It was just after midnight The Canadian radio station I had been listening to had been fading in and out; now it was gone. The last notes of God Save The Queen drifted off into the ether and the rush of background static was all that was left in the spot on the dial where the station had sunk into silence. I fiddled around, looking for something else to keep me awake: a voice, a banjo, a commercial for mail-order tombstones, anything. After midnight on the lonely roads of New England there isn't much to hear on the dial. I finally picked up a Cincinnati station that was barely making it on the long skip. I listened as the Fiat bored its way through the total blackness of Maine. There wasn't another car that I could see ahead or behind.
I turned up the volume as the guy gave a station break. I had worked at that station once. It seemed like six or seven lifetimes
ago, and in the blackness of the car, hunched over the wheel, I idly wondered whether that miserable Program Director still ran that station like the maniac he was. He had the mind of a prison guard.
Then I recognized the announcer's voice. Aughh!, I thought, that poor scared son-ofa-bitch is still working there. And he hasn't even got off the night shift yet! Fred's rich, deep, confident, professional tones rounded out a five-minute news summary and he began a pitch for an outfit that sold peach trees C.O.D. Led Zeppelin took over and I could just see Fred going back to his lukewarm coffee that kept him alive through too many nights in his 50,000-watt tomb.
Now I'm driving hard through the night of Maine and it's getting colder damn near every mile. Fred came back on again even before the record was ended, which showed that it was early in the shift. He'd get slower and slower before five a.m . . . the surest way to truly loathe Rock is to have it drummed into you through a monitor speaker in a chilly studio night after night attar night. The whining, keening sameness of it all turns the bone marrow to marzipan. But a pro like Fred never showed it; he worked easily into a promo for some morning show done by a guy I didn't know, threw on an Atka-Seltzer spot and slid nicely into Jimi Hendrix.
The record ended with Hendrix up high, going full out. And back came Fred--cool, enigmatic. Time. Temperature. A long pause. I could see him riffling through his spots, each neatly sealed in its own plastic envelope clamped in a big 3-ring notebook. He began a pitch for some insurance company obviously operated out of a phone booth in Dubuque. "No examination, no age limit. no salesman will call." I noticed Fred's pace had improved a bit He built the spot nicely, gave the time again, and went into an Oldie from Sergeant Pepper.
The Fiat rolled on, heading north. Out of the darkness I picked up the green and white Mile 94 sign. I glanced up in the rearview mirror. Nothing but blackness. Ahead, there was a faint cold glow on the horizon. Probably Augusts, I thought. I caught the ghostly outlines of a couple of high-tension towers against the glow.
Fred was back, saying little. Sounds like he has a slight cold. Hell, not that same old Cincinnati croup. I had almost forgotten it. As long as I lived in Cincinnati, I was either just getting a cold or just getting over one. And Fred was the champion cold-getter of them all. He came to work every night with a jug of coffee, a sack of White Castle hamburgers, two family-size boxes of Kleenex, a Benzedrex inhaler and a suppty of Ludens cherry cough drops.
Sometimes your mind is in two places and two times. I'm driving the Flat hard and fast with that unconscious super-alertness, ready for anything, and my mind is also back in Studio 3C, 1400 miles away, sucking on one of Fred's cough drops. It's like there are two movies going on simultaneously deep in your brain. One is the movie for all the people on the same road; the other, your own private show.
Fred comes on again: "Just had a call from Atlanta. I wonder how many of you are out there maybe working in all-night diners or truck stops. . ." Aha! Just had a call from Atlanta. My God Almighty, that crazy Louella is still calling! I glanced at the clock on the dashboard. Right on schedule too. This babe Louella called whoever was on the night shift at the station every night about 12:30. She liked to think she knew everybody at the station and always began with "How come Bob is off tonight?" Or AI. Or Nelson. And then she went right into her usual thing: "Oh, I'm just laying here in bed listening to the show." And she went on for as long as you'd let her, or could take her, never saying much in a kind of sleepy, sexy voice. We used to try to figure out how much she spent on long-distance calls every month. What with the calls to the station in St. Louis she made, we figured she had maybe ten dollars a month left over for things like rent and something to eat. She sure as hell wasn't alone, either.
One old geezer called regularly two or three times a week from someplace in Texas. What the hell was his name? I thumped my fist on the steering wheel. Let's see . . . uh . . . he had one of those ordinary listener-type names, something like Alfred D. Wendle, and was in the wholesale egg business. Always complained about the weather and constantly wanted to talk about flying saucers and how the only doctor you could trust was a chiropractor.
I felt a vagrant urge to pull into a Howard Johnson and give Fred a call and do my famous Alfred D. Wandie imitation.
Hello Fred. How are you tonight? It's me, Alfred D. Wendle, calling from Odessa, Texas. Bad night. The humidity's getting to my knee again (cackle, cackle). Bet you don't know what happened to me, Fred. Give you three guesses. Nope, try again. You're getting close on that one. You got one more chance. You struck out, Fred. You never would have guessed it I died, Fred, and I'm talking to you from the Afterlife. I told you there was life after death, and by God, there sure is, Fred! And you remember that medium you had on the show one night when you was doing that talk show? Who said she had proof that there was sex after death? Well, she's all wet, Fred. I ain't got time for that (cackle, cackle). Nope, Fred, I ain't got time to get settled in here yet, but I can tell you one thing the weather ain't much better'n Odessa. But I'm glad to say we can get your show up here. Comes in pretty good except for some static now and then and some interference from some Puerto Rican station. I'll give you a call tomorrow night and tell you more shout it (cackle, cackle)
But I knew what Fred would do. Just what he always did, he would softly drop the phone back on its cradle with that look of "God Almighty, they're sure out there tonight; must be a full moon!" He'd pour a cup of coffee and sit staring up at the ceiling for a while and then start filling in the log while the phone lines winked on and on as a thousand other crazies tried to get through to lay a little of their madness on him.
1 turned up the gain control a bit more, since the station seemed to be fading as I got further north. Fred was back again, giving some scores and late-night results of games played on the Coast. I noticed that they still had that damn hum which plagued the engineers whenever studio 3C was on the air. And there it was, just s solid as ever, as familiar as a friendly old corn on your left foot and about as easy to eradicate. All of us whoever worked the night shift kind of liked it, since we felt it gave our voices some kind of sexy edge. You've got to have something to cling to in the long hours before dawn. I turned the gain full on and Fred's thundering voice filled the car. I was listening to see if I could pick up the rush of the air conditioner, and yes, there it was. The muffled tick of the Western Union clock in 3C and the very faint sounds of midtown Cincinnati traffic filtered through the hum. The though hit me how weird it was to be hearing this 'way up in the northern darkness of the Maine Turnpike.
The gas gauge read a little over a quarter full and I felt that same vague uneasiness I always get when the gauge gets down in that area. It's a fear all pilots have. I turned down the instrument light. Now the car was in total darkness except for the radio dial and the red jeweled idiot light the informed me that my ignition was indeed turned on. I checked the rearview mirror, and this time I spotted the distant lights of what looked like a tractor trailer 'way off behind me. It was the first vehicle I had seen anywhere on the road in maybe 45 minutes.
"There'll be more scores in thirty minutes, and I'll have a rundown of today's news on the hour from our newsroom and the wires of the Associated Press."
I heard the hum disappear as Fred cut the mike and Arlo Guthrie began to whine about all the roadways of Lost America. I could tell he was doing his keening on Turntable 2 because of the slight characteristic "wow" I had grown to know and love so well in my own endless lost night in Fred's seat, drinking my own coffee and plotting my own mad schemes, listening to the ravings of the lonesome lunatics in that great vast bowl of the electronic night.
I could see the toll booth way up ahead gleaming like a distant oasis of reality. I fished around for the toll ticket as a little static began to crowd in on Fred's 50,000 watt enigmatic world. I flipped the radio off and got back to my driving, because that damn semi was coming up fast, and he looked mean.