we know enough already?”
Although this sounded like a sensible idea, we rejected it, the consensus being that it wouldn’t be as much fun. So we gave up. I turned the thing off, and we segued into a discussion of Donald Trump’s recent visit to Angela Merkel.
“She must have thought he was a klang,” quipped the wag.
“That reminds me,” I said, “of an anecdote Sir John Colville, Churchill’s secretary, tells in his autobiography.”
In the heat of WW2, when the P.M. directed him to set up a meeting with Isaiah Berlin to discuss the geo-political situation, Colville mistakenly invited Irving Berlin. The punch line was Churchill’s remark, afterward, about how surprisingly ignorant the great historian had seemed.
When we had all finished laughing, the zealot buried the hatchet: “That’s exactly how Merkel must have felt!”
And, since we had not yet polished off all the beer and food, we took it from there, eating, drinking, and, instead of debating the rain forest, telling more jokes.
Maybe, it’s the Tarzan joke, or the anecdote about the two Berlins, our own terrible times, or just my own advancing age (76), but I think the gods have been telling me to embrace uncertainty. Are we living in the klang?