by Dena Santoro
A vagrant wanders empty ruins.
Suddenly he’s wealthy.
But don’t be satisfied with stories, how things
have gone with others. Unfold
your own myth, without complicated explanation,
so everyone will understand the passage,
We have opened you.
– Rumi, from Unfold Your Own Myth
My father used to say, “Believe half of what you read, and none of what you hear.” But there is a story I believe to be true.
Often compared to the young Frank Sinatra (in looks, anyway; always in a suit and tie), Bill began his career as a disc jockey in 1947, wheedling his way into an announcing job while still in high school; he delivered the news five times a day, hosted a poetry show, took on ad sales, and eventually became station manager at WARD, a CBS affiliate in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, during the heyday-to-twilight years of mom and pop radio. The station was owned by George Gartland, a gruff, paternalistic, and, shall we say, frugal boss; nonetheless, the staffers were dedicated to the mission.
From my earliest recollection, radios from tubes to transistors were tuned to 1490 AM, and network pundits Charles Kuralt, Charles Osgood, and the rest filled our house with information, opinion, and rhyme. Bill’s heroes were Barbara Stanwyck, the Shadow, and Edward R. Murrow, but Murrow clearly stood alone; his pioneering war broadcasts were played on the Zenith hi-fi. We had a short wave, picking up New York and LA on clear nights. Radio was intrinsic, reading and writing the norm. During his mid-‘60s, Danish Modern/green and gold redecorating phase, Bill fashioned a corner with a nubby avocado, wooden-armed chair, floor lamp, and World Book encyclopedia/dictionary set in a low bookcase. I grew up believing in the value of a well-told story. “Look it up” would have made an apt rebellion tattoo, if it wasn’t for my fear of needles.
Cue the Petula Clark: when you’re alone and life is making you lonely you can always go downtown. By 1960, WARD had moved out of the Porch Building into the odd, D-shaped Conrad Building along the banks of the Stonycreek River. My father’s office was a closet with a tiny TV and an oscillating cast iron fan that had once cooled the groceria his father ran during the Depression. I loved the Conrad’s narrow corridors, dingy warren of rooms, and array of records. The staff treated me with courtesy, as though I were a cub reporter. I believed that all children learned to read aloud via stacks of yellow UPI newswire. The station was embedded in my heart and the community’s: Man on the Street; folksy Sheriff Joe Cavanaugh’s Sunday polkas; cool Al Bird spinning “Lullaby of Birdland” and “Satin Doll” on Pepsi Bandstand Saturdays; Bill’s noon news. Just as Murrow had his signature sign off, Good night and good luck, Bill had adopted a phrase: And may the good news be yours.
The scruffy malice that originated in ’70s call-in shows, and now thoroughly crowds the canned, 21st century airwaves was not part of my early childhood radio days.
Edward R. Murrow visited Johnstown on a snowy day in January, 1956. It was Bill’s ninth year, and his future wife Agnes’s ninth day at her job in television traffic. The manager, armed with a bottle of Murrow’s favorite Scotch, took her along to pick him up at the airport; he’d flown in for the live TV broadcast of “See it Now” from WARD’s fledgling television station, essentially a cinderblock shack on Cover Hill. Murrow was to interview President Eisenhower’s secretary of commerce, Sinclair Weeks. Agnes typed the show—double spaced, all caps, as he instructed—that Murrow delivered from the studio.
Beforehand, the manager invited Murrow, Agnes, and Bill to the Melody Lounge. Located next to the Porch Building, it was the place to be. Sammy Fashion was the local celebrity chef (before the term became a cliché) who later opened his own joint, The Millway, downstairs on Walnut Street, and later still, woodsy, elegant Shangri La. Early on a frosty weeknight, they were the only patrons. At dinner, Murrow asked Agnes if she wanted to go to New York to become an actress (people often asked her that). When she replied no, he said that was a good thing, because it was a cold town.
Afterward, the group inched its way up Frankstown Road to the studio, already buzzing with linemen, staff, and Secretary Weeks’s D.C. contingent. Bill, announcing station breaks from a cubby, invited Agnes to join him. Later, everyone headed back to the Melody. Word had leaked, the place was packed. No matter the weather, the town turned out to rub elbows with Murrow.
I cannot remember Bill telling this tale, but Agnes refers to it as their first date. She shared it the week before he died. I had just turned 40. Outside it was glorious October, and I tried to garden; inside, the hospital bed was still set up, lights were blinking on and off at will, and unexplained pounding sounds filled the house at all hours. Our attempts at nursing had been sincere but overwhelming. Bill was in respite care, and we were back from the hospital late, having a drink.
It seemed that Agnes had saved the tale for a redemptive purpose—we’d been through a great deal of sorrow, and it offered a glimpse of a time free of the adversity that accumulates in most lives.
After George Gartland died in 1969, some thought Bill ought to buy the station, but he wasn’t interested. The station was sold, and then sold again. This time the call letters were changed and WJNL moved two blocks west, leaving the Conrad Building to crumble into the river. Its modish-orange, state-of-the-art studios opened in 1975; parts of “Slap Shot” were filmed there in ’76; we skipped school to hang out for crowd scenes. Then another devastating flood struck in July ’77. The station was demolished, including the amazing records that had been stored in the basement. This was just as radio began to morph from local to piped in—from labor of love to strict Top 40 Billboard playlists to full on partisan commodity. The staff tried to keep going, squeezed into the Cover Hill cinderblock shack. Bill still stopped in on Sunday to do the noon news, but he first became ill in 1979, shortly after the flood. He had a heart attack in 1985, and eventually the Sunday news was no more. It was the end of his radio days.
There is little to mark his nearly 40 years in the business, save a clipping or two, a few photos, an early brochure. There are the items we salvaged on the miserable afternoon after the flood hit. The only recording of his voice survives on a platter we discovered in a box of 78s in our basement. An account of the local effects of a crippling 1952 steel strike, it received national airtime. The writing was brilliant; his diction crisp and confident.
Bill could fill any room with his melodious baritone; in illness, it was reduced to a cough-wracked whisper. He became a wheelchair-bound wraith who relied on telephone psychics for advice. When he could still drive, he’d lost a ring. His favorite seer insisted it was in his car. We’d gone over the car, the house, no ring. We guessed that it had been pilfered during one of the many hospital stays or had fallen into a drain.
Perhaps Bill didn’t tell the story because I left home at 17, unwilling to pursue a media career. When I graduated from college, he arranged an interview at a Pittsburgh TV station. The woman, a harried producer with hometown connections, bought lunch after I burst out crying, and advised that I wasn’t tough enough. No surprise; I had no such desire, let alone the wardrobe for the career. It was Bill’s plan, not mine, to rectify my under-employment. Afraid to return to New York (where I had interned the previous summer and had a modest publishing job waiting), I was clocking a few precious hours as a magazine indexer while learning to play the bass and writing poems, but sharing with few, after being heckled at a reading. At home, I sat in front of Bill’s old cast iron fan and smoked. Lacking a fraction of Murrow’s courage, I was trying to cultivate my own shard of pluck. A first attempt was in seasonal sales at a department store. I liked the perfume counter: Shiseido. Murasaki. Zen. That lasted three months. There was a recession. I took an assistant’s job in a brokerage, studying to become a broker, but lasted only eight months. When a friend opened a florist shop, I hopped on board.
Bill suggested law school, another non-starter. He wasn’t in favor of my being a writer. When I finally finished grad school, an MFA in fiction, he cried. He rarely read my work. Only once, when he read a single page of a novel I’d begun before he died, did he say that he thought I could see. He didn’t elaborate, but indicated that he thought I had, indeed, observed the town’s people and perceived the hidden layers of perpetual grief.
The cast iron fan, a veteran of nearly a dozen moves, still stands in my living room, impassive.
It could be that Bill had forgotten about Murrow, but I don’t think that was it. Perhaps he had aspired to be more like him, but hadn’t hit the bull’s-eye; I’d refused to carry the quiver. Bill was reluctant to speak; he had problems of all varieties, physical, emotional, legal. As his health waned, he’d ask basic questions, and then say, “Good deal” to any answer. He became suspicious of the Fourth Estate, preferring cartoons and cooking shows. He sometimes spoke in Italian, although he claimed to never have learned the language. He fell repeatedly. He was bedridden when we arranged for community nursing, and, finally, hospice.
Bill died on November 1st, All Saints Day. We held a simple graveside service among turning trees that filled my heart with their falling song. We had lunch at his favorite Italian restaurant. When we got home, my mother and I found lights mysteriously on all over the house. When my brother came home, he found the ring. It was in the car.
Among grief’s surreal facets, I began to examine this first date tale, having long wondered where the inspiration for one’s core values originates. All families possess secret stories; yet this one conveyed something beyond a fleeting impression. Twelve years hence, I see it as a sparkler lit in tribute, lighting the way from then to now to keep writing. The story helped reboot my exhausted imagination.
I’ve searched for “A Crisis of Abundance,” but it’s not in the Paley Center archive, though other Murrow broadcasts are available. How I’d like to see it. Few today offer Murrow’s veracity while exerting the influence that he did.
Prized possessions: Bill’s network pen, the WARD lapel pin, the keepsakes pulled from the ruined office. The radios.
I imagine Bill and Agnes, known to me from black and white photos, flickering dreams and bits of memory, saying goodnight, advancing into the frosted moonlight. Amber neon reflects off of Franklin Street’s shiny silence. The young woman in a pink coat is helped through the slush by the young man. In her pink shoes, she slips; his sensible boots offer an anchor. The blue Olds convertible must chug a bit to warm up. Haloes mist around streetlamps. And through a clear, inky sky, stars are still twinkling, and messages are still being transmitted.
Dena Santoro is a writer and editor who lives in NYC. She can be found on Facebook and at http://zhsquared.com/.