“But it was Jeff’s idea!” my best friend Thomas always pointed out.
I say it was Garrison Keillor’s fault the whole mess got started, or maybe Mrs. Pringle’s. Mrs. Pringle was our English teacher, and Garrison Keillor—well, if you haven’t heard of him, he’s a famous radio personality on public radio. Every morning, he narrates a five-minute segment called the Writer’s Almanac at exactly nine o’clock, which talks about key events in history or literature and ends with a poem, all in his monotone voice. Without fail, Mrs. Pringle never missed a day of turning on the radio in an attempt to give our English class some culture via Garrison Keillor’s deadpan voice. I think that if a spaceship with little green men landed in his studio, it wouldn’t add one inflection of difference to his voice.
The bell to end English class had just rung, and, as usual, I was complaining.
“Stupid Writer’s Almanac,” I muttered, slamming my bottom locker so hard that it popped right back open. “Now I’ve got its elevator music theme song stuck in my head.”
Thomas cleared his throat. “And now, a poem from the bathroom wall,” he droned in his best Garrison Keillor voice. “Here I sit in a cloud of vapor; the guy before me left no paper.”
I snorted. “They’d never put that on public radio. It’s not boring enough.”
“For real, man,” Thomas said. “Public radio makes everyone boring. Once I heard them interviewing Weird Al, and even he sounded boring.”
We were both die-hard Weird Al Yankovic fans. If public radio could make our comic hero sound dull, then there was no hope for anyone else. Weird Al had made it his goal to make fun of every popular song on the radio, and we wanted to be just like him.
Our other hero was Billy Mays, an infomercial salesman who was so talented that he could have sold water to the ocean. His booming voice could be heard in tons of commercials. “Has this ever happened to you?” he would begin. Then he would proceed to convince you why you couldn’t live without his latest product.
“Hey, man,” I said, giving my locker one last kick. “What if Billy Mays took over Garrison Keillor’s job on the Writer’s Almanac?”
Thomas grinned and put on his best Billy Mays impersonation. “Hi, Billy Mays here on the Writer’s Almanac!”
I almost died laughing. “Mrs. Pringle would have a cow!”
“No,” Thomas said. “She’d have a whole pasture full of cows.”
Just then, the warning bell rang for math, so I turned to run to class…
…and smashed head-on into Milo Sutherland.
Milo was the skinniest, nerdiest guy I had ever seen. He was always carrying around a load of books taller than the Eiffel Tower. When we collided, they tumbled down and buried us like an avalanche.
“My hands!” Milo wailed. “I was supposed to go to the annual ham radio fest tomorrow, but you just jammed three of my fingers!” His face turned red, kind of like my two-year-old sister’s when she’s about to burst into tears.
“Aww, poor baby,” Thomas sang. “Guess you’ll have to watch TV instead, like normal people do for fun.”
“And never mind about the concussion you gave me,” I said, rubbing my head. I picked up one of Milo’s smart-people books that had a picture of a bunch of antennas, radios, and funky symbols. “HF to UHF: A Low-Cost Guide to Ham Radio Projects.”
Suddenly, I had the most brilliant idea of all time.
“Milo!” I exclaimed. “Do you understand all this stuff?” I pointed to the mountain of books, all of which were about radios, electronics, and antennas.
He looked at me like I was crazy. “Of course. I live, breathe, dream, and eat RF.”
“Perfect,” I said, having no clue what he meant. “Meet me at lunch.”
As expected, Milo didn’t meet us at lunch. He sat in his usual spot in the corner of the lunchroom away from everyone else surrounded by a wall of books while eating a peanut butter sandwich. Thomas and I put our self-image aside and sat down on either side of him.
“So, tell me about this radio stuff,” I said as casually as possible.
“Yeah,” Thomas said. “You’re a genius, right?”
Milo looked at us with narrowed eyes. I didn’t blame him. He had a history of being the butt of just about every joke at NLHS. It just wasn’t a normal day to not find a “kick me” sign taped to his back or see some jock throw his glasses down the hall. Then again, the glasses thing hadn’t happened recently, because Milo had finally bought one of those stretchy things to keep his glasses on.
I rolled my eyes. “No, we’re not pranking you. I seriously want to know about radios.”
Milo looked over his shoulders but didn’t see any other apparent prankster accomplices nearby. He wrinkled his nose. “Well, for local communications, you’d use VHF with handy talkies. For DX you’d use SSB or CW on HF.”
“Uh,” I stammered. “Is that the radio that plays music?” I had never really thought much about it before. Radio was just that thing you turned on in the car when you got bored…or the thing Mrs. Pringle used to torture us with the Writer’s Almanac.
Milo gave me a disgusted sigh. “You mean FM, commercial broadcast radio.” He then proceeded to rattle off a list of techno jargon that left me and Thomas way behind in IQ points.
I interrupted him. “Like public radio. Are you smart enough to hack the radio signal and broadcast your own recording?”
Milo looked at us suspiciously again, but I could see a spark of interest in his eyes. The wheels in his head were probably turning around wondering if he was actually smart enough to do it—your typical mad scientist’s logic process.
“We want to change a scheduled radio broadcast to something we come up with,” I said.
“Just for five minutes,” Thomas added. “Nothing drastic. Just an April Fool’s joke.”
“Are you talking about everywhere the radio broadcasts?” Milo asked.
“Nah, man,” I said. “Just Mrs. Pringle’s radio.”
Milo perked up. “You mean the Writer’s Almanac!”
“I always read my ham radio books under my desk when it’s on, anyway. I mean, Mrs. Pringle never tests us on it, so it doesn’t hurt my grade, and why should I waste my time?”
“Ooooh! Milo, you’re turning into a delinquent!” Thomas exclaimed. “Next, you’ll start jaywalking and ripping tags off mattresses.”
He just looked at us. “I would never jaywalk.”
I shook my head. Some things never change.
“So can you do it?” I prodded.
Milo didn’t bat an eyelash. “Of course. I can make a signal strong enough to capture the receiver. As long as it’s just Mrs. Pringle’s radio, the FCC probably won’t find out.” He noticed our blank faces and clarified. “The Federal Communications Commission. They regulate the airwaves.”
Thomas laughed. “I never get caught.”
“Liar,” I said.
Thomas and I showed up on Milo’s doorstep that afternoon. His mother answered the door with a shocked expression on her face after we told her we were Milo’s friends.
“He’s in his room,” she said and led us down a hallway lined with honor-roll ribbons from Milo’s lifetime of perfect grades. “Milo!” she called, knocking on his door. “Your friends are here.”
“I don’t have any friends off the air!”
“Well, dear, these are real people, and they say they’re your friends, so why don’t you give them a chance?” With that, she eased the door open and practically shoved us inside.
Milo looked up from a desk covered in wires, strange pieces of metal, and a microphone.
“Oh. It’s you two,” he said and looked back down into a large, round magnifying glass of some sort with a light. “I’ve been thinking about what you said at lunch.”
“He took the bait,” Thomas whispered behind my back. “I told you he’d do it just to see if he could! These evil geniuses are all alike.”
“Shh,” I hissed. “So…Thomas and I were thinking that we’d like to make our own recording of the Writer’s Almanac narrated by Billy Mays.”
Milo looked up from the humongous magnifying glass. “You mean the guy on TV who sells Mighty Putty?”
“Yep, the very same Billy Mays,” I said.
“Hi, Billy Mays here on the Writer’s Almanac!” Thomas yelled in his best Billy Mays impersonation. “On this day in history, the Hindenburg blew up! If they’d had Mighty Putty, this wouldn’t have happened! Oh, the humanity of it!”
Milo cracked a smile, and I knew his brain power was ours. I laughed like an evil villain in my head just a little.
“Actually, I don’t think Mighty Putty would have helped the Hindenburg, but it’s funny,” Milo said.
“See, Jeff!” Thomas said. “He does have a sense of humor. I knew you were the right man for the job, Milo.”
“And after Thomas records it, we want you to help us broadcast it instead of Garrison Keillor’s voice. It’ll be the best April Fools’ Day prank ever,” I said.
Milo stood up and adjusted his glasses. “I’ll use just enough power to override the signal from the public radio station in Sparta so that it will only transmit from the parking lot to Mrs. Pringle’s classroom radio.” Sparta is the nearest thing to a big city around here with its population of ten-thousand and happens to be the city that broadcasts public radio to our area.
I nodded, and my mind began to phase out as Milo went all science-nerd on us.
“I’ve got most of the stuff that we will need already here. I will basically build a radio test set using a RF signal generator, an audio source, and with an SWR/watt meter attached. My signal generator will tune to 88.7 MHz, but it won’t have enough power to capture Mrs. Pringle’s radio, so we will need an amp. FM broadcast radio is somewhere between the 2 and 6 meter bands, around 3 to 3.5 meters and I don’t have an amp for that. If I can’t find a 90 MHz amp, I’ll just modify one of mine.” Over the next thirty minutes, he went on to mention power losses, distances of transmitters, and something called dB.
When he stopped, I blinked myself awake.
Thomas had the same glazed-over look he always gets in math class when Mrs. Massey starts talking about fractions.
“Well,” I finally said. “As long as it works, I don’t really care how you do it.”
“Good,” Milo said and gave the project his stamp of approval.
Thomas and I got to work writing the script. After the show’s usual piano theme song, we knew it had to start with, “Hi, Billy Mays here with the Writer’s Almanac!” Then, we toyed around with various world events to mention in lieu of Garrison Keillor’s usual bland facts, but an Internet search showed that nothing even remotely interesting had happened on the first of April.
I shrugged it off. “Then, let’s just make up a bunch of junk.”
Thomas grinned like a Cheshire cat. In his best Billy Mays’ voice, he boomed, “On this day in history, nothing interesting happened! Absolutely nothing! But wait! There’s more! We believe on this day in 500,000 B.C. that the caveman Oog invented fire, shortly followed by the word, ‘Ow!’”
“Perfect!” I said. We then put in as many stupid jokes and gags and tried to connect them with Billy Mays’ typical catch phrases. For the poem that Garrison Keillor always read at the end of the broadcast, we chose one of Mrs. Pringle’s favorites—The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost. Mrs. Pringle had made us analyze it to the point of no return, and we knew she’d be outraged to hear it bellowed out in Billy Mays’ unpoetic voice. Thomas recorded it on a cassette tape.
Over the next few days, we spent a lot of time at Milo’s house testing out his creation to make sure it would work. We set it up in Milo’s room first and hooked it up to something he called a dummy load.
“Jeff’s a dummy load,” Thomas said, and I punched him in the arm.
“Quiet, you two. We need to get this done,” Milo said. He powered up the system to see if it would work on his desktop radio.
It did. We heard Thomas’ voice broadcasting over a dull newscast on public radio.
“Perfect!” I said.
Milo looked pleased. “Now, let me put an antenna on it, and you two can try the radio in Thomas’ truck to see if I can capture it.”
Thomas and I went outside, turned on the truck radio, and signaled Milo, who was watching us from the window. Two seconds later, we heard Thomas’ voice loud and clear.
At this point, we were all giddy with excitement.
“We should test it at the school on Mrs. Pringle’s radio!” I said.
Milo shook his head. “It’s Saturday. I’m not breaking and entering.”
“Fine,” I said. “As long as you’re sure it will work.”
“Today’s lunch is pizza with corn and Jell-O,” a dull voice read over the P.A. system Friday morning. Next Tuesday was April Fool’s Day, and everything was set to blow the socks off public radio.
Mrs. Pringle tapped her foot impatiently, waiting to hand us a quiz the moment the announcements were over.
“And now a special announcement from Mr. Butts,” the speaker said. Mr. Butts is our principal.
TJ Watson, the class clown, laughed. “They said butt.”
“Hello,” Mr. Butts said in a voice slightly less monotone than Garrison Keillor’s. “This is to remind all students not to pull any pranks on April Fools’ Day. Any troublemakers will be punished to the full extent.”
I sensed a disturbance in the room and turned around to see Milo squirming in his desk.
No problem, I thought. We’ll just do it on Monday instead.
Monday, the thirty-first of March, rolled around, and Murphy’s Law was in full effect.
“You heard what Mr. Butts said!” Milo squeaked. “I could end up with a black mark on my permanent record.”
“Permanent records are a myth,” Thomas said.
I turned to Thomas. “Have you got the tape?”
Thomas hit his hand to his forehead. “Crap! I left it at home! If I drive sixty all the way home, I can get here ten minutes before the Writers’ Almanac goes on the air.”
Now, I was starting to get nervous, because on a good day, Thomas’ truck can go fifty…before it shakes something loose that it needs to function.
“See! We should just forget about it!” Milo wailed, his face turning red.
I took a deep breath and said, “Thomas, just wing it. You’ve memorized the script by now, so just use the microphone and do it live.”
Thomas was cool with that. “Okay.”
Next, I turned to Milo. “Everything’s going to be fine. You’re the only one in the whole city who has the brainpower to do this. Think of the power you have. You’ll be a legend.”
“Yeah, you may even get some girls’ attention for your sweet radio-hacking skills!” Thomas added. That seemed to encourage Milo somewhat. In the dating world, he was even more hopeless than Thomas and me.
We had planned for Milo to stay out in the parking lot holed up inside the cab of Thomas’ truck with the equipment. We modified at the last minute for Thomas to stay outside with him to do the show live.
“Hey, Thomas,” I whispered. “Make sure he turns it up loud enough so we can hear it.”
He gave me a thumbs-up, and I went inside to make sure everything worked out on the other end. I slid into my seat just before the tardy bell rang. Mrs. Pringle, always on task, began calling roll the minute it stopped ringing. When she got to Milo, her eyebrows went up.
“Milo Sutherland? Has anyone seen Milo?”
Natasha Pilkington, the world’s nosiest girl (or noisiest, according to Thomas), blurted out, “I saw him this morning, Mrs. Pringle.”
I felt like throttling her, but I kept my cool.
“I saw him too,” Cindy Hopmeier said. She was a nerdy girl, sort of like Milo, but interested in bugs and plants. “He looked sick.”
“He looked like he always does right before a test, and we have a test today,” Natasha insisted.
“Not in here,” Cindy said in her quiet voice. “Today’s a review day. Right, Mrs. Pringle?”
Mrs. Pringle nodded.
“And Milo would never skip a review day,” Cindy said. “So he must be sick.”
I could have kissed Cindy. She was a Godsend.
“And Thomas is absent, too,” Natasha continued, “and I saw him. He was with Milo.”
A fresh batch of sweat rolled down my face.
“Thomas looked fine,” Cindy said. “He’s probably skipping, but Milo would never do that. He’s allergic to artificial dyes. He probably had an allergic reaction to the pizza they served in the lunchroom last Friday.”
I wondered how she knew so much about Milo, seeing as he never talked to anyone.
The next thirty minutes were the longest thirty minutes I had ever lived through. On top of that, I had to dodge suspicious glances from Natasha, who was blatantly certain of something fishy. It was as if she had built-in radar. Too bad Milo couldn’t jam it from honing in on us.
“And now, time for the Writers’ Almanac,” Mrs. Pringle said, switching on the radio.
For the first time ever, I welcomed the calming piano tones that preceded the broadcast. All around me, students were nodding off to sleep. Normally, I would have been among them.
Halfway through the theme song, the radio went silent, hummed for two seconds with static, and I almost had heart failure until I was blasted back into reality by a deafening, “Has this ever happened to you? You’re listening to the Writer’s Almanac, and you just can’t stay awake?”
Heads shot up all around the room.
“It’s Billy Mays!” Cindy exclaimed.
“Hi, Billy Mays here with the Writer’s Almanac!”
For a moment, everyone was cheering too loud to hear what Thomas was saying, but then TJ yelled out, “Quiet! I want to hear this!” and everyone shut up.
Mrs. Pringle’s mouth had dropped open.
“Today is March thirty-first, two thousand eight, and boy, am I glad to be here!” Thomas’ voice boomed across the classroom. “On this day in history, nothing happened!”
Another cheer went around the room.
“But wait! There’s more! I’m gonna give you a bonus prehistoric history lesson absolutely free!”
He went on to tell the joke about Oog the caveman while Mrs. Pringle rushed toward the radio and turned it off. “I’m writing to public radio!” she hissed.
In unison, every student rose from his or her desk and swarmed the radio. TJ turned it back on, and Mrs. Pringle could do nothing against us. It was twenty-nine to one; the odds were slightly against her, and Thomas went on to deliver another three minutes of the most interesting radio broadcast Nashoba Losa High School had ever heard.
“But I’m not done yet! I’ve got a poem for you by Robert Frost.”
I saw a glimmer of hope in Mrs. Pringle’s face.
“‘Two roads diverged in a yellow wood!’” Thomas bellowed, and Mrs. Pringle’s face fell.
By this point, the whole class was in stitches. As many times as we’d been forced to read it aloud, this was a fresh take on an old classic. Unfortunately, Thomas couldn’t remember the entire poem by heart and winged it toward the end, leaving an extra ten seconds in the broadcast. Would he go off the air early and leave Garrison Keillor to recite his own lame poem?
“If you call now, I’ll give you a second poem absolutely free!”
“Yeah!” the class cheered. I noticed Mrs. Pringle leaving the room, probably heading straight for the principal’s office, suspecting foul play.
Thomas took in a lungful of air and boomed out yet another poem.
“The night was dark, and the sky was blue! Down the alley, the poop-wagon flew! An axel broke, and a scream was heard! A man was hit by a flying—”
At this point, half the class, well taught by Mrs. Pringle, recognized the rhyme scheme and shouted in unison, “Turd!”
Just then, the bell rang, but no one budged. They seemed to be longing for more Writer’s Almanac, Billy Mays’ style, but the radio suddenly went quiet. Very weakly we could hear the strains of the usual programming of classical music.
“THAT. WAS. AWESOME!” TJ shouted.
I didn’t see Milo again for the rest of the day. Thomas showed up fifteen minutes later for math, but no one really noticed, because they were too busy talking about today’s broadcast. Mrs. Massey didn’t get a single math problem out of us and ended up sending three people to the office.
At lunch, I cornered Thomas. “Where’s Milo?” I hissed.
Thomas shrugged. “Well, we stowed the gear, and he said something about an upset stomach and walked home.”
“Walked home?! His house is three miles from here!”
“I dunno. That’s what he said.”
All over the lunchroom we could hear students talking about the broadcast.
“Y’know,” Thomas said. “It’s a shame I can’t take credit for such a fine performance.”
“Keep your mouth shut,” I hissed.
Things probably would have died down quietly if it weren’t for Thomas’ slipup, and I don’t mean he blabbed it. After we heard half the town talking about how public radio had allowed Billy Mays to host the Writers’ Almanac, we knew Milo’s calculations must have been off.
“But I only planned for it to capture Mrs. Pringle’s radio!” he kept sputtering after we stopped by his house that afternoon to drop off his equipment. “How did it manage to go all across town?!”
I shrugged. “Well, didn’t you tell us once that RF was an art based on science? That sometimes things worked better and sometimes worse?”
“But it shouldn’t have worked that much better!” Milo shouted.
Thomas lit up. “Oh! I wanted to make sure they could hear it, so I turned it up.”
Milo groaned. “No wonder all those little old ladies called up public radio to complain! You probably maxed out the power. If we’d had a better antenna, they would have heard it clear across the whole county!”
Thomas looked as proud as a peacock. “This is even better than I ever imagined.”
“What if somebody from the FCC started looking for an illegal transmission? What if they recorded it? What if they revoke my ham radio license?”
“What if they don’t?” I said. “Stop being so paranoid. By the way, we told everyone in school you were sick.”
“I was sick,” Milo said, making a mad dash for the bathroom.
Two days went by, and all seemed well until we drove past Milo’s house on the way to school and noticed three police cars and two white vans parked in his front yard. I knew something was up, because Cricket Hollow only has one police car.
“Oh, crap,” I muttered. “They got him.”
Even Thomas looked nervous. “Maybe he won’t spill the beans.” After I gave him a pointed look, he said, “Yeah, you’re right. We’d better leave the country.”
I shook my head. “We can’t skip today. It would look too suspicious. Let’s just act like nothing ever happened.”
That was easier said than done because Natasha bounded into Mrs. Pringle’s class yelling, “The cops got Milo! I bet he’s the one who sabotaged the radio on Monday!”
Cindy Hopmeier turned pale. “Really?”
“Yep! I saw them escorting him out.”
I turned to Thomas. “Oh, crap.”
“Oh, crap,” Thomas replied.
When Mrs. Pringle started her lesson, it was all I could do to keep from running out the door and heading for the border.
Suddenly, there was a sharp knock at the door, and we found Mr. Butts and two policemen standing in the doorway.
“Oh, crap,” I whispered.
Thomas whispered something that shouldn’t be repeated in public.
“Jeff Wilder and Thomas Hancock, come with me, please,” Mr. Butts said.
We stood up, and Natasha yelled, “Guess who’s going to jail!”
“You little rat fink,” Thomas said to Milo, who was lying in the principal’s office. He had just woken up from a fainting spell. “I told you to keep quiet!”
Over to the side stood two men dressed in white polo shirts with an FCC logo on the front. In addition, we saw two policemen and some guy in a black suit, who ended up being from the FBI. Next to them was a frumpy-looking old man with a beard to rival Santa Claus, who said he was from public radio.
“Don’t be so hard on him,” one of the FCC agents said. “He took one look at us and started talking and didn’t stop until he passed out.”
I almost laughed, but then I remembered that I was going to jail.
One of the policemen cracked a smile. “We didn’t even suspect him. We just came to ask if he knew who might have done it because everyone in town knows he’s very active in the ham radio world.”
The other policeman chuckled. “We barely revived him enough to come to school, and then he passed out again.”
At that, Milo passed out a third time. I was starting to envy his ability to avoid the unpleasant scene at hand.
The FCC agent looked at Thomas. “We’re from the FCC—the Federal Communications Commission. You’re Thomas Hancock, correct? Milo said you voiced the on-air broadcast.”
“Yes, sir,” Thomas said. “But it was Jeff’s idea.”
“Sure. Just throw me under the bus, why don’t you?”
“Milo already told us that, too,” the other FCC agent said.
“Is there anything Milo didn’t tell you?” I asked.
“No,” the FBI agent said with a sigh. “He told us everything…even things that had nothing to do with it.”
The FCC agents went on to say that what we had done was very serious and that we had broken several federal laws. They laid it on thick, basically implying that we were in a lot of trouble. When Milo came to again, they said that if we ever did anything like this again, our only means of communication would be two tin cans and a string. To sum it all up, we weren’t going to end up in prison.
“What?!” the man from public radio roared. “You’re not going to throw the book at them?”
The first FCC agent gave him a withering look. “So, you want us to send three kids to jail and fine them ten thousand dollars just for a five-minute prank?”
“We’ve got bigger fish to fry,” the second FCC agent said. “However, they’re not getting off scot-free. We’re giving them a worse punishment. We told their parents.”
Just then, Mr. Butts’ door opened, and I saw my mom and Thomas’ dad looking like Mount St. Helens ready to blow.
“Oh, crap,” I said for the eightieth time. “I’m done for.”
We all got grounded, of course, but that was only the beginning.
Milo’s mother confiscated his radio equipment and said he could have it again when he got married and moved away. We figured that would be never.
Thomas’ parents took his truck away until the end of the school year and had to be delivered to school by his mother, which was punishment enough.
My parents volunteered me to clean bathrooms at school until they thought I had learned my lesson.
A month later, some ritzy technical university up north contacted Milo and awarded him a full-tuition scholarship. After that, Milo’s mom gave back all his ham radio equipment. As an added bonus, Cindy had started hanging around him, and Milo’s mother seemed much happier.
Thomas was drafted into the drama club and became their permanent announcer and had access to all sorts of pretty girls. He even got a phone call from his hero, Weird Al Yankovic, who heard about his antics.
“It was so awesome!” Thomas gushed.
I scowled. Weird Al hadn’t called me, and no schools had offered me scholarships, even though I had been the mastermind behind it all. I hadn’t even gotten a girlfriend. All I had gotten was a large supply of Billy Mays’ Kaboom toilet cleaner from the school janitor.
“Hello?” I said, my voice groggy from sleep. My cell phone had just started playing Weird Al’s White and Nerdy. I looked at the clock—two in the morning.
“Hi, Billy Mays here! How ya doing, Jeff?”
“Uhhh.” I couldn’t think straight; it was just too early.
“That’s okay, man! I’ll call back some other time when you’re more awake!”
Suddenly, the line went dead.
“Thomas,” I said. I recognized the number of the only remaining pay phone in town. “Nice try, buddy.”
Then again, it did make me feel better knowing that my best friend was trying to cheer me up.