Old Prize Contests Never Die

by Philip Davis

For some years now, I've been something of a short wave buff. A DX'er as we say in the trade. Now DX'ers should not be confused with ham radio operators; whereas hams are an active crew, the DX'er is entirely passive. He listens. His hobby consists of buying a short wave set and then tuning into the Voice of America, the BBC, Radio Nederland, Radio Moscow, Quito, Ecuador, where a bunch of fundamentalist Americans run a powerful station, the Canadian Northern Service, etc. Occasionally, a DX'er tries to improve his set by hanging up an aerial on the tree outside his window. But this is not really necessary because of the high quality of reception that moderate price sets generally yield. If a DX'er is trés engagé he might even drop a line, say to RSA (Radio South Africa) telling them that he picked them up at such and such an hour, Greenwich Mean Time, and the quality of the reception was such and such. In return for this exertion, the DX'er may expect to receive an acknowledgement (a QSL) from RSA which he then proceeds to display along with his other acknowledgements like deer antlers above his lodge mantel.

A few days ago, while in the process of some very casual DX'ing, I picked up the tail end of an English language broadcast from Radio Havana. A young lady, who spoke in the serious tone of, and I like to think in artistic imitation of another young lady whom I call Moscow Mollie, told the listeners of a prize contest currently being run by the station. To compete for a prize (which must have been described before I tuned in) the listener should submit an essay of five hundred words or less on the topic, "What Lessons can the Peace-Loving Peoples of the World Learn from the Tragic Murder of Salvatore Allende by the Agents of the Fascist Imperialist American Aggressors?" The closing date for the submission of essays by any peace-loving contestant is some time in the Spring of 1975.

Now prize contests may suggest to you thinks like good old sexist chauvinist Miss America, or if you are old enough, Old Gold contest for 100,000 good old capitalist bucks. But I rush in to assure you that such contests are also frequent in the Workers' Paradises, though this one, based as it is upon the tragic death of a sincere but less than clever politician seems to be an act of callousness that must be unsurpassed in the history of prize contests.

Well, I tuned out Radio Havana and fine-tuned in the BBC where quite naturally I broke into a discussion of the role of Dylan Thomas in the recent revitalization of the Welsh Eisteddfods. The poetical Brains Trust assembled in Cardiff droned on, but I'm afraid I was not with them. I was thinking of the five hundred words or less, and this train of thought soon brought on a flow of memories that were tremendously stale and nostalgic simultaneously. I should like to set them down before Mr. Kissinger puts the quietus on our thriving cold war with Cuba.

In 1936, the year of the Roosevelt-Landon contest, I was thirteen and I was a Communist. I was not a card-carrying member of the Party due, I suppose, in retrospect, to my tender years. But I had a laisser-passer which entitled me to penetrate to the interior of Webster Hall on April 7, 1936 Mother Bloor would be found greeting the delegation from South Passaic, New Jersey.

In order to bring my political position into sharper focus, I should point out that in the previous year, when I was twelve, I was a sun-worshipper. I had happened to read "The Riddle of the Universe" by Ernst Haeckel, a German zoologist of the 1890's, and somewhere in that book Haeckel points out that since the sun is ultimately the source of all the power and energy on earth, it made good sense for primitive man to worship the sun. This also made good sense to me at the time, and so, intellectually at least, I became a sun-worshipper. I did not participate in any ritual observances.

The following year, as stated, I was a Communist. I was sincere and devoted. Every Sunday, I read the Children's Page of the Sunday Worker. I looked forward to it with considerable anticipation. One Sunday, it must have been in the early summer, the Children's Page announced a Prize Contest. The Contest: Submit an original poem about the forthcoming election. The Prize: Either (a) A watercolor set (with brush) or (b) A ruler, compass, and protractor set. This contest grabbed me. I worked for a week and came up with a three-stanzaed iambic tetrameter poem on the Election of 1936. I copied it over carefully and sent it along with the notation that in case my entry won the prize, I selected (b) the ruler, compass, and protractor set.

Weeks passed. The fact that I had a 10¢ prize at stake (1936 prices) heightened the tension every time I opened the Sunday Worker. September rolled around, and one Sunday, there is was, my poem spread out on the Children's Page. I won the contest! My first publication!

I cannot now, after the elapse of almost forty years, recite the poem. I can remember only two things about it which I am sure will be verified when a careful search is made of the archives:

(1) In the second stanza, Roosevelt was soundly rapped for being an exploiter of the Masses; (2) The poem ends with the rousing exhortation: "And vote for Earl Browder this Fall."

Having won the contest, I expected to receive my prize. It did not come. I figured, well, perhaps they're waiting till after the Election. I waited till the Election was over. Earl Browder, as you may have read somewhere, lost the Election. And now I come to a revelation which I have never made before, not even to my psychoanalyst: the ruler, compass, and protractor set never, never came. Ever. And that was the beginning of the end of my honeymoon with the Communist Party of the U.S.A. I was a precocious child: it occurred almost three years before the awful August 23, 1939 when the Hitler-Stalin Pact was conclude. In before 12, out before 14, as they say in the quick cleaning business. Who knows what might have happened to me if the prize had been sent. Drummer boy, perhaps, to the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in Spain.

In due course, I recovered from this wound. I dug myself into a position of Late Victorian Scientific Skepticism much like that of Bertrand Russell and from which I have hardly budged. In recent months, I have thought of rejoining the rest of humanity and becoming an energy worshipper, but in my case, that would smack too much of recidivism.

And now, DX'ers wherever you may be: by all means submit five hundred words (or less) on the tragic lessons of Salvatore Allende. If there is a good response, this kind of contest might catch on. I can easily see, for example, Radio Sweden offering a prize for the best essay on the Tragic Fall of Richard Nixon. Sing, O Contestant (in five hundred words) of how the Mighty have fallen in Battle. But remember, if you win, it will change your life.