Saturday, July 2, 2011

"Scoop" by Al Miller (chapter 8)

1961
"This has got to be our best one ever," said Tommy with a gleam in his eye. "It oughta be a series of articles on something over, say, several days."
"Well, how 'bout an earthquake?" I answered. "They usually have lots of warning before those happen, but nobody pays any attention to 'em."
"Hey! How 'bout 'The Big One' they're always talkin' about, right in the middle of Los Angeles?"
"Naw. That's too common. Everybody expects one there. We need to find a place where nobody expects it."
"Yeah. But where would that be and still be believable?"
"How 'bout St. Louis?"
"St. Louis? Nobody would ever believe that. Who ever heard of an earthquake in St. Louis?"
"How 'bout Alexander Hamilton?"
"Alexander . . . Now that's unbelievable. When did he ever hear of an earthquake in St. Louis?"
"Actually four of 'em, and the epicenter was around New Madrid. The whole area around there is called the New Madrid seismic zone: NMSZ for short."


"Where did you ever hear about that?" asked Tommy.
"I was reading about it the other day in the library. From 1811 to 1812, they had earthquakes estimated at seven or better on the Richter scale, all within the space of three months. They were so bad that they changed the course of the Mississippi River. They were even felt as far away as Boston."
"Then how come we never hear about ‘em in school?"
"There weren’t very many people living there at the time. I guess they didn't really count how many got hurt or killed. Maybe they don't even know. Right now they're talkin' about installing seismic measuring equipment down there to see if it's as active as they think it might be."
"So, we write about how they've already installed the equipment and they're measuring the activity and they start getting more and more of it over several days."
"Until they get the big one. Then it's too late."
"Ooh! I love it. A story like that oughta get a Purlitzer Prize."
"It's Pulitzer Prize. And by the time it happens there might not be anybody left alive in the area to report on it," I said. "Maybe this one goes a little too far, d'ya think?"
"No, man. This'll be the best one yet."
*
2001


It was Thursday morning, October 19th. I arrived at the mine entrance as the men were beginning to be evacuated. Several of the men were unconscious from lack of oxygen. They were beginning to revive now, though they were all rather weak from lack of food and water. When most of the men had been brought out, I spotted Tommy coming through the dusty atmosphere and ran toward him. "Tommy!" I shouted, hugging him like the long lost friend that he was. "You don't know how good it is to see you."
"I see you got the message," said Tommy. "I was afraid you wouldn't be listening."
"You have no idea!" I exclaimed. "Believe me, you have no idea."
"Well I’ve been reading the papers the last few days."
"You mean you've been reading that old rag I've been working at?" I shouted incredulously. "I didn't think anybody outside Loganville ever read that thing."
"I didn't until that apartment fire made it into the Charleston paper. Somebody picked up the story on one of the wire services. Then bells started going off in my head. When I checked the old issues, all the pieces started to fall into place. I tried to call you. I left a message on your answering machine, but I was afraid you'd be out somewhere covering a story and wouldn't get the message."
“Actually I was. Of course, by now, you realize what’s happening, don’t you?”
“I almost wish I didn’t. But I’m out of there now. Next thing we have to worry about is that last story.”


I suddenly felt an attack of nausea coming on. “Oh. my! I forgot and left that manuscript at the old school. What are we gonna do now?”
“I guess it goes without saying that you found the old typewriter and all that stuff. Let’s get cracking so we can get back to the school before it’s too late.”
“Before we do that, there’s another task we have to take care of.”
“What’s that?” said Tommy, looking at me with more than a little concern. “What could be more important than saving the world from certain disaster?”
I hesitated. “It . . . It’s your mother.”
“What about my mother? Is she ill?”
“She’s in the hospital.” I tried to find the right words. “She had a mild heart attack.” Tommy sat down on a stump. “It happened when she heard the report about the mine accident on TV.”
“Well, don’t keep me in suspense. Is she going to be all right? Can I see her?”
“They were going to operate just about the time I left for Indianapolis. I haven’t had time to check on her since I got back.”
Tommy took out his handkerchief and wiped his forehead. “Have there been any early reports of tremors yet?”
“None that I’ve heard.”


“Okay, then that gives us a minimum of three days. But we’ll have to keep our ears open for any news. Anything at all and we’ll have to leave immediately.”
“Mean time, we go to the hospital. Your mother should be out of surgery by now.”
I had rented a car so the trip to the hospital should have been easy, but the traffic was beginning to build and we found ourselves stuck in a traffic jam. It was nearly ten before we got to the hospital. Just before I turned off the engine, I caught the beginning of a special news bulletin so I left the radio on to listen.
“This is Dan Rather reporting. There has been a report of an earth tremor from, of all places, St. Louis. The famous stainless steel arch is reported to be leaning at about two degrees. No other damage was done to the structure, but the power is reported to be off. Some visitors were in the observation area and rescue workers are making their way to them at this time. For a direct report we go to our  . . .”
I turned the radio off. Tommy looked at me and said, “It’s beginning. We’d better get going.”
“Nonsense,” I assured him. “We came here to see your mother and we’re gonna see your mother before we go anywhere.”
“But . . .”
“No buts about it. Suppose something happens to her. How would you feel then?”
“Okay, I guess you’re right, but we can’t stay very long.”
“Agreed. But right now, we’re going up to see her.”


As we entered her room, Tommy’s mother was just waking up. “Mom?” said Tommy. “Are you all right?”
“I can’t tell,” she answered. “I can’t feel much. Just sleepy I guess. Are you alright, Son?”
“Yes, Mom. They found a way out of the mine and everybody got out before anything really bad happened.”
“Tommy,” said his Mother. “I had a really bad dream while I was in surgery. At least I think it was a dream. It was about you and George.”
“Now, Mom, don’t start worrying. We’re alright.”
"I'm serious, Tommy. It was about those awful stories you boys wrote in high school." She paused for a moment. The room suddenly became very still. "I dreamed that those stories started to come true."
I must have turned as white as the sheets on Mrs. Sutherland's hospital bed. Then I sat down on the chair next to the bed, suddenly feeling very faint. Tommy turned and looked at me, his eyes with a piercing gaze.
"It was just about the time I saw that report on the TV about the mine explosion. I caught the image of you trapped in that mine, struggling for breath. Then everything went black. I saw all sorts of things going on that I had read in those stories so many years ago. It's just a blur now, but I seemed to be living through the stories. Next thing I remember, I was waking up and you boys were coming into the room. Now I don't know what to think. Am I awake or am I still dreaming?" She looked at Tommy for some sort of answer.


"It's all right, Ma. You're awake, and everything is gonna be all right. Now you just rest. George and I have to go away for a while, but we'll be back as soon as we can." He kissed her tenderly on the forehead and squeezed her hand. Then he turned toward me. "Let's go, George. We've got work to do."
*
By the time we arrived at the airport, there had been three more reports of tremors in the general area of St. Louis. I returned the rental car while Tommy went to the airline desk to buy tickets. Half an hour later, we were waiting for our flight at the gate. That's when the announcement came. "Ladies and Gentlemen, thank you for your patience. We regret to announce that Eastern Airlines flight 499 to Indianapolis has been canceled. There is a report that slight earth tremors have been felt in the Indianapolis area and there has been minor damage to the runways at the Indianapolis Airport. Until further notice, all traffic for Indianapolis has been diverted to Chicago. If you wish, you may trade your tickets for similar accommodations on another flight. Thank you again for your patience and we look forward to serving your future needs on Eastern Airlines."
Tommy and I exchanged glances. "Well, George," said Tommy finally, "do we go to Chicago or do we try to drive?"
"Well," I answered, "Chicago is closer to Indianapolis than Charleston. I vote we go."
"You're right, George. We'd better get down there before all the tickets are sold."


Not being encumbered with baggage has its advantages, especially at times like this. We set out on the run, or as close as we could get to it in a crowded airport. The crowd was already forming when we got to the ticket counter, but we were in time to get accommodations. We boarded the flight, and in half an hour, we were on our way to Chicago. The flight attendants were beginning to pass out peanuts when the pilot came on the intercom.
"Ladies and Gentlemen, this is the captain speaking. Welcome to Northwest Airlines Flight 1409 to Chicago. We have received word that O’Hare Airport has been closed temporarily due to some runway damage. We have been diverted to Detroit. For those passengers bound for Chicago, we will be providing surface transportation upon our arrival in Detroit. Thank you for your patience. We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause."
"Here we go again, Tommy. There's no use in our taking the bus to Chicago. We'd better figure on renting a car in Detroit."
"I hope we can make it in time, George. That's a long trip."
"Yeah, I know. But we don't have much choice, do we?"
"Tell you what; I'll get to a telephone and check out the bus lines and the trains just in case. You try to rent a car. Between the two of us, we should be able to find some transportation."
"So what happens if we don't?"
"I don't even wanna think about it."
"Neither do I. But we may have to. What happens if we can't find transportation?"
*
1961


Tommy and I were out "messing around" as we used to say. It was a warm evening, a perfect night for a date. But Tommy and I didn't have transportation, so we just went wandering about, looking for something to do.
"I'll bet if we had a car, we could get some dates."
"Maybe so, Tommy, but neither one of us has a driver's license. And even if we did, we don't have a car to drive. So forget it."
We walked on for another block. Still nothing.
"I bet we could get a car if we tried."
"Just how are we gonna get a car?"
"Well, you know how to drive, don't you?"
"All I've ever done is drive my dad's car down the driveway."
"Yeah, but I'll bet you could learn it real quick if you tried."
"Moot point since we don't have anybody's keys, much less their permission."
"Who needs keys?"
I stopped walking and looked at Tommy. "Hey! You're talking about stealing a car. That's grand theft, you know. You could end up in prison for something like that."
"Not if you don't get caught it isn't."


"Have we ever done anything wrong that we didn't get caught? Besides, even if we did get a car, none of the girls would go out with us. Face it. We're just a couple of nerds. That's what we'll always be. Veronica won't even look at me, especially after that Science Fair fiasco."
Another period of silence and we walked on. "I know where we can get a car, and nobody will be the wiser." Tommy was not going to give up.
"Okay, genius. Where can we get a car without getting caught?"
"Down at Henry's Used Car Lot."
"Right, like nobody's gonna notice us driving around in one of those old junkers. We'd stick out like a sore thumb."
"Old Man Applegate doesn't care. He leaves the keys in all of 'em. Sometimes I think he wants someone to steal the things."
"What happens if someone sees us? Then what do we do?"
"So, we keep on walkin'. What's the big deal?"
We kept walking, and, as luck would have it, we found ourselves next to Henry's. We stood there looking all around. There was nobody in sight. It was the moment of decision. Without thinking about it, we raced for the nearest car and jumped into the front seat. I reached for the keys. They weren’t there. "I thought you said Old Man Applegate always left the keys in these cars. So where are the keys?"
"Duck! The cops are here!"


We hunkered down in the front seat and waited. They shined their flashlights into all the cars, but somehow missed seeing us in the front seat of that Lincoln. Finally, they went away. We waited for another five minutes, afraid to move. Then Tommy said, "I know how to hot-wire one of these babies. We can be outta here inside of a minute."
"You're kiddin'."
"Sure I can. I watched my big brother do it before. It's easy."
Tommy tried, but it was a lot harder than he thought. Then, purely by accident, he got the combination just right and the monster breathed fire and smoke, or at least exhaust gasses. Being the taller of the two of us, I jumped behind the wheel, put the gear shift in drive, and pressed the gas. Like Tommy, I thought I was a lot better at this driving thing than I actually was. The Lincoln was a lot more car to handle than my Father's Ford and I fought the wheel just to keep from hitting the car next to us. On the way out of the lot, I managed to knock down a fence post and a length of chain. We went roaring down Washington Street doing about fifty. When it became obvious that I couldn't handle the car in traffic, I turned south and into a park. Tommy and I piled out and ran for the nearest side street where we could cut through to an alley.
"That was great!" exclaimed Tommy just before his knees went all wobbly and he fainted behind the nearest garage.
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