My family's roots are in East Texas and I love old stories about small towns in the great Piney Woods region. One of my favorites concerns a radio announcer in Huntsville, back in the era when stations used to play sermons on the air during the church hours on Sunday morning and evening. The sermons were so old that they were on records instead of tapes. Well, as the story goes, this young announcer -- a student from nearby Sam Houston State Teacher's College -- decided to take a break while one of the sermons was playing. Perhaps he left to get a soft drink or something else to kill the time.
However, there was a problem: The old record had a flaw on it and the needle started jumping backwards, repeating the same phrase over and over and over and over on the air. Since this was an old-fashioned, Bible-thumping Texas preacher who liked to warn sinners in the most vivid of language, it turned out that the phrase that kept being repeated was this one -- "go to hell, go to hell, go to hell."
The young announcer's boss was not amused about this incident. However, the way I heard the story, things turned out all right. A few years later the young man landed a television job down the road in Houston and, when he stood strong doing reports during Hurricane Carla in 1961, CBS executives noticed. You see, the way Texans tell the story, that young radio announcer was Dan "Go to Hell" Rather.
This tall tale probably says as much about church people in East Texas and their attitudes toward journalists than it does about Dan Rather, young or old. But I still thought about it when -- after a tip from a reader -- I looked up Tom Shales' column in today's Washington Post about Rather's tense departure from his kingdom at CBS News. Here is the reference that interests me:
Reached at his home in New York, Rather did not sound rattled. It is unlikely he will make an appearance at the fly-infested CBS News building on New York's West 57th Street this week; the contents of his office -- including the family Bible that was always opened to a different verse -- have been removed and will be sent to him. As of Friday, officially, Dan Rather and CBS News will no longer be one.
Now, it's hard to come from East Texas and not have a family Bible in your history somewhere. I also have to admit that I know -- as a prodigal Texan myself -- more than a few journalists from Texas who spend the rest of their lives running away from that Bible and everything it stands for. Not all stereotypes are totally warped.
But what about Rather? I've read stories about him for years and I have never heard anything about his church background and, if Shales' detail is accurate, why the ribbon in that old family Bible kept moving day after day in his office in New York City. Anybody out there know the story?