Newark, N.J. 1985. First time working for my buddy and mentor, Bob “Bear” Sanford. A retired TV repairman, Bear was a full-time communications tech and teacher at my college. For several years, satellite television had fueled his passion for tinkering. He was an early adopter, in the days when you had to build your own gear with a soldering iron and chicken wire.
Bear was the guy who set up the gear at bars, restaurants and other venues. And when he had the chance to wire more than one place for the same event, he hired young Turks like me to run the auxiliary locations.
I got the Newark assignment for a fight dubbed “The War,” pitting Newark's hometown hero “Marvelous” Marvin Hagler against Thomas Hearns.
I rehearsed the set-up in Bear’s Pennsylvania backyard. We ran a bunch of wires to a bevy of black boxes and a small satellite dish. He taught me how to aim the thing to find the tiny, tiny target: an invisible satellite the size of a VW Bug, floating 22 thousand miles above our heads.
With Bear conducting, I locked onto the satellite within minutes. Piece of cake. Two days later, I grabbed my two copilots and headed to Newark, early. I wanted plenty of time in case we had trouble.
I think we arrived at 2 pm for a 10 pm fight. Or something like that. Checked in with the owner – nice guy, natty in a shiny suit. It was a real classy place, linen tablecloths, crystal. Not exactly what we lily-white suburbanites expected in inner-city Newark.
We unloaded the van, ran the cables, hauled in the big projector TVs and assembled the antenna. I’d picked a spot behind the restaurant without any buildings or trees obstructing the satellite’s part of the sky. It was a dry, clear day. A blessing, because heavy rain can cause problems with reception.
As the others were setting up inside, I attempted to “shoot the bird.” I fired up a receiver and aimed the antenna, exactly as we’d done in Bear’s backyard.
I aimed again.
This was a puzzle. Didn’t make any sense. I knew where the satellite was. Nothing had changed since Bear’s backyard. Same antenna, same stand.
I aimed again. Nothing.
After 30 minutes of scanning practically every inch of sky, I still had zilch. By then, the other guys were finished inside so they came out to try their luck. Nothing. All we could do was scratch our heads.
No cell phones in those days. Bear was setting up a restaurant down in Trenton at the same moment. No way to get in touch with him. We were on our own.
That’s when the wino showed up.
If you called Central Casting and ordered a wino, this is the guy they’d send. Lanky, with spotty skin, too thin for his worn, soiled clothes. He ambled along like a guy rocking on a ship at sea. He paused to observe our predicament.
“Ain’t gonna work there,” he bellowed. “Gotta put it over here!” And he pointed to a spot not three feet from where I’d planted the antenna.
“Thanks a lot,” I yelled back, through a big, fake smile. Thanks for your help, old timer, I was thinking. We know a little bit more about this then you do, we’ll be fine, thanks.
He shrugged and wandered off, never to be seen again.
We aimed and re-aimed that antenna for at least another hour. Maybe more. It felt like four. By then, the restaurateur’s inner circle of friends and VIPs had arrived for dinner and cocktails before the fight. I think the mayor might have even been among them. The place was starting to fill up. And I was starting to get that feeling of dread in the back of my throat. A very large crowd of fight fans was planning their evening around me getting that damned satellite signal. And I was no closer after the better part of two hours, trying everything we could think of.
Flashes of panic crossed my comrades’ faces. These guys were basically hired hands. I was the one who was supposed to know what he was doing.
So I made an executive decision.
“Let’s put it where the wino wants it.” I exclaimed.
Eager for an opportunity to try something, we sprung into action. Assembled, the antenna was a heavy affair. It took the three of us to wrestle it into place. I’m not exaggerating when I tell you we moved the thing less than a yard. I leveled it, swung it towards the satellite and watched the receiver with hope and prayer.
Bingo! I had a green light inside a minute. Joy and relief spread through the team like lightning.
We were ready – before the crowd had swelled and much beer had flowed. I hate to dwell on what could have happened, had we never shot that bird. Although the fight went only three rounds, the fans got their money’s worth. Hagler was cut early and bled through the whole fight. Hearns broke his hand in round one, but stayed alive long enough to have Hagler put his lights out. Everybody went home happy.
The wino saved our bacon.
I didn’t recognize him as an angel that day. But today, I have no doubt.