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!”

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Home Away from Home for the Holidays

(In the ER) There is an irony at this time of the year, described as "the most joyous," which produces the most noxious music to the ear. Some of the  "new" Christmas tunes are still recognizable, but only barely, their melodies paired with arrhythmic tempos and tattoos.  The most onerous of these collections are generally  found in hospital waiting rooms, where the wailing and bleating blends nicely with the suffering of the injured.

Some examples of such musical travesties include a Dixieland treatment of "Sleigh Ride," with a non-stop back beat that totally ignores the nuances Leroy Anderson wrote to mimic the crack of the whip in the tune.  Then there's the abominable arrangement of Franz Gruber’s "Stille Nacht--" for my money, one of the most beautiful Christmas songs ever written--totally destroyed by the application of a disco beat.

There are new Christmas songs being produced by a younger crop of "artists" that defy definition. In the past hour and a half that I have been waiting, one such "song" has played twice in the ER area here: A female singer whines through the same four notes for bars and bars and bars against an electronic drum track.

It's a song that's something about the memories of Christmas. I know this because at one point, she speaks over the accompaniment about eating ice cream at Christmas time; the rest of the words of the song are totally unintelligible.

The music never changes chords, either. Sometimes she sings the notes in reverse sequence, just to break the monotony. It doesn't work.

The reason I'm paying such close attention to this musical tripe is to drown out the conversation in the next bed on the other side of the hospital curtain. A man has brought his elderly father in for care for a case of "the trots." The discussion of his rectal effluent is being graphically described in color and consistency,  and a comparison to pancake batter has been effectively,  irreversibly made. The culinary history of the older gentleman next door is also being re-hashed in minute detail.

Suddenly, the shrill of a Phil Specter arrangement of "Christmas" doesn't seem so bad.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Family Traditions at Christimas

Lots of families have traditions at Christmastime that are passed down from year to year.
Some of them are so old, no one remembers exactly how or why they came to be; it's just the way things have always been done. In our family, a great-grandmother's recipe for ginger bread cookies, made from pure cane molasses is the most anticipated, most sought after gift of the season. 

As my great grandmother and grandmother did in Christmases past, my aunts and mother and father have faithfully replicated the recipe each year. My Bride now does an admirable job of precisely duplicating the flavor and texture of those beloved gingerbread cookies, as well. And so that tradition will continue with the next generation.

Other traditions are more recently inaugurated, and with the advent of the Internet and social media, their origins can be more precisely traced.  Such is the annual re-gifting of the opened jar of chocolate nuts in our family. 

Admit it--we all re-gift.  But who would re-gift an obviously opened package?

The year before my younger brother died, our family had gathered on Christmas Day to exchange gifts and share a meal, before driving to nearby Wharton County for an extended-family holiday reunion.  There were four siblings in my immediate clan; I am the oldest, followed by three years by Craig. Our sister, Kay, is five years younger than me; and Scott, the youngest brother, is 12-years my junior.

Scott was always the one getting into mischief without really trying when he was growing up. He wasn't a bad kid--he was uniquely intelligent, and always wanted to keep up with his older brothers and sister. Our mother had her hands full as she raised us, and being frugal, she would plan ahead for things like Christmas gifts--often buying items earlier in the year for Yule time giving.

For this particular Christmas weekend, our mother had placed jars of chocolate covered almonds in a festive gift bag for each of us. One by one, we each opened our jar of chocolate nuts, and immediately munched on a handful. Craig, however, had a bemused expression on his face, and nudged me to show what was in his bag. It was the same jar of nuts, alright, but the vacuum seal had already been broken...and half the contents were gone!

(We later learned Mom had bought the nuts back before Thanksgiving. Scott had apparently been unable to wait, and opened one of the jars to "sample" the wares. Our mother, unaware of the pilfering, prepared the jar for Craig.)

When Scott looked over and saw Craig's half-empty jar of chocolate nuts, he burst out laughing, as did the rest of us, when we learned what had happened.
By the Spring, Craig would be gone, a victim of Leukemia.

 The following Christmas was a somber one; the first one without Craig. We all put on brave faces and gathered again for gift-giving and meal sharing, with an even closer bond with one another because of the shared loss of our brother, spouse, father, grandfather and son. 

My daughter made a special Christmas tree ornament for everyone that year with a photo of Craig placed in the center of a large, wooden snowflake. There were more than a few tears and sobs as we each opened that gift.

Scott passed to me a rumpled gift bag with tissue paper stuffed in the top. I reached in and pulled out a jar of chocolate covered almonds...half empty. As I opened the lid, I noticed a post-it note stuck to the vacuum seal, still partially attached to the mouth of the jar.

"Remember last year when we all laughed so hard together!" the note said, written in my youngest brother's unmistakable architect's scrawl. "Will be one of my favorite memories!" 

I think I had a pretty hard time reading the last line because my vision had become suddenly blurry with flurry of tears. And then I laughed, and Scott laughed, because it had been a pretty funny incident.

That was three years ago.
This year, once again, Craig's ornament graces our tree, smiling back at the room as if to share a private joke or two. This week, as my Bride and I re-packed that same, opened jar with more chocolate covered almonds, I noticed it looked odd.
It was full.

In order to maintain the authenticity of the tradition, I had to "remove" a few of the nuts.
The tradition will continue.

Saturday, December 06, 2014

"Lest We Forget..."

The loud roar of an aviation engine shattered the calm of Sunday morning's routines. Two ten year old boys, playing in the stillness, rushed outside to see the source.

Japanese aerial photo of first torpedo splashes and
first hit on USS West Virginia/Photo Credit: USN Archives
Tommy pointed to the sky as a line of twenty low-flying monoplanes lumbered past the roof of the two-story house, barely 50-feet in the air. The pilots' and gunners' faces were clearly visible as they flew past, cockpit canopies opened to allow the cool morning slipstream inside. Below each planes' belly was slung a long, metallic cylinder with wooden fins.

"Look, Ma, at the torpedo planes!" Tommy shouted back at the house.
"I know, dammit; they aren't ours!" his mother shouted back. "Get the hell inside!" she screamed.

An escort fighter roared overhead, spraying the house and yard with machine gun fire. Two rounds landed in an upstairs bedroom, where Tommy's older sister lay sleeping. Just a few hundred yards away, explosions began to rock the ground, thick, dark smoke stained the sky, and the buzz of warplanes filled the air. The boys scrambled back inside, and the family huddled in the house until the sounds ceased.

USS Arizona burns
Photo Credit: Naval Archives
It was December 7, 1941, and Tommy Gillette had just witnessed the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor from the vantage of his front yard on the Naval Base. Gillette's father was a Navy Captain, responsible for managing all repairs and salvage at Pearl, a post he would retain until just prior to the Battle of Midway.

Recently de-classified information from both sides about the attack has revealed that while the United States was clearly surprised at Pearl Harbor, Japanese aggression was expected--and that the US Military had been instructed by President Franklin Roosevelt to allow Japan to draw first blood. They just didn’t think it would be on Oahu.

Pearl Harbor Survivor
Thomas W. Gillette
Photo: Brent Clanton
These revelations were the topic of a presentation by Thomas W. Gillette in ceremonies Saturday aboard the Battleship Texas commemorating the 73rd anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack. Gillette says Roosevelt recognized the Japanese threat to America's interests in the Pacific as early as World War I, when he served as Under-secretary of the Navy. When FDR became President, he silently began to upgrade the US Naval Fleet by replacing older vessels with more modern warships.

Gillette says FDR anticipated Japanese aggression against the US Fleet in the Pacific, and also authorized the construction of new Navy drydock facilities at Pearl and Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in the late 1930's. Those drydocks would prove crucial in repairing warships damaged at Pearl Harbor.

Capsized USS Utah
Photo Credit: Naval Archives
Gillette says as a teenager, he remembered watching workers at the Puget Sound yard rebuilding the U.S.S. Nevada, Tennessee, California and West Virginia in succession, battleships all sunk in the attack at Pearl.

The Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor was a tactical win for Japan--but only partially so, as the US Navy’s ability to repair its warships escaped damage. Gillette says, “In retrospect, it was a strategic victory for our Allies,” he says. “It unified all Americans with fierce resolve to defeat the Axis powers.” 

USS Arizona Memorial
Photo Credit: Brent Clanton
"Pearl Harbor taught us the need to be prepared, and the folly of underestimating your enemies," Gillette said on Saturday. "We should never forget those lessons."

Tom Gillette served in the US Navy as a Ship Repair Officer from 1952-1955. He later went to work for Exxon, and was responsible for the salvage of the Exxon Valdez. Tom's father, Claude Gillette, achieved the rank of Rear Admiral. Tom donates his time to the First Texas Volunteers, giving guided tours aboard the Battleship Texas. You can usually find him in Boiler Room #3.

Thursday, December 04, 2014

The Holiday Job Search Blues

The smartphone on the overnight stand jars me to wakefulness with its near-silent buzzing.
It's from a familiar phone number, but there's no identity attached, no name showing up on the screen.

When you're out of work, every phone call is a potential gold mine.
When you're out of work, every unknown caller is also a potential harasser from a creditor wanting to know when they're going to get their pound of flesh.
The call goes to voice mail.

The message is from an HR department with a major energy company, locally-based.
The potential gold mine call.

Still, after a sleepless night, insomnia instigated by the previous days' searching, rehearsing over and over again, sometimes it's best to not let a potential employer's first impression be that of your husky, 'morning voice,' croaking hello.

A quick review of the Texas Workforce Commission-required job search log, to refresh just which job it was that was applied for, is followed by a call-back within minutes to the company's HR operative.
The call goes to voice mail.
Irony or karma?
Or both?

The quest continues.

"I want to work for you!"
Brent Clanton is an out-of-work professional in the Radio Broadcast Industry.
His last position was Business Editor for Radio-one's now defunct News92FM, a project that lived just under three years. He is accepting all opportunities for consideration, and will be an Occasional Announcer for 89.3 KSBJ starting the weekend of December 6.

Learn more about Brent at