By Bob Lang
After four years of college, it was time to leave the scholastic existence where your reward was your grade and your entitlement was time off at the end of the semester. Things were about to get tough. The expectation was now to become a productive member of society. All I ever wanted was to become a radio disc jockey; not much of an ambition for a college grad. I also didn’t have much of a plan on how to get there.
My friend and media classmate, Tony Rossi, was making arrangements to attend William B. Ogden’s Radio Operational Engineering School, or R.O.E.S., to get his first class Radiotelephone Operators License, a requirement at the time for entering the broadcast profession. He suggested we could attend together. Suddenly, quite suddenly as I recall, I had more than the formal education and the creative desire, I had direction. I discussed my extended education with my folks and got their financial support.
Actually, there were three of us. Tony had made the same suggestion to a neighborhood chum from his Marin County home in Kentfield. Bruce Badaracco had less direction and ambition than I, but worse, practically no support or encouragement. He’d been part of the local drug scene and had a young man’s aimless existence until Tony set the spark. Bruce wasn’t necessarily interested in a radio career, but saw this as an opportunity to receive a license that might lead to a position with a utility company or a railroad. Tony saw it as an opportunity for Bruce to get some respect from his family and some much-needed self-esteem.
So, that spring after a few months of downtime, I loaded up my Volkswagen bus with my summer clothes, a 12-string guitar, and a tin of Grandma Hood’s chocolate chip cookies. I drove south to Huntington Beach on the Southern California coast and to 5075 Warner Avenue.
Radio Operational Engineering School
R.O.E.S. was a two story building just inland from a main drag called Bolsa Chica. It had classrooms and offices on the first floor and three large dormitory rooms upstairs with bunk-beds and armoire-type closets that would become our home for the summer weeks to come. The organization was family-run. It was Bill Ogden’s business, but he confined his role to that of instructor. His wife Tally was the office manager and registrar, assisted by her sister Thora McDonald. As tough as Bill seemed, the ladies were sweet and attentive, even motherly.
Tony, Bruce, and I registered with about 45 others, all male, on April Fools Day in 1969. We attended school in the large open downstairs classroom led by Bill, a gruff old guy with a raspy voice who taught us from 8:00 to 5:00 every weekday. Following dinner, we were back in the classroom for three hours of lots and lots of math taught by Thora’s son, Jim, another relative who worked there in the evenings. Then we were off to independent or group study in one of the smaller rooms around the inner edge of the building. We had Sunday nights off and used it to relax and to catch up on our laundry.
The length of time spent at Ogden’s would depend on the individual student. We would study, learn, and test at our own pace specifically in preparation for the series of Federal Communications Commission licenses. Some of us already had our third class tickets which we received, for example, to work on our college radio stations (I’d even applied for and received a fourth class license when I was in high school which was more like the equivalent of passing a written DMV exam; it got me a wallet card and a bit of cachet with my weekend dates). The biggest hurdle we faced would be acquiring the second class license, the one requiring all the math and electrical theory. But the payoff was in the golden “first phone,” the one with the professional prestige. The first was anticlimactic –
much easier to achieve than the second – and, when asked why we couldn’t just stop there and go find a job, Bill would grumble, “Nothing is lower than a second class operator.”
I had purchased a spiral notebook for taking notes. It had a three-month calendar in the inside front cover. The class notes are long gone, but I kept the cardboard cover as a souvenir because I’d made an entry on nearly every date related to something that happened that day. The meaning of many of the notes have become obscure over time, such as “how to sharpen pencils” or “birds nest soup.” Others made reference to what we learned that day, including two consecutive days on electrical resistance, or dates that tests were scheduled to be given.
The calendar supports my recollection that on the second full day of class, Bill spent much of the day warning us about two inept FCC honcho’s in Los Angeles, J. Lee Smith and Walter Looney. Looney was aptly named and, according to Bill, “didn’t have the brains God gave a tennis ball.”
As soon as that night, I was amazed to find myself studying, and even grasping, calculus. It didn’t take long for any of to realize that Bill was mining each of our potentials to a point where no other instructor had gone before. To many of us, he became “Mr. Ogden.” To others he was the best teacher ever encountered. A sign on the wall behind his desk stated, “In ‘Ogd’ We Trust.” And, very quickly, we did.
Smokers were on one side of the room, non-smokers on the other as if the smoke was actually going to stay in the air on its own side. The school provided black ashtrays with bowls that could be raised to allow butts and ash to fall inside and smother. Bill was a chain smoker and he sat in front of the room behind a desk on an elevated platform. He’d light one Salem with the last before snuffing it out. His short-sleeved shirts all had tiny burn holes down the front.
I sat in the back row next to Dirk Raaphorst. Dirk had what we all admired as a great set of pipes. He possessed a natural, deep, booming, rock ‘n’ roll voice and was clearly bound to become a terrific Top 40 jock. Dirk had chosen the air name “Dirk Donovan” and was always talking up imaginary record introductions in his announcer’s snappy patter. One day Dirk brought the class to hysterics with, “Tune in again next week, boys and girls, when the Safety Story Lady takes a Pepsi-Cola douche!”
On the bulletin board at the front of the classroom was a crest, undoubtedly made and presented as a gift to Bill by a former student, bearing the initials “O.I.C.” We were fairly certain it stood for Ogden’s something or another, but could only speculate as to what it might actually mean, and Bill wasn’t letting on. During one particularly frustrating explanation of Ohm’s Law, some poor moax struggling with the concept had – no pun intended – a light bulb moment. He’d gotten it and blurted out, “Oh, I see!” Bill jumped from behind his desk and pointed to the crest on the wall!
Someone would invariably ask Bill what he thought were the most important things to remember in preparing for an FCC exam. “If you must remember it,” he’d say, “forget it.” He would also admonish us not to become “dirty memorizers,” memorizing, for example, the order of test answers rather than learning the material. When taking a test, he would tell us to answer all of the questions where we knew the answer cold and to skip the ones we weren’t sure of. Then he’d tell us to go back and count the questions we had left over. Out of 100 questions, if we hadn’t answered 20, all we now had was a short, manageable 20-question test. If I remember correctly, the FCC required a score of 90. Bill wouldn’t allow us to take their exam until we could pass his with a score of 95.
In explaining the dynamics of electricity, invariably a student would confuse current and voltage. He would innocently ask what might happen if the voltage were to go in this direction or that way. Bill would stop him cold. “Voltage goes nowhere,” he’d bellow! I’ve heard that same story so often that the incident must have repeated itself in every session.
Every so often, a student would remark that the complexity of the material was driving him crazy. “With you,” Bill would respond, “it’ll be a short putt!” When a student got an answer to a question regarding electrical current wrong, he’d say, “You’ve just blown hell out of another $500 tube.” When someone made a disparaging remark about the FCC, Bill’s response would be, “There’s another fascinating word they’re going to make you eat!” And when we became anxious to make the drive to Los Angeles to take the exam, but he didn’t think we were ready, Bill would discourage us with, “When I yell ‘frog,’ you jump!”
In the mid-morning and mid-afternoon, Bill’s wife Tally would stand at the classroom door with a notepad and wait for Bill to take refreshment orders. She and Thora would brew coffee and tea and prepare the cart. Bill would call a brief halt while we made our choices. “Coffees – get’ em high” he’d bark in his raspy voice, and Tally would count those of us with our hands raised, then he’d follow with hot tea and iced tea. The other anticipated event of the day was mail call when he’d pass out letters from home. Most of us had gotten so good at mimicking his voice that on at least one occasion someone yelled “mail call” from the lobby and the entire student body marched out of their study rooms.
Warner Avenue was a good-sized boulevard in the late ‘60s, but still had a rural, open feel. To the east of the school was Meadowlark Field, a private airfield from which novice pilots would infrequently taxi toward the school, but lift off a bit late, roaring over the building and sending Bill’s students to the floor. Bill would sit undaunted, however, used to this occasional commotion. The airport also had a breakfast and lunch counter and a short order cook who whipped up some dandy ham and eggs whenever we wanted something substantial to begin our day. Across the street was a liquor store where we all bought our cigarettes.
To the west at the corner of a strip shopping area was Jam’s Doughnuts. Jam was an Asian lady who owned the place and hired local high school girls to work the counter. One pretty waitress would save a custard-filled chocolate doughnut bar for me in case I’d go in. When I found that out, I went in more often. The girls were all friends with one another and spent their off hours at Jam’s too, maybe because there were lots of single guys from our school two buildings away. All of the surfer girls in the area seemed to drive 1962 Chevy Impalas and, being close to the Southern California coast and the Pacific Ocean, they all had blonde hair, bronze skin, bare feet, and beautiful reveals.
Between the school and Jam’s was an evening hangout for those requiring a more manly diversion. The Maple Room was a dark rustic saloon with an L-shaped bar and three or four pool tables under rectangular faux stained glass light fixtures. From the previous class was a hold-over; a young, thin, handsome lad with an Elvis-type mane known only as “Star” who clearly was the pool champ of the establishment. No doubt he was a hold-over from the previous class because he spent more time behind a cue than he did behind a school desk. The girls in the Maple Room were unlike those at Jam’s. They wore denim, had short, mousy hair, thin lips, and smelled like a Coors. A more sophisticated array of females could be found around the corner at the Roman Scandals, a classier watering hole, but with a brighter, more open ambiance and slightly less personality.
Among the several other interesting personalities at R.O.E.S. were two of my favorites: Tom Irwin and Tom Lowe. Tom Irwin was arguably Ogden’s most successful graduate and went on to have probably the longest radio industry tenure of all. He became Shotgun Tom Kelly, a popular rock jock in the Drake Chenault mold and a mainstay at KCBQ in San Diego where he’s occupied the time slot once held by the Real Don Steele for several years and presently at K-Earth radio in Los Angeles. Tom was, and is, easily among the most energetic and captivating of all radio guys I ever encountered.
Bill Ogden had the habit of standing in front of you with his legs slightly spread and his hands behind his back. As he conversed with you, he’d sway from side to side. Tom picked up the habit and I have a vivid memory of watching the two of them standing out in the parking lot behind the school having a discussion. They stood face-to-face and had become so engrossed in their conversation that neither realized that the dance had begun and that they were swaying in unison.
Tom Lowe, on the other hand, was interested in becoming a technical engineer. An engaging character and tremendously likeable, Tom had a learning disability and was having trouble getting through the Ogden sessions. He was from Ridgecrest and had spent more time at Ogden’s than anyone, something like four class sessions. I’m not entirely sure when he might have made it out, but Bill guaranteed that he’d work with anyone who enrolled at the same initial price for as long as it took.
Tom was part classmate, part mascot, and part unofficial employee (as so often happens, Tom became comfortable in the “home” he’d found at Ogden’s and came to regard his existence there as a job). Bill had given him the keys to the various rooms with the assignment to see that the place was locked up and secure each evening.
Tom was so playful and off-the-wall that it would have been difficult not to find him appealing. A few of us, including Jack Combs, another colorful character that I spent much time with, would take a willing Tom next door to the Maple Room where we shared pitchers of beer until Tom was loosened up. Jack would eventually begin to question him about his experiences with girls, but Tom would have none of that. “Frequency modulated broads,” according to Tom, were too much of a distraction.
As immersed as we were in our studies, we were mostly 20-somethings with an additional need to kick back. Occasionally, some of us would drive down to the beach at dusk with our guitars to make a bit of music or share radio dreams as we enjoyed the sunset and the phosphorescent waves breaking on the sand. For others, a trip to Tijuana across the Mexican border for some well-planned over-consumption usually resulted in a visit to more than just one strip club and perhaps, as in Larry McLeod’s case, a tattoo parlor. He remembered little of the actual experience, but seemed to walk quite slowly for the following two or three days.
The first of us, Rich Corgiat who had left his wife at home and was much more focused, successfully reached his goal within a mere four weeks. A few more were out after five or six. Pretty soon we were dwindling at the rate of three or four each week. I managed to keep up despite my struggles with math, but seemed to plateau before I was able to take the test for my second class license. While I was stalled, others were preparing for their first class exam. I watched Tony, then Bruce, and the others I’d shared a classroom with launch their careers and I began to feel anxious and inadequate.
My trip to the FCC to take my second class test occurred later than most of the others. Bill’s ritual was to meet with those who would be driving to Los Angeles early the following morning and give them parting instructions. We would be given scratch paper for our calculations, he’d tell us, but we were expected to turn those notes in with the tests themselves. We were to make sure they were neat, precise, and indicated that the answers were well thought out. We then lined up and Bill would present each of us with a gold pencil for taking the test and a final word of encouragement. In my case it was simply, “Give ‘em hell!” Bruce’s goal was to complete the exam with his pencil, but without having a need to use the eraser. I recall that he did. kept that gold pencil for several years and I would bet that there are some that exist even today.
Within a few days I received notification that I had passed my second class FCC exam. The big hurdle was behind me, but I had a deadline looming that I wasn’t sure I’d make. In mid-summer, I was to be best man at the wedding of one of my oldest friends, an event I simply couldn’t and wouldn’t refuse. I discussed my options with Bill who was not comfortable that I’d pass my first class exam in the short time remaining. He wasn’t yelling “frog,” and I’d learned very well not to jump until he did. Bill convinced me to hold off until after the wedding, then come back and join the following class session to finish up. I certainly didn’t want to be a hold-over, but fortunately the delay would only be a couple of weeks.
Jack had been struggling hard with his second class test scores and would also be returning following the brief hiatus. Bill wasn’t letting him loose until he felt Jack was ready. Somehow I made it down to meet him at his brother’s place and the two of us hitch-hiked the rest of the way to Huntington Beach. Tom Lowe was back too, with his keys to the building. But this was a new class session with new students in the classroom, again with the smokers on one side and the non-smokers on the other. One of them was Derek Waring, perhaps the most naturally talented radio guy I’ve ever met. He wasn’t a rock jock in the style of Shotgun Tom, but had an easy, natural style that I admired and hoped to develop.
I took my final test right around the time Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon. That was on July 20th, the day before my 23rd birthday. That next evening, I stood alone near the cinder block wall that separated Ogden’s from the Maple Room parking lot and stared up at the near-full moon. It was a stunning moment for me to realize that, although I couldn’t actually see them, there were two men walking around on the moon’s surface. I was witnessing an historic event that I sensed was ushering in a new era and realized that I was about to enter my own new age of existence. A few days later, I would be headed home with my first class ticket to begin looking for work.