Friday, February 25, 2011

The Farm

Sitting less than a half mile south of I-70 as you descend westbound into the Kaw River Valley about three miles from the east Lawrence exit sits a farm, the long-time home of Frank and May Walters.  From the highway you can see a large, weathered, vine covered barn and tucked away behind overgrown brush and large trees is their former home.  It is where many of my earliest childhood memories were formed.
The house was a special place.  It bustled with large family gatherings with various cousins, aunts, uncles, great aunts, great uncles and of course our amazing grandparents.  The house held so many wonderful memories that my sister Karen decided she wanted to move into it when her husband Keith retired from the military.  Unfortunately the proximity of the Union Pacific's main line about a quarter mile away and the blasts from the train horns in the middle of the night were more than she could bear.

The house stands two stories.  We always entered through the rear which faced east into a fairly spacious kitchen complete with linoleum floors and a simple table for casual dining.  The house had a front door and at one time a nice front porch.  But sitting 50 yards from that door sat a spur line of the Union Pacific that ran all the way to Leavenworth.  The train line has long since been abandoned.  There was a siding where tanker cars would sit along with crew cars, actual living quarters for the men who worked on the tracks.  I remember at least a couple of trains a day would slowly pass going to and from Leavenworth. 

A turn to the left and beyond the kitchen was a more formal dining area which also served as formal living room.  Grandpa's old radio which fascinated us kids with its buttons and dials stood out in the room along with a fancy dining table that could be expanded to handle the massive family gatherings that occurred at Thanksgiving and Christmas.  The radio resides in my Fort Myers home.

Adjacent to that room opposite the kitchen wall was a small sitting room.  An entry led from there into the family room which featured an RCA cabinet television set.  I remember the agony of being forced to watch "The Lawrence Welk Show" every Saturday night.  Wonderful, wonderful, my ass, Myron Floren's accordion was about the only palatable part of the show although even as a very young boy the Lennon Sisters were certainly easy on the eyes.  The cabinet minus the television ended up at the home of my cousin Nancy.

A hallway ran from the formal dining room to the front door separating the sitting room and family room from the staircase which led to the second floor.  A beautiful stain glass window graced the landing of the staircase.  The family had it removed when we began renting the home out.  It was fortunate because a small fire in that section of the home would have certainly damaged it.

The second floor offered a large sun room, four bedrooms and the lone bathroom in the house.  My uncle's bedroom was barely a bedroom at all.  Much to my ongoing dismay up to age five I was forced to sleep in a crib in my grandparent's room whenever I stayed over.  The only relief from the crib was when my sisters or cousins were also spending the night and then I could sleep with one of them.

We all enjoyed a screened in porch which wrapped its way the southeast corner of the house.  It was a pleasant place to rest on an early summer day and look out across the green lawn, with three or four mole traps standing guard.  Grandma would often sit out there cleaning snap peas.

Back then there stood two barns, a chicken coop and a garage.   Only the large barn remains.  That
had a concrete floor and was used to store equipment.  A huge hayloft was the main feature of the second floor.  The other, older barn, eventually had to be destroyed in the early 1970's.  It was literally falling apart when I was a child and had served as a dairy barn in earlier times.  Back then you could usually find grain in the barn which we were forbidden to play in but would usually prove irresistible.  Grandpa would usually catch me rolling around in the wheat.

My grandfather Frank, was a strong handsome man.  Unfortunately by the time I was coming into this world he was in a slow steady decline in terms of his health and his mental faculties.  He loved his farm and he loved the land.  Frank Walters loved to travel and was a successful farmer.

Part of the routine when I was on the farm as a little boy, age 3 or 4, was to accompany Grandpa on his daily walk to the train bridge that sat to the north next to U.S. 40.  Not far from the bridge along the two lane blacktop stood a gas station and restaurant called Miller's Barbecue.  It's now a private home.  The walk down and back was a little over a mile.  I wish I could remember our conversations but I largely remember that very little would be said during these walks.

My grandmother was a large woman of German ancestry with a lap big enough to hold two or three of her grandchildren.  She loved to cook and even when her diabetes had taken her vision she could still pull together large meals for the family.  She possessed something of a ribald sense of humor and next to her grandchildren loved her garden more than anything.  It was filled with all manner of vegetables, strawberries and even grapes.  She canned and preserved everything imaginable.
Grandma and Grandpa loved taking drives around the county in their Chevy Belair. Grandma was always at the wheel, always looking and trying to remember who farmed this property or who lived down that country lane.  As a small boy I enjoyed these rural tours because you could see Frank and May reliving their past friendships and memories during these drives.
I loved staying on the farm for the weekend.  I'm sure it provided some relief for my widowed mother to unload her rambunctious son.  It became an event when the cousins, Mike and Nancy Hendon would come.  With my sisters Dianne and Karen it was non-stop mischief, whether we were sneaking into Uncle Bob's Playboys or Mike terrorizing us as Frankenstein.  It was tough keeping up being a good three years younger than my older siblings and cousins. 

Life on the farm came to an end in 1962.  The failing health of my grandparents forced them to move into town.  By then my mother had remarried and we were living in Abilene.  Going to the auction and watching Frank and May's world disappear broke this 6 year old's heart.

Friday, February 18, 2011

The Best Job I Ever Had

The summer of 1993 I made the move to Western Kentucky to become the news director at WPSD.  The station was and still is owned by the Paxton family, which also owns the Paducah Sun and a several other newspapers scattered around the southern parts of the United States.

The station was located in a small city but covered a massive geographic region.  Our signal reached into three other states besides Kentucky.  We covered Northwest Tennessee, Southeast Missouri and Southern Illinois.  The station had always promoted from within.  My arrival represented a shift in the approach the Paxton's had to doing business.

Coming into the job I inherited a Vice President of News who wanted nothing to do with the running of the newsroom.  Tom Butler was WPSD at the time.  He wanted to anchor the noon news and 5 p.m. and make sure that certain standards of journalism were followed.  He was a great mentor and a valuable resource in learning how to navigate the politics at the station.

I was lucky to have a veteran staff around me that had a passion for good story telling.  I worked at getting them better resources (which included the first ever newsroom computers) and making them feel that they had ownership in the product we were producing.  We made tremendous strides and were headed in a positive direction despite impediments put on us by the owners in terms of coverage.

WPSD by all rights should be the number 1 station in this split market which includes a CBS station in Cape Girardeau, Missouri and Marion, Illinois.  But the Paxton's lacked the will to put the resources into winning over the viewers in Southern Illinois.  Parochialism ruled the day in our coverage efforts.  They didn't want to hear it from their friends at the country club that WPSD was covering too much news across the river.

I loved what I was doing.  I loved the people I was meeting and the friends that I made in my short time in Paducah.  The highlight came in the winter of 1994 when a massive ice storm followed by a big snow fell on January 16 and 17 in 1994.  It paralyzed the region and left poor Tom Butler stranded at home as his Cadillac was ill-equipped for the conditions.  I ended up running into work and took to the airwaves at 6 a.m. in my running clothes.  Fortunately my weatherman Lew Jetton made the walk into work and we proceeded to make it up as long as we could.  For the next month I couldn't go anywhere in Paducah without being recognized.

The other high point was working with the kids at St. Mary's High School.  I helped John Durbin coach the cross country and track team.  The school was filled with motivated runners and I'd like to think thanks to my input John was able to lead his teams to the first ever state championships for the school.  John and those kids, Brent, Will, Jason and Laura, will always have a very special place in my heart.

I served an all too short eight months at WPSD.  It was a deeply personal decision to leave, but I needed to steer my life in a different direction.  What happened to me during my time there was life changing.  The people I met there and had the privilege to work with I cherish to this day.  Doug Harnice, Andrea Underwood, Mike Spissinger, Ron Beaton, Cathy Crecelius, are just a few of the folks at the station who made me feel at home.  But most importantly there was Lew Jetton, who along with Cathy, let me into their circle, inviting me to go along to a Steely Dan concert in Nashville when I had just arrived.  I never felt more welcome by a community and most importantly a station.

WPSD sets itself apart with an annual locally produced telethon it produces every year.  My lone "Telethon of the Stars" I volunteered to run Chyron in the production truck, which I think confounded the other management team which used the telethon to party like crazy.  It endeared me to the production staff and the other regular folk that worked at the station.  And it gave me a chance to see my weekend weatherman play guitar.  Lew's gotten a lot better over the years.  I think you'll agree.

Friday, February 11, 2011

The Power of Revolution

Mubarack is out and the great unknown not only faces Egypt but the Arab world as well.  Some experts want to look at the Iranian revolution as a guidepost to what's happened in Egypt.  Conservative commentators are blaming President Obama for not doing more to save Mubarack.  They see this as the opening gambit in some great Muslim revolution that will sweep across the Middle East and eventually the rest of the world.

I'm not so sure about that.   I think this is more akin to what happened when the Berlin Wall fell.  What happened on the streets of Cairo could spread across the Middle East just like the events in Berlin spread across Eastern Europe.  If I were the King of Jordan or Saudi Arabia or even Syria's President Assad, I'd be plenty worried.  But I think the fallout will be more like what we saw when the Soviet Empire fell apart than what we happened when the Ayatollah's took control of Iran. 

Doubtless Islamic radicals will try to take advantage of this regime change.  It doesn't bode well for Israel when its only Arab "friend" is dealing with a revolution.  But I don't think the Arab world wants war.  I think they want democracy or something as close as they can get to it.  Unfortunately I don't think Egypt is going to see great reform or anything close to freedom as we know it in the United States.  I suspect some form of strong man rule will eventually take hold there.  Regardless, revolution is in the air and the next two to three weeks could prove very profound.


Readers of this blog know that my musical tastes are pretty well defined.  The Beatles, Dylan, Bruce, Neil and the Dead have been my constant companions for the better part of my life.  Since young adulthood I reluctantly let very few "new" artists infiltrate my musical sphere.  My reason is largely based on the economics of an ever-expanding collection of CD's.  Once I like an artist I buy everything they put out and even the stuff they don't put out.

Eight years ago I went to a Neil Young concert in West Palm Beach, Florida where he kicked off his American tour of the epic "Greendale."  Neil's opening act was a woman singer/songwriter who I had heard of but had never given a listen to.  In 45 minutes Lucinda Williams knocked me out. 

This was just one of the great tunes she performed that night from the album which bares the same name, "Car Wheels on a Gravel Road". She is truly one of the great songwriters that gets very little credit, much like John Hiatt.  Give it a listen or better still listen to one of her other fabulous discs called "Essence."  She's an amazing talent.  Her new album "Blessed" comes out next month and since I rarely write about female artists I thought I should give her a plug.

Saturday, February 5, 2011


I needed some new ammunition for my Zen so I brought with me from Fort Myers an old CD to add to my music collection.  Because of a recent guitar session with one of photographers Damien Espinoza, I grabbed Neil Young's "Freedom" from the storage cabinet and stuck it in my bag.

Today I finally ripped the tunes from the disc and decided to take some time to listen to the album.  I probably hadn't really given it a good listen in a decade or so.  It brought back a flood of memories.  Given the context of the times when this album came out, it truly is a masterpiece.

Neil had been putting out a lot of pedestrian material through much of the 1980's.  He zig-zagged his way through the decade bouncing from computer music, to country, to rockabilly, and even a big band.  Each album had moments, but none of them delivered, that is until 1989's "Freedom."

The first time I listened to it was on a disc player on headsets while sitting in the back of a minivan driving to St. George, Utah.  The music tore right through my head and my heart, from the epic "Rock in the Free World," to the gritty "No More," to his offbeat cover of "Broadway" and the now classic "Wrecking Ball."  It's a monster album.  It was so good I went out and bought the guitar book for it even though at the time I didn't play the guitar.  Somewhere in the back of my mind I knew it would come in handy and it took a few years but it did.

"Freedom" heralded a trio of epic studio albums over the next three years.  The unvarnished "Ragged Glory" followed in 1990.  A stunning live album "Arc/Weld" followed in 91 and for many fans the crown jewel came with 92's "Harvest Moon."  From 1980 to 1988 Young's music was uneven at best so it's impossible to fully explain how he could suddenly find his form and create such four incredible albums.  It mirrors to some extent Bob Dylan's lost decade which started in 1986 with the forgettable "Knocked Out Loaded" and ended in 1997 with the his re-emergence thanks to Daniel Lanois and his masterpiece "Time Out of Mind."

Neil's had some epic television performances, especially his Saturday Night Live appearance in 89 when he played "RITFW" and a mind blowing version of "No More."  But I remember having the hairs on my arms stand up when I watched him live on MTV in 1992 when he delivered this gem with Pearl Jam.

By the way, give "Mirror Ball" a listen. Neil and Pearl Jam together were nothing less than amazing.

Friday, February 4, 2011

The Other Shoe Drops

I don't always like it when I'm right.  I was right in June 2005 when I told Patrick Knorr and the Simons family that it would take five to seven years for them to make KTKA a break even operation.  They laughed and shook their heads.  Patrick planned to have the station turning a profit.  I was dumb enough to believe that he could do it.

I wasn't too dumb to stick around to witness the inevitable.  Today KTKA was sold to the company that also owns KSNT in Topeka.  It was a combination of things that led to the station's demise.  What hurt the most was the economic downturn which none of us could have predicted and the demise of newspapers. 

KTKA could have worked if the Simons had been prepared to bleed money for five years.  I could see after five months they had no idea of what it would take to win or at least make money, and I started planning my exit.  They were too worried about tower cams rather than whether we had a working live truck or access to feeds from CNN and ABC News One.  The cuts started coming about six months after I left and never stopped.

I feel bad for the handful of holdovers that I brought to KTKA.  They're good, hardworking, television professionals.  I hope KSNT holds onto a few of them, but in this cut throat business, one never knows.  I also feel bad for the Simons.  They care about northeast Kansas and had a wonderful vision for building a great multi-media empire.  Unfortunately they couldn't see past the elephant in the room; the printing press and all that ink.