Tuesday Morning (A Story from Master Control)

Thing about the night shift in master control is the routine of it all. Running television shows is all about routine. Nothing changes, until everything does. I would show up at midnight and then I’d run a couple hours of programing; a couple cheeky reality dating shows called Blind Date and Shipmates and a some other shows ended the night’s programing schedule. I would change it to overnight religious programing. The preacher-man: I can’t remember his name, but I always marveled at the man’s hair. Some days it was gray, others a deep, dark black. Frequently it changed color multiple times during the night as he talked about God and the End of Days; most of the time I kept him muted. It was four hours of religious programing from 2a to 6a during which I had almost nothing to do.

You see, overnights in master control could be equal parts maddeningly boring and thoroughly liberating. All I had to do for half my workday was record some syndicated shows off the satellites (id est, I had all the answers for Jeopardy) and sit around watching television.

I also, from time to time, did homework. I was in college, after all.

Two o’clock in the morning rolled around so I kicked the station over to the overnight televangelist and recorded some shows. I watched some spots come down from the Fox feed: Independence Day promos. They ran the same commercials over and over at varying lengths for use during the next few weeks, and I watched the White House explode countless times to promote the network debut of the end of the world as we knew it (and I felt fine).

At around four o’clock in the morning, Greg showed up. He preferred to edit the local spots in the peaceful, uninterruptible hours of the morning, so of course I took it upon myself to provide him an entertaining distraction from his voice-over work and video editing, and he provided a fine distraction from my nothing.

At a quarter to six, the UPN guy would show up. The Fox affiliate at which I worked wasn’t considered, by the people paid to make these decisions, a quote/unquote news station. That was the responsibility of our sister station, a UPN affiliate whose local news consisted of rebroadcasting a signal from San Francisco. At 6am the UPN station would run San Francisco news and I’d run the morning cartoons. Simple work: run the show, run commercials, change tapes, display a little bug in the bottom right corner reminding people which channel they’re watching.

Just like the day before, and the day after: the routine of it all.

Of course, the routine wasn’t rigid: if the news over on UPN was big enough I’d run a bumper on Fox apologizing for interrupting the program and then I would break in with the news until the news was no longer new. It wasn’t my call to make (again, wasn’t paid enough) but I did get to decide when to call the man who was.

At about 5:45 AM Chico, CA time the UPN guy came in. He checked the feed from San Francisco and hollered, "Hey, there’s something going down in New York." I switched my monitor over to the news feed without disturbing the signal from the preacher-man whose hair was now jet black. It was live footage. World Trade Center One was smoking.

Looking back it was clear I should have made the call and gone live with the news right away as it was happening, but I didn’t at the time. Thing is, when all of it was happening we weren’t thinking of it in terms of it happening. We thought it had already happened. We thought it was done. A plane hit one of the buildings of the World Trade Center. It was tragic, but it was over. We could start rebuilding and that was the end of the story. Case closed. At six o’clock in the morning I began running the morning cartoons: a delightful show about childhood innocence called Recess, but my personal monitor screen remained fixed on New York.

There were two or three people on the screen talking about how this could have happened: they were speculating low-lying fog or instrument failure may have confused the pilot, but in the back of my mind (and perhaps theirs) I couldn’t shake the feeling this wasn’t an accident. Yes, a plane had accidentally crashed into the Empire State Building a few years before, but that was a little jumper plane. This was a Boeing 767. How could it be an accident? Perhaps we just didn’t want to think it could be intentional.

In the bottom corner of the screen a small picture displayed a continuous shot from a news chopper circling the buildings, and in the corner of my eye I caught flames rising up, occluding the view, and my heart skipped a beat. But then I dismissed it: someone must’ve caught the crash on camera and this was just them replaying it. Nothing to see here. Move along. But then the broadcasters stopped talking. They listened in silence. For one horrifying moment there was dead quiet on the air and I realized what I had just seen was no replay. It actually happened. Another plane had crashed into the other building. No fog. No confusion. In one moment everyone knew this was no accident. I picked up the phone. Called the manager. I cut into the morning cartoons with the breaking news bumper and left Recess behind.

I should’ve rolled tape. That was my first thought the next day when I started my shift on September 12, 2001. I should’ve rolled a tape for posterity, but at the time, that Tuesday morning watching everything unfold, my mind wasn’t on recording anything. I sat with unblinking eyes in a living rigor mortis praying it was over. Two buildings had been struck with planes. That was it. Clearly it was intentional, but it was over now. We could begin rebuilding. One of the broadcasters speculated that one or both of the buildings may have to be knocked down to rebuild as they may have sustained too much damage to be salvageable. I couldn’t imagine the New York skyline without the World Trade Center.

And just when I was beginning to believe it might be over, I learned that The Pentagon had been hit by yet another plane. When the first tower collapsed I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. A sickly feeling crept into my stomach as I watched hundreds of people die. When the second tower collapsed, it came with an eery sense of expectancy, almost as though I’d become numb to the horror I was watching. I’d heard stories of explosions at government buildings that proved to be false, planes crashing that didn’t, and I’d watched the worst of humanity live and uncensored when I should have been running the morning cartoons. We ran uninterrupted news for days and days and days.

Truth be told, an easy job became easier. We weren’t recording any syndicated shows. We weren’t running anything but live news. No bugs to display, no commercials to run. We in master control would check in, sit at our station and then leave eight hours later, often having not pushed a single button. All shows were suspended. Got a fax later that day telling us Fox had canceled the network premiere of Independence Day. No one was surprised. No Blind Date, Shipmates or Recess. We weren’t even showing the overnight preacher and his monochromatic hair: guess no one needed to be told about the End of Days anymore.

The morning of September 11th, when many people were waking to the news, I left the station in a haze and started walking toward Chico State University. They would eventually close the school for the day, but not soon enough for me to dodge my Principles of Grammar quiz. I walked along the streets of downtown Chico in a foggy fugue, part of me unwilling or unable to believe all I had just seen. I stopped outside a bank where the American flag had been left out all night. I looked up from the base of a flagpole and I stared up at Old Glory watching it drift in the morning breeze at the very top of a pole on a September 11th morning for the last time in American history.

Now: here’s the funny part.

Eventually the guys paid to make these decisions told us we needed to start running some regular programing. Not a bad idea, really; everyone else was running news and maybe some people wanted a break from the doom and gloom. We’d still run the news during the day, and overnight, but for prime time, Fox would give people an alternative. But we’d take a close look at the shows before we aired them to make sure they were sensitive to the new day and age. ID4 had already been blown to smithereens by the great Fox in the sky, and we’d do no less. We looked at the episode of The Simpsons scheduled to air that night, and we shook our head. Nope. Too violent.

Greg decided to find another episode to air. He decided to pick a Lisa episode; those tend to be tame, he reasoned, so he picked one with Lisa’s name in the title and scanned through it in the Betamax to see if it had any questionable content in it. It seems he scanned a little too quickly.

The episode was titled They Saved Lisa’s Brain. In the episode, Lisa is concerned about her family’s intelligence relative to her own. To nail this home, the family is watching television. On this show within a show, a fictional Fox is airing a fictional show called When Buildings Collapse.

Greg was horrified. Sitting on his couch at home, he watched as we aired an episode of The Simpsons that included, not only a reference in the title to buildings collapsing, but several shots of animated buildings falling to the side. He was pale. He lost sleep that night. Greg came into work the next day with a shadow over him.

Personally, I hadn’t seen the show. I was asleep; I worked nights after all. Greg came in around 4a and explained to me all that had happened the night before, how he had picked (with the possible exception of The City of New York vs. Homer Simpson) the worst episode to air and I listened in stunned silence, too close to it to at that particular moment to laugh. We both agreed, later that day, there would be angry phone calls, letters to editors, threats, and at some point Greg would be called into an office of one paid to make these decisions and Greg would simply offer his resignation, box up his things, and leave.

The call never came. The letters, the threats: either they never happened or we, downstairs, never actually heard about them. Greg kept quiet, kept his head down, and eventually the shadow over master control cleared. Normalcy, that glorious routine, did eventually return to master control, along with the preacher-man, the dating shows, and I ran cartoons again.

But, you know what? I guess it’s not that funny after all, the incident with Greg and The Simpsons. I mean, I’m not laughing. Fourteen years later, even though the anecdote has every piece of an amusing story, I’m still not laughing. I doubt Greg is. He asked me the next day, after getting to keep his job, if we ever would laugh at it, if there would ever be a day when we could find that little anecdote funny. "Maybe someday," I replied.

Still waiting.