You're On the Air...

Someone asked me recently to write a little something about one of my experiences from my stint as a disk jockey at KMHL in Marshall, MN. I told him I could do that, and then promptly forgot about until today when I received an invitation to the big fiftieth anniversary celebration for the station. Suddenly the little guilt-colored lightbulb went on and I remembered my promise to put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, actually.

When I was asked to jot down one of my memories from my tenure at KMHL, I asked if I could write about anything I wanted to, and was assured I could. Preferably something humorous or light, but it was basically wide open. I smiled and made a mental note that some things never change. One of the glamorous things radio jocks do on a daily basis at many small stations is write advertising copy. And most often we're given a copy request consisting of the client's name, and a single line: do a funny, two-voice ad. Some things don't change, despite the miles and years which have passed between us.

I remember one July night back in 1980. I had worked my way up from part-time weekend announcer to full-time night-shift announcer at KMHL. I think someone quit, which opened management's eyes to my vast potential. Not only could I keep the control room chair warm, but I knew how to sweep, vacuum, clean toilets and make coffee, too. I also possessed the thing every small-market station manager looks for in a new announcer: I thought it was fun, and was willing to work for practically nothing. It was obvious to everyone that I was the perfect person for the job.

The Lyon County Fair was coming up in a few days, and we had tickets to give away for the Jim Ed Brown/Helen Cornelius show, the grandstand headliners that year. Karen had obviously lost her mind that day, and had put a giveaway on the log during my shift. Cool! Just like at a real radio station! I had seen how this worked. You asked some incredibly deep trivia question, and people from all over southwestern Minnesota nearly fried the phone company's circuits trying to get in and be the winner. I would be the all-powerful one with the tickets. I would hold their county fair-fate in my hands. I would have people begging me for another question, another chance to win those valuable tickets.

This being Marshall, Minnesota in 1980, I would be lucky if anyone heard me from anywhere past the radio station parking lot. At sundown we went to low power, which was 250 watts. I have owned stereos in my car which had more power than KMHL did after sundown. Not that we were any giant when the sun was up, either.

If I can remember from the several hundred times I read the sign-off litany..."KMHL-AM and KMHL-FM now conclude this day of broadcasting. We operate under the authority of the Federal Communications Commission. KMHL-AM operates at a daytime power of 1000 watts and 250 watts at night..." I used to have it memorized, which came in very handy when dispatchers from the Marshall police department would stop by after their shift was over at midnight and bring donuts out to the station and help me get through that last hour on the air. More than once they tried to make me crack up during the solemn reading of the sign-off litany by mooning me from the news studio on the other side of the window in front of me. I simply closed my eyes and recited from memory: "...and from all of us here at KMHL, we wish you a good night and a good morning. And now, our national anthem..."

So, on this particular night in late July, I was prepared for my debut as a trivia master. I had a killer question, I had the correct answer, I even had documentation in case anyone challenged my answer. I knew when I wanted to ask my question, I knew what I was giving away, and I knew how to answer the phone and put the caller on the air. I was ready for my inauguration. I could not have guessed at that time how completely this little trivia contest would change the rest of my life.

I promo'd the fact that I was going to make someone extremely happy in just a few minutes, and reminded everyone to put their thinking caps on, because we were going to play a little trivia. In retrospect, I probably really DID say "thinking caps," and probably thought I was pretty smooth for saying it. Then the time arrived and I asked my question.

"What two words did Alfred Hitchcock say at the beginning of every one of his TV shows? Give us a call here at KMHL if you know, and if you're right, you'll win two tickets for the Jim Ed Brown and Helen Cornelius show this weekend at the Lyon County Fair."

I managed to get the words out in the right order, start the next record and turn off my mike without falling off the chair. I looked at the phone. Nothing. The lines were not going crazy. People were not falling at my feet begging me for an easier question and another chance. My first time, and no one was interested in my fabulous prize. I could go on the air after this record and tell them we'd had a lot of great guesses, but still no winner, give them the question again, and hope for a good atmospheric skip and get a winner from Finland listening on his shortwave set on the tundra with his herd of reindeer.

Suddenly, the phone rang.

"KMHL. Are you calling for the tickets?"

She was.

"What two words did Alfred Hitchcock say at the beginning of each of his TV shows?" (Please God, let her know the answer so I'm not a flop. And, God, if she's doesn't know the answer, let the phone ring again, or the EBS receiver go off or the station blow up.)

"Good evening."

She knew the right answer! My "career" was pulled from the dumpster! I took her name and thanked her for calling and for listening and for knowing the answer and for probably a half-dozen other things. Then I had a cigarette and put a notch in the pistol handle in my mind. I was a virgin no more. I had successfully completed an on-air giveaway, and nobody had died.

Two nights later she showed up at the station to pick up her tickets. I took one look at her face and fell in love. 16 years later I fall in love all over again every time I look at that face, and every December 27th - on our anniversary - we send flowers to Alfred Hitchcock's grave.


Copyright 1996 Mike Zimmerli


It's In the Basement

You come into the house after school and you pause to listen, to hear whether you're home alone, or if you can detect the quiet sounds your mother makes in the kitchen in the middle of the afternoon as she cooks or bakes. You take a gentle sniff of the air to try and determine whether or not there are fresh cookies or bars, or a pie or cake cooling in the kitchen. You strain to hear the voice of Patsy Cline or Hank Williams or Jim Reeves emanating from the old AM radio made of bakelite perched on the shelf by the washer in the basement, the rhythmic swish-choog of the washer and your mother's alto harmonies to the country songs on the radio as she plugs away at the never ending mountain of laundry. Nothing. You are home alone. Alone with IT.

Trapped all alone in a house nearly a hundred years old with a basement which smells of wet dirt, decaying potatoes, mildew and fuel oil. A basement which surely harbors the graves of people who lived in this house right after the Civil War and probably died of wounds suffered in that war or at the hands of disgruntled Indians seeking to reclaim their land. Alone in a house with a basement which contains a dirty, dark room once used to store coal. Who knows what gangster from the 1920s or 30s is hidden in the wall of that room, the flesh long gone but the bones still standing erect, just behind the plaster, hands and feet still bound from the day they walled him in alive for some breach of gangster etiquette.

scary furnace!

But worst of all, as you realize just how alone you are in this house, is the thought which bursts unbidden into your brain: you are just inches above a creature which thrives on a basement environment such as yours. All that separates you and IT are a few flimsy floor boards. You know it. And IT knows it. "IT" is the most unnerving of house monsters, because this one can actually be seen, heard and even touched. IT is the Furnace Monster.

How could your mother not be home when you got there? She's always home after school. You count on her to be here doing mom things, because, for some unknown reason, she keeps the monsters of the house at bay. Perhaps they fear discovery and banishment by a grown up, or perhaps they simply can't fathom the full extent of her power, since monsters don't have mothers. Or perhaps monsters DO have mothers, and it's out of respect or fear that they remain dormant in her presence. Your mother couldn't beat anything more scary than an egg, but the monsters always stay away when she's home. Which she is not. It's just you and IT.

When I was growing up in Redwood Falls, Minnesota (pop. 4774) in the 60s, we lived in an old house with an ancient basement, a fruit cellar (or root cellar) an old coal bin and an even more ancient furnace. Once a coal-burning unit, it had been converted by some mad scientist into a fuel-oil burning furnace just after the discovery of oil, for surely this furnace had been designed when man still walked like an ape and dinosaurs had not yet had time to decompose into pools of petroleum under Texas and the "tiny, oil-rich country of Kuwait" (the complete and proper name of that Mideast country).

Unlike the compact, ninety-nine percent efficient gas furnaces of today with their whisper-quiet motors and plastic pvc-pipe exhaust chimneys, this was a room-size behemoth with asbestos octopus' tentacles for ductwork and spaces around the door through which a small boy could catch glimpses of the fires of Hell. Surely this beast was a gateway to the Underworld, and if I had ever had enough nerve to open the door I'm sure I would have been sucked inside and carried down the River Styx by a skeletal boatman. You could almost hear the howling of the hounds of Hell guarding the gates each time the furnace kicked on. And it was sentient. This was not just a piece of equipment. It was alive.

Whenever I was home alone, the furnace knew. No matter where I was in the house, it would cause the ductwork nearest to me to go "clunk," so I would know that IT knew that I was alone. Sometimes it would make a series of a clunks from various places around the house, making my head snap from side to side as I tried to keep my back from it so it couldn't sneak up on me from behind. That's the nature of house monsters, you know. They torment you and toy with you like a cat which has caught a mouse but has no appetite, so it plays with its terrified prey, allowing it to almost escape, but always hooking it back at the last moment with a razor-sharp claw.

scarier furnace! House monsters will drive you crazy by being everywhere and nowhere at the same time. You'll never see one when it's stalking you, but you'll always feel its malicious presence. You try to go through your normal routine, but you can't because you're distracted by the eyes boring through your back. It knows you are alone. It knows you are small. And it knows you fear its awesome size and power.

It lives in a dark, hidden-away part of your house, where sunlight never gains the upper hand. Disgusting, many-legged insects scurry as the lights are turned on, insects with so many legs they look as though they must have once been many insects all running in single file and then crashing and compressing together into a single organism. It lives where people are loathe to go, hidden in a dark corner where spiders set their traps, and flashlights can never fully illuminate.

Grown-ups will usually deny the existence of the Furnace Monster, but if you could wipe clear the windowpane to their memories, and sift through the images stored inside, you'd find a dark corner where flames dance red and yellow, and tiny streaks of light escape through the gaps around the heavy metal door mostly hidden by the gloom. It is there, forced back into a small corner, perhaps, but still there: The Furnace Monster.

If you don't believe me, just ask a friend some time if he or she remembers the furnace monster. Watch their eyes. They remember. They know.


Copyright 1996 Mike Zimmerli


Fishing Lessons

There's a fine line between greatness and not-so-greatness. Often the determining factor is "pushing the envelope." I don't know about you, but whenever I push the envelope, I end up with paper cuts!

Maybe it was the phase of the moon; maybe it was the way we held our mouths, but on our last fishing outing Jack and I performed like neophytes. (For those of you not familiar with the term "neophytes," it is not a larvae-like bait or a type of fly used for trout-fishing. It is someone new and unseasoned. A beginner. In cowboy talk: a greenhorn or tenderfoot. In military school jargon: a plebe. In netspeak: a newbie.) We have been fishing together as regular partners for nine years. We've often said to each other that we could make our own fishing show. We usually pride ourselves on our smoothness. Not this time. We usually take Jack's smaller boat, but this time we wanted the bigger boat with the bigger motor since we were going to a bigger lake. Lake Winnibigoshish or "Winnie" as she is usually called.

The excursion started out fine. Jack told me to be ready to leave at 5 o'clock in the morning. He even showed up on time. So far so good. I was ready, he was ready. As we drove through town, I asked Jack if he had brought the minnows.

"Someone will be open. This is northern Minnesota."

Rapids Tackle was dark. Ben's Bait was locked tighter than the proverbial drum.

"That's OK. It's a little early. There's a bait shop just past Cohasset. They'll be open. They probably get lots of business early on Saturday morning from all the folks heading over to Lake Winnie."

The bait shop just outside Cohasset was still and quiet. It was still night, and the shop and its owner were still wrapped in slumber.

"Ready to get a little nervous, Jack?" I asked as we continued the trek to Walleye Nirvana.

"Not yet. Once we get closer to Winnie, we'll find someone open. This is northern Minnesota we're talking about, y'know."

So I poured us each a cup of coffee from our respective Stanley Alladin steel thermoses. "Made in America by Americans," as Paul Harvey would say. We chatted about work. We made plans for where to go once we were on the water. We arrived at Deer River.

"Fred's Bait should be open on the west side of town," Jack said. "Remember the radio commercial we ran for Fred's that one year? 'Our leeches are peaches.' Fred's should be open. We'll get three dozen shiners and we'll be set."

Fred's Bait was shrouded in a veil of fog, and no light from within pierced that veil. We were still without vertebrate bait.

"This is northern Minnesota, fer cryin' out loud!" Jack exclaimed, starting to sound a little exasperated. "Someone's got to be open!"

"There's a bait shop closer to Winnie," I said. "Maybe it'll be open by the time we get there. Or we'll just park outside for a little bit and have coffee until they do."

We drove up the Avenue of Pines. It was about a quarter before six.

"Time to panic, Jack?" I asked.

"Nah. This is northern Minnesota."

The bait shop was not only not open, it was closed for the season.

Jack was getting visibly agitated. We drove past. The CutFoot Sioux Inn and Resort was dark and activity-free as well. Now we were at the turn to the landing. We turned around.

"We'll go to Bowen's," Jack announced as we headed back the way we came. "I'll pay the eight-dollar landing fee just so we can pick up some bait and get on the water."

The High Banks resort was very picturesque as the sun began to redden the sky and the pines were silhouetted against the horizon. It was also very not-open-for-business, yet. We parked for about ten minutes and had some more coffee. Dogs began to bark nearby. The sun began its slow journey across the sky. Jack sighed a lot.

I said "Jack, let's go back to the Gosh Dam Place and see if they have bait or know of anyone who might be open soon." It was almost seven o'clock. We had left just after five to be on the water a little after six and hit the morning bite.

At the Gosh Dam Place we were told to check the CutFoot Sioux Inn and Resort. Should be open at seven. They weren't, but the owner and his dog were up and about, so we finally got our bait. Back to the Eagle's Nest landing. We put the boat in the water. Sun was up, but hadn't been for too long. It was 7:30 now. I pushed the boat off from shore and jumped in. Jack hit the starter for the 75-horse Mariner. Cough, cough. Nothing. He turned it again. Cough, cough. Nothing. The battery didn't have enough guts to start the outboard, and we were floating away from shore, literally without a paddle. I grabbed the landing net and poled us back to shore.

Time to take inventory. Dead battery. No jumper cables. We tried jumping the battery with a makeshift cable from a spotlight. No good. Melted the wires, though. Two fisherman came by to see what was up. They told us the Eagle's Nest Lodge had bait (they just got some!!!) and jumper cables. How far? Less than a quarter mile up the shore. Jack took the pickup while I sat with the boat and had a cup of coffee. Jack was back soon followed by the guy from the lodge and jumper cables. We hooked the cables up. Hit the starter switch. It turned over but wouldn't catch. This had been an ill-fated trip from the outset. We tried several more times. Finally Jack said "Leave the cables on for a couple minutes and let it bake." We did. Then we took the cables off and the lodge guy wished us good luck, took five dollars from Jack and headed back to the lodge. Jack said "We're going to give it one more try, Zimster. Push me out so I can lower the motor into a vertical position."

Crossing my fingers for luck, I gave the boat a shove. Jack lowered the motor. It coughed twice. Nothing. Jack put his head down. I couldn't tell if his heart had given out, if he was praying, crying or what. A moment later, he lifted his head, looked at me, held up one finger, and hit the starter. One more try. The outboard roared to life. Needless to say, I didn't let Jack turn the motor off for the first two hours we fished.

And what did we learn from our little excursion? Number one: always get bait the night before an early trip. Number two: always charge the battery the night before. Number three: keep the jumper cables in the truck in case you forget number two. Number four: even the worst day on the water is still better than your best day at work. And number five: don't let the cat get close enough to grab your hand with her claws when you're feeding her scraps of walleye.


Copyright 1996 Mike Zimmerli



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