Friday, October 23, 2009

Slow Burnes

By Frank Absher

One of the beautiful aspects of getting older is that you develop a respect for those who helped pave the way for you – those people whom you tended to dismiss as “too old” in the past. I was lucky enough to work with some of these folks at a time when I could truly appreciate them, and I savor those times.

This is the story of a guy whose name I had known since childhood, and being from a small town, I never would have believed I’d meet him, let alone work with him and become good friends. Bob Burnes (photo at left) had, it seemed, been writing sports for the Globe-Democrat since the Mesozoic Era.

When I worked with him on the radio in the late ‘70s/early ‘80s, he walked with a slow shuffle into the studio, carrying copies of the day’s newspapers with him and trailing a cloud of cigar ashes behind. (Following his shows, we would literally open the studio doors to air out the cigar stench.)

Bob would sit in the main studio and take any and all callers, patiently listening to their comments and questions and responding. It was amazing to watch him.

He’d punch up a caller, lean back in the chair, close his eyes and talk. Many of the questions were historical in nature. We’d watch him work and swear he was being transported back in time to the game or event he was discussing, and there was never any doubt whether he had personally witnessed it. He was amazing.

The guy was absolutely unflappable, as proved by one incident in the studio that will stay with me forever.
In those days at KMOX, we were not allowed to operate any equipment. The studio was a large womb-like place surrounded by other, smaller studios and control rooms. In master control, there was an engineer and a producer. The large news room was several steps down the hall.

An intercom system was built in so the on-air talent could call out to the newsroom or communicate with the guys on the other side of the control room glass, and the control room could also call out to the newsroom if something important was coming down the network line.

It was beautifully designed and, of course, soundproof, which is what made Bob’s predicament even more interesting.

He was answering callers and closing his eyes, bringing back his memories. I was among the folks in the newsroom when the frantic voice of the program’s producer rang over the intercom loudspeaker: “Get into the studio – quick! It’s on fire!”

Let me stop for a moment to set the scene of what happened and why there was reason to panic: Mr. Burnes, in his very relaxed manner, had flicked a live ash off his cigar into one of the studio wastebaskets, which was filled with old wire copy. Then, with eyes closed, he carried on with the show. So he couldn’t see the flames leaping from the basket; He couldn’t see the producer gesturing frantically to get his attention; He couldn’t hear the producer hollering; And he wasn’t aware of the engineer’s concern that the flames would set off the sprinklers and ruin a lot of equipment.

I made it from the newsroom to the control room door in two leaps. I threw open heavy door just in time to see Burnes “awaken” from his reminiscence, reach down into the flames, grab the burning copy, fling it into the air and stomp on it as it hit the carpet – never missing a beat in his discussion with the caller on the air. Flames out, he calmly wrapped up the call and broke for commercials.

I stood there, gazing at the large burned spot on the studio carpet, realizing I was the one who would have to explain it all to the boss, Robert Hyland.

Burnes glanced into the basket to make sure there were no more flames, leaned back in his chair and said, matter-of-factly, “That’s the second time I’ve done that.”

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