“Tell ‘em we declared a dictatorship.” The non-covered lots, Danny insisted, would have to wait until priorities eased. He would send men and equipment when he could. He was interrupted by a call from the tower watch chief. A new weather forecast predicted a wind shift in an hour. It would mean a change of runways, and could they hurry the plowing of runway one seven, left? He would do his best, Danny said. He’d check with the Conga Line supervisor and call the tower back.
It was the kind of pressure, unremitting, which had gone on for three days and nights since the present snowfall started. The fact that the pressure had been met made all the more irritating a note, delivered to Mel by messenger, fifteen minutes ago. The note read:
thought shd warn u–airlines snow
committee (on vern demerest’s urging
…why does your bro-in-law dislike
you?) filing critical report becos run-
ways & taxiways snow clearance (v. d.
says) lousy, inefficient…
report blames airport (meaning u)
for main hunk of flight delays… also
claims stuck 707 wouldn’t have if taxiway
plowed sooner, better …so now
all airlines being penalized, etc, etc,
you get the drift… and where are you–
in one? (drift, i mean) …climb out &
buy me coffee soon.
The “t” was for Tanya–Tanya Livingston, passenger relations agent for Trans America, and a special friend of Mel’s. Mel read the note again, as he usually did messages from Tanya, which became clearer the second time around. Tanya, whose job straddled trouble-shooting and public relations, objected to capitals. (“Mel, doesn’t it make sense? If we abolished capitals there’d be scads less trouble. Just look at the newspapers.”) She had actually coerced a Trans America mechanic into chiseling all capitals from the typebars of her office typewriter. Someone higher up raised hob about that, Mel had heard, quoting the airline’s rigid rule about willful damage to company property. Tanya had got away with it, though. She usually did.
The Vern Demerest in the note was Captain Vernon Demerest, also of Trans America. As well as being one of the airline’s more senior captains, Demerest was a militant campaigner for the Air Line Pilots Association, and, this season, a member of the Airlines Snow Committee at Lincoln International. The committee inspected runways and taxiways during snow periods and pronounced them fit, or otherwise, for aircraft use. It always included an active flying captain.
Vernon Demerest also happened to be Mel’s brother-in-law, married to Mel’s older sister, Sarah. The Bakersfeld clan, through precedent and marriage, had roots and branches in aviation, just as older families were once allied with seafaring. However, there was little cordiality between Mel and his brother-in-law, whom Mel considered conceited and pompous. Others, he knew, held the same opinion. Recently, Mel and Captain Demerest had had an angry exchange at a meeting of the Board of Airport Commissioners, where Demerest appeared on behalf of the pilots’ association. Mel suspected that the critical snow report–apparently initiated by his brother-in-law–was in retaliation.
Mel was not greatly worried about the report. Whatever shortcomings the airport might have in other ways, he knew they were coping with the storm as well as any organization could. Just the same, the report was a nuisance. Copies would go to all airlines, and tomorrow there would be inquiring phone calls and memos, and a need for explanations.
Mel supposed he had better stay briefed, in readiness. He decided he would make an inspection of the present snow clearance situation at the same time that he was out on the airfield checking on the blocked runway and the mired Aéreo-Mexican jet.
At the Snow Desk, Danny Farrow was talking with Airport Maintenance again. When there was a moment’s break, Mel interjected, “I’ll be in the terminal, then on the field.”
He had remembered what Tanya said in her note about having coffee together. He would stop at his own office first, then, on his way through the terminal, he would drop by Trans America to see her. The thought excited him.
MEL USED the private elevator, which operated by passkey only, to descend from the tower to the administrative mezzanine. Though his own office suite was silent, with stenographers’ desks cleared and typewriters covered, the lights had been left on. He entered his own interior office. From a closet, near the wide mahogany desk he used in daytime, he took out a heavy topcoat and fur-lined boots.
Tonight Mel himself was without specific duties at the airport. This was as it should be. The reason he had stayed, through most of the three-day storm, was to be available for emergencies. Otherwise, he mused, as he pulled on the boots and laced them, by now he would have been home with Cindy and the children.
Or would he?
No matter how objective you tried to be, Mel reasoned, it was hard to be sure of your own real motives. Probably, if it had not been the storm, something else would have arisen to justify not going. Not going home, in fact, seemed lately to have become the pattern of his life. His job was a cause, of course. It provided plenty of reasons to remain extra hours at the airport, where lately there had been big problems facing him, quite apart from tonight’s imbroglio. But–if he was honest with himself–the airport also offered an escape from the incessant wrangling between himself and Cindy which seemed to occur nowadays whenever they spent time together.
“Oh, hell!” Mel’s exclamation cut across the silence of the office.
He plodded in the fur-lined boots toward his desk. A glance at a typed reminder from his secretary confirmed what he had just recalled. Tonight there was another of his wife’s tedious charity affairs. A week ago, reluctantly, Mel had promised to attend. It was a cocktail party and dinner (so the typed note said), downtown at the swank Lake Michigan Inn. What the charity was, the note didn’t specify, and, if it had ever been mentioned, he had since forgotten. It made no difference, though. The causes with which Cindy Bakersfeld involved herself were depressingly similar. The test of worthiness–as Cindy saw it–was the social eminence of her fellow committee members.
Fortunately, for the sake of peace with Cindy, the starting time was late–almost two hours from now and in view of tonight’s weather, it might be even later. So he could still make it, even after inspecting the airfield. Mel could come back, shave and change in his office, and be downtown only a little late. He had better warn Cindy, though. Using a direct outside line, Mel dialed his home number.
Roberta, his elder daughter, answered.
“Hi,” Mel said. “This is your old man.”
Roberta’s voice came coolly down the line. “Yes, I know.”
“How was school today?”
“Could you be specific, Father? There were several classes. Which do you want to know about?”
Mel sighed. There were days on which it seemed to him that his home life was disintegrating all at once. Roberta, he could tell, was in what Cindy called one of her snotty moods. Did all fathers, he wondered, abruptly lose communication with their daughters at age thirteen? Less than a year ago, the two of them had seemed as close as father and daughter could be. Mel loved both his daughters deeply–Roberta, and her younger sister, Libby. There were times when he realized they were the only reasons his marriage had survived. As to Roberta, he had known that as a teen-ager she would develop interests which he could neither share nor wholly understand. He had been prepared for this. What he had not expected was to be shut out entirely or treated with a mixture of indifference and condescension. Though, to be objective, he supposed the increasing strife between Cindy and himself had not helped. Children were sensitive.
“Never mind,” Mel said. “Is your mother home?”
“She went out. She said if you phoned to tell you you have to be downtown to meet her, and for once try not to be late.”
Mel curbed his irritation. Roberta was undoubtedly repeating Cindy’s words exactly. He could almost hear his wife saying them.
“If your mother calls, tell her I might have to be a little late, and that I can’t help it.” There was a silence, and he asked, “Did you hear me?”
“Yes,” Roberta said. “Is there anything else, Father? I have homework to do.”
He snapped back, “Yes, there is something else. You’ll change your tone of voice, young lady, and show a little more respect. Furthermore, we’ll end this conversation when I’m good and ready.”
“If you say so, Father.”
“And stop calling me Father!”
“Very well, Father.”
Mel was tempted to laugh, then supposed he had better not. He asked, “Is everything all right at home?”
“Yes. But Libby wants to talk to you.”
“In a minute. I was just going to tell you–because of the storm I *may not be home tonight. There’s a lot happening at the airport. I’ll probably come back and sleep here.”
Again a pause, as if Roberta was weighing whether or not she could get away with a smart answer: So what else is new? Apparently she decided not. “Will you speak to Libby now?”
“Yes, I will. Goodnight, Robbie.”
There was an impatient shuffle as the telephone changed hands, then Libby’s small breathless voice. “Daddy, Daddy! Guess what!”
Libby was always breathless as if, to a seven-year-old, life were excitingly on the run and she must forever keep pace or be left behind.
“Let me think,” Mel said. “I know–you had fun in the snow today.”
“Yes, I did, But it wasn’t that.”
“Then I can’t guess. You’ll have to tell me.”
“Well, at school, Miss Curzon said for homework we have to write down all the good things we think will happen next month.”
He thought affectionately: he could understand Libby’s enthusiasm. To her, almost everything was exciting and good, and the few things which were not were brushed aside and speedily forgotten. He wondered how much longer her happy innocence would last.
“That’s nice,” Mel said. “I like that.”
“Daddy, Daddy! Will you help me?”
“If I can.”
“I want a map of February.”
Mel smiled. Libby had a verbal shorthand of her own which sometimes seemed more expressive than conventional words. It occurred to him that he could use a map of February himself.
“There’s a calendar in my desk in the den.” Mel told her where to find it and heard her small feet running from the room, the telephone forgotten. It was Roberta, Mel assumed, who silently hung up.
FROM THE general manager’s office suite, Mel walked onto the executive mezzanine which ran the length of the main terminal building. He carried the heavy topcoat with him.
Pausing, he surveyed the thronged concourse below, which seemed to have become even busier within the past half-hour. In waiting areas, every available seat was occupied. Newsstands and information booths were ringed by crowds, among them many military uniforms. In front of all airline passenger counters were line-ups, some extending around corners out of sight. Behind the counters, ticket agents and supervisors, their normal numbers swelled by colleagues from earlier shifts retained on overtime, had schedules and passage coupons spread out like orchestral scores.