Perched on the edge of Georgian Bay, the wind frequently blows very cold into the town of Midland. That was my first impression when I started my “radio career” at CKMP. I arrived in late September and I had no idea that I was facing the longest and loneliest winter of my young life. The wind had an edge to it the day I drove into town and, it seems to me now, winter arrived not too long after.
Midland in the early 60’s was a much different place than it is today. As a young man coming in from the city I soon discovered it was a self-contained social circle that didn’t offer much opportunity for including “newbies”, and it was particularly difficult for a guy just leaving his teens. Thus it was that the people of the radio station and a handful of their associates became the centre of my life away from home.
The people at the radio station were a unique cast of characters. I’ve changed their names partly because it’s the right thing to do and partly because I can’t remember a couple of names.
There was Ray, the radio salesman. He was just what you’d expect, out glad handing and making contacts, and living a pretty fast life for a small community.
John was the owner’s son-in-law and he was program director and news director and a bit of a jerk (putting it kindly.) He was a Ryerson grad and knew everything, and nothing.
His wife, Arlene was the station secretary, commercial scheduler and “do anything” gal. She was a really nice person.
The station owner, who I didn’t see very often, had a big office at the back of the business area of the station and I was never quite sure what he did. He seemed like a relatively nice guy and it became apparent that he had more that one business interest in the community. His wife, I found out, was the power behind the scenes. She controlled the books, made sure people paid their bills and, generally, was the silent voice behind many of the decisions affecting the station.
The on-air staff was a strange brew. There was me, the new guy, who was relegated to the morning show because no one else wanted to get up at that hour. I was from the city, arrived in an MG-TD (drafty damn thing), and was hoping to make and save money for tuition to the National Theatre school in Montreal and to a career in the theatre. Ta da. Great Plan.
Following me was Marla, and she did a show for the kids and she was very good at it. I had a bit of a crush on Marla. She had a fresh scrubbed, apple pie countenance and was just a naturally sweet person. Marla had a regular job but was able to take the hour off to do her show.
Following Marla was Bill Brahma. Some folks may remember Bill from his lifestyle pieces on Global Television going back a number of years. In Midland Bill did a live “piano” show. Each day Bill would play an hour of music, prefaced by his deep throated, mellifluous invitation, “It’s time to listen to Music.” And with that opening he would launch into an hour of old favourites played on the grand piano. Bill was much loved by the ladies for his gentlemanly style and impeccable manners. Behind the scenes Bill hit the sauce just a bit too much on occasion and there were days when we wondered if he would surface for his show.
Gil did the afternoon shift. Gil was a young guy, couple of years older than me, who had already had and lost two jobs in radio. He was always on the make whether it was with girls or with a deal to be had. He was, in a word, flashy. He kinda came in and out of my social life for the year that I was in Midland. He left before I did. To this day I don’t know if it was his decision or if he was booted out for undisclosed misdemeanors.
The evening guy, my roommate in the basement apartment, Mac Rymal gave me lessons in life that shattered my conservative upbringing. Despite the fact that he made me welcome when I first arrived I came to the belief that it is a bit like the devil, full of smiles, welcoming you to his special brand of hell. You’ll understand, a little bit, if I tell you that it was thanks to Mac that I ended up being chased by a crazed ex-con husband, brandishing a claw hammer, down Bay Street in Midland because he mistook me for Mac. All of that may be a story for another day.
We were a tiny staff in a tiny station located above a shoe store, across the road from the Chinese Laundry (the owner was taken away by the Mounties for smuggling Chinese immigrants into Canada. Yet another story.) When the holiday season rolled around we were waist deep in snow and I contend that it was the house parties that kept everyone from going nuts. We were all trying to get a bit of time off over the holidays. I worked six days a week (for $35 a week) and wanted to have at least one day back home with the family. We helped each other out by putting in dual shifts over Christmas and New Years. Mac and I had New Years Eve off. Ray, the sales guy, was sitting in on New Year’s Eve and would be spinning music to take everyone up to midnight.
I was delighted. Mac said, “We’re going to the best bash of the year and get ready to hang on”. As it turned out, I did hang on. Barely. I didn’t know anyone except Mac and a couple of others. The “best bash of the year” was so wild and out of control that I felt that I’d landed on another planet. I still believe one or two marriages were put at risk after that evening of incredible debauchery.
The evening wore on. It was about 11 p.m. when Mac got a phone call, I think it may have been Gil, telling us to listen to the station “you won’t believe what’s going on!” We turned on the radio. At first we thought we had the wrong radio station because what we heard was a big military band of some sort playing march music. Weird? We listened some more. The track came to a resounding finish and then, over that quiet spot between cuts on the John Phillip Sousa march album came a voice … “March You Bastards!” And so they did. Another band selection began. Da de la dah dah dah… and away they went. Sure enough at the end of the cut, Ray’s slurred, belligerent voice prefaced the next cut on the album … “March You Bastards!”
Mac and I jumped in his car and sped down to the station. All the way there we were treated to more rousing march music. You actually got the feeling that if Ray hadn’t been there to yell at the band between cuts the Coldstream Guards might not have gone to the next selection.
We got to the station, unlocked the door and then climbed the staircase to our second level offices and studios. We went down the short hallway to the studio door, looked through the control room glass, and there he was. Ray, with a bottle of Scotch, a glass partly full, and a piss-on-the-world look in his eye. It told us everything we need to know. We went to the control room door and it wouldn’t open. It was locked. Actually, it was more than locked. It was nailed shut. It became obvious that, with malice and forethought, Ray had put a couple of spikes through the door into the frame.
The look on our faces must have been priceless. We yelled at Ray, we went into the other studio facing him and tried to get his attention. He was having none of it. In for a penny, in for a pound. We noted that he had a stack of about nine or ten albums. it appeared that there was a lot more marching still to take place. I tried putting my shoulder into the door but it wouldn’t budge. There was no use in asking Mac to try because he had skinny shoulders. Think. Think. Mac ran down the hall, leaving me to gaze at the horror that was going out over the airwaves, in celebration of the approaching new year’s hour.
Mac came back brandishing a fire axe. I had forgotten all about that weapon. It was part of our safety equipment in case we had a fire in the stairwell to the street level and had to chop our way through the floor, and to safety I guess? Whatever. We knew it’s purpose in this situation. Mac started to chop at the door. We thought if we could chop through in and around the door handle and nails in the door jam we could separate the rest of it and silence Ray, by force if necessary.
The end of the cut came, we stopped chopping while Ray uttered his, now famous, invective. Ta da da da da, de dum dum dum. Mac and I started to laugh. We realized how ridiculous it was that we would stop chopping while Ray continued his rant. We chopped with vigor, through about two more cuts on the album, and we finally got through the door. Time 11.50 p.m. We had saved new years. Yaaah!! Mac helped the now sobbing Ray from the studio and gave him a ride home. I took to the airwaves, and without admitting anything bizaar had just taken place, I played music to midnight and helped a few astonished listeners welcome in 1963. Best of all, I didn’t have to go back to the party.
Ray left the employ of the radio station on New Year’s Day.