“And some days it don’t come easy
And some days it don’t come hard
Some days it don’t come at all
And these are the days that never end…”
— I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That), Meatloaf
It is an accurate statement when I can’t seem to get a good lead built for whatever news story I might be writing. At those times, I find it easier to pen a short story.
And when neither are available, my memory takes over, and I find myself talking aloud, outlining an event from my life that has been buried for years but has chosen to resurface for no particular reason. I find myself there right now.
Part of me wants to call this memory “The Night Wire,” another part says “By the Bell.” I can’t decide, and so that will have to come later.
“When I wasn’t much younger than you,” Gerald said. “I decided I wanted to learn to be a broadcaster, but I got more interested in the engineering aspect and eventually redirected my focus.”
I sat quiet, knowing he would do all the talking as he worked on the machine.
“Back as a kid, I found the telegraph to be fascinating,” he said. “Did you know that’s how most newspapers got their news back in the day? Well, that’s where I came in.”
“Not only was I good at using the key, but I could also type, and being the only male to apply for the job, I got it. Back then, men believed women’s constitutions were too delicate for all-night work or some of the news stories that might come across the wire. Posh!”
“By the way, we say “wire” today, but it isn’t. But it literally was a wire when I was a kid.”
“Anyway, I’d sit up all night long and listen to the wire sing one news story out after another. I had a supervisor who’d then come over and get the stack of copy I’d typed that hour and go through them to see which one was worth passing along. He’d do that.”
“Can you imagine sitting in a room with a single overhead light, a small lamp on the desk beside you for eight hours?” Gerald asked.
I shook my head “no,” as he continued.
“And think about this, the wires came wrapped in either paper or cloth, including my headset cord. That could have killed me at any minute.
He laughed at the thought.
“Come with me,” he said, breaking his rivery, “Let me show you a small prize I was allowed to keep from one of my last jobs at an all-night wireman.”
We walked down the hall to his office. And after a quick scan of a row of binders behind his desk, he pulled one down and flipped it open to show me.
It was a faded piece of paper, type-written words faintly visible. I couldn’t read a single word of it.
“This is about the moment that I knew our world was about to change,” he said. “Sputnik. The wire was heavy with traffic that night and early morning. Reports about the sound it made, reports of it seen as it sped by, reports of fear. What a shift that was.”
“Anyway, while I never got to see it myself, I knew this business was on the verge of change. I read Popular Mechanics, Scientific American, and I understood that the wire would be gone in a couple of years and that satellites would soon replace the telegraph key.”
“I moved on in my career, into engineering, because I knew my skills would no longer be needed, that whatever was to come along and replace the key would be faster than me. I was right about that, too. They called it the teletype machine.”
“Not as romantic, but very efficient.”
We returned to the machine he was working on, and I had to check the wire. I should say “wires” as the facility I work for had five of them, all operating at once.
That’s where the title, “By the Bell,” comes in. My duty was to pull the copy and separate it by bell status.
One bell meant the standard fare of this politician said this, firefighters rescue kitten, 95-year-old woman completes a marathon. Five bells were the big stories, terror attacks, space shuttle disasters, and presidential elections.
It has been years since I’ve worked in broadcasting, news, or music entertainment. When I left the business, all of those teletypes in the hallway were gone, replaced by computer and video screens. Instead, we kept a television on in the newsroom, tuned to one cable news outlet or another, sound off, of course, to give us a heads up about any major breaking news story.
“Not as romantic, but efficient,” I can hear Gerald saying.
Along with the constant clickety-clack of the old teletype machine, missing from the radio broadcast station, the on-air and sound studios have changed. No longer are live performances the norm like they were in the heyday of terrestrial broadcast.
Gone are the shelves of 78, 33, and 45 rpm (revolutions per minute) records, the bank of double reel-to-reel machines, the cart machines with their clunky-thump at re-cue, or the compact disc, and the stacks of players, all lined up and ready to play at the press of a button.
And I cannot recall the last time I saw a cassette tape or a cassette record. But then, Radio Shack, a mainstay for Baby Boomers, is gone, unable to keep pace with the changing of technology as it morphs from day-to-day into things we only read of in Dick Tracy comic strips or watched on Star Trek.
Gone is the mom-and-pop local broadcaster. Not even the voices you hear are live very often these days but prerecorded in a sound studio. No, much of it is computerized, and in some cases, radio signals are transmitted, not by line-of-sight or skip waves, but by satellites, by Sputnik.
Gerald was right, not as romantic, but efficient.