The Little Radio That Could

Sometimes it takes a hurricane—or “Frankenstorm”—to remind us that cell phones and Wi-Fi and even cable TV are luxuries.

Hours before Hurricane Sandy made landfall in New Jersey the week of Halloween, my husband, baby and I evacuated our condo in Hoboken and retreated to my in-laws’ house in Bergen County. Before their house became our safe haven in extreme weather, it was a modest ranch with few luxuries. A couple of years after they moved in, my in-laws, immigrants from India, purchased a small black portable radio with a cassette player and a “special chip” that allowed them to tune into stations from home. They had heard about the radio from friends of friends—or something like that—and had driven to Edison to get it.

It wasn’t long before the radio became a beloved possession. My mother-in-law kept it in the kitchen, on top of a white doily, on its own tall and narrow wooden table. Whenever she cooked, she would turn it on and sing along.

The radio was about 15 years old when my in-laws decided to renovate their home. On most days during the renovation, the radio accumulated a thick layer of brown dust. When my mother-in-law returned home from work, she would brush it off and make sure the radio still worked. It always did. One day, it even suffered a broken antenna but still worked.

During the final touches of the renovation, a state-of-the-art sound system with satellite radio was installed in several rooms of my in-laws’ house, including the kitchen. Still, my mother-in-law clung to her radio. The renovation also added sump pumps and a generator to my in-laws’ home, making it an even better refuge.
We were there when Tropical Storm Irene hit last year and returned to ride out Hurricane Sandy. Throughout the storm, we sat in the family room, watching the news for the latest updates, while flashes of light occasionally illuminated the sky and sirens sounded off in the distance, until we went to bed. We wouldn’t know what happened to our home in Hoboken until the next day.

When my husband and I woke up, it was still dark outside. We could hear the generator running, so we knew the neighborhood must have lost power at some point, but we didn’t know how bad the storm had been while we were sleeping or what the damage might be. My husband opened his laptop to access the Internet and I reached for my cell phone. Both were useless—and that really scared us. We could not get the news online. We could not make or receive phone calls—and we knew my in-laws had gotten rid of their landline. Text messaging was also not an option.

Alarmed, we got up to inform my in-laws. When we opened our bedroom door, we heard an unfamiliar but authoritative voice coming from down the hallway. As we walked into my in-laws’ bedroom, I saw the TV was black. “The TV isn’t on?” I asked. My father-in-law smiled and pointed to something in the shadows behind their open bedroom door—the small black portable radio.

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