“Okay,” the new man said, “I have the picture.”
Keith slid out from his seat, disconnecting his headset as the relieving controller took his place. Even before the newcomer was seated, he had begun transmitting fresh instructions to the lower TWA.
The tower chief told Keith, “Your brother said he might drop around later,”
Keith nodded as he left the radar room. He felt no resentment against the tower chief, who had his own responsibilities to contend with, and Keith was glad he had made no protest about being relieved prematurely. More than anything else at the moment, Keith wanted a cigarette, some coffee, and to be alone. He was also glad–now the decision had been made for him–to be away from the emergency situation. He had been involved in too many in the past to regret missing the culmination of one more.
Air traffic emergencies of one kind or another occurred several times a day at Lincoln International, as they did at any major airport. They could happen in any kind of weather–on the clearest day, as well as during a storm like tonight’s. Usually, only a few people knew about such incidents, because almost all were resolved safely, and even pilots in the air were seldom told the reason for delays or abrupt instructions to turn this way or that. For one thing, there was no need for them to know; for another, there was never time for radio small talk. Ground emergency staffs–crash crews, ambulance attendants, and police–as well as airport senior management, were always alerted, and the action they took depended on the category of emergency declared. Category one was the most serious, but was rarely invoked, since it signaled an actual crash. Category two was notification of imminent danger to life, or physical damage. Category three, as now, was a general warning to airport emergency facilities to stand by; they might be needed, or they might not. For controllers, however, any type of emergency involved additional pressures and aftereffects.
Keith entered the controllers’ locker room which adjoined the radar control room. Now that he had a few minutes to think more calmly, he hoped, for the sake of everyone, that the Air Force KC-135 pilot, and all others in the air tonight, made it safely down through the storm.
The locker room, a small cubicle with a single window, had three walls of metal lockers, and a wooden bench down the center. A notice board beside the window held an untidy collection of official bulletins and notices from airport social groups. An unshaded light bulb in the ceiling seemed dazzling after the radar room’s semidarkness. No one else was in the locker room, and Keith reached for the light switch and turned it off. There were floodlights on the tower outside, and enough light came in for him to see.
He lit a cigarette. Then, opening his locker, he took out the lunch pail which Natalie had packed before his departure from home this afternoon. As he poured coffee from a Thermos, he wondered if Natalie had put a note in with his meal, or, if not a note, some inconsequential item she had clipped from a newspaper or a magazine. She often did one of both, hoping, he supposed, that it might cheer him. She had worked hard at doing that, right from the beginning of his trouble. At first, she had used obvious means, when those hadn’t worked, less obvious ones, though Keith had always realized–in a detached, dispassionate kind of way–exactly what Natalie was doing, or trying to. More recently, there had been fewer notes and clippings.
Perhaps Natalie, too, had finally lost heart. She had had less to say lately, and he knew, from the redness of her eyes, there were times she had been crying.
Keith had wanted to help her when he saw it. But how could he–when he couldn’t help himself?
A picture of Natalie was taped to the inside of his locker door–a snapshot, in color, which Keith bad taken. He had brought it here three years ago. Now, the light from outside shone on the picture only dimly, but he knew it so well, he could see what was there, whether highlighted or not.
The picture showed Natalie in a bikini. She was seated on a rock, laughing, one slim hand held above her eyes to shield them from the sun. Her light brown hair streamed behind; her small, pert face showed the freckles which always appeared in summer. There was an impudent, pixyish quality to Natalie Bakersfeld, as well as strength of will, and the camera had caught both. In the rear of the picture was a blue-water lake, high firs, and a rocky outcropping. They had been on a motoring holiday in Canada, camping among the Haliburton lakes, and for once their children, Brian and Theo, had been left behind in Illinois, with Mel and Cindy. The holiday proved to be one of the happier times that Keith and Natalie had ever known.
Perhaps, Keith thought, it wasn’t a bad thing to be remembering it tonight.
Pushed in behind the photo was a folded paper. It was one of the notes he had been thinking about, which Natalie put occasionally in his lunch pail. This was one from a few months ago which, for some reason, he had saved. Though knowing what was there, he took the paper out and walked to the window to read. It was a clipping from a news magazine, with some lines below in his wife’s handwriting.
Natalie had all kinds of odd interests, some far-ranging, which she encouraged Keith and the boys to share. This clipping was about continuing experiments, by U.S. geneticists. Human sperm, it reported, could now be fast frozen. The sperm was placed in a deep freeze for storage where it remained in good condition indefinitely. When thawed, it could be used for fertilization of women at any time–either soon or generations hence.
Natalie had written:
The Ark could have been 50 percent smaller, if Noah
Had known the facts about frozen spermatazoa;
It appears you can have babies by the score
Merely by opening a refrigerator door.
I’m glad we had our ration
With love and passion.
She had been trying then; still trying desperately to return their lives… the two of them; and as a family… to the way they had been before. With love and passion.
Mel had joined forces, too, attempting with Natalie, to induce his brother to fight free from the tide-race of anguish and depression which engulfed him totally.
Even then a part of Keith had wanted to respond. Summoning, from some deep consciousness, a spark of spirit, he had sought to match their strength by drawing on his own; to respond to proffered love with love himself. But the effort failed. It failed–as he had known it would–because there was no feeling or emotion left within himself. Neither warmth, nor love, nor even anger to be kindled. Only bleakness, remorse, and all-enveloping despair.
Natalie realized their failure now; he was sure of that. It was the reason, he suspected, that she had been crying, somewhere out of sight.
And Mel? Perhaps Mel, too, bad given up. Though not entirely–Keith remembered what the tower chief had told him. “Your brother said he might drop around…”
It would be simpler if Mel didn’t. Keith felt unequal to the effort, even though they had been as close as brothers could be all their lives. Mel’s presence might be complicating.
Keith was too drained, too weary, for complications any more.
He wondered again if Natalie had put in a note with his meal tonight. fie took out the contents of the lunch pail carefully, hoping that she had.
There were ham and watercress sandwiches, a container of cottage cheese, a pear, and wrapping paper. Nothing more.
Now that he knew there was none, he wished desperately there had been some message; any message, even the most trifling. Then he realized–it was his own fault; there had been no time. Today, because of the preparations he needed to make, he had left home earlier than usual. Natalie, to whom he had given no advance warning, had been rushed. At one point, he had suggested not taking a lunch at all; he would get a meal, he said, at one of the airport cafeterias. But Natalie, who knew the cafeterias would be crowded and noisy, which Keith disliked, had said no, and gone ahead as quickly as she could. She had not asked why he wanted to leave early, though he knew she was curious. Keith was relieved that there had been no question. If there had been, he would have had to invent something, and he would not have wanted the last words between them to have been a lie.
As it was, there had been enough time. He had driven to the airport business area and registered at the O’Hagan Inn where, earlier in the day, he had made a reservation by telephone. He had planned everything carefully, using a plan worked out several weeks ago, though he had waited–giving himself time to think about it, and be sure–before putting the plan into effect. After checking into his room, he had left the Inn and arrived at the airport in time to go on duty.
The O’Hagan Inn was within a few minutes’ drive of Lincoln International. In a few hours from now, when Keith’s duty watch was ended, he could go there quickly. The room key was in his pocket. He took it out to check.
THE INFORMATION–which the tower watch chief had relayed earlier to Mel Bakersfeld–about a meeting of Meadowood citizenry, was entirely accurate.
The meeting, in the Sunday school hall of Meadowood First Baptist Church–fifteen seconds, as a jet flies, from the end of runway two five–had been in session half-an-hour. Its proceedings had started later than planned, since most of the six hundred adults who were present had had to battle their way, in cars and on foot, through deep snow. But somehow they had come.
It was a mixed assemblage, such as might be found in any averagely prosperous dormitory community. Of the men, some were medium-level executives, others artisans, with a sprinkling of local tradespeople. In numbers, men and women were approximately equal. Since it was Friday night, the beginning of a weekend, most were casually dressed, though exceptions were half a dozen visitors from outside the community and several press reporters.
The Sunday school hall was now uncomfortably crowded, stuffy and smoke-filled. All available chairs were occupied, and at least a hundred people were standing.
That so many had turned out at all on such a night, leaving warm homes to do so, spoke eloquently of their mettle and concern. They were also, at the moment, unanimously angry.
The anger–almost as tangible as the tobacco smoke–had two sources. First was the long-standing bitterness with the airport’s by-product–the thunderous, ear-assaulting noise of jet propulsion which assailed the homes of Meadowood, day and night, shattering peace and privacy, both waking and sleeping. Second was the immediate frustration that, through a large part of the meeting so far, those assembled had been unable to hear one another.
Some difficulty in hearing had been anticipated. After all, it was what the meeting was about, and a portable p.a. system had been borrowed from the church. What had not been expected, however, was that tonight jet aircraft would be taking off immediately overhead, rendering both human ears and the p.a. system useless. The cause, which the meeting neither knew nor cared about, was that runway three zero was blocked by the mired Aéreo-Mexican 707, and other aircraft were being instructed to use runway two five instead. The latter runway pointed directly at Meadowood, like an arrow; whereas runway three zero, when usable, at least routed takeoffs slightly to one side.
In a momentary silence the chairman, red-faced, shouted, “Ladies and gentlemen, for years we have tried reasoning with the airport management and the airline companies. We have pointed to the violation of our homes. We have proved, with independent testimony, that normal living–under the barrage of noise we are forced to endure–is impossible. We have pleaded that our very sanity is in danger and that our wives, our children, and ourselves live on the edge of nervous breakdowns, which some among us have suffered already.”