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Mel sensed he had the full attention of the two women and four men in the delegation; also of the press. Even Cindy was watching him covertly. He continued to speak quietly.

“All of you know, or should, the measures which we have taken at Lincoln International Airport to make life easier, more bearable, from the point of view of aircraft noise, for those who live in the airport vicinity. Some of these measures have been mentioned already, and there are others, such as using remote airport areas for the testing of engines, and even then during proscribed hours only.”

Elliott Freemantle, already fidgeting, cut in. “But you’ve admitted that these so-called systems fail to work.”

Mel snapped back, “I admitted nothing of the kind. Most of the time they do work–as well as any compromise can. Tonight I’ve admitted that they are not working because of exceptional circumstances, and frankly if I were a pilot, taking off in weather like this, I’d be reluctant to reduce power right after takeoff, and make a climbing turn too. Furthermore, this kind of condition is bound to recur from time to time.”

“Most of the time!”

“No, sir! And please allow me to finish!” Without pausing, Mel went on, “The fact is: airports–here and elsewhere–have come close to doing as much as they can in the way of noise reduction. You may not like hearing this, and not everyone in this business admits it, but the truth is: there isn’t a lot more that anyone can do. You simply cannot tiptoe a three hundred thousand pound piece of high-powered machinery into any place. So when you do bring a big jet airplane in–or take it out–inevitably it shakes hell out of a few people who are nearby.” There were several quick smiles, though not from Elliott Freemantle, who was scowling. Mel added, “So if we need airports–and obviously we do–somebody, somewhere has to put up with some noise, or move away.”

It was Mel’s turn to see the reporters’ pencils racing with his words.

“It’s true,” Mel continued, “that aircraft manufacturers are working on noise reduction devices, but–again to be honest with you–few people in the aviation industry take them seriously, and certainly they do not represent a major effort like, for example, development of a new aircraft. At best, they’ll be palliatives. If you don’t believe me, let me remind you that even though trucks have been in use for many years more than airplanes, no one has yet invented a really effective truck muffler.

“Another thing to bear in mind is that by the time one type of jet engine gets quieted a little–if it ever does–there’ll be new, more powerful engines in use which, even with suppressors fitted, will be noisier than the first engine was to begin with. As I said,” Mel added, “I am being absolutely frank.”

One of the women in the delegation murmured gloomily, “You sure are.”

“Which brings me,” Mel said, “to the question of the future. There are new breeds of aircraft coming–another family of jets after the Boeing 747s, including behemoths like the Lockheed 500, which will come into use soon; then shortly afterward, the supersonic transports–the Concordé, and those to follow. The Lockheed 500 and its kind will be subsonic–that is, they’ll operate at less than the speed of sound, and will give us the kind of noise we have now, only more of it. The supersonics will have a mighty engine noise too, plus a sonic boom as they breach the sound barrier, which is going to be more of a problem than any other noise we’ve had so far.

“You may have heard or read–as I have–optimistic reports that the sonic booms will occur high, far from cities and airports, and that the effect on the ground will be minor. Don’t believe it! We’re in for trouble, all of us–people in homes, like you; people like me, who run airports; airlines, who’ll have a billion dollars invested in equipment which they must use continuously, or go bankrupt. Believe me, the time is coming when we’ll wish we had the simplicity of the kind of noise we’re talking about tonight.”

“So what are you telling my clients?” Elliott Freemantle inquired sarcastically. “To go jump in the lunatic asylum now rather than wait until you and your behemoths drive them there?”

“No,” Mel said firmly, “I’m not telling them that. I’m merely saying candidly–the way you asked me to–that I haven’t any simple answers; nor will I make you promises that the airport cannot keep. Also I’m saving that in my opinion, airport noise is going to become greater, not less. However, I’d like to remind all of you that this problem isn’t new. It’s existed since trains started running, and since trucks, buses, and automobiles joined them; there was the same problem when freeways were built through residential areas; and when airports were established, and grew. All these things are for the public good–or so we believe–yet all of them create noise and, despite all kinds of efforts, they’ve continued to. The thing is: trucks, trains, freeways, airplanes, and the rest are here. They’re part of the way we live, and unless we change our way of life, then their noise is something we have to live with too.”

“In other words, my clients should abandon any idea of serenity, uninterrupted sleep, privacy and quietness for the remainder of their natural lives?”

“No,” Mel said. “I think, in the end, they’ll have to move. I’m not speaking officially, of course, but I’m convinced that eventually this airport and others will be obliged to make multibillion-dollar purchases of residential areas surrounding them. A good many of the areas can become industrial zones where noise won’t matter. And of course, there would be reasonable compensation to those who owned homes and were forced to leave them.”

Elliott Freemantle rose and motioned others in the delegation to do the same.

“That last remark,” he informed Mel, “is the one sensible thing I’ve heard this evening. However, the compensation may start sooner than you think, and also be larger.” Freemantle nodded curtly. “You will be hearing from us. We shall see you in court.”

He went out, the others following.

Through the door to the anteroom Mel heard one of the two women delegates exclaim, “You were magnificent, Mr. Freemantle. I’m going to tell everyone so.”

“Well, thank you. Thank you very…” The voices faded.

Mel went to the door, intending to close it.

“I’m sorry about that,” he said to Cindy. Now that the two of them were alone again, he was not sure what else they had to say to each other, if anything.

Cindy said icily, “It’s par for the course. You should have married an airport.”

At the doorway, Mel noticed that one of the men reporters had returned to the anteroom. It was Tomlinson of the Tribune.

“Mr. Bakersfeld, could I see you for a moment?”

Mel said wearily, “What is it?”

“I got the impression you weren’t too smitten with Mr. Freemantle.”

“Is this for quotation?”

“No, sir.”

“Then your impression was right.”

“I thought you’d be interested in this,” the reporter said.

“This was one of the legal retainer forms which Elliott Freemantle had distributed at the Meadowood community meeting.”

As Mel read the form, he asked, “Where did you get it?”

The reporter explained.

“How many people were at the meeting?”

“I counted. Roughly six hundred.”

“And how many of these forms were signed?”

“I can’t be sure of that, Mr. Bakersfeld. My guess would be a hundred and fifty were signed and turned in. Then there were other people who said they’d send theirs by mail.”

Mel thought grimly: now be could understand Elliott Freemantle’s histrionics; also why and whom the lawyer was trying to impress.

“I guess you’re doing the same arithmetic I did,” the reporter, Tomlinson, said.

Mel nodded. “It adds up to a tidy little sum.”

“Sure does. I wouldn’t mind a piece of it myself.”

“Maybe we’re both in the wrong business. Did you cover the Meadowood meeting too?”

“Yes.”

“Didn’t anyone over there point out that the total legal fee was likely to be at least fifteen thousand dollars?”

Tomlinson shook his head. “Either no one thought of it, or they didn’t care. Besides, Freemantle has quite a personality; hypnotic, I guess you’d call it. He had ‘em spellbound, like he was Billy Graham.”

Mel handed back the printed retainer form. “Will you put this in your story?”

“I’ll put it in, but don’t be surprised if the city desk kills it. They’re always wary about professional legal stuff. Besides, I guess if you come right down to it, there’s nothing really wrong.”

“No,” Mel said, “it may be unethical, and I imagine the bar association wouldn’t like it. But it isn’t illegal. What the Meadowood folk should have done, of course, was get together and retain a lawyer as a group. But if people are gullible, and want to make lawyers rich, I guess it’s their own affair.”

Tomlinson grinned. “May I quote some of that?”

“You just got through telling me your paper wouldn’t print it. Besides, this is off the record. Remember?”

“Okay.”

If it would have done any good, Mel thought, he would have sounded off, and taken a chance on being quoted or not. But he knew it wouldn’t do any good. He also knew that all over the country, ambulance chasing lawyers like Elliott Freemantle were busily signing up groups of people, then harassing airports, airlines, and -in some cases-pilots.

It was not the harassing which Mel objected to; that, and legal recourse, were everyone’s privilege. It was simply that in many instances the homeowner clients were being misled, buoyed up with false hopes, and quoted an impressive-sounding, but one-sided selection of legal precedents such as Elliott Freemantle had used tonight. As a result, a spate of legal actions–costly and time-consuming–was being launched, most of which were foredoomed to fail, and from which only the lawyers involved would emerge as beneficiaries.

Mel wished that he had known earlier what Tomlinson had just told him. In that case he would have loaded his remarks to the delegation, so as to convey a warning about Elliott Freemantle, and what the Meadowood residents were getting into. Now it was too late.

“Mr. Bakersfeld,” the Tribune reporter said, “there are some other things I’d like to ask you–about the airport generally. If you could spare a few minutes…”

“Any other time I’ll be glad to.” Mel raised his hands in a helpless gesture. “Right now there are fifteen things happening at once.”

The reporter nodded. “I understand. Anyway, I’ll be around for a while. I hear Freemantle’s bunch are cooking up something down below. So if there’s a chance later…”

“I’ll do my best,” Mel said, though he had no intention of being available any more tonight. He respected Tomlinson’s wish to dig below the surface of any story which he covered; just the same, Mel had seen enough of delegations and reporters for one evening.

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