Life in the Rearview Mirror

Robert Dustman

© Copyright 2020 by Robert Dustman

Photo of the author.

At this stage of my life, 74, I find myself introspectively and reflexively looking back at the landscape of my life, especially some of the decisions I made as a young man, some of which were good, others not so good and some downright terrible. I’m being forthright in writing down my thoughts because it’s cathartic for me to delve into why I made certain decisions, even though there’s absolutely nothing that can be done now to change the outcome. My second reason for this exercise is to provide some insights that younger people may be of use when they are confronted with making decisions that could alter the course of their lives. Like, should I accept the big increase in income and move my family thousands of miles across country? What university should I attend? Is it a good idea to marry the girl or boy I’ve been dating for two years? What kind of retirement plan will make my family most secure? Over the course of a lifetime, everyone makes literally thousands of decisions, some more important than others. I’m talking about where should I go for lunch? What do I want for dinner? Should I stay home or go to the baseball game where I have seats behind home plate? No, this is all about the critical decisions of one’s life, and you’ll know them when you see them.

As people age, me included, there are some of us who spend a lot of time thinking about the good old days of our youth. I enjoy the memories of past years when I was younger, vibrant and had the rest of my life ahead of me, rather than in my rearview mirror. I’m not going to bore the reader by taking him on a chronological walk down memory lane. My purpose is to talk about snippets of my life, those decisions which in hindsight might not have been the wisest and to this day bother me the most. Maybe you’ll even learn something from reading this article.

The grade school, junior and senior high school years were in a very real sense the prologue to my life. Nothing too traumatic or dramatic happened. These were the joyful years, except at the time I didn’t appreciate just how precious they were. Summer days of my youth were spent playing baseball, winter nights were occupied by basketball practice at the local grade school. In high school, I was First Team All Conference defensive tackle in football and held the school, township and conference record in the shot put. I was with the “in crowd,” and supplemented my athletic talents as a wanna be comedian who teamed up with my friend Don to write comedy sketches that we performed at local events. We had dreams of becoming the next Martin & Lewis or Abbott & Costello or Laurel & Hardy. We got lots of encouragement from many people who thought we were funny. One of the band members from the “Conbrios,” which went on to record for a record label, told Don and me we were good enough to make it to the Big Time. Even our English teacher wanted to write comedy routines with us. My girlfriend and I impersonated the Kennedy’s at school assemblies. I had JFK’s voice down pat and Pam, who played Jackie with dyed black hair, had the First Lady’s sultry voice and mannerism’s perfected. If I do say so myself, Pam and I were a hit. I was asked to emcee sports banquets and other school events too.

When I went away to college, well, Pam just went away. She married a Michigan State Trooper, had a bunch of kids, which was all she ever really wanted.She and her husband were together for thirty years before their marriage ended in divorce. Free from the shackles of mom and dad, my college career didn’t get off to the best start. My grade point average in my freshman year barely registered under 2.0. Starting my sophomore year, a group of us in Barnard Hall came up with the bright idea of shoving M-80’s and firecrackers under the door of a kid we didn’t like. The door of the second floor room exploded into flames, the fire alarms went off all over the building and the fire department cleared the dorm, leaving a bunch of confused, disoriented kids standing on the front lawn in their pajamas at 4 in the morning. The dorm parents held a meeting after all the hoopla ended and did their level best to identify the person or persons responsible for the disruption. Needless to say, no one raised their hand to admit guilt.

Next day, while heading back to the field house after football practice to shower and change back into my street clothes, a car with an adult driver and kid from my arm whom I recognized pulled up beside me. When we arrived at the field house, the unknown driver told me to get my clothes from the locker and return to the car without delay. Respecting my elders, I did as I was told. Back at the car, the kid from the backseat, Jerry, told me police had already arrested the four other people involved in the “bombing” who were now being questioned at the prosecutor’s office. When we arrived back at Barnard,;what a scene. Kids were scattered everywhere gazing at the dorm in front of them. There were cop cars from every local jurisdiction parked in the roadway. I was led inside where I met a Detective Behler with the Michigan State Police. I kinda felt like Al Capone sitting in the IRS office. The detective said he knew everyone who was involved in the firecracker incident from the night before. Technically, he said, what you and the others did was arson, a 20 year felony. But if you tell me your role in the “fiery, fiery night,” you probably won’t be going to prison. Feeling like I was some sort of hardened criminal, I admitted to Behler my involvement in the episode, but I wouldn’t rat on anyone else. No need to do that said Behler. The others had all confessed.

All of the miscreants had mug shots taken and were fingerprinted at the Mt. Pleasant police station. Then we were transported to this house in the country, just outside town where we sat in the living room of the local magistrate, who doubled as a barber, and watched TV with his kids. When it was my turn to go into the “judge’s” study, I remember him telling me, “ A kid with your talent for explosives would do well in Vietnam.” This was 1965 when President Johnson was ramping up the war. He sentenced me to pay a $100 fine or 30 days in jail.

Next stop for me was the Isabella County Jail where I shared a cell with a passed out drunk and a Native American Indian who had the dry heaves. I recall laying on my wooden bunk as the moon shone thru the bars and thinking to myself, so this is what my life has come to.

One of my girlfriends went around campus to raise my bail money. Around midnight, I was released and told to go back to my dorm room and not leave. Doing something so stupid, which could have caused serious injury or death, is far and away one of the worst decisions I ever made. Actions do have consequences, sometimes unintended ones.

It probably goes without saying that my part in this ill advised attempt at “fun” got me expelled from college. The hardest call I’ve ever had to make was to my mother to tell her what had happened and that I would be needing a ride home. Mom had driven up to pickup her recalcitrant son with a girlfriend. We went to her friend’s house, where my dad showed up after a long road trip. The first words out of his mouth were,” OK Bob, now what have you done?” He knew me pretty well.

Sometimes poor decisions don’t operate in a vacuum. There are ongoing consequences. I attended college to learn, but also to throw the shot put, which I did during my freshmen year at Central Michigan University. My distance with the sixteen pound metal ball was forty-eight feet, which gave me first place in all of my meets with the exception of one. I was looking forward to a great career at CMU in track & field, but my unexpected exit from college in the fall of 1965, meant I didn’t have enough credits to compete in track when I returned to school in the spring of 1966. My track coach, Lyle Bennett, was one of the best track and field coaches in the nation. He loved my form and technique in the shot put, which is why he took me, rather than the other two senior shot-putters, to track and field seminars at high schools around the state. Lyle saw a great future for me in the shot put. But then in the summer of 1966, I met this girl who would the following year become my first wife. I hitch-hiked or borrowed a friend’s car to stay with her every weekend at her parents home in Detroit. Bet they loved that!! Upon returning to college in the fall of 1966, I knew track practice for the indoor season would start soon. The track team would be on the road a lot, and being a kid filled with testosterone that was in over-drive, I couldn’t bear the thought of not being with my “beloved” for long stretches of time. I told coach Bennett I wouldn’t be on the track team because I’d fallen in love and become engaged to this beautiful eighteen year old girl. So I cashed in what could have been a promising track career for what I had mistakenly taken as love. That goes down in the books as among the worst decisions I’ve ever made, and hell, I was only twenty years old. The marriage lasted just four years. The decisions you make sometimes come back to haunt you. This one sure did, and frankly still does. What could my track and field career at CMU ended up being? Could be I might have been the school record holder in the shot out, or honored as an All Conference or All American. Maybe an invitation to the Olympic Trials. I’ll never know. Let your mind do the thinking, not your hormones.

My first job after graduation was as sports anchor for WWTV/WWUP television in Cadillac. This was more than I’d hoped for since my background was in radio where I had worked at several radio stations in the Mt. Pleasant area. This stroke of good luck so early in my broadcasting career was like a gift from God. Besides appearing on television, my responsibilities included hosting a daily sports show on the station’s radio outlet and being the play-by-play announcer for football and basketball games. This was a dream come true. When our evening news anchor was hired by a Grand Rapids TV station, I made a pitch to the news director to let me fill his slot while also continuing to handle the 11 o’clock sports reports. He bought the idea, so here I was a wet nosed twenty-three year old kid now sitting in the news anchor chair. Life was going my way. It got better. When WZZM-TV in Grand Rapids, the 36th largest media market at the time, was looking to hire a sports anchor, I auditioned along with about thirty other candidates, most of whom had more experience than me.

I got the job. The news director told me I wasn’t necessarily the best of the group who auditioned, but I showed the most promise. My wife stayed behind in Cadillac to sell our mobile home, while I headed south to start my new job. Until our duplex was ready for occupancy, I stayed with the anchorman who left Cadillac a few months before me to join the WZZM News Team. WZZM would be the flagship station that year, 1971, for the Michigan State Boys High School Basketball Championships. I would be the play-by-play announcer for the Class A and B games and then take a side role as color commentator for the Class C and D games. The games were broadcast on TV stations all across Michigan, from Detroit to Kalamazoo, Ann Arbor and all the way to Marquette. The reviews for my commentary were generally very positive, although there was room for improvement.

Just when things are going great, something major happens to set your life back a few paces. One day in June, 1971; my wife announced in the driveway of my parents home in Waterford, Michigan that she wanted a divorce. I should have known it was coming, after all I had not been the best or most faithful husband. When we got back to Grand Rapids, my soon to be ex wife and I still slept together in the same bed for about a month until she found a place of her own. During my time at WZZM, I had come straight home after the 11 o’clock show, grabbed something to eat out of the fridge and hunkered down to watch the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. But after she announced her intentions to end our marriage, about the last thing I wanted to do was head straight “home” after work. So, instead I started going out with a few of the crew at WZZM who started off drinking beer at the Pizza Inn down the road. The manager would close up for the night when he saw us coming, so we’d drink free beer, until it was time to drive to the Silver Cloud, a dive bar downtown where Scotch and water cost seventy-five cents glass.

This routine continued for a few months, until a karate sensei(teacher) who performed various feats of expertise on one of my TV shows offered to teach me the fine art of Shorin Ryu karate. It meant being at his dojo around nine in the morning. I still went for a few beers after work with the gang, but then headed home so I could get enough rest for the next day’s vigorous training session Things leveled off for a while. I’d usually head home on weekends and stay with my parents and go out drinking with a friend of mine.

Soon came the zenith of my bad decisions, which may have cost me a Golden Future in broadcasting. This friend of mine came to Grand Rapids for a Halloween Party at one of my co-workers apartments. We were both three sheets to the wind by the time we arrived. The evening didn’t get any better, for anyone. I recall sitting in a chair in the kitchen, going through a series of karate moves, one of which put a hole in the host’s wall. The station’s chief engineer, when he saw what had happened, informed me his son could kick my ass, anytime, anywhere. I jumped up from the chair, grabbed the guy by the throat and started wailing on him. Afterwards, I was told it took eight guys to get me under control.

When I went to work the following Monday, the news director came over to my desk and told me, while it was none of his business, several people wanted me fired. The beginning of the end had begun. It was a warning, which was only a brief reprieve from the inevitable. I signed my own death warrant a couple of weeks later. It wasn’t paranoia but a act my boss was out to get me, and like a fool I gave him all the ammunition he needed.

Here’s how my tenure at WZZM ended most abruptly. Historically, the sports director selected the best football game of the week on the Friday six o’clock newscast. There is no rationale for my stupidity. All I had to do was select the best matchup of the week, usually two teams with winning records and perhaps a conference title on the line. So what I did this particular Friday evening was select two teams with the worst records in the Grand Rapids area. Why I did it, I simply don’t know. But come Monday morning there was a note on my desk from the news director that read: “If you value your job, you’ll come see me right away.” The Fat Lady was about to sing. When I entered the news director’s office, the assistant news director, who was hard nosed and tough as nails, but whom I liked very much, was sitting in one of the chairs. The news director chastised me vehemently for the terrible picks of the previous Friday. Then he told me there was no pay raise in my future, nor any future at WZZM. He left the office to get my final check. The assistant news director told me not let this ruin my life. Easy for him to say. He wasn’t going anywhere. I got my checked, walk out of the office and down the stairs to the newsroom, where the guy I had worked with in Cadillac gave me the name and phone number of the news director at WXYZ radio in Detroit.

I drove to my parents home in Waterford to stay with them until I could find another job, hopefully in broadcasting. I sent out tons of resumes, and heard back from CKLW(The Big 8) in Detroit, WXYZ radio in Detroit and WJIM-TV in Lansing which was looking for a weekend news anchor and a weekday street reporter. Both WXYZ and WJIM were impressed with my auditions, which gave me hope I would get an offer from at least one of them. When I followed up with phone calls to both stations, it was as though they had never heard of me. One begins to wonder if there was some vast conspiracy working against me. My next audition was with WKZO-TV in Kalamazoo. That’s when I learned the truth. Fred Douglas, the news director, told me that Jack Hogan, my news director at WZZM, was spreading the word that I had a drinking problem, which stunned me, because it wasn’t true. Oh sure, there were a few times my drinking got out of hand, but back then the term “alcoholic”never resonated. That came years later. Douglas told me Hogan was “blackballing” me, which explains why no one would hire me.

My last stop was at a new startup television station in Battle Creek, WUHQ. My on camera audition landed me the job of sports director. The studio was in the basement of Fort Custer, an old military base. The Gilbert Hotel in downtown Battle Creek had a vacancy and a room that was cheap. My funds were sparse. An old Mexican woman had to operate the antiquated elevator that took me to the floor where my room was located. Using a key to block the door to my room, there was an Africa-American couple standing in the middle of the room who made a quick exit when I walked in. At the time, I remember thinking I hoped they had the decency to at least change the sheets on the bed. God only knows what they had been doing before I arrived. But it didn’t take much of an imagination to figure to out.

If you ever wanted to see a picture of what rock bottom looks like, this was it. A cracked mirror over a heavily stained sink and a beat up metal locker used as a clothes closet. Sometimes bad choices follow you no matter where you go. You simply can’t et away from them. The bathroom was across the hall, and if you wanted to shower, you had to go up a floor. On my first day of work, I met the news team; a tall skinny guy with long straight hair with a mustache and an Adams Apple that bobbed up and down as he spoke. Our weather girl was a former Playboy Bunny in Chicago with whom I developed a very close relationship. There was only an 11 o’clock newscast, so the trick became finding something to do until it was showtime. Most of my time was spent working out at the downtown YMCA. Eventually, the station pressed me into service as a daytime reporter, apparently thinking they weren’t getting enough out of me for the $135 weekly paycheck. I’d drive around to check in at police stations and sheriff’s departments looking for news items, which were scarce to come by in an all but dead city.

WUHQ is where I met my second wife, Barb, who worked as a receptionist in the public area upstairs. She was married but we saw each other anyway. The news department was eventually phased out because the program director did everything on a trade-out basis. Soon there was no money to pay staff. He wanted the on-air talent to sell their own air time. It was a stupid idea and no one did. Barb had left her husband and asked for a divorce. I rented a U Haul truck, and moved our things to a townhouse we rented in Waterford. She went back to Battle Creek until the divorce was final and then joined me in our new place after our marriage. Would I rank my decision to marry Barb a mistake? Probably except for one thing. We had a son together, Jim, who is now a successful manager with a major banking institution with three children of his own.

During our twenty-three marriage, she worked at a real estate firm, the Oakland County Sheriff’s Department, as secretary for a local township treasurer and finally at a veterinary clinic. I worked as a reporter, and news director for several radio stations in Detroit and also as General Manager/talent for a new startup traffic service that provided hourly reports to local radio stations and Channel 4 television. During the late 70’s, two radio stations were vying for my services, and kept upping the financial ante, until it became impossible to turn down the offer as afternoon drive time news anchor, at a station where I eventually became news director, when my boss was hired as radio news anchor for the ABC radio network. For me it was the perfect job, working noon to six Monday-Friday and morning drive Saturday mornings. It gave me time to drive my son to school and spend time with him when I got home from work. Metro Traffic Control, which was building a network nationwide wanted to hire me to run the Washington D.C. office, but that didn’t appeal to me, despite the money involved, because it would mean transplanting my young family to one of the most costly and congested areas of the United States. I turned down the offer, but later the person in charge of everything countered with an offer to manage the Detroit office. I was hesitant to accept, but finally agreed to take the job because I viewed it as an investment in my future. As a young man the position offered opportunities for growth and advancement with a company that was on the way up. It was a brutal job. A split shift where my first traffic report was at five thirty in the morning and my last was at 6 o’clock on TV. There was a midday break where I could drive the twenty-five miles back home to workout, eat lunch and rest, before returning at 3 p.m. However, getting away from the office was often a mirage because there was usually a ton of other things on my plate; scheduling, budgets; time sheets, as a trouble shooter for stations having problems receiving our feeds and more often than not, I had to treat program and news directors to lunch.

Once every month, all of Metro’s managers were required to fly to Houston for meetings with the corporate hot shots. Of course they wouldn’t spend the money to fly us down the night before so we could unwind and relax. We were all required to do our morning air shifts, then hop on a plane for the trip to Houston. In my case, that included a stopover in Cleveland. After the day long meeting, it was a mad dash to the airport to catch out plane for home. What had looked to be a great career move, soon turned into a nightmare of unparalleled proportions. After two and a half years of them squeezing everything they could out of me, I was fired in January of 1985.

Finding myself suddenly out of work, I was asked to audition for a news job at WWJ radio in Detroit, which was America’s first radio station, although KDKA in Pittsburgh laid claim to the same honor. After working at Metro, my new job was pure delight. I was the inside morning news reporter, where it was my responsibility to be on the air every half hour from 6 a.m. until 10 a.m. with a fresh news report, preferably with audio. It became my experience to know who I could call that early in the morning. Then after that part of my ay was one, I prepared to anchor the noon to 1 p.m. slot Monday-Friday. On Saturdays, I anchored every hour from 6 a.m. until noon. It was a great gig—until it wasn’t. Here’s where the story gets dicey. In. 1989, WWJ was sold to CBS. Things changed dramatically. My noon anchor slot was taken over by the station’s morning drive highly paid anchor. I was relegated to becoming a street reporter, which I hated. My schedule changed from Monday to Saturday to Saturday thru Wednesday. It was miserable.

Then in May or June of 1989, the news director called me at home to tell me he wanted to take over the afternoon anchor shift from 3 p.m. until 7 p.m. weekdays, at least temporarily. That sounded ominous, as if they planned to search the country for a replacement. It felt as though I would have anchor post only on an interim basis. Still, it was like I had died and gone to heaven. Weeks went by without any indication I would be the permanent anchor. It started to trouble me in a way that’s difficult to explain. I became anxious and unsure of myself. It wasn’t long before the mere act of getting into the car and driving to the radio station tied my stomach into knots. How could this have happened. I had anchored at the station for five years, and nothing remotely close to this calamity had ever happened. The mere thought of sitting down behind a microphone terrified me. How could that be after twenty fine years in broadcasting. It was all so surreal.

My nerves and insecurity started to affect my air work. My fear was that I was on the verge of a mental breakdown. The problem kept getting worse, so I asked to be put on the 7 p.m. to midnight anchor shift, thinking the diminished stress and fewer people around might get me back on track. It didn’t. I was so distraught , it was difficult to function. It was a Friday morning when I called my wife at work to tell her I was experiencing chest pains and shortness of breath. It was all a lie, but in my state of mind I was confused and disoriented. She drove me to Urgent Care, and after examining me they put me in an ambulance for a trip to the hospital where I remained three days for observation and tests. Nothing physical appeared wrong with me, so it had to be mental. I began seeing a therapist whose treatment mostly involved prescribing anxiety relieving medications that made it hard for me to function.

I used up the rest of my extended sick leave and submitted my resignation in October, 1990. There were no other job prospects on the horizon. The decision to give up and quit my job at WWJ was like picking up a shard of broken glass, cutting myself and leaving a deep wound that has continued to bleed. To this day, I have no idea what happened to me, but it still deeply troubles me. If I hadn’t gone bonkers and gotten the permanent afternoon drive shift, who knows what my future might have been. Maybe one of the radio networks would have heard me on air and hired me. Giving up on WWJ and not fighting harder to try and fix the problem was the WORST decision I ever made, but at the time I felt there was no other choice.

Fortunately, life has a way of sorting itself out. For a time my wife and I operated an ice cream parlor, which turned out to be a bust. But then I was hired by WXYT radio in Detroit to do fill in work which kept me busy for much of 1992. On January 1, 1993, I started my new job as director of media & communications for one of Michigan’s top political leaders, where I stayed for eighteen years until my retirement in 2009.

Putting all this down on paper hasn’t changed anything, and never will. But it makes me feel better for having gone through the exercise. Perhaps my trials and tribulations will make others think long and hard about the important decisions with which they are confronted and help them make good choices. The ones that don’t keep you awake at night, wondering what could have been. Pause and think before choosing the best course of action. It could mean the difference between a contented life or one filled with nagging regrets.

As a broadcast journalist for more than a quarter century, Robert Dustman’s credentials include director of news and public affairs at radio stations in Detroit and suburban Detroit, afternoon drive anchor for CBS owned-operated WWJ in Detroit where he also served as political director during the 1988 presidential election. Many of his reports were broadcast nationally on the CBS Radio Network. His various assignments included news anchor and sports director for out-state Michigan television stations and general manager of Metro Traffic Control where he provided rush hour traffic reports for ten Detroit radio stations and Channel 4 television while supervising a staff of eight traffic reporters.

 Among his proudest moments as a broadcaster are coverage of the 1988 Republican and Democratic National Conventions; the Inauguration of President George H.W. Bush and anchoring live coverage for WWJ radio of former President Richard Nixon’s address to the Detroit Economic Club and the visit of Pope John Paul II to the Pontiac Silverdome.

After leaving broadcasting in 1992, Dustman joined the administration of Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson, serving as director of Media and Communications, a position he held until his retirement in 2009. His duties included writing speeches, newspaper editorials, proclamations, congratulatory letters to constituents on behalf of the county executive, video scripts, commemorative book advertisements and public service announcements. Dustman was also responsible for setting up press conferences and handling special events such as the Oakland County Executive’s Annual State of the County Address.

He has authored 3 books: “Defining Moments: A True Story of War, Family Conflict & Reconciliation,” published by Author House; “Behind the Mic,”a candid retrospective his life in broadcasting and his newest work, “Slaying of the Innocents,” which is intense murder-mysterying set in Washington State.

In retirement, Dustman has kept busy, not only authoring books, but lending his public relations experience and expertise to numerous individuals and companies. 

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