KEITH BAKERSFELD, Mel's brother, was a third of the way through his eight-hour duty watch in the air traffic control radar room.
In radar control, tonight's storm was having a profound effect, though not a directly physical one. To a spectator, Keith thought, lacking an awareness of the complex story which a conglomeration of radarscopes was telling, it might have seemed that the storm, raging immediately outside, was a thousand miles away.
The radar room was in the control tower, one floor down from the glass-surrounded eyrie---the tower cab---from which ATC directed aircraft movement on the ground and immediate local flying. The radar section's jurisdiction extended beyond the airport, and radar controllers reached out to bridge the gap between local control and the nearest ATC regional center. The regional centers---usually miles from any airport---controlled main trunk airways and traffic coming on and off them.
In contrast to the top portion of the tower, the radar room had no windows. Day and night, at Lincoln International, ten radar controllers and supervisors labored in perpetual semidarkness under dim moonglow lights. Around them, tightly packed equipment---radarscopes, controls, radio communications panels---lined all four walls. Usually, controllers worked in shirtsleeves since the temperature, winter or summer, was maintained at an even seventy degrees to protect the delicate electronic gear.
The pervading tone in the radar room was calm. However, beneath the calmness, at all times, was a constant nervous strain. Tonight, the strain had been added to by the storm and, within the past few minutes, it had heightened further still. The effect was like stretching an already tensioned spring.
Cause of the added tension was a signal on a radarscope which, in turn, had triggered a flashing red light and alarm buzzer in the control room. The buzzer had now been silenced, but the distinctive radar signal remained. Known as a double blossom, it had flowered on the semidarkened screen like a tremulous green carnation and denoted an aircraft in distress. In this case, the aircraft was a U.S. Air Force KC-135, high above the airport in the storm, and seeking an immediate emergency landing. Keith Bakersfeld bad been working the flatface scope on which the emergency signal appeared, and a supervisor had since joined him. Both were now transmitting urgent, swift decisions---by interphone to controllers at adjoining positions, and by radio to other aircraft.
The tower watch chief on the floor above had been promptly informed of the distress signal. He, in turn, had declared a category three emergency, alerting airport ground facilities.
The flatface scope, at the moment the center of attention, was a horizontal glass circle, the size of a bicycle tire, set into a tabletop console. Its surface was dark green, with brilliant green points of light showing all aircraft in the air within a forty-mile radius. As the aircraft moved, so did the points of light. Beside each light point was a small plastic marker, identifying it. The markers were known colloquially as "shrimp boats" and controllers moved them by hand as aircraft progressed and their positions on the screen changed. As more aircraft appeared, they were identified by voice radio and similarly tagged. New radar systems dispensed with shrimp boats; instead, identifying letter-number codes---including altitude---appeared directly on the radar screen. But the newer method was not yet in wide use and, like all new systems, had bugs which needed elimination.
Tonight there was an extraordinary number of aircraft on the screen, and someone had remarked earlier that the green pinpoints were proliferating like fecund ants.
Keith was seated closest to the flatface, his lean, spindly figure hunched forward in a gray steel chair. His body was tense; his legs, hooked underneath the chair, were as rigid as the chair itself. He was concentrating, his face strained and gaunt, as it had been for months. The green reflection of the scope accentuated, eerily, deep hollows beneath his eyes. Anyone who knew Keith well, but had not seen him for a year or so, would have been shocked both by his appearance and his change in manner. Once, he had exuded an amiable, relaxed good-nature; now, all signs of it were gone. Keith was six years younger than his brother, Mel, but nowadays appeared a good deal older.
The change in Keith Bakersfeld had been noticed by his colleagues, some of whom were working tonight at other control positions in the radar room. They were also well aware of the reason for the change, a reason which had evoked genuine sympathy. However, they were practical men with an exacting job, which was why the radar supervisor, Wayne Tevis, was observing Keith covertly at this moment, watching the signs of increasing strain, as he had for some time. Tevis, a lanky, drawling Texan, sat centrally in the radar room on a high stool from where he could peer down over the shoulders of operators at the several radarscopes serving special functions. Tevis had personally equipped the stool with castors, and periodically he rode it like a horse, propelling himself by jabs of his hand-tooled Texan boots wherever he was needed at the moment.
During the preceding hour, Wayne Tevis had at no point moved far away from Keith. The reason was that Tevis was ready, if necessary, to relieve Keith from radar watch, a decision which instinct told him might have to be made at any time.
The radar supervisor was a kindly man, despite his mild flamboyance. He dreaded what he might have to do, and was aware of how far-reaching, for Keith, its effect could be. Nevertheless, if he had to, he would do it.
His eyes on Keith's flatface scope, Tevis drawled, "Keith, old son, that Braniff flight is closing on Eastern. If you turn Braniff right, you can keep Eastern going on the same course." It was something which Keith should have seen himself, but hadn't.
The problem, which most of the radar room crew was working at feverishly, was to clear a path for the Air Force KC-135, which had already started down on an instrument landing approach from ten thousand feet. The difficulty was---below the big Air Force jet were five airline flights, stacked at intervals of a thousand feet, and orbiting a limited airspace. All were awaiting their turn to land. A few miles on either side were other columns of aircraft, similarly stacked and, lower still, were three more airliners, already on landing approaches. In between them all were busy departure corridors. Somehow, the military flight had to be threaded down through the stacked civilian airplanes without a collision occurring. Under normal conditions the assignment would test the strongest nerves. As it was, the situation was complicated by radio failure in the KC135, so that voice contact with the Air Force pilot had been lost.
Keith Bakersfeld thumbed his microphone. "Braniff eight twenty-nine, make an immediate right turn, heading zero-niner-zero." At moments like this, even though pressures built to fever pitch, voices should stay calm. Keith's voice was high-pitched and betrayed his nervousness. He saw Wayne Tevis glance at him sharply. But the blips on the radar screen, which had been uncomfortably close, began separating as the Braniff captain obeyed instructions. There were moments---this was one---when air traffic controllers thanked whatever gods they acknowledged for the swift, alert responses of airline pilots. The pilots might beef, and often did subsequently, at being given sudden course changes which required tight, abrupt turns and shook up passengers. But when a controller gave the order "immediate," they obeyed instantly and argued later.
In another minute or so the Braniff flight would have to be turned again, and so would Eastern, which was at the same level. Even before that, there must be new courses for two TWAs---one higher, the other lower---plus a Lake Central Convair, an Air Canada Vanguard, and a Swissair just coming on the screen. Until the KC-135 had come through, these and others must be given zigzag courses, though for brief distances only, since none must stray into adjoining airspaces. In a way, it was like an intricate chess game, except that all the pieces were at various levels and moving at several hundred miles an hour. Also as part of the game, pieces had to be raised or lowered while they still moved forward, yet none must come closer than three miles laterally or a thousand feet vertically from another, and none must go over the edge of the board. And while all of it happened, the thousands of passengers, anxious for their journeys to end, had to sit in their airborne seats---and wait.
In occasional moments of detachment, Keith wondered how the Air Force pilot, in difficulty and letting down through storm and crowded airspace, was feeling at this moment. Lonely, probably. Just as Keith himself was lonely; just as all life was lonely, even with others physically close beside you. The pilot would have a co-pilot and crew, in the same way that Keith had fellow-workers who, at this moment, were near enough to touch. But that was not the kind of nearness which counted. Not when you were alone in that inner room of the mind, where no one else could enter, and where you lived---apart and solitary---with awareness, memory, conscience, fear. Alone, from the moment you were born until you died. Always, and forever, alone.
Keith Bakersfeld knew how much alone a single human being could be.
In succession, Keith gave fresh courses to Swissair, one of the TWAs, Lake Central, and Eastern. Behind him he could hear Wayne Tevis trying to raise the Air Force KC-135 on radio again. Still no response, except that the distress radar blip, actuated by the KC-135 pilot, still blossomed on the scope. The position on the blip showed the pilot was doing the right thing---following exactly the instructions he had been given before the radio failure happened. In doing so, he would be aware that air traffic control could anticipate his movements. He would also know that his position could be seen by radar on the ground, and trusted that other traffic would be routed out of his way.
The Air Force flight, Keith knew, had originated in Hawaii and come non-stop after mid-air refueling over the West Coast, its destination Andrews Air Force Base, near Washington. But west of the Continental Divide there had been an engine failure, and afterward electrical trouble, causing the airplane commander to elect an unscheduled landing at Smoky Hill, Kansas. At Smoky Hill, however, snow clearance of runways had not been completed, and the KC-135 was diverted to Lincoln International. Air Route Control nursed the military flight northeast across Missouri and Illinois. Then, thirty miles out, West Arrivals Control, in the person of Keith Bakersfeld, took over. It was soon afterward that radio failure had been added to the pilot's other troubles.
Most times, when flying conditions were normal, military aircraft stayed clear of civil airports. But in a storm like tonight's help was asked---and given---without question.
In this darkened, tightly packed radar room, other controllers, as well as Keith, were sweating. Yet no hint of pressures or tension must be betrayed by controllers' voices when speaking with pilots in the air. The pilots had plenty to concern themselves with at any time. Tonight, buffeted by the storm, and flying solely on instruments with nil visibility outside their cockpits, demands upon their skill were multiplied. Most pilots had already flown extra time because of delays caused by heavy traffic; now they would have to stay even longer in the air.
From each radar control position a swift, quiet stream of radio orders was going out to hold even more flights clear of the danger area. The flights were awaiting their own turn to land and every minute or two were being joined by new arrivals coming off airways. A controller, his voice low but urgent, called over his shoulder. "Chuck, I've got a hot one. Can you take Delta seven three?" It was a controller's way of saying he was in trouble and had more than he could handle. Another voice, "Hell!---I'm piled up, too... Wait!... Affirmative, I got it." A second's pause. "Delta seven three from Lincoln approach control. Turn left; heading one two zero. Maintain altitude, four thousand!" Controllers helped each other when they could. A few minutes from now the second man might need help himself. "Hey, watch that Northwest; he's coming through from the other side. Christ! it's getting like the Outer Drive at rush hour."... "American four four, hold present heading, what's your altitude?... That Lufthansa departure's way off course. Get him the hell out of the approach area!"... Departing flights were being routed well around the trouble area, but arrivals were being held up, valuable landing time lost. Even later, when the emergency would be over, everyone knew it would take an hour or more to unravel the aerial traffic jam.
Keith Bakersfeld was trying hard to maintain his concentration, to retain a mental picture of his sector and every aircraft in it. It required instant memorizing---identifications, positions, types of aircraft, speeds, altitudes, sequence of landing... a detailed diagram, in depth, with constant changes... a configuration which was never still. Even at quieter times, mental strain was unceasing; tonight, the storm was taxing cerebral effort to its limit. A controller's nightmare was to "lose the picture," a situation where an overtaxed brain rebelled and everything went blank. It happened occasionally, even to the best.
Keith had been the best. Until a year ago, he was one whom colleagues turned to when pressures built to unreason. Keith, I'm getting swamped. Can you take a couple? He always had.
But, lately, roles had changed. Now, colleagues shielded him as best they could, though there was a limit to how much any man could help another and do his own job, too.
More radio instructions were needed. Keith was on his own; Tevis, the supervisor, had propelled himself and his high stool across the room to check another controller. Keith's mind clicked out decisions. Turn Braniff left, Air Canada right, Eastern through a hundred and eighty degrees. It was done; on the radar screen, blips were changing direction. The slower-moving Lake Central Convair could be left another minute. Not so, the Swissair jet; it was converging with Eastern. Swissair must be given a new course immediately, but what? Think fast! Forty-five degrees right, but for a minute only, then right again. Keep an eye on TWA and Northwest! A new flight coming in from the west at high speed---identify, and find more airspace. Concentrate, concentrate!
Keith determined grimly: He would not lose the picture; not tonight, not now.
There was a reason for not doing so; a secret he had shared with no one, not even Natalie, his wife. Only Keith Bakersfeld, and Keith alone, knew that this was the last time he would ever face a radarscope or stand a watch. Today was his last day with air traffic control. It would be over soon.
It was also the last day of his life.
"Take a break, Keith." It was the tower watch chief's voice.
Keith had not seen the tower chief come in. He had done so unobtrusively, and was standing by Wayne Tevis, the radar supervisor.
A moment earlier, Tevis had told the tower chief quietly, "Keith's all right, I reckon. For a few minutes I was worried, but he seemed to pull together." Tevis was glad he had not had to take the drastic action he had contemplated earlier, but the tower chief murmured, "Let's take him off a while, anyway"; and, as an afterthought, "I'll do it."
Glancing at the two men together, Keith knew at once why he was being relieved. There was still a crisis, and they didn't trust him. The work break was a pretext; he wasn't due for one for half-an-hour. Should he protest? For a controller as senior as himself, it was an indignity which others would notice. Then he thought: Why make an issue now? It wasn't worth it. Besides, a ten-minute break would steady him. Afterward, when the worst of the emergency was over, he could return to work for the remainder of his shift.
Wayne Tevis leaned forward. "Lee will take over, Keith." He motioned to another controller who had just returned from his own work break---a scheduled one.
Keith nodded, without comment, though he remained in place and continued to give radio instructions to aircraft while the new man got the picture. It usually took several minutes for one controller to hand over to another. The man coming in had to study the radar display, letting the over-all situation build in his mind. He also needed to become mentally tensed.
Getting tensed---consciously and deliberately---was a part of the job. Controllers called it "sharpening to an edge," and in Keith's fifteen years in air traffic control, he had watched it happen regularly, to others and to himself. You did it, because you had to, when you took over a duty, as now. At other times it became a reflex action, such as when controllers drove to work together---in car pools, as some did. On leaving home, conversation would be relaxed and normal. At that point in the journey, a casual question like, "Are you going to the ball game Saturday?" would elicit an equally casual answer---"Sure am," or "No, I can't make it this week." Yet, nearing the job, conversation tautened, so that the same question---a quarter mile from the airport---might produce a terse "affirmative" or "negative," and nothing more.
Coupled with tense mental sharpness was another requirement---a controlled, studied calmness at all times on duty. The two requirements---contradictory in terms of human nature---were exhausting mentally and, in the long run, took a toll. Many controllers developed stomach ulcers which they concealed through fear of losing their jobs. As part of the concealment, they paid for private medical advice instead of seeking free medical help to which their employment entitled them. At work, they hid bottles of Maalox---"for the relief of gastric hyperacidity"---in their lockers and, at intervals, sipped the white, sweetish fluid surreptitiously.
There were other effects. Some controllers---Keith Bakersfeld knew several---were mean and irascible at home, or flew into rages, as a reaction to pent-up emotions at work. Coupled with irregular hours of working and sleeping, which made it difficult to regulate a household, the effect was predictable. Among air traffic controllers, the list of broken homes was long, divorce rates high.
"Okay," the new man said, "I have the picture."
Keith slid out from his seat, disconnecting his headset as the relieving controller took his place. Even before the newcomer was seated, he had begun transmitting fresh instructions to the lower TWA.
The tower chief told Keith, "Your brother said he might drop around later,"
Keith nodded as he left the radar room. He felt no resentment against the tower chief, who had his own responsibilities to contend with, and Keith was glad he had made no protest about being relieved prematurely. More than anything else at the moment, Keith wanted a cigarette, some coffee, and to be alone. He was also glad---now the decision had been made for him---to be away from the emergency situation. He had been involved in too many in the past to regret missing the culmination of one more.
Air traffic emergencies of one kind or another occurred several times a day at Lincoln International, as they did at any major airport. They could happen in any kind of weather---on the clearest day, as well as during a storm like tonight's. Usually, only a few people knew about such incidents, because almost all were resolved safely, and even pilots in the air were seldom told the reason for delays or abrupt instructions to turn this way or that. For one thing, there was no need for them to know; for another, there was never time for radio small talk. Ground emergency staffs---crash crews, ambulance attendants, and police---as well as airport senior management, were always alerted, and the action they took depended on the category of emergency declared. Category one was the most serious, but was rarely invoked, since it signaled an actual crash. Category two was notification of imminent danger to life, or physical damage. Category three, as now, was a general warning to airport emergency facilities to stand by; they might be needed, or they might not. For controllers, however, any type of emergency involved additional pressures and aftereffects.
Keith entered the controllers' locker room which adjoined the radar control room. Now that he had a few minutes to think more calmly, he hoped, for the sake of everyone, that the Air Force KC-135 pilot, and all others in the air tonight, made it safely down through the storm.
The locker room, a small cubicle with a single window, had three walls of metal lockers, and a wooden bench down the center. A notice board beside the window held an untidy collection of official bulletins and notices from airport social groups. An unshaded light bulb in the ceiling seemed dazzling after the radar room's semidarkness. No one else was in the locker room, and Keith reached for the light switch and turned it off. There were floodlights on the tower outside, and enough light came in for him to see.
He lit a cigarette. Then, opening his locker, he took out the lunch pail which Natalie had packed before his departure from home this afternoon. As he poured coffee from a Thermos, he wondered if Natalie had put a note in with his meal, or, if not a note, some inconsequential item she had clipped from a newspaper or a magazine. She often did one of both, hoping, he supposed, that it might cheer him. She had worked hard at doing that, right from the beginning of his trouble. At first, she had used obvious means, when those hadn't worked, less obvious ones, though Keith had always realized---in a detached, dispassionate kind of way---exactly what Natalie was doing, or trying to. More recently, there had been fewer notes and clippings.
Perhaps Natalie, too, had finally lost heart. She had had less to say lately, and he knew, from the redness of her eyes, there were times she had been crying.
Keith had wanted to help her when he saw it. But how could he---when he couldn't help himself?
A picture of Natalie was taped to the inside of his locker door---a snapshot, in color, which Keith bad taken. He had brought it here three years ago. Now, the light from outside shone on the picture only dimly, but he knew it so well, he could see what was there, whether highlighted or not.
The picture showed Natalie in a bikini. She was seated on a rock, laughing, one slim hand held above her eyes to shield them from the sun. Her light brown hair streamed behind; her small, pert face showed the freckles which always appeared in summer. There was an impudent, pixyish quality to Natalie Bakersfeld, as well as strength of will, and the camera had caught both. In the rear of the picture was a blue-water lake, high firs, and a rocky outcropping. They had been on a motoring holiday in Canada, camping among the Haliburton lakes, and for once their children, Brian and Theo, had been left behind in Illinois, with Mel and Cindy. The holiday proved to be one of the happier times that Keith and Natalie had ever known.
Perhaps, Keith thought, it wasn't a bad thing to be remembering it tonight.
Pushed in behind the photo was a folded paper. It was one of the notes he had been thinking about, which Natalie put occasionally in his lunch pail. This was one from a few months ago which, for some reason, he had saved. Though knowing what was there, he took the paper out and walked to the window to read. It was a clipping from a news magazine, with some lines below in his wife's handwriting.
Natalie had all kinds of odd interests, some far-ranging, which she encouraged Keith and the boys to share. This clipping was about continuing experiments, by U.S. geneticists. Human sperm, it reported, could now be fast frozen. The sperm was placed in a deep freeze for storage where it remained in good condition indefinitely. When thawed, it could be used for fertilization of women at any time---either soon or generations hence.
Natalie had written:
The Ark could have been 50 percent smaller, if Noah Had known the facts about frozen spermatazoa; It appears you can have babies by the score Merely by opening a refrigerator door. I'm glad we had our ration With love and passion.
She had been trying then; still trying desperately to return their lives... the two of them; and as a family... to the way they had been before. With love and passion.
Mel had joined forces, too, attempting with Natalie, to induce his brother to fight free from the tide-race of anguish and depression which engulfed him totally.
Even then a part of Keith had wanted to respond. Summoning, from some deep consciousness, a spark of spirit, he had sought to match their strength by drawing on his own; to respond to proffered love with love himself. But the effort failed. It failed---as he had known it would---because there was no feeling or emotion left within himself. Neither warmth, nor love, nor even anger to be kindled. Only bleakness, remorse, and all-enveloping despair.
Natalie realized their failure now; he was sure of that. It was the reason, he suspected, that she had been crying, somewhere out of sight.
And Mel? Perhaps Mel, too, bad given up. Though not entirely---Keith remembered what the tower chief had told him. "Your brother said he might drop around..."
It would be simpler if Mel didn't. Keith felt unequal to the effort, even though they had been as close as brothers could be all their lives. Mel's presence might be complicating.
Keith was too drained, too weary, for complications any more.
He wondered again if Natalie had put in a note with his meal tonight. fie took out the contents of the lunch pail carefully, hoping that she had.
There were ham and watercress sandwiches, a container of cottage cheese, a pear, and wrapping paper. Nothing more.
Now that he knew there was none, he wished desperately there had been some message; any message, even the most trifling. Then he realized---it was his own fault; there had been no time. Today, because of the preparations he needed to make, he had left home earlier than usual. Natalie, to whom he had given no advance warning, had been rushed. At one point, he had suggested not taking a lunch at all; he would get a meal, he said, at one of the airport cafeterias. But Natalie, who knew the cafeterias would be crowded and noisy, which Keith disliked, had said no, and gone ahead as quickly as she could. She had not asked why he wanted to leave early, though he knew she was curious. Keith was relieved that there had been no question. If there had been, he would have had to invent something, and he would not have wanted the last words between them to have been a lie.
As it was, there had been enough time. He had driven to the airport business area and registered at the O'Hagan Inn where, earlier in the day, he had made a reservation by telephone. He had planned everything carefully, using a plan worked out several weeks ago, though he had waited---giving himself time to think about it, and be sure---before putting the plan into effect. After checking into his room, he had left the Inn and arrived at the airport in time to go on duty.
The O'Hagan Inn was within a few minutes' drive of Lincoln International. In a few hours from now, when Keith's duty watch was ended, he could go there quickly. The room key was in his pocket. He took it out to check.