On Friday evenings, the highways leading out of America's cities are clogged with urban buckaroos headed for the desert, the woods, the water, wherever they go to keep those concrete canyons at bay. In station wagons, Jeeps, Broncos, Blazers and pickups, towing snowmobiles, motorcycles, sailboats, ice-fishing shacks and house trailers, the great armies are on the move. And more and more, poking above the clouds of dust and heat waves of exhaust gas, are citizens' band radio antennas. It's an exodus in the age of McLuhan, with the airwaves, like the highways, clogged.
Created by the Federal Communications Commission in 1958, citizens' band radio was almost unnoticed until the 1973 fuel crisis and the establishment of a nationwide 55-mph speed limit. Then truckers, intent on gunning across America at 70, began using CB as a means of outwitting state police. In response, Massachusetts state troopers took to hiding radar equipment in hay trucks and hitchhikers' backpacks, and in Maryland a yellow Peterbilt truck with "ears" (a CB rig) is notorious as a cover for that state's policemen.
The FCC, which last year lowered CB licensing fees for five-year validations from $20 to $4, reports that some 10 million Americans are broadcasting big 10-4s (transmission shorthand for "I understand and agree") on the 23 CB frequencies and that it is now receiving more than 400,000 license applications a month at its Gettysburg, Pa. headquarters. Contributing to the boom is the new competitive price for CB rigs; once selling for around $200, they now can be had for as little as $60, and to accommodate the horde of purchasers, CB lobbyists are pushing a bill in Congress to expand the number of channels to 80. Unlike the older "ham" operator's certificate, a CB license does not require that the holder know Morse code or have any other knowledge of radio procedure. In fact, many CBers' techniques seem to have been gleaned from old Highway Patrol television shows, in which Broderick Crawford hung over the door of a cruiser, 10-4ing like a trooper, so to speak.
Generally unnoticed in the barrage of publicity about truckers using CB to foil the "Smokeys" (the code name for state and local police derived from the hats worn by many troopers) is the fact that CB has also been playing a fast-growing role in sports. Now employed by hunters, fishermen, golfers, cross-country runners and skiers, snowmobilers and birders, CB is changing some of those sports for the better but possibly creating conditions for irreparable harm in others.
The sports applications of CB generally stem from the same rationale that made it attractive to truckers: a means to quickly get specific, and not generally available, information. Even with a CB this can require some ingenuity. Take the Denver duck hunter, for instance, who quickly has learned that truckers have become rather clannish about speaking to mere cars ("4-wheelers") on CB. In an effort to find out if the weather is foul enough to assure good hunting—and out in the Rockies this is not an easy task, as the National Weather Service is reduced to playing mumblety-peg on the meteorological charts because of sudden changes over the mountains—he is now-imitating truckers ("18-wheelers") for on-the-spot weather info. "This is Meat Wagon outta Denver with a reefer on, can anyone give me a copy on 85 northbound? Come on." And the answer comes back 10-4, "This is Pressure Cooker, Meat Wagon, we got the front door up here, and it's clean and green all the way. Smokey must be sleeping. Put the pedal to the metal and keep the bear outta your hair. We got some ice in the pass, the 4-wheelers are sliding off. Catch you on the flip-flop. I'm gone."
Even though the argot can sound like Houston Mission Control getting its wires crossed with a Shake 'n Bake commercial, it's a sure piece of information to the duck hunter, who glides into a gas station to attach tire chains. Of course he's driving a modest station wagon and not an 18-wheeler, but thanks to his ear for trucker dialect he now has a reading on road conditions that will get him to his blind before dawn. In addition to the ice in the pass, he has also learned that there is no police activity on the highway, and he can "put the hammer down."
Skiers who also want that peculiar combination of inclement weather to make conditions right for their sport and yet need safe roads to get there depend heavily on CBs to find out that the prerecorded telephone message promising "16 inches of new powder doesn't also mean that eight-foot drifts on the roads have stopped the plows.
The safety factor for motorists and sportsmen equipped with CB radios is increased as well. From a flat tire to a broken axle, from merely establishing one's location in unfamiliar woods to being saved from death while injured or hopelessly lost, CB is fast becoming the answer. But perhaps CB's biggest contribution to automotive safety is far less dramatic and best summed up by the Chicago-based salesman who ventures onto the long Midwestern interstate highways for hours a day, where straight, monotonous driving can produce a dopey inattention to the road. "It keeps me alert," he says. "I used to listen to the radio all the time, but with all that "Top 40' stuff, where you hear the same dumb songs over and over, you can't have a real rapport with the radio. CB is great because you're always looking out for who's on the air, and the talk is about the road you're on and what's going on around you. It's amazing how many other peddlers I pick up on here. We talk about where we're going, which motels to stay away from. Things like that."
CB is useful off the road, too. In many of the country's primitive areas, summer camps and cottages are often beyond the reach of the telephone—which is part of their popularity—and CB provides the same extra safety margin for campers as it does for a motorist with a disabled car. Best of all, you can turn the thing off when you don't want to be bothered. But if you flip it on, someone almost certainly will be listening. And in most circumstances it will be someone close by, as the effective range for most CBs is between five and ten miles. It is this fact that probably accounted for the first recreational use of CB in any volume. Often just out of sight of other anglers, the owners of small boats fishing in coastal or Great Lakes waters who couldn't afford high-priced, high-powered marine VHF radio equipment took to CB like tuna after a school of baitfish.
"It's a great invention," says a bakery worker who, when the bluefish or striped bass are running, fishes from a 20-foot outboard in the unpredictable Atlantic off Long Island. "I've got a CB in the car, so if I'm driving home from work and hear of any activity out on the water, I can drive right to the boat. I can tell my wife I'm going because we have a base station at the house, and another rig on the boat helps me keep in touch with her, too. The best part is talking with the other guys out there that I know. We talk about where the schools are, if we've spotted any baitfish, that stuff. And it's a safety factor, too. Once I ran out of gas and was drifting around for a while but a call on the emergency channel got a guy to come over with a tank pretty quick." Because of the high number of false alarms and jumbled receptions, the Coast Guard does not automatically respond to a CB emergency call, and in emergencies boaters often have to rely on the concern and expertise of fellow CB owners.