That photo (below) of Dunedin’s sunset is so tranquil. But a few miles away, there was this guy with a gun…

I’m writing each day in Lent (2015) about my experiences in ministry from my first church job to my retirement. I decided to start at the beginning, though I won’t be letting chronology get in the way as we go. First Presbyterian Church in Dunedin, Florida took me on as its summer youth director from June through August, 1968, in the middle of my seminary education.

Earlier that year, I had started an hour-long rock radio program back in Richmond, Va., and the “sponsors” of that media experiment hoped we could continue to produce it through the summer, having found a Tampa radio station willing to donate studio time. Each Monday night, I’d drive from Dunedin to someplace that looked awfully like a swamp to me, to that AM-FM facility near Tampa. I’d borrow the station’s file of duplicate 45 rpm hits, tape my show, and mail the reels back to Richmond in time for the Sunday night broadcast. The Dunedin church thought that was fine, and the high school youth thought it was kind of cool (I guess) that I was a deejay (of sorts).

My first visit to the station was unnerving. As is the case with many broadcast facilities, after hours the only entry into the secured studios is via a doorbell, a voice from a small loudspeaker asking your business, and eventually the one person in the building coming to the door to let visitors in…or not.  Buzz. Crackle. “Yeah, who’s this?”

“Jeff Kellam” and introductory words about my supposed welcome to use the studio. “Oh, yeah. Hold on.” A minute or two later, as I fought off swamp-bred mosquitoes, the on-air guy comes to the door, armed. A pistol, holstered, but in view. He saw my eyes widen, and answered my unspoken question. “Can’t be too safe out here. I talk to a lot of loonies.” Turns out, he did a call-in show at night, and that’s why I could borrow all the station’s hits to record my show. He showed me the basics of the production room, handed me the 45s (records, not firearms!), and left me to write and produce my program.

So, each Monday night through that summer, I made that trip into the swamp. I tried to fashion a hand-written script around songs such as “Sky Pilot,” “Pictures of Matchstick Men,” “Born to Be Wild,” and “People Got to Be Free.” I had more than enough work to do preparing for the children and youth of the church day-by-day, leading them through class time, recreation, field trips, and small group experiences. Trying to add the radio thing was way too much. The recordings I still have from that summer are embarrassing to listen to. Except the one with Joanie and Caroline. That program was a delight. Silly, though.

Joanie and Caroline were high schoolers, and asked if they could come along one night to watch me record my show. At first, I said no; I needed to concentrate on listening to the song lyrics, writing my script (such as it was), and cuing up records. But with their parents’ permission (one was the pastor’s daughter, I add for no reason), I thought maybe I could interview them. The topic? I figured it would come to me. Maybe gun control? Nah.

When we entered the station, our host wasn’t carrying that night, and I was relieved. Wouldn’t have to explain that to the girls or their parents. The girls were great in the studio, letting me do the serious stuff mentioned above. And then, eventually, I opened the mike to them and the giggling started. We did air that show, after some minor editing, and it probably was a nice change of pace for the audience.

Not quite as much fun was the program I recorded in our sweltering living quarters on the church campus. I had already sent my reels up to Richmond for the following Sunday night. But then Sen. Robert Kennedy was assassinated as he campaigned for the Presidency. He had been my Senator when I lived in New York State. I had taken pictures of him on the stump in my home town, in his campaign for the Senate. I was shocked, saddened, and afraid for our country. I sat on the floor of our apartment and spoke into a Wollensak tape recorder I had borrowed from the church. I had written out some of my feelings, but rambled into a commentary that lasted some 35 minutes. It was way out of format, but I called Cliff Dixon, my “producer,” and he understood my desire to share my comments during my airtime. Cliff thoughtfully and generously added some music to the program once my air-mailed tapes arrived. He built the whole thing into our hour-long slot. Whether my “native New Yorker” comments were appreciated by my Richmond, Va. audience, I do not know.

I must confess that I probably had no idea how to process the Senator’s assassination for my high school kids the following Sunday night at church. I recall no attempt. Mark it up to my being a total novice in youth ministry.

Still, as I look back to that summer, I celebrate the giggling girls, that gorgeous sunset at the Dunedin Pier, and the first summer Joan and I spent together as husband and wife. On our first wedding anniversary, we stood waist deep in the warm waters off Clearwater Beach. Yes…stood; because as you may remember from my first post in this series, I can’t swim.
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