Franklyn MacCormack hosted the “All Night Showcase” on Chicago’s WBBM and WGN radio stations between 1959 and 1971. This was back when the now-defunct Northwest Airlines was known as Northwest Orient. (“Northwest Orient *gong* Airlines”) He played “mood music:” the soft, sultry tunes Rock Hudson would have played while gently but relentlessly pursuing Doris Day in Pillow Talk. MacCormack also read poetry on the air, told stories and extolled the virtues of the show’s sponsor, Meisterbrau beer, in his comforting baritone.
You’re probably wondering why a rebellious teenager steeped in Jimi Hendrix and Led Zep would be familiar with the old fart’s genre, but my musical tastes had always been fairly broad. And that’s not the point of this tale.
I’d gotten my driver’s license in September 1970 and, after a few month of driving around town with a parental co-pilot, I was allowed to take the car by myself. There was no published list of rules for me to follow; no advice given before I took off. I knew there would be hell to pay if I screwed up. Fear can be a great motivator.
One evening in January, 1971, some of my friends and I imagined we were adult enough to explore finer dining than the local burger drive-in offered, and do so without thoroughly embarrassing ourselves in the process.
So we met at The Red Door Inn, a restaurant about 30 miles away. It had subdued lighting, candles on the table and real cloth napkins. Our wallets were a bit light—part-time jobs for teenagers don’t pay that much—but we pretended we were adults out on the town. The highlight of the evening was watching small birthday cakes topped with a single sparkler being delivered to surprised diners, mercifully without having to suffer through a lame, off-key rendition of “Happy Birthday.”
Eventually we had our fill. We said our goodbyes in the parking lot and went our separate ways. A light snow started to fall as I pulled out of the parking lot.
This was a few decades before a new Interstate 39 would make the drive back to Route 18 a straight shot, cutting the time in half. For some inexplicable reason known only to God and my young self, I thought that taking the back roads along the hypotenuse of the triangle would get me home much faster. I’d done it on a bicycle with a couple of friends the summer before; how hard could it be in the middle of the winter in the dark? Pretty hard, actually.
The pavement ran out about ten minutes later. I was now on a rural dirt road in the family car, a big-ass Chrysler New Yorker with rear-wheel drive that was not known for stability on slick roads. The snowfall became a little thicker, muffling the sound of the gravel under my tires. The back end started to slide back and forth. I couldn’t see the shoulder anymore and worried about ending up in a ditch. If that happened a quick death would be preferable to the slow end that would inevitably reward my survival.
I slowed to a crawl and stopped sliding. I turned the radio on to WBBM for company. Franklin MacCormack introduced a tune my friends would have derided as more appropriate for an elevator full of old people, but it was preferable to the relative silence of my isolation. My grip on the steering wheel tightened. Will he live or will he die? Details at 10!
MacCormack’s soothing voice followed the song’s end, waxing poetic about nothing of substance. There was a brief moment of silence, then an ethereal sound drifted in, like a faint echo, rising and falling. The songs of humpbacked whales began to fill the darkness, not something one expected driving along barren cornfields in Illinois. One of the most beautiful voices God ever created started to sing:
Farewell to Tarwathie, Adieu Mormond Hill
And the dear land of Crimmond, I bid you farewell
I’m bound off for Greenland and ready to sail
In hopes to find riches, in hunting the whale
The snowfall seemed to soften as the voice swelled. The darkness outside became a comforting blanket, swaddling an infant in Mother’s arms. The gravel road turned to blacktop; the lights of home appeared in the distance. I don’t remember the rest, only that I knew I would be safe.