Once upon a time on the Banks Peninsula
We were station kids, my sister, brother and I. We lived on a radio station.
It was, as all radio stations were, a remote and lofty community, home to a collection of wives and children who followed the husband’s job from radio station to radio station, setting up home until it was time to move on to the next radio station.
Radio stations were a phenomena of New Zealand life in the mid-twentieth century. They were the only means of communication, along with a telephone plugged into a wall. Radio was a vital industry, with just a tinge of glamour, and it required a national technical infrastructure to ensure it worked 24 hours a day. Stations were strung along the length and breadth of the country, from Southland to the Far North.
The station sites were chosen strategically, probably by a wartime cabinet, for their remoteness and isolation, for their distance and disconnection from any flotsam of civilisation tainting the surrounding landscape. Sites were chosen too for their elevation. Each radio mast looked like a poor colonial relation of the Eiffel Tower. Plain and imposing in their own way, these tall steel masts caught the radio waves flitting through the air like butterflies in a net, then flung them onwards to the next lone mast arising from the next radio station further up or further down the country.
The mast would zip their messages down to the heart of each radio station operation, the transmitter station, purpose-built below. Here, the airwaves and airwords would be captured in huge, marbled-steel cabinets called transmitters, lined up like rows and rows of gigantic fridges, the ancestors of today’s computers.
At least, I think that’s how worked. Dad knew how it worked. It was his job to know. He was a Radio Technician.
The transmitter building was always a solid, concrete bunker. It was war-proof. It had to be. It was the place of work for the husbands and the dads, and it was the centre of our radio station world. Apart from the tea-room, with its incomprehensible wallpaper of naked women, the transmitter station was just one huge warm room that hummed and zinged all day and all night. It was the men’s job to keep it humming and zinging 24 hours a day so that people could keep listening to their radios. It was an important job because if there was a national emergency, like a giant tsunami or a volcanic eruption or a Viet Cong invasion, then radio was the only way to let people know what was happening.
The giant transmitter room perpetually throbbed with its wide lanes of purring transmitters. The lino was clean and soft, like a shiny carpet of cork, ideal for indoor roller-skating. Outside, the entranceway was graced by a wide sweep of concrete steps leading up into a narrow lobby, where the families’ mailboxes ranged alphabetically in cubby holes along two walls, ready to receive our Christmas cards and their gorgeous glittering stamps.
To enter the transmitter room, you would need to heave open the thick glass-and-brass double doors from the lobby. Then you would emerge into another world, absorbed immediately into the soft, padded interior of a spaceship, engulfed by a hum and a rush of warmth. Then came the smell, polished lino mixed with a uniquely zippy, metallic tang, like citrus without the fruit. It was the smell of raw electricity, warm, live and masculine, like lemons and science.
And the room was always silent, apart from the hum.
Kids weren’t allowed inside the transmitter station, but we did enter sometimes, if Dad was on nightshift, or working alone, or if we were exceptionally bored at home. We could beg to go in and roller skate on the lino in our clunky tin skates. No one would know. Or we could dance to very loud music, alone in the soundproof studio kept for national transmission in case of emergency, but never used, except by us.
Radio stations were encampments in the middle of nowhere, with names indicating the landscape we inhabited: Junction, Pass, Bay. This time we were at Gebbies Pass on Banks Peninsula, as if a crow had flown and stopped to rest on a radio mast mid-point between Lyttelton and Akaroa. A high summit with one thin and winding access road, leading only to us, and flayed by belligerent weather.
Our homes were mapped and belonged to the government, which paid our dads’ wages and provided us with houses and gardens and sheds, with gigantic Guy Fawkes bonfires consuming whole trees, and Christmas parties at 3ZB in the city where we would get a bottle of Fanta and Santa would turn up with a present for each kid. Mothers, fathers, babies, kids, kittens, guinea pigs, neighbours – we all belonged to the NZBC, the New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation. We moved from station to station as police and railway families did, but in our case, we moved in a remote and rarefied world, like Himalayan nomads or Mongolian horse people, far removed from any lowland police or railway station.
We lived so far from civilisation we didn’t even have to go to church on a Sunday, which made our parents secretly glad. When they weren’t working, our dads put down gardens to feed their families. Or they would collect all the station kids and drive us down to Camp Bay to swim, or to Birdlings Flat to collect agates, or all the way into Tai Tapu to swim in our concrete school pool. Our mums worked inside, having babies and bathing them in the kitchen sink, cooking lunch and tea, baking and cleaning, sometimes reading a magazine. Mum said that when she was pegging out the washing, she could hear a radio programme humming through the clothesline. Dad said that was just the transmission from the South Pole.
Big things always happened to mark the year. Fire, snow, lost people, lost animals, heatwaves. Even bush fires from Australia sent their smoke over, encroaching like a fluffy wave of dirty cloud rolling in over the Canterbury Plains towards us, the smoke clouds the same height as our sitting room window. Would it reach us? Would our windows be enough to keep out the smoke? We never knew. We lived so high up, freezing in the winter and sweltering in the summer, so much further up than other people, that the new TV station in Christchurch used us to measure the highs and lows of the daily temperature.
Dad was also the station’s seismograph technician. He measured and recorded the earth’s movement, which meant he could disappear from the light and hum of the transmitter building into an underground bunker dug deep into the hillside halfway down towards the bottom mast. The seismograph hut was a dark, musty, one-room pre-historic cave. Only the faintest degree of light was permissible. Inside the cave was one chair and one table. On the table, a large plastic baby bath was filled with chemical fluid, and inside, a submerged roll of photographic paper was secured by wired fingers which made squiggly lines each time the earth moved, which we couldn’t feel but we knew we were living on a volcano, which the adults said was extinct, but you never knew what could happen. It was alive once and what did the squiggly lines mean if the earth wasn’t still moving?
The three radio masts marked out our playground, wide and vast with no adult supervision. In winter the ice would drip from the steel beams in long fat stalactites heading down toward the ground. By mid-morning the sun would be releasing daggers of ice from the highest steel struts, slowly falling downward through the air like a brace of arrows. If you looked up through the centre of the mast you could see the lattice of steel rise to a single high apex, its filaments fringed with beautiful white-blue droplets of ice, each being released in turn and dropping from a different place – weapons of slow coldness falling soundlessly through the sky. Sharp, pointy raindrops elongating as they fell. The blitzkrieg of icy danger made us pant and holler with excitement, puffing smoke from our mouths into the cold crisp air, steam rising from our warm bodies as we ripped off coats and hats and gloves, loopy with joy and excess energy and wondering how our mothers could bear to be inside making the beds and chopping the veges for lunch.
Each mast formed a square, with four feet securely encased into the earth in ugly concrete shoes. They were impressive, but maybe a bit too close to the houses. Perhaps the masts gave Mum and Dad cancer so young. Who knows?
Tomorrow in ReadingRoom: Christchurch poet Erik Kennedy on being trolled and threatened for writing a poem about New Zealand’s continuing trade in Western Sahara for “blood phosphate”.