THE INFORMATION---which the tower watch chief had relayed earlier to Mel Bakersfeld---about a meeting of Meadowood citizenry, was entirely accurate.
The meeting, in the Sunday school hall of Meadowood First Baptist Church---fifteen seconds, as a jet flies, from the end of runway two five---had been in session half-an-hour. Its proceedings had started later than planned, since most of the six hundred adults who were present had had to battle their way, in cars and on foot, through deep snow. But somehow they had come.
It was a mixed assemblage, such as might be found in any averagely prosperous dormitory community. Of the men, some were medium-level executives, others artisans, with a sprinkling of local tradespeople. In numbers, men and women were approximately equal. Since it was Friday night, the beginning of a weekend, most were casually dressed, though exceptions were half a dozen visitors from outside the community and several press reporters.
The Sunday school hall was now uncomfortably crowded, stuffy and smoke-filled. All available chairs were occupied, and at least a hundred people were standing.
That so many had turned out at all on such a night, leaving warm homes to do so, spoke eloquently of their mettle and concern. They were also, at the moment, unanimously angry.
The anger---almost as tangible as the tobacco smoke---had two sources. First was the long-standing bitterness with the airport's by-product---the thunderous, ear-assaulting noise of jet propulsion which assailed the homes of Meadowood, day and night, shattering peace and privacy, both waking and sleeping. Second was the immediate frustration that, through a large part of the meeting so far, those assembled had been unable to hear one another.
Some difficulty in hearing had been anticipated. After all, it was what the meeting was about, and a portable p.a. system had been borrowed from the church. What had not been expected, however, was that tonight jet aircraft would be taking off immediately overhead, rendering both human ears and the p.a. system useless. The cause, which the meeting neither knew nor cared about, was that runway three zero was blocked by the mired Aereo-Mexican 707, and other aircraft were being instructed to use runway two five instead. The latter runway pointed directly at Meadowood, like an arrow; whereas runway three zero, when usable, at least routed takeoffs slightly to one side.
In a momentary silence the chairman, red-faced, shouted, "Ladies and gentlemen, for years we have tried reasoning with the airport management and the airline companies. We have pointed to the violation of our homes. We have proved, with independent testimony, that normal living---under the barrage of noise we are forced to endure---is impossible. We have pleaded that our very sanity is in danger and that our wives, our children, and ourselves live on the edge of nervous breakdowns, which some among us have suffered already."
The chairman was a heavy-jowled, balding man named Floyd Zanetta, who was a printing firm manager and Meadowood homeowner. Zanetta, sixtyish, was prominent in community affairs, and in the lapel of his sports jacket was a Kiwanis long-service badge.
Both the chairman and an impeccably dressed younger man were on a small raised platform at the front of the hall. The younger man, seated, was Elliott Freemantle, a lawyer. A black leather briefcase stood open at his side.
Floyd Zanetta slarnmed a hand on the lectern in front of him. "What do the airport and airlines do? I'll tell you what they do. They pretend; pretend to listen. And while they are pretending, they make promises and more promises which they have no intention of fulfilling. The airport management, the FAA, and the airlines are cheats and liars..."
The word "liars" was lost.
It was engLdfed in a shattering, almost unbelievable crescendo of sound, a monstrous roar of power which seemed to seize the budding and shake it. As if protectively, many in the hall covered their ears. A few glanced upward nervously. Others, their eyes transmitting anger, spoke heatedly to those beside them, though only a lip reader could have known what was said; no words were audible. A water pitcher near the chairman's lectern trembled. If Zanetta had not grasped it quickly, it would have fallen to the floor and shattered.
As swiftly as it had begun and built, the roar lessened and faded. Already miles away and several thousand feet above, Flight 58 of Pan American was climbing through storm and darkness, reaching for higher, clearer altitudes, swinging onto course for Frankfurt, Germany. Now, Continental Airlines 23, destination Denver, Colorado, was rolling on the farther end of runway two five, cleared for takeoff---over Meadowood. Other flights, already in line on an adjoining taxiway, were waiting their turn to follow.
It had been the same way all evening, even before the Meadowood meeting started. And after it started, business had had to be conducted in brief intervals between the overwhelming din of takeoffs.
Zanetta continued hastily, "I said they are cheats and liars. What is happening here and now is conclusive evidence. At the very least we are entitled to noise abatement procedures, but tonight even this..."
"Mr. Chairman," a woman's voice cut in from the body of the hall, "we've heard all this before. We all know it, and going over it again won't change anything." All eyes had turned to the woman, who was now standing. She had a strong, intelligent face and shoulder-length brown hair which had fallen forward, so that she brushed it back impatiently. "What I want to know, and so do others, is what else can we do, and where do we go from here?"
There was an outburst of applause, and cheering.
Zanetta said irritably, "If you'll kindly let me finish..."
He never did.
Once again, the same encompassing roar dominated the Sunday school hall.
The timing, and the last remark, provided the only laughter, so far, of the evening. Even the chairman grinned ruefully as he raised his hands in a despairing gesture.
A man's voice called peevishly, "Get on with it!"
Zanetta nodded agreement. He continued speaking, picking his way---like a climber over rocks---between recurring peaks of sound from overhead. What the community of Meadowood must do, he declared, was to discard politeness and reasonable approaches to the airport authority and others. Instead, a purely legalistic attack must be the order from now on. The residents of Meadowood were citizens with legal rights, which were being infringed upon. Along with those legal rights went recourse to the courts; therefore, they must be prepared to fight in the courts, with toughness, even viciousness if necessary. As to what form a legalistic offensive should take, it so happened that a noted lawyer, Mr. Elliott Freemantle, whose offices were downtown in the Loop, had consented to be present at the meeting. Mr. Freemantle had made a study of laws affecting excessive noise, privacy and airspace, and, very soon, those who had braved the weather to attend would have the pleasure of hearing this distinguished gentleman. He would, in fact, present a proposal...
As the cliches rolled on, Elliott Freemantle fidgeted. He passed a hand lightly over his barber-styled, gray-streaked hair, fingering the smoothness of his chin and cheeks---he had shaved an hour before the meeting---and his keen sense of smell confirmed that the exclusive face lotion, which he always used after shaving and sunlamp sessions, still lingered. He recrossed his legs, observing that his two-hundred dollar alligator shoes still gleamed with mirror clearness, and was careful not to spoil the crease in the trousers of his tailored Blue Spruce pebble-weave suit. Elliott Freemantle had long ago discovered that people preferred their lawyers---unlike their doctors---to look prosperous. Prosperity in a lawyer conveyed an aura of success at the bar, success which those about to engage in litigation wanted for themselves.
Elliott Freemantle hoped that most of those in the hall would shortly become litigants, and that he would represent them. Meanwhile, he wished the old cluck of a chairman, Zanetta, would get the hell off his feet so that he, Freemantle, could take over. There was no surer way to lose the confidence of an audience, or a jury, than by letting them think faster than yourself, so that they became aware of what you were going to say before you said it. Freemantle's finely honed intuition told him this was what was happening now. It meant that when his own turn came, he would have to work that much harder to establish his competence and superior intellect.
Some among his legal colleagues might have questioned whether Elliott Freemantle's intellect was, in fact, superior. They might even have objected to the chairman's description of him as a gentleman.
Fellow lawyers sometimes regarded Freemantle as an exhibitionist who commanded high fees mainly through a showman's instinct for attracting attention. It was conceded, though, that he had an enviable knack for latching early onto causes which later proved spectacular and profitable.
For Elliott Freemantle, the Meadowood situation seemed custom made.
He had read about the community's problem and promptly arranged, through contacts, to have his name suggested to several homeowners as the one lawyer who could most likely help them. As a result, a homeowners committee eventually approached him, and the fact that they did so, rather than the other way around, gave him a psychological advantage he had planned from the beginning. Meanwhile, he had made a superficial study of the law, and recent court decisions, affecting noise and privacy---a subject entirely new to him---and when the committee arrived, he addressed them with the assurance of a lifetime expert.
Later, he had made the proposition which resulted in this meeting tonight, and his own attendance.
Thank God! It looked as if Zanetta, the chairman, were finally through with his windy introduction. Banal to the last, he was intoning, "...and so it is my privilege and pleasure to present..."
Scarcely waiting for his name to be spoken, Elliott Freemantle bounded to his feet. He began speaking before Zanetta's buttocks had made contact with his chair. As usual, he dispensed with all preliminaries.
"If you are expecting sympathy from me, you can leave right now, because there won't be any. You won't get it at this session, or others we may have later. I am not a purveyor of crying towels, so if you need them, I suggest you get your own, or supply each other. My business is law. Law, and nothing else."
He had deliberately made his voice harsh, and he knew he had jolted them, as he intended to.
He had also seen the newspaper reporters look up and pay attention. There were three of them at the press table near the front of the hall---two young men from the big city dailies and an elderly woman from a local weekly. All were important to his plans, and he had taken the trouble to find out their names and speak to them briefly before the meeting started. Now, their pencils were racing. Good! Cooperation with the press always ranked high in any project of Elliott Freemantle's, and he knew from experience that the best way to achieve it was by providing a lively story with a fresh angle. Usually he succeeded. Newspaper people appreciated that---a lot more than free drinks or food---and the livelier and more colorful the story, the more friendly their reportage was inclined to be.
He returned his attention to the audience.
Only a shade less aggressively, he continued. "If we decide, between us, that I am to represent you, it will be necessary for me to ask you questions about the effect of airport noise on your homes, your families, your own physical and mental health. But do not imagine I shall be asking the questions because I care personally about these things, or you as individuals. Frankly, I don't. You may as well know that I am an extremely selfish man. If I ask these questions, it will be to discover to what extent wrong has been done you under the law. I am already convinced that some wrong has been done---perhaps considerable wrong---and, in that event, you are entitled to legal redress. But you may as well know that whatever I learn, and however deeply I become involved, I am not given to losing sleep about the welfare of my clients when I'm away from my office or the courts. But..." Freemantle paused dramatically, and stabbed a finger forward to underscore his words. "But, in my office and in the courts, as clients, you would have the utmost of my attention and ability, on questions of law. And on those occasions, if we work together, I promise you will be glad I am on your side and not against you."
Now he had the attention of everyone in the hall. Some, both men and women, were sitting forward in their chairs, striving not to miss any words as he paused---though for the minimum time---as aircraft continued overhead. A few faces had become hostile as he spoke, but not many. It was time, though, to relax the pressure a little. He gave a swift, short smile, then went on seriously.
"I inform you of these things so that we understand each other. Some people tell me that I am a mean, unpleasant man. Maybe they are right, though personally if ever I want a lawyer for myself I'll make sure of choosing someone who is mean and unpleasant, also tough---on my behalf." There were a few approving nods and smiles.
"Of course, if you want a nicer guy who'll hand you more sympathy, though maybe a bit less law"---Elliott Freemantle shrugged---"that's your privilege."
He had been watching the audience closely and saw a responsible-looking man, in heavy rimmed glasses, lean toward a woman and whisper. From their expressions, Freemantle guessed the man was saying, "This is more like it!---what we wanted to hear." The woman, probably the whisperer's wife, nodded agreement. Around the hall, other faces conveyed the same impression.
As usual on occasions like this, Elliott Freemantle had shrewdly judged the temper of the meeting and calculated his own approach. He sensed early that these people were weary of platitudes and sympathy---well-meaning but ineffective. His own words, blunt and brutal, were like a cold, refreshing douche. Now, before minds could relax and attention wander, he must take a new tack. The moment for specifics had arrived---tonight, for this group, a discourse on the law of noise. Tbe trick to holding audience attention, at which Elliott Freemantle excelled, was to stay half a mental pace ahead; that much and no more, so that those listening could follow what was being said, but must remain sufficiently alert to do so.
"Pay attention," he commanded, "because I'm going to talk about your particular problem."
The law of noise, he declared, was increasingly under study by the nation's courts. Old concepts were changing. New court decisions were establishing that excessive noise could be an invasion of privacy as well as trespass on property rights. Moreover, courts were in a mood to grant injunctions and financial recompense where intrusion---including aircraft intrusion---could be proven.
Elliott Freemantle paused while another takeoff thundered overhead, then gestured upward. "I believe you will have no difficulty in proving it here."
At the press table, all three reporters made a note.
The United States Supreme Court, he went on, had already set a precedent. In U.S. v. Causby the court ruled that a Greensboro, North Carolina, chicken farmer was entitled to compensation because of "invasion" by military planes flying low above his house. In handing down the Causby decision, Mr. Justice William O. Douglas had stated, "...if the landowner is to have full enjoyment of the land, he must have exclusive control of the immediate reaches of the enveloping atmosphere." In another case reviewed by the Supreme Court, Griggs v. County of Allegheny, a similar principle was upheld. In state courts of Oregon and Washington, in Thornburg v. Port of Portland and Martin v. Port of Seattle, damages for excessive aircraft noise had been awarded, even though airspace directly above the plaintiffs had not been violated. Other communities had begun, or were contemplating, similar legal action, and some were employing sound trucks and movie cameras as aids to proving their case. The trucks took decibel readings of noise; the cameras recorded aircraft altitudes. The noise frequently proved greater, the altitudes lower, than airlines and airport management admitted. In Los Angeles, a homeowner had filed suit against L. A. International Airport, asserting that the airport, by permitting landings on a newly extended runway close to his home, had taken an easement on his property without due process of law. The homeowner was claiming ten thousand dollars which he believed to be equivalent to the decrease in value of his home. Elsewhere, more and more similar cases were being argued in the courts.
The recital was succinct and impressive. Mention of a specific sum---ten thousand dollars---evoked immediate interest, as Elliott Freemantle intended that it should. The entire presentation sounded authoritative, factual, and the product of years of study. Only Freemantle himself knew that his "facts" were the result, not of poring over law reports, but of two hours, the previous afternoon, spent studying newsclippings in a downtown newspaper morgue.
There were also several facts which he had failed to mention. The chicken farmer ruling of the Supreme Court was made more than twenty years earlier, and total damages awarded were a trifling three hundred and seventy-five dollars---the actual value of some dead chickens. The Los Angeles suit was merely a claim which had not yet come to trial and might never do so. A more significant case, Batten v. U.S., on which the Supreme Court had ruled as recently as 1963, Elliott Freemantle knew about but conveniently ignored. In Batten, the court accepted that only an actual "physical invasion" could create liability; noise alone did not do so. Since, at Meadowood, there had been no such invasion, the Batten precedent meant that if a legal case was launched, it might well be lost before it was begun.
But lawyer Freemantle had no wish for this to be known, at least not yet; nor was he overly concerned whether a case, if brought to court, might eventually be won or lost. What he wanted was this Meadowood homeowners group as clients---at a whopping fee.
On the subject of fee, he had already counted the house and done some mental arithmetic. The result delighted him.
Of six hundred people in the hall, he estimated that five hundred, probably more, were Meadowood property owners. Allowing for the presence of husbands and wives together, it meant there was a minimum of two hundred and fifty prospective clients. If each of those two hundred and fifty could be persuaded to sign a one hundred dollar retainer agreement---which Elliott Freemantle hoped they would before the evening was over---a total fee in excess of twenty-five thousand dollars seemed decidedly within reach.
On other occasions he had managed precisely the same thing. It was remarkable what you could accomplish with audacity, particularly when people were white hot in pursuing their own interests. An ample supply of printed retainer forms was in his bag.This memorandum of agreement between............ hereinafter known as plaintiff/s and Freemantle and Sye, attorneys at law... who will undertake plaintiff/s legal representation in promotion of a claim for damages sustained due to aircraft use of the Lincoln International Airport facility... Plaintiff/s agrees to pay the said Freemantle and Sye one hundred dollars, in four installments of twenty five dollars, the first installment now due and payable, the balance quarterly on demand... Further, if the suit is successful Freemantle and Sye will receive ten percent of the gross amount of any damages awarded...
The ten percent was a long shot because it was highly unlikely that there would ever be any damages to collect. Just the same, strange things sometimes happened in law, and Elliott Freemantle believed in covering all bases.
"I have informed you of the legal background," he asserted. "Now I intend to give you some advice." He flashed one of his rare, quick smiles. "This advice will be a free sample, but---like toothpaste---any subsequent tubes will have to be paid for."
There was a responsive laugh which he cut off brusquely with a gesture. "My advice is that there is little time for anything else but action. Action now."
The remark produced handclapping and more nods of approval.
There was a tendency, he continued, to regard legal proceedings as automatically slow and tedious. Often that was true, but on occasions, if determination and legal skill were used, the law could be harried along. In the present instance, legal action should be begun at once, before airlines and airport, by perpetuation of noise over a period of years, could claim custom and usage. As if to underline the point, still another aircraft thundered overhead. Before its sound could die, Elliott Freemantle shouted, "So I repeat---my advice to you is wait no longer! You should act tonight. Now!"
Near the front of the audience, a youngish man in an alpaca cardigan and hopsack slacks sprang to his feet. "By God!---tell us how we start."
"You start---if you want to---by retaining me as your legal counsel."
There was an instant chorus of several hundred voices. "Yes, we want to."
The chairman, Floyd Zanetta, was now on his feet again, waiting for the shouting to subside. He appeared pleased. Two of the reporters had craned around and were observing the obvious enthusiasm throughout the hall. The third reporter---the elderly woman from the local weekly---looked up at the platform with a friendly smile.
It had worked, as Elliott Freemantle had known it would. The rest, he realized, was merely routine. Within the next half hour a good many of the retainer blanks in his bag would be signed, while others would be taken home, talked over, and most likely mailed tomorrow. These people were not afraid of signing papers, or of legal procedures; they had become accustomed to both in purchasing their homes. Nor would a hundred dollars seem an excessive sum; a few might even be surprised that the figure was that low. Only a handful would bother doing the mental arithmetic which Elliott Freemantle had done himself, and even if they objected to the size of the total amount, he could argue that the fee was justified by responsibility for the large numbers involved.
Besides, he would give them value for their money---a good show, with fireworks, in court and elsewhere. He glanced at his watch; better get on. Now that his own involvement was assured, he wanted to cement the relationship by staging the first act of a drama. Like everything else so far, it was something he had already planned and it would gain attention---much more than this meeting---in tomorrow's newspapers. It would also confirm to these people that he meant what he said about not wasting any time.
The actors in the drama would be the residents of Meadowood, here assembled, and he hoped that everyone present was prepared to leave this hall and to stay out late.
The scene would be the airport.
The time: tonight.