While attending broadcasting school, there was actually one guy who had his own radio show, albeit just one (lonely) night per week, on a remote FM station (when "FM" was hardly a pimple on the industry nose compared to AM powerhouses). I was to learn that even the "studio" (that's stretching it) was in the same room as the radio transmitting equipment, located within a lone cabin surrounded by woods atop a tall hill.
Vincent came up to me near the course completion, to ask me if I'd like to do his Saturday evening radio show (coming up on New Year's Eve) while he attended a family party with his fiance. I didn't have to be asked twice since, to a radio junkie-wannabe, this would be a thrill.
December 31st couldn't come too fast, as I had my music picked (from my own vinyl collection of 45's and 33's), bags packed (boy they're heavy with LP's, a few toiletries plus packed picnic, one big bag under each arm) as I headed to the nearest bus station for the hour ride to Vinnie's tiny city/large town.
He picked me up at the bus depot, drove me to the distant facility but stopping first at the downtown AM outlet in a local hotel (the AM sister station offices and studio looked comfortably adequate, compared to what was coming). We were there to pick up program logs. The snow-lined lone road winding amidst the bare winter trees, climbed to the shack at the hilltop. I was excited and nervous: if I could make it through the night, I'd be a professional broadcaster (yeah, right) since I was being paid a few bucks plus a hot breakfast. This was it!
Vinnie showed me around the tiny buiding: just a furnace and cot made up for me in the small room, then we moved to the "studio" which consisted of a tiny console, mic and chair, next to the actual transmitter equipment; no bathroom or running water ("they're lots of trees outside to choose from"). He turned the equipment on in sequential order (the FM side was so poor it had no daytime or overnight programs, so the evening show was "it." I wrote down how to carefully switch everything off after midnight, in opposite order. He wished me well, left, and the last sound I heard was his door closing, car starting and moving off into the night.
I had an hour to go before "showtime" at 6 pm; time to put my personal things on the already made-up cot, then take my coffee thermos, food and records and set them out, putting the vinyl in order of play that I had already programmed in sequence. Last one to go was Guy Lombardo's classic "Auld Lang Syne." Chair was o.k., newswire checked for the latest news and sports headlines, then weather forecast I would use. Now that I was ready, it was just a matter of waiting until the clock struck six. I would open the mic while holding a 33 record (cued to my first song as long as my shaking hand wouldn't make it dance across the grooves) as I said my first "Hello" and introduced (trying to keep the voice even and calm) Frank Ifield singing "I Remember You" unless the needle skipped to "Only Love Can Break The Heart."
It's a go; we're on; monitor sounds fine, earphones on both ears (not professional) made my voice sound like someone mature and smooth. We're rolling! Damn, this isn't work, it's play and we get paid for this? Next record set to go, moving the just used discs back in their sleeves, from right side of the floor to the newly growing stack on the left. Cool. Everything's under control.
During the night, there is a sad news headline story from earlier that day, about some family members perishing from smoke inhalation in a house fire. It was reported the kerosene stove had backed up. Too early for exact numbers, especially with the investigation hardly launched. Not much else going on; suppose people are out there partying with friends, loved ones, and not yet into trouble for tying one too many on.......
It's almost midnight. I'm allowed to read the news and sports headlines with the weather forecast early (instead of on the hour); then yell (to no one in the empty room save the cold mic: "Ten, nine, eight".... raise the voice to feign excitement...."three, two, one: ....HAPPY NEW YEAR!") as my last broadcast words into the mic, then segueing into Lombardo's immortal chronicler.
Finished. Excited. Thrilled, really. O.K., Broadway Billy Rose, cut the heady stuff, back to reality, stand up, finish the job by turning off the transmitter equipment, pack your gear up and set it by the door, finish your snacking (not even a beer nor bubbly; your evening's MC has half a Pepsi to finish as he lifts it to toast...... the goddess of communication? Have we just met?
Man, this place is silence personified. Not a sound but the wind in the trees outside. Place a little drafty, not well insulated, thank goodness for the warm mini furnace in the front room. Time to put my own things away, turn off the lights, crawl under the blanket fully dressed (it IS chilly) and work the first time high down (no longer a radio virgin, but a "pro") and try to get some sleep before Vince arrives whenever.
Finally, sleep. Mustn't have been too deep. Rolled over, noticed the pilot light was right at eye level; comforting to see the tiny speck of warm flames. Who knows how much later, turned over again, semi-conciously noticed furnace pilot light was out. No big deal. Maybe automatic. Must get some more shuteye, which comes easily this time.
Did I completely go out, or was my consciousness on low alert, trying to get messages to the brain: "something's not right. Wake up." No go. Until I realize I'm choking. Smoke in my mouth, nose, lungs. No panic, just a chill realizing something's terribly wrong. Fireman neighbour and boyhood chum telling me: "If ever in a fire, hit the floor, really crawl as low as you can, get below most of the smoke as you grope along!"
I did. Song I played earlier by Skeeter Davis just keeps playing over and over "Why does my heart keep beating, why do these eyes of mine cry?" Rolled off the cot, crashing it to the floor, then crawled so low as to almost be kissing the deck..... trying to remember about where the door was..... choking as I reached up with one hand over my mouth and nose, the other groping and finding the door knob. "Don't they know it's the end of the world......" Pushed the door open, coughing and gasping as I snake out onto the snow. "It ended when you said goodbye." I finally start to get fresh air into me, eyes moist, tears rolling down my cheeks, not feeling the freezing temperature but grateful for the air.
Slowly, I worked my way back in as I see smoke exiting the open doorway. I leave the door open as I take a deep breath then hold it, and go to each window, opening one then crawling out again; then another, just one each time as I crawl back outside. Finally, the smoke has dissipated and I can find the furnace main breaker to shut down. Done. Wait outside for some more clean air to breathe normally, then go in (now only 6:30 and streaks heralding a new dawn starting to break the dark, starlit sky). Vincent will be totally into a deep sleep after a great night of dinner and partying with his future inlaws, fiance, friends and family. I don't care. I call him.
He's groggy, but suddenly sounds wide awake as I explain what happened. He's on his way. When he arrives, he looks at me and says I look as white as a ghost, but with a little soot in my hair and ears (I had tried to wash my face in the snow). Off we go into town for a hot diner breakfast and a chance for me to really wash up in the men's room. Vincent is shaking as I give him the details. Admits the furnace had acted up before, but was told it was fixed.
"How do you feel, Paul? Your life almost ended the moment you became a paid professional! Has it scared you away?" I told him that if this was something to test me, to challenge my survival, then perhaps it might be a good luck omen. If I can survive that early morning, then maybe, just maybe, the rest would be just fine.