For 38 years, Every other week, eight days on and six days off, winter and summer alike, he has been gazing down over us here in the Valley from his perch atop Mt. Washington, but now Marty Engstrom, one of the North Country’s more colorful characters, has decided it’s time to come down.
After nearly four decades as northern New England’s most improbable TV star, Engstrom — the thick-accented, loonily-smiling engineer for Channel 8’s summit transmitting station — is coming back to the lowlands of Fryeburg, Maine, for good.
Engstrom’s impending retirement is being brought about by two factors. First, he hit age 65 last month. Second, his employers, don’t need Engstrom and his fellow team of summit engineers as much because the station has gone digital and began broadcasting from a tower in Baldwin, Maine, in February instead of from the top of New England.
With their summit transmitter duties co-opted, the only reason why the two, two-man crews continue to make the eight-mile ride up the Auto Road to the summit is to run the WMTW-owned generating facility, which provides electricity to other buildings on the windswept summit.
So, goodbye to the home of the “World’s Worst Weather,” and hello to a more normal way of life.
He follows in the retirement footsteps of his longtime fellow Mt. Washington Channel 8 engineer Willie Harris of Jackson, who retired in 1983.
Together, as longtime Channel 8 fans well remember, the country-music loving, string-tied Engstrom and the turtlenecked, jazz-loving Harris made up Mt. Washington’s “Odd Couple.”
Their bare-boned, down-home nightly summit weather reports made them beloved characters in living rooms throughout the North Country, and more regionally recognizable than anyone else except perhaps Maine car dealer Jolly John.
The world’s oldest teenager, Harris now plays jazz in local clubs, rides his motorcycle, tours the country in a motorhome bus, and skis.
Don’t count on Engstrom to be quite as flashy as Harris. But he’ll enjoy retirement, nonetheless.
So, what will he do? Write a book? Go on the lecture circuit, as he did this past Saturday, when he was the keynote speaker at the annual meeting of the Mount Washington Observatory?
“I’ve already penciled the book, but I’ve got to get it typed. It’ll probably take two years to get it published. Other than that, I’m going to go home and catch up on about 40 years’ accumulation of home repairs, chores, community service and hobbies!” drawled Engstrom in his unmistakable Fryeburg accent when we caught up with him at the summit building earlier this week on one of those blustery days for which Mt. Washington is renowned.
Rime ice covered the transmitting station’s exterior, and it took some coaxing to get the ever-practical Engstrom to step outside for a photo shoot, but he obliged.
Once back inside, we continued our conversation as the 60 to 65 mph wind gusts pummeled the building, located on the southern end of Mt. Washington’s 6288-foot summit, and near where the world record wind of 231 was recorded in April 1934.
It was clear the day of our visit, but it wasn’t nice. In other words, typical Mt. Washington weather. All par for the course for Engstrom, who has seen his share of weather over the years.
“You’ve got to take this mountain’s weather as you find it,” said Engstrom, conceding that one never has a choice on this mountain, where more than 130 people have met their deaths over the years.
Engstrom says that when arriving on the mountain to begin work in 1964 after a stint in the Air Force, it did not take him long to acclimate to the weather on top of New England, even though he concedes, “There’s no way that anybody can expect what they’re gonna run across up he-ah.”
Despite all of his years on the summit, he has never become a member of the exclusive Century Club, in which walkers must make their way in 100-plus mph winds around the top of the Sherman Adams building without holding onto anything.
He doesn’t need to.
“Oh, I haven’t fooled with that!” said Engstrom, somewhat disdainfully. “Now, I’ve been out on this mountain on business, getting between buildings when the wind was 124 mph and it was 46 below ze-rOOOOO. So, been there, done that, don’t have to do anything to try and prove the point!”
It takes a special kind of person... A father of three and grandfather of two, Engstrom notes that his years on the mountain have come at a price, and that it does take a special kind of person to work the mountain’s week-on, week-off schedule.
“In my case, it seems like every other thing I’m telling my wife over the telephone is, ‘You’re just going to have to hang on until I get home!’ A lot of people can’t hack that, and they’ve got to be home to tend to emergencies. That’s one thing that’s doomed a lot of people up he-rrre-ah,” Engstrom said.
Phlegmy and peculiar, his is a voice that you never quite get used to — nor get enough of.
Add his trademark, end-of-broadcast grin and Yankee outlook, and you begin to understand why Marty has been such a beloved character all these years.
Everyone of a certain age remembers the first time they saw the crew-cutted, horn-rimmed Engstrom giving his summit broadcasts.
Throughout the segments, Engstrom would be deadpanned and all business (even when the summit cat would invariably jump up on the desk, tail in the air, rear end to camera, doing its best to interrupt the broadcast).
And then, at the end of the broadcasts ... THERE IT WAS! That crazy, eye-popping, ear-to-ear grin.
It was so ... unexpected. AND unnatural!
But after you’d seen it once, you were hooked — you had to watch the next night, and the night after that, too. 100 watts of voltage, every time. It was like “Hee-Haw” meets “The Twilight Zone.”
OK: For the sake of history, we had to ask during our visit this week:
Where did that grin come from? And how did the TV show get started?
“We-ellllllllll,” said Engstrom, “it all started on the first day that I got up here after I had left the Air Force with my commercial radio license. I got settled in up here and the boss said, ‘Get a script ready, you’re going to be on the air.’ I said what’s this all about? I had no idea,” said Marty. “I wasn’t at all comfortable with what I was doing [on the air], and I guess I looked it. Lee, the boss, told me, ‘Look, when you get done doing the show, put a smile on the end of it.’ So, I forced a smile and that was about it. It became a trademark.” With some embellishment? “Ri-ggghhhght.”
He’s now recognized throughout New England — “Enough not to be a burden, but enough to be fun.”
Autographs? “Oh sure.”
Perhaps the zenith of his fame occurred in the 1980s, when he went to New York City to appear as a guest on ABC-TV’s “Good Morning America” program.
What did they want him on for?
“Oh, about four minutes,” Engstrom replied, forcing us to clarify the question.
“No,” we requeried, “we mean: what was the subject they wanted to talk to you about?”
“Oh, sorry,” said Engstrom. “They wanted to hear about the mountain.”
Among the sights he has enjoyed all these years? “The green flash — the prism just as the sun disappears over the horizon. The last beam of sunlight is an intense green color on a clear horizon. The horizon up here is so far away. The northern lights also get intense here,” he said.
As for the wind? “The whole building — which was built in 1954 — shudders. Sometimes, your eardrums kind of start pounding from the pressure changes. As for the cold, we’ve managed to tighten up the building over the years to keep it pretty cozy.”
Will he miss the mountain?
“Well,” he said, “it’s going to be a relief, quite frankly, to get off here. It’s been a good life, but it’s time to call it quits.”
And then, interview over, he grinned. Swear to God.