Winter-locked, lying fallow, the Lehigh Valley night looks hard as anthracite coal. Unemployment has topped l2 percent. Out on a four-lane south of town, in the fume-choke of big 18-wheelers, three native sons are encamped in nylon backpacking tents on a high wooden platform at the base of a gigantic sign. They are a radio station's "living billboard."
The three seem suspended like the land itself, as if somehow of their town but not of it, too. They have been here, on this windblown ledge by the side of a freeway, for almost five months now, 148 days as of today, hunkered against boredom and the cold, though no longer against each other.
And for what? So that the one who lasts longest can take home an $18,000 mobile home called "The Cozy Cottage." That's first prize in this weird contest. The Cozy Cottage has color-coordinated drapes and all-vinyl floor covering and a gypsum-lined furnace. There are other prizes, too--a roomful of furniture, a color TV, free hamburgers for a year at McDonald's.
The three "contestants," one of whom is married and two of whom were jobless before they came up, are locked in a world dreamed up by those boom-voiced, drive-time, good-guy jocks over at WSAN Radio (which is behind Sears). Last summer WSAN had this breakthrough idea, partly to advertise its switch of format. The billboard features a giant pair of luscious lips, which has something to do with the "unforgettable" music-of-your-life sound the station now plays.
The radio station got together with a Lehigh Valley concern called Love Homes, which retails the American dream in the form of two-bedroom mobile homes. The rest, you might say, is circus-radio history. Circus radio is an actual term in the AM biz. It has to do with things like the "Jell-O Jump," in which contestants go down a sliding board into an immense pool of Jell-O to scramble madly for the keys to a BRAND-NEW CAMARO!!!
Most everybody involved with this one figured it would go eight, 10 weeks, max. A couple weeks ago, an executive from the radio station told a wire service reporter: "I'm beginning to think they all had a better grip on the reality of what they'd be in for than we did."
Last week, the program director of the radio station--his name is Gene Werley, but since he's got the 6-to-l0 a.m. slot, they call him EARLY WERLEY--said this to a reporter from Washington:
"Hey, I just had a call from somebody in Los Angeles--I'm not authorized to give you a name yet--who wants to buy the rights to this sucker for a TV movie. Well, it's very complicated. I mean, we own the rights to the contest, and we own the billboard, but you can't buy people's rights, can you? Hey, I just want whatever's best for the three guys. Hey, I didn't think up this sucker, but this stuff works. I mean, I don't know, maybe California wants to put Harvey Korman on the board, how do you know? It's very complicated."
Over the weekend, the Lehigh Valley took 25 inches of snow. The city of Allentown declared a state of snow emergency. Nobody came off the board. Three figures in thermal clothing shook off their tents, swept the snow off the platform with dustpans and TV trays.
A few weeks ago, the wind chill dipped to 8 below zero; nobody budged.
"I'll stay five years if I have to," one said.
"I don't know, maybe the heat of summer will end it," said another.
"Hell, I didn't have anything else to do," said the third.
Christmas has come and gone. (The rules were suspended on Christmas Day and New Year's Day so that they could have visitors in their tents.) Soon the crocuses will be up. The families of the three come by every other day or so to hoist up food and the wash in buckets attached to a rope. Passers-by on the cloverleaf below honk and wave and flip the thumbs-up sign. The message is: Don't give up.
Each man is equipped with a North Face dome tent, a sleeping bag, a field toilet, a hotplate, an electric coil-heater, a phone hookup. One of the three fought the electric heaters when the station decided to put them in a while ago. "Heaters are slow, slow death," he said. "They'll keep us up here forever."
One of them practices classical guitar and reads a book called "Know Your German Shepherd." His name is Mike MacKay, and he is 30, eldest of the trio. He has a monk's wreathing beard and thick, puffy lips and also a child's sad, dark smile. Before he came up, MacKay was a house parent to retarded people. Once he sold Electroluxes. He entered the contest 47,000 times. He and his wife filled out blanks until they couldn't see straight, then went to a printer, had thousands more printed up eight to a sheet, and filled out some more.
"It worked, didn't it?" Mike MacKay says. "I'm here."
And his wife is behind him in this?
"Oh, yeah, she wants to live in that trailer as bad as I do."
Another contestant gets up and cooks instant oatmeal in his electric skillet. His name is Ron Kistler, and he has curls of blond hair and thick patches on the knees of his faded denims. He is 25. He may be the one never to come down. He runs deep and quiet and stubborn. Kistler, who entered 4,004 times, used to be a baker at Eastern Foods, which provides cafeteria service to Air Products Inc. Then he enrolled at the North American Training Academy in Newark, Del., hoping to be a trucker. But nobody was hiring.
"I heard about the contest. It sounded like something I could do," Ron Kistler says. "I'm starting to get sick of the canned spaghetti."
When he gets up, he washes outside in a plastic pan, does his exercises. He surveys the traffic, back against the billboard. Then he goes into the tent and talks on the phone or takes up American Rifleman magazine. Back issues of the magazine are piled neatly on the throw rug beside his cot and white telephone. Maybe he'll put a Diamond Flat Tooth Pick in his mouth, turn his radio on, and just sit.
When his girlfriend, Sue Issermoyer, visits--and she has visited nearly every day--he lowers her a lawn chair, and she sits on the ground below and talks up at him.
"I figured it would go into winter," Kistler says. "It's hard to say now."
Calls have come in from as far away as Alaska and South Australia. The London Times has picked up on the story. There is talk at the moment of video game tie-ins, of "personal management," of a hookup with a national telethon this summer, if it goes that long. Most of the talk seems just hot air.
In an effort to counteract the sporadic but increasingly loud criticism showing up in the local paper and elsewhere (charges of "inhumane" and "exploitation" have been leveled at the contest), WSAN has just dreamed up a new promotion, something called the "WSAN Love Those Billboard Boys Contest." This one may have T-shirts and trivia contests--trying to get people to guess the name of Mike MacKay's wife, the boys' favorite pastimes, that sort of thing. The idea is: "Hey, the world is watching you, Lehigh Valley." They're still working it out.
It all seems somewhere between the seriocomic and the tragic-absurd, the heroic and the slightly grotesque. Maybe it is an icon for our times, and maybe, too, it's just three guys on a ledge in Pennsylvania in the bowels of winter, trying to win themselves a mobile home. Somebody created a monster.
And still they sit--stolid, determined, three dim faces on a billboard; shut out and shut in. They are alone and yet not alone. And just lately, something new has developed: The three have begun to experience a strange, almost mystical bonding force. Now, one of them says, "I see us all as winners." It is something no one expected, least of all the people who put them there. They have formed a union, they say, not altogether jokingly: the Billboard Sitters of America, Allentown Chapter 1. Now, like men in trenches on a front who find themselves reaching across the barbed night to hand one another cigarettes, they seem not adversaries as much as comrades. The real enemy may be out there . . .
The digital thermometer over the bank says it's 28 degrees. Allentown seems dreamlike, fantastical, a Hollywood set. It has been snowing all night.
Up on the board, Mike MacKay, gabber and philosopher, is the only one out of his tent. Puffy in his yellow slicker and brown fisherman's sweater, he surveys the world from his perch like a monarch. In one hand he has an orange plastic dustpan, in the other a mug of cofee. He is sweeping the morning's snowfall off his tent and waving to the rush-hour traffic.
A trucker comes by and honks. "Ha, they say we're nuts, but we're not out driving in snow."
A blue Pontiac blows by and the driver toots three times, as if in code. The billboard sitter holds up the coffee mug, as if in toast. "Yeah, you get gawkers in the middle of the night, when the bars let out, that kind of thing. It gets annoying."
He grins, sort of maniacally. "You know, I always thought: If a person could combine his work with what he enjoys doing. Well, I love being outdoors. Hey, you're out here and you're away from civilization. I heard there was a big flu thing going around. My wife, she works with retarded children and she told me everybody's sick over there. My wife's name is Linda. I know everybody brags about his wife. She has a degree in fine arts. She does etchings, which I think are out of this world. Unfortunately, there's no market for etchings.
"Look, I'm 30 years old. I got married when I was 29. I feel I should have a house by now, a handle on something. I'm not going to come down without a house. That's the way I feel about it."
Now a laugh, a guffaw. "When they said 'platform' I thought I'd have to rope myself in every night to keep from rolling off. The really sad thing is, when they dreamed up this contest, they had no idea."
What do you do about haircuts?
"Haircuts. Well, we took a vote on that and decided we didn't want anybody up here but people from the radio station and the mobile home company and an occasional reporter. So Rick Thompson of Love Homes came up and gave me one a while ago. He did a pretty decent job. I didn't tip him, though."
So far, this interview has been conducted from ground to platform, with about 30 feet of air between. "C'mon up," MacKay says, like a guy inviting you over to his house for Miller time. "I don't want you to get a crick in your neck."
Inside the tent it is furry and warm. Funny, this flimsy skin of nylon, propped up by aluminum poles, immediately comforts, shuts out all the ugliness. "This is home, this is definitely home. It's a mess now--but it would be a mess at home, too," he says.
A little coil heater wangs on, orange tubes glowing like neon. In a pouch pocket is a half-eaten candy cane, residue of Christmas. The place is cluttered with his gear.
The phone rings. It's Linda. "Hey, honey, can I call you back?"
He sits cross-legged. To his right is a Porta Potti Continental; it doubles as his tabletop. Behind it is a Time Stir-Plate. "This one's the fancy job. Costs $200, can heat up to 700 degrees. I don't like to cook in here too much. I do make eggs and bacon sometimes. Tonight I'll have this."
He reaches over to the side that is exposed to the cold and pulls out a frozen pouch of cauliflower with cheese sauce.
"Did I tell you I belong to the Whitehall Public Library? I'm on their mailing list for shut-ins--although technically, I'm a shut-out."
He unscrews a huge jar of vitamins with a big paw. "Yesterday I thought something was coming on. Sometimes tea upsets my stomach, the tannic acid. I ate some butter crackers and took some water and it was okay."
The phone rings. He reaches for it. "Hello, Billboard Mike. Hey, where ya at? Hold on a sec." He covers the mouthpiece.
"I'm talking to my dad. He's at 1350. He works in a mine. The bottom of the mine is so deep you could drop the Empire State Building down there twice. He's a mechanic, and the shop is at 1350 feet."
He goes back to the phone. "Hey, Dad, can I call you later? I got a visitor here." He hangs up. "He checks in with me once or twice a day. We talk a lot more since I've been up here. He calls me more than he comes over. Telephone's more intimate."
He shakes his head, inhales deeply. "I'll tell you, it's putting a strain on my marriage. Sure she's behind me. She's supportive. But it's tough. I'd leave before I'd let anything really bad happen to my marriage."
He makes a fist. "But to walk to the side of the platform and just . . . look out. There's such a force keeping the three of us up here. Do you know, a lady from Northampton comes by here all the time just to bring us lasagna dinners? The other night I told Ron, 'Ron, you can believe it or not, but if you told me that you had had it, I'd try with all my power to talk you out of it.' It would be such a tragedy, walking out of here with McDonald's hamburgers or a TV when I would be living in a nice home."
Some nights, says Mike MacKay, he wakes from deep sleep and thinks he's home. Then he sees the top of the tent. "And then I say, 'Oh, yeah, you're still in this stinking contest.' "
Early Werley is twirling a ballpoint in his office over at WSAN. Frank Sinatra is singing "I Did It My Way." The program director has big black glasses, a goatee, a No. l on his lapel. (You gotta believe in yourself first.) He is 40, with a wife and four kids. This contest wasn't his idea; he inherited it when he came over to the station last summer from the competition. He is an earnest fellow.
On his desk is a fat file labeled "Correspondence to Station Re Billboard." Some of the letters in there aren't too nice.
"The only way I would want to end it is if one of the fellows were in some sort of psychological or physical danger," he says in a big broadcaster's voice. "So far, everything is cool. Course, this sucker is taking half my time. I go home at night and my wife gets it. My program budget is going down the tubes."
In a sense, he's up there on the board himself, right? "Oh, yeah, every once in a while one of them calls me up and blows off at me for 30 or 40 minutes. Then he's a nice guy again."
All the ironies. "Hey, I feel right now we have the single greatest radio promotion in history from a coverage standpoint, yet is it accomplishing what we want?"
But how do you stop it? The thing seems to have a life of his own. Actually, they thought about stopping it Christmas Eve, calling the guys down, giving each of them a trailer. Corporate headquarters said: no way. That would make it look as if the station backed down.
"Hey, didya year about the cookbook Mike MacKay's writing? You didn't hear about that?" He lurches forward, dials MacKay's tent on his console phone. "Hey, Mike, what's it called, that cookbook?"
It's called "Cooking Varmints and Other Little Critters."
Early Werley has been in AM radio for 20 years. He still can look himself in the mirror every morning, no problem. Once, when he was working over in Altoona at WVAM (the Big V), he did his show from a hot-air balloon tethered l00 feet in the air. Only thing, the balloon hit a TV antenna. Early Werley took a dive.
"Well, I tore my pants."
Dark now. The freeway is slick with cars. Across the highway glow the lights of Bambergers and Penney's. Lamps in the apartments behind the billboard have winked on.
Dalton Young III, child of rock 'n' roll, sits in his tent, radio tuned softly to a Philly station. He is smoking generic cigarettes. At 23, he seems just a boy in his fringed Indian mocs and plaid shirt and stringy hair, never mind that the seeming mere boy already has been to Japan and Korea and a lot of other places, too. A few weeks ago, Dalton Young celebrated a birthday up on the ledge. Last summer he was an E-5 in the Army.
"I guess the snow slowed it down today," he says. "Not a lot of commotion."
He washes up every couple days, shaves maybe every third day. "I haven't brushed my teeth yet today. I'm pretty grungy. I'm probably knocking you out with grunge breath."
He sips a Pepsi in a wax cup. His mom brought it, along with a big sub. "I told my mom, 'Look, soon as it gets to be a burden, Mom, please tell me, I won't do it anymore.' "
Funny, how things happen: He has grown to be best pals with a dental assistant from Philly who heard him interviewed on the radio. So now everyday the dental assistant calls up and talks, sometimes for two and three hours. (The dentist, semiretired, goes to Florida a lot, and she has time on her hands.) She has taken Dalton Young on as her cause. He is her man on the ledge. Awhile ago she drove up to Allentown, stood on the ground below. It may turn out to be love.
"I'll probably go to the spring of '84. I think I'd come down for the summer. Two summers up here--I don't know about that. Winter, though, I don't do much. I'm pretty inactive anyway."
What's the hardest thing to go without? "Female companionship. Definitely.
"I don't think I represent the strife, the economic times. I don't consider myself a symbol. I don't look at it that way. I didn't have to get involved in this. If I were down on the ground, I'd probably be in some kind of job."
Pause. "I don't know . . . it doesn't seem like competition, it seems like . . . waiting."
What's the first thing he'll do when he gets down, Dalton Young III is asked.
"I think I'll walk home."
He lives 12 miles from here.
On the radio in the Lehigh Valley these days, pop singer Billy Joel has a hit record. It is an anthem of sorts to this darkening valley: "Well, we're living here in Allentown/ And they're closing all the factories down." CAPTION: Picture 1, Mike Mackay, the eldest of the trio; Picture 2, Three men, competing for an $18,000 mobile home, stand by their tents on their 140th day on a billboard platform in Allentown, Pa.; Picture 3, Ron Kistler, deep and quiet and stubborn; Picture 4, Dalton Young III, a child of rock 'n' roll; Picture 5, MacKay, Kistler & Young; Photos by Chuck Zovko for The Washington Post