Along a River, A While Ago
“Sometimes I get this crazy dream that I just take off in my car. But you can travel on 10,000 miles and still stay where you are.” — Harry Chapin, WOLD
(It is always a great thing to hear from people who are reached by your writing, and to get their feedback. I’ve been asked to parse out the political takes with a bit more story telling, and I’ve many to share. While there is much to say about Texas and Washington absurdities this week, I think I will take a break and offer up the yarn below about getting started in life, love, and a career).
Along a River, A While Ago
The radio station was an unremarkable brick building encircled by palm and fruit trees. It might easily have been mistaken for a plumbing company’s headquarters or maybe a location for a young doctor to begin a practice. My intention, however, was to use the airwaves of a local broadcaster operating inside those walls to launch a journalism career.
I had already spent a few years as a disc jockey and did not fancy myself an entertainer, though my smartass quotient for minutes on the air was dangerously high. Not sure even now how it had transpired, but I had cultivated a vision of myself reporting from the Khyber Pass even as I ended up delivering stories on the air of giant bird attacks and drunks driving into irrigation canals. These were a few of the reports I daily read into a microphone located down at the bottom of America.
The news part of my work was more of a privilege than a job, though. I might as well have just been a technician, throwing switches and writing down power readings on the transmitter for the FCC. Management only needed a warm body to make the tape player properly function and constantly monitor the carousels, which played the recordings of popular music. Nobody at the station cared too much about news unless there were advertising dollars to be generated by information from the police blotters or the positive nonsense offered by the chamber of commerce.
“We’ve got a congressman and a mayor, and they run things down here,” Charlie, the station manager said. “But I don’t want any politics on my air. Ribbon cuttings, only. Then get some car crashes, stabbings, robberies, drug arrests, that kind of thing from the cops and I’ll let you do the news.”
In my early twenties, Charlie frequently made me question my career choices. We were just married and down from Michigan to the tropics. As the radio station owner, Charlie rented us a portable building for housing, and we lived in that just below the transmitter tower. The carpeting was the kind of cheap green fake turf that is used on miniature golf courses, and we tried not to laugh every time we walked through the front door. Banana palms grew tall enough near the windows to obscure most of the sunlight and I paid one week’s salary for each month’s rent.
The decision to run for the border was made during a Midwestern blizzard. I had read in the back of a trade publication that there was an opening at the AM station in far South Texas and I had sent the address a cassette tape of myself reading the news, which had been recorded at my brother-in-law’s kitchen table in Virginia. Charlie had called the farmhouse up in Michigan where my in-laws lived and had reached my new bride. I barely heard the details of his offer over a howling blizzard that had forced me off an Interstate highway outside of Chicago.
“He said he has a cottage in an orange grove that we can rent for cheap, and you can start as soon as we get there,” she said. “He said he was going hunting but we could just call and leave a message with his secretary to let him know if you wanted the job. Oh, and the temperature was 78 degrees down there today.”
I might have made a snap decision because of cold and snow, which inadvertently set the course of my career. My judgment was impaired. I was standing in a truck stop phone booth with snow almost up to my knees after getting caught out in a blizzard on a return trip from a job interview at a radio station in Rockford, Illinois. They had taken a pass on my skill set, which meant I was also not even ready for Peoria. I do not remember the precise language of the station manager’s rejection, but it was the beginning of a theme that finally sharpened itself in the words of a TV station executive who told me many years later, “I don’t really know what I’m looking for, but I’ll know it when I see it, and you’re not it.”
Although I barely heard the little red-haired girl’s words over the storm, I caught the phrases “orange grove” and “78 degrees” and there was nothing else to consider.
“Just call him back and tell him we’ll be there as soon as we can or leave that message.” I had to almost yell to be audible above the wind. The snow outside was flying horizontally and I realized I was certain to be sleeping that night in a booth at the truck stop coffee shop.
A few days later we loaded our 1968 Opal Kadett station wagon with wedding presents and began driving southward toward Texas. I had always loved reading cowboy stories in school and when my father was not crazed with anger and instability, he laid on the couch and watched old black and white westerns with Randolph Scott “ridin’ the range alone.” His fascination with nature usually helped me focus on something good about him after his rages.
“Looky there, buddy boy,” he used to say. “They got them tabletop mesas out near Las Vegas. I’m gonna go out there someday and see me one a them.”
The Opal Kadett Station Wagon
My love of the west may not have come from daddy, but I have never been interested in anything east of the Mississippi River. The first trip I took through Texas on a motorcycle a few years before graduating from college had convinced my teenaged brain that I was destined to live in the state. This notion surely had a narcotic effect on my sensibilities because I had accepted a job 1500 miles from home without even speaking in advance to my future employer or having any idea of my actual job responsibilities or what I was to earn. I simply needed employment and the only offer I had in hand was about a half continent from home.
“I’ll pay you $160 a week and you can rent the cottage for $160 a month,” Charlie said after he finally got his wet, unlit cigar out of his mouth at our first meeting. “I’ll need you to sign on in the morning by 5 a.m., do the news every half hour, play some music, get the weather on the air, and then you can do whatever you want from 10 o’clock until 3 in the afternoon but I want you back here to do it all over again until 6:30.”
“That’s not a cottage,” I said.
“You want the job and the cottage or not?”
“Yep, sure do.”
The radio station served a twenty-six-city market in the sub-tropical region of Texas known as the Lower Rio Grande Valley, a 150-mile desert that slowly turns to alluvial plain as it stretches from Starr County in the west to the mouth of the Rio Grande at the Gulf of Mexico. Small border towns had emerged along the northern side of the big river, and they straddled a highway that almost paralleled the Mexican frontier as it reached toward Brownsville. KRIO-AM’s 5000-watt directional signal pulsed up and down the Rio Grande for hundreds of miles and gave the broadcaster a bit of historical market dominance.
I did not, however, understand much about the locale where we were now living. A national news magazine had recently sent a reporter to the Lower Rio Grande Valley and had published a cover story under the giant block letters proclaiming, “The Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas: America’s Third World.” The story indicated that the valley had the lowest literacy rate in the U.S., highest incidence of intestinal parasites, which was a consequence of the greatest concentration of outdoor privies, lowest average annual income, worst rate of child mortality, and smallest percentage of high school and college diplomas in the entire country.
The news Charlie wanted on his air, however, was not about social ills and bringing attention to difficult issues to improve the community. Portraying the valley as too troubled would be bad for business and that meant less money spent on advertising and fewer cigars for Charlie. He was happy when he turned on his radio New Year’s Day and heard me reading a report about a giant bird that police said had terrorized several people the previous night. This was the kind of tale that generated listeners and ad dollars.
“I’m telling you, this bird’s wingspan was twice the width of our patrol car,” one of the officers told me. “There’s no bird that big down here but that’s what we both saw.”
A man in Brownsville had told police that his trailer was shaking in the middle of the night and when he went outdoors, he looked up and saw a giant bird, “taller than a man,” and it swooped down toward him with “huge claws trying to grab me.” A similar narrative came from an agricultural worker further upriver. He said he had been walking in an orange grove and suddenly a creature flew at him out of the sky and grabbed his back with talons bigger than human fingers. Skeptics did not know what to think when he showed his bloody back to emergency room doctors who had to patch up shredded skin. There were three tracks of talons up either side of his bare back.
The story refused to die because more witnesses claimed to have seen the great bird. Our phone began ringing with calls from journalists all over the world after the Associated Press sent a dispatch across the wire. Within a few weeks, I was almost convinced I had seen the creature buzz a donut shop during my dark morning motorcycle commute. My first national exposure as a broadcast journalist was a result of a giant bird flying through my coverage area. I should have immediately managed my career expectations with such a beginning.
“We should cut a record on this.”
Our program director was always looking for methods to keep up our ratings. In Houston, they had contests on the air and gave away new cars, but Charlie refused to offer his audience much more than movie passes, which was hardly a reason to tune to our frequency. First-run films usually made it down to the border so late that I would not have been shocked to see, “Gone with the Wind” on a theater marquee.
“I’m serious,” TK said. “Let’s do one of those flying saucer type interview records where we’ll have a character interview the big bird and his answers will be short clips from current hits.”
The 45-RPM we produced was as silly as the concept, but it remained number one on the playlist for three or four months. I wrote a narrative piece about the legend of the Big Bird, which became the B-side of the record, and Charlie took the two cuts to Nashville and had several thousand records produced and shipped back to the valley. TK and I guessed that maybe 20,000 were sold but we never knew because any profits went to Charlie and the radio station. We got neither royalties nor a bonus on our paychecks.
TK was a slender and soft-spoken man and he loved working at the radio station with a passion that escaped me. Nothing bothered him. He was a black man in a 99% Hispanic population, and he programmed the radio station with disco and pop chart songs that had more potential to gain an audience in Chicago and Detroit than in Donna and Edcouch, little towns along the Rio Grande. His insight, though, was astute and he consistently picked gold and platinum records to play in advance of their national success. His office was lined with gold records from recording studios whose artists he had helped make famous.
None of that made any difference to Charlie. TK was constantly being badgered by the station manager to play different music. We both discovered that little we did seemed to be of value to our radio boss. After winning reporting awards and writing stories that drew national attention to our obscure little operation on the north bank of the big river, I petitioned Charlie for a raise. My tenure on the job as disc jockey and news director had reached eighteen months and I thought I deserved an increase in pay.
Charlie agreed. After I had stuck my head into his office, he casually told me there was to be a “little something” for me in the next pay cycle. I was excited and told Mary Lou things might get a little easier for us. Unfortunately, Charlie’s description was painfully accurate. When I opened my check envelope, I looked at the numbers and did not recognize any increase. Charlie had graciously done the math for me, though, in red pencil on the pay stub. The numbers were pathetic. He had written, .05 per hour x 40 hours = $2.00 per week x 52 weeks per year = $104.00. I laughed, momentarily, thinking he was kidding and then I went into his office, unannounced and angry.
“Are you serious, Charlie?” He did not look up from whatever he was reading. “This raise, on my check? A nickel an hour?”
“I thought you wanted a raise.”
“I did. Not an insult.”
“You don’t want it?”
“I want a real pay increase.”
“That’s what I gave you.”
“No, you didn’t.” I just looked out the window at the orange trees and the sunshine and wished to glory hell I was not in this man’s office.
“Tell you what, Charlie. Looks to me like if all you can afford to give me is a nickel an hour, the station must be in dire straits, and you all clearly need that nickel worse than I do. Why don’t you go ahead and keep it?”
“Okay, I will.”
Without ever taking the cigar out of his mouth, he went back to whatever he had been perusing. My next paycheck went back to $160 a week before deductions, instead of the $162 he had offered. We did not notice the difference in our lives, even though the extra two dollars might have purchased a couple of hamburgers at Mr. Q’s or a six-pack of Pearl Beer.
The work was never drudgery, though, and almost always comically entertaining. Language differences were a frequent source of the humor. Most of the borderland spoke Spanish as a first language and a significant part of our audience lived across the river in Mexico. Many of the callers to our request lines were children, learning their first words of English, what constituted a verb and how it was properly used. Often, instead of asking us to play a song for them, we were requested to “put” a song. Eventually, this happened so frequently, I stopped calling our phone tree the “hit lines” and began referring to it as the Rockin’ Rio “put lines.”
Charlie was unamused.
The language gap also meant that listeners, regardless of their age, were often uncertain of the lyrics they were hearing. I suppose there was also the possibility that we did not understand what was being requested when we took calls. I learned this one morning before sunrise as I was recording a request to be played back on the air as the song was introduced.
“Hello. Rockin’ Rio put lines.” There was a pause and then a tiny voice.
“Mister? Mister? Can you ‘put’ a song for me?” I thought it was a little boy.
“Sure. I’d be happy to ‘put’ a song for you. What would you like to hear?”
“Can you put that song by that Mary?” Momentarily, I did not know what he was asking.
“Uh, you mean the hit song by Mary McGregor?” She had gone to number one with a ballad called, “Torn Between Two Lovers.”
“Yeah, her, mister. Can you put that song, ‘Born Between Two Cupboards?’”
I am not sure if the coffee that came out of my nose was heard over the air, but I do know I was able to stifle my laughter until I closed the microphone. First, though, I had to introduce the record.
“Direct, from our Rockin’ Rio Put Lines, by request, this is Mary McGregor, and Born Between Two Cupboards.”
Maybe that’s why Charlie took his nickel back: I was too much of a wise ass. But this was border radio and an AM station on the edge of America. We were not changing the world. In fact, the world changed the valley but not until five or ten years after it had finished with the rest of American culture.
We still fell in love with the place, though. Everything tends to be exciting and interesting and romantic to newlyweds, I learned. We were not bothered by the Winter Texans who drove 35 miles per hour on the inside lane with their blinkers endlessly flashing, and we were intrigued by the RV parks in the orange groves, irrigation canals with dirt tracks for my long runs, elegant Washington palms lining every street, authentic regional food from family-owned restaurants, weekend nights and rum punch at cantinas in Mexico, short drives to the beach and South Padre Island, the way the wind came up off of the gulf every afternoon and cleared out the air, and even finding entire heads of cows sitting up in the frozen foods section of grocery stores before learning they were dropped into holes that had been filled with coals in backyards on Saturday nights and eaten as barbacoa de cabeza the next morning after church.
We began to settle in but a hurricane changed our address away from the Rio Grande Valley. The storm was nothing like the 1961 beast that filled the entire Gulf and got Dan Rather the opportunity to join CBS News. My little career-bender was diminutive compared to Hurricane Carla. Of course, coming from the Midwest, I had not lived through a tropical cyclone and did not know what to expect when the clouds began circling in the Gulf. I watched the weather wires in my tiny, improvised newsroom at the radio station and called the Coast Guard for interviews and hotels and restaurants down on South Padre to ask about their concerns and I hastily read forecasts as they clacked in over the AP wire machine.
A reporter’s job in the advance of a big storm of any type seems to always be to build dramatic tension, and consistently leave the audience with a sense of foreboding. I used to laugh at a network correspondent, who, when sent to cover any kind of weather story, always ended with a dark prediction. If he were at a blizzard, the outcue was always teed up with, “And the forecast is for more snow.” A flood? “Forecasters expect more rain.” Even at an earthquake, he once intoned in his basso profundo voice, “Experts say it’s not over yet and deadly temblors should be anticipated for the next week.”
That darkening day when my first hurricane approached the lower Texas Gulf Coast, the Texas Department of Public Safety issued a statement regarding the evacuation of the island as Hurricane Anita hit steering currents that began to guide it toward the mouth of the Rio Grande. For irrational reasons, I decided my job responsibilities included going down to the island as the storm moved toward landfall. I was a one-person news department, though, and had no idea to whom I would report any information I gathered. TK volunteered to work the control board and patch me through to broadcast when I called in with any type of report.
Anita’s wind speeds were increasing and had reached more than 100 miles per hour while spinning well offshore. Just as I crossed over the Queen Isabella Causeway and looked out to the frightening wall of clouds across the water, the radio announced that South Padre had been ordered evacuated by the governor. I, nonetheless, turned sharply south to where the jetties stood against the sea and tourists tended to gather on the beach near a popular restaurant. Police were moving through the parking lots and inside of buildings to usher visitors out to their vehicles to get over the high causeway before the winds became more dangerous. I slipped around behind the cinderblock restaurant building and crouched near a small pump house to hide from the wind and the law. No one thought there might be a grown adult attempting to stay on the island as the storm surge pushed the tide up over the roads.
I stuck my head around the corner and saw seagulls on the beach with their beaks pointed toward the rising wind and the water pushing far up the sand. When the birds sit down and turn to the wind the storm is thought to be on final approach to landfall. I was naïve and knew nothing of hurricanes but thought I had been clever by evading the evacuation order. In a phone booth in front of the restaurant, I called Associated Press Radio Network in Washington and told them I was on the island and had not been evacuated. The news desk kept my line open, and I filed constant reports from inside the glass and metal box as the water rose to my knees. I was also suddenly afraid.
Hurricane Anita stalled, however, and sheering high altitude winds reduced its power, which was probably a saving grace for the person on the phone talking to the AP. If the storm had sustained its energy, I might have drowned. Instead, the water receded, and I was back in the radio station after several hours. Damage throughout the four-county border region was minimal, and the one piece of information I wanted to report had to be dropped onto the cutting room floor. The former Miss America, Anita Bryant, who had been pushing anti-gay rights laws in South Florida’s Dade County, became the brunt of an incisive joke about the hurricane that bore her name. A gay rights activist in McAllen suggested to me in a recorded interview that it was appropriate a hurricane named Anita had turned out to be little more than a “bad blowjob.”
The weak wind blew my life in a new direction, though. A news executive at a television station in Corpus Christi had listened to my hurricane reports for the five hours I had held open the phone line and talked to editors in Washington over the radio network. He called the switchboard at KRIO and asked for the newsroom and said he had a tip to give the news director. When I answered the phone, he said, instead, he had found my hurricane work “courageous” and “riveting,” which, I knew, was hyperbole. I did not care, however, if he was being disingenuous. He asked me if I had ever thought about working in television. I had not, but suddenly I was unable to think of nothing other than producing television news.
“Well, I’ve got an opening here,” he said. “You interested in coming up and doing an on-camera audition for the job?”
Oh, was I ever.
When I arrived at the studio for KRIS-TV, I was escorted to the set and given some news copy to read into the camera. The news director watched the live recording and then reviewed my tape before offering me a job anchoring the weekend shows. Excitedly, I sped home across the vast King Ranch to share the news with the little-red-haired girl. Before we could pack for the city by the sea, though, I got another call telling me the corporate owners of KRIS had purchased another TV station in Laredo and I was informed I was going to be reassigned to the new operation in the desert.
We moved upriver about three hours to Laredo, and I began working in television. The only housing that we could afford was a 14-foot-wide mobile home on a ranch within shouting distance of the Rio Grande. I learned fast that the border was still a bit like the Wild West in those days and there was no shortage of news. Charlie and I never spoke again after I left but I had heard that late in life he had opened an ice cream shop down on the island and sent his profits to a home for abandoned children in Mexico. I was pleased to know there was such generosity in his veins, but, cynically, I also had the thought that he might be cramming for his “final exams.”
TK went back to college and got his master’s degree and became an educator and administrator and is the principal of a middle school a few miles distant from the studio where he loved to play records and talk. We have remained the best of friends through passing decades, his kindness and sensibilities continue to provide perspective when I lose my way. I still have not made it to the Khyber Pass, though journalism delivered me to many exotic locales and historical moments I never anticipated I might have witnessed back when I was spinning “Born Between Two Cupboards” on a turntable and riding my motorcycle between the palms through the morning darkness to sign on KRIO. The radio station, sadly, is no longer on the air, a victim of bad management and the Internet.
The little red-haired girl is still around, though, and I would take her hand again and go back to that corn popper radio station tomorrow and our crumbling adobe under the palms and do everything all over again without the slightest change or even a solitary regret.
But I might need at least a dime an hour pay hike.