It wasn’t exactly the graveyard shift, signing on the radio station at six a.m. No real hardship. I had been born into a family of early risers, my father going fishing before daybreak; my mother reading Proust in French in the pre-breakfast darkness, her private time.
An hour before going on the air, I’d travel the city’s streets from my apartment to the station — by cab in cold weather, bike when it was fair. I was rarely frightened; rather, as is my nature, I vigilantly looked over my shoulder. At the station, I’d begin work at the wire service machines. They had been chewing out reams of copy overnight, and piles routinely accumulated on the floor. I would collect the yellow pages, rolling them up in the fluorescence of the newsroom, then rip and sort, rip and sort — international news, national and local, the weather — all the while watching the clock.
The program was called “The Morning Report,” but the new station manager’s marketing firm wanted something snappier: “The Morning People.” I hated the phrase, how it dripped in false bonhomie and suggested cheery, vapid banter. I had urged the boss to side with me and embrace my idea, “The Breakfast Serial,” but he worried we would be the butt of jokes about pap and pablum, oatmeal turning cold and lumpy in the cereal bowl. And so I would invoke a comma when my co-anchor and I took to the airwaves. I would say, “Welcome to the morning, people,” emphasizing the last word rebelliously.
I suppose none of this matters now, neither the performance anxieties that caused me to tremble before switching on the microphone, my acute fears of failing, nor the days when the world would fall apart too early — wars, assassinations, tempests, assorted miseries. Not the letters from listeners faulting me for being a woman, for having a woman’s higher-pitched voice, for stepping into what they deemed a man’s medium, a man’s world.
No, what I want to remember is making coffee in the lunchroom, the pungent smell of it, and, for a few brief moments when I was free to roam the building during the taped news segments, watching the sun come up over the city’s rooftops, bold and magnificent. Then I would go back to the studio, back on the air, to tell anybody listening, “The sun is up, and it looks like a bright and promising day.” I wanted to encourage people to get out of bed on the right side. I wanted us all to enjoy the good life.
I want to remember this story, too: Once I remarked over the airwaves that on my way to work I had seen one star brighter than all the others. Actually, no star but the planet Venus, called the “Morning Star,” a listener wrote me days later. His clean, printed block letters suggested the hand of an older man, set in his ways, not the tousled youth I would soon come to know, farming a few acres along the Baraboo River in western Wisconsin.
I met him at the Farmers’ Market around the Capitol Square in Madison one Saturday. He was selling some of the vegetables from his fields. I don’t know how we decided to get together there — I usually didn’t befriend anyone who was part of the “audience” — or whether he had any illusions about romancing a radio “star.” He was living alone out there, isolated in the country, I thought. But after all, wasn’t I older, and a city girl? Looking back on our meeting, I wasn’t prepared for the earnestness, the poetry of him.
He seemed quiet, fragile, as if life had broken him once and now the land and his hands were restoring him back to health. Or perhaps I have this completely wrong. He was just nervous about this encounter. Or shy, artistic, thoughtful, the silent type in plaid flannel shirts.
How many letters did Neil send me? How did we become friends? I have no recollection of these details. I also can’t remember why I agreed to let him introduce me to one of the locals to hear about a barn-raising. I didn’t think it was much of a story, and I didn’t pursue it. I felt awkward that I turned him down.
Was I the one who encouraged him to folk dance Saturday nights about 30 miles from the city, at a folk arts and cultural center? It was a place I loved, where life was simple, elemental, where we brewed tea from herbs growing in the garden. At the cheese factory up the road I bought whey cream, skimmed before the curds were formed.
At Folklore Village he made friends, met a young woman, raven-haired, practical, level-headed, not at all like me, high-strung, hell-bent on a career. As luck would have it, as she got to know him, she was full of love for him.
Funny how we must have kept in touch after he had moved away and they got married. I visited them once, in their new home in upstate New York. The sun was streaming through the windows, warming balls of wool for knitting, lying in the basket. (Perhaps there was a mischievous spotted cat, all eager paws. Or I am just wishing it so.) I doubt that we ever spoke or wrote to one another thereafter. I drove off, on a different trajectory, heading for other broadcasting jobs that would take me places: New York City and Paris.
I ask myself now, am I making too much of this? Do I regret losing touch with him? Not really. I pursued a less-subdued life than his, perhaps, and have wound up in the right place for me. But it’s that very place that reminds me of him.
I thought I had been the guide, even the teacher, but I know that Neil really was. If I had been looking for gentleness and grace in the morning, he was the one who acknowledged its possibility, who nurtured it in me.
Venus, she has become my signal to delight in life, in the day’s fleeting moments, its unexpected connections. And in its magic, too.
Born and raised in New York City, RONNIE HESS came west for graduate study (MA, History) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. A career in broadcast journalism followed with travels around Europe for CBS News. She was a Knight Fellow (PJP) at Stanford University in 1978-79. Hess writes frequently on food and travel and is the author of a culinary travel guide, Eat Smart in France, as well as a poetry chapbook, Whole Cloth. She drinks only French champagne and has a particular fondness for dark chocolate.