“Radio to the youth is the best possible foundation of the future self made man,” reads the magazine Radio News. Your father, who must have gone to some trouble to get it, nods and slides it over to you on the breakfast table so you can see. He sees how, at ten years old, you’re fascinated by the workings of things, the questions you ask about electricity and engines. He jokes that soon you’ll figure out how to fix the new tractor.
He’s a self-made man. He and your uncle scraped together enough money to lease the farm after they’d worked out here for years.
You first hear the radio on your cousin Chiyo’s crystal set. Then you get your own, a shiny box on the mantle. The broadcasts are dreams that filter into your house: music and vaudeville, the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, a program called Great Moments in History that at one point features a down-home version of Paul Revere. Your mother carefully turns the dial every evening and lets you pick the station, as Davey is too young to care. You care less about the station and more about the fact of it, music floating invisibly all around you.
So you start to build your own radios, too. Get some of the first vaccuum tubes and put up an antenna, with the help of your father, along one wall of the hay barn. You get to hear clear voices from everywhere, call signs from all over the country. Europe, even, and New Zealand.
By 1940 the tractor’s not the problem anymore and you rent a threshing machine, too. It’s probable you’re going to marry Mika Watabe. Your father has arthritis in his hands. At night you still listen to the radio.
Your brother Dave is 15 when you hear about Pearl Harbor.
He brings his violin and when they dump it out to inspect your luggage one of the strings breaks with a dull twang, frequency 196 cycles per second. He’s a sensitive kid even though he was on the football team back home and he almost cries, because he forgot to pack his spare strings while he was saying goodbye to the dog.
The idea of America rides on radio waves, chasing itself across the plains like wind whipping through wheat, and sometimes there’s a storm.
So you volunteer as soon as they’re taking anyone and in training you simultaneously piss off and impress the sergeant with your competence. You learn how to salute just fast enough, not too fast, not too eager, and to keep your face locked down deadpan. They pick you out and ask you a lot of questions to make sure you aren’t fifth column, what with all that knowing Morse code and how to put together a shortwave radio from scrap. You explain it simply. Radio News and the best possible foundation for a self-made man. The colonel laughs.
But for some godforsaken reason they put you in a mixed regiment and say, “Have at it, cowboy.” You don’t have the heart to explain you farmed wheat, not cattle. It’s true you’re quick on the draw, don’t say much, and chew gum like tobacco. Our California cowboy, that’s what the guys in your unit call you. From some of them it’s fond and from some of them it comes with a sting like spilled battery acid. You work the radio and they train you up as a medic after learning how you used to help the local doctor out on rounds.
In the holding cells in Kreischberg you meet Sergeant Barnes. He looks out for the ones who don’t seem like they’re going to make it, and sure enough, most don’t. When some guy dies he goes nuts, gets himself beat up by the guards, but not before he takes out one of them with his own baton. He’s cracking jokes when you try to clean him up after. You have a feeling he’s not going to last long.
When Captain America comes to the rescue you’re a little skeptical.
You ask Barnes, who knows him somehow, who the hell is this guy, is he the one in the comics (as you’ve seen those and they aren’t fit to wipe your ass on, all yellow-faced demons and this lug in a flag gleefully throwing bombs on them.) You want to ask Barnes how he’s still alive but he has a haunted, wrecked expression on that tells you he’s not quite sure.
He assures you that this guy is not Captain America. Well, he is, but he’s Steve Rogers, for godsakes, the guy’s Irish, he drew pictures for pro-integration pamphlets, has he even seen those comics?
Captain America turns out to have busted up his radio in the fight and even you can’t fix it, though Barnes suggests you try. He’s like that, Barnes, remembers what everyone’s good at and makes suggestions so you feel useful.
Looking at that radio, you wonder what happened that could melt steel casing like that, but leave Captain America just fine.
Later you talk to the Captain about the comics and, even though you think it’s a bit of a waste of time, he writes long, angry letters to the publishers. And then, after a few weeks on base, Cap talks to Colonel Phillips, who grumbles and pulls strings and gets your little brother out of the Poston camp and into Oberlin so he can study music like he wants to. And that’s when you think, all right. Captain America.