Page 17 of Airport

The chairman was a heavy-jowled, balding man named Floyd Zanetta, who was a printing firm manager and Meadowood homeowner. Zanetta, sixtyish, was prominent in community affairs, and in the lapel of his sports jacket was a Kiwanis long-service badge.

Both the chairman and an impeccably dressed younger man were on a small raised platform at the front of the hall. The younger man, seated, was Elliott Freemantle, a lawyer. A black leather briefcase stood open at his side.

Floyd Zanetta slarnmed a hand on the lectern in front of him. “What do the airport and airlines do? I’ll tell you what they do. They pretend; pretend to listen. And while they are pretending, they make promises and more promises which they have no intention of fulfilling. The airport management, the FAA, and the airlines are cheats and liars…”

The word “liars” was lost.

It was engLdfed in a shattering, almost unbelievable crescendo of sound, a monstrous roar of power which seemed to seize the budding and shake it. As if protectively, many in the hall covered their ears. A few glanced upward nervously. Others, their eyes transmitting anger, spoke heatedly to those beside them, though only a lip reader could have known what was said; no words were audible. A water pitcher near the chairman’s lectern trembled. If Zanetta had not grasped it quickly, it would have fallen to the floor and shattered.

As swiftly as it had begun and built, the roar lessened and faded. Already miles away and several thousand feet above, Flight 58 of Pan American was climbing through storm and darkness, reaching for higher, clearer altitudes, swinging onto course for Frankfurt, Germany. Now, Continental Airlines 23, destination Denver, Colorado, was rolling on the farther end of runway two five, cleared for takeoff–over Meadowood. Other flights, already in line on an adjoining taxiway, were waiting their turn to follow.

It had been the same way all evening, even before the Meadowood meeting started. And after it started, business had had to be conducted in brief intervals between the overwhelming din of takeoffs.

Zanetta continued hastily, “I said they are cheats and liars. What is happening here and now is conclusive evidence. At the very least we are entitled to noise abatement procedures, but tonight even this…”

“Mr. Chairman,” a woman’s voice cut in from the body of the hall, “we’ve heard all this before. We all know it, and going over it again won’t change anything.” All eyes had turned to the woman, who was now standing. She had a strong, intelligent face and shoulder-length brown hair which had fallen forward, so that she brushed it back impatiently. “What I want to know, and so do others, is what else can we do, and where do we go from here?”

There was an outburst of applause, and cheering.

Zanetta said irritably, “If you’ll kindly let me finish…”

He never did.

Once again, the same encompassing roar dominated the Sunday school hall.

The timing, and the last remark, provided the only laughter, so far, of the evening. Even the chairman grinned ruefully as he raised his hands in a despairing gesture.

A man’s voice called peevishly, “Get on with it!”

Zanetta nodded agreement. He continued speaking, picking his way–like a climber over rocks–between recurring peaks of sound from overhead. What the community of Meadowood must do, he declared, was to discard politeness and reasonable approaches to the airport authority and others. Instead, a purely legalistic attack must be the order from now on. The residents of Meadowood were citizens with legal rights, which were being infringed upon. Along with those legal rights went recourse to the courts; therefore, they must be prepared to fight in the courts, with toughness, even viciousness if necessary. As to what form a legalistic offensive should take, it so happened that a noted lawyer, Mr. Elliott Freemantle, whose offices were downtown in the Loop, had consented to be present at the meeting. Mr. Freemantle had made a study of laws affecting excessive noise, privacy and airspace, and, very soon, those who had braved the weather to attend would have the pleasure of hearing this distinguished gentleman. He would, in fact, present a proposal…

As the clichés rolled on, Elliott Freemantle fidgeted. He passed a hand lightly over his barber-styled, gray-streaked hair, fingering the smoothness of his chin and cheeks–he had shaved an hour before the meeting–and his keen sense of smell confirmed that the exclusive face lotion, which he always used after shaving and sunlamp sessions, still lingered. He recrossed his legs, observing that his two-hundred dollar alligator shoes still gleamed with mirror clearness, and was careful not to spoil the crease in the trousers of his tailored Blue Spruce pebble-weave suit. Elliott Freemantle had long ago discovered that people preferred their lawyers–unlike their doctors–to look prosperous. Prosperity in a lawyer conveyed an aura of success at the bar, success which those about to engage in litigation wanted for themselves.

Elliott Freemantle hoped that most of those in the hall would shortly become litigants, and that he would represent them. Meanwhile, he wished the old cluck of a chairman, Zanetta, would get the hell off his feet so that he, Freemantle, could take over. There was no surer way to lose the confidence of an audience, or a jury, than by letting them think faster than yourself, so that they became aware of what you were going to say before you said it. Freemantle’s finely honed intuition told him this was what was happening now. It meant that when his own turn came, he would have to work that much harder to establish his competence and superior intellect.

Some among his legal colleagues might have questioned whether Elliott Freemantle’s intellect was, in fact, superior. They might even have objected to the chairman’s description of him as a gentleman.

Fellow lawyers sometimes regarded Freemantle as an exhibitionist who commanded high fees mainly through a showman’s instinct for attracting attention. It was conceded, though, that he had an enviable knack for latching early onto causes which later proved spectacular and profitable.

For Elliott Freemantle, the Meadowood situation seemed custom made.

He had read about the community’s problem and promptly arranged, through contacts, to have his name suggested to several homeowners as the one lawyer who could most likely help them. As a result, a homeowners committee eventually approached him, and the fact that they did so, rather than the other way around, gave him a psychological advantage he had planned from the beginning. Meanwhile, he had made a superficial study of the law, and recent court decisions, affecting noise and privacy–a subject entirely new to him–and when the committee arrived, he addressed them with the assurance of a lifetime expert.

Later, he had made the proposition which resulted in this meeting tonight, and his own attendance.

Thank God! It looked as if Zanetta, the chairman, were finally through with his windy introduction. Banal to the last, he was intoning, “…and so it is my privilege and pleasure to present…”

Scarcely waiting for his name to be spoken, Elliott Freemantle bounded to his feet. He began speaking before Zanetta’s buttocks had made contact with his chair. As usual, he dispensed with all preliminaries.

“If you are expecting sympathy from me, you can leave right now, because there won’t be any. You won’t get it at this session, or others we may have later. I am not a purveyor of crying towels, so if you need them, I suggest you get your own, or supply each other. My business is law. Law, and nothing else.”

He had deliberately made his voice harsh, and he knew he had jolted them, as he intended to.

He had also seen the newspaper reporters look up and pay attention. There were three of them at the press table near the front of the hall–two young men from the big city dailies and an elderly woman from a local weekly. All were important to his plans, and he had taken the trouble to find out their names and speak to them briefly before the meeting started. Now, their pencils were racing. Good! Cooperation with the press always ranked high in any project of Elliott Freemantle’s, and he knew from experience that the best way to achieve it was by providing a lively story with a fresh angle. Usually he succeeded. Newspaper people appreciated that–a lot more than free drinks or food–and the livelier and more colorful the story, the more friendly their reportage was inclined to be.

He returned his attention to the audience.

Only a shade less aggressively, he continued. “If we decide, between us, that I am to represent you, it will be necessary for me to ask you questions about the effect of airport noise on your homes, your families, your own physical and mental health. But do not imagine I shall be asking the questions because I care personally about these things, or you as individuals. Frankly, I don’t. You may as well know that I am an extremely selfish man. If I ask these questions, it will be to discover to what extent wrong has been done you under the law. I am already convinced that some wrong has been done–perhaps considerable wrong–and, in that event, you are entitled to legal redress. But you may as well know that whatever I learn, and however deeply I become involved, I am not given to losing sleep about the welfare of my clients when I’m away from my office or the courts. But…” Freemantle paused dramatically, and stabbed a finger forward to underscore his words. “But, in my office and in the courts, as clients, you would have the utmost of my attention and ability, on questions of law. And on those occasions, if we work together, I promise you will be glad I am on your side and not against you.”

Now he had the attention of everyone in the hall. Some, both men and women, were sitting forward in their chairs, striving not to miss any words as he paused–though for the minimum time–as aircraft continued overhead. A few faces had become hostile as he spoke, but not many. It was time, though, to relax the pressure a little. He gave a swift, short smile, then went on seriously.

“I inform you of these things so that we understand each other. Some people tell me that I am a mean, unpleasant man. Maybe they are right, though personally if ever I want a lawyer for myself I’ll make sure of choosing someone who is mean and unpleasant, also tough–on my behalf.” There were a few approving nods and smiles.

“Of course, if you want a nicer guy who’ll hand you more sympathy, though maybe a bit less law”–Elliott Freemantle shrugged–“that’s your privilege.”

He had been watching the audience closely and saw a responsible-looking man, in heavy rimmed glasses, lean toward a woman and whisper. From their expressions, Freemantle guessed the man was saying, “This is more like it!–what we wanted to hear.” The woman, probably the whisperer’s wife, nodded agreement. Around the hall, other faces conveyed the same impression.

As usual on occasions like this, Elliott Freemantle had shrewdly judged the temper of the meeting and calculated his own approach. He sensed early that these people were weary of platitudes and sympathy–well-meaning but ineffective. His own words, blunt and brutal, were like a cold, refreshing douche. Now, before minds could relax and attention wander, he must take a new tack. The moment for specifics had arrived–tonight, for this group, a discourse on the law of noise. Tbe trick to holding audience attention, at which Elliott Freemantle excelled, was to stay half a mental pace ahead; that much and no more, so that those listening could follow what was being said, but must remain sufficiently alert to do so.