Lose The Booze

It’s Independence Day. I sit in my dungeonlike turn-of-the-century-brick chambers high atop Old Town Grain & Feed, a local bar/club/all-around-dive, thinking about the fireworks I was hearing over by the river about an hour ago. Now I hear a band playing downstairs and people screaming in that odd way they do when they’re getting really drunk.

My general indignation this evening began with my curiosity about whatever happened to Independence Day as a revered national holiday. Then it grew into a general irritation with alcohol and the damage it wreaks on our species as a whole. It seemed so appropriate – on this day when, two hundred and twenty years ago, our forefathers put pen to paper to solidify the basis of a new nation, I slam my fingers repeatedly into little molded plastic shapes with letters and other characters printed on them. No connection, really, just the staggering coincidence of people expressing themselves and jotting it down for posterity to contemplate. If I was feeling really cocky, I’d make some comparison about great minds at work centuries and decades apart. But that judgment is not for me to make.

No doubt, this being the Fourth of July, someone will at this point remind me most sternly that the freedom to drink oneself silly and evacuate innumerous brain cells through the medium of projectile-vomiting over the toilet is protected by the Constitution of the United States, just like the freedom I have to be saying these words. Fine. Sit back and have a drink and I’ll sit here and type. Maybe one of us will experience a revelation sometime this evening.

Every day, in just about every city in every state of the union, a local police dispatcher receives a call that someone is drunk and dangerously out of control. Maybe this person is beating a spouse or child, or threatening bodily harm. Maybe this person is walking through the neighborhood shouting obscenities. Maybe this person is just going to kill someone else, either by pulling the trigger of a gun or getting behind the wheel of a car. It’s no secret, it’s no rumor – alcohol relieves its users of their motor coordination and usually their common sense and better judgment as well. Seemingly placid individuals under the influence of alcohol have the potential to release their inner demons on the world at large.

You know, maybe Prohibition wasn’t such a bad idea after all.

Maybe that’s a bit extreme. Maybe we need to begin teaching our children, at an early age, the dangers of alcohol use and abuse. Maybe we need to limit the advertisement of alcohol the way we limit the advertisement of tobacco products. Maybe we need to remember that alcohol has been legally classified as a drug – and maybe we need to consider the possibility that as such, alcohol may deserve to be ranked up there with marijuana and cocaine and other deadly substances. It has certainly resulted in the death of a lot of people.

When I was in grade school, we had an entire week devoted to learning the dangers of tobacco products. I was already terrified of cigarettes as it was. My mother and father both smoked, despite my allergic reaction to the second-hand smoke, and I hated the stench. I hated the sickening feeling I’d get from being anywhere near smoke. I hated the smell of my parents kissing me good night. The teacher didn’t have to tell me twice – I hated it. I would come to hate it even more vehemently just a few years later when my mother died of cancer. But that’s another story to be told. I don’t ever remember being lectured on the risks of alcohol in school…ever. Not even in junior or senior high. The topic just wasn’t brought up, outside of the fact that kids were suspended from school with increasing regularity for showing up on campus under the influence.

Why is alcohol such a taboo topic when we can lecture our children on the hazards of tobacco? Where is the distinction? Both are substances that are sold on the mass market. Both are products that are advertised in such a way that the potential user is told to expect glamour, popularity, and attraction to the opposite sex as a result. Both are drug-based substances that kill people, one way or another. And the ridiculous contrast here is that smoking, to some degree, kills the user passively. Drinking can get the job done actively, whether it’s the user’s life or others around him.

I don’t wish to downplay the danger of tobacco use, but since I don’t recall hearing about someone losing their inhibitions and committing crimes under the influence of nicotine, I’m inclined to believe that alcohol is the greater of these two evils. Yet of the two substances I am comparing, alcohol is the most prevalent in our society. It is advertised freely on television and radio. It has entrenched itself in popular culture by sponsoring professional sporting events, by gaining the endorsement of popular performers, and by being depicted regularly in the media. It’s ever-increasingly unhip to show a TV character smoking, but drinking? Not a problem.

It’s this pop culture foothold that the alcoholic beverage industry has that would make it impossible to revise the regulations regarding advertising. Even if TV and radio advertising of alcoholic products were outlawed, what about the sponsorships? The endorsements? Where would that line be drawn before it exits the world of regulated commercial matter and encroaches on free speech? Trying to find that distinction would be a messy business, and would most likely be overturned in court on First Amendment grounds, and quite rightly in some cases.

The key here is education, and uncompromising education. As I’ve said before on the subject of history and probably on other subjects as well, teach children – especially ever-impressionable teens – what alcohol is. It’s a drug. It’s a very dangerous drug with very dangerous side-effects. It has the potential to release one’s inhibitions, stripping higher reasoning skills and leaving a core that is capable of violence. (Of course, conversely, it also has the potential to more or less harmlessly leave you under the table, but that’s not much more desirable in my estimation!) People die because of it. Families are destroyed by it. There’s a hell of a lot more to this picture than “It’s Miller time!” And this education must be backed up in the home – parents should exercise good judgment and exhibit responsible behavior where this delicate subject is concerned.

In a world where it seems like so many people are already out of control and everything’s already going to hell, why do we need substances like this made available to the general populace when they can only make things worse?

Fort Smith Tornado Journal

For humorous effect and to make somewhat good use of the literary device of irony, I really should start this tale out with the fact that on the evening of Friday, the 19th of April, while I was on the phone with Mark Holtz in Sacramento, I told him that the river deflects just about every tornado from Fort Smith, Arkansas. A quick hailstorm ensued shortly after, and I got off the phone with Mark to go to work. I should’ve known I’d get it for saying such a stupid thing.

But the truth is, until the following Sunday night, the Arkansas River which borders Fort Smith on the west, north and east had sheltered us from virtually every such storm for as long as I have lived. The storms form in southeast and east central Oklahoma, and move east-northeast into Arkansas. Smaller towns have been known to catch untold kinds of hell over the years. Van Buren, to the north of Fort Smith, is separated from this city only by the Arkansas. In decades past, Fort Smith depended on the river for commerce as boats traveled here from the Mississipi River at which the Arkansas terminates. Though naval commerce no longer supports the city, Fort Smith’s residents still owe a lot to the Arkansas River. It’s been a mote that had defended the city from the worst kind of harm. Until now.

Garrison Avenue, Fort Smith, Arkansas - April 1996

Sunday, April 21, 1996

On the night of the 21st, a storm system with a history of spawning tornadoes in southern and southeast Oklahoma marched right up to the border between Arkansas and Oklahoma. Tornado warnings were issued for Sequoyah and LeFlore counties in Oklahoma, which border onto, respectively, Crawford and Sebastian counties in Arkansas…which, respectively, contain Van Buren and Fort Smith.

At about 11:05, I received a call from work. I’d seen some lightning, but other than that, I was kicking back and listening to some music, virtually oblivious to what was going on. Gregg at the TV station said, “You might want to come in, they’re probably fixing to issue a tornado warning for Crawford and Sebastian.” This is not an unusual request in emergency situations; the station is at the east end of the 500 block of Garrison, and my apartment is on the west end of the same block; it was sadly commonplace for the night crew to give me a call at the slightest hiccup.

I wasn’t really presentable, and, figuring that I might have to pass myself off as a weather anchor or something – not what I really do at work, by the way, but I’ve done the weatherman schtick in the past in tight squeezes – I squeezed into my one good outfit of dress clothes, grabbed my tie and my keys, and started to head out the door. Then I turned around and told my two cats that I love them – which I always do before leaving them alone when I have to go to the station in severe weather situations. This may seem like a silly, sentimental thing to do, especially for a guy, but that’s me. My cats are very important to me, being the closest thing I have to family anywhere near Fort Smith. This time that farewell counted.

I locked the door behind me and ran down the back walkway at Old Town at a mere few minutes past 11:00pm. Normally I step very softly, for the back walkway contains the doors to the building owner’s apartment and office, but I ran this time. Rain was pouring outside.

I exited the building from the rear and sprinted across the back parking lot in the downpour. When running, one can cover the distance from my door to the station’s back door in about a minute.

I got to the keyboard on which we type all of our on-air weather warnings when the weather radio sounded its tone. Bill J., who usually relives Gregg in the control room at 11:00, punched the button so we could hear the voice of the weather service. Tornado warning, Crawford, Sebastian. (Time, it seems, is relative. Different TV stations’ news reports have placed the issuance of the tornado warning between 11:06 and 11:10pm, and the weather service’s official reports have the touchdown of the tornado in downtown Fort Smith at 11:15, though it has since been charged that the weather service rewrote the brief history of this storm to cover their own asses since warnings were issued less than a minute before the touchdown of the funnel cloud and the sirens were never sounded.) I started typing the warning in when the lights flickered, came back up. Uninterruptable power supplies bleeped and whistled in protest. Electricity down and back up again. Down and up again. Down…down…down for good. Monitors without a UPS between them and the rest of the world died. The control room went dark. Lightning repeatedly filled the two large plate glass windows in the control room (our station fills the second story – including two ballrooms – of an old retrofitted 11-story hotel). The power was gone. There was a howling outside like nothing I’d ever heard. Something besides rain hitting the windows. It’s not just hail.

Gregg was the first to find a flashlight in the dimming room and yell “Let’s go, guys!” By no means did I heroically lead the charge to safety – in fact, I brought up the rear, barely able to comprehend that it was happening too fast for me to simply type it into a computer. We headed down the sturdy spiral staircase to the first floor in almost total pitch black.


We heard that impact, but didn’t feel it.

I started directing the two – neither of whom had been with the station more than half a year, if even that long – to head down the next flight of stairs to the basement of the building, which is where everyone’s been told to go in the event of a tornado.

Bill J. instead headed for the front doors. Two heavy wooden doors with lots of glass, then two large, heavy glass doors with little wooden handles.

“Look at this, guys!” he said. The wind laughed at him.


We felt it that time. Not like the building being ripped right off its foundations, but more like God giving the building a gentle kick.


Bill J. started running back toward us, and stopped to look out the side doors – and noted that the extremely long awning that had stood outside the Broadway Restaurant for several years was now wrapped tightly around the adjacent building to the east. What Bill didn’t know was that the smashing sounds that followed the shuddering of the building were the large windows of the travel agency on the first floor. The shattered debris was separated from us only by an interior set of windows which were none too thick.

It got real quiet.

Bill stood and looked out the side doors for a long time. Finally, he opened the interior wooden doors and then out the glass doors onto the sidewalk.

The city of Fort Smith was nowhere to be seen unless we pointed our solitary flashlight at it.

The wind was still blowing hard, and the rain was still pouring, but our attention was focused on what little we could see of a cloud that seemed to be traveling due north away from us.

When illuminated by the ever-present lightning, that cloud was too damned low. The rain and the darkness made it impossible to tell if it was rotating or not, and did not reveal to us that it was giving the city blocks north of us a kiss. Somewhere in that mess that we couldn’t see clearly, the air had taken it upon itself to attempt to violate the earth. If anyone happened to be in the path of that struggle, their fate was by far more uncertain than it was on even the best of days.

Other flashes of light picked out shorting transformers, downed power lines, houses on fire, and what seemed like the end of everything.

We went back upstairs to survey our floor, and found little damage – amazingly, no windows out, and the UPSs were still bleeping, though their safe charge of a few minutes had worn off and every piece of equipment in the station was silent and dark.

Gregg found another flashlight and we ventured downstairs and out the back door into the parking lot to take a look.

Pieces of roofing seemed to provide the street random patches of extra pavement. The top of an air conditioning unit had come to rest from God knows where, pointing its useless fan upward. The rear window of a company truck parked behind the station had been smashed into countless pieces, and our dumpster had been deposited in a parking lot half a block away.

I told the guys that I was going to go check my home. Nobody tried to stop me.

Though running, I found the sprint back home, in pitch dark, fearing the worst, took several years. I tripped and fumbled up the stairs and felt my way through the back hallway quite clumsily. I could see people standing outside their doors whenever the lightning illuminated the (astonishingly enough, unharmed) skylight, and asked if everyone was okay, more to announce my presence without alarming them than anything. Most of them didn’t know what had happened.

I battled the lock of my front door for at least a minute – normally a one or two second reflexive movement – and opened it. Pitch black, of course. I called out to my cats and then realized that I was doing something incredibly dumb. Normally, when I open the door, they’ll do just about anything to get out and explore, and if they got out now, I’d never find them in the confusion and the dark and lose them forever. I closed the door behind me.

That didn’t help a lot. I was now in the dark, having difficulty breathing, and still couldn’t find my cats. I hadn’t grabbed a flashlight. I finally found my own flashlight in my workroom, turned it on, and it flickered out. Big help. I then realized that I’d be standing on the back of my largest bookcase if I took one more step.

I got around that obstacle and opened the shutters of one of my four south-facing windows, which look out onto Garrison Avenue. All I saw were the lights from the police cars, ambulances and fire trucks, and more lightning. The landlady knocked on the door to see if I was okay, and I wound up commandeering her and her flashlight in an effort to find my cats. I dug the cat carrier out of the closet because I didn’t know if the building was still a viable entity. I found both of the cats, but they went into hiding the moment I tried to shove them into the box. Someone else knocked on the door, looking for the landlady and fearing the worst since they hadn’t found her. Without realizing it and without any sense of the passage of time, I had “borrowed” her for over fifteen minutes in an attempt to find Othello and Iago.

I made one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made and decided that the cats would be safer if I continued about my business and closed and locked the door to my apartment behind me. Had anything happened to them as a result of that decision, I wouldn’t have been able to live with it. They’re family. This decision would come back to dance with me again in a matter of days, almost as if to drive home the horrible implications of leaving them behind.

I ventured down the front stairs after the landlady and saw my first real glimpse of what had really happened.

The tree that had stood in front of the precise middle of my apartment since long before I had lived there was lying on its side in the middle of the sidewalk, the huge chunk of dirt that it had been planted in ripped out of the ground right along with it. The bricks that formed the planter for that tree were all over the place.

It was obvious that just across 5th Street to the west, the 400 block of Garrison had suffered even more damage. Many windows out, lots of external damage.

In the reflections of the emergency vehicles’ flashers, the 300 and 200 blocks looked even worse. There were buildings missing entire stories. There were buildings missing. Debris filled the streets, along with dazed people.

Before anyone asks, no, I didn’t see any dead people. Before long, many people, very much alive, filled Garrison Avenue, many trying to see what they could do to help, others idly sightseeing, and others just milling about aimlessly.

The front of Old Town – immediately below the east half of my apartment – took a lot of window and wall damage, as did most everything else between the corner of 5th Street and the alleyway. My next door neighbor’s huge window facing west straight into the building of KMAG, a radio station in the 400 block across 5th Street from my apartment, had been blasted out – and he wasn’t there to prevent his apartment from getting drenched.

Walking around behind the Old Town building, I then saw a truly incongruous sight – KMAG’s tower was simply bent in half. I ventured back to the TV station and found that everything was still dark, though a few more of our people – especially those who lived close by – had gathered at the back door. The power was off for good, and we were off the air until further notice. I grabbed a battery-powered light belt normally intended for low-light news photography from the production office and started looking around.

After a while, the station owner dropped by to survey the damage inside the station and on the roof. We lost at least three roof-mounted satellite dishes, and anything that was still there had been pointed in improbable and useless directions by the wind.

By this time, there was no sign of a funnel cloud, not even from the roof. The tornado had already ripped through Fort Smith, jumped the river again to the north and tore through Van Buren, and then moved on northward.

After examining the damage, I went home with the immensely handy light belt in tow. Without realizing it, I stepped over a downed power line in the alley between the Garrison Building and the Old Town building for at least the third or fourth time. I called most everyone on the employees’ phone list to make sure everyone was OK, and found that quite a few of them weren’t even aware that anything had happened. A few were so oblivious that they didn’t care.

A leak in the ceiling of my bedroom forced me to move my bed aside and put an empty trash can in the path of the water. I couldn’t sleep on the damp bed, so I decided to hit the floor in the living room. The cats, still unsure of what they had experienced that night, stayed close by, which was fine by me. I found my Walkman and tuned in one of the radio stations, which was also without power and operating on car batteries. They had lost the ability to play music and were now simply rebroadcasting NOAA weather radio full time. The warning tone hit and I cringed. The voice of the weather service flatly proclaimed a tornado warning for Franklin County, north and east of Crawford County. I closed my eyes and wearily wondered if they were ready for what was about to hit them. It wasn’t like I had been ready myself. In spite of the thunder, lightning and pounding rains of more squall lines moving into the Fort Smith area, I somehow fell asleep.

Monday, April 22, 1996 – 7:00ish a.m.

The phone rang and woke me up; it was Ryan, a part-time co-worker whose home had escaped most of the damage. He offered to drive into Fort Smith to help, but a quick glance out the window showed that the rain was still pouring, debris and power lines (though with the loss of power the lines were by now pretty much harmless) still covered the streets, and the police and emergency services were still in force all over the place. I told him to stay home.

I stood up and dusted myself off, having slept on the floor and thus absorbed some of the dust that coated everything. Having driven a few nails into the cement between the bricks that made up the old building, I’d discovered that the mortar had gotten brittle with age; even driving a nail into it invites a dust storm. You can imagine what a good solid kick to the whole building would do. Everything would need cleaning up. I left to go check on the station to see how things were there.

Most everyone had reported in, even though power was still off for all of downtown. As the engineers and the owners started trying to realign transmitters and such, the satellite remote truck had been brought in and parked right out behind the back stairs. Its generators were churning away at full blast, and the bare minimum of necessary equipment was being powered by three heavy extension cords you could find in any hardware store. The glamor of the media world incarnate.

With some of the unaffected transmitters still functioning just fine, we had to have something on the air, and this was accomplished to some degree. But there was little or nothing I could do. I noticed that my immediate superior in the production department had not shown up, and no one had seen him. His house was on North 7th, right in the tornado’s line of fire after it had visited the station.

I wandered out to my car, finding it in its usual dilapidated shape but having suffered no storm damage. I slowly worked my way around to North 7th via an extremely circuitous route, having to double back a number of times due to downed trees, downed houses, and road blocks. When I finally got to his house, it was not a promising sight.

It had been completely flattened. Two walls still stood, and that was just about it. The roof had dropped into the ground, and two storage sheds out back had been surgically removed, their contents scattered across the back yard. I had to hop over about three power lines to get to the back door in one of the two remaining walls. I knocked on the door and yelled for several minutes, and heard nothing. I assumed that they had left, and so I hopscotched over the power lines again and went back home.

The rest of the day was pretty unsensational compared to what went before. I observed as many as nine satellite news trucks in the 300 and 400 blocks from Tulsa, Little Rock, Oklahoma City and all points in between, all of them beaming news back home of the disaster. I swapped trash cans in my bedroom under the leak, and dusted off everything that I could.

While checking my mail that afternoon – really a bit of a futile gesture, but it doesn’t hurt to try to find some small semblance of the old routine when everything’s been shot to hell – I heard the first rumor that the Old Town building had not weathered the storm as well as we’d thought, and might be condemned.

I went upstairs and started packing clothes, equipment, personal belongings, books, CDs, knick-knacks and some kitty survival supplies. My own survival supplies were nonexistent at this point, the fridge’s contents having already started to go bad due to the loss of power and the humidity. I knew I’d have to get out and buy some non-perishable goods before nightfall, not the least of which would be a new flashlight.

I had to drive halfway across town to find a grocery store whose freezers and refrigerators weren’t just as useless as mine. I got a flashlight, several batteries, a cheap styrofoam cooler and some ice, some fruit juice (always my beverage of choice), cat food, a few candy bars and some dehydrated fruit. It was time to camp out on Garrison Avenue.

By the time I returned, KMAG and even some of my neighbors had installed gas generators, which brought some sound back to the unnaturally quiet downtown area, though that throbbing sound of motors running got very old, very quick.

More phone calls came through from people all over the place. I assured them that all was as well as could be expected under the circumstances and I was going to stay in my own place that night. Assuming my place stayed put.

The surreal atmosphere of the entire day was summed up by an incident that took place at around eleven that night, roughly 24 hours after the tornado hit Fort Smith. A Fort Smith Police squad car was blocking the intersection at 5th and Garrison, and three of the most recent addition to Fort Smith’s finest – the bicycle cops (don’t ask me who came up with that one) – were making the rounds. They pulled up next to the squad car to check in when a Sebastian County Sheriff vehicle slowly came to the intersection from the north end of 5th Street and turned on its floodlights.

“Please get those bicycles off the street, this area is closed off,” blurted the driver of the new arrival. Then he trained his floodlight onto the cyclists, saw their helmets and short-sleeve uniforms marked “POLICE,” and the driver said, “Oh, okay, sorry!”

I laid down on the couch and pulled a blanket over myself, made sure that the radio and the flashlight were within reach, called my cats to come snuggle up to me, and finally got to sleep.

Tuesday, April 23, 1996

I woke up on the couch at around 7:00am again, and found that the power was still dead. The rain had finally tapered off, and a lot of the debris outside had been cleaned up. People were starting to mill about routinely, and the National Guard had moved in the previous evening with a fleet of car-sized objects that were basically large floodlights wired directly to large gas tanks beneath them. I went to the station to see how things were going, and found it in much the same state as the previous day. I went to grab a camera and a fresh tape to shoot some footage of the area, and started with a trip to the roof on top of the Garrison Building’s eleventh floor.

I’ve never been fond of heights, but the amazing sights that greeted me were almost enough to take my mind off of it. We were missing some of our roof-mounted satellite dishes, and others were barely even there. But the real spectacles were the rooftops below and next to us – and, in many cases, the gaps where rooftops and buildings had once stood. After several minutes on the roof, my equilibrium was screaming at me to get down the stairs again.

From the first floor, I went to the police barricade and gained access to the 400 block with my “press credentials” (a news camera with a Fox 46 bumper sticker on the battery case) and got a closer look at a lot of the damage. I walked past the Eads Bros. furniture building – across Garrison from KMAG – for what would be the last time. One of their windows still stood intact, covered with a large sign with FORCED TO VACATE! painted across it – this had come from their going-out-of-business sale that had been in progress for weeks before the tornado, but it was oddly humorous. And if only anyone had known how prophetic it was…

I had to get permission to cross the state police/National Guard barricade to the 300 block, where many of the buildings were so badly damaged or destroyed, it was frightening to be there. They all looked as if they might tumble to the ground in an avalanche of bricks and debris at any second. I didn’t stay there long at all.

After my round trip of downtown Fort Smith ended at the station again, I put the camera up, pocketed the tape with the footage on it, and went home. I heard more rumors of Old Town’s impending doom, and my next-door neighbor Marcus returned home for the first time from a trip out of town. His place was a wreck. Water and glass covered his desk, where someone had apparently finally seen fit to cover his computer and other items with sheets of plastic.

Later, I got a call from work to get ready for a trip to other areas of Fort Smith and Van Buren. It was a hell of a trip. The waste water treatment plant north of the station had been completely obliterated. Fortunately, the bulk of its necessities were contained in tanks and equipment that were at ground level or below, and it did not remain out of commission for long. (Had those been damaged or destroyed, there could have been a severe pollution problem within one year.)

Van Buren’s rather well-moneyed Vista Hills area, not far from the station’s transmitter tower on Mount Vista, had been laid to waste. Many were moving out, while others were already rebuilding.

By the time I got back to the station, the power had been restored to the 500 block and it was time for me to go home and start cleaning up in earnest. Building inspectors had visited Old Town that afternoon and declared the roof to be in bad shape indeed; they would pass judgment on the walls within days.

Later that night, I set about cleaning windows, moving furniture, and hooking a few things back up. Gas – and thus hot water – were still absent, so it was still not feasible for me to take a shower.

I got to bed late, glad that I could get back to work and start feeling a little bit normal again.

Wednesday, April 24, around 1:45pm

Two men climbed the stairs to the roof of the four-story Eads Bros. Furniture Store building, a late-19th century brick building which had suffered moderate damage in the tornado. The breakers had just been thrown to bring electricity back to the building as workers cleaned up the mess.

But they didn’t know what was happening beneath them. The building that had survived the tornado was now in the process of burning down. A building full of paints, solvents, wood, and polyurethane padding, all quite flammable even after being drenched by rain. One arc of electricity created by bringing exposed live electric wiring into contact with the leftover rainwater that stood on every floor and leaked from every ceiling was mostly likely the cause.

Four stories were ablaze below the two men. They headed for the fire escape and barely escaped with their lives. The first explosion – a palpable, concussive wave of pressure and intense heat instead of an audible blast of thunder – announced that another of the forces of nature had come to consume downtown Fort Smith. Wind had paid her visit and, apparently unsatisfied with the results, had called upon Fire for backup.

Around 2:00pm on Wednesday, I was barely staying awake through another day of routine cleaning-up at work. Our chief engineer was still attempting to close the barn doors after the departure of the horses by working on the new weather warning system. He had encountered some problems and was on the phone with the manufacturer when I first heard the sirens. Lots and lots of sirens. All kinds of emergency vehicles. I looked out of the window and saw people heading west, gaping. I ran out the back door of the station, down into the parking lot and across the alley toward my apartment, and things once again did not look good.

Emerging from behind my apartment was a gigantic cloud of black smoke. Then, to make matters worse, visible signs of flame. I ran to Old Town as fast as I could. I snatched a quick look around the corner of the building and saw that the furniture store across from KMAG had exploded and was burning out of control. The high winds were diverting the flames northward. KMAG and other buildings on the north end of Garrison – including my apartment – would be next if the firefighters lost >this fight.

I sprinted up the stairs a hell of a lot faster than I got down them on Sunday night. I got in the door just as another explosion echoed through downtown, more of a whumph! than a boom. I opened the shutters to get a better look through one of my tall windows. I saw that people were now running away from the sight rather than toward it. I touched the window and wound up with burned fingers from the intense heat.

I grabbed the cat carrier, found Othello and shoved him into it. Iago did what he had done Sunday night – went into hiding when the first sights and sounds of another disaster reached him. I couldn’t get a hand on Iago and when a couple of sheriff’s deputies barged in the door to evacuate me, I tearfully had to leave him behind as I grabbed the box with Othello in it and ran for my life out the back door.

I collapsed at the 6th Street entrance to the parking lot behind the station and set Othello down in his carrier cage. I could see other employees evacuating the station’s vital equipment. Nancy packed two video players, a box full of tapes, and the eight hard drives containing all of the current commercials into her car, along with Othello and I. My poor cat cried his heart out, not knowing what was happening or where he was going, and not knowing where his fellow feline was. Though the cats have a tendency to play rough and occasionally fight at home, Othello and Iago are closer and have more personality than some of the anthropomorphized animals that inhabit the realms of cheaply-made live action Disney movies.

After an agonizing hour-long drive to Muldrow, Oklahoma, we sat and tried to rest. For all I knew, aside from one cat, I’d just lost absolutely everything, including my other beloved pet whose care and well-being were in my hands, and I had failed him on a grand scale. I had never felt so defeated or so worthless in my life.

We watched the news coverage of the fire, which was still blazing away, or so it seemed; they didn’t make it terribly clear whether they were showing live pictures or taped footage. My co-worker made a call to the station, and the police had allowed essential personnel to return to the building at the east end of the 500 block. After that, I called my own apartment and was relieved to get my own answering machine. I left a message for Iago. I don’t know if he heard it or if he cared, or if he could even comprehend who was calling or why, but it gave me some hope that he was all right.

I laid down on the floor next to Othello’s cage, in which he had calmed down momentarily. I slept fitfully until I was awakened at around 10:30pm with the news that I could go back home if I wanted.

The drive back home was not quite as long as the drive away from it. Othello took to the nighttime trip better than the daytime trip, and I think that he, like myself, was eager to be reunited with Iago again. Go ahead, accuse me of endowing my cats with human qualities. You’d have to meet them to understand it.

I trudged up the stairs, unlocked the door and entered cautiously. I set the cat carrier down and opened the door so Othello could roam freely in his home again. I turned on a light and saw that I’d apparently made one hell of a mess trying to find Iago. The answering machine had more messages on it than I had seen in a very long time, and as I listened to a number of calls from people who had seen the news, knew where I lived and wondered if I was all right, Iago came out of hiding at last. His white fur was covered with soot and dirt from the smoke and from whatever dark and dusty hiding places he could’ve died in had the fire reached Old Town. He came waddling over to me quietly, Othello following him close behind. Both of them hopped up onto my bed, where I gave them what would seem, to a couple of cats, like a crushing bear hug. I started crying and hoping Iago would forgive me for abandoning him. I don’t think I stopped for a long time.

The big front windows, three of which are held in place only by caulk, putty and two layers of 19th century brick, had subsided and leaned forward when the hardened substances holding them in place had gotten hot enough to turn liquid again, allowing them to shift. I could see gaps over the tops of two of the windows where the panes of glass slid downward enough that the top edge is no longer hidden by brickwork.

After watching Othello start to bathe Iago with his tongue, trying to clean him off – after all, Othello was used to having the market cornered on being the black cat of the household – I laid down, exhausted, and fell asleep.

It’s now April 28th, around 6:30pm. In less than five hours, it will be exactly one week since the tornado hit this part of town. The skies have grown dark prematurely with the approach of another storm front, and the thunder seems to rumble more ominously, echoing louder than I can previously remember in the wide open gaps that this storm’s predecessor left near my home. Or maybe that’s my overactive imagination.

But I’m not alone in that department. Garrison Avenue, still blocked off by the National Guard just past 5th Street, has been choked with morbid sightseers and passerby all day…until the first peal of thunder, and then the streets emptied even faster than they did the last time there was a real emergency! I can even see some of my neighbors hurrying out to their cars, as if they’re trying to make sure they can be somewhere else when this one happens.

Except for me. Because I barely make enough money to live here and therefore really haven’t got the means to move anywhere else, I’m stuck in the middle of Ground Zero, Arkansas.

My cats have both exhibited signs of nervousness since then. The sirens of passing fire trucks or the sound of thunder will send Iago onto my shoulder by way of my lap, clinging to me however he can and crying pitifully. Othello, in the meantime, has learned to load himself into the cat carrier at the sound of fire trucks, as if waiting to be evacuated again. If there’s ever anything I can do to make it up to Iago for having to leave him to his fate, I will do it. I have a feeling both of my poor traumatized cats are going to wind up being spoiled rotten while I try to help them get over it.

Will I ever get over it?

Only time will tell.

There’s more thunder.

The Hacker’s Definition Of Freedom Of Information

In this community we seem to have struck a curious balance on this subject. By and large the user base seems pretty sensible. Occasionally a so-called “FOI” bulletin board system pops up and thrives for a few months on the spark of notoriety, and then wonders what to do when the novelty dies off.

I occasionally have to laugh at the description of these boards as being related to the freedom of information (I usually associate the FOI abbreviation with the FOI Act regarding disclosure of official records). They come on strong and wave the First Amendment in front of everyone, when in fact few BBSes operate strictly as an outlet for the First Amendment. No matter which BBS you’re on, there’s something you can get in hot water for saying. For the most part, restraint comes from the users, who know what is expected of them…but I don’t think you could take a BBS or a service like AOL to court for violating your First Amendment rights. Therefore, “freedom of information” is a very selective term when it comes to this medium, and is hardly an accurate one.

One of the problems I have with the peddling of such information [viruses] is that I can’t see very much good coming of it. Sure, there may be one in a hundred who’s interested in studying a virus to learn how to defeat it, but that is a rare case. I’ve already seen it cited in this dicsussion, in fact, and I don’t think it’s a good enough reason to keep viruses stored on a BBS, even if they are labeled as such. More often they are used to no good end whatsoever. There was an incident in the past three or four years here where an individual acquired a number of stored viruses and apparently boasted to someone that he was going to use them to damage a competing user’s BBS. This seems to me a very good reason NOT to put such material on a BBS.

Another thought – the Center for Disease Control stores several deep-frozen specimens of highly hazardous viruses and bacteria in their facility in Atlanta. Should we allow anyone who wishes it to acquire such material, or the means to cultivate it? Sure, there’s a big difference between life and death and loss of data, but with data storage becoming an almost ubiquitous means of doing everything from conducting business to storing vitally important hospital records, the distinction between life/death and loss of data grows thinner with every day. If someone wishes to access viruses, either biological or technological, let them study hard and become a part of the organizations in whom authority and trust to do so has been vested.

To take lesser measures would be irresponsible to society.


This rather preachy little explosion was originally an e-mail response to a bulletin board system user’s request for information regarding viruses. I’m happy to report that after reading my perhaps too-scathing reply to him, the user in question withdrew his request.

More Smut? Morse Mutt!

Announcer: You’ve been writing. You’ve been calling. You’ve picked up your pens, picked up your phones and finally picked the used contraceptives up off the floor to tell us what YOU want to hear! Well, we’re about to give it to you. Mr. Marvin G. Pervert writes to us from Room 11-B at Our Lady Of The Mispronounced Surname mental hospital:

Marvin: Dear friends. I would like to hear more smut on your program. Sincerely, Marvin G. Pervert. P.S. I very much enjoyed the flowers and the inflatible George C. Scott life-size doll —

SFX: the tape goes into fast-forward momentarily and then – click!

Announcer: Well, Marvin, since we selected your letter at random from thousands of postal morsels we collected after our ’68 VW minibus demolished the mailbox on the corner, we’re going to grant you YOUR wish on the air! You want more smut? Here it is!

SFX: heroic music begins

Mr. Melodrama: He was abandoned by his parents’ owners and wound up in the pound, his days numbered and his number almost up. But he was adopted by a sporadically flatulent ham radio fanatic who taught him not only to pollute the air, but to sieze it for himself. And now, he’s the top dog. He’s…MORSE MUTT!

Dog: Ruf ruf ruf. Wooof wooof wooof! Ruf ruf ruf.

SFX: in background, dog continues barking messages in morse code

Mr. Melodrama: Bridging the communication gap between the species and crusading for the right of every dog to get an FCC license! It’s MORSE MUTT…coming soon to a frequency near you!

The Virtual Reality Show!

As we’re aware, the newly-hatched Fort Smith Hometown TV channel is sorely in need of some original, innovative programming to balance out the mix of shows already airing. Well, we’ve got an entirely unique answer, something that is both humorous and…well, unusual.

First, let’s look at our idea for a promotional spot, probably just a 30 second affair but photographed as professionally as possible, as if this project really is breaking ground which, though the general public wouldn’t want to be standing on the ground in question when it is broken, should be presented as if it were important and vital to the survival of western civilization. This promo pretty much explains the entire concept of the show, but we’ll spell it out for you in big letters shortly afterward just in case you lack either a sense of humor or just a brain.

We open on a first-person perspective, a spectacular cinematic scene. The camera’s vantage point soars through the clouds (stock footage). Dark shapes form in the distance and then rapidly grow to fill the screen. They are large, easy-to-read letters, reading WHAT IS THE VIRTUAL REALITY SHOW?

Cut to a living room where a woman is sitting on her exer-cycle, with the “What is the Virtual Reality Show?” display on the TV set in front of her exer-cycle. She could be dazzlingly beautiful and sexy, or she could simply be a female resident of Fort Smith. She takes an impossibly enormous swig of Gatorade and gives the camera a smoldering stare, breathing “I watch the Virtual Reality Show on my exer-cycle” in a husky voice that should send chills racing through the nervous system of any men watching or listening (or, for that matter, any women watching or listening who happen to enjoy that sort of thing). The woman continues to give the camera that heart-stopping look and unleashes a belch that rattles the senses and causes some hearing damage to small animals.

Next, cut to another stunningly gorgeous lady on a ski-machine, her room arranged in much the same fashion as the previous shot, right down to the TV with the “Virtual Reality” screen. “I watch the Virtual Reality Show while I’m on my ski-machine,” the woman growls.

We now go to a fat, flabby man struggling to keep up with his treadmill (once again, situated in front of a television with the “Virtual Reality” logo on screen). He sputters, “I watch…the…Virtual Reality Show…while… while…” and then he slips and falls.

Cut quickly now to yet another bombshell, this time on a rowing machine in front of – you guessed it – a TV displaying “What is Virtual Reality Show?” She rows furiously as an authoritative and absolutely dead-serious announcer’s voice is heard: “Yes, it’s the Virtual Reality Show, a video vacation for those who need a little scenery for their morning workout!”

Very briefly, a shot of a fully grown adult man in blue pajamas with a red beach towel tied round his neck. He’s also wearing a World War II pilot’s cap and flight goggles, and is laying flat out on top of a coffee table in front of his “Virtual Reality”-displaying TV set with his arms stretched out in front of him, Superman-style. A fan atop his TV blows into his face at top speed, sending the cape flying. He’s obviously euphoric about doing this kind of thing and says “Wheeeeeeeee!” gleefully. This shot should be VERY quick, just long enough for the man to say “Wheeeeeeee!” (and do so gleefully).

Cut back to the clouds and “What is the Virtual Reality Show?” title. The title then breaks into tiny pieces, and the scene fades briefly to white. A quick fade from white into a different scene, such as a first-person drive down the interstate, or a first-person drive through a neighborhood in Fort Smith or something similarly domestic. Over this scene, the words THE VIRTUAL REALITY SHOW, Every Saturday Morning At 8 a.m. (or “Every Saturday Morning at 8 p.m.” if you really want the bastards to sit up and think for once) appear, with valiant, cheery, heroic-type music. The scene then shifts to a first-person perspective ride into a train tunnel. The headlight of an approaching train appears (simulated with the help of the ubiquitous Video Toaster) and becomes larger and larger, until there’s a bone-jarring crash and static appears briefly and fades out.

The concept of the Virtual Reality Show? Fairly simple, actually. A wild assortment of first-person camera shots of any kind. And the show will involve various members of the community, for we’ll rely on them to send us the kind of footage needed for the Virtual Reality Show. They could sit on the front end of a motorboat zipping across the Arkansas River, install a camera in a race car during a match at one of the otherwise useless raceways in the area, hike through the woods with the camera rolling, or perhaps take a canoe trip over the edge of Niagara Falls with camcorder in hand – the only vital element is a long stretch of steady first-person footage. Just get your exer-cycle, treadmill, ski-machine or Superman cape, and we’ll provide the scenery for your morning exercise!

The scene will change every three or four minutes via any number of odd transitions. Sudden blasts of light, or just a dissolve (which normally manages to not happen as one is driving down the highway), or perhaps that burst of wild colors that you get when ejecting a 3/4″ videotape while it’s playing. Some custom-shot scenes could also periodically pop up: a high-speed drive during which the “vehicle” appears to run down children, nuns, and Ken Rank; a reckless crash through a large plate-glass window which a couple of guys were trying to safely move across a street; stock medical footage of a trip down the mighty esophagus or other orifaces; crossing a tightrope at the circus and knocking a clown off, crushing his fingers as you go over them (this could cause the ski machine people some difficult existential traumas, however, as they try to sort out how they crossed a tightrope on skis); a sudden cut to a dizzying, vertigo inducing roller coaster ride; the aforementioned simulated train collision; stock footage from storm chasers driving alongside a tornado; attaching a camera to a bungee cord and dropping it off the Garrison Avenue bridge or the First National Bank building downtown; the trench scene from Star Wars (or better yet, the speeder bike forest sequence from Return of the Jedi); the first-person moon rover films from the later Apollo missions…the possibilities are endless, and, in many instances, pointless. But who’s keeping score?

The opening of each show would be a generic introduction, only shot once or twice. It would feature a very dignified, distinguished-looking, tuxedo-clad gentleman saying to the camera, “Welcome to the Virtual Reality Show.” Then the camera would appear to mow him down at top speed as a transition to the first bit of first-person footage. If need be, this same host can reappear at the end of each show (again, a generic shot), covered with tire tracks and basically looking as if he’s just been run over, to groan “Thank you for watching the Virtual Reality Show, and be sure to tune in tomorrow!”

If we can’t get William Shatner or Leslie Nielsen to do the opening remarks, I would recommend someone with a sense of humor, or perhaps just a resident of Fort Smith who can squeeze into a tux.

History Never Repeats…

There may be an increasing trend in the way history’s taught in our country today, and it disturbs me. I took a course in my senior year of high school at Northside called “contemporary American affairs,” taught by Larry Jones (a true rarity – not only is the man unafraid to air his opinions, but either in spite of that or because of it, he’s liked by almost all of his students). Jones’s teaching method included, as do many instructors’ styles, interjecting little snippets of his own views here and there, but in the end, he gave his students the raw facts and implored them not just to follow his lead or that of any other teacher, but instead, to work it out for themselves. He’d do this with any event: Korea, Vietnam, Woodstock, Watergate, the Kennedy assassination, Reagan’s era, why thirtysomething was on the air so long – the list goes on. Not all teachers do this; some regurgitate the book verbatim (and take it from someone three years out of high school – textbooks do have their own underlying opinions and biases). Others sidestep complex issues that have a potential for debate. (We had some fantastic shouting matches when I was in Jones’ class, and I almost wish I was a year younger so I could’ve been there to see the debates on Desert Storm…)

I think the fact that someone doesn’t know the date of the bombing of Pearl Harbor may point to a growing timidness in America’s schools to face complicated historical happenings of the past. This may be due to the political correctness syndrome, or perhaps could be attributed to the fact that we’re just now realizing that some of these events are still having repercussions today, such as the uproar during the Pearl Harbor anniversary about George Bush demanding an official apology from the Japanese government for its actions in 1941. History cannot be relegated to “ancient” status. We can’t ignore the past half-century because we’re still being affected by recent history. Even “ancient” history is controversial – aren’t we now hearing something of a furore about whether Columbus was a great explorer or the first of many destroyers? History can’t just be locked away until it is safe to deal with.

So, here’s what I propose to any educators that may be lurking out there, wondering how to tackle complex events in public schools. I feel that public schools’ handling of history gives one the impression that the school system is accountable to the public. Though this is true to an extent, perhaps in matters of teaching history, the school system should be impartial to the public, not bowing to pressure from any special interest or political correctness. Too often, my teachers cushioned the blow of a staggering body count or a corrupt political coup with the news that it’s all been sorted out by now, it’s all ancient history. That’s not true, nor will it ever be. Give the students precise dates and places. Give them facts, figures, names. Let them figure it out for themselves. Let them read the body count for themselves and consider the implications. To victims of wars in recent history, the dates and locations are not forgotten because they saw the actual events. The closest students in America’s public schools can get to that traumatic experience is to find out for themselves how many people were killed, who killed them, what reasons were given at the time, and what happened next. Explain it to them. But don’t tell them it’s all right and it won’t surface again. (Personally, I’d tell them that it could indeed happen again if they don’t learn history’s lessons today, but that’s just my view.) Perhaps, if the past sinks into the consciousness of history students of the present, history – as well as current events – will hit that much closer to home. As it is, it all seems so dreamlike, as pictures in a book, “something that happened before we were born.” If citizens of this country learn, in their youth, to think for themselves and watch the events taking place around them, that “something” won’t happen again before we die.

End of tirade. Wow…it makes me feel so poetic, so long-winded…almost makes me feel like running for office or something.


Car Article

Picture yourself gliding over the open highway in a new Mazda, there’s not much like it. Especially not when a deer leaps out in front of you, and you throw on the brakes to avoid pummeling Bambi and spin out, which is fine until you see an eighteen-wheeler tearing down the road in your general direction. This is the point at which drivers find out what their zero-to-sixty time really is, and discover that they can achieve it rather quickly when needed. The only problem with 60mph is that stop sign, and while you were too busy noticing that truck you just outdistanced, the police tend to sit straight up, toss their doughnuts in the back seat, and take off after you.

“But officer,” you protest after the cops pull you over, “I was trying to slow down!”

“Son,” says the policeman, “if I was gonna yank your body outta this shiny new car here and started whammin’ on it, and you told me to stop, would you want me to slow down or stop??!?”

This, you thought, was a good point to remember – just as the eighteen-wheeler zooms is by, doing at least 70. It could have been worse, but you’ll find find that out next weekend when you back into your brick mailbox at 6:00am on your way to work and then into a Jaguar on your way home.

Wrecks always have an unnerving effect on the driver because, with the possible exception of accidentally launching the entire nuclear arsenal of North America, there’s no feeling quite like that of hitting someone else’s car.

(Originally written for the Northside High School 1989-90 Yearbook)