A Kind of Transmutation
This text first appeared in The Silver Bulletin #4. It acts a sort Part 3 to the Disappearance Reappearance articles from TSB #1 & 2.
An early broadcast, Telephone Herald in Budapest, Hungary 1901, an American girl listens to a radio during the Great Depression and a NBS Circular 120 Home Crystal Radio.
The first edition cover of the book How to Disappear Completely and Never be Found has the word Disappear written on it seven times in a row, one on top of the other. The first five times the letters are solid, but on the sixth, the D, I, S & A begin to dissolve, leading to the seventh occasion, where all the letters eroding, from left to right, with the first few almost completely gone. The composition prompts you to continue the process in your mind, watching each letter disappear with each new incarnation of the word, until nothing is left.
Labeled a ‘self-help’ book, ‘How to Disappear Completely and Never be Found’ was written in 1985 by Doug Richmond. The author analyses motives for disappearance, details first hand accounts from people who have done so, and finally provides a step by step guide on how to create a new identity, tactics that read largely redundant sixteen years later.
After being inspired to write the book due to a chance encounter with a man who’d changed identities, Richmond set out to research the topic, quickly finding this a hard task. The chance encounter that had sparked his interest wasn’t something he could replicate. In the introduction to the book, Richmond touches on this problem, and discusses ways he attempted to find his elusive subject:
I hit on the idea of handing out printed cards all over the San Francisco Bay area inviting people with first hand knowledge of identity changing to call me.1
Of course this ‘see what sticks’ methodology was intrinsically problematic given the circumstances. People who had gone to a great deal of effort and caution to disappear into a new identity were not exactly willing to turn around and respond to a calling card. But inevitably this method of distribution did not leave him completely empty handed — when a signal is sent out, it has to garner some manner of response...
Unfortunately, instead of people with first-hand knowledge of disappearances, I received a huge number of calls from people contemplating pulling the stunt and about an equal number from out-and-out screwballs.2
What Richmond had effectively enacted was a form of broadcast. With the origins of the word lying in agriculture — meaning to scatter seeds by hand or machine rather than placing in drills or rows — to broadcast is to forsake the certainty of a target audience for a randomised dispersal, sending out a signal that can be picked up by anyone, opening up a wider audience and in the process creating an avenue for varying and unexpected responses.
Another example of this form of distribution can be found near the end of All the Pretty Horses, a Cormac McCarthy novel published in 1992. The protagonist John Grady Cole finds himself at the house of a radio evangelist, Jimmy Blevins of the Jimmy Blevins Gospel Hour. Led to the house in search of a certain J. Blevins, he finds this certain J. Blevins not to be the one he’s looking for, but on the insistence of the preacherswife he agrees to stay for dinner. It is the kind of encounter that repeatedly occurs in the book, as Grady wanders the border lands, making use of what’s around him, accepting hospitality as he comes across it, but finding trouble just as often.
While at the Blevins house, Grady is told of the preachers success as a radio evangelist, first receiving letters from listeners all over the world, and soon much more:
He was the first one to have you putyour hands on the radio you know, she said.
He started that, Puttin your hands on the radio. He’d pray over the radio and heal everbody that was settin there with their hands on the radio.
Fore that he’d have people send in things and he’d pray over em but there was a lot of problems connected with that. People expect a lot of a minister of God. He cured a lot of people and of course everbody heard about it over the radio and I dont like to say this but it got bad. I thought it did.
He ate. She watched him.
They sent dead people, she said.
They sent dead people. Crated em up and shipped em railway express. It got out of hand. You cant do nothin with a dead person. Only Jesus could do that.3
There is a bizarre transference that takes place here, a horror version of send and receive. The intangible transmission of a voice through the airwaves is responded to in the very physical and tangible form of the body sent by railway express. But Blevins has a tactical response, if his voice can be transferred through the air, received by those tuned in... why not his healing powers as well?
Set at the dawn of the 1950’s and in the middle of the golden age of the radio, this passage serves to document the amount of power the radio once held as an early archetype for mass media, the distribution of ideas to a wide audience — the ability to broadcast. After the first official ‘radio program’ broadcast took place on christmas eve, 1906 and, spurred on by the invention of the vacuum tube and its capability of electronic amplification, by the 1920’s the radio had become a commercialized technology, widespread and practical for use in everyday life.4 The technology represented a massive leap forward — suddenly the limitations of space and time in the distribution of messages and ideas didn’t exist. Reliance on the transportation of the physical, tangible object was lessened, the price and logistics that had been involved in reaching a wide audience disappeared. I can imagine the excitement that must have existed around this new found ability to transmit such a wide-ranging signal — in the fictional case of Blevins; from his study at home, around the world, to a broad audience. The technology must have felt so intangible, so futuristic... that one could speak into a transmitter, and that voice travel through the air and be channelled by whoever had the ability receive, some listeners having the channel number and others simply turning the dial until they settled on something they liked. What radio was also providing, above and beyond its ability to reach many simultaneously and cheaply, was the ability to transmit more than just the power of an idea, but the gamut of emotions that is the human voice, the broadcasting of a moment and, in the case of Jimmy Blevins, some kind of healing power.
The main problem for Blevins and anyone broadcasting at the time, was the power of their transmission was only as strong as its ability to be received. Unlike packing a hall and speaking from the front to a captive audience, broadcasters relied on their audience having the ability to receive their signal... To own a specific piece of technology, a radio receiver set. Early in the history of broadcasting, the United States government recognised the importance of getting receivers into as many houses as possible. This was achieved by the Crystal Set... In 1922 the (then named) U.S. Bureau of Standards released a publication entitled; Construction and Operation of a Simple Homemade Radio Receiving Outfit.5 This article showed how almost any family having a member handy with simple tools could make a radio and tune in to weather, crop prices, time, news and, of course, gospel hours. The crystal set was a DIY tool for receiving; representative of the new found ease and efficiency in the flow of information. Like Richmond and his calling cards, dropping them off all round the San Francisco Bay area for any one to find, the crystal set brought the ability for broadcasts to be picked up anyone with limited resources and a bit of know how; giving broadcasters an audience and causing Blevins to find dead people arriving on his doorstep.
In fact, going back to the etymology of ‘broadcast’ and thinking about the outcomes in these two examples; Richmond with his ‘screwballs’ and Blevins with his dead people, the idea of the scattered seeds as a tactic for distribution is strangely alluring... To broadcast is to loosen control on results, to not know exactly where and when something will take place or who will be involved. It is to embrace what is unknown, hard to define and unexpected.