Page 73 of Airport

“If you were a real policeman,” Freemantle objected, “you’d treat us both equally.”

Mel said unexpectedly, “I think he’s right.” Ordway glanced at him curiously. “You should treat us both equally. And instead of closing this meeting, I think you should allow me the same privilege of talking to these people which Mr. Freemantle just had. That is, if you want to be a real policeman.”

“I guess I want to be.” The big Negro police lieutenant, towering above the other two, was grinning. “I’m beginning to see it your way–and Mr. Freemantle’s.”

Mel observed blandly to Elliott Freernantle, “You see, he’s come around. Now, since we’re all here, we may as well clear up a few things.” He held out his hand. “Let me have that microphone.”

Mel’s anger of a minute or two ago was now less apparent. When the Tribune reporter, Tomlinson, had read back from his notes the gist of what Elliott Freemantle stated in his TV interviews and later, Met reacted heatedly. Both Tomlinson and the TV producer asked Mel to comment on what had been said. He assured them that he would.

“Oh no!” Freernantle shook his head decisively. The danger which he scented a few moments earlier was suddenly close and real. Once before, tonight, he had underestimated this man Bakersfeld; he had no intention of repeating that mistake. Freemantle himself now had the assembled Meadowood residents firmly under control; it was essential to his purpose that they remain that way. All he wanted at this moment was for everyone to disperse quickly.

He declared loftily, “More than enough has been said.” Ignoring Mel, he passed the microphone to one of the Meadowood men and indicated the p.a. equipment. “Let’s get all this apart and be on our way.”

“I’ll take that.” Ned Ordway reached over and intercepted the microphone. “And leave the rest where it is.” He nodded to several other policemen who had appeared on the fringes of the crowd. They moved in. While Freemantle watched helplessly, Ordway handed the microphone to Mel.

“Thank you.” Mel faced the crowd of Meadowooders–many of their faces hostile–and others who, passing through the terminal, had stopped to listen. Though it was twenty minutes after midnight, and now Saturday morning, the heavy traffic in the main concourse showed no sign of lessening. Because of many delayed flights, pressures would probably continue through the remainder of the night, merging with a heightened weekend activity until schedules got back to normal. If one of the Meadowood objectives was to create a nuisance effect, Mel thought, it was succeeding. The extra thousand or so people were taxing available space in the concourse, arriving and departing passengers having to fight their way around like a flood tide encountering a sudden sandbank. Obviously the situation must not continue for more than a few minutes.

“I’ll be brief,” Mel said. He spoke into the microphone, telling them who and what he was.

“Earlier tonight I met a delegation representing all of you. I explained some of the airport’s problems; also that we understood and sympathized with yours. I expected what I said to be passed along, if not exactly, then at least in substance. Instead, I find that I have been misrepresented and you have been deceived.”

Elliott Freemantle emitted a roar of rage. “That’s a lie!” His face was flushed. For the first time tonight his impeccably styled hair was disarrayed.

Lieutenant Ordway grasped the lawyer firmly by the arm. “Hush up, now! You had your turn.”

In front of Mel a broadcast microphone had joined the hand mike he was using. The TV lights were on as he continued.

“Mr. Freemantle accuses me of lying. He’s been strong in his use of words tonight.” Mel consulted a note in his hand. “I understand they include ‘thievery,’ ‘indifference,’ that I met your delegation with ‘hostility and abuse’; further, that the noise abatement measures we are trying to enforce are a ‘sham, a fake, and a public lie.’ Well, we’ll see what you think about who’s lying–or misrepresenting–and who is not.”

He had made an error earlier, Mel realized, in speaking to the small delegation and not to this main group. His objectives had been to achieve understanding, yet avoid disruption in the terminal. Both objectives had failed.

But at least he would aim for understanding now.

“Let me outline this airport’s policy on noise suppression.”

For the second time tonight Mel described the operating limitations on pilots and their employer airlines. He added, “At normal times these restrictions are enforced. But in difficult weather, such as tonight’s storm, pilots must be given leeway, and aircraft safety must come first.”

As to runways: “Wherever possible we avoid takeoffs over Meadowood from runway two five.” Yet, he explained, there was occasional need to use that runway when runway three zero was out of commission, as at present.

“We do our best for you,” Mel insisted, “and we are not indifferent, as has been alleged. But we are in business as an airport and we cannot escape our basic responsibilities, plus our concern for aviation safety.”

The hostility among his audience was still apparent, but now there was interest as well.

Elliott Freemantle–glaring at Mel and fuming–was aware of the interest too.

“From what I’ve heard,” Mel said, “Mr. Freemantle chose not to pass on some observations I offered to your delegation on the general subject of airport noise. My remarks were made”–he consulted his notes again, not in ‘uncaring cynicism,’ as has been suggested, but in an attempt at honest frankness. I intend to share that frankness with you here.”

Now, as earlier, Mel admitted there was little more in the area of noise reduction which could be done; glum expressions appeared when he described the expected greater noise from new aircraft soon to be in use. But he sensed there was appreciation for objective honesty. Beyond a few scattered remarks, there were no interruptions, his words remaining audible above the background noises of the terminal.

“There are two other things which I did not mention to your delegation, but now I intend to.” Mel’s voice hardened. “I doubt if you will like them.”

The first point, he informed them, concerned Meadowood community.

“Twelve years ago your community didn’t exist. It was a parcel of empty land–of low value until the airport’s growth and closeness sent surrounding values soaring. To that extent your Meadowood is like thousands of communities which have mushroomed around airports everywhere in the world.”

A woman shouted, “When we came to live here, we didn’t know about jet noise.”

“But we did!” Mel pointed a finger at the woman. “Airport managements knew that jet airplanes were coming, and knew what jet noise would be like, and we warned people, and local zoning commissions, and pleaded with them in countless Meadowoods not to build homes. I wasn’t at this airport then, but there are records and pictures in our files. This airport put up signs where Meadowood is now: AIRPLANES WILL TAKE OFF AND LAND OVER THIS ROUTE. Other airports did the same. And everywhere the signs appeared, real estate developers and salesmen tore them down. Then they sold land and houses to people like you, keeping quiet about the noise to come, and airport expansion plans–which usually they knew of–and I guess in the end the real estate people outwitted us all.”

This time there was no rejoinder, only a sea of thoughtful faces, and Mel guessed that what he had said had struck home. He had a sense of keen regret. These were not antagonists whom he wanted to defeat. They were decent people with a real and pressing problem; neighbors for whom he wished he could do more.

He caught sight of Elliott Freemantle’s sneering features. “Bakersfeld, I suppose you think that’s pretty clever.” The lawyer turned away, shouting over nearer heads without benefit of amplifier. “Don’t believe all that! You’re being softened up! If you stick with me, we’ll take these airport people, and we’ll take them good!”

“In case any of you didn’t hear,” Mel said into the microphone, “that was Mr. Freemantle advising you to stick with him. I have something to say about that, too.”

He told the now attentive crowd, “Many people–people like you–have had advantage taken of them by being sold land or homes in areas which should not have been developed, or should have been developed for industrial use where airport noise doesn’t matter. You haven’t lost out entirely, because you have your land and homes; but chances are, their values have decreased.”

A man said gloomily, “Damn right!”

“Now there’s another scheme afoot to part you from your money. Lawyers all over North America are hot-footing it to airport dormitory communities because ‘thar’s gold in that thar noise.’ “

Lawyer Freemantle, his face flushed and distorted, shrilled, “You say one more word–I’ll sue you!”

“For what” Mel shot back. “Or have you guessed already what I’m going to say?” Well, he thought, maybe Freemantle would launch a libel action later, though he doubted it. Either way, Mel felt some of his old recklessness–a decision for plain speaking, and never mind the consequences–take command. It was a feeling which, in the past year or two, he had experienced rarely.

“Residents in the communities I spoke of,” Mel argued, “are being assured that airports can be sued–successfully. Homeowners near airports are being promised there’s a pot of dollars at every runway’s end. Well, I’m not saying airports can’t be sued, nor am I saying there aren’t some fine, sound lawyers engaged in anti-airport litigation. What I’m warning you is that there are a good many of the other kind, too.”

The same woman who had called out before asked–more mildly this time–“How are we supposed to know which is which?”

“It’s difficult without a program; in other words, unless you happen to know some airport law. If you don’t, you can be bamboozled by a one-sided list of legal precedents.” Mel hesitated only briefly before adding, “I’ve heard a few specific law decisions mentioned tonight. If you wish, I’ll tell you another side to them.”

A man at the front said, “Let’s hear your version, mister.”

Several people were looking curiously at Elliott Freemantle.

Mel had hesitated, realizing that this had already gone on longer than he intended. He supposed, though, that a few minutes more would make no difference.

On the fringes of the crowd he caught sight of Tanya Livingston.

“The legal cases which you and I have both heard referred to glibly,” Mel said, “are old hat to people who ran airports. The first, I think, was U.S. v. Causby.”

That particular case–a pillar of Lawyer Freemantle’s presentation to the Meadowood group–was, Mel explained, a decision more than twenty years old. “It concerned a chicken farmer and military airplanes. The airplanes repeatedly flew over the farmer’s house, as low as sixty-seven feet–a whole lot lower than any airplane ever comes near Meadowood. The chickens were frightened; some died.”