Hammond on the CB radio

Posted by Richard Hammond at 06:45 am on Thursday August 16, 2012

I never had a CB radio in the early Eighties, and it bothered me. Ok, so I never had a BMX or a skateboard either, but it was the CB that tempted me like a tray of burgers at a health farm. Jeremy will tell you that they are only used by murderers in 4x4s to swap details of snuff websites and plan satanic rituals. But he's a man who spends way too much time agonising over what type of olives he should have with his rocket and loganberry salad to be trusted in matters extending more than a metre beyond the delicatessen door. I wanted one because the truckers in the convoy movies had them and said cool stuff on them and used numbers when they meant "yes" or "no" and had ‘handles'. The fact is, CBs were just cool and I really couldn't see why every truck and every family car in the country didn't have one so we could drive around saying cool stuff.

And then, overnight, they vanished. By the time I had even a whiff of a chance of adorning my first car with a mag-mounted whip aerial and inventing a handle of my own, they had simply massed together and stampeded off our little island. Sure, the mobile phone came along, and so car-to-car communication was possible. But you need to know the number of the person you are calling, rather than just cruising the highways shouting, "Breaker Breaker one nine, you got yer ears on," and all that stuff. You're never going to encounter a stranger wanting help with smokeys on their tail by mobile. And your bank manager doesn't buzz you up on your CB to talk about your overdraft. But the CB vanished and stayed that way, as far as I was concerned. Until recently.

I was recently filming in the US, with a bunch of loggers in the hills of Oregon. In order to get to the loggers, we had to drive for an hour and a half along 20 miles of unmade tracks into the woods. On Day One, the white-whiskered logger who collected me in his battered pickup swung us past a metal gate and into the woods to begin the long haul in. As he did so, he picked up the handset of a CB, thumbed the button in, just how I had imitated at the age of 10, and spoke into the device in his raspy drawl.

"At the 19 miles, coming in, pickup, two times," was all he said. It was the first time I'd thought about a CB radio in 30 years, and, suddenly, I wanted one again.

The radio itself was a pretty humdrum-looking device. Power came from the cigar lighter, a single cable ran out of the window to the aerial, and the radio itself was just a beige box, half the size of a car stereo. We turned to the left, the driver turned the dial to change channel on the CB and spoke once again into the mic.

"Foot of the main, 13 miles, pickup, times two, comin' in." And the device lit up from here on, rattling out a non-stop symphony of voices. Truckers hauling 60 tonnes of logs warned us of their approach. Every vehicle on the tracks of the 100,000 acres of woodland identified itself, its direction of travel and its position in relation to mile-marker boards fixed to trees each half-mile.

But this was more than a safety feature; people were turning up for work, setting off to spend lonely hours in the woods felling trees. Some were leaving the hill, their truck loaded and heavy, headed for the sawmills way out across the state. The CB was their meeting place, their water cooler, their canteen. Sure, the airwaves were reserved for passing safety information and news of faults with machines, requests for help, but interwoven into the fabric of these exchanges were coded messages. Nicknames were used, eliciting chuckles from other drivers in on the joke. Kids were asked after, the brief enquiry and short answer cementing friendships.

And then I knew why the CB I had wanted so much as a kid had evaporated from the UK. We had nothing to say. Truckers don't set off on long journeys where they will crave news from home; they drive to Manchester. When I drive back from work, I share the M4 with a million other drivers, crammed between roadworks we know are there because they've been there since the day they never finished building the motorway. If nothing changes, what the hell would we talk about? We're British, we don't chat, we don't shoot the breeze. Had we adopted the CB, there would have been a wire-tight, stomach-wrenchingly awkward silence that would have lasted right until today and likely past tomorrow too. I shall indulge my romantic ideas of sharing the road with fellow travellers by raising a manly finger at the wheel to wave at another Land Rover driver or nodding my head at bikers as we pass.


TAGS// richard hammond

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