BACK IN TIME
strange thing happened as I crossed the Mississippi River bridge.
Vidalia, Louisiana on the west side looked the same as any other small
town I had grown accustomed to in that part of the country. But when
I exited on the east side of the bridge and entered Natchez, Mississippi
it was almost as if I had gone back a hundred years in time. There
was an eerie pall cast upon the city even in broad daylight. It reminded
me of the sepia tone documentaries I had seen about the civil war.
I almost expected to see gray uniformed southern troops come marching
down the street. Confederate flags festooned buildings everywhere.
History and southern tradition was so thick it seemed I could cut
it with a knife. A billboard greeted me right at the foot of the bridge.
It read “Where the Old South Still Lives”.
As I drove down the main street I saw a huge ravine snaking back and
forth across the thoroughfare. Hundreds of old shacks ,which probably
had once been slave houses, backed up to it. The ditch had been used
for disposing of old appliances, furniture, garbage and just about
anything they wanted to get rid of. The sight was deplorable beyond
description. Nowhere else I had ever been would such an eyesore to
go unabated. I asked myself why did such a proud city not seem to
notice this awful blight. I wanted so badly to make a U-turn and head
back to West Monroe. I mentally rewrote their slogan, “Where the Old
Slums Still Live” .
In my previous moves I always contacted the local Chamber of Commerce
to read the listings of apartments for rent posted there. Up until
then I had been met by a smiling face and a “May I help you?” Not
in Natchez, Mississippi. I felt as if I had just walked into a funeral
parlor and met the bereaved in person. Not only did the radio station
need some life pumped into it. The city could certainly use some of
I chose to look at an apartment right on the main street. It was in
a sprawling house that appeared to be have been an elegant dwelling
in its better days, which describes so many of the homes in Natchez.
It looked as if it hadn’t been painted in decades but upon entering
I saw that the interior was still sound and well preserved. I was
fully prepared to meet a landlady with the same attitude as the Chamber
of Commerce person but I was in for a pleasant surprise. She glowed
with old southern charm and dignity and greeted me with a big smile
as sweet as the Magnolia blossoms out front. As far as I can remember
she was the only person I met there with such a personality.
The apartment had been added on to the main house years before as
an annex. There was a private entrance. It was fully furnished with
a living room, a bedroom with an adjoining bath and a big kitchen.
It was much nicer than my little garage apartment back in West Monroe.
The rent was very reasonable so I took it on the spot. With that chore
out of the way I could get my mind on what I had come to Natchez for
in the first place.
I wanted to get oriented with my new job I went to the hotel where
the radio station offices were and renewed my acquaintance with the
manager. He introduced me to the rest of the staff and then asked
me to follow him to the hotel lobby . The radio announce booth was
in a sort of a kiosk and enclosed on all sides with soundproof glass.
All the broadcast equipment appeared to be in mint condition. “This
is going to be a fun place to work”, I thought. Then I noticed that
no one was working the controls. The room was not occupied. Before
I could ask, he explained that the real broadcast facility was across
town. The one we were looking at was a relic from the glory days long
gone by and hadn’t been used in years.
I got direction to the real radio station and drove over. As I entered
and took a look around I saw that everything was well worn and desperately
in need of repair. I requested that the man on duty allow me to sit
at the control board for awhile and get the feel of the operation.
When I tried to use certain control knobs nothing happened. The announcer
explained that you had to jiggle the switches to make contact. This
went on and on throughout the entire control board. I realized it
was going to take twice the effort to do a daily broadcast than I
was used to.
At the West Monroe radio station all our commercials were recorded
on disk. The sound quality was a bit tinny and there was surface noise
to contend with also. In Natchez the commercials were recorded on
individual small reels of audio tape. This was before the advent of
cassettes or tape cartridges. The reel-to-reel tape offered a much
more natural sound which I noticed while listening to the station
as I neared Natchez. I learned later the only problem was that the
dozens of little spools of tape were all piled together in no certain
order and it took forever to find the one to air next. Also, it was
quite a chore to thread the tape on the player and cue it up a hundred
times each air shift.
After a couple of days on the air I was fit to be tied. I wanted to
go home to “mama”. The only thing that kept me going was the salary
I was receiving. I had to keep reminding myself of how lucky I was
to probably be the highest paid announcer in Mississippi.
The manager had agreed to let me do my “live auditorium show”. He
even wanted it to be simulcast to the company's other radio station
several miles to the west over in Louisiana. That would have been
no problem if the control board had operated the way it was supposed
to. However, the switch that had to be thrown to send the program
down the line had seen its better days. We squirted it full of contact
cleaner and poked toothpicks all around it to make it work. In spite
of all that the program suffered numerous dropouts. All the time I
kept jiggling the control board switches to run the very complicated
show I also had to constantly adjust the switch sending the program
to Louisiana. At the end of the hour’s broadcast I was a nervous wreck.
I seldom saw the manager after that first day. I learned that he also
managed several other enterprises for the station owner, a very wealthy
lady in Natchez. It seemed the radio station was far down his list
of priorities. I asked the receptionist/bookkeeper if she would suggest
to the manager that we move that unused control board in the downtown
hotel to our functional studios. She said she would mention it to
him but kept right on typing and hardly seemed to notice what I had
said. I heard nothing for a few days so I brought up the subject again.
She almost exploded and told me that I had better drop the subject
because the manager had far more important things to do than pacify
my petty request. That is the last time I asked management for anything.
For the first few days I was so busy getting used to the new operation
I hardly had time to think of anything else but when the weekend neared
my thoughts turned to West Monroe and Molly. As soon as I finished
my Saturday morning air shift I headed back north. The eighty mile
trip seemed to take forever.
© George Lester
Flat and Beyond - A Memoir
September 1, 2007 column