Radio, roses, rat-tails and River Phoenix…
The year was 1993 and I had taken a short-term job at an AM/FM in Morristown, TN, about an hour up the road from where I live in Knoxville. I did a live mid-day shift on the country AM, and then production and voice-tracks for the night shift on the FM. The job lasted 3 months. The friendship with Ron that began there lasted 22 years.
When I met Ron he had a rat-tail, which, for those unfamiliar with 90’s hair trends, was a long, thin strand of hair hanging down the neckline of an otherwise short haircut. It could be considered a cousin of the mullet, I suppose. I’d never had a friend with a rat-tail before, but Ron didn’t hold that against me. In fact, he never held anything against me, ever. Oh, he’d call me on the carpet if I wasn’t being honest with myself, but he never made me feel judged. He was one of my “easy” people…easy to like, easy to talk to, easy to be with.
It was just about this time in 1993 that the young actor River Phoenix died outside a nightclub from a drug overdose. When I returned to work the following Monday, as Ron and I were talking about the story we looked at each other and, at the same time, said, “Poor dumb b@$&@%d!” I think this might have been the moment when I realized that, yes, we are going to be friends.
My last day of work at the station, he sent me 3 red roses, one for each month I had worked there. I still have them, dried, in a wreath with other flowers from years gone by. We promised to keep in touch. And we did. And in those days, keeping in touch meant actually writing letters, since there was no e-mail yet, (certainly no Facebook!) and phone calls between us were long-distance. For years after I left the station he continued to call me by my middle name, Diane, which I had used on the air, even addressing letters to Diane.
Later on, when he was working Friday overnights at the big Knoxville country station and I was working early Saturday mornings on the big adult contemporary station across town, he would visit me in my studio before heading home. He knew the layout of our building about as well as I did, especially the location of the coffee pot and the men’s room. And I visited him at his place several times on nights when I was free. All this was before security cameras were everyplace and “unauthorized visitors” were so strictly forbidden.
He gave me so many gifts. When something was disagreeable, he would often say, “This sucks pondwater!” This expression comes from me often to this day. And his favorite line was, “Lord help us on the broadcast!” For me, “the broadcast” has become a metaphor for my life, and anytime I am facing some important event, good or bad, I catch myself whispering, “Lord help us on the broadcast.” When I went into the funeral home the night we received friends when Mama died…the day I stepped onstage to sing with my chorus at Carnegie Hall…when I’ve interviewed for jobs or auditioned for solos…”Lord help us on the broadcast.”
I had the chance to visit with Ron in the hospital the night before he died. He was in a lot of pain, but we still had a good visit together, talking about my husband and dog, and his children and both our workplaces, as well as the old days we shared in radio when we first got acquainted. He was flat on his back and unable to move, so when his supper arrived, I said, “If you feel like you’d like to try to eat, I’m happy to help you with your supper so you don’t have to hurt yourself moving around.” He said that would be good and I joked, “It ain’t nothing for me to cut up a man’s meat for him. I won’t tell anybody, but you can tell people this cute brunette with big hair and big boobs hand-fed you your supper!” And we laughed. He ate decently considering the pain he was experiencing, and after he ate I asked, “Now that your belly has something in it, do you think you could sleep if I went on home?” He said yes, so I got ready to leave. But not before we had the chance to exchange “I-love-you’s”. At that point there was no indication that less than 24 hours later he would be gone.
Now as I face the grief process for yet another treasured friend who died too soon, I feel many emotions. I am sad, of course. But I’m also grateful, for more than 2 decades of friendship and memories, for the clock he sent me as a housewarming present with a note saying he’d try to get by the studio that weekend for a visit, for the t-shirt from his station that he gave me and that I treasure (and can now fit into). And I am especially grateful for our last “supper date” when I was able to offer him some nourishment for both his body and, I hope, his heart.
And once again I find myself walking into a daunting place, whispering, shouting, praying…
Lord help us on the broadcast.