No bigger than a broom closet, the radio booth aboard the U.S. S. Mount Whitney had been my island of solace in a sea of discontent. A shipmate first turned me on to the small compartment just down the passageway from the flag bridge, a dusty little booth with Vietnam War era turntables and boxes of LP’s from the Armed Forces Radio Network. The buddy who first let me in to that tiny space had no idea I‘d be back so soon. But once I got a look at the antiquated control board, with its oversized knobs and still shiny toggle switches, I was hooked. The fact that the noise produced within radiated all across the ship via close circuit radio was but a distant thought;. I was seeking refuge.
I found it - soon skipping precious sleep just so I could sit and spin the finest in late 80’s hair-metal. Though I’m still not sure any of my shipmates ever really listened, I quickly developed an evening radio show and a persona to go with it: ‘Captain Nemo’s Taps to Midnight - featuring an eclectic mix culled from the official onboard library and a dozen shipmates private CD stashes. I guess you could say I was playing radio, but it was one of the few things that kept me sane as my ship did lazy circles off the coast of Guantanamo Bay for weeks at a time. I’d pull the lights down low in my inner sanctum, crawl into a pair of government issue headphones and forget all about all the haze gray world on the other side of the hatch..
The Navy didn’t make me a radio star, but it left me convinced I was born to broadcast. That realization deepened when the second program director I got on the phone that day invited me to come in for an interview the very next day. Eighteen hours later, I steered my battered Toyota into the gravel lot of a rundown one-story building on the edge of town. After checking in with the world’s most disinterested receptionist, I sat and waited in the chintzy lobby - mostly sober, over-cologned and excited about my new career as a radio stud. Imagine my surprise when the Program director - a fellow in a wrinkled sweatshirt and sleepy eyes - poked his head through the door and motioned me back.
Though the guy looked like he slept in his clothes, he was all business. Tossing aside my copy of Captain Nemo’s Greatest Hits, he jammed a few sheets of paper at me without ever listening to the homemade cassette. I was halfway through filling out the forms when I realized I had the job. Beaming inside, I stole glances at the aging equipment around me. Only some of it looked familiar, but that didn’t matter; this guy obviously knew talent when he heard it. Half an hour later, the scruffy Program Director escorted me out, told me to report back the following Sunday night for my first on-air shift, and promptly dead-bolted the door behind me. I skipped all the way to the car, ecstatic at being discovered and in awe of the Program Director’s quick grasp of my immense talent. Little did I know, he’d just been happy that I had a pulse.
I listened to the station all the way in. Drumming the steering wheel to its cheesy top forty beat, I followed the strengthening signal to the edge of town. At the end of my journey I found the same gravel lot, anchored by a slab concrete building and a rusty transmitter tower. Parking beside the only other car there, I strutted to the front entrance, tapping the faded station logo on the door with newfound affection. As the last minutes of sunlight left that summer evening, I pressed the buzzer underneath a pockmarked loudspeaker. Nothing happened. Shifting from foot to foot I bobbed and nodded as the door continued to ignore me. Suddenly the half-gallon of sweet tea I’d downed the hour before roiled to the surface, making the barely reformed country boy inside me eye the woods behind the transmitter. Just as I turned to dash off to the shadows, a heavy metal click sounded from behind me and the door clicked open.
Inside, I found the lobby darker than before. It was a small room with a desk, chair, sofa and coffee table that looked like it was picked up at a trailer park fire sale. On the wall, scratched plaques from the local free weeklies competed for space with black and white framed photographs of the radio station’s on-air talent. Amid the white man afros and gold chains, I recognized the familiar face one of the disc jockey’s - a grinning jackal of a man I’d one day build a series of used car commercials around. But that particular travesty was a good nine months off. For now all I knew was that radio superstardom was a mere thirty-five minutes away. I was literally about to piss my pants with excitement when I grabbed hold of the interior door‘s latch - only to find it disturbingly dead-bolted.
With my face jammed against the door’s heavy-wired glass I could see the on-air booth at the end of the hall. Inside, a dumpy silhouette hunched over the control board, perfectly still. This lasted through the better half of the Milli Vanilli song echoing in the distance one beefy wrist hove into view and twisted some unseen knob. Just then Rob and Fab faded and the slightly less gayer sounds of Hall and Oates filled the deserted halls of the South’s dumpiest radio station. Rapping my knuckles on the door, I tried in vain to get the deejay’s attention. But no matter how I motioned and waved, no matter how I pee-pee danced around the lobby’s dated furnishings I could not tear the disc jockey’s stare away from the board. In fact, he barely moved at all, appearing as if a surgeon would while immersed in his lifesaving work, instead of some broadcast drop-out spreadingthe last of his curly fries over a Mr. Mister CD.
My bladder quivering to a breech and my inaugural radio shift just minutes away, I grew increasingly spastic there in my shag-carpeted hell. Despite my convulsive display, the deejay never seemed to notice. So I forgot about him, training my direction instead on the gaudy vase dominating the scuffed glass coffee table. Normally not one to vandalize, I seriously considered filling it to the rim with recycled tea, lest I soil the pants I’d so deliberately picked out earlier in in my slummy duplex. I was about to desecrate the discount ceramic when the silhouetted deejay finally unlocked the door, and a pasty Dungeon-Master with skin issues stuck his head out.
“You the new guy?” he asked in a booming voice normally heard only at tractor pulls and beach music parties.
In my own feeble tone, I asked him where a fellow could take a piss and he pointed a beefy forearm down the hall. I stiff-kneed it in that direction and found a Mens Room with a tinny speaker blaring out the station’s on-air signal. Though I tried to drown it out with the thundering cascade of a spent bladder, I could clearly hear a familiar British metal track winding to a bombastic yet girlie finish.
“That’s the latest from Def Leppard on Hits-96! I’m Your Man Stan and I am Outta Here! Up next, The New Guy with all the music you need to rock the night away! But first here’s Peter Gabriel!”
With that, the ex-lead singer of Genesis launched into a syncopated dirge about sledgehammers. As he did I burst out of the restroom, anxious to pick the Dungeon Master’s brain about the control board before I had to fly solo. But he wasn’t in the booth at the end of the hall. Nor was he in any of the offices I passed along the way. “Stan” I called out, not feeling so much like a hero of the airwaves anymore. Overhead, Peter Gabriel asked the sledgehammer to call his name as well. Neither answered and it dawned on me to check the booth for nay of Stan the Dungeon Man’s belongings. I found none, and with a trace of panic bolted for the lobby door. Pressed against the glass, I saw the car I’d parked beside earlier leaving the lot, gravel and dust kicking up in its wake.
About that time the slow-motion kicked in and I found myself running back to the booth as if underwater. Peter was still screeching his love for certain implements but experience and the CD player’s red countdown clock in the middle of the board told me that would soon end. Lunging forward, I grabbed a stack of 45’s and began flipping the few switches I recognized. As I did the speakers fell silent, but a row of herky-jerky needles told me the board was still transmitting sound. Next I fumbled through a stack of liner carts, befor finally giving up when the countdown timer marched backwards to zero. A half second before the goose egg popped up, I dropped the needle and podded up the source. I Still couldn’t hear anything, but the audio meter needles began dancing to a new beat. With relief not felt since just emptying my bladder, I fell into the rolling leather chair and caught my breath. This control board had a lot more buttons and dials than I was used to, but it also held a lot more possibilities. Wiping my brow, I looked the antiquated board up and down, a sly grin overtaking my expression of doubt. Abandoned or not, I could figure this out, I thought, because I, I possessed genuine broadcasting talent. Trying not to gloat, I looked down and saw all a telephone flashing six different lights. Eager to chat with any new fans, I picked up the receiver and in my most booming carefree tone, bellowed “Rock 96! Captain Nemo speaking!”
The voice was that of an adolescent; its crackling pitch deflating my newly swollen radio ego with its simple message..
"I think you’re playing this song at the wrong speed."
Needless to say, I had a very short career in radio. I was much more adept at escorting antiquated studio cameras through their daily news moves, than forging new paths in FM territory. I’m hoping eventually all this television will pay off. I'll let you know.