By Ruth Minshull
We were well into World War II when I started high school. As a result, my experiences were quite different than those of teenagers before and after that time.
For one thing, we had no dances or proms, the boys were recruited into the service as soon as they were of age and our school hours were shortened. We attended only half a day and were expected to get a job to fill the other half.
Many of the students went into factories where they filled the vacancies made by men who had gone into service. Working in a manufacturing plant was not high on my list of desirable occupations (in fact, it wasn’t on any list of mine), but I wasn’t sure what I should do.
While I was still considering the problem, our drama group went to the small local radio station to put on a skit. This would be an interesting place to work, I thought. So, on a whim, I went back a few days later and asked the station manager if he had any openings. He sent me to the chief engineer who, it turned out, had an opening for a “restricted radio operator.”
The war had taken their licensed engineers. To replace them, the station was allowed to hire a person who (after some training) could obtain a “Restricted Operator’s License” and work in the control room—as long as a licensed engineer was on call at all times.
I learned the necessary material, passed the exam, obtained my license and went to work. My duties were simple. Every half hour I would read some meters and record the answers. I did mike setups for live studio broadcasts and regulated the volume on all transmissions. My major function was to listen for silence. This would mean that we had lost our network feed or we were off the air. In any case, I would then have to call the chief engineer.
It was a dream job. Much more fun, I presumed, than the factory work done by most of my fellow students.
Eventually one of the engineers returned from the army and I was no longer needed in the control room. The war was still going on, however, and I was frozen on the job. So I was moved over to the “other side” where I helped to make up the daily program logs, filled in on the air for station breaks when needed and finally got a program of my own playing recorded music.
I loved my job and the easy camaraderie with all the others who helped keep our small station running.
And then one day the former program manager returned from his stint in the army. He had been a colonel—a gruff, pompous, overweight martinet who was accustomed to obsequious obedience to his every command. Almost immediately he growled his first directive: “There will be no women on the air at this station!” He cancelled my music program and forbade me to do station breaks or any other on-air activities. When an announcer was needed to fill in, he would do it himself.
One of the announcer’s duties was covering the evening news that came from the network. Since we had a local sponsor for the program, the announcer had to give a brief introduction, then go to the network. In the middle break, the network gave public service announcements, which we covered with our local commercial. This was a tricky job. The announcer had to wear earphones and listen to the network announcer while, at the same time, reading the sponsor’s copy. The commercial was written with several stopping points, so the announcer could stretch or shorten as needed to finish in time to cut back to the network. It was a little like rubbing your tummy while patting your head. As it happens, some people could do this job effortlessly; others simply couldn’t. I was in the former category; the colonel was in the latter.
One evening I was working a little later than usual in order to finish up typing some copy for the sales manager. The colonel and I were the only people left in the place. One announcer was out on a remote job, another was out of town on vacation, a third one was due to come in for the evening shift. Meanwhile the colonel was handling the job.
Then the evening shift announcer called in sick. There was no one left to do the news program—except the colonel, whom I knew was afraid to take the risk. If he bungled the job, the sponsor couldn’t be charged for the spot, in fact, they might even cancel.
The only possibility left was me—little insignificant second-class citizen me. A woman, no less.
I could see the impending crisis before the colonel was fully aware of it himself because I knew where everyone was (or wasn’t in this case). But what would he do? Would he actually take a chance on doing the broadcast himself, and risk losing the sponsor (and making a fool of himself in the process) or would he humble himself and ask me to do it?
I contemplated both possibilities with relish as I waited.
As I typed my copy, I could hear him calling people—desperately trying to solve his dilemma.
Finally I heard him approaching. I pretended to be totally absorbed and unaware of the problem. He leaned over the railing that divided our work area from the hallway. Then this blustery, commanding misogynist said, sweetly, “Ruthie…”
I looked up (Ruthie? Could this coy gentle voice be coming from our taskmaster, the hard-core male chauvinist pig himself?) “Yes?” I replied with a mild show of interest.
“I’m…ah…that is, I’m in a bit of a bind here. There’s no one to do the evening news. Would you do it?”
“Oh, I plan to leave as soon as I finish this copy. I probably won’t be here.”
“Please, just this once…”
“Well, I don’t know….”
“I’m begging you. You can take tomorrow morning off.”
“Well, I guess I can do it.”
Later I wondered if I should have extorted more from him: the whole day off? my music show back? a raise?
No, I decided, nothing could trump the thrill of seeing the proud Colonel squirming and groveling before my feigned indifference. The memory has given me a tiny spark of pure pleasure countless times over the years.
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© 2013 by Ruth Minshull