And then Peter Hart offered to fix it for nada, after I opened my big mouth in English class. I don't think it was what Ms. McClure was looking for, but she did ask for an example of a Catch 22. What did she expect when she called on the class rebel, the kid Mr. Kratman kicked out of the Lincoln-Way Marching Knights' rhythm pit because on of those gigs got my name and face in the Joliet Herald-News?
So what if Peter was one of the geekiest nerds in the school, his offer was the proverbial gift horse, and I sure wasn't going to blow the opportunity. Which is how I ended up at his place that afternoon, letting him look my guitar over.
Peter ran his hand through that wild mane of his. "I'm pretty sure I can fix it, but all my tools are downstairs in my shop."
Just as I started wondering if Peter expected me to lug everything by myself, he grabbed the amp and headed down. Awkward as he moved, he looked way overburdened. Maybe I should've carried it and let him take the guitar. But the amp wasn't heavy as much as just plain bulky. And a lot less fragile than my main ax.
I don't know what I expected to find in Peter's shop. Maybe a dank chamber of horrors out of those movies Uncle Louie always likes to watch, or something more like the auto shop my dad owns, with the banks of equipment along the wall and the long fluorescent lights hanging from the open ceiling. Whatever I thought I'd find, it sure wasn't the curious mix of computer parts, cast-off electrical appliances and just plain junk covering every square inch of surface on three tables. Or the photocopied pictures tacked all over the walls. Or the ceiling hung with model aircraft and spacecraft, all encrusted with dust so thick it made me wonder if they were his dad's. The most recent in the lot was a first-generation Space Shuttle orbiter, the ones they're retiring now that the Energy Wars are over.
I set the guitar down beside the amp, letting Peter clean off his own workspace. He knew what he wanted and I sure didn't intend to upset him by messing with all his stuff. And I wanted to take a good look at those photocopies.
Some of them looked like circuit diagrams, but most of them were copies of photos out of books. So that was where where Peter took his messy hairstyle and ragbag clothes from.
"Say, Peter, who's this Baird dude you've got pictures of all over the walls?"
Peter looked up from his tools. "Haven't you heard of John Logie Baird? The man who invented television."
That's nice to know. Not that it helped explain the apparatus in those pictures. I sure couldn't see see what all those wheels and disks had to do with television.
Just as I opened my mouth to ask Peter about it, he started poking around in my guitar with some kind of test instrument. No way did I want want to distract him and end up making things worse.
Instead I took a look at the stuff he'd set up on the tables. Some of that mess did look like television apparatus. On the far end of the table was a stripped-down camcorder. A tangle of colored wires connected it to the computer and some black boxes set in front of prisms. The camcorder's lens was pointed slightly askew from the little diorama of the first lunar landing set up on a small pedestal in front of the apparatus.
A thick cable ran from the computer to one of the other tables. There another set of black boxes and prisms were all set up around the monitor of a second computer. Beside it hung several photos that showed ghostly images in the air in front of the screen. You could sort of make out the Lunar Module and the wrecked LK lander, but that was it.
Curious, I examined the photos a little more closely. They revealed thin beams emerging from the black boxes to pass through the prisms and strike the monitor. From their appearance they had to be laser beams. Then those other black boxes with the camcorder would have to be more lasers.
Why would Peter be using lasers with a television setup? And why was it all attached to computers? I looked back at Peter still struggling with my guitar. No way did I want to disturb him when he was taking apart critical components. If I couldn't afford to get it professionally fixed I definitely couldn't afford to replace it.
I wandered around a little more, hoping I'd see something that would explain all this apparatus. I couldn't make any sense out of those circuit diagrams, and all those pictures of this Baird guy was all hero-worship.
Finally I sat down on a chair that hadn't been used as an impromptu parking spot for bits and pieces of apparatus. Peter twiddled around with a screwdriver inside my guitar. He blew some dust out of the works, then reassembled everything.
"All right, Em. I think I've got it fixed. Want to give it a try?"
Well, it's about time. I bit the words back. The last thing I wanted to do right now was tick him off, especially if my guitar still needed more work. "Thanks."
I slung it over my shoulder to try a few chords. At least he hadn't dislodged the pick I always kept between the strings, or maybe he made sure to put it back in when he got done. Anyhow, I didn't have to go looking through the case for a spare.
Except I didn't get a thing out of it. Could he have broken something and not realized it?
I looked down, discovered I'd forgotten to check that it was plugged into the amp. I hooked it up and was rewarded with a blast of sound. I tried a few chords.
It was way out of tune and didn't want to get completely back into tune no matter how much I fiddled with the knobs. But considering that I'd picked that guitar up at a secondhand store, I was lucky it worked as well as it did. I could chord around the worst problems, and sheer volume could cover the rest.
Time to try some real music. Might as well start with "The Ballad of Gus and Stu," since very band that's anybody has a cover of it somewhere, even if just a B-side.
I did the intro a little closer to Motley Crue's cover than the Johnny Cash original, although I don't have the right voice to imitate Mick Mars's delivery. Not to mention I always have to concentrate so I don't choke up when I get to the part where Gus finds poor little Kolya-Yozhik in the wrecked Soviet lander.
When I was a little kid, I used to think "The Ballad of Gus and Stu" was just a story, like "Harper Valley PTA" or "Ode to Billy Joe." That lasted until I was in fifth grade science class, trying not to look too bored as Mrs. Lauhoff droned on and on about those early space missions she wanted us to memorize. When she got to the first Moon landing, it hit me like ninty thousand watts of Dolby sound: that's "The Ballad of Gus and Stu." Those are real people, and it all happened just like the song said.
Well, not just like, since Johnny Cash took a few artistic liberties to make the verses come out right. But you could learn the basics from it. And by the time I got to the last line, where Gus and Stu are heading back up to the Command Module in lunar orbit, I had learned what I needed to know about my guitar.
"Good enough for now. We'll see how it holds up at my next gig." I set my guitar back down, careful it was as stable as I could get it without a proper guitar stand.
Peter shrugged. "If it acts up again, just let me know and I'll see what else I can do with it."
"Sure thing." I paused, then decided I might as well ask. "Say, what's with all this stuff?" I waved at the camcorder in its nest of wires and the monitor on the other side.
Peter grinned. "I'm trying to build a working system of 3-D television. That's what I've always believed I was born to do." Some of my surprise must've made it to my face, because he added, "In the last few years I've come to believe that I'm Baird reincarnated and I came back to finish the last thing I was working on before I died that time. And that's 3-D television."
Peter picked up a photocopy lying on one of the tables and handed it to me. Unlike so many of the others, this was just some text. He pointed to a passage midway down the page.
Wondering what could be so important, I skimmed it, reading about Baird struggling in a ruined laboratory back during the War. Not the Energy Wars – World War II. He'd been trying to perfect a means of three-dimensional television that would give real depth without any of the awkward special glasses they always use at the 3-D movies. But he fell ill and died, thinking nobody was interested in his work. Because he left inadequate notes, his theories were lost and much of his apparatus got damaged or discarded in the ensuing confusion. When I got done reading, I actually felt sad for the poor guy.
One look at Peter made it clear how serious he was about this business. He really believed that he was Baird come back from the grave to perfect that one last invention that he'd left undone. I'd never been one to believe in spooky stuff , but I could tell that it was way too important to him for me to go ridiculing it.
"So how are you coming on it?"
Peter's mouth twitched a little before he answered. "I've been able to transfer and reconstruct images for several months now, ever since I solved my problems with on-the-fly data compansion. I just haven't been able to get any kind of resolution. Sure, you can recognize what you're looking at and tell the difference between the Apollo Lunar Module and the Soviet LK. But everything's too coarse to present to anyone."
I pointed to one of the photocopies stuck to the wall, showing an image from one of Baird's earliest television systems. "But Baird started off with images so blocky that you could just barely recognize a human face in that one."
"Sure, but that was when television was new and fascinating just for existing. Now people are used to getting good, detailed pictures from their TVs. Even video games are getting better every year. If I can't give at least that good of pictures on my holovision system, there's no use even demonstrating it."
I must've picked up some of his initial enthusiasm, because his dismissal of his own work aroused my urge to argue. "But you are transmitting something recognizable, which proves you've got the theory down. Maybe you just need better equipment. If you could get somebody interested, they could get you the stuff you need to get it done right. You know, more powerful computers, better cameras than that cheap camcorder."
Peter shrugged. "Maybe. But who's going to want to take the time to look at something that's just barely recognizable? Especially when it's from some kid who doesn't even have an engineering degree."
"But your dad's got one. Maybe he can get you in touch with someone that could help you out."
Peter shook his head. "Dad's too busy with his own work. Sometimes he works sixty and eighty hours a week since he got promoted. I'm lucky he drags stuff home for me to tinker with, or get me all those surplus semiconductor lasers that I'm using." He pointed to one of the little black boxes.
"Then get the degree. I know that'll mean you'll have to wait another four years or so, but at least you can keep working on it all that time and maybe some of the professors will take some interest in it."
Peter gave me a really downcast look. "But I can't get into an engineering program. They all say that my grades are too low. Sure, I've got great grades in math and science, as long as it doesn't involve much writing. But history and English..." He shook his head in despair.
What a rip. Of course I'd had my own problems with teachers when I wouldn't dance to their tune. But I figured it wasn't any big deal. As long as I could move out of my folks' house after I turned eighteen, I could find some kind of job to keep a roof over my head and stuff like that while I got through the dues-paying process.
And maybe Peter could find some way around his problems, if I could just get him to believe that slipping off the path wasn't a catastrophe. "But I'd still like to see it actually working before I take off."
Peter gave me a funny look and I thought sure he'd refuse. "Well, I suppose I could show you. Let me tweak a couple things first."
"OK." I picked up one of the photocopied articles while he got out his tools and started messing around with his stuff. Maybe I wasn't too much on history when it didn't have to do with music, but this Baird dude was pretty interesting.
Finally Peter turned on his apparatus, computers chiming as they booted up. From the black boxes came slender beams of red light.
An image formed in front of the monitor. If this was what Peter called "coarse," he was holding himself to a pretty stiff standard. You could see every detail on the two landers, right down to the old Hammer and Sickle flag on the LK. Even the tiny US flags on the shoulders of the two astronaut figures showed up.
Peter stared at the image, eyes big as the lenses on his glasses. "We've done it." His voice was a hoarse whisper. "Pem, we've done it!"
Pem? My name is Em, and you know it.
He overcame his own shock to grab me by shoulders. "Don't you see, we've finally got enough image resolution to demonstrate this. We've got to get this out before someone else beats us to it."
Why was he saying saying "we" and "us" when I hadn't done anything more than suggest that he turn it on?
But I sure wasn't going to do anything to damp his enthusiasm. "Where should we go?"
Peter grinned and I could just about hear the thoughts racing inside his head. "Let's go down to the University of Illinois. My dad knows some professors in the engineering department down there. I bet I can find one who'll be be willing to take a look. I'll meet you first thing tomorrow and we'll get going."
I suspected he wouldn't have cared if we'd had school tomorrow. Luckily tomorrow was an in-service training day for the teachers, so we didn't have class.
"OK. Where'll we meet?"
"I'll pick you up in front of your house. Seven o'clock tomorrow morning."
Which gave me some time to figure out how to get my folks on board with the idea.