Chapter Fourteen

As I mentioned, the 1931 Plymouth was my first car. To list the seven that followed is to admit I was addicted to automotive orphans: a Nash, a Morris Minor, a Henry J, a Hudson Jet, a Fiat 600 . . No! Make that two Fiat 600s; my wife wanted one of her own.

I can remember what became of most of them but not the Plymouth. I know I got rid of it soon after it brought me home to St. Boniface, probably to spare my parents the embarrassment such an eyesore presented, parked in front of our house.

It’s something of a broadcasting tradition to put an untried employee on the night shift. At least that’s where I landed at CKRC, Winnipeg, as soon as the News Editor was satisfied I had absorbed enough basic training. I needn’t have worried about my threadbare wardrobe clashing with the finery displayed by the station’s “movie stars.” My isolation in the newsroom meant we were seldom seen together.

CKRC’s announce staff was indeed a starry crew led by the station’s morning man, Bill Walker, newly arrived from Regina, Saskatchewan. Bill was a decorated veteran of World War Two, an imposing figure with a booming voice and sweeping gestures: every inch the actor. He took on any challenging role the rather limited Winnipeg theatre scene offered him in his new setting, and was soon the city’s most sought-after Master of Ceremonies. At the radio station, Bill had his pick of any assignments that surfaced once his morning show ended; he especially liked interviewing visiting celebrities.

I think it was a sudden illness that put Bill’s regular newscaster out of action and changed my hours from nights to early mornings. It was supposed to be a temporary replacement but my spell as CKRC’s morning newscaster lasted seven years with several harrowing interruptions that left me feeling far from secure.

Radio is all about sound. Bill Walker’s many public appearances after he had left the studios counted for naught if he wasn’t in voice between six and nine a.m. There were times when this truth evaded Bill. He was a devoted follower of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers football team, and – at least once a season – he would struggle through his morning show hoarse from the cheering he had done the night before in the stadium stands.

The host of a morning radio show was supposed to sound wide-awake and brimming with confidence and good cheer. Because we came to work from different parts of the city, it wasn’t often that the two of us arrived at the imposing entrance to the Free Press Building at the same moment. On one of these rare occasions, I tried to keep up with Bill as he plunged through the revolving doors and raced towards that spiral staircase I’ve told you about.

I’d had a bad night and was staggering along behind him, reaching out desperately for the support the handrail could provide, when I heard:

“I’m good! I’m great! I’m good! I’m great!”

Bill had set up a sort of mantra to the sound of his feet taking the staircase two steps at a time.

Like any good actor, Bill Walker could pitch his voice to whatever role he was taking. For his morning show, he used his tenor range. My voice was a lighter, less assertive version of his. The man I had replaced was also a tenor, as were the morning newscasters on all of the other radio stations in Winnipeg at the time.

Radio tenors can sound enthusiastic, even chirpy, but they make poor messengers of calamity and disaster. For that you need a Lorne Greene – and you will remember from an earlier chapter that ‘The Voice of Doom’ had spawned a legion of Lorne Greene wannabees since his glory days during and just after World War II. For quite some time, the bass-baritones of private radio did all their rumbling on phone-in shows.

“Yeah? Well, you’re gone, buddy-boy! Let’s move on to another caller.”

But phone-in shows weren’t usually heard until well after the breakfast-time hours. It never occurred to me that one of these basso rumblers could threaten my job until one of our rival stations, CKY, hired Al Davidson in 1955 and assigned him to its morning news run.

Along with his funereal tones, Al brought a heavy dose of hyperbole to every newscast. While I was reporting that a minor fire had been brought under control, he was still describing “a raging conflagration”. A barroom brawl that put a few people in hospital with minor injuries was “a bloodbath”, and any run-of-the-mill perp was “fiendishly clever” when he “baffled” the “understaffed” police. All this in a voice that seemed to be coming from a mineshaft.

The trouble was: it worked. In crude terms, Al was soon beating the shit out of the opposition.

Because my father was a police inspector across the river in St.Boniface, the Winnipeg Police were inclined to give me a comparatively easy time of it when I phoned them or dropped into the police station after my morning run. On one of these visits, the Chief of Detectives took me aside to rail against my bombastic rival.

“I’d like to throttle the bastard!” he spluttered.

“What’s he done now?” I asked.

“Spilled the beans about the marked money.” The Inspector sighed. “We spent months visiting every bank in Winnipeg shelling out a wad of it to every cashier.”

When I looked puzzled, he explained:

“The Chief was on my ass about all the bank holdups we had last year. So we made sure that the next joker to show up got marked bills along with the rest of his haul. So’s, when he tried to pass some of them, one of the merchants we alerted would turn him in. Get it?”

“It must have taken months to set it all up,” I suggested.

“Right! And it finally paid off last week when we nabbed the guy who knocked over that branch on Market Street last week, remember?”

I did. The felon was arrested outside a department store the same afternoon.

“So where does Al come in?” I asked innocently.

“Didn’t you hear the bastard?” the Inspector exploded. “He told the whole world about the marked bills and the merchants and how we caught the bandit. Wrecked the entire operation with one lousy newscast!”

I didn’t tell the Inspector the real reason why I didn’t follow Al’s lead and “spill the beans” on any of my newscasts: I wasn’t been considerate, just ignorant. I might have heard about the marked money before that bank job, but, unlike Al, I didn’t connect it to the arrest of the robber.

It was about this time that the Mean Vets Syndrome surfaced again.

It’s what showed itself in that St.Boniface confectionery store when a group of discharged veterans tortured me with the suggestion that I was likely to be slaughtered fighting the Japanese. And there it was again five years later in that veterans’ hospital in Edmonton where some of the more disgruntled patients focused their anger on a youthful voice on the radio. What was it about my generation that the previous one resented to such a degree? Maybe these returning servicemen saw us as ‘having it easy’ because we were left to enjoy our youth rather than put it in jeopardy on some battlefield or sea-lane. That would describe what Bill Walker had done: he had won medals in the Fleet Air Arm. And his operator on the morning show had spent much of the war on a Canadian corvette plying the murderous ‘North Atlantic run’ to Murmansk. Whatever the cause, Bill and his operator never missed a chance to put me down. Not that I didn’t present a ready target.

I had become far too conscious of my speech. For instance, I was careful to sound every syllable of every word. Any ‘William’ in my newscasts became ‘Will-ee-um’ and million ‘mill-ee-un’.”Television had just come to Winnipeg, and the comedian Milton Berle was its brightest star. One of his most-quoted punch lines was “I’ll kill you a million times!” pronounced, “I’ll kiy you a miy-ee-un toimes!” Bill and his sidekick taunted me mercilessly with that phrase until I learned to take a less precious approach to the English language. Ribbing of that sort was at least educational, and always delivered once I was out of the studio; but what about the stunt they pulled on me one morning while I was still on the air?

To give what they did its proper impact I have to describe the ‘cough switch’. Most radio studios had one: a toggle switch mounted near the microphone that allowed the announcer to disable the mike long enough to cough or sneeze or just clear his throat. What’s important to my story is that none of CKRC’s studios had one. Once an announcer was in a CKRC studio reading a script on the air, he depended on the operator in the control room to catch his frantic signal and cut the mike.

Nervousness had me glancing through the window into the control room every time I turned a page to make sure the operator was still within reach of the controls. Imagine my shock when one of those glances had me looking into an empty room! Where was the operator? And why was Bill, sitting in the studio beyond, giving me such a malicious grin?

I returned my attention to my script, anxious to bring the newscast – and my vulnerable position – to an end. Then, behind me, I heard the door to my studio open and close. The operator was in the studio with me. What did he have in mind? I managed to keep reading until something came between my eyes and the script. In a flash I recognized it as a sanitary napkin, smeared with what I hoped was ketchup!

Horror and revulsion brought my free hand flying upwards. It struck the operator’s, and sent his ghastly offering flying to the ceiling. Shock kept me from crying out, and I was somehow able to get through the remaining minutes of the newscast. By then the operator had returned to the control room, and once I had said: “And that’s the latest news from the CKRC newsroom. And now, here again is Bill Walker,” I was at last taken off the air.

I imagine the two pranksters expected me to come storming into the control room to take my revenge on the operator, but the experience had drained me. Besides, there were two hefty veterans in there; it seemed prudent to control myself.

Something like a broadcaster’s code kept me from reporting the incident to management. You didn’t snitch. And keeping my mouth shut must have worked in my favor because the ribbing eased off considerably from then on. Better still, Bill Walker began to include me in what he did once the morning show had finished. And so I’m able to tell you how my interviewing career began in earnest.

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