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Valley of Shadows

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Valley of Shadows

Radio ghosts of Mars

A story in Sandpoint’s Daily Bee during the holidays brought to mind a memory from the late 1960s when I was twelve years old. The story was about KGKX, Sandpoint’s first radio station, which began broadcasting in February 1929 from the second floor of what is now the MacFarland building on the southeast corner of Second and Cedar (for two years, the offices of the River Journal).

In 1968, I was sitting with my uncle Pat and cousins Bob and Molly in Grandma’s house across the street from 615 Forest as my grandmother related a memory from 40 years earlier.

A little background first. When my dad was six years old, his family moved here from Flagstaff, Ariz. in 1922. Granddad was headed back to Canada where he had been born in 1888. Fortunately, or unfortunately, their money ran out here in Sandpoint so they figured it was close enough to Canada.

They first settled on a piece of land just past where the Sagle school is now. In the early 30s they moved to a small ranch (see “The Decade After,” a two-part story in the July and August issues of the River Journal), close to what is now the fire station.

Anyway, my grandparents were unable to afford one of the huge old tube radios and my grandmother, especially, would often go over to a neighbor’s place to listen to those early broadcasts in the late afternoon after chores. She would sit and listen to the broadcasts and have tea—one of the few social activities at the time from what I’ve gathered.

KGKX’s first eight months of transmission in 1929 were only heard as far as Cocolalla. Then, in October, the power was increased to 100 watts and they could be heard all over the country and into Canada. This shows you how pristine the transmission bands were in those days. Nowadays, 100 watts would be drowned out in short order.

It was conditions such as this that may  have led to a mystery that dated back over 30 years, to the 1890s and Marconi’s early radio experiments. From 1895 until around 1903, this radio pioneer’s work led to the oscilloscope, among other things. He would later testify concerning the Titanic’s marine telegraphy’s functions. Further, he also related that a number of times he had received odd transmissions from parts unknown, even though there were no other known radio transmitters at that time. In this same era Nikolas Tesla (fodder for another column) was obsessed with the possibility of contact with Mars. His work was officially scoffed at in governmental and scientific circles. He later became an advocate of the occult, which further dampened his reputation. Once employed by Thomas Edison, he died in 1943 and his papers were mysteriously seized by the U.S. government.

During the 1924 close approach to Mars by Earth, the government and the U.S. Navy asked all radio transmitters in the country to maintain radio silence for five minutes on the hour, every hour, for two days in August of that year so they could listen for signals from Mars. It was called National Radio Silence Day, if you want to look it up.

The leader of the project was David Todd, astronomy professor and friend of Percival Lowell. At his direction, a radio receiver was lifted 3,000 meters into the air by a dirigible tuned to a frequency between 5 and 6 kilocycles to record any extraterrestrial/Martian signals. A radio-camera at Amherst College produced flashes of light that was recorded on film whenever an incoming radio wave was detected. On August 21 a roll  of sensitized paper 30 feet long and 6 inches wide slowly moved and signals modulated by electrical radio signals fed from an antenna on Todd’s dirigible aimed at Mars produced some surprising results.

Recording for 36 hours, the film was developed and Francis Jenkins, the machine’s inventor, told a press conference that the device had indeed received signals. Fairly regular dogs and dashes appeared about every half hour along one side of the page. Inexplicably, however, on the other side, at almost evenly spaced intervals, were curiously jumbled groups each appearing to be a crudely drawn human face. (Now where have we seen that before? Oh, yes, the Face of Mars on the Cydonia plain as photographed by the Viking probes as well as more recent orbiters.)

The radio camera-generated drawings were later sent to the Virginia Military Institute, where it’s said they were confiscated at some point by the National Security Agency (established in 1952). Surprise!

Mysterious radio signals continued, however. In 1927 Americans Taylor and Young heard odd signals that seemed to come from space. WHAS radio station in Louisville, Ken. added to the mix, claiming interference with their broadcasts from Mars. Then there were the Boston “zzzip” signals....

The American Amateur Radio Relay League, headquartered in Newington, Con., has records that indicate members were convinced that they were picking up radio signals from Mars, pre-World War II.

Back to my grandmother’s story and her once-a-week visit to her neighbor in the fall of 1929. On Fridays, waiting for the three-hour broadcast from 10-watt station KGKX over tea I listened as Grandma told my uncle and cousins the story from those many years ago that before and after the music and talk from the new station they would hear... other things. A clicking, a moaning, a static interspersed with an electronic jumble in those long ago days of radio. One time they even heard what sounded like a voice speaking in a strange, ghostly, alien tongue.

All this gave my grandma a thrill. It was something beyond the mundane life of the early 20th century. But are or were these automated transmissions from a dying or dead civilization? My cousins asked if Grandma ever told anyone. She replied that Grandpa (Robert A. Fury) wouldn’t have believed in such nonsense.

LollaBelle’s (Grandma’s) friend’s husband had walked in one afternoon a little early from the field as the two ladies were still listening to the radio and heard some odd noises for himself coming from the huge speaker.

He clammed up, refusing to acknowledge the sounds, but refusing to debunk them. He just remained safely silent.

The government denies any alien signals or anything else, just as they did eighty-plus years ago. With today’s cluttered airwaves of satellite signals, internet, cell phones, multiple television HD signals and more, the average person has no chance of intercepting a strange voice from another world. But is it still out there? Still sending a plaintive call for anyone to listen to a world now dead many millennium? Waiting for the day mankind visits the red planet himself and discovers the truth?

Until March, and “The cry of the Banshee...”

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Author info

Lawrence Fury Lawrence Fury is an inveterate letter-to-the-editor writer, and a conservative conscience for this area of North Idaho. He's also an expert on local ghost stories, and is compiling a group of them for future book publication. You can read more about him in a Love Notes feature for the River Journal

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