on the air


It's raining in Los Angeles today, as it did exactly twenty-nine years ago. I know this because I've unearthed a document from my childhood that made a record of the weather on that date. A few weeks ago when I brought in the books to fill my new bookcases, those lovely, trouble-free bookcases, I came across a book I hadn't seen in many years, and there, inside the back cover, was the notation made in the hand of a twelve-year-old boy. Lemme splain...

As I mentioned in October, I was an avid radio listener back in the 1960's. In '69 my ear was glued to one station in particular, KFI AM640. It was personality-driven middle-of-the-road music with talk, traffic, news, and sports. I was about to hit my teenage years and I had this dream that I was going to be a pilot and I thought, if I played my cards right, I could end up as the airborne traffic reporter on KFI.

Flying was, is, and always will be Big Dream Number One with me. I used to fill out the reader cards in Air Progress and Flying magazines, circle the numbers to get more info on the planes advertised there, and then for months on end I'd drool over the brochures that came in the mail. Every once in a while I'd get a call from a sales manager at a local airport who'd been given the lead by the manufacturer that there was an interested buyer in his area. I'd come to the phone, talk a little about the pros and cons vis--vis the competition, gab about the latest navcom radios, and then tell him that I wasn't ready to get into a lease-back situation this year, but maybe next year if there were some better tax advantages... (I was eleven when I started doing this. Help me, doc.)

Most of those brochures would flop open to the full page picture of the control panel because I had this habit of propping up the brochure on my desk and pretending I was flying the plane. This wasn't just kidstuff fantasy flying, either. I knew the preflight checklists. I knew what each switch and knob did. I could sit there and go through start-up in my imagination, taxi to the run-up area, check my magnetos, get clearance from the tower, taxi into position and hold, and then go, off, into the wild blue. If necessary, I could even abort the takeoff, making all the correct control movements and radio communications for such an emergency.

My airport in these fantasies was Fullerton Municipal, down there not far from Knott's Berry Farm. A small single-runway tower-controlled airfield, this was the place I'd beg my father to take me to to watch planes on the weekend. I'd stand at the fence, drinking in the atmosphere, learning the pattern, listening to the tower, watching the parade of fliers.

This airport was also where the real traffic reporter, Bruce Wayne, KFI in the Sky, was based. And a mile or so west of the field is where KFI's huge transmission tower was located.

So, you see, I had this whole insulated world where fact and fantasy sort of revolved around one another.

On December 1, 1969 it all came full circle. I was in my pajamas, leisurely flying my desk over the L.A. basin when BOOM, there was a big crackle and then the station went off the air. And it stayed off for over an hour. When they came back on they explained that their transmission tower had been hit by lightning.

These things happen. To them it was a blip in their schedule. To me, it was An Event. My lifeline to the outside world had been cut off. STOP THE PRESSES!

I remember sitting there, finessing the tuning knob ever-so-gently between my thumb and forefinger, trying to coax the signal back, just sitting there waiting... tuning... waiting... tuning...

It was of such import to me that I decided to make a record of this for posterity. I got out my favorite book, AIRCRAFT OF THE WORLD, a big blue hardbound reference tome, and on the inside back cover swiftly made note of the tragedy. I never wrote in books, especially hardbound ones, so you know this had to be a humongous deal. Out of some mad compelling urge, I doodled in the book, scribbling things that young boys scribble. Part of me was thinking maybe someday they'll have this trivia contest and ask when was the historic day KFI was hit by lightning, and I'd have the answer right there. I could use the prize money to get flying lessons.

I did learn to fly eventually, and I even got a job at the airport where I could hang out all day with Bruce Wayne, KFI in the Sky. Sometimes we'd smile at each other when he was sitting on the ground in his little orange Cessna, giving his report while everybody thought he was up there in the sky.

I had slipped the surly bonds of youth by then. My world had grown bigger since the Big Lightning Strike of '69 almost ten years earlier, but flying was still the bug in my blood, and the months I spent working there, fueling aircraft and hanging out with other pilots, were some of the best times of my life.

The world has changed so much since then. Radio is different. Flying is different. Around ten years ago Bruce Wayne was killed when he crashed on approach to Fullerton flying his little orange Cessna.

But the sky is the same today. Gray clouds, rain, and above it all, the blue blue blue.

And what's on KFI now? Rush-fuckin'-Limbaugh. What sort of dreams do little boys dream nowadays with him in their ears?

Bring on the lightning.


Today's Music:

"Further To Fly" -- Paul Simon -- THE RHYTHM OF THE SAINTS


Wisdom of the Day:

"There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in."

-Graham Greene