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by George Lester
George Lester
A 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 the same.

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
Spunky Flat and Beyond - A Memoir
September 1, 2007 column
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