Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Appeasing the gods

It's mid-April and I woke up to an inch of snow this morning, which is a bit jarring since it was nearly 80-degrees-F just 36 hours ago.  The latest "Accuweather/No-Wait/Doppler/PowerofFive" forecast tells me that it will be cold again tonight but back near 70-degrees by this weekend, so there's no need to panic.  For most of us, the brief wintry blast is good water-cooler conversation fodder and yet another prank by a particularly puckish "old man" winter.
Still, I can't help but think about those who lived here long before the internet, TV, newspapers and, even, the town crier.  I'm thinking about the ancient peoples...you know, the ones living in sod huts and wearing pelts. 
These were people who were far more in tune with the randomness versus predictability of nature.   Having no TV or internet to distract them, they studied the stars and the movement of the sun, building large earthworks aligned with the equinox, and sitting around the nighttime fire noting every planetary path, shooting star and elusive comet.  When the warm sun came out and temperatures hit 80-degrees, like they did for us last weekend, it was a joyous experience, particularly following a nasty winter (like we had.)  The sun god must be happy.  The sacrifices must have pleased.
And then, overnight, the temperatures plunge and they wake up with snow over their huts!  Uh oh.  There must have been some finger pointing around the commune, "Okay, who hacked off the gods?"  "Harvey, was it you?  Didn't I see you sneak behind the pine tree yesterday to smoke some elderberry leaves?"  
And then, "We need to make it right with the gods again, guys....any suggestions?  Anyone willing to be sacrificed?  Come on, guys, my wife just packed the winter pelts away in the cedar chest so we'd better do something now or we'll never see a warm day again!"
And then, miraculously, two days later, the sun is back out and the temperatures are back in the 70s.  The gods must be pleased again.  Harvey, if he wasn't offered up as sacrifice, was vindicated.
It's natural for any living thing to seek out the predictable.  Our fish, dogs and cat expect to be fed every day at the exact same time.  When our dog, Charlie, barks at the door, he expects someone to open it.  Thunder scares them, I think, because it's random and occasional. Even plants know when to bud, not by the changes in weather as much as the lengthening of daily daylight.
People are the same way, too...we seek out routines that lead to expected outcomes.  Every morning, I follow a precisely repetitious routine, lest I stand in the shower standing there wondering if I already washed my hair.
Unpredictable events can be exciting and provide an occasional thrill, but lets face it: the desire to seek out the predictable is ingrained deep in our DNA.  Today's snow didn't bother me in the least, but that's because I haven't gotten my loincloth and summer leggings out of the cedar chest yet.  Oh, and I also read the National Weather Service forecast.

Friday, January 10, 2014

A Winter and the Clare

The recent exceptionally frigid temperatures in the Midwest reminded me of the infamous winters we had in Greater Cincinnati in 1977 and 1978.  During those winters, I was finally old enough and tall enough to experience the world of driveway shoveling and remember piles of snow far taller than I stood.  I recall sled riding, snowball forts and even tunnels dug through the snow piles.   And I remember the plight of the “Clare E.” 

OK, looking back over recent posts, it appears I have a bit of a keen interest in riverboats—and I do.  Maybe, just maybe, it all started with the “Clare E.”

To be correct, her official name was the Clare E. Beatty and I had never heard of her before January 1978.  But when the Ohio River froze for the second time in two winters, all Cincinnatians learned about a salty, gruff, old riverman named Capt. John Beatty who was kind of the Red Adair of Cincinnati (remember Red?  He was the swashbuckling Texan who went around the world putting out oil well fires.)  When a situation related to the river elevated to a crisis, Capt. Beatty came to the rescue.  Beatty had a fleet of heavy-duty river equipment and could rescue stranded boats, refloat the sunken ones and renovate the historic ones (he was one of the forces that turned the “Mike Fink” into a restaurant.)  The flagship of “Beatty’s Navy” was the Clare E. Beatty, a plucky towboat originally launched in 1940 as the Semet.  Beatty bought her in 1970 and changed the name in honor of his wife.  But I digress…back to 1978…

The Ohio River was in various stages of freezing and huge chunks of bobbing ice had caused several barges to break away from their moorings.  Beatty and Clare went off in chase down the Ohio to round up the barges before they could slam into Markland Dam.  Like a cowboy lassoing steer, the Clare successfully nabbed a few barges before it, too, became entangled in ice.  It soon became apparent the Clare was trapped.  For a couple of days, evening news reports kept viewers updated on the helpless plight of the boat. Nothing could be done and the ice eventually forced the boat to the bottom of the river.  It should be noted that the Clare was lavishly adorned inside with brass and antique furniture and a big oil painting of the real-life Clare Beatty.  I remember one hopeless reporter asking the Captain if he removed the artwork and salvaged the furniture and Beatty snorted, in his gruff way, “you never undress a lady.”  Anyway, Beatty kept his promise, too--later that summer he managed to refloat the Clare and had her cleaned up and fixed.  Hooray!  I remember following the entire story with great admiration.  I wish it had a happy ending.

Recently, I wondered about the Clare and the interesting man behind her.  I remember reading that Capt. Beatty died—indeed, he passed away in 1994—and the following year, his company was up for sale.  In the meantime, however, the employees running it were called to salvage a bunch of half- sunken barges near Maysville.  “Beatty’s Navy” showed up in full force—two WWII Minesweepers, the floating Hercules crane, the Clare—and one by one, the various craft became entangled in the wreck.  Perhaps the absence of the Captain at the helm was too much to overcome. The entourage of vessels would never escape the snare.  Potential new buyers walked away from the sale and the boats were left to deteriorate.  Apparently, plans by the city of Maysville to remove the wrecks were never approved.  As of a few years ago, only the pilothouse of the Clare could barely be seen in the muddy water.  I can only assume the bones still lay beneath the watery blanket.

I’m sure Beatty’s family feels terrible but I’d bet a million bucks, if he were alive, the ol’ Captain wouldn’t let “his lady” meet such an unhappy demise. 

Friday, November 15, 2013

Looking for The President

Before your time is wasted…no, not that President.  In 1988, 25-years ago, Cincinnati hosted its first “Tall Stacks” celebration to commemorate the city’s bicentennial.  It was a memorable and historic event that the city attempted to duplicate a few other times but none had the aura and energy of that first Tall Stacks.  One of the reasons Tall Stacks ’88 was my favorite was the selection of steamboats that visited the Queen City and specifically, in my book, was a chance to tour The President.  When Cincinnati’s beloved Coney Island excursion boat, the Island Queen, exploded in 1947, it was long before I was born.  And yet, growing up, I heard many stories and saw many photographs of the Island Queen and fell in love with the long lost boat (In 2007, I produced a one-hour radio documentary about the Island Queen, but I digress….)   So imagine my amazement in 1988 as I toured The President at Tall Stacks and learned that the boat was the twin sister of the Island Queen!   Both huge vessels were built, side-by-side, in 1924 as overnight packet boats to run freight and passengers between Cincinnati and Louisville.   The original name of The President was the Cincinnati.  But the stock-market crash wiped out the company and the Cincinnati was sold to St. Louis’s legendary Streckfus Lines in 1929 and in 1932 was reconfigured and rechristened The President, the largest excursion boat on the Mississippi.  Featuring a huge dance floor, a ride on The President was every bit as romantic and thrilling as a Cincinnatian’s ride on the Island Queen.  The boat plied the waters around St. Louis until 1941 when it was moved to New Orleans.  It came back to St. Louis in 1978 when its huge side paddlewheels were removed and replaced by diesel engines and discretely hidden propellers.  The boat was otherwise intact when it returned to Cincinnati for its 1988 visit.

However, the ensuing years were not as kind to The President.  Caught up in the sweeping race to add riverboat gambling, The President was converted to a floating casino and sent to Davenport, Iowa.  But greedy gamblers soon outgrew the boat there and The President, by this time a bit worn for the worse, was moved to satisfy gamblers in Mississippi, then to Memphis.  In 1999, she was officially retired and towed back north, where, neglected, she slowly rusted away.  In 2007, a businessman conceived an idea to cut up The President into large pieces and transport the boat overland by truck   But steamboat fans know that such an idea is not so simple because of stresses and bends in the hull and that’s it’s nearly impossible to re-weld such a complicated steel steamboat puzzle.  For a couple of years, while the owner attempted to raise funds, the boat “chunks” sat in a field alongside busy I-70 in the middle of cornfields.  In fact, if you “google” the boat, you come away with the impression that the pieces are still there, patiently awaiting a welder’s torch.
to St. Elmo, Illinois, where, according to the plan, the boat would be reassembled and turned into a hotel—either on a lake or on land.

But that is not the case!  On our way home from vacation this summer, I convinced my sufferingly patient yet reluctant family to humor me and make a side trip in search of The President.  Using GPS map coordinates, we found the field easily but there wasn’t a hint or a scrap of steamboat to be found.  After we got home, I decided to call the St. Elmo City Hall and a very nice lady told me the town became tired of waiting for the owner to reassemble the boat and so it’s unsightly pieces were hauled away a year or two earlier.  “You might try Effingham (the neighboring town), but I think it’s all gone,” she concluded.  So I hope I’m wrong, but it appears this once fascinating steamboat has been relegated to the lost slate of maritime history.  Sigh.

Monday, October 21, 2013

WLW and Mt Jacor

Today is one of the most historic days in Cincinnati broadcast history.  Okay, maybe not….but I’ve managed to keep your attention for one sentence longer.   It was on this date, 25 years ago, that “Mt. Jacor” went on the air and I was the first regular announcer to broadcast from that legendary (or “notorious”?) facility. Honest injun.

After working a year, part-time, at Warm98 in 1987, my wonderful boss, Tracy West, was "dismissed" and I started to look for someplace new.  My fulltime job was at WVXU, but I wanted to keep a weekend presence on commercial radio.  On October 10, 1988, I was hired by Kathy Lehr as a weekend, overnight, news anchor using the name “Mike Morgan.”  Those first few weeks’ newscasts originated from the dingy, dated WLW studios in a building on Fourth Street downtown but I was well aware that new studios in Mt. Adams would soon be ready. 

It was an interesting job.  The downtown studios were dark, decorated in mid-‘70s furniture and yellowed with nicotine stains.  The studios were separated by glass windows and the news booth was cramp.  Studio B, for talk shows, had curtains and they were often drawn shut for the nights Bill Cunningham had “The Fun Girls” on and my imagination reeled as “Sudden Sam” ran the board in the control room. 

Meanwhile, a mile or two to the east, 1111 St. Gregory, in Mt Adams (dubbed “Mt. Jacor” in tribute to the new station owners) was bright, beautiful and state-of-the-art.  The news staff was taken up there several times before we moved so we could become acquainted with the palatial newsroom, with its clever individual production “stations.”   My engineer friend, Jay Crawford, was working up there on weekends assembling the new studios for WEBN, which would go on the air a few months after WLW—so I had someone to talk with.  Finally, the big date arrived and I just happened to be the one on duty that night.  On Friday, October 21, I was instructed to write two newscasts for the 11 p.m. hour and presented one downtown at 11:30 before hopping in the car and heading up the hill.  I never set foot in the Fourth Street building again.

That very first night I immediately experienced what would be one of the downfalls for Mt. Jacor: the parking garage was full and I had to find a place on the street.  The reason quickly became apparent when I entered the WLW studios and found the place full of happy people dressed in elegant dresses, expensive suits and holding cocktails.  I went about my business making final preparations as, by then, midnight was quickly approaching.  With minutes to spare, I entered the polished, new news-booth and waited.  At midnight exactly the switchover occurred.   One of the station bigwigs (I can’t remember if it was the GM at the time or someone from Jacor but definitely NOT a regular on-air person) expressed a few appropriate remarks now lost to the ages (I don’t think the affair was recorded) and then he ended with: “…and now let’s resume regular programming!”  At that point every well-coiffed head and drink-sipping suit turned and stared through the glass and into the news booth, occupied by a quivering, rookie newscaster who, I’m pretty sure, stumbled over the first few words of his news-copy.   After that, the party pretty much ended and the tipsy folks bid farewell and, gradually, departed.   By 12:30 am, 10/22, it was just me, either Dusty Rhodes or “Party with Marty” Thompson, and a few wayward engineers cleaning up. 

And that’s my brush with immortality.   I worked there the better part of a year and, boy, do I have a few stories which I'll save for a later post!  Thank goodness for the blog because it gives goofballs a chance to share memories of which very few care except for the one typing.   

Friday, September 27, 2013

Wanted: A New 54-Year Old Chevy

Collectors of older cars have had this weekend circled in bold red pen for about six months now...it's the weekend of the long anticipated Lambrecht Chevrolet auction.  Here's the background:  The Lambrecht family had a Chevy dealership in Pierce, Nebraska, for over 50-years.  Ray and his wife, Mildred, Lambrecht loved their Chevys...so much so, that if a car or two didn't sell, well, they just kept it.  Every year.  Some of the cars were squeezed into a warehouse in the back of their dealership and others were parked on their nearby farm.  Years passed, the dealership closed and the couple passed away, leaving their family with a huge find.  Of course, everyone knew the Lambrechts had kept some cars but few realized just how many--over 500.  Some of the cars date back to the early 1950s and some are as recent as a 1980 Monza (remember them?)  But most amazing of all, a significant number of those automobiles were never driven...ever!   Over fifty of the cars have less than ten miles on the odometer....some with only one or two miles.  It was like auto archaeologists entering King Tutankhamun's garage.  Now there's no question most of these cars will need a little love--new rubber belts, tires, a good washing.  But imagine hopping into a "new" 1958 Belaire....or a 1959 Impala.  
That's the car that caught my attention.... there are four '59s in the auction with single digits on the odometer.  Mom and dad had a cream colored, '59, two-door Impala--it was the first car I remember and I can still picture, from the dank depths of my memorybanks, the rust colored interior, large chrome speaker grill dividing the back seat, unique steering wheel and dashboard, and the trunk that could haul a B-29.  Although I was only about 5-years old when my parents sold it, I remember running my hands along the big, bold rear fender fins and cats' eye taillights.  Sigh...I won't be in Pierce this weekend and couldn't afford to participate in the auction even if I was there.  But if someone out there lands one of those '59 Chevys and you're passing through Cincinnati, let me know.  I'd love to see it and run my hand along the fins.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Marian McPartland and Me

One glance at the title of this post and the reader might be mislead and so I'll immediately fess up and say this is a story of scotch, ignorance and a major goof.
The events took place in the Spring of 2003.  Licking our collective woulds over a Peabody snub for our audio documentary, Cincinnati Radio: The Nation's Station, 1921-1941, my WVXU boss, Dr. James C. King, treated co-producer Mark Magistrelli and I to a trip to New York City to pick up a New York Medal award.  Not quite as prestigious of an accolade, it was, however, a free trip to the Big Apple, so off we went to the Marriott on Times Square where the awards banquet would be held in the hotel ballroom.  As it turned out, Mark decided to attend another event that night and so Doc and I dutifully trudged off to the event, open bar and all, to receive the award.  Don't get me wrong, it was a very nice event--but neither Doc nor I are great socializers and as the drinks flowed, the silliness of the pomposity of the evening became more and more apparent and small, under-breadth comments were exchanged between us.  Also slightly amused at the proceedings were two quiet, but pleasant, women seated to my left at our table.  We exchanged small talk.  The woman next to me was named Shari and she was a producer at a station in South Carolina.  To her left, she introduced, was an older woman, simply, "Marian."  I said hello and we shook hands.  Shari seemed very nice and joined in a bit on our comic play-by-play commentary.   Eventually, our station's call letters were announced and Doc and I went to the stage to accept a "Best Documentary" award.  Marian, the older woman, gave us her congratulations as we returned to the table.  Shortly thereafter, the announcement of "Best Music Program" was announced.   "Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz!" (you probably know where this is going, by now.)  I slunk into my seat.  "That's....?"  To make matters worse, our station used to carry Piano Jazz years ago, but cancelled it because of a shortage of financial support.  Well, Marian barely sat down again before she said she was tired, bid us adieu, and left us to return to her room.  Shari Hutchinson, her longtime producer, remained and entertained us with delightful stories of working with this great woman and jazz pioneer.  By the end of the evening I felt slightly less of an idiot for not recognizing Ms. McPartland and boldly asked for an autograph, which Shari kindly mailed to us days later.
So that's my Marian McPartland story!  The nice thing about "time" is that it eventually allows us to laugh at the mistakes we make.  In the meantime, rest in peace Marian McPartland--a jazz and radio legend who died last week at the age of 95.  And congratulations to Shari Hutchinson, who, I understand, now manages eight public radio stations in South Carolina.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

The Boy Packs Up

Our oldest child is heading off to college this weekend.  In a ritual repeated throughout time immemorial, but new to me, the little bird is leaving the nest.  “The Boy,” as I affectionately call him (‘tho there are three brothers behind him), seems ready to go.  Like a sprinter at the Olympics, he has comfortably settled his shoes on the chock blocks of life and awaits only the sound of the starting pistol.

The Boy is excited, and why shouldn’t he be?  He is standing on top of a mountain and the world--a fat, exciting, ripeforthepickinging world--lies in front of him.  In fact, a few weeks ago, we visited Pike’s Peak on vacation and a photo of him and his brother now rings quite poignant.  In many ways I share in his joy and add a pinch of jealousy…it’s been a few years since I stood on that same vista.

As “dad,” I’ve had several months, nay years, to prepare for this weekend and yet I feel caught totally off-guard.  The other morning, I awoke around 2-am upset because I never took him to Terry’s Turf Club for an award-winning cheeseburger (eating is a favorite hobby for both of us.)  It was on my “list” and I failed. (I won’t even attempt to use the excuse, “I didn’t have time” because that’s an overly-cited, weak, and lame argument.)  Other missed opportunities tumble through the “sprockets” of my “guilt projector”… there are old movies and cartoons I failed to share with him.  I don’t think we played “pickle” enough and I never taught him “Kick the Can.  He’s never joined me on a golf course or a driving range.  We haven’t been to the Air Force Museum in Dayton since he was a little baby.  I never introduced him to “real” pulled pork BBQ.  Mammoth Cave?  Nope.  When he was about five and learning to ride a two-wheeler at my wife’s office, a neighbor took the training wheels off Boy’s bike and witnessed something I only heard about later after I came home from work.  Harry Chapin’s “Cats in the Cradle” played in my head for two weeks after that one.

Before you call the police for “suspected self immolation,” I am not entirely wracked in guilt.  I do not feel short-changed—indeed, knowing friends who have lost children to death or illness—I feel grateful and Blessed for 18-years and all those times we did have together…fun and not-so-fun.  Last spring, Boy and I attended a rock concert together (check that off the list) and just last week we had a nice father/son dinner at a restaurant.  Everyone reading this has either had a child grow up and leave home, or left a “home” him- (or her-) self....me included!  One of the shocking lessons most people experience months and years later is that life, in fact, goes on.  (My big shock came when my dad first re-recorded the “home” answering machine with my name omitted, but I digress…)   The ancient Greeks had a phrase:  “Panta rei” (things change) and Thomas Wolfe told us You Can’t Go Home Again, but I hope The Boy doesn’t stray too far and remembers he can always come home.

Gabe is big and tall and handsome and adult now, so I’ll have to reconsider that nickname, too, I guess.  But not right now…not yet.