Chapter Thirteen

No doubt about it, CKUA had done a lot for me by the time my first year with the station was coming to an end. And now it was going to give me the first paid vacation of my broadcasting career. Was I grateful? You be the judge.

As soon as the time off had been confirmed, I began pestering the station’s recording engineer to help me slap together some audition material to take home with me to Winnipeg. What cheek! But the engineer found some slack time when nobody was looking and I was able to leave on vacation with two audition tapes in my cardboard suitcase.

I didn’t say anything about the tapes to my family. It would have raised their hopes that their wandering boy was about to come home for good, and I knew I couldn’t explain how unlikely that was. A few days after I got home, I got rid of the evidence. One tape went to CJOB, Winnipeg’s only 24-hour station at the time; the other was dropped off hurriedly at the front desk of Radio Station CKRC.

I was cocky enough to think CJOB might respond to my tape in some way – a kind note of the “better-luck-next-time” variety – but CKRC was a different proposition entirely. As the city’s Dominion network station it carried “Lux Radio Theatre” and all the popular U.S. comedy shows of the day. Its studios and offices in the Winnipeg Free Press Building were truly breathtaking, enough to excuse the station for setting out its call letters in blue ribbon on stationery and advertising.

Visitors reached CKRC through a separate neon-lit entrance at the head of a spiral staircase that led from the building’s impressive lobby to the floor above. There, under a neon sign that spelled out the station’s call letters, another staircase – this one carpeted – waited just beyond chromed double doors. Climbing this second staircase got you at last to the station’s foyer where a double-paned window took up most of one wall. At noon hour, a crowd often gathered there to watch a popular duo perform on twin grand pianos in the studio beyond the glass.

There were two other grand pianos on the premises, and one of them could be found on the stage of a full-fledged theatre that could accommodate some fifty people in padded seats.

Employees of rival stations in Winnipeg displayed their jealousy by calling CKRC’s announcers “movie stars” because they were so often put on display dressed to the nines. I reasoned that my meager wardrobe alone would be enough to keep me from joining their ranks.

On the chance that you believed that business in Chapter 8 about the CBC handing me a regular radio program because I sent them a piece of hate mail, I’ll try you with something even more improbable: Both CJOB and CKRC responded to my audition tapes. No, really!

CJOB offered me the overnight shift they had recently instituted, and CKRC had an opening in its newsroom. As you can imagine from how I have just described the CKRC of 1951, I politely declined CJOB’s offer, accepted CKRC’s, and spent the rest of my vacation in Winnipeg in a daze. Then I returned to Edmonton to wrap things up at CKUA. In keeping with the understanding and warmth the station had always shown me, my departure was made as easy as possible, not just by management but by fellow employees, one in particular.

I had bought my first car in Edmonton: a 1931 Plymouth sedan. Cars that old had no trunk, so I planned to pile all but the driver’s seat ceiling high with my possessions for the drive back to Winnipeg. Thirteen hundred-and-57 kilometers on prairie roads in an overloaded twenty-year-old car: the suggestion had elicited enough warnings to bring my Plymouth and me to CKUA’s transmitter building on my next day off.

Transmitter buildings aren’t as common today, but at least one could be found on any highway leading to a North American city in 1951. What drew your attention to them was the transmitting antenna or antennae nearby, slim skeletal constructions high enough to require flashing beacons to warn aircraft away.

The expensive and dangerous equipment inside CKUA’s transmitter building had to be guarded and maintained until, not long after I left Edmonton, advances in engineering made it possible to activate it by remote control from the station’s studios. But in 1951, most such ‘transmitter shacks’ were manned on a 24-hour basis by live-in engineers; bored, lonely souls who made you think of Robert Service’s telegraph operator.

I will not wash my face;
I will not brush my hair;
I “pig” around the place —

There’s nobody to care.

Every CKUA announcer knew these transmitter engineers at least by voice because they had to be contacted by phone before the radio station could sign on or off: both functions were then performed at that lonely little building on the Calgary Trail. I got friendly enough with one of these engineers to pay him regular visits in my Plymouth, and when he heard I planned a cross-prairie trip in the old wreck, he volunteered to go over it thoroughly to see whether it could stand the rigors involved.

I tried to stay out of the man’s way while he performed his inspection, but my nervousness had me looking over his shoulder during much of it. It was a bumper-to-bumper affair that ended with most of him under the car on what would be identified today as a skateboard. When he finally rolled himself back into sight, he was scowling.

“Well?” I asked to break a lengthy silence.

He was wiping his hands on a rag. “Let me put it this way,” he drawled. “You’re going to put about as much mileage on this heap going to Winnipeg as you would driving it around Edmonton for two weeks.”

“I suppose you’re right.”

“But there’s this about it: you’ll be doing a lot less starting and stopping, and – this time of year – the highways are usually pretty good. If you keep ‘er full of what she needs – gas, oil, water – and your speed down, and if you don’t try to go too far each day, you should make it okay.” He gave the nearest fender a good shaking. “There’s life in the old girl yet.”

The highways were ‘pretty good’ – in Alberta; but Tommy Douglas had picked the summer of 1951 to renew most of Saskatchewan’s highway system. The resulting detours on rutted dirt roads tested the loaded-to-the-gunnels Plymouth’s sagging springs to the limit, and brought on a weakness that the kindly transmitter engineer couldn’t have foreseen. Somewhere around Yorkton, the car began to lose more and more power until I had to hold the accelerator to the floor to go 15 miles and hour. And when it started to rain, the windshield wipers wouldn’t work. I pulled into the first garage I encountered and had the mechanic circling the Plymouth in awe.

“I haven’t seen one of these relics in years,” he told me. Not very reassuring, but he knew what was causing my trouble without even lifting the hood. “It’s got to be that goddam vacuum tank,” he grumbled.

‘Vacuum tank’? I didn’t know I had one, let alone what it did. He explained: the 1931 Plymouth relied heavily on the vacuum created by internal combustion. Not only did it use this vacuum to suck fuel all the way from the gas tank, but it was what powered the windshield wipers as well. And bouncing my way through those detours had loosened every connection involved in this weird system.

“Can you fix it?” I asked timorously.

“Hell, no! Not completely. But I’ll tighten up what I can. You’ll have to leave her here overnight, though.” He flashed a devilish grin. “Don’t worry, nobody will steal her.”

Ha. Ha.

I slouched off to find a cheap hotel, booked in, and flopped down on the sagging bed, still fully dressed. Worry kept sleep at bay for hours. It wasn’t the car, it was what I had crammed into every cubic inch of its interior: all my worldly possessions except for what I had schlepped to the hotel in one cardboard suitcase. And, oh yeah! None of the Plymouth’s door locks worked.

But whatever thieves worked the streets of Yorkton, Saskatchewan, that summer of 1951 weren’t interested in my paltry poke; when I returned to the Plymouth the next morning my cargo was intact and the mechanic was able to assure me that – if I kept my speed under forty miles an hour all the way – I stood a good chance of completing my journey.

Sometime around midnight I was home.


2 Responses to “Chapter Thirteen”

  1. J.L. Van Dusen Says:

    Good travel tips, when driving a ’30’s vehicle. The “Vacuum “system was also used in the “29 Nash I once had.I was advised to, and always did carry a six pack(small crate) of coke bottles filled with gasoline, with which one could prime the reservoir, in case you stopped the engine while the level of gas in the reservoir was too low. Too technical to describe in this small area. J.L

    • debunko Says:

      Hi, Lloyd . . .
      I bet I can match you for troublesome vehicles.
      After that ’31 Plymouth I had a ’34 Plymouth with great body but “shimmed” cylinders: it exploded halfway to Elm Creek to visit my doctor brother.
      Then came a ’40 Nash with no oil pressure, then the ’49 Morris Minor, a Henry J (comes in a later chapter of the blog), a huge Dodge, and two Fiat 600s.
      I loved those Fiats! When the cable that ran from the dashboard to the rear-mounted engine snapped on one of them in the middle of Montreal traffic, I begged a length of stout twine from a grocer and ran it from the carbureter thru the cooling vents and along the body to my window so I could tug on it to work the gas.
      Still, I used to get Marie to drive so I could slide the cloth roof back and stand up beside her like General Montgomery directing a battle.
      Still crazy after all these years,

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