Second Chance


       Maria and I started talking about where we'd like to live and what kind of job I should look for. First thing the next morning, I went to see Len right away.
       "Well," he said, "I want to look at the ratings when the full report comes before I decide what to do."
       My execution was delayed.
       "In the meantime," he added, "would you help do some research into what would be the best format for the listeners in Chattanooga. And let's get the others to help too."
       I couldn't believe my ears. He's asking me ... the one who killed the station to help decide its future? Frankly, I feared the "hole" for country music which I'd spotted earlier.
       We researched and evaluated. Our main competitor had rock music tied up. It would be extremely expensive and difficult to unseat them. Our AM station played country music, but was being beaten pretty soundly by another AM station. There were no FM country music stations. We all agreed the one gaping need was FM country.
       After we'd both had a chance to go over the full ratings report and our own research, Len asked me to join him in his office. "Shut the door behind you," he said.
       My throat went dry. Oh-oh! Here it comes! Heart pounding, I closed the door and sat down.
       "Well," he started, "we've done some pretty extensive research. What do you think? Should we continue with our rock format or change to country?"
       In that instant all the thoughts of the last few weeks tumbled over each other in my mind. If we stay with rock music, I might get to keep my job. If we change to country ... well ... the sum total of my country music knowledge is recognizing the names of Merle Haggard, Dolly Parton, and Willie Nelson. So, if we change to country, I get fired.
       I cleared my throat. "The big need here on FM is for a country music station. Chattanooga is ready for it. I think it could be a huge success.
       I could already hear his response in my mind. I agree. I'm sorry, but at this point I'm terminating your employment. ...
       His voice broke through. "I agree." He turned away, cleared his throat, then faced me again. "Will you captain the ship?"
       My mouth dropped open. Huh? Me? I'm the one who just sank the station with the rock format!
       Then I heard myself saying, "Sure. I'll be glad to on two conditions."
       Then reality hit. Here I am ... not being fired when by all rights I should be ... and I'm giving my boss the conditions on which I'll accept his offer to save my job!
       "And the conditions are?" he asked.
"First, that we don't fire any of the announcers. It's not their fault that the ra- tings were so bad. They all worked hard and are good people. They should be given the opportunity to choose to stay or leave."
       "Agreed. Next?"
       "That the format have a contemporary approach. I envision the station sounding exactly like it does now... very modern and with the same disc jockey approach ... only we'd be playing country music instead."
       "You've got a deal." He let that settle a few seconds then added, "I know you don't have experience with country. But I've watched you make decisions. You've got a good radio head. I have full confidence you can make it work."
       So, now what? None of the staff knew country music. Should we pretend we did and try to fool the audience? Or should we admit we were beginners?
       I chose the latter approach. It was honest. The listeners responded wonderfully. They'd call and tell us background information about the artists and other country trivia. Most of the staff became country music converts and the listeners loved it.
       Then the next ratings period approached. We couldn't do much worse than we did last time. Any change would just about have to be for the better.
       Moments of assurance alternated with misgivings the day the results should arrive. Midafternoon I heard Len let out a holler -- "Fantastic!" He came tearing down the hall with a grin that looked like it might cut his head in half. He thrust the paper in front of me. "Look at this, Jay! I knew you could do it!"
       I looked where he pointed. "WDOD - FM -- 10.
       "Ten? We made it from six tenths of one percent to ten percent in one ratings period?" I marveled.
       "Yes, and look where we stand with the competition!"
       WDOD - FM had shot to the Number One country music station slot in Chattanooga!
       Within minutes the entire staff was whooping, hollering, and back-slapping. Thrilled with our accomplishments, we headed for greater heights.
       Unfortunately, before long, Len accepted the general manager position at a station in Johnson City, Tennessee. I was stunned. He and I worked together well. I enjoyed working with him. From him I was learning a lot about management and about how to excel as a program director.
       I missed Len's leadership. Often, when in a quandary at the station, I simply asked myself, "How would Len handle this?" Trying to think a thing through like Len did helped me keep success at the station.
       Several months later I telephoned Len. "How are things going in Johnson City?"
       "Well ... I'm sure you've noticed in the ratings that the FM part of our station here in Johnson City is struggling. I've got to hire a new program director."
       I applied for the job, then poured myself into it. During the last ratings period before I arrived, WQUT - FM claimed 10.6 percent of the market and was the number three station. Would my skills and work make a difference? Would we be able to take it to Number One?
       Finally the ratings report for my first period arrived. WQUT FM hadn't just jumped upward! It vaulted to 18.3 percent and the Number One slot. Success! I would keep working.., at least for one more rating period!
       The home ratings weren't necessarily the same. One evening Maria and I planned to go to a movie at seven o'clock -- one that she especially wanted to see. I tried to do a few too many things, so we left a few minutes late. Maria was gracious about my error. We joked and laughed, looking forward to some much needed relaxation together. In line at the theater, the third person ahead of us got the last seat.
       "How about 8:30?" the ticket clerk asked with a smile. "Same movie, same price."
       I turned morose. "No thanks," I snapped, turning on my heels.
       "Jay," Maria entreated as soon as she caught up with me, "Why don't we just go ahead and get tickets for 8:30 and go to dinner first rather than afterward?"
       "Sorry I made us late," I snapped. "You wanted to see this movie and I made us late and ..."
       "It's no big deal," Maria insisted. "Let's just ..."
       The tone of my voice could have cut diamonds. "We planned this evening, and I messed it up."
       "Eight-thirty is just as good for me as seven," she chirped.
       My steps beat the sidewalk as Maria tried to keep up. "I ruined the evening," I snarled. At the car, I threw her door open, then slammed it behind her. I started the car.
       "Honest, Jay, it doesn't matter," Maria pleaded. "We could still.. ."
       I sighed deep, long, and loud, clearly communicating, "Shut up! And leave me alone!" I squealed the tires taking off.
       Maria withdrew into silence. Halfway home, she exploded. "You didn't ruin anything till you started your pity party! I s'pose you're in one of your moods again. How long's this one going to last?"
       Moods. Even at work, when I was in my you're-no-good-you'll-never-do-any- thing-right self-condemnation, everybody knew it and steered clear. My moods had been a source of friction with Susan and had a lot to do with a number of girlfriends deciding I was definitely not Prince Charming. I hated myself. I didn't hate anyone else. But how were they to know?
       I'd just want to withdraw and think through the messes I got myself into and then get back to normal. But I'd left a wake of cutting words behind. The tone would have withered anything living. It was a lousy way to convince myself I could face life again, but I hadn't figured out another way.
       I went to bed as soon as we got home. I don't know what Maria did.
       One afternoon when I returned to the station after lunch, a cold wind drove biting rain. I shivered and pulled my coat tighter around me. When I entered, I heard pitiful wailing howls. "What's that?"
       "A little dog," the receptionist said. "Found her outside -- wet and freezing cold. I stuck her in the ladies' room so she could warm up and dry out."
       I pushed the door open. A soaking wet black ball of fur a little bigger than a toy poodle raced out the door, down the hall, and into the lobby. She cowered under a chair in a corner, howling. I knelt and coaxed her. She inched toward me, her belly dragging the floor. When she got close to my fingers, she rolled over in submission. When I picked her up, her tiny body shook.
       "Poor little thing's freezing," I said. I sat down across from the receptionist. "Let's write up an announcement. Found: Small black female dog, perhaps a toy poodle/terrier mix ..."
       The receptionist wrote while I comforted the trembling little creature. "Would you give the announcement to the deejay?" I asked. "In the meantime, I'll take her home to my wife. Dogs love her. She's even tamed raccoons, skunks, opossums, and rabbits. If anyone can calm a nervous animal, it's her."
       At home, the little black dog snuggled into Maria's arms. The dog's trembling stopped almost immediately. Maria hadn't earned the title "Animal Lady" without reason.
       After a few minutes, Maria suggested, "I'll go get her something to eat. Would you hold her?"
       When I reached for the little dog, she shrank from me. When I grasped her, she started shaking again -- not just a nervous quiver. Her whole body shook. She seemed scared to death.
       Maria and I experimented and talked the situation over. Before long I telephoned the station: "Don't air the ad for the dog!" No way would I return her to a home where she must have been mistreated by a man. We'd keep her and love her.
       Black as ink, the scared little creature soon became Inki, a happy, contented dog ... as long as she could sit in Maria's lap or follow her like a shadow.
       Even though Inki didn't trust me, I fell in love with her. Days turned to weeks. With much patience and gentleness on my part, Inki's shaking when I held her decreased to trembling. Eventually to a tremor. After months of consistent kindness Inki began to choose my lap rather than Maria's. That shocked us and anyone who knew Maria.
       She and I still had our difficulties. Our personalities clashed. The fights got louder and longer. One evening during a calm between storms she asked, "How about if I leave for awhile?"
       "Don't go. Let's work on it."
       "But, supposedly, we have been working on it. If I leave temporarily, maybe we can be objective enough to see how to save our marriage."
       We eventually agreed and she moved back to Wilmington. Inki stayed with me.
       One evening at home, I turned on the TV and collapsed onto my bed. The sitcom bored me within minutes and I got up and switched channels. News. Another sitcom. For some reason I just kept turning the dial one more time.
       As one picture flashed onto the screen, I felt like I'd been slapped across the face with a wet, ice-cold towel. My heart felt as if it stopped. I plunked backwards onto the edge of the bed. My eyes riveted onto the woman pushing the baby carriage.
       It's her!... It can't be!... It is!
       I scrunched down right in front of the television, examining the picture. Her face is the same'... She moves the same!...She's wearing the same dress!...Her hair is the same!... It has to be her!
       My heart pounded as the PBS documentary continued. It showed actual file footage of the background story of the Charles Lindbergh, Jr. kidnapping. When it showed pictures of the Lindbergh estate -- the house, the clearing, the surrounding woods -- I felt very comfortable, almost as if I were going home after an absence.
       But as the documentary continued, the shock of the first scene kept throbbing through my mind. It's her! The nurse in this documentary is the woman I saw in vision four years ago. She is the woman I saw on the rooftop with two German-looking men and the child who ran and then fell off the building.
       "Is this enough?" the spirits seemed to ask. "How did you know when you watched the movie in Baltimore that Hauptman wasn't the right man? You couldn't have known if you hadn't been there. Why did you feel so comfortable in the setting of the Lindbergh home? Have we shown you enough? Will you believe us now?"

 

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