When We Were Radio Bandits
Making mix tapes and lip-synching hits together on lazy afternoons made my big brother my own teen idol—until one uncomfortable bedroom moment brought everything crashing down.
We were like radio bandits. Raiding Casey Kasem and his American Top 40 radio countdown show with our own versions of the latest hits, while interjecting our own made-up commercials. It was 1980. I was nine. Raja, my brother and co-host, was twelve. The Iran Hostage Crisis had taken over the daily news; disco was going out as new wave was coming in. Crafting our own advertisements for Nair Hair Removal, the Just Say No anti-drug campaign and The Mighty Hercules, my brother and I thought ourselves brilliant. Kool and The Gang’s hit song “Celebration” and Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust” ruled the airwaves and were weekly standards in our repertoire. “Celebrate good times, c’mon!” I would sing the back-up vocals while Raja mastered his dance moves, singing lead.
Looking back now, I find it interesting that of all the songs in our show playlist, the two tunes we routinely sang were about joy and death. My family lived in Wiesbaden, Germany, at the time while my father fulfilled his duties as an aircraft mechanic for the United States Air Force. Because there was only one U.S. radio station that the military provided, these limited four hours of American Top 40 were our only connection to American pop music - rare glimpses of our past American life.
Every Sunday I anxiously waited for four o’clock to arrive, for this is when we would tape the program and then spend the rest of the week reconstructing and recording our own version of the show. Raja and I often argued over who got the most microphone time and I would usually end up surrendering, but not without a good fight.
“No! It’s my turn!!” I’d scream. “You promised after the last song, I’d be next, you prom-ised!”
Raja warned me to keep my voice down or we would get in trouble.
“Sssh..Sssh..I’ll let you have it in a second, hold still. Geesh, be quiet or Daddy will get mad.” As a child, I was afflicted with the kind of deep shyness that could consume me at any moment. I often imagined myself a ghost. I longed to live in a way where I could participate in life as if invisible. I was terrified to be seen, and yet at the same time I longed for someone to notice me. When I eventually got a hold of the microphone, I was too afraid to sing in front of Raja (a pseudonym) , or anyone, for that matter. I would lock myself in the bathroom for thirty minutes with my brother’s boombox, and the mic, where I’d quietly listen and then tape record my version of Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5.” Pressing play, the thumping piano at the intro of Dolly’s now-classic hit revived something in me. I was alone with the music, and the echoes of the bathroom walls surrounded me like a protective shield. In this solitude, I was pulled out of my insecurities as I entered an otherworld. Slowly, I moved my mother’s plastic rat tail brush closer to my mouth, and as I pressed the play and red record buttons simultaneously on the tape player, I softly mumbled what I thought were the lyrics: “Pour myself a cup of that bitchen.” By the end of the first chorus I was well on my way to singing full voice. “I swear sometimes that man is out to get me!” My brother waited patiently on the other side of the locked door. The rest of the world had Hercules. I had my brother. He was my hero.
Growing up, Raja was a soccer champion and an honors student at every school he attended. Being from a military family, we moved around a lot. He made friends effortlessly. I, on the other hand, struggled with maintaining a C average, had very few friends and preferred to spend my time alone in libraries, or backyards picking out four-leaf clovers. I was terrible at math and my brother was a genius at it. And although he was very talented at solving problems, he had neither patience nor capacity to teach me. Asking him for help on my homework was like a five-minute speed game of "Jeopardy."
“No Starina, 3/4 is not an equivalent fraction to 8/12 …dummy, think about it… the answer is 4/6.” Any chance my brother had to mock me, he did. Yet In spite of all his taunting, I somehow knew he loved me.