I am listening to the radio. The DJ tonight is a 93-year-old elderly man with a feeble voice. He is introducing the songs of Frank, Ella, Bing, Nat, and Lawrence.
I turn it up.
This is a pirate radio station. Until a few minutes ago, I didn’t know anything about pirate radio. I looked it up. Wikipedia says pirate radio is any station that broadcasts without a valid license. Meaning: I still don’t know what the heck it means.
All I know is that I’ve been listening to radio gold for a few hours. I’ve heard such giants as Elvis, Hank Williams, Bob Wills, the Beach Boys, and of course Frankie Yankovic playing his American masterstroke, the “Hoop Dee Doo Polka.”
This radio station is called Radio Recliner. It is available on the internet. The station is disc-jockeyed by elderly people who are quarantined in assisted living facilities around the country.
In other words, the old people call the shots. They choose the songs, announce them, and talk to listeners using cellphone microphones from the safety of their own rooms.
Radio Recliner was started by an Atlanta and Birmingham-based marketing firm who thought it would be great to let elderly people have their own radio station during a pandemic. This station has become so popular that every hopeless sentimental from here to Timbuktu is tuning in. Like me.
Tonight’s DJ tells his audience a little about himself between songs:
“Hi ya, I’m 93 years old, and I’m feeling good tonight…”
A song begins to play. “In the Mood,” by Glenn Miller. The song is so peppy that I am bouncing in my seat while I write this column.
The music ends. The elderly voice comes on again, this time to tell a story.
“I was in World War II,” he says. “I was 18 years old and foolish, the war certainly made me grow up in a hurry… There was this one time I stole pies from our Navy ship kitchen, I was lucky I didn’t get caught…”
This is followed by muted trumpets, licorice-stick clarinets, slide trombones, and the other melodies of World War II.
As it happens, I’ve been talking to elderly people in nursing homes this week by phone, asking them how it feels to be isolated.
“It’s horrible,” says one 88-year-old in an Atlanta facility. “Young people might think they’re lonely in this virus thing, but you’ve never known lonely until you’re an old lady.”
“It’s a nightmare,” said a 76-year-old man I spoke with in Louisiana. “Except for the gal who delivers my groceries, I haven’t looked another human in the eyes. It’s like living on a cruise ship, or being in a jail.”
Another man tells me he eats mostly microwaved frozen food and plays checkers with himself all day.
Well, that’s where Radio Recliner radio station comes in. Elderly people are sticking together by broadcasting their favorite music to each other. And even though this station is—technically—illegal, it’s connecting people. Any senior citizen can sign up to be a DJ. Anyone can listen. Even saps like me.
The upbeat song ends.
The DJ’s shaky voice says, “I’d like to attribute my 93 years of longevity to my wife, who took care of me all these years, swing music was special to her. I miss her so much, I wish I could hold her close again…”
A Sinatra dance number plays. I’m tapping my foot.
This week, I interviewed a 90-year-old in Tampa. “Yeah, I’ve been a little depressed,” she said. “We’re not allowed to leave the building, we go outside sometimes, but…” A sniffle. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to cry for your interview, sir.”
Another man from a facility in Ohio: “For Memorial Day, we got daiquiris delivered to our rooms. We were only allowed one daiquiri apiece. Hell, I coulda used a LOT more than ONE puny daiquiri, I coulda used a case of Schlitz.”
The DJ announces the next song. “I’ll Never Smile Again.” It’s gentle, it’s easy. I’m closing my eyes. In a small way, I’m right there with my host. I’m in his hearth, listening, remembering. And maybe I’m feeling a little of the loneliness he feels. Through music.
When the last chorus ends, the DJ says, “I have two children, I’d like to dedicate this next song to my kids and grandkids, who I can’t see…”
The song is “I Cried For You,” by Ella Fitzgerald.
Sadly, the old man’s radio show is coming to an end and he’s bidding goodnight to his listeners. He thanks us for tuning in. He leaves us with parting words before signing off.
I turn it up as loud as it will go.
“Friends, don’t put off until tomorrow doing something you wanna do today. Just do it, ‘cause you never know if tomorrow will come.”
It’s an average Tuesday night. I’m seated in my den, listening to American music, and the voice of an elder. This has been one of the best nights of my last two months. My DJ delivers his final capper for the evening:
“I was born and raised in New York, the Bronx. I was married for 66 years, that might be some sorta record, I dunno… My wife passed away, and I miss her tremendously. Her name was Ailene, and I’d like to dedicate this song to my Ailene.”
The tune is: “I’ll Be Seeing You.” My speaker is practically leaking from Bing Crosby’s voice. And so are my eyes.
This is Sean Dietrich, signing off.