With the Masters playing this weekend and every time one of the major golf tournaments rolls around, I reminisce about my little incident at Southern Hill C.C. Feel free to move on if you’ve heard the story before.
It was either the U.S. Open or the PGA (my memory on that specific fails me), but what I do remember is my small part in one of the biggest events in the world of golf.
I was working for Ma Bell at the time. Back then no one had satellite systems to relay sports programs form the venue to the viewer or much techy equipment of any kind. I’m sure the youngsters of today don’t even remember what vacuum tubes were, but that’s what our transmitters used to get the TV signal from point A to point B. The transistor was still a gleam in the eye of the scientists at Bell Labs.
Ma Bell was the intermediary between the network production trucks, usually ABC or CBS, and the AT&T Television distribution system known as the Backbone. In this case, the job of transmitting the program feed from Southern Hills to the ATT building in downtown Tulsa, fell to our little five-man crew. In order to do that, we had to establish a line-of-sight transmission path between the two locations in order to send the signal. With the terrain as it was, the only way to do that was with the use of a tower to raise the transmitting antenna high enough to clear the trees and buildings in the way.
The tower was of the portable type. It was made kind of like Tinker Toys (you kids probably don’t remember those either). You stacked the six foot square sections, one on top of the other, until you reached the desired height. In this case, about 80 ft. I can assure you that standing of top of that sucker with a 25 mph Oklahoma wind blowing was not for the faint of heart.
As the tournament went on the air, all was going well. Our signal was strong and steady. Millions of viewers watching. Our whole crew was tense, hoping no tubes failed and there would be no interruptions, no dreaded SORRY, WE ARE HAVING TECHNICAL DIFFICULTIES. I remember feeling confident enough to leave my station long enough to watch the great Jack Nickolas tee off. He stood over the ball, rock solid, and took a deep breath. He swelled up like a big old bullfrog, cocked his head, and uncoiled. WHACK! The ball, long, straight, and true. Never forget it.
Showtime was over. Next came the part the public never saw, the tearing down and packing up of the miles of cables, temporary huts, racks full of electronics, and of course, the tower. R. Bubba Bennett and I were sent to the top to unbolt the sections a piece at a time while the ground crew consisting of the boss, Jack Mills, J. Burns, and new guy by the name of Odell Robertson, attended to the ropes and cables to lower the apparatus to solid terra firma.
The way it worked was Bubba and I would break a section loose, then maneuver it clear of the tower by way of something called a davit, a pulley-like lowering device to reduce the strain of the weight. Odell was on the rope. Down it came, section by section, removing the steel guy wires that held the tower steady as we went. There was just one little problem. We removed the last of the guy wires without making provisions to keep the remaining sections upright. Temporary lines would have worked nicely, but nooooo.
I swung another section outward. Odell heaved on the rope. I heard someone say, “It’s falling.”
The big Tinker Toy was made of industrial strength aluminum tubing, but I can assure you it was a heavy SOB, quite capable of crushing ribs and craniums. On the way down, I had a thought: If I can just space my body between the tubes, it’ll fall right around me. I’ll be fine!
I had a death grip on a tube to the left and a similar grip on a tube to my right. It was a great plan, one with merit, except for the fact that I forgot to let go of the tubes at the appropriate moment. That little oversight caused my knees (now at a stop and firmly on the golf course) to connect with my teeth (still traveling at roughly the speed of sound). The knees won that battle of course. My front teeth ended up somewhere near the fairway where Jack Nicklaus had walked just hours before. R. Bubba, it was later determined, had strained back muscles, but was otherwise okay.
My recovery was a long and painful process with multiple trips to oral surgeons and dentists, but it could have been worse, much worse.
As I watched big Jack at the ceremonial first tee at the Masters this weekend. I will always wonder if he heard me screaming on the way down. It would be my only connection to greatness.