I spent much of my childhood in the cab of one ranch vehicle or another. I loved to sit perched next to my father in the tractor as he wound through the dry-land wheat fields of Eastern Montana. By ten I was driving the beat-up farm trucks and at 15 I landed my first paying gig driving the dump truck during corn harvest. We lived in town most of my life – closer to schools and the hospitals where my mother worked as a nurse, so we all drove back and forth to the ranch. I didn’t know the word “commute,” but we spent a lot of time in the car. I suppose that’s when I learned to listen to the radio.
It sounds sort of old-fashioned, Luddite even, but the public radio station was our connection to the world. As I drove and worked on the ranch, I learned the names of every All Things Considered host. I woke up to Morning Edition and listened to What Do You Know every Friday night. Even now, as I scramble eggs for my kids and pack school backpacks, the morning news squawks from a grease-spattered clock radio.
This week the radio showed up in person. Yellowstone Public Radio personality Chrysti Smith spoke at Sheridan College and the public Library. Smith’s syndicated program, Chrysti the Wordsmith, was one of my childhood favorites. The short, daily broadcast has been called “a word-lover’s audio oasis.” For me it was two minutes of etymological travel. Smith takes her listeners around the world, connecting our everyday language with history and culture and anthropology. It’s about as geeky as it gets.
When Chrysti called my office last spring, I had to confess that I was a bit star-struck. At thirteen, I didn’t know that I would teach English or that I would spend years reading the classics in graduate school, but every morning in the car, I listened to Chrysti the Wordsmith tell stories about words. And I was riveted. Her voice over the phone was like an English major celebrity sighting and a visit from my childhood. I couldn’t wait to meet her and introduce her smart brand of entertainment to my students.
Smith claims that dictionaries offer the most riveting reading on the market. She prefers them to novels and travels to speaking engagements with a rolling suitcase full of hard cover copies of Webster and the OED. She studied anthropology and archeology and clearly cherishes history and culture, but Smith’s real talent is storytelling. Her explanations of words like “panic” (the goat-footed, God of the wild, Pan, made enough noise to terrify us all) and “iridescent” (of many colors, like the Greek goddess’ rainbow-colored gowns) are plotted like fiction. Yesterday, a room full of college freshman, community members, and faculty sat quietly waiting for the surprising punch lines about words like “echo” and “music.” We listened and laughed and – I think – felt that connection that only shared understanding and good stories can offer.
For me, the voices on the radio take on their own existence in my mind. I construct faces and imagine entire friendships; in a sense, the radio helps me to tell myself the story of the world around me. The disembodied voices become my narrators. Several times during Smith’s presentation, I closed my eyes. The sound of her voice was immediately familiar and encouraging. I was back in the cab of a truck listening to the scratchy, turn-dial radio. On those long car rides, I escaped into the stories on the radio. I learned about wars and scientific discoveries and history. I guess I worried that seeing the person behind the curtain would ruin the magic. But in fact, Ms. Smith’s visit did just the opposite – my faith in words and storytelling was reinforced.