It was 1 a.m. Startled, I stared blearily at the ringing phone that had blasted me from a cozy dream. My mind staggered through disastrous scenarios: dead relatives, crippling auto accidents, a deejay to be bailed out of jail.
“Hello,” I croaked fearfully. The chief engineer on the line needed someone to accompany him to the transmitter site. His usual assistants were not answering their phones, so he called me, the station owner. Wanting to be a team player, I agreed.
While I slept, a major snowstorm had hit the area. Winds were gusting to 50 mph, the power was off, the generator had failed, and we were off the air. In my warmest clothes, I drove through blinding snow, meeting the CE at the base of the mountain.
It was one of those nights you did not want to be out in a car, but we took his four-wheel-drive up the mountain as far as the snow would permit us. Then we hopped on a snowmobile. Snow blinded us as it accumulated on our facemasks. Heavy snow also meant driving the snowmobile as fast as we could go until, every few minutes, we had to hop off and wade through waist-high snow to unjam the snowmobile and start again. Cliffs with 100-foot drops invited disaster at every corner.
Two-and-a-half hours later — the last 20 minutes on snowshoes — we arrived at the mountaintop transmitter building. We had to shovel six feet of snow with our hands because it had covered the door. We looked like frantic dogs digging for a lost bone.
I cannot recall ever being colder in my life. An annoying and difficult trip in the summer under perfect conditions, this snowy, miserable trip was one of those nightmares you never forget. I could not wait for it to be over, although I could not bear the thought of the trip down.
There was no heat or light in the building, but for the next two hours, we worked on the generator. Our hands were so cold we could hardly grip the ice-cold wrenches. Finally, the generator turned over, and we were back on the air. The generator’s roar reverberated inside the small cement building, but it was music to my ears, representing hope that we could get out of this God-forsaken place! But the generator kept sputtering off, and we had to baby-sit until the power came back on. Ever try to nap on a cold hard floor with the roar of machinery and the stink of diesel fumes? We tore into canned rations sent up after the engineer and another man had been stranded at the transmitter four days. Hours passed. Finally, the generator stabilized, the power came back on, and we headed for home.
Not every station has a transmitter in a remote mountain location. Still, climbing towers, being wakened in the middle of the night, working around high voltage is demanding, often dangerous work. It takes a rare breed. Our engineer made that mountain trip 11 times a winter and never complained. Yet he kept us on the air and always dropped everything so we could play rock ’n’ roll records 24/7.
Engineers are of another world. They often act differently, have their own language, and work on concepts we cannot begin to understand. Their sacrifices are great, yet they often are taken for granted. Thank goodness for people willing to do what these men and women do. They are indeed the unsung heroes of the radio business.
Have you hugged your engineer today?
4/26/04 Radio Ink Magazine. By B. Eric Rhoads