"Without a doubt the most ambitious story writer in America," according to The Daily Beast, Jim Shepard now delivers a new collection that spans borders and centuries with unrivaled mastery.
These ten stories ring with voices belonging toamong othersEnglish Arctic explorers in one of history's most nightmarish expeditions, a young contemporary American negotiating the shockingly underreported hazards of our crude-oil trains, eighteenth-century French balloonists inventing manned flight, and two mid-nineteenth-century housewives trying to forge a connection despite their isolation on the frontier of settlement. In each case the personal is the political as these characters face everything from the emotional pitfalls of everyday life to historic catastrophes on a global scale. In his fifth collection, Shepard makes each of these wildly various worlds his own, and never before has he delineated anything like them so powerfully.
About the Author
JIM SHEPARD is the author of seven novels and four previous story collections. He lives in Williamstown, Massachusetts, with his wife, three children, and three beagles. He teaches at Williams College.
Read an Excerpt
Safety Tips for Living Alone
Twenty-five years before Texas Tower no. 4 became one of the Air Force’s most unlikely achievements and most lethal peacetime disasters, marooning nineteen wives including Ellie Phelan, Betty Bakke, Edna Kovarick, and Jeannette Laino in their own little stewpots of grief and recrimination, the six-year-old Ellie thought of herself as forever stuck in Kansas: someone who would probably never see Chicago, never mind the Atlantic Ocean. Her grandfather wore his old brown duster whatever the weather, and when riding in her father’s convertible he always insisted on sitting in the dead center of the backseat with a hand on each side of the top to maintain the car’s balance on the road. This was back when the Army was running the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Navy exploring the Pole with Admiral Byrd, and the Air Corps still flying the mail in open-cockpit biplanes. Gordon had reminded Ellie of her grandfather, and this had stirred her up and set her teeth on edge. She’d first noticed him when he’d stood on the Ferris wheel before the ride had begun, to make certain another family’s toddlers had been adequately strapped in, and when they were introduced she’d said, “Who made you the Ferris wheel monitor?” And then after he’d answered with a grin, “Isn’t it amazing how much guys like me pretend we know what we’re doing?” she’d been shocked by how exhilarating it was to catch a glimpse of someone who saw the world exactly as she did.
She’d always been moved and appalled by the confidence that men like her grandfather and Gordon projected when it came to getting a handle on their situations. But they each also had a way of responding to her as if she’d come around to the advantages of their caretaking, and she surprised herself by not saying no when after a few months of dating he asked her to marry him. That night she stood in her parents’ room in the dark, annoyed at her turmoil, and then switched on their bedside lamp and told them the news. And when they reacted with some of the same dismay she was feeling, she found herself more instead of less resolved to go ahead with the thing.
Her father had pointed out that as a service wife she might see exotic places and her share of excitement, but she’d also never be able to put down roots or buy a house, and year after year she’d get settled in one place and then have to disrupt her life and move to another. Her children would be dragged from school to school. Her husband would never earn what he could as a civilian. And most of all, the Air Force would always come first, and if that seemed too hard for her, then she’d better back out now.
When her mother came into her bedroom a few nights later and asked if she really understood what she was getting herself into, Ellie said that she did. And when her mother scoffed at the idea that her Ellie would ever know why she did anything, Ellie said, “At least I understand that about myself,” and her mother answered, “Well, what does that mean?” and Ellie said she didn’t want to talk about it anymore.
“Now that we see you’re not going to change your mind, we give up,” her father announced a few days later, and she chose not to respond to that, either. His final word on the subject was that he hoped this Gordon realized just how selfish she could be. She lived with her parents for two more months before the wedding and they exchanged maybe ten words in total. Her mother’s mother came for a visit and didn’t congratulate Ellie on her news but did mention that the military was no place for a woman because the men drank too much and their wives had to raise their children in the unhealthiest climates. She offered as an example the Philippines, that sinkhole of malaria and vice.
They were married by a justice of the peace in Gordon’s childhood home in Pasadena, and her parents came all the way out for the ceremony and left before the reception, their wedding present a card that read, “Take care and all best wishes, Mom.” The following week Gordon was posted to a base in upstate New York and Ellie spent a baffled month alone with his parents before taking the Air Force Wives’ Special across the country: Los Angeles to Boston for one hundred and forty dollars, with stops everywhere from Fresno to Providence and seats as hard as benches and twenty infants and children in her compartment alone. The women traveling solo helped out the most overwhelmed mothers, and Ellie spent the trip crawling under seats to retrieve crayons and shushing babies whose bottles were never the right temperature.
In upstate New York, the place Gordon found for her while they waited for quarters on the base was a rooming house that instead of fire escapes had ropes coiled beneath the bedroom windows. She had only a room to herself, with kitchen privileges. “At least it’s quiet,” he told her when he first saw it, and then asked a few days later if her nightly headaches were related to what he’d said about her room.
She was relieved that he mostly served his time on the base. Larry was born, and Gordon worked his way up to captain, and when in 1957 he was offered the command of some kind of new offshore platform, he wanted to request another assignment—what Air Force officer wanted to squat in a box over the ocean?—but told Ellie that it was her decision, too. “You have a family now,” she answered. “I just want anything that keeps you closer.” “I wouldn’t get home any more often,” he pointed out. “And safer,” she added. So after sleeping on it, he told her he’d take the command, though afterward he was so disappointed that he wasn’t himself for weeks.
By 1950 the Department of Defense had determined that the radar arrays carried on Navy picket ships and Air Force aircraft on station were not powerful enough to detect incoming Russian bombers sufficiently far offshore to enable fighter interception. The radar stations comprising the Distant Early Warning system across the far north of the continent provided some security in that direction, but given that nearly all of America’s highest-priority targets were situated inside its northeastern metropolitan corridor, protection from an attack across the Atlantic seemed both essential and entirely absent. In response, the Air Defense Command urgently ordered the construction of five platforms along the coast from Bangor to Atlantic City. The platforms were called Texas Towers because of their resemblance to oil rigs, were numbered from north to south, and cost eleven million dollars apiece.
They faced engineering problems as unprecedented as the space program’s. Tower no. 4 in particular had presented a much greater challenge than the others since its footings would stand in 185 feet of water, more than three times as deep as the others. In 1955 the maximum depth at which anyone had built an undersea structure was sixty feet, and that had been in the Gulf of Mexico. Because of that, the Air Force had decided that this tower would require bold new thinking in its conception and hired a firm known for bridge design. The firm had had no experience at all in the area of ocean engineering for marine structures.
Tower no. 4 stood on three hollow legs nearly three hundred feet long. The legs were only twelve feet in diameter and braced by three submarine tiers of thirty-inch steel struts, and topped with a triangular triple-leveled platform that stood seventy feet above the waves. From its concrete footings on the seafloor to the top of its radomes it was the equivalent of a thirty-story building out in the ocean.
Though oil-drilling platforms had for the most part weathered the storms and seas of the Gulf, the Gulf at its worst was nothing like the North Atlantic.
And something was already wrong with Tower no. 4. Unlike the others, it moved so much in heavy weather or even a good strong wind that everyone who worked on it called it Old Shaky or the Tiltin’ Hilton.
The first time Gordon set foot on it he’d stood at the edge of the platform hanging on to the rope railings designed to catch those blown off their feet by wind gusts or prop wash, looked down into the waves so far below, and then out at the horizon, empty in all directions, and asked the officer he was relieving, “What the hell am I doing here?”
The tower housed seventy men. Besides crew and officer quarters and work stations it had a ward room, bakery, galley, mess, recreation area, and sick bay. Seven locomotive-sized diesel engines provided electricity, and on the lower level ionizing machines converted salt water to drinking water. Fuel was stored in the hollow legs.
The crew was half Air Force and half civilian welders and electricians and technicians. For every thirty days on you got thirty days off. The military guys liked it because they got more time than they were used to with their families, but the civilians hated the isolation and complained they were always away for the big holidays, everybody seeming to be stuck out on the platform for New Year’s and home for Groundhog Day.
But the tower shuddered and flexed so much in bad weather that whoever had painted “Old Shaky” over the door in the mess hall hadn’t even been able to get the letters straight, and the floors moved so visibly in the winter that everyone was too seasick to eat. In his first phone call, Gordon told Ellie that the medic who’d flown out with him hadn’t even served out his first day; that when he saw how much the platform was pitching he refused to get off the helicopter and took it right back to shore on the next flight out. Once he left, Gordon found a crow hunkered down on the edge of the helipad, its tail feathers pummeled back in the wind. They got blown out here sometimes, the captain he was relieving had explained. Gordon boxed the crow up and carried it to his stateroom and made sure it was ferried back on the last copter out that night. “Well, at least the crow is safe,” Ellie told him. “Unless he comes back,” her husband answered.
Betty Bakke’s husband, Roy, was a medic who hadn’t insisted on flying back to the mainland the first time he’d set foot on Tower no. 4, because he believed a man fulfilled his responsibilities. He’d already made master sergeant and been nicknamed for his standard advice, as in “I thought I was coming down with something but Don’t Sweat It said I was okay.” He’d transferred from the Navy, where he’d served on a minesweeper in Korea. The only thing that fazed him, he told Betty in his phone calls, was his separation from her. She and their boy were still stuck in their old bungalow in Mount Laguna on the other side of the country. Roy had put his friend and commanding officer, Gordon Phelan, on the phone during one call, and the captain had regaled her with stories about Roy. Roy had stayed on duty eighty straight hours with an airman second class who’d had a heart attack, and was even better known for having stitched up his own eyebrow after a fall while everyone else watched. He’d organized fishing contests off the deck and also radioed passing trawlers so the guys could trade their cigarettes and beer for fresh fish and lobster. On top of all of that, he’d taken charge of the 16mm movies swapped from tower to tower and had scored big that Thanksgiving by having dealt The Vikings with Kirk Douglas for The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw with Jayne Mansfield.
Betty had told the captain that her husband sounded like a one-man morale officer, and the captain said that was his point. And when Betty told him she’d heard that long separations were the reefs that sank military marriages, the captain had laughed and said he was going to pass the phone back to her husband. “Sounds like she needs a house call,” she heard him say to Roy.
The Navy Bureau of Yards and Docks had advised the engineers that Tower no. 4’s platform would need to withstand winds up to 125 miles per hour and breaking waves up to thirty-five feet, based on twenty years’ worth of data provided by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. The main deck’s planned seventy-foot elevation should then provide plenty of clearance. A few members of the design team dissented, wishing to put on record their belief that wave heights and wind speeds should be calculated on the basis of what might be expected once a century rather than once every twenty years. They were outvoted.
To extend its radar coverage, Tower no. 4 had been given a location as close as possible to the edge of the continental shelf, which meant that just to its east the bottom dropped away thousands of feet and that waves coming from that direction or the north encountered that rising bottom and mounted themselves upward even higher. And in winter storms Tower no. 2, in much shallower water, had already recorded waves breaking over its deck.
But wait, Gordon told Ellie once he’d done a little more research: the news got even worse. Because the footings were so deep, no. 4’s hollow legs had been designed to be towed to their location, where they’d be upended and anchored to the caissons on the bottom before the main deck was attached and raised. But because the legs were so long, the designers had had to use pin connections—giant bolts—rather than welds in the underwater braces. Though bolts were an innovative modification, they failed to take into account the constant yet random motions of the sea. For that reason, oil rigs and the other towers had used welded connections. The moment the bolts had gone in, they began generating impact stress around their connections. And Gordon had further discovered a storm had so pummeled two of the underwater braces during the towing that they’d sheared off and sunk during the upending, and that everyone had then floated around until the Air Force finally gave the order to improvise repairs at sea to avoid having to haul the entire structure back to shore.
Then, in heavy swells, the five-thousand-ton platform kept smashing up against the legs, so reinforced steel had been flown out and welded over the damage.
“Okay, I think it’s time to put in for a change of assignment,” Ellie told him in response. “Yeah, well, in for a penny, in for a pound,” he answered, by which she took him to mean, “You got me into this, so I don’t want to hear any complaints.”
As soon as the tower had gone operational, Wilbur Kovarick asked to be made its senior electrician so he could be closer to his family on Long Island, and Edna was so grateful that she kept him in bed the entire weekend.
By the time Edna had turned twenty-six, all but two of her friends had married and she’d been a bridesmaid five times. She told Wilbur on their first date that at the last wedding, if the clergyman had dropped dead at the altar, she could have taken over the service. He’d been sweet, and thought she was a riot, but after they said good night, she found herself back in her little rented room with no radio or television and her three pots of ivy, wishing she’d thought to get his home address or telephone number. By the time he called her she had no patience for pretense and told him to come right over, and when he appeared at her door she kissed him until he finally pulled away and she pressed her cheek to his and said, “I’m not fast, I just know what I want,” and after a moment he squeezed her even harder than she was squeezing him. Their first apartment after the wedding was so small that neither could get dressed in the bedroom unless the other stayed in bed, and Wilbur swore to do better as a provider and joined the Air Force so they’d send him to electricians school.
He told her that without him, the whole tower went dark and the gigantic antennae stopped spinning, and she answered that this was just how she felt, too. He explained that when the diesels altered their output at odd intervals, the voltage changes caused the radar transmitters to sound their alarms, and every single time the threat had to be assessed, the alarm silenced, the transmitter readjusted, the alarm reset, and a threat assessment report filled out. That meant some of his shifts lasted up to nineteen hours. In those cases he was so wired that he called her when he went off duty and talked and talked. He told her that the windchill was so bad some days that in the sun and behind some shelter he’d be sweating in a T-shirt, while out in the wind, water would freeze in a bucket. He told her that the space heater she’d insisted he take had made his part of the bunk room a popular gathering spot, and that he’d gotten a reputation as a good egg because instead of filing a report about an airman second class who’d dropped a transmitter drawer, he’d spent the night repairing it himself so the guy wouldn’t get in trouble.
She asked if that meant he’d made any friends, and he said no, not yet, and there was an awkward pause in which he could hear her disappointment, so he added that he had been getting a kick out of a diver who was always sucking helium out of a tank and then cracking everybody up by saying, “Take me to your leader” like he was the man from outer space.
After Gordon had been on the tower for a month, Ellie started hearing about his friend Captain Mangual. Gordon made it sound like he’d known him all his life. “Who is this guy?” she finally asked. “And why are there two captains out there?” He told her that Captain Mangual didn’t work on the platform but on the AKL-17 supply ship. “But he has time to visit you on the tower?” she asked. No, they got to know each other by radio, Gordon told her. So he was quite the guy, huh? she wanted to know, and then got even more irritated when he answered, “Honey, there’s nothing this guy can’t do.”
Captain Mangual’s ship was specially outfitted to unload cargo between the legs of the tower, but it had to be positioned just so, in whatever seas, and it sometimes took three hours just to get its mooring set. And it was no dinghy: 177 feet from stem to stern. He had to have the patience of a saint, boy. And then he had to hold the ship as steady as possible under the crane that unloaded the cargo or personnel onto the platform. The poor crane operator would just get a load in the bucket and the boat would drop fifty feet and then come back up just as fast. And when stuff was unloaded onto the boat, that meant dropping it onto a bouncing and pitching cargo area, and once it landed the deckhands had to get it lashed down before it squashed them flat.
Ellie said it sounded like the crane operator and deckhands had it harder than Captain Mangual, and Gordon said, “No, no, no,” as though he hadn’t been getting through to her at all. No, Captain Mangual was the guy who made it all possible by doing a million different things to keep the boat in the same damn spot no matter what. He started to give another example and then just gave up.
“Oh,” Ellie finally said into the silence. After they hung up, she caught sight of her expression in the mirror in the foyer and snapped at herself: “Stupid.”
The butterfingers who’d dropped the transmitter drawer was Jeannette Laino’s husband, Louie, and the first snapshot he sent to her from the tower showed what looked like a circle of boys in lifejackets high in the air on a fairground ride, on the back of which he’d printed “On the Crane.” He explained later that that was how the guys got from the ship to the platform, and that spare parts and supplies were always unloaded first, since if anything got smashed or lost, it was better that it was the Coca-Cola pallets. She asked how high the crane lifted them and he said over a hundred feet, and she exclaimed that it looked dangerous, and he told her that the rule was no lifting in winds over forty knots, since that sent the loads spinning like tops. And besides, two guys were always on safety lines trying to control the bucket’s swinging.
She asked if they couldn’t just go up the stairs. “Baby, if I had a baseball, from the ship’s deck I could barely hit the platform. And I was all-state!” he said. “Does anything ever fall?” she asked. “I think the crane operators drop stuff on purpose to shake us up before it’s our turn,” he told her. When it was their turn, though, he added, it was funny how everybody stopped joking once they were up in the air.
“So are you keeping busy?” she asked. He reminded her that he was a grade 5, so he was as much a specialist as the tech sergeants. She allowed as how that was very impressive, and he answered that whenever she was ready to stop teasing him, that would be great, so she asked how he was getting along otherwise, and he said the same as always: he kept to himself and didn’t bother anyone. Those were his mottoes, along with “Stay friendly” and “Don’t question stupid orders.”
The new policy was that the helicopters would bring in everything except fuel and very heavy equipment. The choppers never shut off their engines, so while you stood there in the noise and wind, the guys coming off duty had to peel off their baggy yellow survival suits and hand them over to the guys coming on, and during the ride everyone did some serious sweating, so those suits were pretty funky. She asked if the helicopters flew in all sorts of weather and he answered that he guessed they had to, since they carried the mail and the beer. He said that you only got helicopter work in the armpits of the world, because in regular places the operating costs were too high with everything that was always going wrong and needing to be replaced. But he loved to see the choppers come in, their double rotors making their own storm and still setting the giant machines down as lightly as a leaf. And then you waited until the rotors lost enough speed to start drooping like they were worn out from the trip.
That night Jeannette lay in bed thinking about what a boy her Louie was, and then she moved on to other boys she’d dated before him. One she remembered had painted flames on his car and asked her to call him Shiv. She fell asleep thinking of that boy sitting in Louie’s television chair, and when she woke up her blinds were open and an old man wearing suspenders and no shirt was standing on her front lawn and looking in at her.
The guy that Louie wished Jeannette could meet, though, was Frankie Recupido, one of the divers, and a real Ernie Kovacs type. Louie had been told to watch out for him, and it wasn’t hard to see why: he was always pulling stunts like stuffing cut-up rubber bands into someone’s pipe tobacco. On their first flight out to the tower he’d emptied a can of vegetable soup into his sick bag before takeoff and then pretended to throw up, so a few minutes later he could call out that he was still hungry before scarfing it down. He kept the noncoms and enlisted men supplied with moonshine he called plonk and made from sugar and banana peels and whatever else he scrounged from the cook. He’d gotten into two fights for punting the basketball off the platform after arguing about fouls during games. They’d had to launch a boat to recover the ball. In bad weather he went out to the railings around the platform and howled into the wind like a wolf.
Jeannette said he sounded like someone to keep away from, but Louie said he was a good guy who really missed his kids. His previous station had been Guam, and his family had gone along, but even so he’d been away so much in the eastern and southern Pacific that he’d been lucky to see them three weeks a year. Frankie told him that two-thirds of the divers he knew were divorced or separated, since whenever the water heater shut down or a kid broke a finger or the roof sprang a leak back at the hacienda, a diver was probably offshore, and after a while the old ball and chain got fed up. He said his wife told him that for her the last straw had been the spiders hanging upside down from the living-room ceiling. When their little girl first saw one, she’d said, “What is that? A cat?”
Louie found it funny that the one thing that Jeannette couldn’t get over about Frankie was that he had framed Playboy pinups over his bunk. When he told her about that, she just kept saying “Framed?” until he finally said, “You know what? Whether or not you’d run screaming from a guy like that onshore is beside the point. Here the only point is: can he do his job?”
Because, boy, they needed somebody to do that job. From day one, the official logs had listed unusual and alarming motions and sounds reported by personnel onboard, and after three or four visits the engineers agreed that the bracing and joints hadn’t been as effective in stabilizing the platform as they’d anticipated. They identified which braces and pins were most likely damaged and responsible, and this meant guys like Frankie had to carry out continual underwater inspections and bolt tightenings. The problem, the designers told them, was that the defective portions were not only weakening their immediate area but also shifting stress onto the entire structure.
Despite going down as often as they did, Frankie and the other divers couldn’t keep up with the accelerating damage. Even in good weather, the braces’ movements under the constant wave loads kept wearing down the pin joints. And what would happen in bad weather? The engineers had already figured out that each serious storm would stress a given pin as much as a full year of normal seas. Frankie would tighten bolts and the next day when he checked them again they’d be so loose he could turn them with his fingers.
At last the designers came up with a new idea, and big T-bolts were flown out and installed at the loosest points to provide more rigidity. That helped some, but a few weeks later they investigated again, and word was that they’d told the Air Force that without radical measures the conditions would continue to worsen, with the ultimate loss of Tower no. 4 the most likely result.
So X-bracing above the water was designed and installed in the summer of 1960. The guys felt the difference right away, but when Ellie asked Gordon why he didn’t sound more relieved, he told her what Captain Mangual had said when he first saw all that new rigmarole above the surface: since it filled in the space beneath the platform with its crisscrossing diagonals, waves that otherwise would have passed underneath the platform were now colliding head-on into all that brace work. When she asked why that was a problem, Gordon answered that it was like when you were standing in the surf and saw a big wave coming: you wanted to turn sideways so as not to expose your whole chest to the wallop.
Betty Bakke was the first in her family to hear any reports about Hurricane Donna, from a spinster aunt whose telegram announced a ruined vacation in Miami Beach, and in her phone call to Roy that night Betty asked if the hurricane was something that the men on the tower needed to worry about. Gee, Roy answered, he sure hoped not, then asked how she was holding up, all by herself for so long, and she said that so many people now gave her such “poor you” glances that she really was starting to look tragic. She’d learned how to run the sewing machine and had made curtains and bedspreads. She told him that she was trying to be as self-sufficient as possible and also doing volunteer work at the Airman’s Closet on the base, stocking donated items for the E-4’s with dependents. He complimented her on being such a Samaritan, and she told him that she mostly stood embarrassed behind the counter while the less fortunate families picked over what was available. She said she never knew whether to wear her hat to work, so she always carried it in her hand. It was only after they’d gotten off the phone that she realized she hadn’t asked what was supposed to happen if the hurricane was headed toward the tower.
Edna Kovarick hadn’t heard about the hurricane until it was halfway up the North Carolina coast, but when she called Wilbur he was inside a radome watching the height-finder antenna rock in its yoke while making its 360-degree sweep, so he had to call her back. She asked then about the storm and he said they had an evacuation procedure in place and that if the storm got anywhere close he was sure they’d all be safe on dry land before she knew it. Next they talked about babies, and she reminded Wilbur of the story her sister had told them of carrying her infant on the train with an open wicker suitcase for a crib. Maybe they’d get started on that when he got back, he told her.
Maybe, Edna said, feeling wonderful at the notion of it, but when she looked at their little bathroom nook, she wondered what it would be like to bathe a newborn in a shower bath.
Hurricane Donna had already killed 125 people in the Caribbean and Florida by the time Air Force weathermen predicted that it would hit Tower no. 4 dead-on. The evacuation was duly ordered, and a Coast Guard cutter along with Captain Mangual’s AKL-17 dispatched from New York Harbor. But the Air Force wanted to wait until the last possible moment so the Russian spy trawlers that were always loitering around the tower couldn’t access the classified equipment, and by the time the two ships arrived on-site the outer edge of the hurricane had already hit.
After the first attempts to use the crane, when its bucket was blown into the ocean and the guys in it barely rescued, the evacuation was called off. Captain Phelan called everyone into the mess and gave them the bad news that they were going to have to ride the storm out. Wave crests were now visible through the windows, and with every impact the whole platform screeched and groaned and jolted before settling back into position.
Before the first half of the storm had cleared, the flying bridge underneath the platform had torn loose, and through the lower hatches the men could see it flailing and smashing itself against the two downwind legs. Then the eye passed over, and the storm hit from the other direction. From start to finish it was eight hours, and for the last three there was nothing but shrieking and grinding noises from the structure below.
At one point during the worst of it, Roy dropped by the captain’s quarters and asked how long he thought they’d float if they went over. “Float?” Gordon answered, hunkered down in his chair. He told Roy the tower had never been designed for watertight integrity, and that for all intents and purposes it was a building someone had set out over the Atlantic on stilts.
The rest of the time they talked about other subjects. Roy told him that he’d heard that as electronics got more portable, these systems could be airborne instead of platform-based. And what would they do with the platforms then? he wanted to know.
Maybe turn them into prisons, Gordon suggested. Roy informed him that during that last really bad stretch, poor Laino had upchucked into the sink and it had flown back into his face. An hour before the storm ended, the two of them looked in on everyone, and then Gordon wrote in his daily log, “Men’s morale OK.” Afterward, he added in caps, “NEVER AGAIN.”
When Ellie finally got through on the phone again, once the weather had cleared, her husband sounded like someone who’d been hit by a car. She asked how he was doing and he told her they were all still standing, but just barely. The maintenance platform beneath the main one was gone, and its catwalks just stopped where the waves had snapped the steel. The roof panel on the avionics hangar had rolled up like the top of a sardine can. The colonel who’d flown out for an inspection had said at the end of his tour, “I can’t believe you all stayed. I would have ordered everyone off.” Gordon said he’d stared at him in response.
By their next phone call, a week later, the news was even worse. There were multiple fractures in the new X-bracing, and Frankie and the other divers had reported that two of the submarine diagonals in the middle tier had torn loose. This required another visit by the entire design and engineering team, who showed up wearing Mae Wests over their business suits, huddled for three hours with the divers in the mess, and then had brought to Gordon’s quarters a plan for cable bracing that would extend from 25 to 125 feet below the surface, bypassing the damaged tier. Gordon told Ellie he’d asked if this would really work and they’d all been pretty gung-ho about it. They’d have to fabricate special cables with sufficient tensile strength, but those should be ready by the first of the year.
By the first of the year, though, Frankie and the other divers had discovered more fractures on the lowest tiers, at the 125-foot level, where the cables were meant to be anchored. When the engineers heard that, they threw up their hands and said that stabilizing the tower was such a massive undertaking that it would have to wait until the spring, when conditions would be more favorable.
“So they’ll just evacuate you until spring, then?” Jeannette asked Louie once he’d shared that news on his leave. They’d been lying together, and Louie answered that he didn’t see what else the Air Force could do, given how badly no. 4 was damaged. And Jeannette startled him by shouting, “Don’t lie to me about this!” and then rolling away. And after he’d driven back to base, she found under her pillow a note that read “I love you SO much.” It was paper-clipped to a booklet entitled SAFETY TIPS FOR LIVING ALONE.
A week later Gordon woke Ellie up with a phone call at one a.m. to say the engineers had informed the Air Force the entire bracing system on the A-B side was no longer effective, and they were no longer able to provide an estimate as to the tower’s remaining capabilities. Maybe it still retained 30 percent of its initial strength, possibly 40, conceivably 50. But whatever the numbers, they had put in writing that they didn’t want to encourage the Air Force to assume it was safe, so another evacuation was scheduled for February 1st.
Ellie cheered so loudly that she woke Larry up. Then she thought: That’s three weeks away. “Why February 1st?” she asked, and Gordon said a lot of guys were getting off the next day but a skeleton crew of twenty-eight was being left behind for maintenance and to keep the Russians from swarming all over the thing the minute they left.
But how could the Russians get on it with no one working the cranes?, Ellie wanted to know, and Gordon said he’d asked his superior officer the same question. And what did he say?, Ellie asked. He’d said it wasn’t as if the Air Force couldn’t assume some risk here, Gordon told her. And that the only way to keep anybody completely safe from the ocean was to leave him on land.
So when Louie rotated back onto the tower a week after New Year’s as part of that skeleton crew, Frankie was standing there on the helipad waiting to take his survival suit. After he climbed into it, he shook Louie’s hand and said it had been great knowing him but he wasn’t coming back. And Louie said, “You mean you guys have already finished all the repairs?” And Frankie answered, “No, I mean I’m not coming back.”
Wilbur told Edna on the phone that he wasn’t even supposed to still be there, that he’d been due to rotate out, but his replacement hadn’t reported. For the guys left behind, he said, the atmosphere was like homeroom in junior high on a winter morning: everyone just kept to himself, and those who didn’t were surly. The weather was always winter-morning, too, windy and dark and cold. Because they were shorthanded, he now worked as a plotter behind the radarscope operator, and for longer hours, which was probably good, since nobody could sleep anyway.
Ellie told Gordon that he had to get off there, but he asked how that was supposed to work, since he was the commanding officer. While she sat on the phone trying to think of what to offer in response, he added it had occurred to him that confidence was like an air bubble that shrank a little every time something went wrong. He said he’d installed a plumb line in his cabin over his desk, to check just how badly the tower was listing, and that now the line never stopped making this wild figure eight. He asked where Ellie had been when he called earlier, and she said she’d been driving Larry around on his paper route. “Why? Should I stay close to the phone?” she asked, and he said yes.
When Roy saw the plumb line he hadn’t said anything, but mentioned later that the platform’s back-and-forth was like when you bent a wire one way and the other, over and over: sooner or later the wire was going to snap.
It was a mess, all right, Gordon managed to respond. Together they worked out the order of evacuation if it came down to just the lifeboats, though they both knew that trying to lower those boats in anything but good weather would be suicidal. If they were going to get off the tower, they had to do it before a storm was even visible on the horizon. Gordon put himself in the last boat and Roy in the first, but Roy rewrote the list and put himself in the last boat as well. He could always tell when Gordon was making the best of a bad situation, because in those cases he started humming along with whatever he was doing.
Louie told Jeannette that in any kind of wind or seas no one could fall asleep given all the clanging and grinding coming from the legs. She asked if they hadn’t been checked, and he told her civilian contractors had come out any number of times and always said when they left that the new fix was the one that was going to last.
When he talked to her now she was always crying. He told her he’d written a letter to the president-elect asking him to override the brass and get them off no. 4, and reminded her that after all they were both Massachusetts guys. He said he’d told Mr. Kennedy that he had to be relieved because his presence here was affecting his wife so much.
That made her cry even harder. “Why did you even report when they told you to?” she wanted to know, but he had to say goodbye because his time was up and all twenty-eight guys needed to call home.
The weekend forecast for January 14th and 15th was not so good: sixty-knot winds and possibly higher. The Air Force ordered Captain Mangual’s AKL-17 to head for the tower, take on equipment, and stand by for a possible full evacuation. On Saturday the 14th the sky stayed dark but the wind was manageable, and the crane operators offloaded twenty-two tons of radar equipment. Louie traded cigarettes and some of Frankie’s hooch for a spot in the front of the line for the phone and called Jeannette back with the happy news that they were removing equipment and there’d be nothing left for him to guard, so he figured everyone would be off the tower by the next day.
Late that afternoon Roy found Gordon at the edge of the platform, staring out to the south at a black wall of clouds that lifted from the horizon to the top of the sky. Wilbur and Louie had pulled maintenance duty and were repainting the two lifeboats on the deck, and stopped to look as well.
“Maybe it’s just a local depression,” Roy told him. They could already hear the wakes of the tower’s legs in the increasing currents.
On the AKL-17’s bridge, Captain Mangual read his forecast from the Merchant Marine—it was bad, extreme weather conditions within twelve hours—and radioed his friend Gordon that it was time to get everyone off. And in turn Gordon relayed Captain Mangual’s recommendation to his superiors at Otis AFB, who reported back that the Air Force’s forecast wasn’t nearly so dire, and that the storm would swing wide of them, and that the AKL-17 had already been ordered back to port.
But Captain Mangual refused to leave. Gordon stayed up all night checking in with him on the radio, and at 0400 went out onto the platform and looked out over the sea. It was blowing hard enough that some of the coffee he’d brought slopped onto his wrist.
The wind was now seventy knots and building fast, the seas already at thirty feet. The lights of the AKL-17 turtled along in the distance off in the blackness and the rain, disappearing behind the wave crests. Sometimes he couldn’t even see the green light atop its radar mast.
Farther out, the red lights of the Russian trawlers appeared here and there in the troughs. Because he couldn’t think of anything else to do, he spent an hour rigging safety lines over the upper platform, so there’d be something to clip onto if they had to do some emergency troubleshooting or get to the boats.
The next morning the northeaster hit. He climbed up to the helipad deck and opened the hatch just enough to confirm that waves bigger than any he’d ever seen were concussing spray even onto the radomes. Everything was already sheathed in ice. He had to brace himself against the railing because the staircase was swaying.
In the mess near the phone the guys in line let him cut ahead, and Ellie picked up on the first ring and asked if they were getting evacuated. She said the weather was already awful where she was. He told her he kept requesting evacuation and that his requests had been denied. She said she’d call instead, and he told her to go ahead. She shouted that his tour was almost over, and he said he knew that already, and that she was going to wake Larry up, and that he’d never wanted to be out here in the first place.
“Are you saying it’s my fault?” she asked, and he said that as soon as the weather let up he’d be off this tower for good, and that the poor sap assigned to take over was already at Otis.
At 0730 the line at the phone had progressed far enough for Wilbur to call Edna. He had to shout over the awful clanging of metal on metal. “That’s outside,” he said, as if to reassure her. She heard men screaming. “That’s inside,” he told her.
At 1030 a huge bang knocked everyone standing off his feet. “I think I shit my pants,” Wilbur told Louie once he’d gotten back up off the floor.
Gordon and Roy climbed into their survival suits and humped a hundred feet of nylon rope back up the staircase to the main deck, and Gordon tied a square knot around his waist and clove-hitched the other end to the railing inside the hatch. They popped it open just as a wave exploded over the deck and stripped the crane box of its welding equipment.
They clipped onto the safety lines and crawled forward on their hands and knees. In the wind and spray it took ten minutes to get to the safety netting at the platform’s edge, their ropes whipping and spiraling behind them like they were harnessed to furious animals. Roy belayed him and Gordon hung upside-down over the safety netting and the gale blew him out to sea, but the knots held and after a minute or two Roy was able to haul him back in. Both were crying, they were so scared.
Once he got control of himself, Gordon lay out over the netting again, trying to see what had happened below as the wind battered and spun and whirligigged him. Sleet whipped his face and when he looked down the waves erupted to meet him. The bigger ones propelled ice water into his suit and he could hear Roy shrieking along with him.
Finally he signaled they could go back in, and on the staircase they closed the hatch behind them and he gave Roy the bad news. Some of the X-bracing had broken loose and was smashing against the legs. The joints were failing and the braces buckling. Once that happened, the entire structure was standing on three spindly legs that were three hundred feet long.
Back in the mess, the men helped them out of their wet clothing, wrapped them in blankets, and handed them hot coffee, but they were both shaking so much they knocked the mugs off the tables where they were sitting. Roy lit a cigarette and it kept bobbing in his mouth.
“What have you guys been up to?” Wilbur tried to joke.
“Inspecting the X-braces,” Roy finally managed to say.
“Bad day for it,” Wilbur told them.
Once he’d warmed up, Roy kept radioing Otis for weather updates. Each time he got off, Gordon asked if it was going to stay this bad, and Roy said that it was going to get worse.
The others climbed into their berths, pulled blankets over their heads, and held their hands over their ears.
The low-frequency beacon antenna ripped loose and disappeared. The last wind-speed reading was 110 knots before the anemometer blew away. The ceiling on the upper floors bowed and the light fixtures popped out and swung free. The outer walls flexed from the air pressure. The dome covering the windward radar collapsed and was torn to pieces. Gordon recorded it all in the log.
Captain Mangual radioed that the AKL-17 was now registering wind velocities of 130 knots, and that the seas were even uglier. He said the only good news was that the wind was so strong it was blowing the tops off the waves.
Afterward, neither Ellie nor Betty nor Edna nor Jeannette, in the face of reporters’ questions, could recall a moment when—alone at their kitchen tables or back windows, in the best tradition of military wives—they’d given up hope. But each of them also remembered thinking some version of “What about me?”
At one p.m. when Ellie got Gordon’s next call, he told her the tower was gyrating, and she registered it as a word he’d never used before. She said she’d called and called the numbers at Otis but couldn’t get through to anybody. He said he wasn’t surprised, since everyone’s families were probably calling. She asked if the tower would float if it went over, and he told her it would go down fast and that no one could be saved. He added that he was worried about Captain Mangual, whose ship was overloaded and swamping. Gordon had ordered him back to port, but he’d refused to obey. He said the last time he’d looked, the ship’s entire bow had come out of the water with one wave.
“How did everyone let things get to this point?” Ellie shouted, and he answered that he could barely understand her and she had to try to calm down for Larry’s sake. When she asked if the men on the ship could help him, he said he doubted they could even help themselves.
When Louie called Jeannette there was no answer, so he dialed again and again and then had to start over at the back of the line, and when he finally got through he shouted at her about where the hell she’d been. “I’m sorry,” she said, and he told her that he’d needed to tie himself into his bunk, that he’d listened to his buddies crying themselves sick, and that he wanted her to find someone good to take care of her. And she said, “I don’t want to find someone else,” and he said he had to get off now because other guys needed the phone. She said, “You can’t just say that and hang up,” but somebody else had grabbed the phone by then and yelled at her to get off the line.
Betty’s phone rang and she snatched it up, and Roy told her their relief ship was in and out of radio contact but had reported it was being lifted off the wave crests and thrown sideways into the troughs. It was just going to have to keep motoring leeward and try to stay within range. He said he and Captain Phelan had started back out on the safety lines but that between the whiteouts from the spray and the force of the water and wind they couldn’t make it to the netting to see what was going on below. The deck’s steel plates were vibrating. The lower storage areas were awash. But they were all toughing it out.
“My one-man morale officer,” Betty snapped, and they were both surprised by her rage. But she wasn’t able to make herself apologize.
Otis had agreed to try for an evacuation at the earliest lull, which the forecasters were predicting for 0300, he told her. Copters were already on high alert and ready to go. The aircraft carrier Wasp and its entire battle group had been diverted to their location. They just had to hang on.
“For twelve more hours?” Betty shouted. He told her that because the weather was a little better over New York, the Coast Guard had already dispatched the cutter Agassiz and it was already on its way.
Half an hour later Ellie’s phone rang again, and when she answered Gordon said the tower was breaking up. She wailed, and he told her he’d never known he’d had so many religious men in his crew and that even the welders were praying. He said he kept thinking that if this shitbox could last another hour then maybe the storm might blow itself out. He told her that to give everyone something to do he’d ordered them into their survival suits and all hands on deck to keep the helipad clear, so now he had to get back up there because guys were skidding around into the nettings. He told her that she’d been the best thing that ever happened to him. He asked her to wish them all luck.
She was still crying and he was helping Wilbur keep his feet an hour later when, eighteen miles southeast of the tower, the Wasp’s captain reported having turned his bow just in time to negotiate a single and monstrously large rogue wave. The crest was 60 feet above the ship’s bridge, so he estimated its height at 120 feet. The helicopters strapped to the deck had been demolished, but the ship had careened safely down the wave’s back end, which when he’d last seen it had been heading off in the direction of the tower.
Jeannette was trying to call Louie back when the AKL-17’s helmsman was knocked unconscious and Captain Mangual had to take over. The seas were like one cliff after another tipping at him from all directions, and between crises all he could do was observe the blip of the tower on his radar screen. At seven thirty by Ellie’s clock, as she sat by the phone unable to comfort her hysterical son, the blip vanished. Captain Mangual abandoned the helm and knocked aside his radar operator and watched the wand as its line of light swept through two full revolutions before he grabbed the radio and shouted, “Tower 4! Tower 4!” until his executive officer grabbed his shoulders and brought him back to the situation at hand.
Betty Bakke was trying to get rid of a worried neighbor when her husband was ordered off the deck, to stay with the radio in case of an update about either the weather or an evacuation. Roy had just cinched the top of his survival suit tighter for warmth when everything lurched as though the A-B side of the tower had pitched down a gigantic stairstep, and everything loose or not lashed down was swept into the wall. There was a high-pitched rending of metal like train or subway brakes and he smashed into the top of the door. And then there was another crash and he felt the shock of being underwater and the suction of the sinking platform even there inside the room. The lights flashed out and in the darkness and bitter cold he rose up on waves to the ceiling, and his head surfaced into a pocket of air.
At two a.m. when Ellie’s phone rang she ripped it from its cradle on the second ring. She was still in the foyer, with Larry curled at her feet wrapped in the quilt from his bed. The call didn’t wake him but his mother’s screams did. When he couldn’t calm her down he fled to his room and hid under his bed, but then scrambled out again and found their family doctor’s number in the address book, and it wasn’t until the doctor arrived and Ellie was sedated that all of the screaming stopped.
Jeannette was pulled out of bed by a call from her father, who told her that a New York newspaper had called him at two thirty in the morning to ask if he was aware that the Texas Tower with his son-in-law aboard had sunk. He sounded put out, and when she started shrieking her father was so taken aback that he said he’d call her again later when she was ready to have a conversation.
Edna dreamt of a pounding on her door, and woke to realize it was happening, and with her housecoat on she turned on her porch light to find a man who identified himself as a reporter for Life magazine. He wanted her reaction to the tragedy. She made him repeat what he was talking about before she told him to get off her property, instead of collapsing right there in front of him.
They were all still awake in the wee hours when the senior sonar operator for the destroyer McCaffery, part of the Wasp’s battle group, reported a rhythmic tapping that was emanating from the wreckage on the sea bottom, as well as what sounded to him like a human voice, and the ship’s captain announced that despite the conditions and the water’s depth he was attempting to send men down and requesting all possible emergency salvage assistance. Some divers had already reached the site, but had failed to make contact in the limited time they had to search. More help was on its way from multiple shore bases, but by 0330 the tapping and the other noises had stopped.
Four days after the collapse Betty was notified that divers had found Roy’s body floating on the ceiling of Captain Phelan’s office, still holding the radio mike. The next day they recovered the body of a technician a few miles south. A copter had spotted the yellow of his survival suit. No other remains had been located.
Five months later, on a humid night in June, Edna came in from her screened porch and took a call from a man who explained he was a fisherman out of Montauk. He asked if she was the Edna Kovarick whose husband had been on the Texas Tower, and she was about to hang up when he said he had something for her: her husband’s billfold. It had been dredged up inside a giant sea scallop’s shell three miles from where the tower went down. He was looking at her photograph as he talked to her.
The report by the Senate Committee on Armed Services on the inquiry into the collapse of Texas Tower no. 4 ran to 288 pages and ended by acknowledging the tower had represented a spectacular achievement, but that due to various factors, it had never really approached its intended design strength, and stipulated that the committee was not so much attempting to assess blame as to follow up on the dollars that Congress had drawn from taxpayers to pay for programs such as this and others deemed vital to national defense. The committee sought to protect all individuals involved, whether contractors or service personnel, where protection was justified, and felt the facts it had uncovered afforded a proper and necessary background against which any individual who might have charges preferred against him could be tried properly. But the report’s conclusion stressed that those twenty-eight men in and out of the service who had sacrificed their lives deserved the same recognition as those who had died in combat, since it had certainly been a battle station to which they’d been assigned. And the committee wanted to make clear to one and all that those men had been patriots in every sense of the word.
Ellie read the report and then took it out into the backyard with Larry and set it on fire. Jeannette read it once and stored it afterward in a trunk with the rest of her husband’s papers. And Edna found that whenever she read it she lost her Wilbur all over again, so after the fifth or sixth time she stopped.
Each of them despised herself for her own contributions to the disaster. Ellie thought her father had turned out to be right about her selfishness, and Jeannette spent weeks remembering having asked only about nest eggs; Edna told friends that a more confident wife would have worried less about her husband being well liked and more about where he would be stationed, and Betty kept hearing Roy’s silence on the phone after she had shocked them both with her rage.
What the Senate report spared them was the last thing their husbands had seen that night while they slewed across the pitching and ice-covered platform in the rain and sleet and wind in their survival suits, waiting for their rescue. While Jeannette and Edna and Betty and Ellie had sat by their phones castigating themselves for ever having entrusted their lives to other people’s promises, off to the southeast of their husbands’ platform as if in a silent movie the sea was rising, and one after the other their husbands had turned in that direction, confused that everything was black until they realized they weren’t seeing any crests or spray because they weren’t looking high enough. And once they did they saw, like a line across the sky, the thin white edge of the top of the wave. And they recognized it as the implacability that would no longer indulge their mistakes and would sweep from them all they had ever loved.