Back when I was far too young to know how good I had it, I worked in Boston with some of the finest people I've ever known.
Jess Cain was one of them.
Jess, the long-time morning man at WHDH Radio, worked at a time in radio when you had to be funny and clever without being vulgar, and if you think that's easy, turn on the radio sometime and hear how many people don't know how to do it.
I've written before about how strange life's twists and turns are. When I was 13 -- 1967 -- I followed the Red Sox in their Impossible Dream year. I threw a tennis ball against the garage wall with every pitch Jim Lonborg would make. The Sox won the pennant that year, spurred on by Carl Yastrzemski.
Over the winter, we all sang the Carl Yastrzemski song, made famous by Jess Cain. (Listen to an mp3 download here). Then I grew up, went in the radio business, and somehow I ended up working with Jess Cain. He was a big star, and I was a news editor who wasn't worth a minute of his time. But he always had time to say "hello, Bobby" and occasionally we'd chat as if I actually was somebody.
Jess died this morning, and I can't believe my unbelievable good fortune for having known him.
Blizzards have always been a big part of my radio career, and my first one came 30 years ago this week: The Blizzard of '78.
It started overnight and I was the morning newsman at WFGL in Fitchburg, Massachusetts -- my hometown. I couldn't drive without getting stuck, so I bundled up and walked to work, about 4 miles away.
We were on the air, thank goodness and as the sun came up, news started to spread just how serious this was. It was, basically, a winter hurricane. The coast seemed to be taking the worst of it, but our city was pretty much paralyzed.
Winds of about 70 m.p.h. had driven the snow up against our three-story building. So after finishing a sportscast, I grabbed a long mic cord and -- live -- jumped out the window into a huge drift two stories below. Fun stuff.
Power outages started cropping up but, mercifully, we stayed on the air. Only one other person made it into the studio that day, so we just kept things on the air as best we could, with the help of one lonely engineer in the transmitter shack atop Alpine Hill.
I started a talk show at 9 a.m. and kept going. The other guy made a few calls for me to line up guests. I heard Steve Allen was in Worcester, so we tracked him down. I didn't actually expect to get him but we did and I had nothing to say, so the interview went something like this:
Q: Steve Allen?
Q: Bob Collins up in Fitchburg
A: Steve Allen in the snow.
And that was about as good as it got. Of all the things Steve Allen did in his lifetime, I couldn't think of much other than a couple of voiceovers for some local banks he did. Embarrassing.
All of the other radio stations -- there were two other competitors -- went off the air as their power went out. But we stayed on.
I talked to my former friend, John Carpilio, who worked at WHEB in Portsmouth, New Hampshire and had driven along the Route 1A in Hampton Beach and described the destruction he saw. We talked to the mayor and the usual suspects. Cars were abandoned on all major highways; nothing was moving, and Gov. Mike Dukakis called out the National Guard. Dukakis got high marks for his performance, and deserved it.
Around 4 p.m., the lights started flickering, and then went out. Our broadcast day was done. So I walked home.
Almost six feet of snow fell and it would be more than a week before we were allowed back on the streets.