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Just What IS The Oklo Device?

13 Sep

Dear This Old Spouse Followers, Friends, and Faithful,


Join me on an adventure, if you would. Do you want to read something truly terrifying? I’m serious here—for once. I have a startling, unsettling story for you.


It’s called The Oklo Device.


The earth’s mysteries have always intrigued me. Despite all of our scientific and technological advances, there are still phenomena on this planet that remain unknown. Unexplainable. This one, in particular—the mystery of the Oklo mines—has fascinated and vexed me for so long that I finally sat down and wrote a book about it.


Oklo_Cover_hi-resThis much is fact—you can look it up. In the spring of 1972, nuclear scientists at a uranium enrichment plant in southeastern France made a shocking discovery. While studying samples from a uranium mine at a place called Oklo in the central African country of Gabon, French researchers found that the atomic energy was all but depleted from uranium mined at Oklo. Uranium can be altered in this way by only two means—through either an atomic explosion or in a nuclear reactor. These samples, mind you, were proven to be hundreds of millions of years old. It was clear from their evidence that these ancient uranium samples had undergone some type of nuclear reaction eons before man ever walked the earth. After considerable consternation and debate, researchers theorized that this must have been an absolutely unique but natural process. Although the Oklo site is the only known location on Earth where such a reaction has occurred, this sole explanation for a prehistoric nuclear event has been accepted as fact for more than 40 years. What is baffling to me is how this potentially shattering discovery has received such little notice in the media.


There have been alternative theories, but no one has seriously challenged this fantastic truth—until now. Go here, if you would:


At the bottom of this web site’s page, you’ll see a link labeled “View” under a headline that says available reading formats. Click on it, and you’ll have access to this astonishing chronicle.


If you remain intrigued after the first 50 pages, e-mail me at, and I’ll give you the rest of the story. Tell me what you think of it—what you think is true. Please share this story if it took hold of you. There is more out there than most of us know.


Follow the Tunisian Parakeet

16 Jan

by Hashiell Dammett 


In 1539, the Knights Templar of Tunisia paid tribute to Charles VI of Portugal by sending him a Copper Parakeet encrusted from beak to claw with the rarest of jewels; but pirates seized the galley carrying this priceless token, and the fate of the Tunisian Parakeet has remained a mystery to this day.

OK, Spade. You know what to do now. It’s all up to you. Mrs. Wonderly claimed not to know Mr. Cairo, but you know better, don’t you? Hurry before it’s too late.

You take all your men, go around the cliff to see Maria. She’ll give you a bag. (DON’T OPEN THE BAG, SPADE!) Carry it as if you couldn’t care less, but don’t let it out of your sight. Maria will give you the sign when it’s time to rendezvous with Count Umlauf atop the cliff face. It’s a narrow passage–one man a time, and slowly!

When Count Umlauf allows you to light his cigarette, make sure he sees you with the bag. Don’t dally there; you needn’t give Umlauf more than this. He should head to the old church when he knows you and the bag are secure. When you see the Count go inside the old church, tell one of your men to give Maria the green-light signal. Then, leave two men atop the cliff as a scout and a decoy. Take the rest of the men and proceed to Café Carismo’s, where a man in an off-yellow pantsuit will hand you a key in exchange for the bag you got from Maria.

Take the key, swallow it. Then have dinner with your men on the back patio. Some of the men will want to dance to the salsa playing downstairs, and that’s OK; just remember to warn them about the beggars in the kitchen. About an hour or so after you’ve digested the key, you’ll feel the need to go. When you do, take the back stairs down the employees’ hallway to the men’s john. You’ll see it on the left near the portrait of Emperor Hirohito.

Once you’ve excreted the key, you’ll notice that your body fluids have engaged a biochemical reaction on the key’s surface. Keep watching the key!! And don’t make any noise!! They’ll be looking for you by now.

When you see the three-digit code appear on the key, wipe off the key, pocket the key and return to your table nonchalantly. FOR GOD’S SAKE, MAN, WHATEVER YOU DO, REMEMBER THE THREE-DIGIT CODE!!  Even I don’t know what it is.

Now. By now your men will be wondering what the hell’s going on. Tell them the invasion is off, and that Plan DV 1 is now in effect. They’ll begin smelling the odor on your person because of the key and become suspicious, but this is all right. Your men were expendable, remember? Tell them to take Arturo and proceed across the harbor to the warehouse near the docks. I know, I know that you trained them all, Spade. I know you became like family. But we had a job to do, remember? Snap out of it, man. Just know that they died believing in the cause.

When you see the three-masted schooner set off a flare at the deep quays of the harbor, you’ll know that they’re all dead. Only after that will it be safe to use the code. By the time you pull up to Sardi’s, Samantha should be waiting for you. You remember her, don’t you? Settle, settle down, boy. You’re a married man now. Those days are gone. We were lions, weren’t we? Funny the CIA never knew, but they’re idiots anyway, aren’t they?

This is no time for sentimentality, Spade. You know what’s at stake by now. Samantha will take you up to the bar, and that’s where you’ll find Angela and the Chinese twins. God, I hate dealing with those fools, but this was the ONLY way. Believe me. You’ll have to small-talk and schmooze for half the goddamn night, but keep your cool. When the night’s winding down and the twins have gone back to the casino as they always do, that will be the golden moment, Spade old bean, old horse pill.

Angela will ask you if you remember Morocco. You may or may not remember, but just play along. God, Morocco. Remember Panzi and Vic and that weird sidewalk artist or whatever she was? You were a wild man, Spade. I didn’t know you could do that with your genitals. Christ, man. Ah, hell, all water under the bridge, right? Anyway, when Angela mentions Morocco, this will be your cue to give her the three-digit code.

Just remember, Spade, she’s vulnerable. I don’t think you really loved her then, but, God, Angie thinks the world of you, so if you’re gonna be a player with her, then for God’s sake, be sweet. Anyway, when you give her the code, she’ll tell you what night Mr. Cairo plays poker. That’s when we will find the Tunisian Parakeet. Keep your wits about you, Spade. That, and your .44, are all you have now. I would say good luck and Godspeed, but I know you don’t believe in that stuff.

Go on. Get outta here. If everything hasn’t gone completely to hell, we should see each other again in Caracas, come spring. You do need a shave. Keep your powder dry, old friend.

Roger White is a freelance writer living in Austin, Texas, with his lovely wife, two precocious daughters, a very fat dachshund, and a self-absorbed cat. For further adventures, visit

Lenticular Haiku, by Sir Archie Ferndoodle

9 Jan

by Roger White

Fellow time/space voyagers and other occasional devotees of “This Old Blouse,” I am more tickled than a duffel bag full of marsupials to announce the return of my dear friend, front porch sartorial mentor, and fellow breakfast-nook philologist, Sir Archie Ferndoodle (applause, applause, applause).

Yes, the former poet laureate of the Greater Southwestern Scribes Society, which meets every third Thursday in the back of Sue’s Salon in Cement, Texas, has been gently coaxed out of quasi-retirement to once again bless us with phrasings, words, syllables, parts of syllables, and renderings of nocturnal animal sounds from the Ulan Bator region as only Sir Archie can. (And remember, if you mention this column at Sue’s Salon, you get 10 percent off a five-ounce jar of Sue’s Coconut Heel Scrub with the purchase of at least $20, not including her patented Tomato-Lye Jamboree Hair Tonic.)     

As I’m sure you remember, the esteemed Fernie holds an associate’s degree in postmodern comparative limerick studies from the University of Southern Panama’s Correspondence College and has been featured five times in the American Anthology of Poetry. Just a few of his classics include “Oh, Staff Sergeant, My Staff Sergeant!,” “Why Is the Man Always from Nantucket?,” “The Squirrels Stopped Talking to Me Today,” and his latest, “A Stitch, a Horse, and a Can of Pearl,” which was the inside-cover poem in the most recent edition of the Cement Area Greensheet.

The more astute of you may have seen Fernie’s hand in the Christmas edition of “This Old Mouse.” Raise your hand if you had the notion that Sir Archie was the ghostpen behind“The Nitrous Before Christmas.” Well, you’re dead wrong; I wrote that while flying low in my dentist’s office, but I did have ol’ Fernie in mind. In fact, he may have actually inhabited my body during that whole experience, but we digress again.

So anyway, without further magoo, I give you Sir Archie Ferndoodle, who has just returned from a five-month sojourn at the Tao Sendaha Haiku Sweat Lodge, just north of Pittsburgh.


Lenticular Haiku

by Archie Ferndoodle


Hand old, withered

Extended to young happy boy who

Smiles and

Coughs up a small border town near



Deposit slip with no meaning flutters

In brown surge of empty day. I find Julia at

Home making love to the Buick


Better judgment whispered

Toyota, Toyota.

Toyota. Smash hindsight with

Bitter hammer of stoli rocks. Ah.


Three grateful invertebrates argue

On who passed

Wind while each ascends

The assistant professor’s





Trees and earth know much more

Than they sing

To man accused of listening of listening

Of listening to Alex

Trebek and his minions. Only refuse

And then hear again, the daily

Double. Oh! Bodies of

Water for Four



Heat. No heat. Heat. No heat.

Damn toaster. Fling the

Shiny monster down the hillock to

CRASH waves of filament element

Parchment and wire. No heat toast is mere

bread and


Dear Julia. I’m trading it



Roger White is a freelance writer living in Austin, Texas, with his lovely wife, two precocious daughters, a very fat dachshund, and a self-absorbed cat. For further adventures, visit

Book Excerpt: The Controller

4 Jan

The Controller

by Roger White

cover design by Steve Willgren


The Controller

 ©Copyright 2007-10 by Roger White. Registered with WGA West.

All rights reserved.


“Technology is dominated by two types of people: those who understand what they do not manage, and those who manage what they do not understand.”

—Archibald Putt


Chapter One

            Ira Singer and his wife, Maxine, sat across from each other, the miniature oak-finished table top holding their cards and their drinks. Ira sipped at his whiskey and Coke. He smiled as he watched the v-shaped wrinkle play across Max’s forehead. Gin rummy was serious business to his wife, always had been. She studied her hand intently. It was not lost on Ira how very beautiful she still was, in her early 80s, how her apple-shaped face and ice blue eyes still took him back to their school days, how lucky he was she weathered his tribulations and mistakes through the years. She was more than a good wife. She was his companion.

            The cabin of the Gulfstream G200 was whisper quiet as the sleek jet cruised the skies above North Carolina. The Singers and three other retired couples from Lake City, Florida, chartered the jet as part of an early autumn package tour to the Poconos. The aircraft’s accommodations were first-rate: ample leather seats, plush carpeting, galley with a chef and fully stocked bar. A large-cabin midrange corporate jet, the slender G200 was a beauty, capable of speeds of nearly mach 1 and cruising altitudes up to 45,000 feet.

            The charter pilot, 42-year-old Leonard Dickey, wasn’t pushing her, however. He’d flown low and slow over the countryside to give his passengers an impressive view of the verdant hills and emerald lakes of far western Carolina. Although he was flying VFR —Visual Flight Rules — which gave him relative free rein of the milky blue skies, he was careful to avoid the restricted airspace above Fort Bragg.

            Thick fog immediately settled around Dickey’s craft as it approached the southern Appalachians. Dickey instructed his copilot to radio Atlanta ARTCC for a popup IFR flight plan. They would need to rely on their instruments, and radar guidance, to navigate the white blindness of the shrouded mountains.

            “Atlanta Center, this Gulfstream six echo niner, requesting IFR one-two miles west of Albemarle.”

            “Damn,” the copilot whispered as he unkeyed his mike. “Look at this.”

            Digital readout on both of the jet’s fuel gauges had gone black.

            “Gulfstream six echo niner, this is Atlanta Center, I have you . . .”

            “Gotta be a fuse, or a short,” Dickey said, cutting off the Atlanta Center controller’s reply.

            The copilot tapped one gauge, then the other.

            “What was our last fuel reading?” Dickey asked. He scanned his bank of gauges above him, looking for anomalies.

            “At least three thousand kg. That’s about half. Cross-bleeds off, I’m sure.”

            “Toggle it. Then check the fuses.” Dickey eyed the malfunctioning gauges. “Gotta be a short.”

            Dickey and his copilot focused on the problem almost a full minute before acknowledging Atlanta Center.

            “Gulfstream six echo niner, this is Atlanta Center, do you read?”

            “That’s a roger, center,” Dickey replied. “Six echo niner, with you, level at, uh, forty-nine hundred.” He unkeyed his mike. “We drifted a little low there.”

            “Gulfstream, say again altitude,” the controller instantly responded. “I show you at fourteen thousand nine.”

            “That’s a negative, center, I’m —”

            Before the controller could issue his urgent command, Dickey knew. He was too low.

            “Oh, shit.”

            As he pulled hard on the yoke, in a fraction of a second, a massive face of white-gray stone filled the cockpit windshield.

            Maxine Singer, with her back to the cockpit, pitched forward with the jet’s violent attempt to climb. She spilled over the small oak table onto her husband’s chest. Ira caught her, and the couple crashed to the floor. Throughout the cabin, cocktails and bodies, playing cards and magazines tumbled toward the rear of the plane.

            “Max.” Ira squeezed her, holding onto her as tight as he could.

            The very floor beneath them ripped away in a cacophony of furious sound. Maxine felt Ira’s arms slip from her. The cabin around them spun and tossed, an angry washing machine choked with shards of metal and fire.

            The jet’s tail clipped the mountainous terrain, sending the craft and its contents somersaulting through the Carolina pines. The Gulfstream burst into flames as it disintegrated. Everyone on board, including the flight crew, attendant, and chef, was killed instantly — except Maxine Singer. She was thrown through a narrow gash in the cabin wall, her legs severed neatly above the knees. She landed in a deep bed of pine needles twenty feet from the main debris field. Her eyes blinded by jet fuel, she crawled three hundred yards across the mountain. She died as she reached the stone outcropping known as the Devil’s Courthouse.

# #

As Maxine Singer breathed her last on a rugged Carolina mountaintop, J.N. Teague peered out the vertical blinds at the rain falling urgently on Sycamore Canyon Road, one thousand nine hundred miles to the west, in Sedona, Arizona.

“Does it always come down like this?” To the southwest, he watched a small single-engine plane flying low on takeoff from Sedona Airport.

The woman’s apartment was ’90s contemporary. A glass block demi-wall cordoned the kitchen from the living room. Everything was negative-edge Scandinavian teak: table, chairs, hutch, even the salt and pepper shakers.

“No. It seldom rains here at all, actually. This is monsoon season.” The woman, late twenties, was an effortless beauty. Her hair was long and straight, a sumptuous raven accent to her cream coffee skin. In jeans and a low-cut chemise top, which fell open with her movements to reveal full breasts, the woman inspired a reaction in Teague he had not experienced in recent memory: nervous fear.

“You’re joking. Arizona has a monsoon season?” Teague accepted a rounded Riedel glass of Cornas Syrah the woman offered. He followed her to the living room sofa, seating himself at a careful distance, still gauging, interpreting.

The woman smiled at him, curious at this gorgeous man’s quaint uncertainty, and she scooted close. “So you played in college. Let me guess.” She looked him over appreciatively. “Linebacker.”

Teague laughed. “How did you know that?”

“My brother played at Arizona State. Always told me linebackers were the finest specimens on the field. So, naturally, I figured.”

“Naturally.” Teague laughed with her. “So what brought you to Sedona? I’ve been here three days, and I have to say you’re the first black person I’ve seen since airport security.”

“I lived in Tempe for a while when my brother played. I came down here for vacations and fell in love with it.” The woman put her glass on the coffee table and ran a slender finger up and down Teague’s forearm. “There are more of us here than you think. We’re in the nooks and crannies.”

Teague took a sip of wine. “I don’t know. I was in an old man’s souvenir shop today. He kept looking at me like I was Louis Farrakhan.”

“Well,” the woman said, “those types are everywhere, aren’t they?” She stood up and tugged on Teague’s hand. She towed him playfully to the bedroom.

“I am sorry,” Teague whispered as she kissed him. “But what is your name again?”

“Michelle.” The woman laughed, bending to pull off her socks. “And you’re M.J.”

“J.N.,” he corrected.

“J.N. Thank goodness. I figured M.J. was a sure lie. Are you really FBI?”

“I showed you the ID.”

“Could be fake.”

“I leave it up to you.”

The woman breezily shed her jeans and top. Clothed only in bikini panties, she lay back on the bed, voluptuous and smooth and willing. Her light brown skin shone in the low lamplight like flawless silk.

Teague stood staring, summoning, trying to imagine. Trying to relax. A nip of panic crept in, and he knew it was futile. The separation was six months old, as of yesterday. Hell, Melanie was even dating someone. Still he couldn’t allow it. This wasn’t part of the picture. J.N. Teague was a man of strict goals, of desires and aims that were measured only in the context of how they worked to achieve the ultimate outcome. It had always been so. It was how he lived his life. It was how he played linebacker at Illinois and made All Big Ten his junior and senior years. It was how he beat the odds at the Academy, one of only two blacks in his graduating class to earn FBI credentials. It was how he pursued Melanie, the mother of his son, the woman he’d convinced to share his life six years ago. The separation, however, presented Teague with an aching conundrum. Living the life of an agent’s spouse was too much for her to bear, a realization brought home when Teague narrowly survived a bullet in the neck. She needed time to determine whether she could live without him. In the meantime, the options Teague mulled over were maddening. Wait for her to come around? Forgo the Bureau and fight for Melanie? But then who would he be? Who was he if he were not Chicago’s best on the street? Teague hated wasted effort. His coach at Illinois always appreciated that aspect of his best athlete. Teague was always the most efficient player on the field, instinctively on top of the ball, at the crux of every play.

This rain-soaked evening in Sedona, Arizona, Teague discovered that his mind’s calculating efficiency knew no down time. This was wasted effort, illegitimate expense.

“What’s the matter?” the woman asked. She ran her hands lightly across her lovely breasts. “Don’t you like what you see?”

“God, I am sorry,” Teague said. “You are beautiful.”

He wheeled around and quickly left. He jogged through the pouring rain to his rented car.

# #

            Amid the subdued urgency of dozens of low-voiced commands in the broad, cavern-like room that was O’Hare TRACON Sector Four, Deborah Vaughn twirled the thin pencil in her right hand, keeping one eye on her bay full of flight plan strips and the other on her primary and the low emerald glow of the Aircraft Situation Display screen to her left. ASD monitors were the latest in air traffic control hardware, lightning fast and more proactive than anything before them. They were being tested in pilot facilities nationwide, including O’Hare, Denver ARTCC, Atlanta ARTCC, Seattle, and a select number of general aviation fields. The promise the ASDs held for controllers was no less than liberating; they would act as a third pair of eyes, another calculating mind. But there were the rumors. Rumors of glitches.

            Vaughn knew about the Gulfstream G200 crash in Carolina just days before. Everyone in the ATC community knew about it. “Controlled descent into terrain” was the official terminology from the FAA’s initial investigation, which meant simply that the pilot flew the plane right into the ground. Transcripts from the cockpit voice recorder, however, indicated an unbelievable discrepancy between the controller and pilot. Just seconds before impact, the controller identified the Gulfstream jet as being almost fifteen thousand feet in the air. The pilot responded that he was at only 4,900 feet — thirty feet below the elevation of the mountain he slammed into.

            The Atlanta Center controller’s ASD screen had been cited, and reportedly fixed, for two previous incidents of indicating erroneous altitudes and airspeeds.

            As Vaughn’s partner for the shift, one Kyle Lomas, worked the primary controller position, Vaughn consciously fought to keep her fidgets to a minimum; she was never completely comfortable sitting in the assistant’s chair. Although the rules of air traffic control required specific degrees of minimum separation among aircraft, just how that separation was achieved and maintained was left largely to individual controllers’ discretion. A two-man team of controllers worked a screen like a quarterback and his backup — one calling the plays and directing traffic, the other keeping things tidy, suggesting moves when needed. Vaughn liked calling the plays.

            “Southwest two-eleven, climb and maintain . . .” Lomas paused uneasily, unkeying his mike, glancing over at Vaughn and the bay of flight plan strips.

            “Sixteen thousand,” Vaughn snapped, tapping the strip labeled SW211 with her pencil. “Midway perimeter, remember? Always one-six before the fix.”

            “Right. One-six before the fix.” Lomas smiled and winced, lightly smacking his forehead. Young and green, only two months out of the academy, Lomas was in his first week in the primary chair. He was scared to death, and it showed.

            “Come on, Kyle. You have a pilot waiting for commands.” Vaughn nodded toward the screen.

            Lomas keyed his mike. “Southwest two-eleven, climb and maintain one-six thousand. Report crossing the Midway tracon,” Lomas instructed.

            “Vortac,” Vaughn corrected, trying not to smile.

            Lomas keyed his mike. “I mean vortac, Southwest two-eleven, crossing the Midway vortac.”

            “One-six thousand, report on the vortac, two-eleven, roger,” a chuckling voice crackled through their headsets.

            Vaughn took the position of controller quite literally; she enjoyed being in control. An eight-and-a-half-year veteran of the boards, Vaughn was a natural for the venerable old Chicago facility. O’Hare, once the busiest tower on the planet (and still the world’s second-busiest), directed more traffic per controller than any facility anywhere. It wasn’t even close. A total of approximately 90 controllers at O’Hare TRACON commanded the more than 6,400 square miles of airspace in and around O’Hare International Airport, directing 1.3 million aircraft operations annually, responsible for 86 million passenger lives on an average year. O’Hare controllers had to be keen, unflinching, fast — and fearless. And Deborah Vaughn was every one of those, and more. She was what other ATCs deemed the quick among the quick. Her instincts were flawless, her decision-making pragmatic and by the book. She was an ice cube with fiery red hair, slender face and legs, and large, penetrating brown eyes.

            “Northstar five echo papa, climb to one-six, your discretion. Altimeter two-niner-niner-two,” Lomas instructed.

            “Five echo papa, roger.”

            “Don’t forget about your Southwest,” Vaughn said. “He needs to hook up with J-121 in a few. What do you do?”

            “Vector him there about, what, five miles out?”

            “Only if there are no inbounds. If you have an inbound coming from Sector Six, you’ll cross him right in front of him.” Vaughn paused, seeing if the light came on for Lomas. “Do you have any inbounds coming from that sector?”

            “Yes. United coming in from Canada.”

            “Right,” Vaughn coached. “So?”

            Lomas thought a moment. “I have to vector the Southwest hard left after the vortac.”

            “There you go.”

            When Vaughn was promoted to sector chief the previous fall, a few jokes were murmured among the men about the dubious ways the redhead must have earned her stripes. Nobody took the jokes seriously, of course — no one who watched Vaughn work. And certainly no one in Sector Four had a quibble with her; you didn’t mess with Deborah Vaughn. Behind her wide smile and flashing eyes, she was uniquely intimidating.

            College educated, with a pair of degrees — psychology and English literature — from Northwestern, Vaughn was in the minority of active controllers. Most of her peers on the boards came straight from either the military or the Academy at Oklahoma City. Vaughn didn’t bring up her university past much, especially now that she was a sector chief. She could always pick up a tangible sense of unease in other controllers, especially the men, when they learned of her background. And in that regard, she was in the minority, as well. Males outnumbered females in the ATC society better than three to one. Vaughn accepted her minority status in stride; in fact, she reasoned, she’d been a minority of some kind or another practically her whole life. She’d been the only white kid in her elementary school class the two years her father served as trauma surgeon at Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Barbados. Her senior year in high school, she was the only female student to win scholarship honors in the UC-Davis National Calculus Competition. And, much to the dismay of her excruciatingly professional parents, she was the only Vaughn in a meticulously detailed family tree to engage in civil service.

            Vaughn briefly pictured her father in her mind’s eye, a still photo of the young, commanding ER surgeon she knew as a child. He was sick now, soon to undergo coronary bypass surgery.

            “Miss Vaughn?” Lomas broke into her thoughts.

            “Vaughn,” she corrected. “It’s Vaughn, Lomas. I don’t call you Mr. Lomas.”

            “Sorry. My Southwest is spotty. Part of the ID tag winked out for a second.”

            “Call him for voice verification,” Vaughn instructed.

            Lomas keyed in. “Southwest two-eleven, O’Hare, please state position and heading.”

            “Two-eleven. We’re reading twenty-four miles before the vortac, square on heading oh-one-oh.”

            “Thanks, two-eleven.” Lomas breathed audibly. “Will advise when we can vector you to J-121.”

            “Two-eleven, roger.”

            “I’ve seen those spotty tags before,” Vaughn said, eyeing the radar display control dial at the bottom right of the screen. She dialed it down to its lowest level then back to high intensity. The radar screen before them dipped into darkness, then swelled to a bright green glow. “I don’t know what’s causing them.”

            Vaughn’s and Lomas’s headsets crackled. “O’Hare, this is Atlantic Air six-twenty with you at fourteen, climbing pilot’s discretion to nineteen on J-4.”

            “Atlantic six-twenty, roger,” Lomas responded. “Altimeter two-niner-niner-two.”

            A brief snap of static indicated Atlantic Air six-twenty’s acknowledgment.

            Immediately, another voice broke in. “O’Hare, PSA Jumbo four-ninety-four, vectored from the tower on radial one-two-five, with you at eleven and climbing.”

            Lomas took a sharp breath. Traffic was building. “PSA Jumbo four-ninety-four, O’Hare, that’s a roger.”

            Just as Lomas unkeyed, Vaughn reminded, “Altimeter.”

            “Altimeter two-niner-niner-two, PSA.”

            “PSA, roger.”

            As both Vaughn and Lomas watched, the tiny green blip that was Southwest Flight 211 suddenly disappeared.


            “My God, did you see that?” Lomas whispered.

            Vaughn was already in action. “Southwest two-eleven, O’Hare, verify pos, altitude, and heading, please.”

            “Southwest two-eleven, we read nineteen miles before the vortac on J-1, climbing from thirteen.”

            “That’s a roger, two-eleven,” Vaughn began, “maintain voice—”

            Before she could finish the command, Southwest 211’s marker popped back into view, separated neatly from the two dozen other blips crawling at myriad angles and speeds across Lomas’s and Vaughn’s screen.

            “What the hell?” Vaughn fumed. “I’m calling the fac chief on this. This is ridiculous.” Vaughn keyed her mike. “Two-eleven, had a couple of spotty readings on you. I may be calling for pos periodically. Will advise on vectors.”

            “Two-eleven, roger.”

            “Vaughn.” Lomas subconsciously bit his lower lip. “I have a full grid. And with the Southwest winking out, I’m not sure if . . . you may have to take primary.”

            Vaughn smiled at the nervous young controller. “You’re doing fine, Lomas. I’m here if you get in a jam. Just keep working it. Calm down.”

            Watching a rivulet of perspiration trickle down the right side of Lomas’ face, Vaughn remembered her first year out of the academy. She could never keep her legs still then, but she wasn’t a sweater. But this job produced them. Every sector had at least one heavy sweater. Each controller’s physiology had its own unique reaction to the palpable stress of ATC: some fidgeted, some paced, some rocked, some cursed, some clenched, and some sweated like government mules. Vaughn squinted at the memory of one of the heaviest sweaters she’d ever seen, a classmate of hers at the academy. He was the only one in her class to graduate with a higher overall grade average than hers, and he had been recruited to O’Hare the same as Vaughn. She couldn’t recall his name. Acuff. Agnew. Austin. Something like that.

            She did remember, however, what an odd bird he was. Rambling on about improving protocols, ranting to no one in particular about reducing separation minimums. And, she remembered — he’d asked her out once. His shirt sopping, standing so close to her that she couldn’t get any air, he interrupted her in mid-vector to ask her if she wanted to have dinner with him some time. She didn’t remember exactly what she said, but it wasn’t yes. Within the month, he’d been fired by her old chief, old man Payton, for insubordination.

            Vaughn allowed a whisper of a laugh. The only male of her species who didn’t feel threatened by her was a borderline genius headcase with overactive apocrine glands.

            “Oh, Jesus.” Lomas jerked, hitting his knee on the control panel. “Oh, Jesus.”

            “What is it? Lomas?”

            “Southwest two-eleven, turn right, uh, heading zero six five immediately,” Lomas spat. “Southwest two-eleven, immediately.”

            Vaughn scanned the screen and picked up Southwest two-eleven’s marker, a good fifteen miles west and turned an astounding forty-five degrees from its location only seconds before.

            “God.” Lomas rocked in his chair. “Deborah, the United is right there! They’re on top of each other. My God.”

            Lomas keyed his mike again. “United one five four —”

            Vaughn grabbed Lomas’ hand, squeezing hard. She keyed in. “Southwest two-eleven, O’Hare. Belay those instructions, repeat, disregard ATC command to turn. State your heading and position immediately, sir.”

            “Southwest two-eleven, we’re flying heading oh one oh. Transponder has us square on J-1, six miles before the vortac. Do we have a problem?”

            Vaughn let herself slowly breathe out. “Have a bad reading on you again, two-eleven. Radar has you off course and off radial. Maintain voice verification, if you would.”

            “Southwest two-eleven, that’s a roger.”

            Less than two seconds after the Southwest pilot responded, his aircraft ID marker winked, disappeared, and blinked back into place, clear and on course on J-1.

             “Christ, how does that keep happening?”

            “O’Hare, this is United one-five-four, with you at fourteen,” the United pilot broke in. “We clear for inbound?”

            Vaughn, still catching herself in huffs, looked over at the saucer-eyed Lomas. “Well? You’re the primary.”

            “Roger, United. Maintain heading,” Lomas managed. He unkeyed, shaking visibly. “How did you know?”

            “Think about it, Kyle. There is no way a 737 is going to turn forty-five degrees on a nickel and scream fifteen miles off course in a split second. No way. If he’d have turned on your command, you would have had him crossing the J-6 inbounds. It was a bad readout.”

            “Bad readout.”

            His senses coming back, Lomas looked at Vaughn with an increasingly squeamish expression, then he slowly lowered his head to look down at his crotch.

            “Lomas? You okay?”

            “Jesus. I have to go change.”

Book Excerpt: West of Sienna

2 Jan

West of Sienna


© Copyright 2010

by Roger White


Registered with WGA West


Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.

—Edna St. Vincent Millay

Chapter One


        Andy is alive.

        I held the letter at arm’s length, requisite for reading anything on a page. I read it again. I found it odd that in this day of e-mail and laptops and text messages that Scooter’s letter was handwritten. His penmanship was no better than when we’d been best of friends — more than 40 years ago.

        I found my flashlight and climbed to the attic. It was dim and stifling, and the air was thick with the aroma of things old, lost, forgotten.

        Andy is alive.

        I searched, still knowing where to find it. Knowing the stir of paralyzing images that would attend. It was in my awards box. I indulged myself at the box, fondling the favorites, reliving the track meets, breaking the tape with each medal and trophy dusted.

        It was at the bottom of the box, tucked into an envelope, the envelope folded into a watchbox. I had made a desperate, half-hearted attempt to hide it away, somehow hoping I would forget.

        The size of a quarter, once a shiny pewter, the medal was now a blotched relic. A faded ribbon of red, white, and blue dangled, attached with a cheap plastic ring. I turned the medal over in my hand, rubbing it with my thumb.

2nd Place

440-Yard Run

6th-Grade Relays

May 12, 1967

        I was the fastest boy in my class, had been for years. By sixth grade, when the annual track and field meet came in spring, lunch money rode on who would come in second. My event was the 440-yard run — a quarter-mile. One time around the track.

        As the days counted down to the meet my sixth-grade year, I was bolstered by the back slapping of my friends. Gary, you got first locked up, but I’m getting second. You’ll be in the Olympics someday. Nobody ever beats Gary Tolliver. I fielded the praise like any normal kid. I grew cocky.

        Weeks before the meet, a new boy moved to town and joined our class. I saw his name on the list of boys signed up for the 440-yard run. That was the first time I noticed him, as I sized him up. He was quiet and solitary. His name was Andy Reyes. I pointed out to Scooter the queer shape of Andy Reyes. Such a tiny thing, with head and ears too large for his frame. He looked like an anemic adult, misshapen and miniature. Another thing: He was left-handed. His right arm ended in a stump just below the elbow.

        The season Scooter and I came to know Andy has never left my mind. It was the summer I turned thirteen and somehow reached second on that awkward base path of sex, on which adolescent boys are forever stumbling and caught stealing. It was the summer of best friends. It was the time of innocence — and of a terror, deep and black.

        Spring had come early that year, and the days and nights were timid and pleasant. This was merely a portent of a short, furiously hot summer, according to the front-porch meteorological experts of West Sienna. The old men predicted without fail that too much of anything good meant something bad. They were usually right.

        West Sienna, ninety miles west northwest of Austin, was tucked deep into the Texas Hill Country — geographically, historically, and emotionally removed from the remarkable events of the time that were reshaping America’s psyche. The closest the community came to the ’60s was the time Jargus Webb accused his neighbor and longstanding enemy Dewey Hempstead of slipping LSD into Webb’s cattle tank. Jargus was a taciturn old straight-razor of a man whose only regular appearance in town came at the end of each month, when he sat in the third chair in Taylor’s Barber Shoppe for a mostly imaginary trim back and sides. He would sit and read Time magazine, occasionally pausing to give onlookers a hard-boiled glare and make clucking noises in his throat. One edition of Time had apprised old Jargus of the country’s current appetite for controlled substances — mainly the counterculture’s drug of choice, acid. It was the year of free love and dropping out. The next week, Jargus watched with horror as, one by one, his big Santa Gertrudis cows drank from his tank and proceeded to drop out all over his pasture. It took a pickup truck full of neighbors and two Concho County sheriff’s deputies to convince Jargus that Dewey Hempstead hadn’t doped his prize cattle. The cause was discovered to be a leak in a natural gas line that ran under Webb’s cattle tank.

        The fact that West Sienna was out of step with the rest of the state and the nation came as no revelation to the town’s citizens. That’s why most of them were here in the first place. It was community heritage to not fit in. Two weeks after Texas joined the Confederacy, the original town of Sienna voted on seceding from Texas. The motion to secede was defeated by a two-to-one margin, so one-third of Sienna’s population — about 200 people — picked up and moved several miles northwest. There they raised a Union flag and called themselves the Free State of West Sienna. In a prelude to the larger disagreement, the men, boys, and some of the women of Sienna promptly attacked. One West Siennean was killed by a blow to the head with a shovel, and the Union flag was ripped down and burned.

        Every West Sienna citizen knew the emotional history of the town by heart. But it wasn’t passion or natural selection that kept the town on the map. It was the Missouri-Pacific railroad, which pushed through in the 1890s, on a line that roughly followed the northern property line of the farm and vineyard owned by Jargus Webb’s grandfather.

        Beyond comfortable reach of the Missouri-Pacific, Old Sienna lost out to its contrary offspring and gradually melted into the Texas bluebonnets by the turn of the century. An old church and the shells of four or five irregular dwellings still stood as the original community’s epitaph. A worn dirt path was all that connected West Sienna to its dead mothertown.

        In April of our sixth-grade year, Scooter and I rode our bikes to Old Sienna to explore the ghost town’s peculiar church. It was a long rectangle of a building, the wood intact but sun-faded to a weak gray-brown. Small shards and pieces remained of the stained glass that had adorned the church’s windows. There were two windows, one on either long side of the church. Boards had been placed over the windows to cover them, and they had been nailed in place from the inside. Two-by-fours had been bolted across the big front double-doors and the single back door of the church.

        We had just convinced ourselves of our resolve to get inside when a low rumble welled from deep within the building. We clutched each other in white fear. We were back on our bikes, pedaling furiously for home, before we said a word. The whole place had seemed stale somehow. Rotten.

        We had heard the story about Pepper Ellard and the church, but Scooter and I were determined to see for ourselves. The story had been around long before we were born.

        I found my mind drifting back to the church often as the days slowly ticked toward summer that year. But Mrs. Barger was always there to pull me back.

        She popped me hard on my right ear.

        Mrs. Barger was our eighth-period English teacher. She had liver spots on her arms, teeth that clicked, but she had perfected the art of cupping her hand so that a tight slap to the ear induced acute tinnitus for days.

        “Mr. Tolliver.” Surname. Trouble.

        “Yes, ma’am.”

        I tried to strike a note of humility, not quite groveling. I rubbed the violated ear.

        “Since we appear to be so preoccupied with the goings on outside the window, we must know all there is to know about the gerund.”

        I did not know all there was to know about the gerund. I spent fifteen humiliating minutes at the chalkboard. Scooter and Bibby Cantrell, who sat next to him, took turns making faces at me and flipping me the finger. I discreetly returned the gesture by pretending to scratch my back with a middle digit.

        Mrs. Barger eventually sent me back to my seat with an admonition to excel in areas of endeavor other than track and field. She thought I was daydreaming about next week’s class relays.

        Scooter laughed loudly at the comment, and I punched him as I walked by to my seat.

        “And if you hit Mr. Travis again, you’re taking a trip down the hall, young man.”

        Scooter Travis was a teller of tales, a master of the Lady of Venus pinball game at Dairy Twin, a good wide receiver, and my best friend. He had a small triangle patch — a bald pink scar on the back of his head — and an occasional stutter, both the result of an ill-timed lightning strike. I suppose any collision between a bolt of lightning and one’s skull is ill-timed, but this one was especially unfortunate. We were in fourth grade, playing a pick-up game of football with the usual gang, and we were tied, 28-28. I was quarterback and Scooter was receiver on the play that would have broken the game open.

        It had been raining off and on all day. The worn practice field next to the high school was slop, ideal for us. Forrest Scoggins was covering Scooter on the play, and when I saw Forrest slip down in the mud, I knew we had a touchdown. Scooter was running a post pattern, straight over the middle, and I had lofted Scooter a high, slow spiral. He caught the ball and was heading for the end zone when the entire sky went white, a flashbulb horizon. I didn’t have time to cringe. A great electric finger touched a light tower of the school football stadium next to us. The bolt splintered, sending a snaking shard to reach down and slap Scooter Travis, still galloping to glory.

        We thought he was dead. Scooter lay on the end zone line, knocked cold and his head smoking, as seven young boys huddled over him in awe. Everyone was scared to touch him, so Bibby Cantrell tied his belt to one of Scooter’s legs and we dragged him to the nearest house.

        Scooter insisted he didn’t remember anything, but I grilled him mercilessly for weeks, trying to find out if he crossed the end zone before he lost the ball. I refused to give up the argument that we scored and won the game, but Forrest Scoggins and the other opposing players said no way. We finally compromised and agreed it was game called on account of God.

        It was Wednesday, which meant riding home with Scooter’s father. Mr. Travis had Wednesdays off, so he would roar into the Jane D. Patrick Junior High parking lot with tires squealing and the top down on his ’67 Pontiac. The principal hated it and had twice warned Mr. T of police intervention if he didn’t slow down. But Mr. T worked closely with Sheriff Tommy Dale and the Concho County Patrol, so the worst penalty he got was some ribbing from Sheriff Dale that he was trying to impress the cheerleaders, with the wife gone and all. Scooter’s mother was an Army nurse, recently dispatched to South Vietnam.

        I was giving serious consideration to hitting Scooter on his cranium scar with a paper wad when the low, bubbling growl of his father’s GTO came from the parking lot.       

        “That’s why Gary was looking outside, Mrs. Barger,” Melissa Acton whined. “Gary can’t wait for Scooter’s father, so him and Scooter can ride in his hot rod and break the speed limit.”

        “So Scooter and he can ride in his hot rod and break the speed limit. Thank you, Melissa. Scooter, it would be appreciated if you would remind your father of the speed limit in school zones.”

        Scooter’s face reddened. Melissa Acton looked at Scooter and me, puckering her face with malevolent satisfaction.

        In the hall, we watched Melissa and her friend Pam Stiles walk by to their lockers. Pam was easily the prettiest girl in class, the object of every boy’s crush. I asked Scooter about another expedition to Old Sienna. I’d thought of little else since that grinding sound rose from inside the church.

        “Funny you m-mentioned it,” Scooter said. “I’ve been thinking about that trip. Could’ve been a raccoon or something. I’ve been wanting to go back myself, but I didn’t know if you were scared or something.”

        “I’m not scared,” I said quickly. “I think it was a coyote.”

        “You were scared.”

        “The only reason I was ahead of you is because you’re a slowpoke.”

        We agreed on a campout in my back yard Friday night and an early departure Saturday. We sealed the agreement with the usual punch on the arm.

        In the back seat of the Pontiac convertible, Scooter’s father had stocked the ice chest with the usual: Pearl Beer in cans for him, and two Chocolate Soldier sodas in long bottles for us. The Wednesday afternoons of that spring had become ritual.

        We hefted our bottles in a toast and yelled at Forrest Scoggins, who was mounting his stingray bike for home.

        “Need a chauffeur?” Scooter yelled.

        Forrest smiled and shook his red head. “Cool car. The apes in the back sure ugly it up, though.”

        A block from the school, I noticed him.

        “Hey, look.”

        I pointed to a swirl of leaves blowing to the right of us. Walking down the side of the road crossing us was a gaunt little figure, tan-brown with coal hair. He was clothed in a faded plaid winter coat, toting three books. The coat was too big for him, too hot for the season. We watched in silent amazement as we passed, our paths perpendicular.

        The leaves crackled past him, and the boy turned with the sound. The leaves danced around him as the wind pushed them by, and he stabbed at them playfully with his free arm. He couldn’t catch them. His left arm was full of books, and his right arm had no hand.

        He saw us watching him, and he immediately pulled his right arm down and in. He hugged it against his body and let the coat sleeve swallow it. He turned sharply and walked on. He had been smiling so happily in his dance with the leaves that I had begun to smile with him. But when he saw us, in a split of an instant, he lost all expression, as if he’d been caught doing something he wasn’t supposed to be doing. I felt bad — vaguely guilty — that perhaps he thought I was laughing at him. I felt instantly, genuinely awful.

        “That’s that new kid. Andy Puh-Perez, or something.” Scooter was turned completely around to watch him to the very last. “He sits in the back of class and never says a word. Like he’s not even there.”

        I thumped Scooter on his lightning scar to make him turn around. “Reyes. It’s Andy Reyes.”

        “Ow. Butthole.”

        “Scooter Travis.” Scooter’s dad interjected some half-hearted parental discipline. I never quite understood Mr. T’s hierarchy of acceptable obscenity. We could say shit, but we couldn’t mention the orifice.

        “He’s entered in the 440 run next week,” I said. That’s how I remembered Andy Reyes’ name. I studied that list every day to keep apprised of my competition. He was the only unknown variable. Everyone else I could beat, except perhaps Gordon Shaver. He had failed once and was a year older.

        “Shoot. You’ll beat that-that little guy easy.” Scooter finally turned around. He took a final, long drink of his soda. “You could beat him with one hand tied behind … Ooh, I didn’t mean it that way.”

        “You’re sick, Scooter.”

        I went to hit him again, and he parried my moves. “No, really. I didn’t mean it.”

            Curiosity got the better of my tact, and I peeked back one last time. Our quiet classmate was running as fast as he could for home.