Sunday, November 16, 2014

Gary Hannes CFN, Panama Canal Zone 1955

A few years ago Gary Hannes shared his memories of the Caribbean Forces Network (CFN, later SCN).  Originally these were put up on a website with a company that went out of business..

CFN Ft Clayton 1955 (Photo: JWA Archives)

It was inevitable, I suppose, that radio broadcasting would be a major factor in my life. I was born in 1933, practically in the shadow of the antenna of one of America's first radio stations, WGY, Schenectady, New York. For the record, KDKA, Pittsburgh, was the first on the air in 1920, with WGY following less than two years later as the 12th station officially broadcasting in the USA. I grew up, then, with those wonderful after-school thrillers: Tom Mix, Jack Armstrong (All-American boy!!), Sky King, Don Winslow of the Navy, Little Orphan Annie, and many others. We had a Philco console model radio that physicallydominated the living room and audibly took control of our entire two story house in Tribes Hill, N.Y., a suburb of Amsterdam which was a bedroom community of Schenectady. I loved that radio with it's back-lighted faded yellow dial which showed only about 200 kilocycles at a time. There were two wooden knobs: volume and tuning. Hidden behind a faded brown grill cloth was a 12 inch speaker that furnished enough sound to reach even the third floor attic. On evenings and weekends my mom, dad, little sister and baby brother would park comfortably on couches and easy chairs near enough the radio to enjoy Amos 'n Andy, Jack Benny, Fibber McGee and Molly, Fred Allen, The Molle Mystery Theater, Friday night boxing, and scores of other delights. The ear candy was absolute heaven. We each lived with our own mental images of those radio characters. When TV arrived, most of us were shocked to see what many of our beloved radio stars really looked like! On that radio we heard the Pearl Harbor attack, all the bulletins of World War Two battles (and even kept a wall map with little flags showing allied gains and losses), the live report of FDR's death, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, and the surrender of both Germany and Japan.
My very first radio broadcasting experience was in that environment. I announced thru a six foot flexible vacuum cleaner tube, with my source of music a wind-up Victrola with steel needle. I recall my favorite shellac record at that time was an RCA Victor recording of "Der Fuhrer's Face" by Spike Jones and his City Slickers. My sister and brother were my captive audience, taking turns holding the end of the tube to their ears (one at a time!!!).
We moved from Tribes Hill to Amsterdam in 1947, the same year that WCSS came on the air in that city. By that time we had graduated from the old Philco radio to a Magnavox console model with a 78rpm record changer built-in. And, once again, as the only radio in a large house, its 12 inch speaker blared out from the living room all day long with WCSS (an independent station - no network affiliation) as the major source of entertainment. I was in Junior High School by this time and cocky enough to think I could do what those guys on WCSS did. Around this time I saw advertised in a Burnstein-Appleby mail order catalog a device known as a "phono oscillator" ("Hey kids, plug your record player into this and it will broadcast your music to any radio in the house!") "Heck," I thought, "if it will broadcast music to any radio, it should broadcast voice as well." Bottom line: a new radio station in Amsterdam, New York...on the air weekdays after school and all day Saturday and most of Sunday with a coverage of nearly a five mile radius (thanks to 100 feet of heavy copper wire as an antenna!). The FCC rattled its sabers around the time I entered Senior High School in 1949. The H.S. had a radio class that had connections to WCSS and every Friday the class would put on a 30 minute live drama right from the radio station studios.
One day in 1950 our radio teacher told us that WCSS was looking for a part-time announcer and would be conducting auditions the following week. I auditioned with 16 other hopefuls and ended up with the "job." Part time was 6 p.m. to midnight weekdays, a 12 hour shift on Saturday, and the entire broadcast day on Sunday (8 a.m. to 6 p.m.). It ended up being more hours than the regular announcers worked, at one buck an hour....but with my love of radio, I would have welcomed even more time on the air! In those days we were not known as "D.J.'s". We were "radio announcers" who did anything that required a voice: introducing a name, we did it!
In the fall of 1951 I went to Valparaiso Technical Institute in Valparaiso, Indiana, one of the country's top electronic trade schools. In those days, having a First Phone FCC license was desirable if an announcer wanted to earn more than four or five hundred dollars a month. He could double as a bonafide engineer at any small or medium market station. It was that license I was hoping to get by attending VTI. While at VTI, several of us with previous commercial broadcast experience persuaded the school to put its own closed-circuit station on the air, so WVTI was born. Plus, to earn food money, I worked part-time (nights and weekends) as announcer on WIMS in Michigan City, some 25 miles from Valpo.
On graduation from VTI in the spring of 1953 I worked as a technician on two secret air force projects at the General Electric plant in Utica, N.Y. while moonlighting as booth announcer on WKTV-TV. I came as close as I'd ever come to being fired in this profession. Reason? It was customary to crowd two announcers into the 3 by 5 foot announce booth if there were two announceable events on any given break. We had a standard I.D. plus a 10 second "Jack's Tasty Snacks" spot to crowd into a 15 second cutaway, so Dick Brown (with whom I had worked several years previously on WCSS) and I jammed into the booth. There was only one chair so I took it as the spot reader and Dick inverted a metal wastebasket to sit on. On cue, Dick did his station I.D., then I launched into my spot, which contained lots of delightful alliterations and which was more like a 30 second spot to be squeezed into 15 seconds. Just as I started racing thru this minor nightmare, Dick passed an enormous amount of gas into the metal wastebasket which, in turn, threw me into absolute hysterics. Within mere seconds came management's warning via a phone call. I got back at Dick, though. That night after he left, I made a 180 degree turn of the circular blade of the saw he used daily on a live infomercial. Boy, did he have trouble next day trying to saw thru a plank with "this amazing power tool!!!" At the end of 1953 my family moved to Mexico City so my dad could take up a job as plant manager for the Mexican branch of Mohawk Carpets, the company he had been associated with for thirty some years. I went to Mexico City College and struggled to learn Spanish until the fall of 1954. The Korean conflict was winding down by this time, but the draft was still in effect. Being out of the country I was classified somewhere around 4-C, or in layman's terms: "unavailable." However, at this time my girlfriend of some five years suddenly decided she was going to marry a Turkish chef at the restaurant where she was waitressing at Jones Beach on Long Island. When I heard this, I became so emotionally irrational that I decided to call my old draft board back in the USA and volunteer for the draft.
By mid-November, 1954, I was doing my basic training at Fort Bliss. To me, those were the funniest eight weeks of my life. Since I was about four years older than the majority of the recruits, I didn't buck the system....just followed orders and observed the rather humorous foibles of the rest of the troops.
Since the military was now pretty much out of Korea with no other conflicts looming on the horizon, there seemed to exist a lack of direction from the Pentagon as to what all these new draftees were going to be doing. So, my second eight weeks found me in what was known as an M-33 radar van, an already obsolete device employed by the artillery to automatically "lock-on" to an enemy airplane, via radar, and shoot that bugger out of the sky. Somewhere near the end of those eight delightful weeks, it was announced during an informal assignment meeting that "Hannes would be going to Detroit to attend newspaper correspondent's classes." O.K. by me. BUT, a few days later I was told to see a certain officer at C and A (classification and assignment) at Bliss. When I got there I was told the correspondent's schooling was canceled and that I would go to wherever the powers-that-be assigned me. Fortunately, a few minutes later I was fated to meet one of those "powers." I tend to be "the friendly sort" and so while tooling down the hall from my meeting, I ran into a fellow who turned out to be a native of Michigan City, Indiana. Not only that, but he had heard me on WIMS back in my part-time days there. I asked him what his job was in the military, and he told me he assigned second eight week "graduates" to foreign assignments. I asked how he did that and he told me, "If Alaska Command wants 30 troopers, I take the first 30 names on the list and assign them to Alaska, and so on down the list. Aptitude and skills have no part in most of my assignments." "Aha," thought I. Then, out loud I asked: "What would happen if I really wanted to be assigned to Hawaii? Could you assign me there?" "Sure," said my new-found friend, "but Hawaii these days is chicken doo-doo since the command is gung-ho on training."
"Then where," I asked, "would a better place be?" "Ah...by far, the best duty is in the Panama Canal Zone. Most everybody is doing half-days in almost any military job right now, but....looking over your record, I see nobody with your MOS is needed there." "I speak Spanish," I said, "so maybe they can find something for me to do." "Well, I see that out of the 120 in your group, 110 are to be assigned to Thule, Greenland. The other ten will be going to Puerto Rico and the Canal Zone, five to each place. Would you like either of those?" "Hell, yes....how's about the CZ??" "Done," he said, even though I somehow didn't believe him.
Came the day of assignment and I recall very vividly standing at ease outside our barracks at Bliss as the sergeant called off names and assignments. By the time he got to my name I was shaking and sweating, since, so far everybody called was going to that hunk of ice up north. When the sarge said "Hannes, Panama," I nearly passed out!
By now it was mid-February, 1955, and then came a slow train trip to Camp Kilmer, New Jersey, only to find out the MATS ship to the Caribbean had left the day before our arrival. It would be thirty more days of waiting. But, what better place to wait than just across the river from NYC!!! The USO was still very active, and buses were free, so about every other day a bunch of us would head to the Big Apple for fun and games. I went to Birdland for a wonderful jazz fix, to a hidden den in the worst part of Brooklyn to see and hear Jack Teagarden sound-off with his ensemble, Louis Prima at at highway club in Jersey, plus a bevy of now-forgotten places in many corners of my favorite town. I also had the opportunity, for the first time in my life, to meet and hang out with my uncle, Art Hannes, who was the announcer on the Ed Sullivan Show. By the time he left, Art had been the first and longest-lasting (16 years) announcer for Sullivan. Oh boy, do I have some stories from him about his experiences!!!
Well, finally the time came to ship out to the Caribbean.