Blogging today is like radio was for me 30 years ago, when I was a disk jockey.
Does anybody listen to the radio anymore? Even for the listeners who hang on, it’s not like it was even 20 years ago. Stations increasingly automate everything. A computer runs the show, playing both songs and commercials. The disk jockey in Denver might actually have been recorded yesterday in Albuquerque. The computer knows when to make the recorded disk jockey speak, too. It’s driven the feeling of connection out of the medium.
I got my start in radio long before all that, at my college’s station. Our biggest audience tuned in weeknights after 6 pm, which was when students settled in for a long night of homework. It was an engineering school, an they worked us hard.
Sometimes I’d break from my own homework and walk through the residence halls. I’d hear our station coming from dozens of rooms. Or I’d visit the broadcast studio, where the phone rang off the hook with students and townies calling to request their favorite music.
Radio was still live and local everywhere then, not just at college stations like ours. We engaged with our listeners, and they responded. It made the evening shows so much fun! Our best jocks lined up to take them. Afternoon shows were next most popular, but shows before noon were hard to fill. The morning show was nearly impossible to staff, as it meant being on the air at 7 am.
I was station manager, the top dog, and I could have any show I wanted. But I chose the morning shift whenever my class schedule allowed. I loved it.
WMHD was in the basement of a residence hall. I lived in a room about a hundred feet away. When my alarm went off at 6:45 a.m., I’d put on my glasses and head right for the station, barefoot and in my nightclothes, stopping only to answer nature’s call. I’d pick out the first four or five songs, fire up the transmitter, and play the sign-on message. The Electric Breakfast was on the air!
Our station’s hallmark was that each disk jockey got to play whatever he wanted. For the morning show, I chose mellow acoustic music to gently ease listeners into the morning. It really stood out against the station’s regular alt-rock and heavy-metal programming.
I figure that most mornings I had at most a handful of listeners. I am sure that sometimes I played music for nobody at all. At 160 watts, WMHD could be heard within only about a two-mile radius, half of which was a cornfield and a horse farm.
I would have been thrilled for hundreds of people to hear my show, but I was plenty happy with the way things were. You see, I loved to match key, tempo, and mood, mixing songs so that each one seemed a natural extension of the one before. I did it all by feel, and was supremely satisfied each time I nailed it.
But more importantly, once in a while the phone would ring. It was usually a fellow from Seelyville, a nearby tiny town. He often listened to me as he got ready for work. He enjoyed the tapestries of music I wove and would call to tell me when he especially enjoyed a transition I made between songs. And once in a while someone would stop me on my way to class to say that he heard me that morning and liked it.
This occasional praise was all I needed to keep at it.
I am so glad I recorded a few Electric Breakfasts. Here is the first 45 minutes of the show from Wednesday, April 6, 1988. You can hear pops and scratches in the records I played – unlike most radio stations, we didn’t compress our audio to eliminate noise and make the music seem louder. You can also hear the sleepiness in my voice; it usually took me most of the first hour to shake it. But I was not so sleepy that I couldn’t manage a few good transitions between songs. Check it out.
My blogging experience has been very much like The Electric Breakfast. Down the Road is a mere blip in the blogosphere, barely a whisper among the Internet’s clamoring voices. This post might find 25 views today, and maybe that many more the rest of this week. Thanks to the Internet’s long tail, it might find another 50 readers in the next year.
But I love the writing process and find it supremely satisfying when my sentences flow seamlessly into powerful paragraphs, which build an engaging story. And I love it when you leave comments, sharing your experiences or challenging my assertions or just saying that you enjoyed what I wrote. This is enough to keep me blogging indefinitely.
I never thanked that guy from Seelyville for listening. But I thank you for reading!
I first published this story in 2010. I revised it significantly for this retelling.
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Down the Road is on hiatus, returning Monday, 26 September. I’m rerunning old posts in the meantime.
As a boy, summer was my favorite season, but as I grew up spring began to overtake it. I remember well the day that spring clinched the top spot. It was the day before I took this photograph, one May morning in 1988.
These were my college days, and this was the view from my residence hall’s back door. I walked this way to breakfast every morning, but my mind was always preoccupied. This lovely scene shouted to me so I had to notice, and I stood there a few steps from the door startled and amazed by how beautiful the campus was. I didn’t want to look away from the still pond, so lovely with all the reflected trees. For the first time I smelled the sweet air, noticing how cool it felt on my arms in contrast to how the sun warmed my skin. As I heard birds chirping in the distance I wondered how many days spring’s arrival had escaped my notice.
The EPA demands that an impact statement be filed before it is lit. The local airport routes landing airplanes around it. Its intense, radiating heat evaporates falling raindrops well before they hit the ground and repels all but the boldest spectators. It’s the homecoming bonfire at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, and it’s massive.
Stepping back, the fire illuminates those who’ve come to see it, casting them in glowing silhouette.
It’s only when you move back far enough to get the licking flames fully in the frame that you see this fire’s enormity.
The flames are so bright that the surrounding trees are lit as during the daytime.
My first bonfire was my freshman year at Rose, in 1985. We swiped railroad ties from rail yards all over west-central Indiana. I feel sure now that the railroads knew what we were up to and gave tacit approval. You can’t steal this many ties without attracting attention! Today, I’m told, the ties are purchased and trucked in. We also used to pilfer the outhouse that is always placed atop the structure. I’m sure the last outhouse within a hundred miles was filched 20 years ago. Today’s outhouses must be purpose-built.
I went to all four bonfires during my time at Rose, and maybe one or two more while I lived in Terre Haute in the several years that followed. It wasn’t until my sons were teenagers that I went back — I wanted to spark their interest in higher education. What better way to start than to share one of the most audacious events at any school anywhere.
This year, I took my youngest son, now 16, and my girlfriend and her 14-year-old son. That young man just started high school — and has engineering aspirations and aptitudes. He’s right up Rose-Hulman’s alley!
I’ve shared the bonfire from a few past years, too: 2009, 2010, and 2012.
What was I doing on the roof of my residence hall that spring day my freshman year of college?
Nothing more nefarious than taking photographs. I’m sure the administration would not have approved of me being up there, but when an upperclass friend with an illicit building master key bade a few of us come, we went.
This is our building, Baur-Sames-Bogart Hall. That summer, BSB would get new windows — thank goodness, because these aluminum-framed crank-out jobs gushed heat like a sieve all winter. In the photo you can see the guy wires stabilizing the antenna mast for WMHD, the now-defunct campus radio station.
We ate our meals in Hulman Union, across the muck pond from BSB. It’s been expanded and remodeled so much that you’d hardly recognize it as this building today.
When I wrote about my visit to Rose-Hulman last fall, I shared a current photo of the quad pictured in the distance here, all landscaped and pretty. In 1986, a long driveway led in, and that was that.
Templeton Hall doesn’t exist anymore. A classroom and laboratory building stands on this spot now. Like most schools, Rose has been on a building binge in the last 20 years or so.
I also took some ground-level photos, like this one of Moench Hall’s old main entrance. This brick sign was brand new. The campus switchboard used to be behind those doors, and for about 10 hours every week I operated that switchboard for pay. I was working when I took this photo. The switchboard’s bell was loud enough that I could hear it all the way out here, as long as that door was open. But on a weekend afternoon like this one, that bell seldom rang. I got a lot of homework done working the switchboard.
Looking west from about the same spot is this uninspiring photo of Olin Hall, which was just a few years old. Rose does a nice job maintaining its buildings. When I visited in October, Olin looked just as fresh and new as I remembered.
Moench Hall was being renovated when I arrived as a freshman. The building is divided into five sections, A through E. When I started at Rose, A section had already been renovated. B, C, and D sections closed for demolition halfway through my freshman year. Some buddies and I broke in to record the detritus. My crappy 110 camera wasn’t really up to the task. A buddy of mine with a Pentax SLR took much better photos. I should get him to share them. Anyway, a day or two after our covert operation a memo went out to all students warning us to stay out of the construction area. We had been detected!
Old Moench had hardwood floors everywhere. In the hallway on the second floor, you could see through the gaps in the planks right down to the first floor. I was not at all pleased to see that the wood was being ripped out in shreds and splinters.
We found some remarkable stuff in Moench, including an old teletype, a giant bathroom mirror into which “Class of 1932” had been etched in enormous letters, and miscellaneous ancient equipment. We wondered what would become of all of this cool stuff left behind. We took some inconsequential souvenirs that night. I wanted the room number plaque for room E-104 — and Rose students will know the significance of this room — but it was already gone. So I swiped the plaque for room D-122. I still have it.
This is what I looked like in those days. Could my glasses have possibly been any bigger? Oh 1980s, thank goodness your fashion sense did not endure.
That upperclassman with the illicit master key gave it to me when he graduated. The worst I did with it was let myself into the building before it was officially open at the beginning of the school year, as I liked a couple of quiet days to myself before students arrived en masse. And I used it to get toilet paper out of the supply closet on the weekends when the bathroom ran out. I don’t recall ever again using it to go up on the roof.
This happened 25 years ago. I’ve told this story here twice before: in 2007 and 2011, but I rewrote it this time.
Only the rough neighborhoods fit my budget. I’d just graduated from engineering school in Terre Haute and had landed a job in town, but times were tough and the pay was poor.
On the way to see an apartment on the wrong side of the tracks, I passed through the tree-lined Collett Park neighborhood with its American Foursquare and Craftsman Bungalow houses. Built for a growing middle class around the turn of the century, it was a cheerful, well-kept neighborhood of sidewalks and wide front porches. I admired its tightly packed homes as I drove slowly down one of its concrete streets. I noticed a For Rent sign in the front window of a tall house wrapped in red Insulbrick. Even though I doubted I could afford this neighborhood, I stopped and rang the bell.
A large, gruff man in a thin, wrinkled, v-neck T-shirt and pale chinos came and looked me over. I asked about the apartment and he disappeared to find the key. He showed me around the side to the entrance and as soon as I entered I was sure that I couldn’t afford the place. It was clean. Hardwood floors glowed subtly around the room’s edge as they framed the fresh rugs. The walls were recently painted or wallpapered. The large, gruff man, who finally introduced himself as Steve, had clearly cared for the place.
Suspicious of this wide-eyed kid, Steve began to size me up by asking where I went to school. When I said Rose-Hulman his voice rose a note toward tentatively cheerful. He said he went there, too, back before the war when it was still called Rose Poly, but he couldn’t hack it and went on to work 30 years at the post office. He talked as he led me through, alternating between Rose stories and calling out one or two features of each room.
I was glad he was talking, because I was excited and didn’t want to betray it. A built-in cabinet and chest of drawers consumed half of one of the bedroom’s walls. In the enormous bathroom, white porcelain tile covered the walls to four feet high. Original antique fixtures were still in place, including a claw-foot tub and a sink with separate hot and cold taps. In the kitchen, an early-1950s Tappan electric stove, gleaming in white and chrome, stood across from a long, shallow farmhouse sink. A built-in table and benches filled a tiny breakfast nook. French doors led the way from the living room to the den. The woodwork was 12 inches tall with corner posts, and the doorknobs were either glass or ornate brass ovals. By this time Steve was telling me that he bought the house in 1935 after he married his wife Henrietta, that it was almost 100 years old, and that the original owner had built the apartment for his mother-in-law by blocking off three rooms of the house and adding the kitchen and den.
The history charmed me as I noticed some of the place’s shortcomings. The hallway wallpaper had a hideous check pattern with large bright yellow flowers, the bathroom walls north of the porcelain tile were painted bright pink, I would have to supply my own refrigerator, the house had one furnace and Steve controlled the temperature, and Steve made clear that tenants could have all the friends over they wanted as long as they were white.
I wanted the place. I decided I could live with the faults and I would cross the color line should it become necessary. I drew a breath, sure he was going to set a price beyond my budget, and said, “I like it. How much?”
Steve drew back and narrowed his eyes at me for a minute. Then he said he’d had a lot of trouble with recent tenants; he had just evicted a “coupla girls from Indiana State” for having a string of different men staying overnight. He wondered aloud if I could afford it and if I would cause him any trouble. He examined me — and in that instant I was sure that he was setting the rent just outside what he thought I could afford. After a long pause that made me fidget, he barked: “250.”
I reeled, dizzy with disbelief. That was less than what I’d pay for a dump in the rough neighborhoods. “I’ll take it,” I said quietly. He leaned well into my personal space, frowning. “Are you sure? I said the rent is $250.” I pulled my checkbook out of my back pocket and said, “I can pay the first month’s rent right now.” He backed off, took the check, shook my hand, and that was that. I had a home.
I can’t imagine renting on a handshake today, but I lucked into a great situation. Steve and Henrietta were honorable people who stayed out of my business and kept the apartment in good repair. They even got rid of the pink bathroom walls, peeling away nine layers of wallpaper under that paint! Steve passed away within the year; after that, Henrietta took care of things herself. “If you’re happy, I’m happy,” she said to me several times, and never raised my rent.
I could furnish the place only sparsely at first. I owned a bed, a dresser, a desk, and a broken black-and-white console TV. I bought a recliner and some tables at a used furniture store. I accepted charity from Mom. Soon I had the place suitably appointed.
I started building my budding adult life in my little place, and invited my friends in. My girlfriend spent many of her evenings there with me, relaxing, watching TV, talking, sharing companionship and company. My parents visited from time to time. My brother would drive to town and we’d go out for drinks, or an old college friend would come up from Louisville and we’d order dinner and watch movies all night. An old girlfriend came to see me from Bloomington, and a dear old friend flew in once from Toronto. I had a close friend and some of her friends over for a toast of sorts when she graduated from St. Mary-of-the-Woods. I even made a nice dinner for my boss, his girlfriend, and my girlfriend (by this time, a different one). We all squeezed into the little breakfast nook to eat. My little apartment was at the center of many of my activities and so of my world.
But I’d soon suffer some sad and lonely years. My relationship with the first girlfriend fell apart at about the same time another friendship ended very painfully. These passages let me see some ways I wasn’t healthy in my relationships. Most of my other friends were graduating and moving away, and I found it hard to make new friends. I felt lost and stuck; I grew depressed. I used to beat myself up over not working harder to push past these challenges. Fortunately, I have since forgiven myself for being human.
I took lots of long drives to escape my feelings, but at the end I always had to go home and face myself. In that, my apartment was a blessing for reasons beyond the hardwood floors, the low rent, and the good landlord: it was a a comfortable and safe place learn to be me. I did a lot of things there that I enjoyed and that helped me figure out who I was and what I liked. I taught myself how to cook. I watched a lot of late-night cable in the dark with a beer in my hand. I lay on the floor in the den listening to album after album, singing along at the top of my lungs, thankful that Henrietta was hard of hearing.
I finally made some friends, through the local computer bulletin board community, and we routinely gathered in person. Still, I frequently wished for companionship, thinking that it would make the rest of my problems go away. When I found companionship, to my confusion the rest of my problems were still there. I found myself unable to make things better on my own. I entered therapy for the first time. And I started looking for God. I’d never sought him before, but my problems were bigger than I was and I figured if anyone could handle them, the creator of the universe could.
And so the seeds of change were planted in me in that apartment. Between God and therapy, I began to heal where I was wrong and see where I was all right to begin with. I started to learn how to be content with my circumstances even when they’re not ideal. Those days tried to show me, though I still struggle with this lesson, that part of humanity’s core beauty lies in its limitations and its imperfections.
For more than 20 years, when my days were troubled my dreams were filled with this apartment. It represented comfort and a place where difficult things can happen safely. I still miss the place.
When I’m in Terre Haute, I try to drive through the old neighborhood. The last time was a few years ago. I found the house now sided in gray vinyl, the concrete steps beginning to crumble, the painted trim peeling, the hedges overgrown. Much was the case up and down the block; the first signs of decline. Houses in neighboring blocks showed serious neglect. The neighborhood was becoming rough.
By that time, Henrietta’s health declined to the point where she had to sell the house, after having lived on that street all her life. Henrietta passed away a couple years ago, well into her 90s.
Henrietta’s life moved on, and so must mine. But still, when I drive by, I want to park and go in. I would probably be surprised not to see my brown recliner there, the TV remote on the arm, waiting for me to sit and watch the evening news.
Do you enjoy my stories and essays? My book, A Place to Start, is available now! Click here to see all the places you can get it!
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