The Day Howard Johnson’s Died*, Part 1

It’s surprising how big round numbers of historic significance can sneak up on you. The day I wrote this–December 31, 2016–is the thirtieth anniversary of my first major move as an adult. It was a cross-country move from Indiana to Virginia. It was career oriented. It was a game-changer and a life-changer. It opened my eyes to cultural differences I was unaware existed. All it required was the sacrifice of a Chevy Vega.

I have no pictures of me from that time. I wish I did, especially of the Vega. Fortunately the Power of Google allows me to show you a substitute for the Vega. Here it is:

Imagine this car with a dark-green vinyl top and about 47% more rust, especially around the driver’s side front wheel well, and you have my first car. I called it the Flaming Turtle. For the ’73 year a two-barrel Holley carb was offered as a performance option, kicking its horsepower into the three-digit zone at a whopping 110. The combination of that two-barrel carb and the natural weight decrease of excessive oxidation made it a delightfully ass-hauling machine. It hauled my ass quite well over the ten hour drive.

It didn’t haul my ass without some assistance, of course. Unable to pull a trailer of any kind, I had to settle for mounting a U-Haul rooftop carrier to it. You don’t see those much anymore. The Power of Google produced only one picture of the type I had, in fact, from a “Throwback Thursday” page on U-Haul’s website:

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Too bad I couldn’t  have a VW Bus to make the move with as well. In the ’80’s, nothing  would have set apart a budding young air personality quite like having a VW Bus. Alas, the Vega was all the character I could afford (free, from my parents, for driving to college a few years earlier).

The move was from my first job in radio to my second, back when I still believed a successful radio career for an iconoclastic loner was a practical, possible thing. I’d grown up in Indiana, gone to college in Bloomington, had plenty of family still in the state or close to it, and had no desire to leave it. So I happily accepted a radio job inside my home state to begin my career, figuring if it was good enough for Sid Collins–original Voice of the Indianapolis 500, look him up–it was good enough for me.

Where I had started was the property of a man who preferred things done a very certain, very specific way. He would have you believe this was his unique way, time-tested, infallible, and needed by a wayward nation without moorings; but in reality it was spelled out in The Blue Book of the John Birch Society, and after having read it, I decided this was not the direction my life needed to go. So I looked for opportunities elsewhere in Indiana.I found none. My employer’s reputation preceded itself. It was possible to escape it in-state, but you had to know someone else, and I was young, and did not.

So I researched and found there are companies who, for a fee, will work with talent of all levels of experience. Somehow, without anyone figuring out what I was doing, I managed to produce a passable demonstration tape and send it to one of these companies. They had me placed within a month’s time. I gave two weeks’ notice. The owner reluctantly let me go, noting where I was going was a scant 40 miles southwest of Washington, D.C., “The Disneyland of the East.” Being one of two others leaving, the staff threw us all a “Has-Been” party. This would be our tie to the stuff of legend this station, and this owner, really was, having its origin from a popular on-air personality who engaged the owner constantly in philosophical discussions over what was right and proper for a personality to discuss over the air. The personality left not only the station, but radio altogether, for something with more sound economic potential so he could feed, house, and clothe his family.

“Looks like you’re a has-been now,” the owner said to him upon receiving his notice. “Too bad. Oh, well, I’m sure we gave you a few fond memories.”

The staff threw him a party and gave him a T-shirt with “W— HAS-BEEN” stenciled across the front. Ever since, all who left the station received the same. I may still  have mine someplace.

The same weekend a brother with a pickup truck came to get the furniture I couldn’t take with me, and a few days later I rented the rooftop rack for the Vega, stuffing it full of personal belongings, then stuffing the trunk full of personal belongings, then stuffing the back and passenger seats full of personal belongings. Finally I stuffed my person into it and aimed the car towards I-70. I was off. I was out.

I’ll write more later. Right now I want to kiss off 2016, much like I wanted to kiss off 1986. Let’s hope this next one is better than we have any right to expect. Excelsior.

 

 

 

 

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“A mighty fierce mess of gum clobberin'”

Sorry I didn’t drop an entry on you last week–was too busy with revising my first book. Not editing it, revising it. I won’t go into it here, but expect to find out about it soon on the “Sheer Arrogance” page. It’s one of those discussions that should be straightforward and simple but turns into a Catholic vs. Protestant allegory mighty fast.

I don’t want to write about that. I’d rather write about old time radio this weekend. Specifically this wonderfully revealing episode of Gunsmoke.

Because there’s only one way to deal with the killers and the spoilers in Dodge City and parts west, kids. 😉

In the case of the radio show, that was William Conrad as Matt Dillon. James Arness played the legendary fictional U.S. Marshall on TV for twenty years, so he’s usually the one associated with the legend. But the legendary performance comes from Conrad, not Arness. Arness scratches the surface of Matt Dillon’s soul. Conrad takes you all the way inside to the elemental man. The radio Gunsmoke gives you all his greys, in no small part due to the performance of Conrad. He wanted to be the TV Dillon too, but the brass at CBS thought he was too fat to be believable as a frontier law enforcer.  He got weak revenge years later as Cannon. 

The TV version scrulpulously avoids defining Matt’s relationship with Kitty. The early radio episodes do not, especially the one above.  Radio Kitty doesn’t own the Longbranch, she’s a barmaid and saloon girl at the “Texas Trail” and is one edgy woman, especially for staid 1950’s audiences.  The show doesn’t come right out and call her a whore, but it makes sure you know it.  It’s also strongly hinted in the earliest episodes that if Matt isn’t one of her regular customers, she’d sure like him to become one.

To his credit, he’s too much a gentleman to give her that kind of patronage. But he does have feelings for her, as this episode plainly shows. And as this episode also plainly shows, those feelings are forbidden between a barmaid and a Marshall–even in 1870’s rough-and-tumble Dodge. Chester Proudfoot–there never was a Festus Hagen on the radio show–majestically calls it “a mighty fierce mess of gum clobberin’.”  It comes to a head at the town social when three drifters take advantage of the general disapproval of Kitty as Matt’s date, to be assholes to the Marshall with impunity. I do not use that term lightly. It takes fantastic acting to project pure assholism by voice alone. The episode is worth listening to just for that, if you prefer your entertainment coarse.

Now, if you prefer your entertainment as a kind of cultural anthropology, as I tend to do, there’s plenty in this episode for you as well.  You’ll get from it how far we’ve come from the 50’s and 60’s morality the shows of the time oversimplified to fit in a thirty to sixty minute window. The morality that seemed to encourage our sticking our noses in everyone else’s business instead of minding our own.

Lent’s coming on fast .  One thing on which Christians should agree, in my opinion, is to use it worrying less about how other people live their lives, and more  about how we’re living our own. 

After all, Christ Himself did say to remove the planks in our eyes before the specks in others’ eyes, no? How big is a plank? How big is a speck?  Are our priorities straight?

Or are we just running around clobbering our gums?

When you’ve got nothin’, reminisce (and shamelessly self-promote)

Summer’s coming on.  I’ve been feeling it all week, in my sinuses sucking me dry–one part of the aging process I’d happily do without–and finally the forecast is backing me up.  Eastern Kansas weather has one constant.  No matter how cool June is, by July 4 it’ll be humid and 95-100 degrees.  Goodbye monsoon, hello drought!  Builds stamina.  Builds character.  Links you with the Great American Pioneers, in a wimpy 21st Century Schizoid Man way.  (For bonus points, name the band I just tipped my hat to.)

Because my sinuses have been sucking me dry, my brain has gone into survival mode.  Abstract thought is on the backburner.  I’ve forced it to consider just enough for something new on the Sheer Arrogance page–if you’d like to check it out, click the tab at top and check out “A letter from my grandfather” in the submenu on the left (or just click the title, it’s linked). I don’t promise it’s any good; things written in survival mode tend to be simplistic and hackneyed.  But as the entry points out, that’s not always a bad thing.

Here’s the good news of the week: The people at Amazon this week, bless them, decided to help me towards getting my first royalty check by putting the paperback of my latest book Blessed Are the Peace Frogs on sale.  Ten bucks and change, limited time.  Please buy a copy.  It won’t burn your eyes out, I promise.  Worth every penny!

Now the main character in Blessed Are the Peace Frogs is a radio guy, though I assure you the book is about much more than that and his experiences–most of them, anyway–are not my own.  The ones that are my own, I ain’t tellin’. :p  But while daydreaming of thousands of sales and not having to work an eight-to-five job anymore I started to wonder, what happened to all the places I used to work?  All those little towns, all those character-filled mom-and-pop outfits, all those big chains swallowed up by even bigger ones; wassup with them now?

So I summoned The Power of Google, and behold, here’s what I learned about them all, with a little background so you’ll get why I even care:

WILO/WSHW, Frankfort, Indiana, first job in radio as automation babysitter, go-fer, and dude-of-all-work; 1985-1986.   Still exists.  Same family ownership.  In fact, the owner–a fascinating character to work for, and that is all I will say about him–recently was honored on his 90th birthday for his worldwide exploits as a broadcaster.   He gave me the best advice of anyone I ever worked for in that silly business:  It takes at least ten years working in radio to understand how it is done.  Yep. And, had he been a less charitable man, he’d have added “and you will make an ass out of yourself countless times before then.”

WQRA, Warrenton, Virginia, morning drive deejay and later afternoon drive deejay, 1987-1989.  Gone as I knew it:  a fairly-new small-town, small-watt, live-and-local station getting its start in an era where such things had long started to die.  True story: Someone with lots of gumption but no practical experience came to us to interview for a job–on the advice of a competitor in nearby Manassas.  “Go to WQRA,” their program director told him, “they hire a lot of people like you.”  In other words, a rare and fantastic opportunity to hone one’s craft for someone mature and dedicated enough to realize it, because you can get away with a lot of mistakes otherwise not tolerated by “real” radio stations.   As I did, multiple times over.  I also made some of the best friends and friendships of my life there.  These days they’re a repeater frequency for a Christian station licensed out of Culpeper.

KIUL/KWKR, Garden City, Kansas, morning drive deejay on KIUL and later alleged program director, 1989-1991.  Under different ownership, new format.  What a fantastic town with great people GCK is!  Part of me wishes I’d stuck around.  I like to think of this as my “grow-up-fast” gig.  KIUL was a far more professional outfit than WQRA, owned at the time by the same group that owned the local newspaper and in existence since the 1920’s.   It was also my first genuinely live board–some satellite feeds but otherwise no automation at all.  I have never had a more difficult, more soul-searching, more “am I really cut out for this?” mental crisis than my first two months at that radio station.  It didn’t help that the guy I replaced was known for a wild-assed no-holds-barred morning show that was insanely popular, and when I tried to do the same… dear Lord.  Fortunately I had enough on the ball to realize it wasn’t working, adapted the show to my own personality, and ultimately got all that audience I drove away back and then some, but oh ye gods, what a “learning experience.”   Still, by the end of my time there I had a genuinely decent, popular show and the most respect from my audience of anywhere I ever worked, and had the station not gone to a mostly satellite-delivered, career-killing “Music of Your Life” format  I might well still be there–though I doubt it.  Last I checked, KIUL is now owned by a company I would have refused to work for.  I don’t know who has the KWKR frequency these days.

KVOE/KFFX, Emporia, Kansas, 1991-1992, briefly morning then midday deejay on KVOE and midday deejay on KFFX.   Every radio deejay has at least one “and then I #@#$#@ up and went here” station on his resume.  This is mine.  The less I say about my time there, the better.  That’s no knock on the station itself, or Emporia; it was just a bad career move for me.  Though it did get me close enough to Kansas City to get to work at the next stations on this list.  KVOE still exists, KFFX has changed calls; apparently both are under the same ownership as when I was there, along with other local stations that were not at the time.

KCFX, Kansas City, Missouri, 1992-1995; KCIY, Kansas City, Missouri, 1995-1998.  I tell you a little about these gigs on my SAQ page.  These are my major market creds, people.  I was a weekend wonder on “The Fox” and the overnight guy on “The City” for about two and a half years each.  The former still exists, though under different ownership.  The latter went off standard over-the-air radio in 2002, though I understand there’s a variation of it now on an HD radio frequency.  It was my last radio gig ever.  I was replaced by a guy who came in on weekends and recorded voicetracks for the computer system to play–much more economical than paying someone barely over minimum wage plus health insurance.  So be it.

Do I miss it?  Yes and no.  I miss the actual thing of getting on the air and, as much as is allowed, being myself.  I’d have loved to get a shot at doing a talk show at least once.  That’s my sole regret.  I made some good friends and miss many of them to this day.  I don’t miss the politics.  I don’t miss the occasional backstabbers and egomaniacs, which not everyone in radio is–but there are enough of them that they get an awful lot of attention, and some of them are popular and successful, but karma will get them in the end, it always does.

And life goes on.  Cheers!