“High King of Tara”

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Peter Cavanaugh & WTAC Owner Gene Milner

Peter Cavanaugh & WTAC Owner Gene Milner


Gene Milner WTAC

CHAPTER EIGHT

HIGH KING OF TARA

As the geometry of life is often crossed and curved and woven into strange shapes and patterns connecting in curious convergence, as with Jim McKecknie, Gene Milner had also been a professional NBA play-by-play sportscaster, in this case for the Philadelphia Warriors at WIP. The odds against working for two former NBA sportscasters within a single career are astronomical.

Gene was a big, ruddy Irishman in his late forties, almost three hundred pounds of pure beef and blarney. He was Jackie Gleason without the June Taylor dancers. His love of the drink was prodigious and he had a dazzling intellect. He also had a deep, reasonant, God-like voice, compared to which Rush Limbaugh sounds like Minnie Mouse. When much later in life I stood on the Hill of Tara, ancient home of the Irish High Kings, I thought of Gene.

How comfortable he would have been ruling all the land an eye can see from that sacred rise, cloaked in royal garments with wolfhounds at his side, surrounded by loyal soldiers ready to die in joyful service and serviced at will with comforts undenied by gentle maidens quickly attendant to every whispered wish.

Gene and another Irish WIP announcer, Tom Reddy, had purchased the station only a few years prior.

Late on a hot summer night after moving to Flint, Gene and Tom had both been drinking. They decided to take out a boat to “go swimming” just south of town on Lake Fenton with Tom’s young son, Terry. Only Gene and Terry returned to shore. Tom’s demise was recorded as “accidental death due to drowning”. It was something of which Gene would not speak. Tom’s wife, Mary Alice Reddy, was offered a “lifetime position” at WTAC as Copy Director when Gene purchased remaining ownership rights from the grieving widow following that Dark Irish Night.

Milner, with a flair for spectacular promotion as expanded as his girth, had lifted WTAC from an already successful position in the market to one of unparallelled preeminence. “WEETAC”, an identifier he brought forth, one may safely assume, near the ass-end of a fifth of Chivas Regal (his beverage of preference), was bigger than life since he thought himself bigger than life, which he was.

Anything or anyone Gene felt opposition to or from was “dedicated to his destruction”, a line he would use in dozens of masterful memos issued on a continual basis.

Since Flint was the home of the famous ’36 “Sit Down Strike” staged by autoworkers to gain General Motors recognition for their union, Flint was not only a big UAW town, but organized in virtually every other major manufacturing and service industry as well.

WTAC was home to “The National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians” and membership was mandatory for all announcing and engineering personnel.

The fact that all of the other Flint stations were unionized did not deter Gene from feeling he had been personally singled out for particular foreign abuse. He consequently concluded that he had been selected by fate to single-handedly stave off the unwashed “socialist hordes” for the good of America, Motherhood, Democracy, and especially the Free Enterprise System.

I had immediate personal proximity to the “socialist hordes” as soon as I started at the station since Clair Bowser, engineer extraordinare and President of N.A.B.E.T. Local 46 (in Milner terminology, “the pricks from 46”), was my control board operator.

If Gene was the Irish High King, Clair was the wily, wizened wizard, plotting incessantly against the throne; sowing the seeds of discontent and rebellion where e’er he roamed.

In matters of general dress and demeanor, a casual onlooker beholding Mr. Bowser at first glance would wonder why police would ever allow someone like that to be wandering freely in full public view.

At best, Clair suggested the appearance of shaving weekly, bathing monthly and changing clothes semi-annually.

Clair was as rail-thin as Gene was whale-wide, and as much a genius at insurrection as Gene was at self-erection.

They were of the same in generation, but decidedly not in contemplation.

Following negotiations, many a well-dressed, impeccably-groomed and immaculately-attired broadcast owner, general manager, or labor attorney would find himself shredded mercilessly by Bowser-engineered contractual land mines.

“Peter, I only tell this to people I trust. Clair Bowser is a goddamn Communist dedicated to my destruction.”

“Pete, most Irish fellas I know are Democrats. For good reason, too.”

Peter, you’re one of the few I’ve selected to keep a secret log for me. Write down anything that Bowser bastard says about me, anytime he says it.”

“Pete, once the ninety-day probation period we’ve got in our contract ends, you can’t get fired. Let’s see. Hmm. Oh, it’s tomorrow! Stop by the house on Sunday. We can drink some beer and watch the Tigers.”

I did catch a few Tiger games with Clair and kept it to myself, even as I honestly told Gene that I was keeping no log on Clair’s references to Gene since none were ever made. Bowser was far too fast a fox for such folly. Clair only referred to management as “the other side”, “they” or “them”, never personalizing the subject.

The tug between diametrically opposed spheres ended abruptly for me a a few days after “WTAC Meets The Beatles” aired when I was called into “The Office” by Gene. He proclaimed, with characteristic skill and elan, his “new dream.”

Gene’s inspiration was to move me to Des Moines, Iowa. I would become Program Director of KSO, a station he had just purchased and wished to turn into “another WTAC”.

His next move was to invite Bob Dell into the meeting. He had each of us stand at opposite ends of the room against the wall facing each other.

“Look! Look! Mirror images!”

“You’re exactly alike!”

“Exactly!”

Bob was then dismissed, hardly puzzled by Gene’s histronics. Milner was always pulling weird moves as a matter of course and would later explain, usually in private, the methods to his not infrequent madness.

I resembled an Irish Buddy Holly at 6’1. Bob brought to mind an Italian Robert Goulet at 5’10. Facts were completely beside the point in “Milner-speak.”

“Peter!”

Having returned to my chair directly in front of “The Desk”, I almost jumped three feet in the air.

There was a long, unnerving pause.

“Peter, you are doing one hell of a job here for me. I want you to know that I know that you know that I know that.”

Here it comes?

Gene closed his eyes as though plunging into a mystic trance and then began the whiskey-rumblings, ascending with passionate crescendo into thundering, rolling, visionary exhortation.

It was a majestic half-hour diatribe on how marvelous it would be if I would become his Program Director in Des Moines in the great State of Iowa which had given him birth. He wept a little in expressing his fondness for the fields and hills and valleys and rivers and streams and all the little children of the Hawkeye State. He knew that nothing would make him more joyous than were I to accept his offer. He noted that nothing would make me happier either. His dream was so highly and mutually beneficial, it was clearly meant to be.

But the choice was mine and mine alone.

I could remain doing just what I was doing at WTAC. That would certainly be fine with him.

Ah, but if I could see it in my heart to remotely consider becoming his right arm, most faithful son and valiant soldier, my acceptance of this mission would turn the moment of my departure into the very proudest day of his entire professional life.

I cautiously asked Gene if he was serious that I could stay at WTAC if I wanted without in any way harming our warm relationship. Appearing somewhat offended that he wasn’t being taken at his word, he offered his absolute and most sacred assurance that I certainly could stay and indeed should stay if there was any hesitation on my part toward extending complete commitment.

“A decision to accept a Program Directorship”, said Gene, “must be an individual one, made without any pressure or undue influence of any kind.”

“Peter, you are making your first decision as a new Program Director!”

The last two words were uttered with reverence and awe the same way Sister Cecilia would bow her head and softly pronounce the name “Jesus Christ” during religious instruction.

I told Gene I wanted to remain at WTAC.

He seemed unusually gracious in his acceptance of my preference.

I returned to the programming area. Within minutes, Gene’s secretary rustled in and posted a new announcing schedule permanently assigning me to the All Night Show, known amongst the staff as “Sound Siberia”.

My change of heart was instantaneous.

The Prodigal Son was forgiven and showered with affection. I headed West once more, with pregnant wife, to a brand new life.

What pregnant wife?

Three months after joining WTAC I had married.

Father David J. Norcott was the pastor of Saint Joseph’s French Church in Syracuse, our family parish. It was Father Norcott who had gained me admittance to the hallowed halls of Cathedral Academy following accusations of pyromania in my early youth. Although just a few short blocks from the Cathedral itself, Saint Joseph’s was in the “poor part of town”. I had served there on the altar.

Fortuitously coinciding with the onset of puberty, Father Norcott asked for my assistance in establishing a chapter of the Catholic Youth Organization
at Saint Joseph’s following my sophomore year at Cathedral. The “C.Y.O.” was a Diocesan outreach, aimed at providing a Catholic social environment for public school teens not graced with the blessings of religious supervision in after-hours activities. No nuns with binoculars? Well, now.

I was elected President of our Saint Joseph’s C.Y.O. and fifteen year-old Eileen Scaia was elected Secretary.

Eileen hated me and thought I was an overbearing, arrogant, conceited jerk. I made no efforts to alter her opinion and she could never later say she didn’t know what might lie ahead.

Her last name actually should have been Brimley, that being her father’s family name at birth. The Brimleys owned a resort hotel in England and hired a cook named Scaia. Mr. Brimley died unexpectedly, perhaps of food poisoning. Cook Scaia married the widow in short order. They changed baby Fred’s last name to minimize immigration complications when they sailed to America.

At my suggestion, Eileen would sign her last name as Brimley when writing to the Syracuse newspapers with inquiries as to who that “wonderful new disc-jockey named Peter Cavanaugh” was on WNDR.

Eileen was one of eleven children. Baby Fred had taken to serious procreation in his new nation. Eileen’s mother had a little dog named “Pepper” who would viciously bark and nip at any strangers daring to intrude upon family property. Returning after our first date, while no one was looking, I kicked him in the balls.

On a dark, sultry August night in the Summer of ’57, we occupied the back seat of my light-blue ’54 Dodge. The windows became so finally steamed from exhalations of ecstasy that beads of condensational moisture began creeping gently downward in soft, sweet flow . They seemed briefly transformed to the tender tears of my own Irish Mother, weeping wistfully over lost visions of eternal filial virginity.

We’ve been married these last thirty-two years, an achievement much more credited to Eileen’s unending, unbending patience than my own mastery of marital arts.

We entered into the Sacrament of Matrimony at St. Joseph’s on May 23, 1964. The following year, Bishop Walter J. Forey closed the church and sold the property at great financial gain to the Diocese. Due to expansive downtown development, it had become hot real estate. Besides, it was becoming a “Black Church”. Certain things were expendable.

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