Lifestyles

When the going really got tough, the Good Buddies really got going

MIKE MACBETH March 7 1977
Lifestyles

When the going really got tough, the Good Buddies really got going

MIKE MACBETH March 7 1977

When the going really got tough, the Good Buddies really got going

Lifestyles

Aside from doing wonders for retail sales and helping lead-footed drivers avoid tickets for speeding, the Citizens Band radio craze had made impact on little more than the English language, most notably in the nicknames division. Then came one of the worst blizzards in eastern North America’s history and suddenly the CB was able to strut its stuff—as an electronic St. Bernard.

Storms may never be the same again, now that the “good buddies of the airwaves” have shown what their radios and imaginations can do. Some examples:

• In Lindsay, Ontario, the winds were so fierce that they tore the magnetized orange flasher from the roof of Les Hutchinson’s car as he battled to help motorists out of a five-vehicle pileup. Hutchinson, 22, his mother, Peggy, his father, Charles, and his brother, Bruce, 17, all worked during the storm to assist police and motorists. Peggy, with the help of son Grant, 13, ran the CB base station for the Lindsay REACT (for Radio Emergency Associated Citizens Team) group, while the men in her family manned mobile units, patrolling highways and reporting abandoned or stranded cars to police. According to Les Hutchinson:

“If there wasn’t the help and cooperation there was ... some people would have frozen to death.”

• In Buffalo, New York, two CB stalwarts who were identified only as “Vicious Hook” (he turned out to be a Toronto towtruck operator, Jim Butcher) and “Top Wop” (37-year-old Buffalo steelworker Peter Zanda) became civic heroes. Butcher says he heard that the storm in Buffalo was severe, and he began driving his tow truck toward the city from Toronto. “They needed help—are you going to say no?”

Guided by his CB unit, he was soon clearing abandoned vehicles off roads, rescued an ambulance that had become stuck with an emergency patient aboard, helped the National Guard get streets cleared and traffic moving. “Vicious Hook” worked for six days straight. Zanda, on the other hand, manned his REACT base unit for nine days, at one point for 41 consecutive hours, organizing 61 other CB volunteers into a network of rescue drivers and snowmobile patrols.

• In Oshawa, Ont., another CBer, “Super Cricket” (in real life, Bill Murray, a disabled truck driver), manned his unit for 38 straight hours, directing motorists to families who’d opened their homes to the storm-stranded. And in London, Ont., a CB unit was credited with rescuing 30 schoolchildren trapped in a frigid bus.

Altogether, it was a stunning performance by the CB people, who are a breed apart anyway. It was also dramatic fulfillment of a 15-year-old prophecy by Tom Graham, editor of Canadian Transceiver, this country’s CB magazine. After the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, when Canada had opened the 11-metre band to General Radio Service units, as CB is officially known in Canada, Graham wrote: “The very weight of numbers of CBers, being 90% mobile, would be a great asset in a time of national disaster.” Graham was right about “the very weight of numbers,” too. When he wrote that, there were 25,000 CB units in Canada. By the end of last year there were 400,000 licensed units, a quarter as many more unlicensed, and sales were running at a monthly level high enough (25,000) to justify federal projections of 700,000 licensed units by the end of this year. Already, in Canada, there are nearly 200 REACT groups, like the one the Hutchinsons belong to in Lindsay. (There are more than 15,000 REACT groups in the United States, where CB is the biggest craze since home television sets went on the market.) Many REACT group members are trained in two-way radio communication, search-and-rescue procedure and first aid.

When they’re not rescuing people from snowdrifts, of course, CBers are talking to one another while they roll along the nation’s highways. They alert each other to highway conditions or the whereabouts of the “smokies”—CB parlance for traffic cops—or, frequently in the case of truck drivers, to the presence of hitchhikers. A high percentage inevitably clutters up the airwaves with loquacious drivel, earning the contempt of more serious CBers who refer to such chat artists as “rächet jaws.” While the CBers keep an eye on the police, perhaps understandably the police are monitoring the activities of the CB set. The RCMP, for example, uses Citizens Band units as a matter of routine and the force is now formally studying the medium in an attempt to determine its potential in police work. Last December 1, the Ontario Provincial Police set up a test area along Highway 401, between Milton and London, and posted signs informing motorists that they were monitoring the CB emergency channel—Channel 9. As Corporal Maurice Hennigar, an OPP communications supervisor based in London, explains: “Highways can be a pretty lonely area. The use of Citizens Band radio provides the public with an alternate means of communication with their police departments. It’s vital, and that’s why we’re into it.”

Despite the friendly rivalry with the traffic patrols, most CBers are quick to assist the Smokies. CB units, for example, served as auxiliary policemen in Prince Edward Island last Halloween. And during the Buffalo blizzard, CB groups stepped in when U.S. Army and National Guard communications systems were found inadequate. Says Parke Fisher, president of the Am-Can CB club: “It was one of the greatest displays of what CB equipment can do. It wasn’t just a club operation. CBers took over channels down here and put CB units into police stations. They ripped them right out of their cars, set up control points and started to do what had to be done.” During the week that Buffalo was paralyzed, the Salvation Army helped 200,000 people with emergency food, drugs, bedding and other aid—all with the assistance of CB-equipped volunteer drivers. One advantage of CB: instantaneous communication (Buffalo telephone lines were so jammed that it took two minutes just to get a dial tone).

The storm is over now, and the Niagara peninsula and upstate New York have dug themselves out. The “good buddies” are tooling down the highways again, dodging the Smokies. But during that one winter week CB radio achieved a new reputation as a useful communications medium rather than a faddist’s toy, and the names of Super Cricket, Top Wop and Vicious Hook entered the growing folklore of the General Radio Service.

MIKE MACBETH