If someone asked me, “What is your hobby?” I would answer, “Model Trains,”
yet I have never joined a model railroad club and I reject the pocket-protector crowd like pork rejects the grinder. Still, I spend an inordinate amount of money on railroad magazines and I'm surprised that being stopped by a train at a railroad crossing doesn't give me an erection. The United States is broke, taxes are too high, and two years ago I gladly went to my local Tea-Party on April 15th. My hypocrisy knows no limits, though. When it comes to passengers riding the steel wheel on the steel rail. Spend! Spend! Spend! Street cars, light rail, heavy rail, Amtrak, Hi-Speed, slow speed; it doesn't matter. My brother accuses me of wanting regular rail service between Cloquet, Minnesota and McGregor, Minnesota. In terms not so Minnesotan, that would be like regular rail service between Bumscrew, Montana and Flopsweat, Idaho. He's right. I sometimes fall asleep thinking about trains.
The other day I was having lunch in some restaurant and someone from my distant past said hello and asked me what I was doing these days. I said I was doing nothing. I should have answered, “I'm busy these days thinking about trains.” Technically, I am retired.
In the almost 5 years I have been putting on computer My Story, I have told in varying degrees of detail about what led me to Brown Institute of Broadcasting, Blythe, California, Austin, Minnesota, Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Green Bay, Wisconsin, WDGY, KDWB, U100, KSTP, WEBC, Modesto, California, and San Francisco. The story I have chronicled is only half the story. I take that back. I have chronicled about one third of the story. I am assuming another third of My Story doesn't need to be told here. Perhaps I'll write an unexpurgated version to be posted when I go to the big model railroad layout in the sky. There is another fraction of the story that ties in with current proclivities. Just as I am technically retired but actually working on the railroad (all the live-long day), I wasn't always drifting off to sleep with visions of steam engines dancing in my head. In 1962, I fell asleep dreaming about being a Disc Jockey.
I imagined myself wearing ear-phones, flipping on the mike, and hitting the post. I was working at Henry's Restaurant and playing the piano at the Cloverleaf Supper Club on week-ends. Technically, I was a burger flipper and ivory tickler. In my Walter Mitty mind I was a DJ. A while later, in Blythe, CA, I did it. I walked through the door and up the steps and 30 minutes later, I was wearing my Clevites and coming close on that post.
So, there are two stories. I have, to some extent, covered the DJ side of MY STORY leading up to Brown Institute and my first job in California. During the entire process the other part of MY STORY has haunted me and in the last year contributed to the pause in telling. So, excuse me while I catch up. Indulge me.
In Chapter 1 I wrote the bare details of how I ended up at Brown Institute and eventually, Blythe, California. Considering my checkered career at Cloquet High School I am surprised I didn't end up in the gutter.
In school I just couldn't do ANYTHING I was supposed to do. I wasn't ADD or OCD or DDT or PMS or any of the other currently popular acronyms. Mostly, I was just lazy. That isn't accurate either because I could work for hours building dams in creeks. That aside, the upside (probably better stated – downside) of who I was age 14-17 meant a string of C's, D's, Incompletes, and the dreaded F. I tried adding another leg to the F and telling my parents it was a “red A”-much better than the regular black A. If they believed that they were stupider than I thought they were at the time. (Like all teenagers I was smarter than the average 40 year old)
During this time I was playing a lot of piano. I took lessons twice a week and practiced twice a week! If the lesson was on Tuesday, I practiced on Monday. The next lesson was on Saturday and I practiced on Friday. The rest of the time I built dams in creeks. Technically I was a student. In practice I was a hydro-engineer.
One of my piano teachers wrote a thank-you note to my Mother. She wrote, “Buff is an interesting boy. Not that he has more talent than others or practices as he should but his personality is so endearing we must forgive him”. Did I have her snookered or what? She may have been, but whatever bit of oomph I had, I didn't ply my high school teachers with it and my Advanced Math teacher was delighted to give me that “Red A”. My opinion is that anyone who aspires to a career teaching teenagers arithmetic is oblivious to endearing qualities. So, I escaped from the 11th grade several graduation credits short. That summer, I eschewed summer school for advanced woodland-irrigation control, leisurely afternoons lying on picnic tables reading, and long hours planning to get down to business and make up those missing credits. As if.
When people look for comparisons to the Hurricane Katrina or Obama's Gulf Oil Disaster, they immediately think of my Senior Year in High School. It began in September with with every intention of doing well and getting out alive. Miriam Blair, my wonderful piano teacher at the time suggested I go to a music school in Baltimore. There were scholarships available but an audition process was rigidly followed and there was a quasi-affiliation with Johns Hopkins University that would have indicated at least a modicum of scholarly effort.
I have a question? As a society we don't let humans under 18 years of age vote, drink alcohol, appear in pornography, make binding contracts and yet we encourage them to make life-long, life-altering decisions about school. I wasn't your average slacker teen so I decided to skip the piano practice and build dams, avoid school work (and school for that matter) and practice my Maynard G. Krebs imitation (see Google-Dobie Gillis), and effectively tell my parents and piano teacher to shove if up there asses. I was, indeed, an endearing child.
During that school year I re-discovered the Twin Cities. Minneapolis and St. Paul. I also discovered that nobody seemed to care whether I was at school or not. “Why weren't you in school on Monday and Tuesday?” My answer should have gotten me a flat shovel in the face. “Wasn't I? I don't remember.” Once when my Mom and Dad bothered me about something school-related (I believe the assistant superintendent, Mr. Hoyum (sic) had told my Dad I wasn't turning in assignments (duh). For three or four days I played with a single-edged razor blade and moped preventing any suicide producing confrontation.
Still, each night I would head to the grocery store office (for privacy) to do my homework and within minutes I'd be driving down that good-intention-paved roadway to Hell. My future at Cloquet High, or Peabody were in the trailer I was pulling as I perfected, Hershey Bar Consumption, Coca-Cola Drinking, and dawdling. Why do at night what you can put off until tomorrow morning or just before study-hall, or maybe I'll just give that endearing child shit another go.
I was often punished. The school was better at it than my parents. Come to think of it the school would have confiscated my razor blade and replaced it with a pistol. My parents were pretty much heartbroken. It was about this time when Nick Jollymore introduced me to WLS in Chicago, Dick Biondi, DX'ing, and like a moth to the flame or a crack addict to the pipe, I began dreaming of wearing-ear-phone-flipping-the-mike-hitting-the-post. It wasn't a life-boat coming to my rescue. It was a stick of wood and I grabbed it, and floated on it for 29 years.
When June graduation was fast approaching and even I could not pretend I was going to make it to Diplomaville, I began planning and prevaricating for the future. First, I had to convince my parents that I could go to Minneapolis, complete my schooling and get back on that path of righteousness. In moments of complete insanity I even decided to take Miriam Blair up on the Peabody Institute offer. I wasn't clear on the concept of networking, but it seemed like an opportunity not to ignored. Of course, that train had already left the station.
It isn't a wonder Mrs. Blair had given up on me. While I was playing at the Cloverleaf she and a friend came for dinner; not for the food but for me. As they left she stopped by and said, “I can tell you are enjoying yourself”. I answered that soon I was getting back to serious music and she nodded knowingly at my unknowing comment. Sadly, I never saw her again.
Just 7 months earlier I had wanted to skip a lesson and called her with some lie about my Mother. They knew I was telling a whopper because Mrs. Blair's husband had died that afternoon and she had called my Mother to cancel my lesson. Add insensitive to my non-stop mendacity and there I am. In living color.
The night of graduation, while my classmates did the Pomp and Circumstance, I went to a drive-in movie. James Stewart. Anatomy Of A Murder. Being alone at a drive-in movie singularly sucks and I fell asleep. The next day I went to Minneapolis and didn't contact my family for a month. In effect, I stole their car but I wasn't going to be totally homeless. Eventually, I called home and thankful to have their prodigal son return I came back full of resolve to fix things. For one thing, several of the dams I built had come to ruin and it took at least a month to repair all that beaver damage. I did a play in Cloquet in September (My Three Angels). It occupied my nights but did nothing for my future. During the entire production I had a terrible cold and was often complimented for the raspy 'old-man's' voice I was affecting. All it takes is a virus and you're Patty Duke. Eventually, I went back to the Cities. That fall I visited St. Cloud State where several of my Cloquet High School classmates were Freshmen in college. That was depressing as Hell. It got me the courage to hang out at the University of Minnesota Theater department and for a month I actually pretended I was a student. Funny thing, even in those before Bill Gates days when carbon paper ruled, they eventually noticed I didn't belong and was given a helpful shove. Out. I did hook up with a production of Do Re Mi. That's when I learned about Brown Institute...but I've already told you that story.
Unfortunately, my memories of Henry's Restaurant are sketchy. I remember I always smelled like a French fry. We supposedly were McDonald's competition and our hamburgers were 15 cents. There wasn't indoor seating but we did have a couple of picnic tables out front. The college kids treated us like shit and one of my fellow employees masturbated on a cheeseburger. Other than that, my three months in Fast Food passed quickly and in spite of that memory of special sauce, I have been a life-long pursuer of the gastronomic pleasures at restaurants where you order your food at the counter. (By the way. The employee who polluted the patty was eventually brought to justice when he was caught changing the cole-slaw recipe at a Kentucky Fried Chicken.
At Brown Institute I had temporary redemption. I wasn't going to music school and my parents weren't entirely sure what a DJ was, but it was a profession. I imagined jocking in the big time playing rock and roll and they imagined Arthur Godfrey and Don Wilson. (For younger readers...check it out on BING) With the pressure of accomplishing the impossible temporarily eased, I could enjoy myself. It was the Twin Cities and a whole new vista lay before me. At least for the moment I was no longer harnessing water-ways. I felt like Lewis before he met Clark and Sacajawea. I had some life exploring to do.
The little apartment I rented in South Minneapolis was just the beginning. I was on my own. Think of it. On the week-end I played piano and made 20-30 bucks a night with tips. For a bit I picked up another $1.25 an hour at McHenry's. (Oops....THAT is pretentious) and the $19.50 weekly tab at Brown Institute was gleefully being paid by my parents. I luxuriated in my 40 dollar a month basement apartment with money in my pocket to spare. After a hard afternoon pretending to be a DJ at DJ School, I swung by the grocery store for a Chef Boy-R-Dee spaghetti dinner kit and watched June, Ward, Wally & the Beav. Sometimes I'd even swing downtown to the Cafe di Napoli for some real spaghette. There was always an Embers or Porky's Drive In handy. (For several weeks I didn't go to Porky's because I thought they only sold pork. I wasn't very smart. After all I hadn't graduated from High School)
I loved going to movies. There were the big road-show movies like West Side Story. That played downtown at the Mann Theater and a couple of friends from High School came to town to see it. You had to get tickets like it was a regular theater with assigned seats. One of the friends was staying with his brother in St. Paul and I was to pick him up there. The brother had just gotten out of the Air Force and if my Porky's Drive In naiveté was evident then I was set for a culture shock. At this time in our history, before Stonewall, before Gay Pride, before Doogie Howser, for the Air Force stationed in Greenland there was no “don't ask, don't tell”. In fact, there was “don't ask, don't even think about it”. Of course, since the dawn of time there have been men in the military who were a little light in the loafers. How do you think the Air Force got so high? I watched Band Of Brothers and there were a lot of kissable lips...but I'm getting ahead of my story. So when I arrived in St. Paul (Grand Avenue) it was like I had stepped into a road show production of La Cage Au Faux. This brother was ON FIRE and stylishly wearing a boa and his “friend” had all the fruit in Minnesota stuffed in his basket. That little visit gave me something to ponder as Tony crooned and Maria warbled. “I Feel Pretty”, indeed.
At about the same time I was being introduced to my first semi-drag queen I was introduced to the Avalon Theater. This was the early 60's version of a porno theater. Years later, while working at KDWB I discovered I was being followed by a couple of girls as I drove through North Minneapolis. In an attempt to hoist them on their own petard (what does that mean?) I parked somewhere on Plymouth Avenue and went into one of Ferris Alexander's porn palaces. My ploy failed miserably. Before the first gag reflex I heard the giggling of these very persistent women just two rows behind me. (I just zipped up my pants and got the hell out of there. I didn't even finish my popcorn.)
Back to 1962. Lake Street. I heard about the nudist films at the Avalon. One of my Brown cohorts told me he could get me in. I was down for that. Later that evening, I nestled into my seat as the feature film got underway. Imagine my disappointment after 15-20 minutes had gone by and I had seen a lot of saggy asses and saggy tits. Whenever a 'good part' would hover into view out of nowhere would appear a purse or beach ball. Busby Berkley would have been envious of the choreography involved in preventing me from seeing anyone's doodle. At least one good thing came out of that travelogue. It put me off nudist camps for the rest of my life. I don't care if they carry a towel to sit on. They also have to carry a purse and beach ball at all times and naked volley ball is quite unattractive in the elderly.
In addition to forays of an unseemly nature, I saw some great movies for $1 at the Vogue. That little neighborhood theater was also on Lake Street and showed a triple feature (changed twice per week). When I had something really important to do, something that would have an effect on my life for decades, and there were no creeks needing management, I could always kill 5-6 hours at the Vogue. To this day I remember watching the movie called Northwest Frontier. It was about a group of people using an old train in India to escape from the bad guys. What could be better. A TRAIN MOVIE. That winter I bought a pair of figure skates! I must have really been affected by my exposure to the Air Force Roommates and nudist movies. A couple of blocks from my basement apartment on 54th Avenue South, was a grade school and ice rink. For three days in a row I walked to the park, laced up my skates and fell flat on my face repeatedly. A practice I would continue off and on to this day.
My landlady hovered somewhere between concerned and nosy. I occupied the basement apartment. The main floor she shared with a weird guy I may have recognized from one of those nudie picnics, two over-sized Dalmatians, and a continuously running television. I saw them all almost daily because I had to walk through the kitchen to get to the basement stairs. I considered them odd as they both sat in the living room eating their meal from TV trays. She considered me odd. She commented on the regularity of fast-food for supper. She told me whenever I had pizza she could smell it all night through the floor. She did save me a bunch of money though. Somehow I had been persuaded into having a kitchen phone AND a bedside phone installed by Ma Bell. When they came to install the two phones about 9 feet apart, she exercised some common sense and had them only install one phone. Later in that winter I had a circle of friends and my place was as good a place to hang out as any. First she complained about the noise, the chatter, the “coming and going” as she said. The smell of Italian sauce wafting through the floorboards was driving her batty. It was with this bunch of reprobates I tried weed for the second time. Mother Mary where have you been all my life. That must have wafted a bit too. I don't know if she smelled it or her roomer started eating at his TV tray in the nude, but just as I was getting ready to really settle down and finish Brown, get a broadcasting job (maybe) and go back to school, she evicted me. It wasn't all that formal, but one minute I had a home and the next I was on the street because of all the carrying on. Warning. When you find yourself without a place to live, do not move in with people who smoke illegal substances, have no beds, (just mattresses scattered about) and who take naive teens to the Avalon. For three weeks I was sure I was on my way to heroin. I almost began filling out papers to join the Manson gang when Brown Institute and I got the call from Blythe. They needed a DJ and I was that man.
So begins the Rest of MY STORY. I am not starting from the beginning. The additional third will be handled as I tell the story and with the clever use of flash-backs. Where was I? Oh, yes. San Francisco.
Coming Soon – Really – Chapter 28 – On Air And In Trouble