It was 6 degrees F. on the morning of January 20 1971, but it was the Boston vice squad, not the weather, that had made the prostitutes invisible on the streets, although everybody knew they were still there, in the bars in in the Combat zone. But today it was so cold even the street alcoholics were nowhere to be seen, probably allowed to stay indoors after 7:00 AM at the Pine Street Inn. As I climbed up from the subway at Boylston St. it was starting to snow and the barrel of the great vertical neon hypodermic atop the John Hancock Building was flashing its red foul-weather warning. The spike of the hypodermic, 497 feet above street level, held the antenna of WBCN.
Woo-Woo had explained the changing radio-frequency geometry of WBCN in Boston to me. The 747 foot Prudential Tower, in the Back Bay half mile to the West of the John Hancock Building, was not close enough to WBCN’s transmitter on the John Hancock Building to significantly impair our signal. WBCN got out just about as well to the western suburbs and the North and South Shore after the Pru was built in 1964 as it had since T. Mitch first rented transmitter space on the John Hancock Building spike in 1959.
Corporate rivalry was about to change the geometry of radio-frequency shadowing in Boston. The John Hancock Mutual Insurance Company could not tolerate a taller insurance company building than its own in downtown Boston. For decades lesser insurance companies had acquiesced in the Hancock’s supremacy. Everybody knew that the Liberty Mutual Insurance company, doing business in its forbidding, Stalinesque building on Berkeley Street next to its acknowledged superior, was a second rate company in a second rate building. The erection of the Pru had upended the old order, which had to be reestablished in the only way that would make a statement of the necessary emphasis: the erection of a taller building. And not only would the building be taller, it would overshadow the Pru. No onlooker would be able to see one without seeing the other; and no one would fail to notice the superior height of the John Hancock Tower, as it was to be called: 779 feet.
Compare these two buildings to the end of the Korean War. The stalled armistice talks at Panmunjon were jump-started by an agreement to cease erection of the world’s two tallest flagpoles. The Communists and the American – led forces had been able to agree on nothing for over a year. Meanwhile World War One style trench warfare continued, as touchingly depicted in the 1960 film Pork Chop Hill. One day in 1952 the North Korean side erected a small flag on their side of the truce table. The next day a South Korean flag one meter taller appeared on the other side. Soon successively taller structures were being built on each side of the trenches. By mutual argreement a halt was called to the flagpole race, and a truce agreement followed within weeks. The North Korean pole, or tower, is located in the “Peace Village” at http://maps.google.com/maps?ll=37.945278,126.655556&spn=0.1,0.1&t=h&q=37.945278,126.655556 . The South Korean structure is one km South by West away, across the armistice line. The shadows of the North Korean and South Korean flag poles, each more than 100 meters tall, are clearly visible.
The Hancock Company chose a site for its Tower immediately between the Prudential and the old John Hancock Building. Now WBCN was in trouble: The skeleton of the new Tower was already going up a quarter mile away. The dimensions and proximity of the new monolith meant a significant degradation of WBCN’s signal to the West. When I arrived T. Mitch and Woo-Woo had already made arrangements to leapfrog the new building and move the transmitter to the top of the Prudential. The resulting shadow to the East could be tolerated, as there was nothing in that direction but hookers, drunks, Chinatown, Filene’s Basement, Logan Airport, Deer Island Correctional Institute and the sea.
The new installation atop the Pru had already been engineered and a new transmitter ordered. My job was to nurse along the unreliable old transmitter and its ancient backup transmitter until the new equipment arrived.
Woo-Woo had sent me to WHCN in Hartford for a crash course in maintaining high power FM transmitters. The WHCN (“Hartford Concert Network”, of course) technicians drove me to the top of Meriden Mountain. Listen to “night on Bald Mountain” by Moussorgsky to share an emotional sample of that ride up hill in the dark, on a narrow strip of ice, in the wind, branches overhanging and slapping at the Jeep, until we arrived at the transmitter building where a signed transmitter of Major Armstrong still existed, quiet now, in a corner near the malfunctioning heating plant, revered by the technicians and engineers.
Now that I had at least seen a few examples of the bunker-like FM transmitters of the day and their associated plumbing, known as “transmission lines”, Woo-Woo was introducing me this January morning to the transmitter atop the Hancock Building. We did not enter through the bronzed-columned and doored main entrance of the Hancock, but through a service entrance near a loading dock, although we could have gone through the ornate lobby. I don’t think it was my ragged appearance that influence Woo-Woo; we usually went the back way.
The main elevators ended at the twenty-sixth floor. There was a smaller elevator to one side for which Woo-Woo supplied a key. Up another four floors and out to a narrow, high passage of uncertain architectural purpose, befitting the interior of a Pyramid. At the end of the passage a brown painted steel door and another key. Then up four flights of stairs to a door leading to another passage and two more doors. At one end, the transmitter room; the other way to the antenna. By now we were both sweating from climbing. Woo-Woo and I entered the transmitter room to leave our coats on one of the stacks of incomprehensible junk and went out to the passage to the antenna.
We entered the base of a hissing, spitting column of flashing red neon. We went up the spiral staircase in the center. The white and blue neon tubes were quiescent. The high voltage AC to the red tubes hissed and the contactors clattered as the 100 foot tall, 20 foot wide beacon flashed about once a second. Even in heavy snow it could be seen from miles away.
Woo-Woo showed me the transmission line. It lead through a hole in the wall from the transmitter room at the base of the neon tower and snaked up alongside the spiral staircase to the top, where it exited to the antenna proper. Woo-Woo pointed out damaged sections of the transmission line, where it had overheated due to incompetent maintenance or the complete lack thereof and begun leaking the pressurized nitrogen gas that was supposed to keep it dry inside. The line was a metal pipe three inches in diameter with a black plastic coating. Near the leaks the plastic had melted a bit. Someone had tried to seal the leaks with clear plastic wrap and duct tape, but this had laeked too: the transmission line was damaged in several places with molten and then solidified black and clear plastic dribbling down.
The hissing noise of the neon and clacking of the connectors made it difficult to be heard. Woo-Woo had to shout as he explained the damage and what to do about it: manhandle nitrogen cylinders up the steps to the transmitter room as often as necessary – perhaps twice a week, in an effort to keep some pressure in the line so that more moisture would not seep in and cause arcing and further damage.
Woo-Woo seemed to grow more excited as we mounted higher. He was taking the steps two at a time and sweating, his face alternating a terrifying red with his normal slightly greenish pallor at intervals of one second. He reached the top ahead of me and shouted down through the spiral stairs: “You know, sometime I’m going to drop trousers up here and just take a big shit right down the middle”.
Dressed lightly as we were, and because the wind might snatch us off the base of the needle, we could not stay outside on the circular platform more than a few seconds. From my two days at WHCN I was able to recognize the antenna on its central mast: “bays”, they called them, attached to the mast, one garbage can sized arabesque above the other in an array of eight, where whatever amount of radio frequency energy that remained was radiated away, finally, above the snow swept office buildings, hotels, townhouses and Public Garden, over the emerging, menacing black steel skeleton of the Hancock Tower, to the horizon, for the benefit of young people for many miles to the North, West and South, who, oppressed by the greed and ostentation of corporate America and furious at another war against Communism in Vietnam, listened to their music and the disk jockeys they knew as friends: Diamond John Brody, Andy Beaubien, Tommy Hadges, Maxanne Sartori, Norm Weiner (“Old Saxophone Joe”), Jim Parry, Ed Perry, Sam Kopper and Charles Laquidara. There was also Danny Schechter, the News Dissector and a small corps of part time and assistant D. J.’s.