It was spring of 1977 and my wife had left me only months before. Heartbroken and unable to move forward without moving away, I quit my gig in Detroit Lakes Minnesota and drove home to the twin cities with my tail between my legs. It wasn't long before it was obvious that I had no choice but take yet another little job in another little town. As much as I felt like rolling over and playing dead, I had a career to drive and the longer I waited the harder it would be to continue.
Waupaca Wisconsin is a tiny town in the southern center of the state, and they needed a midday voice who could appeal to both farmers and vacationers. I was given the position while on the phone interview, and drove the 4 hours that overnight for a next morning, first shift.
I was broke, in fact, in debt as deeply as American credit consumerism would allow due to the unfortunate timing of my divorce to be. So there was really no option in living quarters beyond "inexpensive". Lucky for me there was an incredibly cheap hotel in beautiful downtown Waupaca that would accommodate my few possessions so long as I was willing to shower down the hall.
Twenty one dollars a week seemed reasonable for one room, and if I was ever going to get on my feet again without sucking the lifesblood out of mommy and daddy, this was part of the deal. Eating was an issue of course; with no fridge, no hotplate and no money I was at a loss as to how to keep my fat intact. And then I discovered goober grape peanut butter.
"How much more convenient could life be" I thought, "it's like God was watching over me and created a product that would sustain my body through the hard times".
A loaf of white bread, a jar of goober butter and a jacknife I'd once nearly used to gut a passing bully, and my daily menu was pretty much intact. Walking down the hall for a cupful of tap water was a pain, but I've had worse chores and peanut butter is damn tough to swallow with no liquid at all.
But, man cannot live by pb&j alone; once a week I treated myself to a real meal at the local dairy queen where I could buy a bar-b-cue sandwich and fries on sale and still have enough left over for a small chocolate shake. The word decadence is interpretable; It was amazing to sit on a plastic picnic bench in the spring haze chewing on pulled pork and washing it down with solidified, sugared milk while a passing car might be thumping out Blue Oyster Cult's "Don't fear the reaper" or maybe a dose of "Radar Love". Ya gotta make do sometimes, ya know?
The job itself was your average small town radio gig; a mix of artists ranging from Sinatra to Parton to Badfinger to Doctor Hook, all that was missing was the real rock of the time, the underground music by names like Captain Beyond and Steely Dan and John Prine and David Bowie that only stations like KAAY in Little Rock Arkansas would play.
Add to that the noontime news break with a live "trading post" segment where listeners would call in trying to sell their old barbie doll collections and that washing machine that stopped running but some handyman could surely get to work like it usedta, why it's almost brand new!. Reading the local leagues' bowling scores and the leaders averages kinda grated on me, but every job has its little distractions, every worker his private cross to bear.
I advanced like a Yellowstone wildfire, the people loved my schtick and advertisers started to request that I do their spots within a week of my arrival. Maybe advanced is the wrong word; there was no raise attached to the praise heaped on me by my employer, only pounds and pounds of new weight, extra responsibilities, overtime as it were.
One prize he'd given me was the 6pm to midnight shift to program to my choosing. The station's power was cut dramatically at dusk and so the sponsors vanished at that moment as well. In the daytime our audience was well into the millions; our signal covered Neenah-Menasha and the rest of the Fox Valley, nearly as far northeast as Green Bay and as far southeast as Milwaukee. But after dark we became nearly a toy radio, hardly stretching the boundaries of towns like New Berlin and Stevens Point, only a short drive from our tower.
I found a high school geek that dearly wanted to be a disk jock in the worst way, and taught him everything I could in the few hours I could spare. I spent my bar-b-cue money buying a trade rag that was for the most part a "Billboard" of the underground, a sheet that listed the top ten of the bands in obscurity, avoided by pop stations everywhere.
It took about a week before I'd contacted the labels that put out those records and I'd had boxes of vinyl in return, each company desperate for airtime and more than happy to send me their full catalog of artists on the off chance I might play them for even my smallish audience.
And play them I did. The kid jock was thrilled to just sit behind the board so he had no problem following my explicit instructions on what to play and when. For a couple months I made WDUX the midwestern heart of the underground for at least that 6 hours a day. I was so fucking high I was smokin'; and everyone around me could see my power exhibited through my enhanced confidence and charisma.
Even the girl in sales was impressed, so much so that she asked me out on a date. She was cute in that nerdy way, big black glasses and pointy nose, twistable lips and a huge, endearing smile. I was dumbstruck that she'd noticed me as human, but then I was still whining myself to sleep most nights, trying to imaging why my true love had dumped me to have sex with every not me man that would look her way.
How a woman would decide to have a romance with someone so obviously wounded is beyond me; it's not like I'm Brad Pitt. Even then I was just a pudgy, average looking baldish guy with bad teeth and a really odd sense of humor who lived in a 20 some dollar a week hotel with a bathroom down the hall.
But she'd stroke my hair while I'd get tears in my eyes listening to Dan Fogleberg sing about lost love, knowing full well that I was sniveling over the bitch that had ruined my life and ignoring the kindness of this lovely stranger. Poor Michelle, she deserved better and got it eventually, but that's another story.
The news guy and I formed a relationship one night playing pool for beers. We were both pretty good and high enough to decide that we could conquer the world, once we'd trashed the bar patrons first. So we challenged anyone who looked as if they had a buck to spare and kicked ass for the rest of the night, walking off drunk as skunks and a few well earned dollars richer.
The next day while laughing over our antics we discovered our commonalities which far outweighed our differences. It was wonderful to find a male friend that talked about life and love and knew little if anything about grease and baling wire.
So here I was, a sweet woman cuddling up to me, a guy pal in my corner and his friends showing interest, a big fish in a little pond that was steadily racking up audience numbers and increasing his worth by the hour. I was in hog heaven; even the hernia I'd produced while trying to wrench a repair on the engine of my car didn't sway my mood. I was blessed and getting blesseder every day.
The station manager wanted to have dinner with me one night, to pick my brain he said. He was a young guy, maybe a dozen years older than I. The local hero in high school, he'd catapulted into this job with his assortment of medals and trophies, and a tongue that could charm the panties off every cheerleader in the Fox Valley. A consummate salesman, he was perfect for his position, having little understanding of creativity and talent and almost no interest in radio as a medium at all, but a healthy appetite for money in all denomonations.
The moment I sat down he began to pitch his new idea; he would make me the area capitalism poster boy, sign me up for remote broadcasts from Joe's Junk Heaven and Gordy's Golf World, have me doing disco's and wedding parties (a new idea at the time) and generally turn me into an action figure of myself; a hu-man marketing tool that would act as a vacuum, sucking up every penny of loose change in the three state area so that he and I and the owner lady and her heirs could split a fortune in gold and live happily ever after in obscene wealth.
I may or may not have said this before; I care far less about money than happiness, and I fully well understand that as often as not, the two are mutually exclusive.
I had no desire to do disco or remotes for all it matters, I'm a fucking introvert, that's how I came to be on radio and not television! I began my speech while fantasizing him as an understanding peer, a like soul who labored to bring home his daily bread but saw enormous opportunities beyond his drudgery to change the world for the better, or at least have a little fun on the side.
So I pitched him back; "Howzabout we create a public service department that I might lead, staff it with teenage journalism wannabes from the local schools and devote more of our time to serving the community we live in, developing a reputation as concerned citizens first..... and then go kick some monetary butt?"
He'd had a glow in his eyes when I'd first seen him at our table; that hellfire doused the moment I'd finished my speech. We argued for a time without making it personal, or at least that's my fantasy. I demanded that the FCC had something more than wealth in mind when they granted license to the airwaves, and he countered that I was a fucking moron for ever thinking about communism as a career. So much for not getting personal. We finished our chat and our happy hour appetizers with only "I'll consider its" to our mutual credit, but it was not over yet.
A few days later I got a call from a radio station that while in school, we'd pretended was our own, in order to practice our newly acquired craft. It's a little station in a little college town, but because of the strength of its signal it was used by record companies nationwide to break new artists to the midwestern audience. Rumor had it that the walls of WSPT in Stevens Point were covered in gold records, a pseudo fact that my classmates and I had sworn to check out for ourselves at first opportunity.
The station's program director was calling, while I was on the air no less, and offered me a job on the spot. It seems I was hurting his ratings, therefore dropping his revenue and he wanted me to move in with a winner, saving his economic hide in the process.
I made it clear I was fat and happy where I was at, thinking I'd just made a few tight friends, started a new boy girl relationship, was programming my own time slot, and had absolutely no reason to budge an inch. But, I told him, I'd love to see your facility!
He grudgingly said I could come for a visit and long story shorter by a sentence or two, the moment I arrived in Stevens Point, he'd called my employer with the news that I'd applied for work; my employer who was all too ready to believe I was job hopping, lazy commie that I was.
The second I got back "home" I returned to the station to open a new shipment of music of the future, when my newly agitated bossman called me into his plushly appointed office and summarily fired me without offering me a word's worth of rebuttal. If I wouldn't do his bidding, I was worthless...any idiot could cover a small town midday shift as well as I did.
And the guy in Stevens Point got what he'd wanted as I'd called him that afternoon to explain that my boss had taken my visit out of context and now I was free to move down the road, and he just laughed and hung up.
I went back to my hotel and snuggled up with a jar of goober grape/peanut butter and wonderbread, medicating myself with the sugars that would only make me even more insane in the end. There was no phone, that was down the hall near the tap water and toilet. I'd spent my savings putting together my nightime show and what little else I had on a gift or two for my new sweetheart.
I had no choice really, rent was due in another 24 hours and I couldn't even cover the 20 some bucks for my one room, not to mention buy my bar-b-cue and fries feast of the week.
I packed up my things, barely enough to fill the back seat of my 1969 GTO coupe with mostly clothes, a 35mm camera bag and a cheap television, and made my way to my soon to be ex-girlfriends duplex to say g'bye.
It was a debilitating ride home, my only home being my parents' basement if they'd have me back for yet another few days while I drove metaphorical stakes through my bleeding heart. All the way back I was pondering how something that was looking so good, suddenly turned so incredibly, unmercifully bad; and how my life had become just one miserable pile of crap after another in spite of what I truly believed were my best efforts.
Once I'd reached mom and dad's house it was well into the AM, and I was so exhausted by the days events I locked up the car and went inside to sleep on the family couch.
As I was sleeping, someone, or a pack of someones broke a window to enter my car, stripping every crumb of my property from it's back seat and then for a laugh, removing the radio, the heater control package and every doorknob, window crank, cigarette device and non-nailed down accessory they could reach.
I suppose they had all night, I'd slept like a baby, assuming I was truly home and safe in the bosom of my family; safe from the wolves at last.