“Morse Code Mystery,” Friend, Feb. 1990, 14
Marcus and Sara threw open the door to their apartment building.
“Beat you up the stairs!” Marcus yelled to his friend as he started running up the first flight. Sara bounded right behind him, laughing and running as fast as she could.
As they reached the third floor, old Mr. Sharp stuck out his bald head and shouted at them—as usual. “I’ve told you kids a hundred times to quiet down. The whole building shakes when you two get home from school! Now, learn how to walk!”
Marcus heard the door slam hard as he reached his own apartment door on the fourth floor. Sara was still right behind him. “That old grump,” she complained as they entered the apartment, “I bet he never was a little kid.”
“Mom! Mom! I’m home!” shouted Marcus.
“I’m in here, Marcus,” came Mom’s muffled voice from his bedroom. “In your closet. I’ve been trying to clean out this disaster area,” she explained when they reached the room. “It looks like a trash heap. You’ll have to quit just throwing things in here.”
The closet was one of Marcus’s favorite places because it was one of the newer parts of the old building.
“Sorry, Mom,” said Marcus. “Let me finish cleaning it,” he offered halfheartedly.
Mom crawled out of the closet, and he took her place amid the jumble.
“You have only an hour or so before dinner,” Mom said as she left the room, “so you’ll have to hurry.”
“Sorry, Sara. I guess I won’t be able to play today,” Marcus apologized.
“Oh, that’s OK. We have one of those big closets, too, but ours is in the living room. It hides a radiator, just like yours does. My sister and I throw all our junk in it, and our mom gets sore too.”
Marcus was puzzled. “You have an old radiator too?”
“Yes. Every apartment in the building has one someplace. When they remodeled and put in electric heat, they didn’t bother pulling out the old radiators. They just built these closets around them. Well, see you later.”
Marcus turned to the task before him. He really didn’t mind all that much, because it was like being alone in another world. He began stacking his books in one corner. On the very top of the pile, he noticed a book about codes that he had used for a school project. He opened it up and saw one of his favorites—the International Morse Code. A click followed by a short space is the signal for a dot. A click followed by a long space is the signal for a dash. A series of dots and dashes are translated into letters, words, and numbers. It had taken a lot of practice, but Marcus had gotten pretty good at understanding the code.
Picking up a spoon, Marcus started banging around to practice. He hit the pipe that came out of the side of the radiator and ran down through the floor. It made a lovely clanking sound that echoed through the pipe. Perfect, Marcus thought. He started practicing: A, B, C, D. It took him a while, as he was a bit rusty at it, but he was soon able to tap out the letters of the alphabet and numbers one through nine and zero.
Suddenly Marcus heard someone else’s tapping coming through the pipe. What could it be? he wondered. He listened again, grabbed a crayon off the floor, and began to write as the message came very slowly: “H E L L O.” He couldn’t believe it. “Who could it be?” he murmured.
It came again: “H E L L O.”
Marcus still couldn’t believe it. He tapped back a very slow “H E L L O.”
“Time for dinner, Marcus,” Mom called, so Marcus tapped out a quick “B Y E.”
The next day he could hardly wait to get home from school. He ran upstairs, automatically hollered hello to Mr. Sharp, and heard the old gentleman’s door slam just as he reached his own front door. He ran straight to his closet, picked up his spoon, and started tapping out the message he had worked on at school:
“A R E Y O U T H E R E?” He tapped the message several times. And then an answer came: “Y E S.” Marcus next tapped: “ W H O A R E Y O U?”
The answer came slowly: “A F R I E N D.”
Every day Marcus planned a message to send to his new friend. Sometimes his mom helped, and sometimes Sara had a good suggestion. He learned that his Morse-code friend’s favorite color was blue, that his favorite sport was baseball, that his friend liked cats, and that his favorite food was spaghetti. Marcus also learned that his friend didn’t like to watch much television but preferred to listen to his record player and radio.
One Friday afternoon Marcus and Sara were late getting home from school. Running pell-mell up the stairs, they hoped that Marcus’s Morse-code friend would be sending a message. As they ran into his room, they could already hear tapping sounds coming from the pipes. Marcus was pleased, and he quickly picked up a pencil to record the message. It was a strange message, just three letters repeated over and over: “S O S. S O S. S O S. ”
“That’s a distress signal,” Sara told him. “Your friend must be in trouble!”
Marcus yelled, “Mom, come quick! It’s my friend. He needs help!”
Mom came running into the room, and Marcus showed the message to his mother.
Calmly she said, “Marcus, signal your friend. Ask him where he is.”
Marcus tapped: “W H E R E?” The answer came back slowly: “3 3. 3 3.”
“Thirty-three—what does he mean, Mom?”
Suddenly they all realized what it meant: apartment 33!
They ran down the stairs to Mr. Sharp’s apartment. Finding the door unlocked, they all pushed inside. There was Mr. Sharp, lying on the floor and still feebly tapping out his message with his cane on the radiator pipe.
It was a long time before Marcus and Sara saw Mr. Sharp again. After he went away in the ambulance, things just weren’t the same. Even Sara said that she missed him. Then one day Mr. Sharp’s son called to say that Mr. Sharp was home from the hospital and wanted to see Marcus. Mom explained that Mr. Sharp had had a stroke. He could still think, but he could not yet talk.
Marcus went downstairs and knocked on the door of apartment 33. After a moment a friendly man opened the door. “You must be Marcus,” he said, shaking the boy’s hand. “I’m Michael, Mr. Sharp’s son.”
“Oh, hi,” said Marcus. “Where’s Mr. Sharp? He’ll be OK, won’t he?”
“Marcus, my dad is very, very sick. He can’t do a lot of the things that he used to do, so I’m going to live here with him for a while. But he’s been looking forward to seeing you. Come on, let’s go to his bedroom and see him.”
Marcus walked over to Mr. Sharp’s bed and squeezed his friend’s hand. Mr. Sharp smiled back. Picking up a spoon from his lunch tray, he tapped a message on his water glass:
— •••• •— —• —•— •••
“__ __ __ __ __ __
••—• •—• •• • —• —••
__ __ __ __ __ __.”
(Can you decipher the message?)
J •— — —
2 ••— — —
3 •••— —
4 •••• —
M — —
W •— —
O — — —
7 — —•••
G — —•
P •— —•
Y —•— —
8 — — —••
Q — —•—
Z — —••
9 — — — —•
1 •— — — —
0 — — — — —