Sunday, December 14, 2014

Noir and Tear Jerkers

To this day, I’ll scroll ahead on Turner Classic Movies or American Movie Classics looking for them. Double Indemnity, Mildred Pierce, Dark Victory.

Traces of my first professional career job.

Fresh from a year in a broadcasting technical school in the Twin Cities, I stuck my foot in the door of the Broadcasting Industry (Marshall McLuhan’s caps) by watching old movies.

In the middle of the night.

At KAKE-TV in my hometown of Wichita. My first brush with noir and I connected with its innate cynicism.

Fred McMurray plunges hard for Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity:

“Yes, I killed him. I killed him for money... and a woman... and I didn't get the money and I didn't get the woman. Pretty, isn't it?” 

My job was the epitome of behind the scenes. It was 1979, smack in the middle of a technological transition. The movies were on actual 16-millimeter celluloid film and I’d thread them through behemoth film projectors, projecting into a video camera through a series of mirrors to be received by the Sony Trinitrons in the basements and bedrooms of insomniacs throughout Greater Doodah and the central Great Plains.

The commercials were on 2-inch videotape cartridges, roughly the size of a pint milk carton, which I’d load into a state-of-the-art (then – today, it’s an antique) wall-covering conveyor belt carousel.

Then I’d settle in at Master Control (exactly what the name implies), a Wurlitzer organ-esque array of flashing buttons, knobs, faders and levers. I felt like Lt. Sulu at the helm of the Enterprise.

I was 21.

Foot in the door, because I had no intention of remaining behind the scenes. My overnight shift was bookended by lunch pail-carrying lifer technicians and there I sat in my polyester and platform heels and can remember thinking, my God, I don’t want to be like these guys when I’m that age.

Ann Blyth as daughter, Veda, to Joan Crawford’s Mildred Pierce: 

“With this money I can get away from you. From you and your chickens and your pies and your kitchens and everything that smells of grease. I can get away from this shack with its cheap furniture. And this town and its dollar days, and its women that wear uniforms and its men that wear overalls.” 

For “lunch,” I dined either on a vended Tuna Salad on Soggy or ordered up a cheeseburger from the Denny’s across West Street, waited for a lengthy segment of the movie, propped a book in the front door of the TV station and hoofed it across the street and back.  

Ambition infused with arrogance.

Bette Davis jerks tears as a young socialite who overcomes hedonism as she dies from an inoperable brain tumor:

“Nothing can hurt us now. What we have can't be destroyed. That's our victory... our victory over the dark. It is a victory because we're not afraid.” 

Immediately, I started working the system and within a year parlayed a job downstairs in the same building as the overnight deejay on KAKE Radio 1240-AM.

Adult Contemporary.

England Dan and John Ford Coley told me love is the answer when I was still tryna figure out the questions.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

A Different Plane of Existence

“Laws control the lesser man. Right conduct controls the greater.” 
                                             --Mark Twain  

“Man, this view almost makes up for the Cats going 1 and 2.” High above the palm trees and sandy beaches at the pinnacle of the Haleakala Volcano [holly-AWK-uh-luh] (Sorry, old radio news writing habits die hard), I was decompressing from the 10-thousand foot switchback journey up.

“Not really.” We’re above the clouds, looking down on rainbows and she’s leaning over cliffs, trying to capture it on film. through digital photography.

“Guess not.” I pondered. “It’s a different plane of existence.” 

The respite to Hawaii was my idea. K-State men’s basketball in the Maui Invitational was the hook to convince her to spend Thanksgiving away from her family. The woman bleeds purple and will, we have now proven, follow her beloved Cats to the ends of the Earth.

Jackie. Somewhere over the rainbow.
Or at least to the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

The road to the top of the volcano was hairy, even by flatlander standards. Half-ass guardrails, road snaking precipitously uphill. Upcountry, the locals call it on Maui. The sphincter puckered up a bit when we passed a road sign reading, “Turn on lights in clouds.” 

I must have missed that sign on the drive between MHK and Doodah. 

Above the tree line, nothing but lava rocks. Lava rock craters bigger than the island of Manhattan (the one in New York). Lava rock cliffs so sheer they put up 'watch that first step' warning signs.

Y’see, I have this thing about heights.  

The Highway to Hana (HAH-nuh) we took the very next day was different and worse. If the road to the volcano was the shortest distance, bottom to top, the Highway to Hana was the shortest route around the northeast coast of the island.

Two lanes with 5-mile per hour 180-degree hairpins. Still high enough up, that one wrong move and my purple-blooded wife, our 2014 Jeep Compass rental and Puckered Sphincter Boy would plummet Earthward.

In a big damn hurry.

Toward waves crashing into the jagged rocks.
And it was raining. (WTF did I expect? It’s a tropical rain forest...) 

It’s not the end result that scares me. I believe if I do the right thing in this life, my consciousness will continue. In a different plane of existence. Life everlasting. The mystery of faith. I’m not supposed to know why or how. Just believe.

It’s the last few seconds immediately preceding my death as I plummet from a high place that freak me out. 

Like from a quiet but still active volcano. Or plunging the rental into the drink.

I am taking steps, mind you, to conquer, or at least, manage, (seems like a lotta comma's) the acrophobia. I mean a lesser man woulda stayed on terra firma and not even ventured up... or around... the volcano, right? 

Which reminded me of the Twain quote above. If my right conduct today will get me where I want to go after dying, laws don’t really matter.

Even the law of gravity.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

A Flinty Yankee To Be Named Later

Click on the states you’ve visited and see where you’ve been. Or where you have not been.

Eyeballing a dozen or 15 maps of my Facebook friends, two things struck me.

We get around, but we’ve never been to Maine.

What data can be gathered by cursory glances at a dozen or 15 Kansans’ Maps of States I’ve Visited and none of us have been to Maine? What conclusions drawn? Assumptions made?

My first (assumption) for the sake of this discussion, is this data pool is indicative of the larger Kansas universe. I suspect many, if not most Kansans, have never been to Maine. 

If it looks like a duck... 

Why not? First, Maine is a long ways off. Way the hell and gone up there by Canada in the North Atlantic, it’s the furthest state away from Kansas in the lower 48. It’s halfway to Iceland.

If Kansas is Flyover Country to them, chalk up Maine as Out of Sight, Out of Mind Country to us.

Then there are the strange sounding place names. Mattawamkeag? Caratunk? The name, “Maine,” is probably a nautical term which refers to the region being a mainland, separate from the many surrounding islands. I read that on the Internet, so it must be true.

Legit, but not as romantic as the People of the South Wind.

Maybe Kansans need a specific reason to go there and we just haven’t stumbled across it yet.

The closest I’ve been (in physical proximity) to Maine is Boston. But I’ve traveled there in my head and heart through fiction and popular culture.

Andy DuFresne redeeming at Shawshank. Ramius and Ryan sailing the Red October up the Penobscot River. Hawkeye Pierce pining away for Crabapple Cove. Frannie Goldsmith and Harold Lauder, sole survivors of Ogunquit, bound for the Stovington Plague Center (Stephen King’s caps.) Tim McGraw crooning, “Portland, Maine, I don’t know where that is.”

Don’t sweat it, Tim. Neither do many of us Kansans.

I’ve never been to Maine. But I’ve been to Oklahoma (apologies to 3 Dog Night.)
Which leads me to ponder whether the opposite is true? Is there a balance to the universe? A yin-yang of Internet time wasters? When Mainers click on the states they’ve visited, do they have a rectangular  hole smack in the middle of the country?

Somewhere in a college town in Maine, is there a blogger approaching the precipice of middle age, discerning similar patterns within the maps of a dozen or 15 of his or her Facebook friends?

Maybe an enterprising CVB can work up some organized reciprocity. Send a dozen or 15 rugged individualist bootstrappers from God’s Country to Maine for a week in exchange for an equal number of Downeasters. (With cash considerations and a flinty Yankee to be named later.)

The official song of the state of Maine is called, “State of Maine Song.” While one can offer a compelling argument that the songwriters could have extended the song title brainstorm session another half hour or 45 minutes, the lyrics are poetry:

“Should fate unkind send us to roam, the scent of fragrant pines, the tang of salty sea will call us home.”

Seldom is heard a discouraging word and the skies are not cloudy all day.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Bona Fides and Mettle

It was to be a typical autumn day in Kansas. Late September, 1986. And by ‘typical,’ I mean hot and windy. Ideal conditions for losing one’s lunch at 10-thousand feet.
With the sun rising behind us, the four-seater puddle jumper took off from Philip Billard Municipal Airport in north Topeka at oh-dark-thirty battling a stiff south wind.
Five people jammed into this plane. The pilot, a newspaper photographer, the Democratic
candidate for Governor of Kansas, his hanger-on... and moi, a cub political reporter for a statewide radio news network, eager to earn my bona fides, prove my mettle. 

The candidate was Tom Docking, sitting Lieutenant Governor with a great narrative: Fulfill family tradition by following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, each of whom had served as Governor of Kansas.

At 32, they were fighting a perception that he was too young to be Governor. One of the mini-controversies that fall was whether the campaign had doctored the official campaign photo by adding crow’s feet around the man’s eyes to make him look a tad more seasoned.
The hanger-on pitched this gig as “24 hours barnstorming Kansas.” To prove that a 32-year old can stay up all night? Whatever their motivation, I bit.
Up and down in a single-prop cramped airplane with a whiny sewing machine engine. Nose-diving through the clouds, bouncing on the runways at any Kansas community where a sufficient number of politically curious warm bodies would gather. After a couple of stops, I could feel my groceries starting to yodel. 

At each stop, I’d record a chunk of the candidate’s stump speech, work up a script, find a phone and call in the journalism, earning and proving.
“...with the Tom Docking campaign, Mike Matson, Salina.”
...Hays.” ...Colby.” ...Garden City.” ...Pratt.” ...Wichita.” ...Pittsburg” ...Chanute.”

Then we’d shoehorn back in, the pilot would wrestle the aircraft into the wild blue yonder and we’d bounce our way through the Kansas Indian summer to the next stop.
By now, I’m not fooling anyone. Worried about the inevitable, hanger-on leans over. “You doing OK, Mike?” 

With all the misplaced confidence of youth. “Oh, sure.”

Hanger-on has done a quick and dirty inventory of the cabin. No barf bags. No wastebaskets. Nothing to collect an involuntary personal protein spill of a fledgling political reporter eager to earn his bona fides, prove his mettle, somewhere high over God’s Country.

In Pittsburg, hanger-on boards the plane bearing all her campaign accoutrements and one extra: a ginormous black plastic garbage bag. 

The candidate looks at her quizzically as if to say, “A little big, doncha think?” 

Hanger-on frowns back, telepathically telegraphing, “Would you rather have it in your lap?”

It happened somewhere over Butler County. By now, I’d managed to get my hands on the garbage bag and had it positioned at the ready.

What’s the proper etiquette for the care and handling of one’s liquidated assets in a 4-seater airplane while knee to knee with the man who could be the next Governor of Kansas? What’s the protocol for removing one’s head from a garbage bag after the technicolor yawn high in the clouds over El Dorado?

Next stop, Manhattan. 18 hours into the 24-hour barnstorm. I deplaned with my bag of cookies, rented a car and drove home to Topeka on terra firma.

I don’t think they were sad to see me go.

Monday, November 3, 2014

High and Tight

You never say it’s in the bag, but those of us on the Bill Graves campaign staff 20 years ago went to bed the night before the election feeling more good than bad. 

More happy than sad. 

The final weekend nationwide polling was trending toward a big year for Republicans. Our guy had served two 4-year terms as Kansas Secretary of State and was running for Governor. (BTW, I started capitalizing “Governor” that summer and have ever since, even though the AP Stylebook says caps only before a name.)

I was no longer a journalist. Stylebook, schmylebook. We had a Governor to elect, thank you very much. 

The opponent was a six-term Democratic Congressman from Kansas’ 2nd U.S. House District, pretty much the eastern third of our state, save Wyandotte and Johnson counties. Chunks of Douglas would shift between the 2nd and the 3rd, depending on the prevailing reapportionment winds. 

Ambitious and polished, Jim Slattery was a formidable opponent. He grew up in an Atchison County community called — and I am not making this up – Good Intent. He worked on the railroad to earn money for college.

Oh yeah? My guy learned about politics sweeping out his family’s livestock trucks. And he loaded the boxes in the freight trucks high and tight.
Effective and efficient. Just like he’d managed the office of Secretary of State the previous eight years.

Personally, I liked Slattery. I’d even voted for him a time or three. But when one goes to work on a political campaign at that level, you love your guy and your job is to beat the other guy.
The first alternate spellcheck option that popped up for Slattery was Slithery. He was a Washington Congressman, so we called him that out loud. He’d voted to raise taxes, so we shared that information with voters.
My skin grew thick pretty quick that year. The East Coast hired media guns played a cut-throat game and when they were casting about for a fall guy, I learned how to be elsewhere.
On Election Day, we knew by mid-morning we would win.

Victory cigars. The Governor's (my caps) '98 re-election team.
Four years later, a leave of absence from the Governor’s staff to go back to the campaign. In ’98, the challenge came from the right. The Primary opponent was the former Chair of the State GOP, who had won the party apparatus fair and square by suiting up and working at the precinct committee level.

Our oppo research revealed his Achilles Heel. As a state lawmaker, he’d voted for some sizeable tax hikes. We wasted no time taking to the airwaves to define him before he could define himself. 

If we can win in August, we can play golf in September.

We did. And we did.

Twenty years later, it’s the eve of another election in my beloved home state. Sure, there’s more money in today’s politics and more vehicles to deliver the message.

Today alone, I’ve deleted a dozen robocalls and hung up on Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, who, regardless of whether you agree with his politics – was the rising tide behind the 1994 Republican Revolution that helped lift the boats of a lot of candidates with an R behind their name that year.

Sorry, Newt.

I’m so grateful and privileged to have had that opportunity. Free advice from a precipice approacher: Any young person interested in government or civic engagement or making the world a better place should work on a political campaign.

Despite the cynicism inherent in today's politics, there is always room for idealism.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Pinch Me

Back when the World Series was played in the sunshine, a fifth grade classmate caught hell for smuggling a transistor radio into school and surreptitiously listening to the Cardinals mow down the Red Sox in October 1967.

A year later, sixth grade teacher Vernon Berry (a Cardinals fan) flouted authority and snuck (sneaked?) what was known at the time as a “portable television” into our South Pleasant Valley Elementary classroom.

Given the recess choice between the World Series or the playground, the girls opted out while a dozen 11 and 12-year old baseball-ravenous boys watched a pot-bellied Mickey Lolich outduel Bob Gibson. Seven games. Tigers over Cardinals.

To quote a line from my favorite book, “Hey Lolich! One man to a pair of pants out there!” 

Every October since, I have remained faithful to the World Series. Vigilant through life changes, ups, downs. Milestones marching manifestly toward the precipice: 

1972. Generation gap. Hairs vs. Squares. My father liked Johnny Bench and his clean cut, black-cleated, Big Red Machine. Not me. I’m all in for Catfish Hunter’s mustachioed, white-shoed, green-and-gold Oakland A’s. 

1973. Willie Mays’ swan song. The Say Hey Kid is the Say Hey Old Man. 

1979. 21 years old. Feathered hair, platform heels, disco nights. Stargell, Sanguillen, Sister Sledge. We are fam-a-lee. 

1980. I’d just moved to a particularly scuzzy basement apartment in Hays to begin my career as an Official Broadcast Journalist (my caps.) When the upstairs neighbors put something down their drain, it would show up in my kitchen sink.

While dodging the neighbors’ used spaghetti (w/mushrooms,) I watched Aqua Velva pitchman Pete Rose and the Phillies spoil George Brett’s .390 season.

Three years before Hunter Pence is born, the best sign held up by a Royals fan: “DOES PETE ROSE SMELL LIKE A MAN?” 

1984. Detroit over San Diego. Steve Garvey is not my Padre.

1985. My son, Scott, is eight months old and Denkinger was right.  

1991. Single father days. Scott and I begin a Halloween pumpkin-carving-during-the-World Series tradition as we pull for Kirby Puckett, Jack Morris and the Twins over the Braves in the worst-to-first series. 

1994. Mudville is joyless. No World Series. Players strike. Just as well. I was otherwise occupied helping elect a Governor of Kansas that October.

1995. Long distance romance era (she in Washington, me in Topeka.) I learn Jackie likes the World Series as much as me. We both rooted for Cleveland, who fell to Atlanta in six. 

2001. Despite the post 9-11 emotion wrapped up in New York City, Jackie and I still can’t bring ourselves to pull for the Yankees. Diamondbacks in seven. In November.  

2002. Barry Bonds: “I got yer rally monkey.”

2006. Cardinals-Tigers. First series on our new HD flat. Can’t help but fade back to South Pleasant Valley watching the same two teams on Vernon Berry’s portable black-and-white 38 years earlier.

2011. I still don’t like the Cardinals. Go Rangers. 

2014. Game 2. Kauffman Stadium. Kansas City. My first 
in-person World Series. With my son. We holler at Jean Machi, “One man to a pair of pants out there!”

2014, October 29. Game 7. Same place. With my bride. (See 1995.) Our team. First pitch just a couple of hours away. 

Pinch me.