The 20th of February, 1971
This is a piece of fiction that is based on a real-life event that happened on the 20th of Feburary, 1971. WRQ is a fictional station that is loosely based on WJR which exists to this day as a right-wing talk radio station. WRIF also does exist and still broadcasts to this day, however, without the legendary DJ Arthur Penhallow who left the station in 2009.
Along with this story are vids of the event happening among two stations (one in the Twin Cities and Fort Wayne, IN), pictures of the actual alerts from the teletype machine and other pictures and info of interest.
It was a typical cold and wintry day in Detroit when I awoke at 3:55am to take off to work VIA a public bus to the radio station I work with. WRQ 700a, of Detroit was trying to keep the ears by the radio and the eyes away from the TV with our music made in the fifties and the early sixties. I would start the day at 5:45am going through the program plan which was a usual rundown of what was expected. Every Saturday would be a test from The United States Civil Defense System, or otherwise then being the Emergency Broadcast System (EBS).
The CONELRAD or EBS was quite popular back in the Cuban Missile Crisis when at the time I was fresh from basic training in the in the United States Coast Guard and getting interested in radio. I was a idiot enlisting in the world of Military Radio for entertainment and fearing that a missile from the U.S.S.R. would come on by and knock us out of our collective lives and asses.
Quite an eventful life of fear of the ‘what if’s’ in the military, that I choose an uneventful career as a part-DJ, part newsman for a eventful city of Detroit. Not knowing in my entrance into the troubled Motor City in late 66 with the riots, and the excitement of the Detroit Tigers winning the World Series months later in October 1968, calming down the riots and giving my peace-loving ass some peace of mind.
I got a promotion from the minor market of Raleigh, North Carolina to fill in the news spots and play the fifties music, down the road, we graduated to the early sixties. But our current program director named Bill Tetley didn't want anything past 1963. The Angels ‘My Boyfriends back’ was as far as we could go. Another reason why I was yanked out of North Carolina to Detroit was my military experience and knowledge of the world of defense. At that time, as you know, the Vietnam War was starting up, and my full-time working soul was responsible for bringing the updates of what’s new in ‘Nam to any peace treaties or peoples two cents on the war. Most times, I would deliver the news.
And lastly, although any idiot in the whole-wide world could handle it, I was primarily responsible for handling the Saturday morning Civil Defense tests that would come from a black teletype machine. At around 10:30am, it would ring a generic three bells and out the paper would print.
I arrived to the building at 5:25am, seeing the snow filter into flakes and twenty minutes before my start. I’m not the kind of guy who likes to wake up in the morning, but really, my job isn’t difficult at all. I had to give news updates every twenty minutes, do a special on coverage of the Vietnam War at 8:40am and 11:40am; the latter mention would be my last twenty minutes. Plus also, I would have to handle the Emergency Broadcast at around 10:30am.
I had taken over for the overnight man just five minutes before my shift starts and gave him a break early that he was appreciative for, and I reported the news for my first time of the day, “Good Morning Detroit, this is Ron Cambridge welcoming you to an early weekend morning edition of WRQ AM 700. We will start this portion with The Tokens but beforehand, the news here in Detroit, a man was badly injured during a bar fight in Southwest Detroit. The victim will be okay and is said to be released from the hospital as early as this afternoon. The suspect remains at large.”
And a second pause.
“Ford is announcing that they are making new model cars and also thinking about a new pick-up truck. However, no other details are posted at this moment. Bill Bonds of WXYZ-TV will have a better report on Ford’s new ways this afternoon. Also, good news for your TV entertainment, The Brady bunch will continue with its upcoming 4th season, ABC along with the show creators have confirmed this. That’s it for the news as of right now.”
Then I spin the record The Tokens and announced over the beginning vocal and said to Detroit: “The Tokens, Lion Sleeps Tonight, WRQ.”
For the next four and a half hours, the day passed uneventful with no really exciting news coming up. The bar fight did contain a comment from the victim as I had to quote his quote myself. Ford announced sketches of what they call a F-150, a new pick-up truck they plan on pulling out, but no new developments came out of it as I personally received a phone call from somebody representing Ford had contacted the station stated more development would come in the following Tuesday, that I announced, along with Bill Bonds would be showing up that afternoon. And again, for those Brady Bunch fans, a fourth season was announced.
And of course, back in the fifties and early sixties, the average song was two to three minutes long. So since I was the person responsible for doing the Emergency Broadcast System routine announcements, I would have to wait for the silly-looking teletype to piss out the message. I played a generic three-minute major hit by the name of “Telstar” by “The Tornados” while I got out the generic test script and awaited for those bells to ring. The clock read 10:33am when I heard the first bell ring. I turned to it at the second bell and approached the machine.
However, there were more bells that followed that third, I counted seven after. I knew whatever was going to be printed out of that machine is not going to be generic, the operative words would be not good or even threatening.
The station had its own office in one of Detroit’s professional buildings, the building also housed one of our FM competitors, yet strangely a sister station, the WRIF with new DJ Arthur Penhallow, that station that week had went to the hard rock category with the emphasis on progressive rock such as the hit by Emerson, Lake and Palmer known as ‘Lucky Man‘, a genre of music starting to develop and I secretly liked. The broadcast area took a laughable ten percent of the whole section of the office; it was literally two walk-in closets together. We would often refer them as the radio closet and the producer closet, with a large window and a door separating each. While I heard and awaited the teletype whatever frights of our national security threats we would see, I looked at the female producer with an estranged look being reflected in the glass, I suppose I was trying to advertise to her that something was wrong.
After printing was finished, I hurried to the paper and took a look. Each EBS test script had an assigned code word associated with each test. I remembered correctly that today’s code word was Impish (they usually have strange code names) according to the EBS cards that are hung up on the bulletin board in the producer room. Today’s script says Hatefulness. A non-matching code word is scary enough as I read on thinking that the Soviet Union had got a hold of NORAD in Cheyenne Mountain (in where they play the scripts). The script continued with telling me to cease all broadcasting and go to emergency broadcasting system. However, the script didn’t give a reason why.
Telstar was still playing, a song I wasn’t too familiar with, but knew to be three minutes long. So it bought me some time to figure out what was going on. Into the producer closet I went with a concerned producer by the name of Kimberly Clarke, a WRQ veteran for 15 years and pushing to fifty, she walked towards me as I walked out the door.
“We’ve got a problem.” I said to her while I handed her the paper.
She took a look for herself and said, “Oh my God.”
“We gotta call Bill.”
She looked at me still with concern and said, “But it doesn’t say why.”
I looked back to that piece of paper, “I know, but, it’s a different code word. It’s rather suspicious.”
This is when I acknowledged that Telstar was fading out.
“Contact Bill at home, I’ll throw another record in the spindle.” I told her.
I handed her the paper of fright and stepped in the radio closet, looking through the basket of generics as I call it, which is instrumental music, or elevator music to best describe it. I took a random record and saw that the first song was over seven minutes long. Good enough.
I tossed the record on the spindle and walked out of the closet seeing Kimberly holding the phone up and her face was white. I suppose our program director Bill Tetley didn’t want to be bothered.
“It’s Mr. Tetley’s wife. She says he isn’t home at the moment.”
I took the phone from her, “Mrs. Tetley?”
She responded on the other end, “Yes?”
“This is Ron at the station.”
Before I could go on, she asked, “”You’re the weekend guy?”
Usually with pride, I would respond with ‘Weekend/Fill-in.’ I didn’t like being known as just the weekend guy, but I responded, “Yes.”
“Okay, what’s going on there? Bill’s not in at the moment.”
“Well, I received a bulletin from the Emergency Broadcast System to cease all broadcasting.”
“Oh darn, is there a reason why?”
“No, it doesn’t say. It just says to go to Emergency Broadcasting. It’s a unique situation for me because usually, it’s a test script.”
“Oh gee. Well, Bill isn’t here right at this moment. Umm… what I would do is go to that announcement. From what Bill tells me, in the event of something like that happening, he says they would have to go under, what he says, ’Emergency mode.’”
Bill never explained that to me, but upon having that machine being put in, that ‘in the extremely unlikely event of a serious emergency’ to broadcast ‘under the lieu’ of the EBS.
So I told Mary, “Well, I better go ahead and do that. Here’s Kimberly.”
I handed Kim the phone and told her, “I’m going on Emergency Mode, Tell Mrs. Tetley to have Bill give me a call once he arrives home.”
“Okay.” Kim responded.
I walked back into the Radio Closet and turned the mic on while putting the elevator music to a complete stop.
“This is Ron Cambridge, usually as this time on Saturday morning, we broadcast a test from the Emergency Broadcast System, or EBS. However, we have been ordered by the Department Of Defense to cease operations and go to Emergency Broadcasting. However, we have no given reason at this moment, on why we are under Emergency Broadcasting. Again, an order by the Department Of Defense to cease normal programming to tell you the alert from the Emergency Broadcast System, yet, no news follows. Stay tuned to WRQ 700 AM for further details. Please folks, do not call the station… um, we do not know exactly why we are under alert. Again, please do not call the station. If you just tuned in to WRQ 700 am, we have received an alert on the Emergency Broadcast System that we are under a threat, however, no further details on what exactly the alert is for. Please stay tuned to WRQ 700 AM for further details and please, do not call the station. We do not know any more information here. Stay tuned to WRQ 700 AM as further details will follow.”
Not knowing what else to do, I played the elevator music record again.
Kimberly motioned to me to get back into the producer closet with the phone up and looking at me with fright. I imagine that Bill Tetley may not be taking this seriously and yapped at her. So I had to prepare myself to talk to the difficult Mister Tetley himself.
I took the phone, “Mr. Tetley?”
With his gruff voice, “Yes, what the hell is going on over there?”
“Well, we have received an EBS transcript to go to Emergency Broadcasting. Our code word is Impish according to the EBS cards issued to us. But this one says the code word of Hatefulness.”
“It’s probably a mistake. Just shut off that elevator music and spin a record, the machine should probably print out a message disregarding it soon.”
By the time he got to the last word, there was a knock on the door and behind it appearing at the window was a guy named Chuck who worked for our competition or similar sister station WRIF, a hippie follower and rumored draft dodger with a rich father, something my Coast Guard alumni-self didn’t like about the guy.
“Is that what you want?” I asked Bill while Chuck knocking at the door, Kimberly opened it for him.
“Yes, go back on the air and resume normal programming. It’s probably a mistake.” Bill Tetley said over the phone.
I was about to talk until Chuck who was probably under the influence of pot interrupted, “Duuuude man, did y’all see this shit the Emer’gin-cee people r sayin’?
I disregarded him and Bill asked who that was.
“It’s Chuck Sheaston at WRIF, checking on the alert too, I’m guessing he also got the alert.”
“Augh geez, that hippie at WRIF? I thought I told him to never to be at our station.”
“I’ll remind him of that Mr. Tetley. But sir, from a personal note, I think we should stay tuned on emergency mode.”
“Hey Cambridge, I know you were a military man, you saw the Cuban Missile Crisis, but I can highly assure you it’s a mistake. Russia is not going to get us, and Vietnam isn’t going to get us.”
Chuck kept running his mouth, “I mean Cambridge, do y’all think? You think Vietnam could bomb us? My dad says Vietnam can’t bomb us.”
I didn’t say anything on the phone and looked the other way with the disgust of Chuck. And inside the radio closet, I saw the old black junker on the process of printing another piece of paper.
“Hey Cambridge, your still there?” Bill asked over the phone.
“Uh yeah, In fact, I’m seeing that the teletype printed out something.” I said.
“Go get it, and put another record in the spindle, my wife is saying that we are on dead air.”
“Will do.” I said, and I handed the phone to Kim and asked Chuck quickly while I walked to the teletype, “Did you get the same alert too, Chuck?”
The answer was obvious, and he said yes.
I walked to the teletype which finished the new message, hoping it was good news and allowing the idea of Bill Tetley to be correct on this one. I grabbed that piece of paper to see the same code word printed, that being ‘hatefulness,’ however, the good news was there. It read to cancel the previous message. Bill Tetley was right. I signaled to Kimberly the cut hand motion and proceeded to the mike.
“This is Ron Cambridge here at WRQ 700, if you have just joined us; we had the Emergency Broadcast System alert us with a message to cease normal broadcasting. We have just now received a message from the Emergency Broadcast System that the previous alert was an error. I’m repeating now, that the previous alert we received has been cancelled. The Emergency Broadcast System has now told us this new information.”
I then hesitated for a second or two, and continued with what I could say.
“Well, it’s been an interesting few minutes. The time is 10:35am. More news will follow on this issue here, but for now; The Angels, My Boyfriend’s Back.”
Then I played the record.
I walked back into the producer closet but before I took the phone, I had told Chuck that the message has been cancelled and also that Mr. Tetley warned him out of our office. Back on the phone with him, Mr. Tetley just told me to continue with normal broadcasting and he was on his way.
It was obvious to me that NORAD sure had a serious sense of humor to use the word HATEFULNESS. Ironically, I was chuckling about that between news broadcasts.
Work continued on as normal with a couple of printings from the teletype machine, with the final one coming out at the eleven o’clock hour. Bill Tetley stood around the office and in the closets for about an hour to confirm things. It was quite interesting to see him wearing a sweater his wife made for him.
My final news report for the day was at 11:53am, which of course, had the addition to the EBS goof and they finally caught the guy who manipulated that fight at the bar the previous night. I also dared myself to finish off my last news broadcast of the day with: “Hanes, the company known for being the underwear company, has reported a sales increase of 75% this month, even though the month isn’t over with. This is Ron Cambridge, WRQ 700.”
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