Once there was and there was not …
The 1978, hand-me-down, brown, nerdy Chevy Impala I drove my freshman year at the university of spoiled (or smart) children was bigger than my off-campus room, so packing everything I had brought down to school and return home to Fresno for the summer was effortless.
I had wanted to stay in LA from May until September and had even scored a tour guide job at Universal Studios, but my parents said I should come home, get my old job back at Macy’s and save up money for my sophomore year.
I protested but then conceded because I needed a better ride – one that wouldn’t breakdown as often as the brown boat and one that would fit my over-modulated self-image.
Before finals week, I applied at Macy’s and asked for a summer job, and I also contacted the two-dozen Fresno area radio stations and asked for a part-time weekend job doing radio. I carefully crafted an audition tape of my work on the campus radio station, KSCR, and sent copies on cassette, with my resume to all the stations – from Christian to Rock, from news to talk, all except Spanish.
As a teenager with infinite possibilities ahead yet clueless about the real world, I was on top of the world. I was cocksure of my brilliance, knew for certain everything I wanted was mine for the taking, and I believed the entire world was in concert to build me up, place me at the right place at the right time, and make my delusions of grandeur come true.
However, like most teenagers, I was quite naive. I thought I knew it all and had no real history of how the world functioned. I had no concept about the dog-eat-dog street politics that ruled consumerism and capitalism. I had no history of being taken advantage of, being taken for a ride, being lied to, being cheated, or being misled.
Landing a summer job at Macy’s was effortless. I had spent the Spring of 1983 to the Fall of 1984 being a top sales associate, people had liked me, and I had enjoyed dressed up and selling things people needed for great prices.
I had left for USC on good terms and was back for the summer and hired to work in the cashier’s booth Mondays through Wednesdays. Thursdays and Fridays, I’d be dispatched as a flyer to any department that needed support. I would cover sick and vacation days, lunch breaks, support special sales events, and could end up anywhere from gift wrap to housewares, from electronics to the perfume counter.
My first weekend back in Fresno, my sister Maral and I went car shopping. Dad had told me to look for reasonable used cars, but I had my eye on something cooler. I didn’t have a clear self-concept and believed in the myth I had created for myself.
I thought I was a hot, gifted, and talented filmmaker, journalist, and broadcaster, and my first semester grades were proof. I thought I was a privileged private university student, and this 18-year-old’s myth needed a hot Tahitian Red, burgundy convertible with leather interiors and an off-white top.
Mom and Dad said no. A $16,000 convertible was out of the question, but I begged and pled. I promised I would make the $350 monthly payments, and Maral said I could stay with her in Fullerton to cut housing costs during my sophomore year.
A smooth and fast-talking former USC football star, who was a top salesman at Michael VW in Fresno, kept saying, “What can I do to make you drive this car off the lot today?” He didn’t have to do much because he was the bully and I thought that the 1985 special edition Wolfsburg Cabriolet was what I needed most to complete me as a person
So I brought home the Cabriolet, not just the first new car I would drive but the first car I’d own. I named it and got vanity plates that read Wooolfy (Woolfy with two O’s was already taken). A year later I would find myself on I-5 driving next to a blue VW sedan with the license place “Woolfie,” and in 1989 I would meet a girl name Tara at the Glendale agoomp (center) who drove the same car and was born the same month and same day of the month as me.
My cabriolet’s name and license plate were meant to remind me every day that I never wanted to be like the mediocre Salieri in that year’s hit movie Amadeus. Daily, when I drove Wooolfy, I wanted to be reminded that I aspired for greatness like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
I think there was even an 80’s hit glamorizing a man, his girl, and his guitar. The song was about the summer of ’69, but my lyrics would’ve been about the summer of ’85 and gone something like this:
I got my first real big ride
Bought it way overpriced
Drove it with my hair blowin’
Blasting the stereo really loud
It was summer of ’85…
Those (I thought) were the best days of my life
Two weeks into the summer of ’85, I followed up on my applications to the radio
stations. I had just made a half-a-decade long commitment to GMAC to pay them incredible amounts of money for the joy of having a slick ride.
Fortunately, a gentleman Bob Mitchell – whose wife I think was Armenian – called to say his stations needed someone part time for the summer. Mitch, as he was called, was the Program Director of two country music stations – one on the AM dial and the second on the FM.
Mitch needed a licensed broadcaster with on-air experience, who would work on Friday and Saturday nights at midnight and do a live music radio show on the 50,000 watts, AM station, KFRE 940. The 12-hour shifts he was offering also involved running automated music programming on the sister station KFRY 102 FM.
In addition to being a live disc jockey on 940 K-free Country, I would have to change the reel-to-reel music tapes for the FM station, record and playback newscasts from AP every half hour, record network programming for playback weekend mornings on the FM station, increase or decrease the power of the antennas as the sun came up, check that the airplane beacons were operating on a hourly bases, record all the FCC-mandated data of the strength of our signals on federal government logs, and of course, stay awake 12-hours straight every weekend until Labor Day.
The first few weeks on the air were a blast. I’d be spinning the hits, Billy the Kid would be hoopin’ and hollerin’ the names of the artists, and it was like being on top of the world. Flawless transitions form one song to another, speaking over the beginning music of a song right up to the last second before the lyrics started were an acquired skill I was good at, and the excitement of being a professional, FCC-licensed broadcaster was more than an 18-year-old could ask for.
Weekdays I was a Macy’s cheerleader in the cashier’s office, confident, fun, bringing smiles to the faces of all the career sales staffers who would come down to get change for their registers. I’d drive around town with friends, top down, blasting music, going up to the lake after work, going out weeknights, and having a lot of fun.
On Friday and Saturday nights, I’d get two-liter bottles of Diet Coke, some donuts from Winchell’s, and I’d head to the Tower District of Fresno at midnight to transform into the persona of Billy “the kid” Stone. I had picked the name in honor of a friend-of-a-friend named Bill Stone, who had died in a motorcycle accident on Highway 99. I would introduce myself as Billy the Kid, droppin’ the g’s from verbs ending with ‘ing’ and mimicking some of my Tennessee relatives to sound like a real hill-Billy.
These were the days before computers, so everything was done by hand. Picking the order of songs involved a fancy algorithm that would have me going through closets and shelves of LP’s of 45’s to pick songs from current hits like Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton’s “Islands in the Stream” or the Judds and “Grandpa, Tell Me About the Good Old Days.”
That category would have to be followed by a contemporary pop tune from the last decade. This category featured songs like Johnny Paycheck’s “T
ake This Job and Shove It” and Marie Osmond’s “Meet Me in Montana” or something from the Highwaymen or Roseanna Cash. Then mixed in with four other categories were classic country songs by Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, and Patsy Cline.
I usually began my shift with lots of calls coming in from listeners. All of the 10 phone lines would be lit up until about 2 a.m.. There was even an emergency red phone that Mitch would call if he had special instructions to pass to me or if he had caught me doing something silly like mix up the order of the songs that I had played.
Couples would call in and request love songs. Seniors who lived alone and couldn’t fall asleep would call to converse with a friendly voice in the middle of the night. Teens in remote farming towns locked in to their bedrooms, sleepless, would call to ask how to get into radio, dreaming of breaking out of their tragic places in life.
There was always one blind woman, Erna or Erma, who was on heart medications that, she said, kept her awake at nights. She would call every weekend morning to thank me for keeping her company. “Billy,” she’d say, “You brighten up mah’ life.”
As the volume of calls would decrease, the three to five minutes between songs would seem to stretch longer as the hours passed slower. Before daybreak, I’d have to load up on hot coffee and try not to find it too bizarre that I was sitting in a huge office building, all alone, sometime spooked, and talking to myself in front of a mic. I would often wonder what aliens from outer space would think of a guy sitting alone and talking to himself and pushing strange red, yellow, and white buttons and levers.
To stay energized, I’d jog in place or try to do aerobics to country music tunes in the extremely cold announcer’s booth. One morning when Madonna had gotten her first cover page in the Fresno Bee, I started playing her music from a personal cassette and was dancing around while some pre-recorded show was counting down the country hits of the week. I was sure that if she could make it big, I would do.
During those loneliest hours of my life, when not a soul would be calling and I was sure no one was listening, I would be at my weakest mentally with my guard down from fatigue and sheer sleeplessness. I would announce the time, the forecast—another 100+ day—and then I would pray for the arrival of Rev. Bufe Karraker. The late Reverend who had lost a son to AIDS was an incredibly charismatic figure, and he would bring me back to life when he arrived to do his radio show every Sunday morning at 8:30.
Half asleep, wired on caffeine and high on sugar, pretending to be someone named Billy Stone, and hearing the saddest country songs known to man, my mind would go crazy places.
Usually I had some friends from high school or Macy’s come and hang out with me for an hour or two. We’d order pizza, visit, but they would go home and I would be alone without calls and open to a universe that could tell me lies or spook me.
Knowing full well those long hours of the night, my best friend from junior and senior high school, Rik Bollman, would call me up early in the morning to make sure I was still awake.
Rik had worked this overnight shift at some remote radio station while we were seniors in high school. He would drive all the way out to some shack in the middle of nowhere to work at another radio station overnights. He’d then drive directly to Fresno High and try to stay awake in class. I’d spot him falling asleep once-in-a-while in the late Mr. Carey’s American Literature class.
Toward the end of summer, I got a call one Sunday morning from an old, loud, bully of a man. He said he had been listening and he was mad. He said he was Waylon Jennings and wanted to know why I hadn’t played any of his songs that entire morning.
Not having heard Waylon Jennings on the phone before, I had no reason not to believe that this caller was the genuine country legend. After all, a bunch of these old country types lived in the Central Valley and were pretty active at state fairs and carnivals.
I was half-asleep and believed it was the artist himself, so I apologized and asked him what he wanted to hear. I slowly became certain that this country music god was actually calling me and had been listening all night.
I was in my physical prime, on top of the world, with a convertible car outside, a USC student, good-looking, and smart, and there was no reason why a country legend would not be calling me.
Except, I was naive. I was just as naive as the current Republic of Armenia in 2009.
Billy Stone, not my real name, was being presented with a situation that supported the myth of myself. Why wouldn’t Waylon be calling me? Of course he would.
The third Republic of Armenia – not our historic Armenia, not the Armenia with its vast Diaspora, not the Wilsonian Armenia established through the Treaty of Sevres -is being presented with a set of agreements through which it hopes it will open its borders with Turkey. Why wouldn’t Armenia believe that Turkey is indeed looking out for Armenia’s best interest and wants to open the border?
Me as an 18-year-old DJ blasting my voice up and down California believed the caller was the real country legend trying to correct my oversight and help me produce a better show. Similarly, the leaders of the teenaged Republic of Armenia are believing that their powerful neighbor of Turkey, with its 72 million residents, is reaching out to Armenia to give its economy a boost through open borders.
The problem with me in 1985 was that I was a teenager, gullible, naive, without a history of the untruths and half-truths of the world, and oozing with self-confidence. Much like Armenia today, which is a teenage republic, gullible, not with a lot of institutional memory, not with a lot of foreign affairs experience, and with a confident attitude that no one can tell the Republic of Armenia what to do.
My summer of ’85 was my best summer ever, but I was at my weakest. My mind wasn’t thinking logically, just like Armenia’s isn’t. She’s at her weakest, and this is when she needs to hear her Diaspora the most.
I hadn’t listened to my parents and signed on a loan for a fancy car that would cost me greatly and put me in a hard financial place for years to come. Armenia isn’t listening to her parents – her Diaspora with the institutional memory of Armenians and Armenian-ness, with nearly a century of trying to bring the truth of the Armenian Genocide to world populations.
Turkey does not have Armenia’s best interest, just like Waylon Jennings would not have called an AM radio station in Fresno to ask why his songs weren’t being played. Waylon Jennings was a country music god, and he would not be listening to me, and Armenia is more than the current Republic, and it should not be listening to its powerful neighbor.
Armenia should know, and the Diaspora needs to remind her that she must not agree to poorly written verbiage that would ask Armenia to give up its historic borders, walk away from Artsakh, and take genocide recognition off the table.
When you’re a teenager and your mind is not functioning at full capacity, you do things like believe random callers. You do things like buy a car you can’t afford. You do things like get pregnant with sexy proposals from neighboring countries. You do things that you will regret for more than five years, for perhaps decades to come.
Why is the Republic of Armenia selling out to pranksters that skinned its grandmothers alive?
My friend Rik was the voice of Waylon, and he had just pulled a prank in my weakest hour. The protocols on the table are also a prank, and Armenia, in its teenage years should not be so naive to think it knows what’s best for Armenians. The nation of Armenia is more than the current Republic of Armenia, and to discount that Republic’s non-resident population is l
ike driving your new convertible right over the cliffs and into the radioactive core of a nuclear power plant.
And three apples fell from heaven: one for the storyteller, one for him who made him tell it, and one for you the reader.