Chapter 9 - Please Don’t Make Me Go
In the late summer of 1531, a small fleet of Spanish caravels left the area just south of the Isthmus of Panama. The ships were beginning a long voyage across the Caribbean and then across the dangerous Atlantic Ocean. They would never reach home.
Aboard the ships were sailors and soldiers, wives, slaves, priests and slaves. They filled the holds with fresh water, exotic fruits, goats, pigs, a cow and millions of dollars in New World gold and treasure. The Admiral of this fleet, Vincentio de la Cruz, in his greed to collect every last ounce of gold, had left it too long to being the trek. As the sails of his fleet filled with a favorable wind, a small tropical storm in the South Atlantic began to gather strength; soon to be a hurricane of Herculean proportions.
The treasure ships seemed blessed as they rounded the island of Hispaniola. The broad Atlantic beckoned as the lumbering ships sailed blithely into what today we call, “The Bermuda Triangle”.
Seemingly, in the passage of only a minute, the brilliant blue sky turned black and threatening. The sky slammed down upon the boats tossing them about. They were mere matchsticks in a gutter stream as rudders broke, masts snapped, planks staved and sails tore and fluttered uselessly in the wind.
The voluminous records of Spanish Treasure Ships notes the departure of the dozen ships of Vincentio de la Cruz. They never arrived in Spain and for centuries were presumed lost along with all sailors, soldiers, wives, slaves, priests, goats, pigs, the cow and a treasure to impress King Midas.
When I left WDGY for home that night in February 1969, my head was in a whirl. I drove a bit out of my way to an all-night Embers and got a steak sandwich and French fries to go. As I ate the Embers, I watched a TV movie about Vincentio de la Cruz, a fleet of treasure ships lost in a storm and thought about the phone call I had gotten at work earlier that evening.
Dean Johnson was the new Program Director of KDWB. I knew the old PD, Earl Trout, because we worked together in Blythe, California, his hometown and my first station. Even though he was the competition, Howie Anderson had engineered a late night “for coffee” meeting at a Denny’s in Bloomington. I can’t remember what we talked about, but I DO remember feeling a bit disloyal to be meeting with the “Enemy”. Now the enemy was calling me at work.
When I went to Blythe, California to work in 1963, my first job (for $70 a week) was a sort of Top-40 station, 250 watts in a little farming town on the main highway between Phoenix and Los Angeles. I say the station was “sort of Top-40” because for some reason every fourth song was country. (This was where I learned to work a format. In other words, this was where I learned to skip songs I didn’t like.) The sales manager did mornings; I was on nine to noon. The engineer did noon to three and I came back for afternoon drive. A DJ named Rusty Draper (not the singer but a redhead) did evenings, six to eleven, midnight on Saturday. All alone in the middle of farms, desert and piles of dirt called mountains, we were the only radio game in Blythe. At night, our main competition was KOMA, all the way from Oklahoma City. As I cruised about Blythe in my 1962 Buick Skylark, (black) I would listen to KOMA and not infrequently, the car next to me at one of the two or three stoplights would be listening to KOMA as well. Dean Johnson programmed KOMA. And, just like my current WDGY, KOMA was a Storz Station. One of my favorite DJ’s of all time, Chuck Dan, worked nights at KOMA. The KOMA kissing tone, the twin spin, oldies but goodies, talking over music lips, and on-air contests were all things I heard first on KOMA. Someone who was a part of that was on the phone. Dean Johnson was calling inexplicably calling me on the “hot line” and asking me to:
Come work for him at KDWB!
I would suppose that considering the paranoia and easy depression I could sink into at the slightest setback, this phone call was like a phone call from heaven. I have to admit I gave Dean the “shuffle off to Buffalo” because I did not commit to anything. I didn’t even commit to not committing. Do you understand that I was very non-committal? In a phone call that lasted maybe 3 minutes, I promised to think about “it” over night. Food has always been my Prozac (of course sometimes, Prozac has been my Prozac, but that’s for another story) and that is why I was sitting on the couch with an Ember’s Steak Sandwich trying to concentrate on a movie about Spanish Treasure.
With an ample supply of ketchup, mayonnaise and mustard for dipping purposes I tried to forget the phone call from Deane and concentrate on the movie set in the 1960's when a group of day-sailors on a pleasure boat out of the Bahamas were caught in a storm not unlike that storm from the fall of 1531. Tossed into the Bermuda Triangle, when the storm subsided the wreck of the boat was still afloat, mired in the endless entangled web of the Sargasso Sea. The survivors, just satisfied to be alive struggled to see about them. Not hours ago the ship was enmeshed in a nightmare and now it lay becalmed and shrouded in a clinging, warm, smoke-like fog.
Exhausted they were, barely talking to one and other; lost in their own private thoughts. The fog was so thick, the stern of their boat was lost in mist from those in the front. That is why, one by one, the numbers of day-sailors on board changed as they were snatched and dragged overboard by unseen beings. When the fog finally lifted, leaving only wisps of steam rising off the weed-entangled water, a sight beyond belief greeted the remaining occupants of the 20th Century boat. Surrounding them were the derelict remains of dozens of ships. Sailing ships from the early explorers, British, French, Spanish and Portuguese. Military dreadnoughts from the early 1800’s and curiously shaped ships from the Spanish American War were among ships of both Germany and England from the latest World War. This pleasure boat from Nassau was the latest addition to this maritime graveyard; it too, stuck forever in the Sargasso Sea.
The movie was getting good in a sort of weird way, but it was hard to concentrate on the complicated plot. I always wanted to work at KDWB. When I was going to Brown Institute, KDWB was THE Top-40 radio station but during the 60’s Boss Radio and a new way of doing things had (as inevitably it always does) changed the equation and now WDGY was Number One. I had just come off a career- saving Good Book and although I was flattered, I had no desire to work at Number Two. But, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I was, in fact, haunted by the phone call. What was I going to say when Dean Johnson called again. How could I let him down easily? I’d never dealt with anything like this before.
On my TV screen, the movie characters were dealing with something even worse. It seems that through the years hundreds of ships had been tossed into this part of the Sargasso Sea and the survivors, unable to leave, unable to contact the outside world (this was the Bermuda Triangle you know) and having to make do with a bad situation had evolved a society. A society, which to this day was peopled by the survivors of three and a half centuries of derelicts and ruled by the teenage descendant of Vincentio de la Cruz, who like the dozens of predecessors before him was known as El Supremo. Being a teenager he was under the control of a Machiavellian trio made up of descendants of the first Spanish Priest, a prisoner headed for the penal colony at Devils Island, and a Nazi naval commander, a distant cousin of Admiral Speer, himself. Knowing their power depended on secrecy and isolation, they killed anyone who tried to leave and forcefully abducted into their society anyone hapless enough to be tossed to them by the winds of fate.
El Supremo was naïve, but smart, and it took only 15 minutes of movie time for the most recently trapped group to persuade him to lead a revolt and escape from this Sargasso hell. In the end, all was good. The bad guys were killed, the survivors assimilated and the treasure divided. The end.
But, it wasn’t the end of my dilemma. In less than 24 hours, I would have to fish or cut bait.
The movie I watched that night is a real movie and I retell the story because for several years I would tell girls on the telephone (in a tearful admission swearing them to secrecy), that this was My Story and that truth be told, I was that one time Sargasso teen. I was El Supremo. In a sick way, it was great fun telling this lie. There will be many centuries in Purgatory over that one.
After making you wade through my lies and deceptions, told to teenage girls and boys (boys never really believed me), I won’t make you wait. Right on schedule the next day, Dean called and the callow lad that I was, I agreed to get together for “coffee” and hear what he had to say. More guilt. WEEGEE deserved better than this. But, did WEEGEE deserve me?
Wasn’t it G. Gordon Liddy who confronted his fear of rats by eating one? Or killing one. Or marrying one. He did something to a rat. I share this with G. Gordon Liddy. I didn’t eat rats but I confronted my fears. Remember, “Rob Sherwood was a character I played for many years”.
For almost 30 years, I was more actor than DJ. On stage, I had the lines to recite and I was in control. Behind a microphone, I was creating someone I wanted to be; someone, I was not. I am very shy.
Many find that difficult to believe and that is why I deserve an Academy Award. For my entire life, I have been desperately and pathologically shy and I fooled you all. Rather than bore you to death picking my psychological toes or gazing at my Freudian belly button, I’ll just let the story unfold and go where it goes. I’m old now and who gives a shit.
Here I was in my major comfort zone at WDGY and Deane Johnson, the new Program Director at KDWB called and shattered my contentment. I’ll admit during the night before going for “coffee” with Deane I didn’t sleep, my mind raced, and I was terrified by the mere thought of meeting these people; these new people. I wasn’t afraid of working at KDWB because, frankly, I thought I was too good for them. (Being shy has nothing to do with ego and hubris) I just didn’t want to leave WDGY. At WEEGEE, I had memorized the lines and was pretty good at giving my performance. During the night and throughout the next morning there were several times when I thought about calling Deane Johnson and begging off. I could just tell him it would all be a waste of time because I wasn’t leaving WDGY. Why didn’t I make that call? See the above paragraphs.
Where we met that first time and what exactly we talked about is lost in my memory. The new General Manager, Harold Greenberg, was there along with Deane and I thought I was moderately forceful when I told them I was not going to switch stations. At some point in the conversation, they offered me a salary that was considerably more than I was making at WDGY. All of you hot-shot DJ’s would have worked these guys, gotten a lot more money, perks up the ass, and kissed WDGY goodbye, but not me. I fed Deane and Harold some bullshit about money not being important yadda yadda yadda. The lunch ended with thanks but no thanks.
That afternoon, thinking it was all over, I relaxed for the first time in three days, rather proud of the way I had so determinately dealt with those pesky Channel 63‘ers. When I went to WDGY that night, I basked in my secret knowledge that the competition wanted me. Remember, I would do anything to avoid new people and new situations; even pass up the chance of a lifetime.
Sometime during my show that night, the hot-line rang, I answered, and my heart sank. Like my own private Greek chorus, it was Deane Johnson. Like a puppy with a sock, he had his teeth into me and he was not letting go. Give Deane Johnson some credit here. He’s dealing with a certified psychotic and he doesn‘t know it.
“Okay, if you could go anywhere in the world on vacation where would you go?”
What kind of a question is that? I didn‘t take it seriously and my answer was a frivolous, “Moscow, Russia“.
“It‘s a deal. Let‘s do this and we‘ll send you to Russia“.
Once again, my memory fails me. I got off the phone somehow and in a daze continued to Boss Jock my way through the night. But, it wasn‘t over. Before long, the hot-line blinks again and it‘s Deane again and I‘m seriously thinking of getting a restraining order.
“Let’s just quit fooling around. Let’s do this and we’ll just send you on a trip around the world”.
Another night ruined, another sleep destroyed. Now, I wasn’t afraid of KDWB and Deane Johnson. Now I was terrified of talking about all this with WDGY. I was supposed to call KDWB the next morning and let them know what was happening with WDGY. I was up early and at the studio before 10AM for my meeting with the WDGY General Manager. In my naïveté, I felt I might even get a raise when they heard about the “offer” from KDWB. How wrong I was.
I have worked for good managers, not - so - good managers, and a few ass-holes. I forget the name of the manager of WDGY (it wasn’t Dale Whatever), but I do remember his reaction when I told him about the “incredible” offer from KDWB. No reaction. Boredom? Ennui? Incredulity? I didn’t expect WDGY to match the offer but at least a nod in the right direction would have been nice. The upshot of this conversation was no raise, no perks, and no nothing. What? No nothing? That’s right. No Nothing.
Not to be melodramatic…what, me spurn melodrama? Okay, to be melodramatic, WDGY drove me into the arms of KDWB. I was the spurned lover, used and cast aside like a….well, you get the picture. Fifteen minutes after beginning the meeting with Manager Whatzizname, I left with a little bit of anger and a whole lot of angst. What if I called KDWB and they said, “Gotcha! We were just kidding. Go fuck yourself“?
I made the call and the KDWB boys invited me to a Twins Game that very afternoon. It was at that ball game that I crossed the Rubicon and agreed to go to work at KDWB. After the game, we went to the KDWB offices in downtown Minneapolis and they introduced me to the Big Boss, Victor Armstrong. I felt like Eliza Doolittle at Ascot. I was Cinderella at the ball. I was Maria and I was going out with Tony. “I feel pretty” “I feel pretty” “I feel pretty and witty and….” You know.
Where I got the backbone to ask for it all in writing, I don’t know, but I got it. At the time, the behind the scenes lawyer type, Walter Richey, wasn’t very happy about putting things in writing, but something was knocked out and I said I’d run it by an attorney before signing and we agreed to meet the next morning.
That night, my sleep was again sporadic because the new possibilities and the four days of ego-stroke had me infused with excitement. Shy was being trumped by anticipation and ego. The next day, Deane, Harold Greenberg, Victor Armstrong and I went to lunch and afterward back to the offices on 1st Street where we held a “signing ceremony”. Can you believe this? They took pictures. I used to have one of them, but it is lost. With my ego well massaged, I went to WDGY with great trepidation to deliver the news.
I began at WEEGEE radio in June of 1968 during a tornado alert. Less than a year later on a morning in the second week of April 1969, I was telling them I was leaving 1130 WDGY to go to KDWB Channel 63.
I was never on the air at WDGY again.
Coming in Chapter 10 – Are We Having Fun Yet