When I was a kid growing up in the north Pennsylvania hinterlands, one of the definite deficits was that our family had no television. Yes, admittedly, at the time of the moon landing in 1969, my dad had brought a television set home from the Corning Glass plant, so that we could see the historic event. But otherwise, television was something that we just didn’t think a lot about. It wasn’t until years and years later that I would figure out who Captain Kirk and Bones McCoy and Mr. Spock were. Instead, I had a short wave radio. My original set was a little Knight kit Star Roamer radio that my dad and I had put together when I was really a little bit too young to understand that particular wires needed to go to particular components in a particular order.
I grew up with my short wave radio on my bed-side stand. And in the evenings before bed I would listen to the tolling chimes of Big Ben at London via the BBC. I would listen to Kol Israel, Radio Deutsch Welle, Radio Moscow, and Swiss Radio International. Some nights it was Radio Havana Cuba. Others it was Voice of America.
There was a radio program in particular on VOA that was called “The Breakfast Show.” This arrived with us between 8 and 9 in the evening– but it was really meant to be beamed out, ostensibly, to our hard working military members stationed far afield, to remind them of the niceties of life back home in these United States. American life was apparently w whirlwind of county fairs, of steam train rides, of summer picnics, of Volkswagen Beetles, and of town hall meetings about elements of the greater good. Such was the mantra of the Breakfast Show.
The show was hosted by Pat Gates from along about 1962, and was joined by Phil Irwin some seasons later. “If you see someone without a smile, give them one of yours.” was Pat Gates’ sign-off for many many years, and continued to be Phil’s for many years beyond. One didnt have to listen for very long to tell that this was a friendly, conversational show. It didn’t take much time to discover that Phil Irwin had a fascination for railroads (and Beetle), and was an articulate observer. He was an on-the-air mentor and friend. On one random evening he reported with great pride that he and his wife had just given birth to a son. I often think that the Breakfast Club may well have changed and directed the subsequent paths of my life. When I found my first little old-style dome VW hubcap on a vacation trip, I actually entertained a childish thought that maybe I should write to Mr. Irwin at the Breakfast Show, and report on the same!
Ross was one of the students in my paleontology class during the first season that I taught it at Virginia Tech. Ross was an intense dark haired fellow who always sat in exactly the same seat in the late afternoon lab class. Ross wrote well, and he always knew the class material ahead of time. Perhaps Ross’s largest flaw in class was his intense preoccupation with the planet Mars. I would mention the primordial atmosphere in class, and Rosses hand would shoot up. “Yes, Ross…”
“On Mars, the atmosphere…….” Several of the kids in the class would groan or squirm.
The other point about Ross was that he drove a fairly crappy used Ford that never served him very well, frankly. Several times he noted my shiny blue Beetle. And one afternoon, he asked me about it. “You should find yourself one”, I said, with obvious pride.
And in a little while, sure enough Ross came up with a Beetle. The first one was a bit of a beater, which he eventually sold to Steve Ruzila. But then, again, in a little while, Ross went to West Virginia, and came home again with a fairly clean green 1973 Superbeetle. We would eventually park them side by side for parts comparisons out at the Foxridge apartments, where we both turned out to live (Ross roomed with Steve Ruzila) We swapped beetle parts and tuned engines. And the little green Superbeetle was loyal, and did very well by Ross. At one point I talked Ross into putting a .009 mechanical distributor into his beloved green beetle—after which it would hesitate badly when he would tromp on the accelerator. Doubl-oh-nine distributors and carburetors are not always friends. Another time, Ross hit a deer, and it was Jackie McCann out at good old Oliver’s Garage that scavenged him a door and some other parts to put him back on the road. For a bunch of seasons, Ross made his spending money delivering pizzas locally in his well-recognized shiny green Superbeetle. Pizza delivery, in the late 20th Century (before on-line GPS) was an amazing way to develop a superb cognitive map of any region or area.
During Ross’s junior and senior years, he worked as my undergraduate assistant for my early research at Mountain Lake. We spent much time chugging up to 3860 elevation in our little Beetles, and then spending the afternoons SONAR probing the cold, clear lake with Rosses fish-finder device. At one point I gave Ross a lift to his home in Flint Hill Virginia, on my way back to Pennsylvania. At Caledonia Farm 1812 (an impressive Bed and Breakfast), I got to meet Ross’s dad, a polished gentleman who was the soul and proprietor of the big stone Virginia manor house. As Ross’s dad began conversing with us, and casting an eye over my shiny blue Beetle, , I kept having a very weird sense of deja vous. I knew that I had never met this fellow before. But still I had an uncanny sense of… familiarity. And the more that we visited, the less that feeling would abate.
It was about half-way through dinner that Rosses Dad mentioned his retirement from “the radio station.” At which point I almost choked on my fork.
“My God…. You are Phil Irwin from the Breakfast Show!”
Realization dawned. Ross was Rossman Philip Irwin III. And I had never even picked up on it. And now I was sitting in his big stone bed and breakfast, literally surrounded by toy trains and VOA memorabilia. Phil seemed surprised that I even knew what a Breakfast Show actually was– since the vast percentage of his audience had been international. We spent the evening reminiscing about various episodes, while Ross somewhat shook his head and groaned a little bit. Eventually I recalled the individual episode where Phil Irwin had announced the birth of a son. Who 20-some years later I had had in my classes for several seasons. In strange ways, it is a somewhat small world, and full of, as Yogi Bera said, “too many coincidences to be coincidence.”
Eventually, Ross Irwin graduated from the College and moved on to University of Virginia to study under the great martian geologist, Allan Howard. After achieving his doctorate, Ross worked at the National Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian. He was now one of the leading experts on fluvial channels associated with martian craters. In all the years, Ross was to keep his shiny little green Superbeetle, which mostly sat in the family barn at Caledonia 1812, in hopes of an eventual restoration…