Thursday, September 22, 2005

The Nuke Dodges a Bullet -- This Time

Such a sweet photo, isn't it? Two symmetrical concrete towers and outlying buildings, a nice marsh full of migratory birds, a lone seagull flying overhead. Nature has adapted to man's intrusions as best it can. All is calm.

Now, imagine you're in a helicopter and you slowly pull back and to the right. You're now flying over coastal marshland and wetlands. A mile or so east and here you are in Matagorda Bay, which if you look just a little further out, past Matagorda Island, is the Gulf of Mexico.

Yesterday, this very spot was Ground Zero for Hurricane Rita. As of now (Thursday afternoon), Rita is predicted to hit northeast of The Nuke. I'm breathing a little easier today.

I grew up in Palacios, a tiny town a few miles south of The Nuke on Tres Palacios Bay. My first job was at The Nuke, in the accounting department of Brown & Root, in the summer of 1978. B&R was in the initial phases of constructing the reactors at that point, so there were hundreds of workers and the place was abuzz with activity 24/7. I had to wear a hard hat any time I walked out of the office -- safety first! From the outside, everything seemed to be progressing smoothly.

On the inside, however, was a different story. The accounting office was across the hall from the quality control office and there was a fierce rivalry between the two. Every day during lunch, desks were pushed back and tables set up for card games. Specifically, Spades. Two teams, four players from each office. Bets were placed. Scores were recorded on a large poster board kept in the head accountant's office.

Us peons in the office had strict orders not to interrupt those involved in the game for any reason. No phone calls, no questions. Sometimes those games went on long past the official lunch hour. There was an unspoken rule that as long as the big-wigs were playing, the rest of us didn't have to work, either. So my accounting cohorts and I would wander the buildings and construction site, visiting our friends in other departments.

My carpool buddy Eddie worked with the framing crew on the first reactor, building a four-foot-thick retaining wall to seal in the radioactive fuel rods. They would frame a few feet up, then the concrete guys would come in behind them and fill in what they'd framed. Eddie often laughed about how many wrenches, hard hats and other debris were accidentally dropped and mixed in with the concrete, creating lord knows how many air pockets and areas of instability.

I was 18, still pretty naive about the ways of the world, so back then I was amazed they could get away with doing such a crappy job on such an important construction project. Eddie would just pat me on the head and say, now Melody, you know as well as I do that we'd get our asses kicked to the curb a lot more if those QC guys would quit farting around -- in YOUR office -- long enough to come and do their job. He had a point.

I worked there for three months, then went away to college. A year or so later, I became a born-again eco-activist and returned to Palacios to protest against The Nuke, amidst stories of rampant mismanagement by -- surprise! -- Brown & Root and massive cost overruns. My protests fell on deaf ears, mostly because The Nuke was a veritable windfall for the town, employing hundreds of people and pushing the school district's tax base into the millions, affording them the opportunity to air condition their schools, build a fancy auditorium and pay teachers a decent wage.

Hard to argue with the seemingly endless flow of money, so shortly thereafter I stopped pasting flyers all over town, most of which were torn down as soon as I'd put them up; stopped writing articles and letters to the editor, most of which weren't published; stopped trying to talk my parents out of moving away from their beloved hometown, because they weren't about to budge, no, siree.

I felt like the lone voice of reason, and believe me, that's a scary place to be. Then, as now, my protests centered around the fact they built The Nuke just a few short miles from the Gulf, right in hurricane alley. Given what I know about its construction history, I'm concerned the reactors' retaining walls won't hold up during hurricane-force winds, releasing radiation from the reactors' fuel rods. If this happens, at the very least, the water table, marshland, bay and Gulf will be contaminated; at the very worst, many lives are at stake.

This area of Texas has had its share of hurricanes, just in my lifetime. The deadliest ones have occurred in September. In 1961, Carla, the second largest hurricane on record at the time, made landfall between Palacios and Port Lavaca and devastated both towns. There were only 34 deaths attributed to this hurricane, mainly due to the largest peacetime evacuation in U.S. history -- more than a quarter million people were evacuated inland, including my family. I was barely two years old, but I have memories of my grandma's house in Pasadena crowded with people, no electricity, cooking on the gas stove by candlelight, and lots of singing. Friends of ours who remained to ride out the storm still talk about standing at their second-story windows and watching a 20-foot tidal wave inundate Palacios, washing giant shrimp boats 14 miles inland.

In 1967, Beulah -- third largest hurricane ever -- hit at Brownsville, then did the unthinkable; it went back out in the Gulf and rammed its way up the coast. I was seven and remember this one clearly. Dad had to stay at Alcoa to help keep the refinery from blowing to bits, so mom and us kids crowded into the neighbor's truck and drove to grandma's. I saw so many tornados on the way, I stopped counting; to this day, the sound of wind and rain terrifies me. We learned later a killer tornado touched down in Palacios, killing four people. There was so much flooding between San Antonio and Palacios, the whole area was cordoned off by the National Guard for a week until flood waters receded.

Fern and Edith hit within two days of each other in 1971. With Fern, Palacios experienced 100 mph winds; at Matagorda Bay, four Cuban fishing vessels washed ashore.

The Nuke received its first direct hit with Hurricane Frances in 1998. Luckily, winds reached "only" 70 mph and tidal surges were recorded at eight feet. That was the first time it dodged a bullet.

I talked to my aunt on the phone this morning, describing my vague nightmares last night of storms and grandma's house and radiation sickness. She calmed me down in that soothing, special way reserved for those who are medicated with anti-depressants. Bless her heart. She's safe, my dad's safe, we're all safe. I don't know what I was worried about.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

FFF #8

Fancy food lover JJ at Purgatorian gives the opening phrase. (This week's phrase: "Hell bent for leather and ugly as a dirt clod...") We write a story. It's a little something called Flash Fiction Friday.

Hell bent for leather and ugly as a dirt clod, she chased me out the door and into the yard, belt in hand, determined to give me what was coming to me, by god. Didn’t matter that I hadn’t been the one who’d eaten the last heel of bread. Didn’t matter because I was the fat kid, so naturally I’d get whupped.

I’d heard her rummaging in the kitchen and then blanched when her outraged scream tore through the thin walls of our bungalow. Instinctively I cradled my Chrissy doll and ran for the screen door. She was a split second behind me, red-faced, grabbing my arm, screaming for me to stop right there! I wrenched free, threw open the door and ran blindly.

The sight of me running with no hesitation, refusing to obey, sent her into shock for a few seconds, precious time I needed to put distance between us, beyond the fierce arc of her metal-tipped belt.

Adrenaline pumped through me as I tore across the yard, not daring to glance back until I reached the dirt road. She strode purposefully toward me, yelling my name, her belt dragging the ground, eyes locked with mine. Tears flowed down my face, unbidden, scared to run, scared not to run. She was quickly closing the gap, a cruel smile tugging at her mouth. Whassamatter, fatso? Out of breath already?

I kept running, clutching Chrissy to me, her chest rising and falling as quickly, as desperately, as mine. I turned around once again as she commanded me to stop or else she’d beat my ass to a bloody pulp. I calculated how far I’d have to run to get to Aunt Tilly’s house, the odds of me making it there before she caught up to me, how mad she’d be when she got there, the further odds of Aunt Tilly standing up to her one more time.

Bits and pieces of our last conversation floated through my head as I gasped for breath, my bare feet pounding the dirt. One of these days you gonna have to stand up for yourself, Aunt Tilly had said sternly. You’re 12 years old now, too old to keep getting beat on. You need to let her know you ain’t gonna take it no more. Show her your strength, girl, that light in your eyes when you tell me one of your fancy stories. She ain’t gonna stop till you make her respect you.

I could hear her behind me on the road, running now, her breath getting ragged, her voice louder. I made a hard right and took a flying leap across the drainage ditch, barely making the other side, falling to my knees. I scrambled up to the top and surveyed the empty field before me, weeds waist high and sure to be full of sticker burrs and cottonmouths. I wished like hell I was wearing my sneakers. Sobs caught in my throat as I weighed my options.

I’ve got you now, lardass. Think you’re so smart. Come here NOW! She stood panting on the other side of the ditch, glaring at me. Beads of sweat ran down her face and that cruel smile was back. She flicked the belt on the ground once, twice. I said NOW.

I took a deep breath and stared right back. I didn’t take it.

Don’t lie to me. You’re only making things worse for yourself. Get your ass over here.

It wasn’t me. I’m not lying.

Shut the hell up and come here or I swear to god you won’t sit down for a week!

Deep breath. No, I won’t. I’m not coming over there and you’re not gonna beat me. Not anymore.

Says who? You? Who the hell do you think you are?

Crying again, dammit. Deep breath. It’s not fair to get beat for something I didn’t do. It’s not right. It’s not fair.

Ain’t nobody said life was fair. You starting to sound like your Aunt Tilly. She gauged the distance to the far side of the ditch and backed up to get a running start.

I started running backwards and heard the words escape from my mouth I HATE YOU SO HELP ME GOD I HATE YOU...

She ran with all her might and tried to jump the ditch. She would have made it, too, if it hadn't been for my babydoll Chrissy, god bless my baby Chrissy, who was lying where I’d dropped her in my frantic struggle to gain the other side of the ditch, who was lying right where mama’s right foot landed when she jumped, which caused her foot to go flying and her body to fall backwards into the ditch with a loud thump and a howl of pain.

I stopped, stunned for a moment. Then I ran forward a little so I could see what was happening. There she was, floundering in the mud and trash, trying to stand up, grabbing her right ankle, screaming in pain. When she saw me, she held out her hand for me to help her up. I stared at her for a long moment, her pudgy white legs protruding from her faded pink house dress, cigarettes dislodged from her pocket into the mud beside her.

I couldn’t help myself, I started to giggle, quietly at first, then building to a full-blown belly laugh. The more she glared and yelled, the more I laughed. The madder she got, the more she struggled to stand up, the harder I shrieked with laughter. I fell to my knees, laughing/sobbing for what seemed like hours.

At some point she’d stopped yelling and sat there quietly, watching me. I gradually stopped laughing and wiped my tears with the back of my filthy hand. Gingerly I crawled down into the ditch beside her and picked up the belt she’d dropped. I hesitated, looking her square in the eye. She returned my gaze but said nothing. I climbed back to the top of the embankment, rolled the belt up into a ball and threw it as hard as I could into the weeds.

I stared at the dried brown overgrown field, gnarly oaks in the distance, blue-gray sky beyond. A dog barked somewhere far off as a car door slammed. Funny, I hadn’t noticed what a pretty day it was.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

The Exorcist

I love this image from the movie poster and later paperback tie-ins. You really gotta hand it to the marketing folks: genius. Me, I would have gone for the obvious, Linda Blair all pimply and vomit-laden, eyes blazing straight at the camera. That's what would be on the poster nowadays, I'm sure. But this image of a solitary man -- doctor? businessman? father? -- silhouetted in a blaze of light, hesitating, on the brink of something BIG, is so subtle, so abstract, just beautiful.

The movie was released around Christmastime 1973, but I didn't see it then. I was 13 and my momma said NO WAY, huh-uh, don't even think about it, missy. She also forbid me from reading the book, once she found out there WAS a book, but she was too late. My BFF Lisa had procured the book from her older brother Gary and I read it three times. Page 225 of the paperback version held a special interest -- that's the part where Regan defiles herself with the crucifix. Bloody fascinating. And sick. And a real turn-on.

I can't remember if, in the '70s, back before the days of the VCR, movie distributors had a habit of bringing popular movies back into theaters a few years after they were first run. But I definitely remember Lisa and I seeing The Exorcist in a theater in Victoria, TX in 1977. The movie grossed us both out and we laughed about it afterwards. But frankly, I was more traumatized by Carrie from the year before. To this day I still have nightmares about Piper Laurie in her Christ death-stance and (shudder) that hand coming out of the ground.

Cut to March of 2000. The 25th anniversary edition of The Exorcist premiered at the South by Southwest Film Fest at the Paramount Theater -- at midnight. I was surprised the theater was only half full, considering author William Peter Blatty was present for a Q&A afterwards. The lights went down and suddenly I realized this would be a whole new film experience for me.

Maybe it was the additional 23 years of film appreciation I brought to the screening. Maybe it was the fact I was now a mom and viewed it in a wholly different light. Or maybe it was the fact that the movie's sound had been updated for the 21st century, enveloping each and every one of us in that ice-cold theater with uneasy rumblings of what was to come from the very first frame. Whatever it was, it all added up to scaring me out of my freakin' mind! Definitely my favorite SXSW screening.

I was so pumped after seeing this new version, I told everybody I knew to go see it in the theater, while they could. Of course, nobody went. Us film freaks, we live in our own little world and have a hard time understanding why there are so few of us here.

Case in point: About a week later, I was in Houston with the other Girl Scout moms. We'd dropped our kids and our leader at NASA for a sleepover with about a thousand other girls, no moms allowed. Free for a few hours, we decided to go out to a nice adult Italian restaurant, drink some wine and stuff ourselves silly. After a couple of drinks I started gushing about the new and improved Exorcist and how cool and groovy it was and how we should all go sans kids just like now and wouldn't that be a fun time?

I looked up from my pasta and saw they were all staring at me, looks of shock on their faces. What? What did I say? Finally, one of them took a drink and said quietly, "We don't watch movies about the devil." I'm thinking, WE? What the -- then it hit me: they're all Catholic. I was getting tipsy with a table full of fine upstanding nice Catholic women who not only had never seen The Exorcist, but with every sip of wine decried The Exorcist and how evil it is and further implying I needed to take inventory of my moral character that I would even suggest seeing it.

Talk about knowing your audience. Sigh.

Anyway, one thing Mr. Blatty had mentioned at the Q&A was that he had based his book on newspaper accounts of an actual exorcism performed on a boy in a small town outside Washington, D.C. in 1949. Unbeknownst to me, there had been books written and "Unsolved Mysteries"-type TV shows produced about the real kid, who had never been found.

Well, the kid has been found -- by Strange Magazine! I happened to stumble across the online version recently. If it can be said there is a voice of reason out there amongst folks who research and are passionate about UFOs, Bigfoot, Nessie, Sasquatch, funny lights, etc., I'm pretty sure it would be Strange Magazine. Author Mark Opsasnick was obsessed with finding the possessed kid from 1949, and his five-part article details his search and largely debunks the original exorcism. It's a fascinating read.

But to me, it doesn't matter whether the story is true or not. It's movie magic that does it for me. This one is a classic. Greatness oozes from its pores -- writing, acting, directing, cinematography, sound. It was nominated for 10 Academy Awards. A horror film! I wonder what got into the Academy that year? Could it be ... SATAN???

Thursday, September 08, 2005

100 years ago, we had it down

I have to share this NYTimes article written by Simon Winchester, author of Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded, The Professor and the Madman, and The Map That Changed the World. He's working on a new book about the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and took time out to impart words of wisdom from his research.

Compare and contrast, if you dare.
By Simon Winchester
New York Times
September 8, 2005

The last time a great American city was destroyed by a violent caprice of nature, the response was shockingly different from what we have seen in New Orleans. In tone and tempo, residents, government institutions and the nation as a whole responded to the earthquake that brought San Francisco to its knees a century ago in a manner that was well-nigh impeccable, something from which the country was long able to derive a considerable measure of pride.

This was all the more remarkable for taking place at a time when civilized existence was a far more grueling business, an age bereft of cellphones and Black Hawks and conditioned air, with no Federal Emergency Management Agency to give us a false sense of security and no Weather Channel to tell us what to expect.

Nobody in the "cool gray city of love," as the poet George Sterling called it, had the faintest inkling that anything might go wrong on the early morning of April 18, 1906. Enrico Caruso and John Barrymore - who both happened to be in town - and 400,000 others slumbered on, with only a slight lightening of eggshell-blue in the skies over Oakland and the clank of the first cable cars suggesting the beginning of another ordinary day.

Then at 5:12 a.m. a giant granite hand rose from the California earth and tore through the city. Palaces of brick held up no better than gold-rush shanties of pine and redwood siding; hot chimneys, electric wires and gas pipes toppled, setting a series of fires that, with the water mains broken and the hydrants dry, proceeded over the next three dreadful days and nights to destroy what remained of the imperial city. In the end, at least 3,000 were dead and 225,000 homeless.

Everyone who survived remembered: there was at first a shocked silence; then the screams of the injured; and then, in a score of ways and at a speed that matched the ferocity of the wind-whipped fires, people picked themselves up, dusted themselves off, took stock and took charge.

A stentorian Army general named Frederick Funston realized he was on his own - his superior officer was at a daughter's wedding in Chicago - and sent orders to the Presidio military base. Within two hours scores of soldiers were marching in to the city, platoons wheeling around the fires, each man with bayonet fixed and 20 rounds of ball issued; they presented themselves to Mayor Eugene Schmitz by 7:45 a.m. - just 153 minutes after the shaking began.

The mayor, a former violinist who had previously been little more than a puppet of the city's political machine, ordered the troops to shoot any looters, demanded military dynamite and sappers to clear firebreaks, and requisitioned boats to the Oakland telegraph office to put the word out over the wires: "San Francisco is in ruins," the cables read. "Our city needs help."

America read those wires and dropped everything. The first relief train, from Los Angeles, steamed into the Berkeley marshalling yards by 11 o'clock that night. The Navy and the Revenue Cutter Service, like the Army not waiting for orders from back East, ran fire boats and rescue ferries. The powder companies worked overtime to make explosives to blast wreckage.

Washington learned of the calamity in the raw and unscripted form of Morse Code messages, with no need for the interpolations of anchormen or pollsters. Congress met in emergency session and quickly passed legislation to pay all imaginable bills. By 4:00 a.m. on April 19, William Taft, President Theodore Roosevelt's secretary of war, ordered rescue trains to begin pounding toward the Rockies; one of them, assembled in Virginia, was the longest hospital train ever assembled.

Millions of rations were sped in to the city from Oregon and the Dakotas; within a week virtually every military tent in the Army quartermaster general's stock was pitched in San Francisco; and within three weeks some 10 percent of America's standing army was on hand to help the police and firefighters (whose chief had been killed early in the disaster) bring the city back to its feet.

To the great institutions go the kudos of history, and rightly so. But I delight in the lesser gestures, like that of the largely forgotten San Francisco postal official, Arthur Fisk, who issued an order on his personal recognizance: no letter posted without a stamp, and that clearly comes from the hand of a victim, will go undelivered for want of fee. And thus did hundreds of the homeless of San Francisco let their loved ones know of their condition - a courtesy of a time in which efficiency, resourcefulness and simple human kindness were prized in a manner we'd do well to emulate today.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Oh yes she did

I was chatting with one of my clients yesterday about the Katrina boondoggle. She very matter-of-factly, in her self-assured display of Republican party line-ism, told me that the reason it took so long for the feds to step in was because Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco didn't ask for help until days after the hurricane hit.

This would have stopped me in my tracks and made me go "hmmmm" if I hadn't just been exercising my civic duty by listening to Randi Rhodes on Air America Radio reading the letter that Blanco sent to both Pres. Bush and the regional director of FEMA on Aug. 28. The day BEFORE Katrina hit Louisiana.

You can read the letter (in PDF format) at the Louisiana Office of the Governor's official site -- go down to the heading "Louisiana Request for Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance."

I did a tiny bit of surfing today and was dismayed to find this misinformation plastered everywhere. From what I can gather, the Washington Post quoted some anonymous Bush administration flunky as saying Blanco didn't do her job. Then they realized their mistake and retracted it, but by that time, it was too late; Repubs everywhere picked it up and ran with it.

Of course, as we all realize now, Ms. Blanco's letter was having a heck of a time being routed to Bush -- he's in Crawford one day, Arizona the next, San Diego the next, then finally reluctantly ending his vacation and back to D.C. Then he had to hunt down somebody to read him the letter.

This independent panel investigating the failure of our various levels of government to communicate? It better goddamn well start at the top. Personal responsibility begins at home -- in this case, our national home for the mentally inept and criminally derelict, aka The White House.

Blanco did her job. It's time for everybody else to step up.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Words of Wisdom -- brought to you by Plan 9

All you of Earth are idiots! You see? You see?
Your stupid minds. Stupid! Stupid!

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Flash Fiction Friday #6

We get the first line from JJ on Friday and create a short story due the following Monday. Come and join us!

This week's assignment: The most embarrassing thing...

The most embarrassing thing that’s ever happened to you. Jenny held the card out to me triumphantly. I took it and stared dumbly, my mind a whirlwind of confusion. The most embarrassing thing that’s ever happened to you.

Of course I would choose truth, and they had known I would choose truth, had known I’d be too chicken to choose dare, given the stories they’d circulated of their sleepovers. They’d probably arranged for me to get this particular card in this particular game. A test.

Keeping my eyes on the card, I rapidly turned over and then rejected one embarrassing memory after another, each too horrible to admit in front of Jenny, Joanie and Jillian -- the J Crew, as we called them behind their backs. What could I offer up to them as something only mildly embarrassing, something they wouldn’t deem blackmail worthy, something to charm them, soothe their savage beasts -- something they would buy?

I looked up just as Jenny and Jillian exchanged knowing glances. Jenny caught my eye and smiled sweetly. She stretched her leg across the circle and poked me with her big toe. "C’mon, Kay, surely you can come up with SOMEthing. Tick-tock!"

The white pants/bloody underwear in English last year? The Boy Scout/Girl Scout campsite French kiss incident? The time my mom showed up at a football game in red hot pants and white go-go boots?

I could feel my stomach tighten on barely digested cheese doodles and root beer floats. I gritted my teeth and clenched my butt cheeks to hold in a stinkyfart, which only caused my stomach to rumble menacingly. They were staring at me now, their patience waning, ready to pounce.

All right. Pay attention to detail, but not too much detail. Have faith in your characters. Sincerity is key. Ready? Okay. Now or never. Deep breath. Words came rushing out in a jumbled mess.

"My older brother, Chuckie is his name, he was born retarded. I mean, you know, literally retarded where he has that weird-shaped head and he doesn’t make sense when he talks and my mom wouldn’t let us call him retarded to his face because she said we should call him a Downs person if we had to call him anything at all and he smiles a lot and watches cartoons and Batman movies."

I stopped to take a breath. The J Crew leaned in as one. They hadn’t expected pathos. Good. I relaxed a bit, forced myself to slow down.

"Even though he’s a lot older than me and my younger brothers, he would still hang out with us when we were kids and try to play softball out back or go swimming. He loved RC Cola in the bottle and would beg us to walk with him to the corner store to buy one. Same routine every day: Mr. Sanders would open the bottle, hand it to Chuckie, and Chuckie would drink the whole thing right there in front of Mr. Sanders. He wouldn’t budge until he’d drained the bottle, no matter how many customers were behind him, just to hear Mr. Sanders say, ‘Good boy, Chuckie, good boy’."

Breathe. Just breathe.

"So one day Chuckie’s going through his RC Cola routine and I’m over by the magazines reading the new Batman comic and my little brothers are outside waiting for us and I don’t hear Chuckie leave. Next thing you know Mrs. Walpole, that lady who wears those funny straw hats, I’m sure you’ve seen her" –- Jenny nodded knowingly, atta girl Jenny -- "is standing in the doorway, pointing out to the road and yelling, ‘Mr. Sanders, look at those boys out there in front of your store!’

"I rush to the front along with Mr. Sanders, and there are Chuckie and Gary and Bobby standing shoulder to shoulder with their" –- I allowed myself to blush as I looked down, fumbling momentarily. J Crew inched in closer and demanded, "What? What?" I looked up and blurted out, "Their THINGIES in their hand, and they’re all peeing right there in the parking lot, trying to see who can pee the farthest!"

Jenny and Jillian screeched and fell backward with laughter. Joanie joined in reluctantly, her laughter a bit forced.

"Oh my god, what a Polaroid moment," gasped Jenny. "You poor thing," cooed Jillian, patting my knee. "It was just so gross," I said, covering my face and laughing.

Joanie waited for our laughter to subside before she asked, her eyes hard, "Yeah, and then what happened?"

I hesitated only for an instant. "Well, um, you know, I don’t really know because I ran around the building and hid behind the dumpster. A few minutes later my mom showed up and ordered the boys to get in the car. I ran all the way home so I wouldn’t have to be in the same car with them. Ugh." I shuddered for effect.

Jenny stood up and took a framed photo off her night stand. She sat down between Joanie and me. "My older brother Todd, good lord you wanna talk about gross. One time he was taking a shower…"

I smiled and nodded and gasped in all the right places. In like Flynn. What had I been so worried about? I caught Joanie studying me and I winked at her. She didn’t wink back.