World War II had become little more tha a worrisome nuisance to most civilians in theState of Maine by early August 1945. I say "most" because I vividly remember mybarber boasting that if the war lasted another year he would be a rich man. He musthave had something going on the side because he didn't get that much shave 'n hair-cut business from the sailors at the nearby Brunswick Naval Base.
In a sense I was one of the "war profiteers also. In 1943 graduation from high schoolshould have meant induction into the Armed Forces. Much to my surprise I flunked thephysical and was accepted as a college freshman without a cent to my name. But withmanpower shortage on campus I had no trouble lining up five part-time janitor's jobs to help pay the bills. My room next to the bell tower was free because I rang the hugebell for classes with my roommate Ed.
Full-time clergymen were also in short supply, and my Sundays were soon put to gooduse at a Methodist Church in a nearby town. As their only pastor I earned an additional$8 a week. How I also became a night announcer at a radio station during this period isa story told in the July 1991 Radiogram.
By the time of this particular event the war in Europe was over and the war in the Pacificseemed very far away. Rationing of meat, dairy products, shoes and gasoline was still ineffect, although I wasn't personally inconvenienced. My food ration stamps were turnedover to the college meal services; I couldn't afford to own more than one pair of shoes ata time; and I walked or hitch-hiked wherever I needed to go. Sometimes on a subzero winter's night I took the last swing-shift bus from WCOU back to the campus.
But now it was the beginning of the "dog days," and I walked through the desertedstreets of Lewiston, Maine, at seven o'clock on a Sunday morning. I carried a coat and tie which I would need later in my role as minister. No need to hurry. There was plentyof time before I had to sign on the 1240 kilocycles at 7:55. My heavy briefcase as anot-too-gentle reminder that I hadn't finished the sermon.
Sundays usually meant getting radio station WCOU on the air, and then monitoring the networkreligious programs until I was relieved at 10 o'clock by Conrad Giguere who did a French language program. I then caught the local bus to Lisbon Falls forthe 11 o'clock church service. Usually there was time between eight and ten to finishwriting my sermon, picking out the hymns, etc. I generally started these tasks duringthe Saturday evening network shows such as Chicago Theater of the Air. Although the radio station signed off the air at 12:01 a.m. every night, the transmitter and studioconsoles were left functioning. Management had figured that tubes and condensersand the like were less likely to burn out if left glowing during the silent hours. Don Mason would be the engineer at the transmitter a mile away, but the studio controlswere my responsibility.
On Sunday mornings the usual routine was to check the "news room" on my way to the third floor studios. The "news room" consisted of a United Press International teletype machine which served both the radio station and the French newspaperLe Messager on the first floor. Teletypes in those days were noisy motor-driventypewriters which banged out news stories and feature articles fed to the machine viaopen telephone line from a central source. Our UPI services came via Portland,Maine.The news was printed on continuous rolls of paper 24 hours a day.
If you happend to be the first one on duty in the morning the pile-up of news print couldbe enormous. That was the best scenario. The worst scenario involved running out ofpaper -- or the teletype going haywire and printing everything in what looked like a secret code! The machine sported a loud bell which clanged to alert one and all to a particularly important story as it was breaking.
I let myself into the building at about 7:30. Before I reached the news room on the second floor I could hear the teletype bell clanging insistently. The usual pile of printed paper sat in graceful folds behind the waist high machine. I read the storyjust being printed and couldn't believe my eyes. The United States had just droppedan "atom bomb" on a place in Japan called Hiroshima! Details were scarce but thestory claimed that the bomb was equal to 20,000 tons of TNT.
We were instructed to pronounce the city "HEE rhoh SHEE mah." Two weeks laterthe pronunciation changed to "hee RAW shuh muh," with the accent on the second syllable. Eventually it turned out that the pronunciation experts had been right thefirst time.
I waited for the news summary to be completed, ripped it off the machine and ranupstairs to the studios to get the station on the air with the National Anthem, the sign-on notice, and three minutes of headline news.
Then all was quiet. The religious programs were fed as usual from Mutual. Therewere no interruptions for special bulletins. I began to wonder if I had dreamed it -- or if this was UPI's idea of a sick practical joke. Then Don Mason at the transmittertold me that he had heard a similar news bulletin on one of the Boston stations.The horrifying story began to sink in. I took out the notes for my sermon and wrotewhat may well have been the first homily on the perils of an atomic age.
Unfortunately, I didn't save it, nor do I remember what I said. My feelings weremixed as they are today: hopeful that perhaps the war would soon end, and fearfulthat mankind had come so close to destroying itself. There also was a secret pridethat radio was at the cutting edge of history in the making, and I was a part of it.
Recently the property where those radio studios once functioned was sold at auction. Its call letters have been silent for many years. And those who rememberthose first stunning words about a place called "Hiroshima" have become a precious few.