Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Challenges and Challenger

The bank where I worked in downtown Tulsa was like a giant, ornate bunker.
Vertical spines of glass were framed by massive stacks of pink granite stone, providing lofty but narrow views of the rest of the central business district, and a bend in the Arkansas River, just west of town. my office was an interior room, with a wall of glass from floor to ceiling, opening into an atrium. The other three walls of the office were adorned with white marker boards, plaided with grids filled with numbers and symbols--each line representing a secured interest for the institution.

I had been hired to locate and inventory secured property for an S&L--property, it turned out, that had been sold twice to lenders by an unscrupulous loan originator. One of the challenges was determining who had first-rights to the cache of serial numbers. The other chore was locating the goods. They were mobile homes, emphasis on mobile--perched on bluffs and hidden in wooded groves all over northeastern Oklahoma and western Arkansas.

Each line on each gridded wall told a story. A manufactured home, with all of the trappings--purchased for an average of less than $60,000 when the oil boom of the early '80's was in full blossom in Oklahoma. With the turning of fortunes in the oil patch, owners were ditching their trailer houses in droves. Keys were mailed back to us daily--some with directions on where to find the houses, some without. By the end of 1985, there were literally hundreds of properties we were either in possession of, in search of, or in despair of. Hundreds of mobile homes. Hundreds of lives. Hundreds of stories.

Those were the properties that made it onto the white boards.
Below each board, lining the walls from the floor to the bottoms of the charts, hundreds more legal-sized manila folders were stacked, awaiting processing. I had a full time assistant to help stay ahead of the legal filings, invoices for vendors, and other paper minutiae that went into each folder. Each day, it seemed, she added to the piles files on the floors.

By January 1986, we thought we were turning a corner on the flow of incoming repossessed mobile homes. They were scattered in holding lots across the state, and I had been inside each and everyone. I had pictures to prove it. It was a mountain of work.

The last week of January, we were preparing to repossess another batch of mobile homes gone bad. My assistant and I were writing up the latest grid-ful of properties and locations that I would be visiting in February. Even though the flow had slowed, it was heartbreaking to know I'd be knocking on families' doors in the next week, asking to inventory their home in preparation for pulling it in from the field to a storage lot somewhere in East Egypt.
It was a pretty quiet morning.

My boss called me on the phone from his office, across the glass-walled atrium, and said, "The Shuttle just exploded."
He wasn't excited or animated, just very matter-of-fact. 

I looked across at him through two panes of glass.
He wasn't smiling.

We turned on a TV and stared in disbelief as the horrible footage was replayed over and over and over. My assistant began to cry and shake.
The files piled on my desk were forgotten.
Lives about to be displaced enmass were put on hold, as seven lives were snuffed out in an instant in that horrible explosion of orange and white.

The Crew of Challenger: (top) Onizuka, McAuliffe, Jarvis, Resnick;
(bottom) Smith, Scobee, McNair

Monday, December 29, 2014

If Ebenezer Scrooge Was a DJ

Charles Dickens, Age 49
Photo Credit: George Herbert Watkins
In Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by three apparitions of Christmas Past, Present and Future. Initially, Scrooge chalks up his nightmares to poor diet, but as we all know, the messages from the 'mares is more profound. This may be the most popular instance of recurring nightmares recorded in English Literature.

Dickens would likely have had a field day writing about our current culture at Christmas. Probably could have written as many volumes as the author of the Harry Potter series, especially if he examined the nocturnal visitations we sometimes receive as our mental overdrives spin down at night, and the nightmares they can bring. That still happens to me, dreams generated from situations at Radio stations past and present. I imagine the ghost of stations future is waiting in the wings.

The dream is recurring, but evolves over time. The constant is a setting in a Radio station air studio for which I am responsible. There's music playing, with a countdown clock showing less than a minute remaining in the tune. I can't locate the next song to play.

I've talked to countless colleagues over the years, and we all have them: a nightmarish scenario in which panic has strangled our ability to execute the next event in time, resulting in every DJ's worst fear, Dead Air.

Dead Air is that awkward silence that disrupts the smooth and snappy patter you generally hear on the Radio, except for NPR listeners. (Those guys thrive on silent spaces big enough to drive a truck through between stories and network rejoins. Maybe they're living their own nightmares, I don't know.) 

Most Radio listeners don't even realize a mistake has occurred in the booth, but for announcers and newsmen, producers and DJ's, even a half-second lapse sounds like half of Eternity when you're behind the mic, on the board, or at the switch.

In the olden days the most common reason for Dead Air was a lost record, a lost commercial, or a lost DJ. There are legends still being recounted about some poor schmuck who stepped out of the studio to "lengthen his attention span," and was literally caught with his pants down. Or worse, the dare devil DJ who put on a long record calculated to give him enough time to drive to a Dairy Queen and back...and was wrong. 

Every Radio station in America has its own epic adventure tale of a DJ scrambling to get back into the booth as the song ends--or worse, the same seven-bars of a song are being repeated as the needle skips (hic) repeated as the needle skips (hic) repeated as the needle skips...
It's a horrible sound.
It's a worse feeling in the pit of your gut.

My personal on-air nightmare dream has evolved with the changing technologies in the industry. My nightmares are now digital, and often involve a recalcitrant computer. Like last night, for example, in which the stack of clustered computer monitors had somehow become separated, and were strewn around the room, just out of view. In an interesting, diabolical twist, not only was the song running out, but a live band was setting up for a performance in the studio, which had grown in size to the dimensions of a full-on outdoor venue. A robot was positioning loudspeakers over the stage, and testing each one in the voice of Ed-309 from Robocop, just as I was about to open the mic. 
Most all Radio stations that play music these days do so with a computerized playlist and a software system to manage the library. You won't see actual "records" anywhere but in frames on the wall commemorating artists' record sales achievements.  That piece of music software cannot fail, or if it does, there'll be...Dead Air.

In my current nightmare iteration, as the screen monitors march to the four corners of the studio, and Ed-309 is testing concert hall speakers as I open the mic, the music software decides it's time to "take a dump," and reboot itself for mandatory upgrades. Not only is the song running out with less than 60-seconds to play, but the computer screens have gone dark, with nary a next number to find.

It could be worse, I suppose, waking to discover myself inside a snowglobe, realizing 'it was only a dream.' As it is, I awaken to find myself inside a silent, darkened room, next to my peacefully sleeping wife...realizing, thankfully, 'it was only a dream.'

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

A Christmas to Remember

This is my annual send-up of that popular poem that's just too irresistible to lampoon, with apologies to Clement Clarke Moore. This Christmas is being spent in the hospital as my Bride mends from back surgery.
Tonight there's no place I'd rather be than with her.

'Twas the night before Christmas, and on the fourth floor,
All the nurses were busy, running in and out the door.
The IV's were hung from each bed with great care,
In hopes that the night shift soon would be there.

The patients were nestled all snug in their beds,
As visions from narcotics danced in their heads.
Mom on her tilt bed, and I on the couch,
Were beginning to show the end of day slouch.

When out in the hall there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from the mattress to see what was the matter.
Across the linoleum I flew like a flash,
Stubbed my toe on the nightstand, banged my knee with a crash.

The wax on the floor tiles gave off a bright glow;
On such a slick surface, I'd better go slow.
When what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But miniature gurney and eight tiny reindeer.
With a little old Charge Nurse so lively and quick,
She was loaded with hypos, ready to stick!

More rapid than EMSA's her coursers they came,
And she whistled and shouted and called them by name:
"Now Patrick! Now Fortune! Now Susan and Joe!
On Rosalind! On Brittany! On Curly and Moe!
To the helipad, pronto, we've just got a call!
Now get the lead out, and dash away all!"

As leaves that before Hispanic yard men will blow,
When they meet with leaf blowers, all billowing so,
Out to the helipad the nurses all went,
With the gurney full of gear, meds, and stents. 

And then in the distance, I heard the soft beat
Of a medivac's blades thumping and buzzing to meet.
As I slipped on the floor tiles, and was spinning around,
Down the chopper came, landing on the pad with that sound.

The pilot was dressed all in fur, head to foot.
I thought, "That's kind of gay."
A bundle of stuff he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a doctor just opening his pack.
His eyes behind Raybans were a little bit wary.
"What do you mean, you think that I dress like a fairy?"

His droll little mouth was drawn up in an "O,"
And the goatee he sported was as black as coal.
The stump of a stogie he chewed in his teeth:
There's no smoking allowed around choppers, you seeth.

He had a gaunt face and a flat, tightened belly,
He was ripped like a body builder you see on the telly.
He was lean and mean, not a jolly old self.
And I cringed when I saw him, in spite of myself;

The look in his eye and the tilt of his head
Soon gave me to know the Charge Nurse had nothing to dread;
He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
Slid a patient onto the gurney; then he turned with a jerk,
And laying his finger inside of his nose,
And giving a twist, pulled a booger from his toes.

He sprang to the cockpit, revved the engine, pulled the cog,
And lifted off that airship like a scalded dog.
But I heard him exclaim, ere he flew out of sight—
“A hospital room's a tough place to be on Christmas Eve night!”