Frank Mrvan III – “We’ve got to mobilize, get ahead of the corona virus. That’s our job.”
Me – “What do you have in mind?”
Mrvan – “Since we haven’t built the MACC Center, we’ve got to make one quickly.”
Hessville Restaurant is old school. The eggs taste like they did 30 years ago. Potatoes come hot. Frank orders steak and eggs – “like I aways do here.” His plate comes with two huge steaks.
“Look at this – it’s enough for three meals.”
“They know you’re running for Congress.”
In 2008, Frank, the trustee of North Township, and I did what we could to help deal with the biggest disaster since the Standard Oil explosion of 1957.
“I was thrown off my chair,” my mom told me when she was still alive. “It was a freight train running through your soul.”
For the better part of a decade, Frank and I and Munster police chief Steve Scheckel have been meeting so that the shit that went down in 2008 would not go down again. We saw the devastation. We understand at least part of what needs to be done.
In 2008, we were not prepared. Hundreds of meetings, symposiums, conferences later and perhaps we’re just a little safer in the case of a disaster. Maybe we’ll find out soon. We get the chief on the phone and try to hold a speakerphone conversation. It doesn’t work. The cook bangs frying pans and the retired mill rats at the counter talk loudly. They have spent decades on the floor of a steel mill. They always shout.
“Just come over to my office,” the chief says. So we do.
9:30am Thursday– Munster police station.
I have led an undisciplined life. It brings back bad memories to be led behind the curtain at the Munster police station. The sniffing dog walks by and winks.
“We need an emergency operations center. Now,” the chief says.
“I agree,” Mrvan says.
“I agree..” Frank may be your next congressman. I own a media molehill empire. But in front of chief Scheckel with massive hands and deep voice and the gait of a former fullback… limp, limp, squint, squint… Frank and I are subjects, eighth graders sitting in front of Father Weiss.
We make plans to meet on Friday.
“Where should we do it?”
“I could ask Chancelor Keon if we can do it at Purdue.”
“Okay. Do that.”
As the three or four of you who read this shit know, my streaming video and radio company is on the campus of Purdue Northwest. I call the chancellor. Since the campus is shut down – along with every college in Indiana – the chancellor welcomes us.
“And if you need more room, we’ll open up another building.”
It’s all set. We’re gonna meet at my studios on Friday. Good bye.
5pm Thursday – the bike trail – I finally get to ride my bike. It’s a hint of Spring. I cut east-west across Riverside Park on the banks of the Little Cal. There’s a course for disc golf that traverses the path. Two guys, one in what looks like pajamas, eye up their drives on #7. One guy throws his disc, reaches for a joint from the other, and motions to me if I want any.
“Thanks but no thanks,” I tell him as I whiz by. My phone dings. Indiana governor Eric Holcomb has just declared a state of emergency. Schools are already closed. Holcomb announces that schools only have to do 160 days this year and not 180. There’s probably not gonna be an ISTEP test, which will bring joy to many a History teacher. Truckdrivers can drive more than their allotted hours. We need food in our stores, drugs in our pharmacies.
I ride and listen to Neil Young sing about his last trip to Tulsa. I stop at Calumet Avenue to wait my turn. There’s a sunset over the church by the river. Semis roar by just feet from my face. Cars, SUVS, pickups, dump trucks and a motorcycle. This is the Calumet Region. I have not ridden my bike into a sunset for months.
I ride toward the sun. There’s a fireworks store, a pumphouse, and the abandoned advertising agency where they thought of Toucan Sam. I ride near a field where a young father rolls a ball to his son. Life is good. It is finally warm.
I ride south into Munster. I drive by the tunnel at Belden Street where I first kissed Penny Shegich. She is gone now, a possible victim of talcum powder. In fourth grade, I loved her with all my heart. At the time, I couldn't imagine ever loving anyone as much as I loved her.
I called Penny once to ask if she would go out with me. “When, now?” That was her answer. It was 9:30 on a school night. It was then that I figured out that women take you literally. I’ve been running from the meaning of words ever since.
I’m almost to Ridge Road when my phone rings. Normally, I don’t answer the phone when I’m riding. But we’re in the middle of an international health crisis. What is the corona virus gonna do to us? I better keep my phone on.
It’s Kevin Smith, the attorney for the city of Hammond.
“Where are you?”
“Riding my bike.”
“Mayor’s gonna hold a press conference. Governor Holcomb just declared a state of emergency and we’re gonna make our own announcement. Can you get here?”
“I'm riding my bike.”
“Turn around. I’ll stall ten minutes.”
I go from fighting a south wind to sailing north with a warm wind at my back. I pedal like hell. Near the big bridge over 165th a little girl on a Big Wheel nearly crashes into my back tire.
“Cindy, watch where you’re going,” her mom yells.
“Damn it, Cindy,” says her dad.
I cut across Conkey Street to the Civic Center. The mayor is supposed to be holding a big St. Patrick’s Day party combined with his own birthday. But you know how it goes these days – no big gatherings. There’s a virus in our midst and you can pass it along by shaking hands, wagging tails, cajoling votes from the masses.
The mayor, like Frank, is running for Congress. The mayor and I recently had a scuffle on the air. He called me Fake News. I fought back. It was good radio.
At the Civic Center, there’s no party, but there are a few firemen, employees from the clerk’s office, tractor drivers, union officials and some general listeners that I know by sight but not name. It’s a rule in radio and, now, streaming TV – if someone greets you in public, you must, under every circumstance, stop and say hello, ask how their kids are doing. It’s something you learn to do, must do, love to do. I forget that I’m rushing to a press conference.
Finally, I reach the door of the Blue Room. Lindsey McDermott, the mayor’s daughter, is standing there.
“You can’t go in.”
This confuses me. I realize that to the Region, the mayor and I are in some sort of on-air feud about one thing or another. This happens a lot. He throws a fit and I show little respect. It’s a dance, a rehearsed Broadway number, a clash made for Marconi.
“Come on, Lindsey. You know that it’s all part of the game.”
“Not that, JED. They’re doing the press conference on the other side of this door. If you walk in, you’ll be in the shot and interrupt the whole thing.”
Lindsey and I chat for a while. It’s a warm March evening with sun and dryness. There’s corona in the air and that is sure to throw all of our lives into a tizzy in the near future. But, for the moment, I’m standing in bike tights in the halls of the Civic Center chatting easily.
“You’ve worked for me, Lindsey, and you obviously work for your dad. You know as well as anyone that this is part of the game.”
“I know that. I don’t even pay attention to it.”
Finally, the door opens. I enter and interview the mayor, careful to observe “social distancing,” although the mayor crowds my space. Like our president, the mayor of Hammond often observes his own rules, which may or may not comport with general tenets of Biochemistry.
There’s gonna be a corona virus task force headed by chief of staff Phil Tailon, whom might make a good mayor if indeed the election goes the McDermott way. I am in the middle of a ton of primary shit. I know all of the major candidates well. This is a big deal around here. Pete Visclosky has been our congressman for 36 years. He’s stepping down. Mrvan and McDermott, the supposed frontrunners, are dedicating a portion of their lives to getting that job.
6:30pm Thursday – I’m riding south on the new bridge over Calumet Avenue. My phone dings. It’s my wife. I text her that I’ll be home soon, honey. She’s making vegetable soup. I stop on the top of the bridge and snap a selfie of me, the bridge, the warm time of day, trucks underneath, old Hammond High, the fire station, White Castles… It all congeals not so much in the selfie but in my mind. My mom went to Hammond High. She’s been dead 30 years.
Friday, 2:49am – in bed. My phone dings. It’s Dave Ryan, the executive director of the Lakeshore Chamber of Commerce. Alexis groans her dissatisfaction. I leave the room to read the text.
“Can you help please? Lakeshore Chamber’s Awards Dinner canceled for Saturday. We will reschedule later in the year. Apologies to members and guests.”
I type in – “You might also want to apologize to Alexis too for waking her up.” But I backspace over it. Everyone is tense. Corona virus seeps into our consciousness and our blood.
“OK,” I text. “Call me at 6:30 live on air to make the announcement.”
“Good idea. Talk to you then.”
It’s 2:51 in the morning. I am the son of a sleepless mother and insomniac aunts. They all roam, when they’re alive, the house in the wee hours, emptying the dishwasher, smoking cigarettes, brewing coffee, reading the paper. Once awake, there is no escape.
I do the sensible thing. I cue up an old radio show from 1967 on my phone. It’s Jean Shepherd talking about the wonders of a steel mill. Jean grew up blocks from WJOB. It was his first radio job. He’s world famous for "A Christmas Story" but his real magic was radio. I make no excuses that when I wake up in the middle of the night, I know two things –
- several Polish aunts, at least the ones still alive, are awake with me.
- that I must get my fill of Jean Shepherd to have any chance at all of falling back to sleep. Jean relaxes me. He may not be the most likable human being, but he comes from the Region and he and I are kindred if not equal spirits.
6:30 am, Friday. Purdue Northwest, WJOB studios, Hammond, Indiana – I interrupt talking about all the schools closing from corona virus to take a phone call from Dave Ryan. I feel as if I’m stumbling through a field of cattail déjà vu. Dave and I repeat on radio and TV the text conversation that we had in the middle of the night. I was on one of the videos that they were gonna show to 500 people at the awards dinner. I didn’t win an award but I did make a few jokes on film. I even slipped in a few cuss words that Dave said was funny so they left in.
6:50am - John Pigatti, the head basketball coach at South Suburban in South Holland, Illinois, calls in. The three or four of you who read this blog know this, but for anyone else who sneaks in – we’re on the Indiana-Illinois state line. More people in the land of Lincoln can hear us than Hoosiers.
Pigatti’s team is in the junior college national finals. But a funny thing happened on the way to the forum in Danville, Illinois – corona virus came along. People are dying. The NCAA canceled their tournament. And so did the NJCAA. You can hear the disappointment in Pigatti’s voice. When he’s not coaching the Bulldogs, he announces high school games for us. He’s a great color announcer. He’s got this raspy voice like he just smoked ten cigarettes at a dive bar outside Ebbing, Minnesota…. and then sang karaoke.
7:05am – I interview Scott Costello. Like Frank Mrvan and Tom McDermott and 17 others, Scott is running for Congress. It’s quite the co-inky-dinky that as soon as I hang up with Pigatti, I start talking in studio with Costello – and they’re both from Rockford, Illinois.
Costello is a social worker. He doesn’t seem to like Donald J. Trump. Public policy dislike, in a fashion similar to a good McDermott-Dedelow clash, makes for good radio. It’s an eternal search for good radio. Jean Shepherd found the magic every night for decades. He talked into a microphone off Times Square in New York City and his voice boomed all along the Eastern seaboard. He talked mostly about growing up in Hammond, Indiana.
7:35am – Larry Moore, Jr., the head basketball coach of Hammond High calls in. Moore’s Wildcats are 20-4 and favorites to win the Regionals on Saturday. He’s amped up and so am I. My mom and her family went to Hammond High. I saw my first Hammond High game in 1967 at the Hammond Civic Center… at about the same time Jean Shepherd, who also went to Hammond High, was talking about steel mills to the Eastern seaboard.
Moore runs through all of his players, and then we talk about the odd nature of Saturday’s Regional game. It’s to be held at South Bend Washington High School. And there will be no fans. Just media.
We, WJOB, are the northwest Indiana affiliate for the IHSAA (Indiana High School Athletic Association). We will broadcast on TV and radio the highly-anticipated matchup between Hammond High and Western. Sam Michel will announce and my cousin, Scott Francoeur, will do color. Scott runs the big youth basketball program in South Bend-Mishawaka. His mom and my mom are identical twins. That makes us genetically half brothers. He moves his hands like me and looks like a four-year younger version of me. Life is just so f---ing confusing.
7:45am – I vacate the studio for Tom McDermott to do his show. During his show, he throws a few punches at me. I’m sitting at Debbie Wargo’s desk reviewing our lack of money.
Producer Ryan Walsh runs around the corner – “Turn on the radio. Mayor’s ripping on you.”
I’m lost in the reverie of figuring out how to not pay Peter so we can pay Paul and still stay on two radio stations and a streaming video network. I take all of the money we make from radio and I pour it into building a streaming video network. Don’t ask how much. It’s a lot. There’s no return yet on the money invested into the new but growing area of streaming video. It’s a constant hustle. I hope it pays off one day. I’m getting tired.
“Oh,” I tell Ryan. I fiddle with the radio on Debbie’s desk, but I realize that I don’t know how to turn it on. I can see through the studio windows that the mayor is looking at me and smirking. He’s got the mike now. He can do or say whatever he wants. That’s how it works.
8:35am – I’m back in the studio to interview, no shit, Frank Mrvan. When people buy time from us, they can decide if they want me to interview them or not. Yesterday, Frank Mrvan was on our airwaves. Sam Michel interviewed him. Now it’s my turn. There’s a terse moment at the Strack & Van Til studios on the campus of Purdue Northwest. Mrvan and McDermott nod at each other cordially. At times, the only thing they can agree on is that I’m a dick.
9:30am – Emergency responders from the five county area descend on the big room across from our studios at Purdue Northwest. I’m not even gonna go through all the scary shit these guys and gals lay out about how corona virus could spread through our midst. My head is dizzy. Like everyone else in the world, I don’t wanna die from the flu… nor do I want anyone close to me to die. I vow to do whatever these people ask of me to help keep the Region get through it.
11:05 am– The five of us – Ryan Walsh, Debbie Wargo, Sam Michel, Tony Panek and I – have a meeting to talk about the logistics of sending broadcast teams all over northern Indiana to bring no-fan games back to the Region on TV and radio. It’ll be 15 people working all day. There’s cameras, computers, chords, internet hotspots, lenses, tripods and more to think about.
Ding…. ding… ding…. ding…. In the middle of the meeting, the IHSAA’s Bobby Cox sends out an email – All Regionals cancelled.
We mobilize. Within three minutes we’re live on:
- AM 1230 radio
- 104.7 FM radio
- the TuneIn app
- Roku, Apple TV, Amazon streaming video
- Facebook Live video
- the WJOB app and WJOBNetwork.com
We break the story on video that the IHSAA has canceled all basketball games for the weekend. Many thousands of views. We get on the air quickly enough to carry IHSAA commissioner Bobby Cox live in a press conference. The Indiana basketball regionals were the last holdout in America. There will be no sports anywhere in America going forward.
11:45am – I’m in a meeting at the executive offices of the Gary Airport. Colonel Dwayne Hayden runs the place and it’s good to see him. We’re working to figure out where to put an emergency operations center. As the three or four of you losers may know, we made an announcement that we’re gonna build a 10-million-dollar center just off the runway at the airport.
But it’s not built yet. We gotta make one NOW. Electricians are putting in extra internet and phone lines. and a generator. I can’t tell you where yet but it’s a big job. With plans made, we retire to the airplane hangar of Nick Popovich. He orders Doc’s barbecue. Andy Qunell and I, two fat Catholics, eat salmon. It’s a Friday during Lent. The rest of the heathens devour rib tips and smoked turkey. On the way home I drive over the big bridge on 12-20. You can see into one of the world’s largest steel mills and across miles of runway. At the very top of the bridge, I birp up hot cole slaw.
Saturday, 9am – I’m on the air at WJOB. There are now 15 cases of corona virus in Indiana, two in nearby LaPorte County. Sam Michel, Debbie Wargo, Tony Panek and I man the airwaves in radio and TV for hours. People are scared. Several people call in, including my Uncle Danny, who’s on his way home from Costco to buy a chair for my Aunt Debbie. A few people call live on the air looking for the basketball game. One guy, Rich from Portage, grew in the Indiana Harbor and he always takes his grandson, now 13, to the Regionals. Rich gets emotional.
“This is Indiana basketball,” Rich says. “It’s a legacy I leave for my grandson.”
None of us want to die of the flu. None of us want to watch others die from the flu. The challenge is that we live in an area that started on the floor of a steel mill. Men have worked decades without calling off, no matter how sick they were. We are programmed to shoulder on. Now, medical experts are telling us every few minutes on TV, radio and the internet – if you have the sniffles, stay home. Don’t go anywhere. We are not wired this way. I worry on the air for several hours and then go home.
5pm - Saturday. Home – I sit down to a meal cooked by my girlfriend of 30 years:
- chicken fajitas
- refried beans
- Mexican rice
- pico de gallo
- green salsa
- corn tortillas
- red wine
We eat at the kitchen table, which looks out on a backyard that in the Spring fills with birds and squirrels. Tonight, though, it fills with snow. White stuff falls from the sky and rests like a blanket on mud and thatch.
“Mind if I write a few words before we watch a movie,” I ask.
“No. Go ahead.” She sits in the easy chair and plays Scrabble on her Ipad. Little known fact – Alexis may be the best Scrabble player in the Midwest. She has played the computer in tens of thousands of games. She often beats it at the highest level. It keeps her occupied while write a few (thousand) words to the three or four of you. Corona virus is real and so is radio and streaming video and fear and microbes and wash your hands every 20 minutes. Let’s talk later.