The Golden Stairway to Heaven

Author’s Note: Attached is a story I have set in the early 1960s, inspired by rumors of a kind that still occasionally circulate in small rural towns.

“This is radio station WAST, the wackiest station in the nation blasting out at you with a zillion megawatts of pure rock right here in downtown Little Falls and I’m Don Zingo your favorite DJ here to zap you and zing you with the sounds of tomorrow today. I’ll be with you ‘til the stroke of midnight with your favorite rockin’ sounds and here to start you off is “Boogie Down” from the one and only Eddie Kendricks!”

Don Zwingli touched the needle to the vinyl and a blast of electric piano and sax filled the glass cubicle. He leaned back in his swivel chair and reached for a cigarette, only to remember that he had given them up again. He had made a promise to his wife Madeline and was going to try to keep it.

The disk jockey stood up and paced back and forth in the enclosed space, a huge man who dwarfed the equipment around him. Opening the glass door, he strode into the empty business office. Going to the window, he looked out into the darkness, imagining all the parked cars on country roads where kids were grabbing and groping each other to the beat of “Boogie Down.” He could just make out the Thruway where it cut across the hills on the other side of the river, tiny headlights flashing anonymously onward into the night. He pictured the drivers of those cars, young, old, male, female, speeding to unknown destinations as their radios picked up the sound of his voice blasting out across this little corner of the planet and upward into interplanetary space where it would go on forever.  Don Zingo rushed back to his console a few seconds after the song ended. Dead air? Oh no!

“Had you worried, right folks?” he crooned into his mouthpiece. “Thought old Don had dozed off, didja? Not a chance! And I haven’t been beamed up into an alien spacecraft either. I’m still right here ready to blow your minds with the latest sounds and speaking of minds, how many of you out there have money problems on your mind? Don’t we all? Bills, bills. Bills, right, boys and girls? Well, if you find yourself coming and going without a dollar in your jeans, why not stop and see Bob and Lois at Household Finance right here on the corner of Ann and Main in downtown Little Falls. Tell Bob and Lois that Big Don sent you and they will give you the lowest interest rates allowed by law! I mean, the rates at HFC are so low they oughta be arrested for giving money away and once you got a little bread in your pocket, you’ll feel like dancing to the great beat put out by the Allman Brothers. Here’s their latest – “Ramblin Man.”

Lord I was born a ramblin man

Tryin to make a livin and doin the best I can

When it’s time for leavin, I hope you’ll unnerstand

That I was born a ramblin man

Don leaned back and leafed through his nightly stack of commercials. Local retailers only had to call the station and tell him they’d like to buy five or ten or twenty announcements and he would write something original for each, like he did with HFC. He smiled at his note for Matt’s Lunch that he would do after the ten o’clock news break. Nice and cheery, which was just what Matt needed after that guy from Fort Plain choked to death in the diner last month. The phone rang once before he snatched it up. “WAST. Don Zingo here. Sorry, no requests til eleven.”

“Hello, Don,” a familiar old voice whispered. “Could you stop by after the show? I have a very special item for the Community Bulletin Board tomorrow.”

“Sure, Victoria, I’ll be by after I close up shop here.” He couldn’t turn her down. Victoria Berger had owned the station ever since her husband Sol met with a tragic accident a couple years after hiring him. “You’ll be up, right?”

“Aren’t I always?”

“Insomnia’s no better?”

“No, same as always.”

“Well,” he thought to himself after he hung up. “At least she doesn’t want her old show back.” As manager he had always found it hard to sell ads on “Victoria’s Victrola,” an old time music program featuring everybody that nobody wanted to listen to anymore, from Rudy Vallee to Guy Lombardo. But she was the owner, for Christ’s sake, what could he do?

But these late-night summons to her house had to stop! There was always some minor business matter or trivial local news item that could certainly have waited until morning. She never asked him up to her house during the day when he had plenty of time to kill and wouldn’t have minded her pointless conversations quite as much.

He might have thought Victoria was trying to put the make on him if she were twenty or thirty years younger but that didn’t stop Madeline from resenting his boss’s midnight demands. When he finally got home at one or two in the morning, she would almost always wake up and razz him about “the old bitch.”

“I’ll just stop by quick, get her damned community interest item and split,” he told himself as he slipped the old reliable “Night When the Lights Went out in Georgia” onto the turntable. He shook his head at the aging audio equipment that surrounded him. “This place could really use a serious infusion of cash,” he muttered. “A real engineer wouldn’t hurt either.”

As the sweet tones of Vicki Lawrence faded away, Don launched into a snappy new commercial he had written for Doug’s Drive-in, a hamburger joint out on Route 5 that was on its last legs. He had convinced Doug that for ten bucks a pop, he could get customers driving out his way like they used to in the fifties. Managing the money end and doing his own nightly show were routine to Don after six years in radio.

He knew he had a knack for creating the kind of ads that kept dying businesses afloat for one more month, one more year. Since the shoe factory closed down and the paper mill cut back, people just didn’t have the kind of money they had back when Little Falls was humming. If he could convince his listeners to spend a couple bucks on Doug’s burgers and dogs instead of checking out the new McDonald’s in Herkimer, everybody was better off.

Don enjoyed walking around town, shooting the shit with local retailers and convincing them to take a shot on one of his special ad deals. And for variety, he’d fill in on the daytime shows for Bill Bollman or Steve McCluskey, both of whom were drunks. Nights weren’t as much fun as when he started in the radio game but that’s when younger people tended to listen, and Don’s zap ‘em and zing ‘em act brought them in, or at least so he guessed. He prided himself on knowing way more about what kids today liked in music than anybody else at the station.

He wasn’t always in radio. It was only when he sold a Pontiac to Victoria’s late husband that he even considered giving up selling cars for one of the bigger Utica dealerships. He was good at it and as Sol Berger said to him, “You got the gift of projecting sincerity. That’s the whole secret of life.” Before he’d sign for the new LeMans, Berger had insisted that Don drive over to Little Falls and check out the new station he had built. “I thought radio was a thing of the past, Mr. Berger,” he had said, trying to get out of making the trip to yet another hick town.

“Are you kidding? In these little burgs local radio stations are gold mines. I plan to open up a dozen of them.”

The money was never what Berger had promised but Don came to enjoy being a kind of local celebrity. He announced the stock car races every summer at Fonda and broadcast the high school basketball games. He liked the fact that people recognized him on Main Street and even in neighboring towns where he hosted teenage record hops, and for the past three years he had judged the talent show at the county fair. Although his situation, especially working for Mrs. Berger, left plenty to be desired now, he had felt in his first year or two in Little Falls that he had finally come into his own after drifting for years from one sales job to another. He had a great voice, he knew that for sure, and was getting the kind of respect that his six foot six presence always deserved. He had the idea lately that his mind was larger than other people’s as well, that he could understand than more than the average guy.

Sol had encouraged Don to think big, to promote himself any way he could. “Fame is money, Don,” he would say. “If people know who you are and trust you, the sky’s the limit. I can even see a young well-spoken guy like you getting into politics.”

“Politics, Sol? You gotta be kidding. I don’t even follow the news except for sports.”

“Doesn’t matter. It’s all about trust. I can see you in the state legislature, congress, whatever. Hell, you could write your own ticket.”

Then came the night when a chain broke on a load of logs being trucked down from the Adirondacks and Sol Berger was driving back from Dolgeville. They had to pry what was left of him out of that flattened Pontiac Don had sold him less than two years earlier.

For another three years after Victoria was hanging around the station day and night, sticking her nose into everything and making a mess, generally. Her show practically killed off the ad revenue and Don had to promise retailers on the sly that he would make sure their ads played on his show and not Victoria’s three hour slice of antique music. Eventually, she came up with that throat problem that kept her off the air and in the two years since, Don pretty much ran everything He had tried several times to get her to sign off on a share of the profits plus his salary but she wouldn’t go for it.

Madeline, who had come with him from Remsen in the hopes that this move would pay off big, kept nagging him about putting pressure on the old lady. She was sick of doing one more bookkeeper job for peanuts and although they didn’t talk about it anymore, Madeline was upset not to have had any kids.

At a quarter after twelve, Don turned the corner of Gansevoort Street with the sign-off tape’s Star Spangled Banner still repeating itself in his mind. He pulled up in front of Victoria Berger’s house, according to her a pre-Civil War mansion. “More like an old wreck that needs to get torn down,” he muttered to himself, pressing the door buzzer long and hard.

“Coming, coming, hold your horses.” He heard her faint voice as she slowly made her way to the door.

“Victoria, I can only stay a minute,” was the first thing he said when she waved him into her living room.

“Of course, of course, but you have to hear this. Sit down. You’ll want to hear this sitting down. It’s the biggest thing to ever hit this town.”

“Something else you heard in the beauty parlor?” He remained standing, amazed once again at her immunity to sarcasm.

“As a matter of fact, yes. That’s where I picked up the first hint of the story but I followed up. I wasn’t about to go off half-cocked and call you with something this earth-shaking before I had the facts.”

“Of course not.”

“You see, there’s this girl Janie who sweeps up. She does shampoos sometimes, too. She’s a sweet thing, a little simple I think, from up in the woods around Salisbury Center. So I took what Janie said with a grain of salt but then I made some calls, plenty of phone calls to lots of people up in that area, responsible people.”

“I see. Responsible people.”

“And by piecing together all the bits and pieces I picked up, I came up with what has got to be the biggest story of all time and just think, our little radio station is going to break that story. Why, we’ll be world famous!”

She paused. He said nothing. She waited. Finally, she just had to come out and say it. “An Unidentified Flying Object has been sighted in the vicinity of Little Falls!”

“A UFO?” This is the worst yet, he thought, she’s gone completely around the bend. What happens if she has to be put away? Who gets the station then? Will her nephew close it down? Or fire him? Don had to find a way to calm her down.

“This reminds me of that nutty kid who claims he saw the Virgin Mary down at Beardslee Lake. Sol told me all about it, how the kid must have been taking LSD and got a lot of people to come down there and pray with him.”

“This is nothing like that. That was a fraud, something the Catholics cooked up to make money.”

“Sol thought the kid was so crazy from drugs that he actually thought saw Jesus’ mother like those kids over in Europe. This could be similar, Victoria.”

“Let me finish telling you what I discovered, and then see if you say this is no different than that business with the crazy hippie.” Victoria went to an old roll-top desk and poked around in its various drawers until she found a batch of papers. Spreading them out on an ottoman, she scanned first one paper and then another, arranging them in a particular order. She began to read from her notes: “Ellen Dockerty who lives on the Emmonsburg Road reported that her cousin’s cousin George who has a farm that includes Barto Hill  is the original and thus far only witness of the events in question.”

Her cousin’s cousin George?”

“Yes, he’s a distant relative but she knows him very well. Not really a relative at all, if you want to split hairs.”

“And he has a farm up on Barto Hill?” Don could hardly keep from laughing. “UFO sightings do tend to occur in places like that. Off the beaten track, as it were.”

“Yes,” she nodded, adjusting her glasses. “But listen to this. George saw the object three nights in a row. It was elliptical in shape, glowing in several different colors, approximately twenty feet in diameter. It hovered over his pasture from exactly 2:59 to 3:16 am on each of three successive nights and then rose straight up into the sky and disappeared.”

“Is that what George told you?”

“George does not have a telephone. He told all this to his cousin.”

“His cousin who told the woman, what’s her name? Ellen Dockerty?”

“Exactly.” Victoria waited for him to say something. When he didn’t, she continued. “There’s more. Just listen to this.” Her employee nodded.

The station owner began to read from another piece of paper. “A series of high pitched sounds were emitted from the glowing object on each occasion. These sounds were said to resemble musical notes and varied in intensity indicating a possible language or form of communication from intelligent beings aboard the spacecraft.” She put down her notes and waited for him to be amazed.

“This farmer George said all that?”

“Those are not exactly his words but that is what he reported. I polished it up a bit for your initial report.”

“My initial report?”

“Yes, you are the only one I trust to break a story like this. No one will take Bill Bollman seriously so you should be the one to lead the morning news with this story. That will certainly uncork a flood of corroboration from our listening audience.”

Don saw not only his reputation but WAST itself vanishing if he ever read this nonsense on the air. Sol had always said not to embellish the news or there’d be trouble. The FCC might even go after their license. “I think we should wait, Victoria. I mean to say, you’ve been interested in this subject before but we never made it part of our news reporting.”

“My previous interest wasn’t based on facts that we uncovered. I had only read some books about ancient visitors to this planet. The author, a brilliant scientist named Eric Van Daniken, was the one who found the facts so of course it was his responsibility to report them. But come to think of it, the return of the visitors to our planet could be a sign that this is a very important moment in our history. They’ve probably been keeping an eye on us ever since they built the pyramids. Maybe their message this time will save us from ourselves, from nuclear war or air pollution.”

“In that case, we really should hold off on breaking the story.” He had to humor her somehow. “If we go too soon on the word of just one man, this George fellow, people will be able to discount what we say as only another flying saucer hoax. What we need is convincing proof that no one can question.”

“You are so right!” she clasped both his hands. “I knew I could count on you, Don. We need absolute proof.”

“So I won’t say anything on the air tomorrow?”

“No, of course not. You have to go up to Barto Hill with your tape recorder and your camera and get the proof we need. Tomorrow night.”

“But my show?”

“Ask Bill Bollman to cover. He can play the records you select. He won’t have to try to imitate your unique patter.”

Don’s hope that Victoria would forget all about flying saucers did not come to pass.  By the time he meandered into the office at eleven the next morning, she had already been there for hours and arranged for Bollman to cover his time slot. She was sitting at what he had come to think of as his desk in the two years since she had last visited the station. “Hello, Victoria. Still thinking about UFOs, I guess?”

She put down the phone, having just completed a series of calls to relay the message to George, who had no phone, that her ace reporter Don Zingo would be at his farm by five. “That’ll give you time to get the lay of the land while it’s still light. Make sure you have film for your camera and plenty of audiotape.”

“Tonight, Victoria? I’m exhausted. I think I’m coming down with something.”

“Nonsense, Don. You’re just getting cold feet. You know this is going to be the biggest story we ever broke, bigger than any station ever broke.”

“All right, all right, Victoria. But between you and me, it’s a wild goose chase.”

Resigned to her whim, Don drove out of Little Falls a little after four, passed up the chance for a quick beer at the Half Way House and stopped only for coffee in Dolgeville. It didn’t take too long to find George Timmerman’s farm up on the Fairfield Road. It looked to be a fairly run-down place, a barn that hadn’t been painted in generations, and  a yard full of rusted vehicles. Don  heard hammering from behind the house and found the farmer trying to piece together what must have once been a chicken coop. “Mr. Timmerman?”

“You the radio man?” He dropped his hammer and started walking into a pasture. “Follow me. I’ll show you the place. Mind the cow flops.”

Once they were past the barn, Don could see that the pasture rose up into a good sized hill, maybe five hundred feet high. Cows munched the grass halfway up the slope. “Highest piece of cultivated land in the county,” the farmer informed him as he struggled to keep up with the old man. “It’s in the books. Fifteen hundred feet above sea level. Wait ‘til you see the boulders.”

“Boulders?”  Don wheezed.

“There’s no natural way half a dozen pieces of rock big as a Chevy could get scattered around on top of a hill of this height. My thinking is that the boulders are a marker, if you get my meaning. Like one of those navigational beams.”

“You mean a marker for the flying saucers?”

“UFOs, not saucers. Calling ‘em that makes the whole thing seem silly. You agree with me?”

“Yeah, sure. UFOs.” They had stopped on the summit of Barto Hill. Looking south, Don could see the Mohawk Valley and the hills beyond the river and to the west he could see smoke from the factories of Ilion.

The farmer seemed cracked and Don nodded at everything he said, promising to be back that night for the saucer’s regular appearance. When he got home he tried to explain the whole crazy deal to Madeline. She turned away, shaking her head, and he took a long nap before driving back up the twisting country roads that night.

As planned, he met George Timmerman in front of his barn and together the two men made their way back up Barto Hill with the aid of flashlights bearing the logo of WAST. Reaching the summit at 2:15, they crouched down behind a huge boulder and waited. Don was running over possible moves he would make following the inevitable let-down. The most appealing was chucking it all and him and Madeline driving out to California and starting fresh. He could sell anything so why not leave the crazy lady and third rate town behind? Another possibility was a making a final take-it-or-leave-it demand to Victoria for a percentage of the station.

“It’s almost time, Mr. Lingo,” whispered the old man, shining his flashlight on his wristwatch. “They come at exactly 2:59, no sooner and no later.”

“It’s Zingo, not Lingo.”

“What’s that you say?”

“My name. It’s Don Zingo, not Don Lingo.”

“Turn off your flashlight, Mr. Ringo. And just keep watching that spot right in the dead center of all the boulders. In exactly four minutes it’s gonna light up like Christmas.”

The minutes ticked by.

And suddenly there it was! A great big glowing ball of light!

Afterwards, Don would have been hard put to say what color the light was but he knew that whatever he saw was huge and definitely saucer-shaped. People asked him if it had dropped down out of the sky and he guessed it must have, but at that moment all he knew was that it was suddenly there, lighting up the whole top of the hill. When people asked him later on if he had seen any aliens, he did have an image in his mind of a door somehow opening in the ball of light and a ramp descending to the grass and very small beings walking up and down that ramp. And maybe it was true what George Timmerman said about the unearthly music that filled the air. Don thought it sounded a little like “Green Tambourine” by the Lemon Pipers.

It was the farmer who had to lead him by the hand down the hill and back to his farmhouse where he sat in the kitchen covered in a blanket until Victoria’ Berger’s hired man came to pick him up and take him home to Little Falls.

Two weeks later when he finally started talking again, all he would talk about was what he had seen on Barto Hill. At first none of it made any sense to Madeline or anybody else who listened to him but then George Timmerman asked his minister, a self-taught fellow named Castor, to visit Don and he was able to clear everything up.

After the minister’s visit, Don knew that he had seen the same golden ladder that Jacob in the Bible saw and like Jacob, he was now called upon to do some very special things. The first of which was to visit the Rev. Castor’s little storefront church in Salisbury Center and tell the congregation about the imminent arrival of Jesus. A man who had seen God’s very angels going up and down the golden stairway to Heaven, and heard the celestial music, was somebody worth listening to. Madeline went with him to whatever church he was invited to, and there were quite a few in really small towns like Indian Lake and Emmonsburg.

Six months after Barto Hill, he and Madeline left for California where Don became active in both radio and religion. Eventually, he went into politics and did quite well.


Mike Cooney’s short stories and poetry have appeared in Sundial, Bandit Fiction, Badlands, Bitter Oleander, Second Chance Lit, Farside Review and other journals, and his novella, “The Witch Girl & The Wobbly,” was published by Running Wild Press in 2021. He is currently working on his first chapbook.