This is Living Stories, featuring voices from the collections of the Baylor University Institute for Oral History. I'm Kim Patterson.
Before television and computers monopolized our free time, chasing police calls was a popular hobby. People needed only a radio, the knowhow to tinker with it, and a car.
Charles Armstrong, a lifelong radio enthusiast and Waco resident, explains how he and wife Ruth had access to police dispatches through the 1940s, 50s, and 60s:
"They was on AM, but they were up high on the band. On your car radio or house radio, you could turn it far as you go plumb up to the end of the band. You could take you a screwdriver and go in the back, and you could change the frequency. You could raise it up a little bit by using what's called an antenna tuner, and you could reach the police department. You could hear them on there dispatching. So we could listen to them, and if it was anywhere close, we'd get in the car and go.
"And then it didn't last very long. I guess people got to bothering the police department and maybe too many people following them, so they went to FM, frequency modulation. I run up on a ad in one of the surplus books. We bought a tank receiver. It was for army tanks, twelve-volt operated. And so we'd chase them on FM."
Fires, car crashes, homicides—the Armstrongs went to it all. And their adventures influenced a young man named John Sherrell:
Charles Armstrong: "We'd chased so many times, so long that we knew every policeman on the force. In fact, the boy that used to ride with us to chase the calls, he said, ‘Boy,' said, ‘I'd like to be a policeman.' I said, ‘Well, they've got a school open down there.' And John went down and took a test and got in the police department, and he stayed on there for forty-something—forty years."
Ruth Armstrong: "And he's been on there for—he was on there for years."
Charles Armstrong: "And he ended up being a detective, and he got a taste of it from us."
When something interesting came over the police band, the Armstrongs often picked up nearby friends Harry and Lois Raines. Mr. Raines describes one disturbance that took place near the former post office at Franklin Avenue and Eighth Street: two soldiers were harassing a female and called in friends as backup when police arrived. Mr. Armstrong and Mr. Raines decided to help out:
"There were about two trucks sitting over by the post office there, and they whistled for them, and they all jumped out. So we was all out there fighting. And they'd tore up this policeman's uniform. And I was out there fighting; I was stomping his hat up. (laughs) And he had his gun out. He was hitting them up the side of the head with it. We loaded them in our car, took them to police headquarters, (interviewer laughs) the soldiers dressed in civilian clothes. This police had hit them up the side of the head, you know, and it didn't bring them down or nothing. Shoved them in a car, hit their head up against the side of the car, it didn't bother them. So they must have been hocked up on something, you know.
"And so they took them down there and drove in there. They'd reported we'd kidnapped those soldiers. These other guys in the truck, they went in the post office, called, said we'd kidnapped them. (laughs) And so we drove in down there, some policemen's standing out there, and they said, Is this the car kidnapped them soldiers? We said, No, we didn't kidnap them. We're bringing them in jail."
The first commercial police scanners hit the market in the 1970s, and today all kinds of scanning equipment exists, with many feeds streamed over the Internet. Several regulations of the practice have been put in place since the days when the Armstrongs and Raineses were listening in.
Living Stories is heard every Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday on 103 point 3 FM, Waco's NPR. For more information about this program or the Institute for Oral History, visit us at baylor.edu/livingstories.
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