Hot Summer Nights
By Ron Page
As we grow older, we see patterns playing out over the decades and come to understand some of the reasons why things are the way they are. This includes the why of major cultural shifts as well as where Uncle Charlie was during those three years of absence. We come to see how many things all tie together over time. This acquired wisdom also makes it clear to us how “one thing leads to another”, while, to younger generations, the result, seen many years later, has no relevance to anything past.
Explaining our insights to the younger set comes across as the unrelated analogies and metaphors of madness or senility, so those of us with self-control learn to refrain from our prognostications. I am not one of those and I’m afraid I leave many wondering “So what does that have to do with anything?”. And, at this point, I’m sure you are wondering “So what does this little essay have to do with hot summer nights?”. I eventually get to my point, but I must lay the groundwork.
At night, In the 1940’s and 50’s, on the farm in the flat corn country of northern Illinois, I lay in my bed, windows wide open – but no breeze – only the hot, heavy air virtually steaming off the hundreds of acres of surrounding cornfields. My sheets and pillow case had none of the crispness we enjoy in our air-conditioned homes today but were not unlike sleeping on a damp towel. I seemed to have difficulty figuring out just how much cover I should put on each night and would shout to my parents in their nearby bedroom for advice. In the summer it was always the same answer “Just a sheet should be enough tonight”. That not only told me how many blankets I needed but confirmed that I wasn’t alone.
Very little breeze rustled my curtains but sounds did make it through the window screens and they defined “cacophony”. Crickets, owls, pheasants, locusts, and quail in the background behind the loud creaking of the windmill and the clanging of hog feeder lids. Cattle and chickens also contributed when disturbed, but the pigs at their noisy feeders enjoyed munching corn and supplement all night long.
So, I would lay there and listen to AM radio. We couldn’t get radio reception during the day, but, at night a few “clear channel” stations that had been granted exclusive rights to their frequencies would crank up the power, and farmers from coast to coast could enjoy radio entertainment. I listened to Chicago Cubs games, I learned to appreciate satire from “Bob and Ray”. I listened to the National Barn Dance originating from Chicago, and Louisiana Hayride broadcast live from Louisiana. I listened to Jack Benny, Fred Allen, Baby Snooks, and Jimmy Durante. Radio reception was of poor quality with lots of static, but all the entertainers had loud, distinctive voices to the extreme. There was never a question as to who was speaking. As to crime shows, you always knew when the bad guy got shot: he always said “Why, you dirty rat, you killed me!!!!!”
While I listened to Cubs games, many thousands of rural households throughout this part of the United States listened to the St. Louis Cardinals and, to this day, you find loyal Cardinal fans throughout the South-Central U.S. Of course, at that time, they were the only team in the South Central United States. We all listened to the Grand Ole Opry broadcast live from Nashville, and as that show responded to their broad market, we came to hear not only “country music”, but “western music”, “bluegrass” and “popular” music. Thus, today, Nashville is a music capitol for all genres, but it all started with clear channel radio beamed to rural America.
Of particular interest to me were the “music and talk” shows coming live from various night clubs in Chicago, often “high atop” some fabulous hotel. There would be “big-band” music with famous singers who would be interviewed by a talkative host. I decided those night clubs were places I wanted to visit when I grew up.
A little station with the call letters of XERF discovered that they could operate in Del Rio, Texas with their transmitter across the border in Mexico, which allowed them to ignore FCC power limits. As in the movie “This is Spinal Tap”, they took transmission power to a whole new level and beamed their signal nearly across the entire nation. This was a perfect venue for radio ministry and I listened closely to the message of the California-based ministry of Herbert Armstrong and his son Garner Ted Armstrong as they warned of the impending rapture, due any day, and of how all world-wide current events were foretold in the Bible. And, yes, that is the very same ministry that, today, is headquartered in Edmond, Oklahoma. Many of you have attended concerts there.
So, to the younger generations who question the talent and appeal of entertainers of a half-century ago, consider their distinctive voice and delivery. Have you ever heard another voice like Jimmy Durnante’s? Did you wonder why there are so many St. Louis Cardinal fans in Oklahoma? Did you find it mysterious that a twenty-million-dollar concert hall sprang up north of Waterloo Road? Did you wonder how Nashville became a music capitol? Did you wonder where many families developed, in past generations, their political and religious beliefs? Those questions and a million others are answered as we reflect on our life experiences.
I my case, without those hot summer nights and AM radio, would I have gained the breadth of experiences that would lead me to a long association with Rotary? Hard to say, but it definitely stretched my world well beyond the endless cornfields.