Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The Road to Del Rio XI: Heard It on the "X"

Back when the rest of America was still stuck in the Great Depression, there was one place where everyone seemed to be doing just fine, thank you very much. That place was Del Rio, a bustling little town in South Texas right on the Mexican Border. When the rest of the country was out of hope, Del Rio had so much of it they were blasting it out every day and inviting the whole world to help themselves to. And this wasn't the spiritual sort of hope. Heck no! What Del Rio was offering was of the purely physical sort. What Del Rio was selling was sexual rejuvenation.

"Yes indeed, friends and neighbors and all you fine folks out there in Radio-Land, if you're sexually weak, sexually impotent, sexually dead. If you've got a flat tire and you're afriad that there's nothing left to live for, that all you're doing with your so-called-life is marking time between now and when you're laying there on the cold grey slab in the undertaker's parlor. If this describes you, then I want you to listen very closely to this message I have for you today during this period of broadcast. Because if you listen to what I say and do exactly as I recommend, you too can return to the bright sunshine of full sexual health and vigor..."

It all started in Milford, Kansas in the early 1920s where there was this phony doctor named Brinkley; J.R., John Romulus Brinkley. Dr. Brinkley had developed one of the greatest money-making scams of the 20th Century. It involved transplanting, or at least claiming to transplant, slivers of testicle from young billy goats  into those of well-heeled, but poorly-performing, middle-aged men. About all Brinkley probably did was make an incision, inject some colored wate, followed by just enough sewing-up afterwards that the patient had to spend a few days with his johnson sheathed in bandages, during which time he had little to do but dream wildly of all the fun he was going to have with his masculinity fully restored, of being a stallion, instead of a gelding, of being, as Dr Brinkley never tired of promising; "the ram that am with every lamb!"

Needless to say, Brinkley's goat gland proposition worked well enough that his patients convinced themselves that they had it back and thanks to mind-over-matter and a lot of word-of-mouth, Brinkley was making himself a nice little pile of dough. But word of mouth advertising wasn't enough. Brinkley needed to find a way to really get his message out and bring in the suckers in sufficient number to make him a millionaire. The answer, Brinkley realized, was radio.

The "Radio Age" had begun a few years before, and Doctor Brinkley was one of the first people to recognize its immense potential. He built a radio station in Milford named KFKB (for Kansas First, Kansas Best) and for a couple years he was wildly successful. But then two things happened. First, Brinkley, not being the sort of person who could restrict his vocal ruminations purely to matters of sex and glands, started veering off into politics. He had a golden voice and an authoritarian manner that was also warm and folksly. People ate up what he had to say, whether it was about sex or God or politics. He decided to run for governor, but the powers that be used a technicality to keep Brinkley off the ballot. So he ran as a write-in candidate and he would have won, except that the reigning political powers were able to disqualify all the write-in ballots that were not perfectly spelled.

At the same time, the Federal Government in Washington, alarmed at the anarchy going on over the airwaves, moved to regulate radio broadcasting, demanding that it be done in the public interest, and outlawing baldfaced requests for money that radio hucksters like Brinkley were engaging in. In short order the the newly constituted Federal Radio Commission shut down Brinkley's station. Brinkley left Kansas and vowed he'd never let anyone ever tell him what he could or could not do.

The solution, he soon discovered, was on the Texas-Mexican border.  The town fathers of Del Rio approached Brinkley and showed him all their town had to offer to a free-wheeling guy like himself. He could set up his hospital right there in town, they recommended he simply take over a floor of the Roswell Hotel. All they asked was that Brinkley do the right thing and spread the wealth around and not burn the locals. Beyond that, they didn't really care what he did with the suckers coming down on the train with $800 burning a hole in their pockets.  These were conditions even Brinkley could understand and respect. They shook hands all around.

Instead of building himself a hospital, Brinkely did indeed rent out a floor of the Roswell and called it the Brinkley Hospital. What he built instead was a radio station, named XER, the most powerful one in the world, just across the border in Mexico. Now he was free to broadcast anything he wanted and he did. Brinkley would spend hours each day preaching about sexual health and his miraculous goat gland operation. He'd mix it up by bringing down hillbilly bands to play music and sing. The airtime he didn't use for his own purposes, he rented out to preachers, singing cowboys and other hucksters, all of whom had come down to Del Rio for the same reason, to rake in the dough. It was a kind of paradise, far away from all the trouble and strife going on in the rest of America at the time.

Even so, if what was happening in the rest of the US might have seemed very far away to the good folks in Del Rio, to the people in the vast expanse of America,  Del Rio seemed like next door. Day after day, people let Dr. Brinkley and the other "X Station" stars into their homes. The music they played became the music everyone in America listened to: Hillbilly, Gospel, and Cowboy.

And it is into this world that Herbert T. Barrow finds himself cast. He has finally removed himself from the clutches of Bonnie, Clyde, the fortune-hunters, as well as God and the Devil. When the section opens, it's probably three months later and for all intents and purposes, Herbert is another person altogether.  His career as XER's singing cowboy is well underway. He sings cowboy songs by day for five dollars a session, and earns a heaping pile of nickles, dimes and quarters every night he plays blues at the Black Pussy Cat Cafe. Herbert is well on his way to becoming a local in Del Rio, somebody everyone knows and likes. Who knows, he just might settle down there and grab his own permanent piece of the Del Rio Dream.  But then, later that day,  when he's at the XER studios to do his program, a woman passes him in the corridor. Their eyes meet and even though neither exactly realizes it, they have both met their destiny.

Inside, everything is friendly, though businesslike; a mix of Anglo and Mexican secretaries, engineers and executives purposefully bustling about, speaking in a seamless patter of Spanish and English. At one end of the room are some leather couches. I sink into one and take my guitar out of its case and start tuning up. I’m there about three minutes when Peggy, the program director’s assistant, comes in with her clipboard in hand and says: “You’ll be in Studio C today, Slim.”

“Is it clear yet?”

“In five minutes. They’re just finishing up something now.”

“Who’s the engineer today?"

“Raoul Ortega.”

“Great,” I say, “lead the way.”

Peggy takes me through a rabbit warren of narrow, airless corridors with banks of glowing electrical panels on either side of us; large, wide metal cabinet doors with chrome handles jutting out that you hit if you walk too close to them.

We turn a corner and there’s hazy light coming from a window at the end of the corridor. That’s when I see a strange, exotic woman practically floating up the corridor towards us. She’s got on a diaphanous rose-colored gown that’s flecked in gold and her face hidden behind a veiled turban. The scent of jasmine wafts into my nose and suddenly I’m imagining the half-shadowed interior of some ancient, middle-eastern temple, rows of smooth Egyptian columns, scrolls, hieroglyphics, obelisks, statues of forgotten idols.

“Good afternoon, Peggy,” she says pleasantly as she walks by.

“Good afternoon, Rose,” says Peggy.

“Good afternoon, Slim,” she adds.

“Afternoon,” I say.

I turn around and watch her disappear around the corner.

“Who’s that?” I ask Peggy.

“You mean you don’t know?” asks Peggy, arching her eyebrows. “Well, she certainly knows you.”

“I have no idea,” I say. “Who is she?”

“Why, that’s Rose Dawn.” 

(Excerpt from Friend of the Devil, available on Kindle here)

No comments:

Post a Comment