WSAY had just signed off. In those days, many radio and tv stations shut down and went off the air at night.
The station broadcast out of an old house on a country road, sitting on what was once probably a farm, now just a couple of weedy acres. Two 500-foot antennas sprouted there.
For a minute or two, I watched out the living room window as a couple of tons of snow thudded down. Fortunately I had arranged a ride home. But where was Fred? My ride was a high school senior with a license to drive. I was a year away from getting mine, and hitching would definitely not work in this isolated place and this weather at this time of night. Another ton slammed to the ground.
Why am I here? Obsession, I guess. An urgent need for ...Air Time! I really wanted to be on the radio, to be a radio star, a DJ. My teenage ego was ambitious and oblivious and unlimited. I thought I could be slicker and funnier than any of the plodding, stiff voices then broadcasting in Rochester. Probably this aspiration had nothing to do with innovation or originality, but with the firm knowledge that I could copy the big city DJs that I idolized better than the local guys did.
The geniuses of Chicago, New York, and Boston radio: Dick Biandi of WLS, Scott Muni on WABC, Arnie Ginsburg, WBZ. Far-away places, but after sunset my little Sears 7-transistor radio could pick up their stations' powerful signals. They were rich sources for the glib, recycled, slightly used banter that I had been perfecting since I was 10 years old.
Even Buffalo, near neighbor to the west, had two authentic geniuses on the payroll at WKBW: Dan Neaverth and Joey Reynolds. Danny and Joey had even put out their own records!
Local jocks were just guys with boomy voices who did not, could not, never even tried to entertain. Just the weather, song titles, "and now the news." Without any of that annoying personality stuff. I was pretty sure they missed the old days of big bands and tuxedoed formality. They probably didn't even like rock music. More genius: Of course the Beatles, cranking out hit after hit, most of them masterpieces; The Mamas and the Papas, the Lovin' Spoonful, the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys, The Supremes...
So, for me, anything that even remotely resembled a microphone, became a microphone. And I would blab into it—— an old hunk of pipe, a discarded electrical outlet. Practicing for the real thing. I was thrilled when I earned enough money babysitting and mowing lawns to trade $10 (and some old comic books) for a tape recorder with a real microphone. Now I could record, play back, erase, and record again (I only had one reel of tape), until practice made perfect, and millions would be awed by my easy banter and subtle put-downs of Elvis (he became "Elmo Parsley") and Frankie Valli, the Four Seasons' falsetto-voiced lead singer whose hit Walk like a Man was introduced thus: "Walk like a Man! Sing like a girl!". Pathetic. But hey, I was just a kid.
Back in 8th grade, another student and I had built a pirate radio station. The Federal Communications Commission allowed AM stations of tiny power, measured in millionths of a watt, to broadcast without a license. We had built what looked like a legal transmitter on paper, but with the help of an old military surplus transmitter tube and a 50-foot antenna, we went on the air with an effective power of almost 50 watts—— enough to cover a small city.
I was blown away by the idea that this shy, unpopular kid could reach dozens, hundreds, thousands of ears... and the principal of our school was too. He thought this was such a great example of his students' initiative and genius that he arranged to have us interviewed by the local newspaper. We were proud that we, as pure dweebs, had managed to upstage the school's entire athletic department. Football scores? Back on page 12 of the Sports Section. Geeky Junior High kids? Front Page!!!
The fat envelope from the FCC, detailing our crimes, arrived around 14 days later. Embarassed and scared, we were off the air instantly.
But the obsession persisted.
So I hung around the radio station in the old house as often as I could manage, trying to make myself indispensable.
"Are you sure you have a ride?" Dave, the holder of the First Class Commercial Operator's License was ready to bolt for home, having shut down the 5000 watt transmitter that was his baby. He was eager to beat the storm; no fun driving through a whiteout.
"Oh sure. I think I see his headlights."
"Ok. Just make sure the door locks behind you. Have a good night."
But by then I was beginning to realize that I was pretty much stranded. Fred's old Ford would never make it through this blizzard without getting bogged down.
I had spent the day doing chores for Dave. He had me pegged as an obedient puppy dog pretty early on, and was happy to answer my dopey questions because he knew I would be eager to plunge into any noxious chores he would rather not be bothered with. The premier noxious chore was aircraft warning light replacement. These were big red lights on the station’s transmitting towers in the little house’s back yard.
On each tower were 4 levels of lights, with 4 lights each on the lower 3 decks, and just 2 at the highest, up around 490 feet. All the lights were supposed to be functional, but the FAA would allow one blown light to remain for a month. So the idea was to wait for one more light to die during that time, thus saving yourself another trip up the tower.
Later, I discovered that other stations hired specially trained climbers to do this job. But hey kids, this station was different! They were happy to assign the most horrible chores to whoever was dumb enough to take them on, even specially untrained teenagers. Especially dumb, untrained teenagers.
I did have a small amount of tower experience under my belt. A week before, Dave had noticed a couple of dead lights on the lowest level of the near tower, only about 75 feet up. My sense of self-preservation was not yet fully developed, and I was eager to please. Dave said jump, so up I went.
Step 1, load up with tools and replacement components. The first of these was a giant wrench for unbolting the red glass covers that went over the bulbs. The wrench had a hook for hooking into a belt loop. Then the 2 huge expensive ($25 apiece) fresh bulbs, thoughtfully strapped into a special leather carrier by Dave. The carrier hung off another belt loop.
“Don’t drop these,” he advised. I had now gained an extra 15 pounds or so. Light snow had begun to fall.
Step 2, open up the ladder cover, a barrier to prevent unofficial access by local delinquents. This part was easy, just open a padlock with a key stored in Dave’s desk. Loop the safety belt around the ladder.
Step 3, climb. The ladder’s rungs were pretty far apart, and I had to force myself to stop worrying about my expensive cargo and concentrate on grip and foot placement. After this, climbing 50 or 60 feet up vertical ladders in theaters was no problem. People always tell you not to look down, but I was fascinated by the diminishing tiny house and even tinier man standing at the tower’s base, and the gradually whitening landscape.
Step 4, undo the big bolts with the big wrench, lift off the glass cover, unscrew dead bulb, screw in new bulb. Replace cover and bolts.
Step 5, climb down, and live to fight another day. Tedious, but easy enough in broad daylight with an experienced spotter down below, yelling instructions up at you.
A week had gone by since that first trip up, but the tingly feeling you get from trying to just hang on and function, at a great height, still lingered. There was still coffee on the hot plate; I sloshed the remaining dregs into a dirty cup, took a sip, and searched around for a warm place to spend the night.
The dormant transmitter in the former living room still gave off a little warmth, but the giant output tubes were now shut down, and their heat was fading fast. Upstairs might be warmer.
The hallway between former bedrooms, located above the transmitter, still retained a little warmth. I dragged a chair out of the office/newsroom, where I also found somebody’s old jacket to use for a blanket. I finished the coffee and got myself arranged for the night.
I looked out the window at the snow, still falling in great globs. Big mistake.
Halfway up the far tower, 2 more warning lights had burned out. Just 180 feet or so off the ground. Well. Let it go, right? What are the chances that some low-flying craft would be aviating through here tonight? A helicopter loaded with serum for the isolated eskimos of suburban Rochester? Go to sleep! I couldn’t. A few years later, I would probably have ignored those blown lights. But at 16. . . maybe I somehow thought I would get blamed if something happened.
Suppose a small plane, a bit lost in the snow, had drifted sideways into the tower, because two warning lights were out! And although I wasn't even supposed to be there, I could have replaced them. I knew how to replace them, but I didn't! How would I feel then?
I put the old jacket on over mine, and commenced with step one. All set. I found the keys and opened the balky old door that led to the back yard. Step two, no problem. Step three, ugh. I had some gloves but they weren’t designed for this. The ladder was really cold, and the gloves were sticking to the freezing metal rungs.
I passed the first ledge. Only 100 feet to go. I could only climb 2 or 3 steps now, then hook an arm over a rung, and rest. Wind was sending the snow sideways. Looking down, all I could see was the ladder in violent perspective, disappearing into blackness.
Step 4. Undo the bolts! Well, not quite yet. By then I should have been at the second deck. I was definitely ready for the second deck. But where was it?
The second deck was nowhere in sight. Keep climbing. What else could I do? Keep climbing. My brain is shutting down. It's just too cold.
Snow still blowing sideways. Not looking down any more; I don't have the energy.
Step 4. Nope. No Step 4. Still no deck, no bolts, just rungs. Barely able to inch upwards. Now there is more resting than climbing, way more. My eyes are closed tight against the walls of snow that keep slamming me in gusts.
One of my closed eyes squeaks open a tiny bit. Above, no deck. What ? Come on. Where is it? I lean back and steal a glance down. Aagh. I had passed it! My hand slips. The ladder starts taking off like a rocket, upwards, without me. A loud clanking clattering sound echoes from everywhere. I hit the second deck sideways, head first, pretty hard. The ladder had not been moving. I was.
I had fallen onto a pile of snow, which was a good thing because it was sightly softer than the steel deck underneath it, but also bad because it was even colder than the wind was. Good thing two: neck not broken; thank you snow. But I was having a little trouble breathing, like I had crushed a lung or something. Third good thing: The bulbs hadn't broken, and I still had the wrench. Great. Now, get up. No, you can't sleep here. Get up and change the bulb.
I had left one glove behind when I fell, stuck frozen to a rung. So this was to be mainly a one-handed operation. Don't think about it too much. I got up on my knees and swung the giant wrench around. I was unable to grab the freezing metal efficiently, so I left the wrench on the hook to bear the weight. This was really awkward.
Ok, Step 4, finally. The bolts. A bit frozen, but they eventually twisted off, taking slightly less than forever.