The NPR affiliate in Washington, DC is WAMU. It’s run by American University, and is the home of the Diane Rehm Show. For a few years in the mid- to late 80s, it was also home to Down Home Stories. Down Home Stories were three-ish minute weekly commentaries written and read by my dad. As the name suggests, the subjects were slice of life-y little vignettes that addressed whatever happened to be on his mind at the time. Not unlike my humble offerings here, when you come right down to it. This was at the height of the Garrison Keeler/Lake Woebegone craze, and people listened to Prairie Home Companion like it contained secret important details about the coming apocalypse that would ensure survival. My dad’s series was well received, and the radio station even had him record a dozen or so of them on cassette to use as an incentive during their fund drive one year. I don’t remember all the subjects he discussed, but a couple stand out in my mind.
At the time we had a Burmese cat, and a twenty year old washing machine. The relationship between these two as described by my dad was that they were the two things in our house that made the most noise. Burmese cats are similar to Siamese; they have a similar deep, distinctive meow. The cat, whose name was Barnaby, used to stand in the stairwell leading from the first to the second floors, and meow. The acoustics of that space were such that his voice was amplified by a factor of about ten. The problem was, he would not shut up, and he often decided to do this at two in the morning. I don’t remember what else my dad had to say about it, but this torment ended only with our move to a new house in 1987.
The washing machine was in the basement, and was there when we moved in. It had a maddening feature (for want of a better word, but feature seems to me to imply a positive trait, which was not the case in this instance) that would cause it to stop and buzz if the load got off balance. My father said he couldn’t understand why it needed to do this, as, he pointed out, water seeks its own level, but it did. If you didn’t hear it buzzing (and because our house was built in the 1930s and used plaster and lath and was well insulated, you often did not) you’d go downstairs after the amount of time it should have taken the wash cycle to complete, only to find it had stopped twenty minutes previously and had been making a noise like an enormous angry bumble bee ever since. The only solution was to redistribute whatever was in the drum and try to get it started again.
These commentaries had a fairly devoted fan base. It wasn’t large, but it was enthusiastic. My dad said the nicest compliment he ever got was from the movie critic for WAMU. He said, “Whenever one of your segments comes on, I stop what I’m doing for three minutes and just listen.” Another fan was my history teacher, Bill (I went to a fairly progressive school started by then-hippy types—who ended up, of course, being guys like my dad—and we called all our teachers by their first names).
On Valentine’s Day of 1985, Bill walked into History class and said, “Happy Valentine’s Day, Trace.” I’m pretty sure I gave him a weird look—why was he wishing me a happy Valentine’s day? Freak. (I was fifteen.) He asked me if I’d heard my dad’s commentary that morning. Being the teenage asshole that I was, I’m sure I rolled my eyes and said no. The subject of that day’s offering was Valentine’s Days through the years, with me being the final mention on a list of recipients of his affection. What Bill was repeating to me was the last line of the piece.
In retrospect I’m a little surprised I didn’t know about that particular mention, because I would help him time them after he’d written them. Once he’d typed them out on his Smith Corona using the fairly low quality yellow typing paper he always bought (low quality because it was cheap and he went through a lot of it) and typing in ALL CAPS, which was a hangover from his television news reporting and writing days, he would read them out loud while I timed him with an analog stop watch he had. They weren’t supposed to be over about two and a half to three minutes, with three and a half minutes being the final cut off.
For all their local success, my dad’s commentaries never went any further than WAMU. It may have been that he was considered a poor man’s Garrison Keeler. He told me himself at the time he was probably too much like Keeler to be viable, and like so many writers, he wasn’t great at self-promotion. He never figured out how to differentiate himself, which I can sympathize with. It’s even harder today with the accessibility of blogs as a publishing medium. Explain how your funny words about X are different from fifty peskillion other people’s funny words about that subject. It can be hard to come with something beyond, “Because they’re my funny words.” No longer is voice sufficient; you have to have a hook, an angle, a twist.
Periodically I have the urge to dig out his tapes (the print versions are long gone) and do something with them. Maybe I will.