21 June 2009

Those Were the Days

Those were the days, my friend,
We thought they'd never end,
We'd sing and dance forever and a day.
We'd live the life we choose,
We'd fight and never lose,
For we were young and sure to have our way.

Believe it or not, my brothers and I used to play in an old stagecoach. Sometimes in our imaginations it was a stagecoach in the Old West; sometimes it was a spaceship on its way to the outer reaches of the galaxy. When it rained, which it often does in the Pacific Northwest, the roof leaked. It was parked in the parking lot behind Vancouver (Washington) radio station KHFS where my father was a DJ. KHFS was a country-western station at that time, and I suppose the stagecoach was suitable decor. It disappeared around 1959 to reappear at the Oregon Centennial Exposition, while KHFS replaced it with a buckboard.

My father's on-air name was Hoot Howard (according to my best memory and some promotional literature I used to have); my brother remembers him as Lonesome (or maybe Mournful) something-or-other. My impression is that listeners sent in names and then voted on them, or maybe they drew the name out of a hat. A ten-gallon hat, presumably. One piece of promotional literature actually showed my father in western attire, complete with cowboy hat. I don't think I ever saw a less convincing cowboy, but who am I to judge?

The other Vancouver radio station, KVAN, was also country-western. (I'm pretty sure of that; this is all coming through a half-century of fog and mist—I know what I remember, but are my memories accurate?) My father's radio-school buddy Bill Howlett was a newscaster there. Their top DJ was a fellow billed as Wee Willie Nelson. I believe Wee Willie's show was quite successful; my father used to say that other DJs looked up to him.

On occasion they, along with a few other people in the Portland area radio scene, would get together at our house to play cards and do whatever adults did in the fifties (smoke cigarettes, or in my father's case cigars, and drink beer at any rate). The gatherings happened late, after my brothers and I had been sent to bed, but when we got up in the morning we could tell there had been a party. My mother always kept the house in perfect order, but on these occasions there would be overflowing ashtrays, glasses left out (sometimes with small amounts of beer still in them), drawings, bits of paper with arcane calculations. At least once there was an amazing clay alien left on the card table, and I remember one drawing with a spaceship landing on a small planet made of polyhedrons.

Newscaster Bill Howlett was responsible for the clay alien and at least some of the drawings; he had ambitions as a writer and actually wrote a novel (never sold) retelling the Arthurian legend in the modern advertising world. DJ Wee Willie wrote songs and sang in clubs; he even recorded a song that he hawked on his radio program. My father wrote a play, or at least parts of a play (I had it until recently) that showed clearly the influence of George Kaufman and more faintly (I believe) Ring Lardner. These guys had ambitions; they were clearly going places.

Or maybe not. Bill Howlett remained a newscaster, even when KVAN became KISN and turned to rock 'n' roll (a form he detested; he was a Dixieland man from way back). Wee Willie shook the dust from his shoes, split the scene, and never looked back. My father stuck with KHFS as it too went top forty and was reborn as KKEY, but after a couple of years accepted a job as chief engineer at KXL (in Portland) and with considerable relief gave up the DJ business altogether.

Bill Howlett stayed with KISN till the bitter end, when the station died a horrible death. Once one of the Portland area's best-known radio newscasters, he was reduced in the end to taking odd jobs at various area stations. He never sold his novel, but was still working doggedly at it until the day he died unexpectedly of a heart condition he didn't know he had. (At the time he died he was actually living in the room directly above me as I write this, the room that's now my niece's.)

My father's literary ambitions died when I was still a child, and I remember vividly the moment when I showed him a piece of my own work, and he handed me his play and said he was abdicating his position as playwright-in-residence in the family. He moved from radio to television, but stuck with engineering till a bout with giant cell arteritis and a bad reaction to prednisone sent him to his grave.

And Wee Willie—well, now there's the interesting thing. I think it was some time in the 1980s when my father showed me a newspaper item about country singer and songwriter Willie Nelson. "You know," he said, "I'd always wondered about that. It never seemed very likely to me, but—" According to the article American icon Willie Nelson and Vancouver DJ Wee Willie Nelson were one and the same. When I next saw my mother (she and my father had divorced long before this and she was living in Colorado at the time) I asked her about Wee Willie Nelson. She had no trouble remembering him and observed that he used to drop by on occasion. It had never once crossed her mind that he was in any way connected with the country music legend.

Now in all fairness I don't actually know that the Wee Willie Nelson my parents spoke of and the songwriter Willie Nelson had any connection. Wikipedia adds some support:

In 1956, Nelson moved to Vancouver, Washington, to begin a musical career, recording "Lumberjack," which was written by Leon Payne. The single sold fairly well, but did not establish a career. Nelson continued to work as a radio announcer in Vancouver and sing in clubs.

Right time, right place—but it would have been nice if the name of the station he worked for had been given. And the country legend is a bit younger than I pictured the DJ from my father's account—a good seven or eight years younger than my father, rather than being about the same age, as I'd thought. But there really weren't a lot of Vancouver radio stations in the fifties (and still aren't, actually), and it would be a pretty tall coincidence for there to be two Willie Nelsons in the Vancouver radio scene in the late fifties.

There's no point to this story, no moral to be drawn. If country legend Willie Nelson really blazed like a comet through our little backwater we were entirely unaware of it. He was just one of the guys, another young man with ambition and drive and talent—but ambition, drive, and talent are a dime a dozen. My father said he thought Wee Willie Nelson had a great future ahead of him—in radio. The idea of him making it big in country music apparently never crossed his mind. He seemed pleased enough at the idea of Wee Willie's success, that somebody had emerged from the Vancouver radio cocoon to fly to the stars, but that was about it.

Now my function in all this is as a retailer of slightly used memories. If I ever met Wee Willie Nelson it made no impression on me. Mind you, meeting the flesh people behind the disembodied voices of the airwaves was nothing unusual in our world—wasn't everybody's father on the radio? Still, I remember the overflowing ashtrays, the odd mementos of legendary evenings, the sense of wonder of what it must be like to be an adult and to take part in events like these. But by far my strongest memory of the Vancouver radio scene is sitting inside that stagecoach with the leaky roof, our own futures yet unwritten, as imaginary horses took us on our own private journey to the stars.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

I'm guessing that your father was Bryce Howard. He worked for my dad Ralph at KHFS / KKEY. I stumbled across your blog. I remember seeing pictures of the stage coach you mention. I worked with Bill Howlett when he was working "odd jobs" toward the end. I remember him waring a Santa hat on Christmas day when I walked in to take over for him when he was working the weekend morning shift at KKEY in the 80's.

sbh said...

That's right, Bryce R. Howard, Chief Engineer, KKEY; till recently I had those words in silver letters on a black background behind glass; I suppose it once would have identified my father's desk at the station. I remember Ralph Weagant; Bryce kept on doing engineering work for him after he went to KXL and still had the keys to KKEY nearly a decade later. I remember once—I think it was 1964, 1965, somewhere in there—Ralph invited our family out to KKEY after it had been remodeled. The station had been automated, and we watched this huge rack of tape-recorders and carts doing music and announcements all by itself—no human hand needed. (Well, somebody had to change the 14" tape reels occasionally.) There was one little machine that every sixty seconds would click and move its tape forward; it was a clock that when called upon to perform would announce, "KEY checks the time at eleven-fifteen," or some variation.

I remember once—I'm guessing 1969 or 1970—my father, after picking me up from college, stopped by KKEY for an urgent meeting with Ralph about something—some engineering problem I suppose. It was dark and raining and Ralph greeted him at the door (it's the last time I can remember seeing him, and it was only a brief glimpse) and they disappeared inside for what seemed like hours.

And I vaguely remember—and this I could be completely wrong about—your father's being in the hospital for some serious operation, a heart problem or something like that. I seem to remember Bryce telling us about stopping by the hospital—or maybe he just called—and not being able to see him or get information on account of not being family. This was probably early to mid 1970s, if it really happened, and I don't remember at all how things came out.

This might interest you; it's from a letter my father wrote 20 March 1956 to a friend of his, describing the station:

"Incidentally, for the record, KHFS is AM, 1150 on the dial, Hi Fi by virtue of transmitting a bandwidth audio wise of 30 to 15,000 cycles with overall harmonic distortion generally under 1%, except for 30 cps at 2% @ 100% modulation and 7500 up at 3% @ 100% modulation. I am chief engineer, a grand title inasmuch as I am the only engineer. Well, you know how it is, somebody's got to be chief."

I'm sorry my memories of Ralph Weagant are so few and trivial; Bryce knew him well, but he wasn't exactly part of our lives as kids. Bill Howlett I got to know a lot better during his final years, when he had a room at my father's house. We spent evenings arguing music; he'd play Dixieland at me, and I'd play electronic or avant-garde at him. He didn't much care for rock in any form, as far as I could tell. For him the feedback from Jimi Hendrix's guitar was a problem that needed to be fixed, not an art-form. Most avant-garde music struck him as noise, too, though he did like Timesteps (Wendy Carlos) when I played it for him.

This is too long for a comment; some time I'll probably write about Bill Howlett again; he was an interesting character.

Anonymous said...

You are pretty much right on, Ralph had a successful heart valve replacement in the early 1970's.

sbh said...

Another pointless Ralph Weagant anecdote: as I think about it, as kids we knew him best as a voice on the phone. We knew his voice well. If he called for Bryce, that was a drop everything and get Bryce sort of situation. (Usually it would be for some sort of station emergency.) On one occasion one of my brothers had just got off the phone after talking with a friend. When the phone rang again he assumed it was his friend calling back, and answered in a fake oriental voice something like "Chang's Chinese Laundry--can we help you please?" There was a silence, and then Ralph's voice came on, asking cautiously for Bryce Howard. Well, my brother dropped the phone and stirred Bryce up, and I heard him laugh as he got on the line. "Yes," he said, "we run many businesses here."

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