Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Our Other Field Trip

The year that I toured the downtown Toledo studios of WTOL-TV with my high school classmates was also the year that we went out and looked at WTOL's transmission tower.

It may have been the same day, but I don't think so. It was the same *kind* of day, though - neither very sunny nor very cloudy nor very hot or cold. Jacket weather, I suppose, under brain deadening milky white skies. Probably in the spring of 1976, if I had to guess. But I don't have to, do I? Thank goodness 'cause I'm really not in much of a guessing mood.

WTOL's transmission tower was way out in Oregon, a sparsely populated area east of the city that was known for its oil refineries and train tracks. Every Toledoan knew it was there, but very few ever seemed to think much about it - which seemed to be fine with the local residents.

As you might have guessed (if you happen to be in a guessing mood), there wasn't much to see. You had the tower and you had a large metal shack at the base and that was about it. They let us into the shack. They did not let us climb the tower. Not that I would have but it would have been nice to have been asked.

The tower was some 900 feet tall - high enough for its signal to reach about 40 miles before the curvature of the earth pushed TV viewers into someone else's broadcast area.

The shack was manned by a single guy less than 6' tall and somewhat scruffy looking. His voice barely filled the shack as he talked. I was struck by the fact that WTOL-TV's news broadcasts were utterly at the mercy of a man who would never be allowed to broadcast the news himself.

I can't remember much of what he had to say. I suppose he spouted the usual statistics about wattage and power consumption that no one ever really gives a shit about but everyone duly pretends to take in. My ears perked up, though, when he went off on a short digression about how odd it was to be there at night. Egged on by a question from one of my classmates, he admitted that he didn't much like being out there all alone at the bottom of a 900 foot metal tower in the middle of a big flat field at three in the morning with storms raging all around him. "Things can get pretty... strange," he told us in a quivering voice as his eyes glazed over. It was a moment that left me wondering how many months it might have been since he'd had a vacation.

"So, how's your reception here?" I asked. Yeah, I was trying to be a smartass but after spending most of my life fiddling with the rabbit ears on top of my set in a usually unsuccessful attempt to get a decent picture, I felt more than entitled.

"Not very good," he unexpectedly revealed. Apparently the signal was too strong. Or maybe all the metal of the tower that stood between his little monitor and the beam at the top tended to ground things out. I think he said he had cable. Ha! Sometimes stupid questions really are the best.

The only other thing I remember about our trip was that his shack contained the biggest glowing vacuum tube I've ever seen in my life. I bet it was a yard high. Besides serving as a critical part of transmitting operations I bet it also kept that shack nice and cozy on even the coldest winter nights.

I think they kept a spare there, too - just in case things *really* got crazy during some three-in-the-morning storm.

So, that's my Visit to the Transmitter story.

What's yours?

1 comment:

  1. I'm surprised at the shape of the tower in your picture. When I was in Ohio it seemed like every microwave tower was tapered at the bottom so it could break off cleanly in the event of a collision with a vehicle.
    I remember visiting a field containing our local AM station's antenna. The broadcast shack was also in the field and was the only thing the antenna could have hit if it fell.
    I did go inside the broadcast shack a few times, but the time I want to write about now is when I turned 12 and got walkie-talkies as a present. My friend and I went out marauding, trying to find the maximum reception distance of the walkie-talkies. We went to the AM station field because it offered the longest line of sight in the neighborhood. It turned out we couldn't hear each other on the walkie-talkies because the AM signal overwhelmed the circuits.
    Not only could the walkie-talkies not tune out the station signal, but when we got close enough to the antenna we even heard the deejay when we pressed the talk button, which normally silenced the speaker to avoid feedback.
    If I ever get leukemia I will blame the time spent in that field.