Monday, August 22, 2011

The Traffic Light

Its 5:30 am here.  A rainy morning so the house is still filled with shadows.  I had bad dreams last night. Now they have melted into the walls and taunt me from behind the veil of the sub conscious.

Under the muted illumination of the overhead light I prepare a bowl of cereal topped with the last of yesterday's fruit salad.  I reheat some day old coffee in the microwave, and then sit quietly at the table trying to make sense of the heavy feeling I awoke with.  I was many things last night and I was in many places.

 For a while I am a prisoner.  I am seated at a desk pretending to be unconscious in order to avoid yet another beating by my interrogators.  The men in the room are distracted; experimenting with a new type of weapon just delivered to them.  A hand held rocket launcher I believe.  I have a feeling that one of my guards may be compassionate; that if I can please him he will go easy on me today.  I am peeking through eyelashes trying to observe their activities.  I feel I will report what I have seen when finally I make my escape.

There was a very busy road in my hometown.  It ran like an arrow, sun to sun, straight through the heart of Lakeview, Michigan.  Just west of my high school it thinned to two lanes, streaked beneath a blinking yellow light, then evaporated into an uncharted infinity of cornfields and pastures. A left turn at that intersection lead directly south to I-94, the Eisenhower inspired hyphen that connected Detroit to Chicago.  A mile to the north was the Kellogg Air Field where my Dad belonged to the Battle Creek Flying Club.   

Sunday was sort of my Mom's half day off.  As reward for her labors as suburban housewife, she would allow herself the luxury of sleeping in till eight-thirty or nine.  Mean while Dad could be heard banging around in the kitchen, mixing up frozen orange juice and making his signature Bisquick pancakes.   After breakfast, Mom would do the dishes and Dad would go to the living room with the paper.  Left alone in the dinning room, I would search the portable black and white for cartoons.  But on Sunday, there weren't any.  It was the worst TV day of the week.  Religion in the morning, sports all afternoon.  Regardless, I always tuned in full of hope and kept twisting the channel dial until Mom's long arm reached in over my shoulder and silenced what she referred to as "the idiot box." 

Sometime around eleven o'clock my Dad would fold up his edition of the Battle Creek Enquirer, give it a quick slap across his knee and announce to the house,  "Jean, I think I'll take Mr. Christopher and Ronald to the airport."  That was our signal to drop whatever we were doing, grab our coats from the hall closet and head for the garage where the big blue Belair waited.  

On afternoons when Dad didn't fly, he chummed around with a guy named Whitie.  Whitie operated an aircraft service center in a huge wood frame hanger that had been constructed during the Second World War. Most of these aging behemoths had long since been abandoned or demolished and those that remained were now in a dismal state of disrepair. Vacant, these monstrous structures now cast haunted shadows over the cracked and crumbling tarmac that surrounded the few active runways retained from the base's glory days.  

On the far side of the field the Air National Guard still operated a post. From the hanger at Whitie’s, the rows of fighter jets looked like tiny insects.  During practice scrambles, the roar of their departing engines arrived muted and dull and completely detached from the airborne planes.  Whitie’s Aviation and the airport’s tidy brick and glass passenger terminal existed in a world far removed from such activities.  The “tower” now directed hobby pilots and the occasional commuter jet. The air traffic of a once bustling military complex was gone, swept away like gusting flurries across the concrete tundra.

There was a little restaurant in the airport terminal named the Kitty Hawk.  Two of its four walls were made of glass, one over looking the airfield, the other turned inward to the terminal's waiting area. Lakeview and its parent city, Battle Creek, weren’t exactly vacation destinations. Once the home of a world famous health spa and sanitarium, the only real claim to fame left to Battle Creek was the national headquarters of the Kellogg Cooperation.  So the Kitty Hawk had to supplement their coffee and sandwich trade with a small lounge. It was separated from the dinning area by a thin three-quarter height wall.  It was there that my Dad turned up after visiting Whitie.

My brother and I would order cokes and burger baskets and Dad would settled in for bottled Budweiser.  Of course, the beer always outlasted our cheeseburgers, so my brother Chris and I would end up drifting out of the Kitty Hawk lounge and into the empty terminal.  The floors were made of highly polished linoleum squares and there was uncomfortable seating aligned in rows facing the departure gates.  There was a pinball machine across from the ticket counter and we would waste a few dimes there.  Then we would inspect the public restroom as we adjusted to the uninterrupted boredom that would dominate until Dad decided to head home.  

Those return rides from the airport left a lasting impression on me. Dad’s moods were erratic.  Conversation that began as light-hearted banter could quickly turn ugly.  No matter how my brother and I fielded the dialogue, when Dad was drunk there was always a chance that one of us would say the wrong thing. With the Viet Nam War in full swing and my brother's hair increasing in length, the opportunity for argument was ever present. Sparks often flew before the Chevy had even quit the parking lot.

Between the Kitty Hawk lounge and the flashing red light of the distant intersection, Airport Road bent into a sharp ”S” curve.  This was odd for Michigan, for the Rectangular Survey System had pretty much divided every square inch of the Midwest into variable size lots set along a north- south and east- west axis. Roads were ruler straight and intersected each other at right angles.  Curves or twists, so common on the eastern seaboard, became increasingly rare west of Pennsylvania, but Airport Road had one, and it was a doozy. 

It wasn’t hard to judge my Dad's state of mind by the way he entered that curve.  If he came in too hot, we would cross the white lines into the oncoming lane.  If his steering hand had grown lazy, the sound of gravel spitting against the passenger-side wheel-wells would send a chill up my spine.  We never did run off the road completely, but I was always sure we would.  And then there was the fear that Dad might blow through the flashing red light at the intersection while ranting about the liberal press or those worthless bums the welfare loafers.  It didn’t help much that a community cemetery edged the last quarter mile of asphalt leading up to the light. A kid with a vivid imagination and a well defined sense for self preservation could get to feeling pretty helpless and out of control in the back seat of that car on those Sunday afternoons.   

In my dream last night, the interrogators who had beaten me, for some reason, drove me down that very same road.  They stopped at the light and when they did I leaped out of the car.  To make my escape, I ran into the cemetery and down a corridor framed by named and dated mausoleum drawers.  I was hiding there when I woke up.

Without over thinking it, I can tell you I feel very threatened by the natural gas industry that is moving into northeastern PA with Panzer speed.  They have leased up 90% of the land in my county and are dropping mile deep wells to tap into huge gas reserves trapped in the Marcellus shale.  They use hundreds of thousands of gallons of toxic liquids pumped down the well at extreme pressure to fracture the rock and release the gas.   This solution is polluting the ground water and residents have already been forced to give up on their domestic water supplies.  They are cutting down the trees at an alarming rate, making seven ace flat earthen platforms out of the hills in order to bring in seven story high rigs to drill- drill- drill.  They are coming toward my farm and will be do a seismic test within the next two weeks. So I’m in the back seat of the Belair again, only in real life, there’s no leaping out at the light. 

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