Chris Schenkel glories in Bippus, takes his friends there to show it off and expresses deep hurt when he learns that you don't know where Bippus is, don't care and have no intention of finding out. "Why, Herb Shriner got some of his best lines in Bippus!" Schenkel says proudly. "He used to say things like 'Bippus had a beauty contest and nobody won.' Whenever he got a little short on material, he'd come down to Bippus and talk to Glen Rittenhouse—'Ritt the barber.' Ritt's known all the way to Fort Wayne for his humor. What a great guy! What a friend he's been!"
For a time Schenkel engaged in a one-man campaign to put his hometown on the map, but not much came of it. "People would say, 'I heard you mention Bippus on the air. What's a Bippus?' I'd say, 'A Bippus is a hick town. That's a town where they call the cows by their first names.' It's true! I used to know every cow in our pasture."
Huntington County, Ind. was settled by no-nonsense immigrants, mostly Amish and Dunkard, who sought religious freedom and a few acres, and Schenkel was brought up on a strange admixture of Low German and broken English in a neat farmhouse just down the road from the church where Lloyd C. Douglas once preached. The area has changed hardly at all, except for signs in Bippus proclaiming it HOMETOWN OF CHRIS SCHENKEL NATIONAL SPORTSCASTER. The slightly embarrassed Schenkel is lionized throughout the region. An elderly maiden lady keeps a Chris Schenkel scrapbook with his name in gold on the cover. The owner of Beebe's antique shop in Pierceton says, " Chris Schenkel? You know him? Is he all right?" The last words of Dr. Floyd B. Mitman, beloved local GP, were said to be, "I just wish Chris would get off cigarettes."
What philosophy did the young monument pick up in Bippus? "Work, work and more work," Schenkel says. "Up at six, milk the cows, feed the animals, walk to school, come back home and start right in on the afternoon chores. Every day. Once in a while I'd go fishin' in Pony Crick—Pony Creek—and my father'd get upset. He thought fishing was a waste of time. A wonderful man, my father. He was a fanatic about two things—work and baseball. I had baseball shoved down my throat every Sunday—we'd have to go watch semipro teams. Maybe that's why I've never done much baseball. If I'm not interested in something, I can be bored quicker than anybody you know, and baseball has really bored me ever since childhood."
Schenkel has no nightmares about his rigorous upbringing. "We didn't think we were put upon," he said. "Hell, every kid in Bippus lived exactly the same way. In the Depression my brothers and sisters and I'd split a candy bar six ways, and I'd have to separate the cream from the milk and take it to the town store to get enough money for groceries. We never went hungry. Our clothes were always patched, but they were always clean."
For a time Schenkel and his little brother Phil made a local name as The Harmony Cowboys, with 12-year-old Chris on guitar and 5-year-old Phil standing on a chair picking a mandolin. The Harmony Cowboys were on radio's National Barn Dance and had professional bookings in the Midwest, but the stern parents thought matters were getting out of hand and made the boys stop. By that time Chris had decided to become an announcer. "My imagination was fired by listening to Ted Husing. He made football sound so exciting, and horse racing, even golf. Listening to Husing you could visualize everything that was happening." The family had a console radio that made acetate recordings, and Schenkel practiced on guests. A cherished old photograph shows him decked out in overalls and a sharply raked farm-boy hat polishing his "man-on-the-street" technique down at the local grain elevator.
At 15 Schenkel covered his first live basketball tournament. "I conned Wilfred Bunce, the telephone man, into stringing phone-lines from the Bippus gym to a P.A. system in front of the drugstore and Ritt's barbershop. It was illegal, but we did it." To the locals, weaned on Plattdeutsch, it sounded quite natural when Schenkel shouted into the mike, "There's the gun, and the game is all!"
Later Schenkel went to Purdue and other sports events. In his down-on-the-farm manner he covered a chicken-plucking contest at a county fair. "The contestants are ready! It's mighty innerestin', folks! There go the chickens into the boil-in' water! Oh, my, feathers are flyin'!" One night he was squeezed into the stands, broadcasting a basketball game, when a woman behind him took umbrage at one of his remarks and walloped him across the earphones with her purse. "Oh, jeez!" Schenkel says, "I'll never forget that! What a crack!" Inevitably someone heard him on one of his better nights, and the country boy from Bippus went to a radio station in Rhode Island—simultaneously apprenticing as a race caller at Narragansett Park.
Billy Ames, the track's P.R. director, had his own ideas of how to teach the race-calling business. He set Schenkel to work walking hots, mucking stalls and making color charts showing the silks of every stable. "There was one problem," Schenkel says. "My color perception is off, and that's how you cover a horse race, by color. So I had to work extra hard. Maybe there'd be three horses in the backstretch neck and neck and all the jocks were wearing red and green, and I always had a hard time with those two colors. So I had to look for things like a white bridle, bandages on the rear legs, a short bobbed tail. That's helped me to this day, in all sports. Those six years at Narragansett laid a foundation. If you made a mistake the criticism was immediate, because people were betting. If you called a horse in the wrong position you could hear the boos—right while you were doing it. That trains you fast."
From Narragansett Schenkel went to New York for radio coverage of the football Giants, and from there to boxing and bowling and all the rest. But not without difficulties. "Right off, the ad agency man wanted me to change my name," Schenkel recalls with disdain. "He said, 'Listen, I think you ought to be Chris Cross or Chris Reynolds.' I didn't change my name because it would have been phony and also I was scared to death of my dad. He'd have killed me. Chris Cross! Can you imagine that?"