THE KEY was to room 224 of the O'Hagan Inn.
In the semidarkened locker area adjoining the air traffic control radar room, Keith Bakersfeld realized he had been staring at the key and its identifying plastic tag for several minutes. Or had it been seconds only? It might have been. Just lately, like so much else, the passage of time seemed inconstant and disoriented. Sometimes at home recently, Natalie had found him standing quite still, looking into nothingness. And when she had asked, with concern, Why are you there?, only then had he become awakened to where he was, and had resumed movement and conscious thinking.
What had happened, he supposed---then and a moment ago---was that his worn, weary mind had switched itself off. Somewhere inside the brain's intricacies---of blood vessels, sinew, stored thought, and emotion---was a tiny switch, a self-defense mechanism like a thermal cutout in an electric motor, which worked when the motor was running too hot and needed to be saved from burning itself out. The difference, though, between a motor and a human brain, was that a motor stayed out of action if it needed to.
A brain would not.
The floodlights outside, on the face of the control tower, still reflected enough light inward through the locker room's single window for Keith to see. Not that he needed to see. Seated on one of the wooden benches, the sandwiches Natalie had made, untouched, beside him, he was doing nothing more than holding the O'Hagan Inn key and thinking, reflecting on the paradox of the human brain.
A human brain could achieve soaring imagery, conceive poetry and radarscopes, create the Sistine Chapel and a supersonic Concorde. Yet a brain, too--holding memory and conscience---could be compelling, self-tormenting, never resting; so that only death could end its persecution.
Death... with oblivion, forgetfulness; with rest at last.
It was the reason that Keith Bakersfeld had decided on suicide tonight.
He must go back soon to the radar room. There were still several hours of his shift remaining, and he had made a pact with himself to finish his air traffic control duty for tonight. He was not sure why, except that it seemed the right thing to do, and he had always tried to do the right thing, conscientiously. Perhaps being conscientious was a family trait; he and his brother Mel always seemed to have that much in common.
Anyway, when the duty was done---his final obligation finished---he would be free to go to the O'Hagan Inn, where he had registered late this afternoon. Once there, without wasting time, he would take the forty Nembutal capsules---sixty grains in all---which were in a drugstore pillbox in his pocket. He had husbanded the capsules, a few at a time, over recent months. They bad been prescribed to give him sleep, and from each prescription which Natalie's druggist had delivered, he had carefully extracted half and hidden it. A few days ago he had gone to a library, checking a reference book on clinical toxicology to assure himself that the quantity of Nembutal he had was well in excess of a fatal dose.
His present duty shift would end at midnight. Soon after, when he had taken the capsules, sleep would come quickly and with finality.
He looked at his watch, holding its face toward the light from outside. It was almost nine o'clock. Should he return to the radar room now? No---stay a few minutes longer. When he went, he wanted to be calm, his nerves steady for whatever these last few hours of duty might contain.
Keith Bakersfeld fingered the O'Hagan Inn key again. Room 224.
It was strange about the coincidence of figures; that his room number tonight, allocated by chance, should have in it a "24." There were people who believed in that kind of thing---numerology; the occult significance of numbers. Keith didn't, though if he did, those third and last figures, prefaced by a "2," could be taken to mean 24 for the second time.
The first 24 had been a date, a year and a half ago. Keith's eyes misted, as they had so many times before, when he remembered. The date was seared---with self-reproach and anguish---in his memory. It was the wellspring of his darksome spirit, his utter desolation. It was the reason he would end his life tonight.
A summer's day; morning. Thursday, June the twenty-fourth.
IT WAS A DAY for poets, lovers, and color photographers; the kind of day which people stored up in their minds, to open like a scrapbook when they wanted to remember, years later, all that was best of any time and place. In Leesburg, Virginia, not far from historic Harpers Ferry, the sky was clear at dawn---CAVU, the weather reports said, which is aviation shorthand for "ceiling and visibility unlimited"; and conditions stayed that way, except for a few cotton-wool tufts of scattered cumulus by afternoon. The sun was warm, but not oppressive. A gentle breeze from the Blue Ridge Mountains carried the scent of honeysuckle.
On his way to work that morning---driving to the Washington Air Route Traffic Control Center at Leesburg---Keith Bakersfeld had seen wild roses blooming. He thought of a line from Keats which he had learned in high school---"For Summer has o'erbrimmed..." It seemed appropriate to such a day.
He had driven, as usual, across the Virginia border---from Adamstown, Maryland, where he and Natalie, with their two boys shared a pleasant rented home. The top of the Volkswagen convertible was down; he had traveled without haste, enjoying the benevolence of air and sun, and when the familiar low, modern buildings of the Air Route Center came in sight, he had felt less tense than usual. Afterward, he wondered if that, in itself, had been a cause of the events which followed.
Even inside the Operations Wing---thick-walled and windowless, where daylight never penetrated---Keith had an impression that the glory of the summer's day outside had somehow percolated inward. Among the seventy or more shirtsleeved controllers on duty there seemed a sense of lightness, in contrast to the pressure-driven earnestness with which work proceeded on most days of the year. One reason, perhaps, was that the traffic load was less than usual, due to the exceptionally clear weather. Many non-commercial flights---private, military, even a few airliners---were operating on VFR---"visual flight rules," or the see-and-be-seen method by which aircraft pilots kept track of their own progress through the air, without need to report by radio to ATC air route controllers.
The Washington Air Route Center at Leesburg was a key control point. From its main operations room all air traffic on airways over six eastern seaboard states was observed and directed. Added up, the control area came to more than a hundred thousand square miles. Within that area, whenever an aircraft which had filed an instrument flight plan left an airport, it came under Leesburg observation and control. It remained under that control either until its journey was complete or it passed out of the area. Aircraft coming into the area were handed over from other control centers, of which there were twenty across the continental United States. The Leesburg center was among the nation's busiest. It included the southern end of the "northeast corridor" which daily accommodated the world's heaviest concentration of air traffic.
Oddly, Leesburg was distant from any airport, and forty miles from Washington, D.C., from which the Air Route Center took its name. The center itself was in Virginia countryside---a cluster of low, modem buildings with a parking lot---and was surrounded on three sides by rolling farmland. Nearby was a small stream named Bull Run---its fame enshrined forever by two battles of the Civil War. Keith Bakersfeld had once gone to Bull Run after duty, reflecting on the strange and diametric contrast between Leesburg's past and present.
This morning, despite awareness of the summer's day outside, everything in the spacious, cathedral-like main control room was operating as usual. The entire control area---larger than a football field---was, as always, dimly lighted to allow proper viewing of the several dozen radar screens, arranged in tiers and rows under overhanging canopies. The control room noise level was what any newcomer noticed first. From a flight data area, with great banks of computers, assorted electronic gear and automatic teletypes, arose the continuous whir and chatter of machinery. Nearby, from dozens of positions where controllers sat, directing aerial traffic, came a ceaseless hum of voice radio exchanges on a host of frequencies. The machinery and human voices merged, producing a constant noise level which was all-pervading, yet strangely muted by acoustic, sound-absorbent walls and ceilings.
Above the working level of the control room was an observation bridge, running the room's full width, where occasional visitors were brought to watch proceedings below. The control room activity looked, from this eyrie, not unlike that of a stock exchange. Controllers rarely glanced up at the bridge, being trained to ignore anything which might diminish concentration on their work, and since only a few especially privileged visitors ever made it to the control room floor, controllers and outsiders rarely met. Thus the work was not only high pressure, but also monastic---the last condition added to by the total absence of women.
In an annex to the control room Keith slipped off his jacket, and came in wearing the crisp white shirt which was like a uniform for air traffic controllers. No one knew why controllers wore white shirts on duty; there was no rule about it, but most of them did. As he passed other control positions while heading for his own, a few colleagues wished him a friendly "good morning," and that was unusual too. Normally, the immediate sense of pressure on entering the control area made it customary to give a hurried nod or a brief "Hi!"---sometimes not even that.
The control sector which Keith regularly worked comprised a segment of the Pittsburgh-Baltimore area. The sector was monitored by a team of three. Keith was radar contioller, his job to maintain contact with aircraft and to issue radio instructions. Two assistant controllers handled flight data and airport communications; a supervisor coordinated activities of the other three. Today, in addition, the team had a trainee controller whom Keith had been instructing, at intervals, over the past several weeks.
Others of the team were drifting in at the same time as Keith Bakersfeld, taking position behind the men they were to relieve, and allowing a few minutes while they absorbed the "picture" in their minds. All through the big control room, at other positions, the same thing was happening.
Standing at his own sector, behind the radar controller about to go off duty, Keith already felt his mental acuity sharpen, his speed of thinking consciously accelerate. For the next eight hours, except for two brief work breaks, his brain must continue to operate that way.
Traffic, he observed, was averagely busy for the time of day, taking into account the widespread good weather. On the scope's dark surface, some fifteen pinpoints of bright green light---or "targets," as radarmen called them---indicated aircraft in the air. Allegheny had a Convair 440 at eight thousand feet, approaching Pittsburgh. Behind the Allegheny Right, at varying altitudes, was a National DC-8, an American Airlines 727, two private aircraft---a Lear jet and a Fairchild F-27---and another National, this time a prop-jet Electra. Several other flights, Keith noted, were due to come on the screen at any moment, both from other sectors and as a result of takeoffs from Friendship Airport, Baltimore. Going the opposite way, toward Baltimore, was a Delta DC-9, about to be taken over by Friendship approach control; behind this flight were a TWA, a Piedmont Airlines Martin, another private flight, two Uniteds, and a Mohawk. Height and distance separations of all aircraft were satisfactory, Keith observed, except that the two Uniteds heading for Baltimore were a little close. As if the controller still at the scope had read Keith's mind, he gave the second United a delaying diversionary course.
"I have the picture," Keith said quietly. The other controller nodded and moved out.
Keith's supervisor, Perry Yount, plugged in his headset above Keith's head and leaned over, making his own assessment of the traffic situation. Perry was a tall, lean Negro, a few years younger than Keith. He had a quick, retentive memory which could store a mass of flight data, then repeat it back, as a whole or in pieces, with computer accuracy. Perry was a comforting man to have around when there was trouble.
Keith had already accepted several new flights and handed over others when the supervisor touched his shoulder. "Keith, I'm running two positions this shift---this and the next one. We're a man short. You okay for a while?"
Keith nodded. "Roger." He radioed a course correction to an Eastern 727, then motioned toward the trainee controller, George Wallace, who had slipped into a seat beside him. "I've got George to keep an eye on me.
"Okay." Perry Yount unplugged his headset and moved to the adjacent console. The same kind of thing had happened occasionally before, and was handled without ditliculty. Perry Yount and Keith had worked together for several years; each was aware that he could trust the other.
Keith told the trainee beside him, "George, start getting the picture."
George Wallace nodded and edged closer to the radarscope. He was in his mid-twenties, had been a trainee for almost two years; before that, he had served an enlistment in the U.S. Air Force. Wallace had already shown himself to have an alert, quick mind, plus the ability not to become rattled under tension. In one more week he would be a qualified controller, though for practical purposes he was fully trained now.
Deliberately, Keith allowed the spacing between an American Airlines BAC-400 and a National 727 to become less than it should be; he was ready to transmit quick instructions if the closure became critical. George Wallace spotted the condition at once, and warned Keith, who corrected it.
That kind of firsthand exercise was the only sure way the ability of a new controller could be gauged. Similarly, when a trainee was at the scope himself, and got into difficulties, he had to be given the chance to show resourcefulness and sort the situation out unaided. At such moments, the instructing controller was obliged to sit back, with clenched hands, and sweat. Someone had once described it as, "hanging on a brick wall by your fingernails." When to intervene or take over was a critical decision, not to be made too early or too late. If the instructor did take over, the trainee's confidence might be permanently undermined, and a potentially good controller lost. On the other hand, if an instructor failed to take over when he should, a ghastly mid-air collision could result.
The risks involved, and extra mental pressures, were such that many controllers refused to take them. They pointed out that the task of teaching their work to others carried neither official recognition nor extra pay. Moreover, if anything went wrong, the instructing controller was wholly responsible. Why suffer so much strain and liability for nothing?
Keith, however, had shown an aptitude as an instructor as well as patience in bringing trainees along. And although he, too, suffered and sweated at times, he did the job because he felt he should. At this moment, he took a personal pride in the way George Wallace had developed.
Wallace said quietly again, "I'd turn United 284 right until you get altitude separation with Mohawk."
Keith nodded agreement as he thumbed his microphone button. "United Flight 284, from Washington center. Turn right, heading zero six zero."
Promptly the reply crackled back. "Washington control, this is United 284. Roger; zero six zero." Miles distant, and high above in clear bright sunshine while passengers dozed or read, the powerful sleek jet would be easing into a smooth controlled turn. On the radarscope, the bright green half inch wide blip which was United 284 began moving in a new direction.
Below the control area, in a room devoted to rack upon rack of ponderously turning tape recorders, the exchange between ground and air had been recorded---for playback later if need arose. Every such conversation, from each position in the control room, was recorded and stored. Periodically, some of the tapes were replayed and listened to critically by supervisors. If a procedure was wrong, a controller heard about it; yet no controller knew when a recording of his own might be selected for analysis. On a door of the tape-recorder room was the grimly humorous reminder, "Big Brother Is Listening."
The morning progressed.
Periodically, Perry Yount appeared. He was still overseeing two positions and stayed long enough to assess the current traffic situation. What he saw seemed to satisfy him, and he spent less time behind Keith than at the other position, where several problems seemed to be occurring. Around mid-morning the air traffic volume eased slightly; it would pick up again before midday. Soon after 10:30 A.M. Keith Bakersfeld and George Wallace exchanged positions. The trainee was now at the scope, Keith checking from alongside. There was no need, Keith found, for intervention; young Wallace was proving competent and alert. As far as was possible in the circumstances, Keith relaxed.
At ten to eleven, Keith was aware of a need to visit the toilet. In recent months, he had had several bouts with intestinal flu; he had a suspicion that this was the beginning of another. He signaled Perry Yount and told him.
The supervisor nodded. "Is George doing okay?"
"Like a veteran." Keith said it loud enough so George could hear.
"I'll hold things down," Perry said. "You're relieved, Keith."
Keith signed the sector log sheet and noted his time of checking out. Perry scribbled an initial on the next line of the log, accepting responsibility for monitoring Wallace. In a few minutes time, when Keith returned, they would follow the same procedure.
As Keith Bakersfeld left the control room, the supervisor was studying the scope, his hand lightly on George Wallace's shoulder.
The washroom Keith had gone to was on an upper level; a frosted-glass window admitted some of the brightness of the day outside. When Keith had finished, and freshened himself with a wash, he went to the window and opened it. He wondered if the weather was still as superb as when he had arrived earlier. It was.
From the rear of the building into which the window was set, he could see---beyond a service area---green meadows, trees, and wild flowers. The heat was greater now. All around was a drowsy hum of insects.
Keith stood looking out, aware of a reluctance to leave the cheerful sunlight and return to the control room's gloom. It occurred to him that lately he had had similar feelings at other times---too many times, perhaps; and he thought---if he was honest, it was not the gloom he minded so much, but the mental pressures. There was a time when the tensions and pressures of his job, unrelenting as they were, had never bothered him. Nowadays they did, and on occasions he had to force himself, consciously, to meet them.
While Keith Bakersfeld was standing at the window, thinking, a Northwest Orient 727 jet, en route from Minneapolis-St. Paul, was nearing Washington, D.C. Within its cabin a stewardess was bending over an elderly male passenger. His face was ashen; he seemed unable to speak. The stewardess believed he had had, or was having, a heart attack. She hurried to the flight deck to inform the captain. Moments later, acting on the captain's orders, the Northwest first officer asked Washington Air Route Center for special clearance down, with priority handling to Washington National Airport.
KEITH WONDERED sometimes---as he was wondering now---how many more years he could force his occasionally weary mind to go on. He had been a controller for a decade and a half. He was thirty-eight.
The depressing thing was---in this business you could be mentally drained, an old man, at age forty-five or fifty, yet honorable retirement was another ten or fifteen years away. For many air traffic controllers, those final years proved an all-too-grueling trail, whose end they failed to reach.
Keith knew---as most controllers did---that strains on the human systems of those employed in air traffic control had long been recognized. Official flight surgeons' files bulged with medical evidence. Case histories, directly attributable to controllers' work, included hypertension, heart attacks, gastric ulcers, tachycardia, psychiatric breakdowns, plus a host of lesser ailments. Eminent, independent medics, in scholarly research studies, had confirmed such findings. In the words of one: "A controller will spend nervous, sleepless hours every night wondering how in the name of heaven he kept all those planes from running into each other. He managed not to cause a disaster today, but will he have the same luck tomorrow? After a while, something inside him---physical, mental, oftentimes both---inevitably breaks down."
Armed with this knowledge, and more, the Federal Aviation Agency had urged Congress to allow air traffic controllers to retire at age fifty, or after twenty years of service. The twenty years, doctors declared, were equal to forty in most other jobs. The FAA warned legislators: public safety was involved; controllers, after more than twenty years of service, were potentially unsafe. Congress, Keith remembered, had ignored the warning and refused to act.
Subsequently, a Presidential Commission also turned thumbs down on early retirement for controllers, and the FAA---then a presidential agency---had been told to cease and desist in its argument. Now, officially, it had. Privately, however---as Keith and others knew---Washington FAA officials were as convinced as ever; they predicted that the question would arise again, though only after an air disaster, or a series, involving worn-out controllers, followed by press and public furor.
Keith's thoughts switched back to the countryside. It was glorious today; the fields inviting, even when viewed from a washroom window. He wished he could go out there and sleep in the sun. Well, he couldn't, and that was that. He supposed he had better get back to the control room. He would---in just a moment more.
THE NORTHWEST ORIENT 727 had already started down, on authority from Washington Center. At lower altitudes, other flights were being hurriedly diverted, or ordered to orbit, safe distances away. A slanting hole, through which Northwest would continue descending, was being cleared in the growing midday traffic. Approach control at Washington National Airport had been alerted; its function would come shortly when it accepted the Northwest jet from Washington Center. At this moment, responsibility for the Northwest flight and other aircraft devolved on the sector team next to Keith's---the extra sector which the young Negro, Perry Yount, was supervising.
Fifteen aircraft with combined speeds totaling seven thousand five hundred miles per hour were being juggled in an airspace a few miles wide. No airplane must come near another. The Northwest flight must be brought down, safely, through them all.
Similar situations happened several times a day; in bad weather it could be several times an hour. Sometimes emergencies came together, so that controllers numbered them---emergency one, emergency two, emergency three.
In the present situation, as always, Perry Yount---quiet-spoken, cool, and capable---was responding with experienced skill. Working with others in the sector team, he was coordinating emergency procedures---calmly, level voiced, so that from his tone no bystander listening would be aware that an emergency existed. Other aircraft could not hear transmissions to the Northwest flight, which had been instructed to switch to a separate radio frequency.
Everything was going well. The Northwest flight was steady on course, descending. In a few minutes, the emergency situation would be over.
Amid the pressures, Perry Yount even found time to slip across to the adjoining position---which normally would have his undivided attention---to check George Wallace. Everything looked good, though Perry knew he would be easier in mind when Keith Bakersfeld was back. He glanced toward the control room door. No sign of Keith yet.
KEITH---STILL at the open window, still looking out at the Virginia countryside---was remembering Natalie. He sighed. Lately, there had been disagreements between them, triggered by his work. There were points of view which his wife could or would not see. Natalie was concerned about Keith's health. She wanted him to give up air traffic control; to quit, and choose some other occupation while some of his youth and most of his health remained. It had been a mistake, he realized now, to confide his doubts to Natalie, to describe what he had seen happen to other controllers whose work had made them prematurely old and ailing. Natalie had become alarmed, perhaps with reason. But there were considerations to giving up a job, walking away from years of training and experience; considerations which it was hard for Natalie---or for any woman, he supposed---to grasp.
OVER MARTINSBURG, West Virginia---some thirty miles northwest of Washington Route Center---a private, four-place Beech Bonanza, at seven thousand feet, was leaving Airway V166 and entering Airway V44. The little Beech Bonanza, identifiable visually by its butterfly tail, was cruising at 175 mph, its destination Baltimore. It contained the Redfern family: Irving Redfern, a consulting engineer-economist, his wife Merry, and their two children---Jeremy, ten years old, and Valerie, nine.
Irving Redfern was a careful, thorough man. Today, because of favorable weather conditions, he could have flown using visual flight rules. However, he considered it more prudent to file an instrument flight plan and, since leaving his home airport of Charleston, West Virginia, had stayed on airways, remaining in touch with air traffic control. A few moments earlier, Washington Route Center had given him a new course on Airway V44. He had already turned on it and now his magnetic compass, which had been swinging slightly, was settling down nicely.
The Redferns were going to Baltimore partly for Irving Redfern's business, and partly for pleasure, which would include a family theatre outing tonight. While their father was concentrating on his flying, the children, with Merry, were chattering about what they would have for lunch at Friendship Airport.
The Washington Center controller who had given Irving Redfern his latest instructions was George Wallace, the almost-qualified trainee still filling in for Keith Bakersfeld. George had correctly identified the Redferns' Beechcraft on his radarscope, where it appeared as a bright green dot, though smaller and moving more slowly than most other traffic---at the moment principally airline jets. There was nothing closing up on the Beechcraft, however, which appeared to have plenty of airspace all around it. Perry Yount, the sector supervisor, had by now returned to the adjoining position. He was helping sort out the aftermath confusion now that the critical Northwest Orient 727 had been handed over safely to Washington National Airport approach control. Periodically, Perry glanced across at George and once called out, "Is everything okay?" George Wallace nodded, though he was beginning to sweat a little. Today's heavier noontime traffic seemed to be building up earlier than usual.
Unknown to George Wallace or Perry Yount or Irving Redfern, an Air National Guard T-33 jet trainer was flying---at the moment idly in circles---a few miles north of Airway V44. The T-33 was from Martin Airport, near Baltimore, and its National Guard pilot was an automobile salesman named Hank Neel.
Lieutenant Neel, who was fulfilling his part-time military training requirements, had been sent up solo for YFR proficiency flying. Because he had been cautioned to do only local flying in an authorized area northwest of Baltimore, no flight plan had been filed; therefore, Washington Air Route Center had no knowledge that the T-33 was in the air. This would not have mattered except that Neel had become bored with his assignment and was also a careless pilot. Looking out casually, as he held the jet trainer in lazy circles, he realized he had drifted south while practicing maneuvers, though in reality he had come a good deal farther than he imagined. He was so far south that several minutes ago the National Guard jet had entered George Wallace's radar control area and now appeared on Wallace's screen at Leesburg as a green dot, slightly larger than the Redfern family's Beech Bonanza. A more experienced controller would have recognized the dot instantly for what it was. George, however, still busy with other traffic, had not yet observed the extra, unidentified signal.
Lieutenant Neel, at fifteen thousand feet, decided he would finish his flying practice with some aerobatics---two loops, a couple of slow rolls---and then return to base. He swung the T-33 into a steep turn and circled again while he took the standard precaution of looking for other airplanes above and below. He was now even closer than before to Airway V44.
THE THING his wife failed to realize, Keith Bakersfeld thought, was that a man couldn't just quit his job irresponsibly, on a whim, even if he wanted to. Especially when the man had a family to support, children to educate. Especially when the job you possessed, the skills you so patiently acquired, had fitted you for nothing else. In some branches of government service, employees could leave and utilize their proficiency elsewhere. Air Traffic controllers could not. Their work had no counterpart in private industry; no one else wanted them.
Being trapped that way---which was what it amounted to, Keith recognized---was a disillusion which came with other disillusions. Money was one. When you were young, enthusiastic, wanting to be a part of aviation, the civil service pay scale of an air traffic controller seemed adequate or better. Only later did it become clear how inadequate---in relation to the job's awesome responsibility---that pay scale was. The two most skillful specialists involved in air traffic nowadays were pilots and controllers. Yet pilots earned thirty thousand dollars a year while a senior controller reached his ceiling at ten thousand. No one believed pilots should earn less. But even pilots, who were notoriously selfish in taking care of themselves, believed air traffic controllers should earn more.
Nor was promotion---as in most other occupations---something an air traffic controller could look forward to. Senior supervisory posts were few; only a fortunate handful ever attained them.
And yet... unless you were reckless or uncaring---which controllers, by the nature of their work, were not---there was no way out. So there would be no quitting for himself, Keith decided. He must have another talk with Natalie; it was time she accepted that for better or worse, it was too late for change. He had no intention, at this stage, of scratching inadequately for some other kind of living.
He really must go back. Glancing at his watch, he realized guiltily that it was almost fifteen minutes since he left the control room. For part of the time he had been daydreaming---something he rarely did, and it was obviously the somniferous effect of the summer's day. Keith closed the washroom window. From the corridor outside, he hurried downward to the main control room.
HIGH OVER Frederick County, Maryland, Lieutenant Neel straightened up his National Guard T-33 and eased on forward trim. Neel had completed his somewhat casual inspection and had seen no other aircraft. Now, beginning his first loop and slow roll, he put the jet trainer into a steep dive.
ENTERING THE control room, Keith Bakersfeld was aware at once of an increased tempo. The hum of voices was louder than when he left. Other controllers were too preoccupied to glance up---as they had done earlier this morning---as he passed by them on the way to his own position. Keith scribbled a signature in the sector log and noted the time, then moved behind George Wallace, getting the picture, letting his eyes adjust to the control room semidarkness, in sharp contrast to the bright sunlight outside. George had murmured "Hi!" as Keith returned, then continued transmitting radio instructions to traffic. In a moment or two, when Keith had the picture, he would relieve George and slip into his seat. It had probably been good for George, Keith reasoned, to be on his own for a while; it would improve his confidence. From the adjoining sector console, Perry Yount had noted Keith's return.
Keith studied the radarscope and its moving pinpoints of light---the aircraft "targets" which George had identified, then noted on small movable markers on the screen. A bright green dot without identification caught Keith's eye. He asked George sharply, "What's the other traffic near the Beech Bonanza 403?"
LIEUTENANT NEEL had finished his first loop and slow roll. He had climbed back to fifteen thousand feet, and was still over Frederick County, though a little farther south. He leveled the T-33 jet, then put the nose down sharply and began a dive into a second loop.
"WHAT OTHER TRAFFIC...?" George Wallace's eyes followed Keith's across the radarscope. He gasped; then in a strangled voice---"My God!"
With a swift, single movement, Keith ripped the radio headset from George and shouldered him aside. Keith flung a frequency switch open, snapped a transmit button down. "Beech Bonanza NC-403, this is Washington Center. There is unidentified traffic to your left. Make an immediate right turn now!"
The National Guard T-33 was at the bottom of its dive. Lieutenant Neel pulled the control column back and, with full power on, began a fast, steep climb. Immediately above was the tiny Beech Bonanza, containing Irving Redfern and his family, cruising steadily on Airway V44.
IN THE CONTROL room... breathlessly... silently... praying hard... they watched the closing, bright green dots.
The radio crackled with a burst of static. "Washington Center, this is Beech..." Abruptly the transmission stopped.
IRVING REDFERN was a consulting engineer-economist. He was a competent amateur pilot, but not a commercial one.
An airline pilot, receiving the Washington Center message, would have flung his aircraft instantly into a steep right turn. He would have caught the urgency in Keith's voice, would have acted, without waiting to trim, or acknowledge, or---until later---question. An airline pilot would have ignored all minor consequences except the overriding urgency of escaping the nearby peril which the route center message unmistakably implied. Behind him, in the passenger cabin, scalding coffee might have spilled, meals scattered, even minor injuries resulted. Later there would have been complaints, apologies, denunciations, perhaps a Civil Aeronautics Board inquiry. But---with ordinary luck---there could have been survival. Quick action could have insured it. It would have insured it for the Redfern family, too.
Airline pilots were conditioned by training and usage, to swift, sure reflexes. Irving Redfern was not. He was a precise, scholarly man, accustomed to think before acting, and to following correct procedures. His first thought was to acknowledge the Washington Center message. Thus, he used up two or three seconds---all the time he had. The National Guard T-33, swooping upward from the bottom of its loop, struck the Redferns' Beech Bonanza on the left side, slicing off the private aircraft's port wing with a single screeching rip of metal. The T-33, mortally damaged itself, continued upward briefly while its forward section disintegrated. Scarcely knowing what was happening---he had caught only the briefest glimpse of the other plane---Lieutenant Neel ejected and waited for his parachute to open. Far below, out of control and spinning crazily, the Beechcraft Bonanza, with the Redfern family still inside, was plummeting to earth.
KEITH'S HANDS were trembling as he tried again. "Beech Bonanza NC-403, this is Washington Center. Do you read?"
Beside Keith, George Wallace's lips moved silently. His face was drained of color.
As they watched in horror, the dots on the radarscope converged, blossomed suddenly, then faded.
Perry Yount, aware of something wrong, had joined them. "What is it?"
Keith's mouth was dry. "I think we've had a mid-air."
It was then it happened: the nightmarish sound which those who heard it wished that they had not, yet afterward would not be able to erase from memory.
IN THE PILOT'S SEAT of the doomed, spinning Beech Bonanza, Irving Redfern---perhaps involuntarily, perhaps as a last despairing act---pressed the transmit button of his microphone and held it down. The radio still worked.
AT WASHINGTON CENTER, the transmission was heard on a console speaker which Keith had switched in when his emergency transmissions began. At first there was a burst of static, then immediately a succession of piercing, frantic, chilling screams. Elsewhere in the control room, heads turned. Faces nearby paled. George Wallace was sobbing hysterically. Senior supervisors came hurrying from other sections.
Suddenly, above the screaming clearly, a single voice---terrified, forlorn, beseeching. At first, not every word was audible. Only later, when the tape recording of the last transmission was played and replayed many times, were the full words put together, the voice identified as that of Valerie Redfern, nine years old.
"...Mummy! Daddy!... Do something! I don't want to die... Oh, Gentle Jesus, I've been good... Please, I don't want..."
Mercifully, the transmission stopped.
The Beech Bonanza crashed and burned near the village of Lisbon, Maryland. What remained from the four bodies was unrecognizable and was buried in a common grave.
Lieutenant Neel landed safely by parachute, five miles away.
ALL THREE controllers involved in the tragedy---George Wallace, Keith Bakersfeld, Perry Yount---were at once suspended from duty, pending investigation.
Later, the trainee, George Wallace, was held technically not to blame, since he was not a qualified controller when the accident occurred. He was, however, dismissed from government service and barred forever for further employment in air traffic control.
The young Negro supervisor, Perry Yount, was held wholly responsible. The investigating board---taking days and weeks to play back tapes, examine evidence, and review decisions which Yount himself had had to make in seconds, under pressure---decided he should have spent less time on the emergency involving the Northwest Orient 727 and more in supervising George Wallace during the absence of Keith Bakersfeld. The fact that Perry Yount was doing double duty---which, had he been less cooperative, he could have refused---was ruled not relevant. Yount was officially reprimanded, and reduced in civil service grade.
Keith Bakersfeld was totally exonerated. The investigating board was at pains to point out that Keith had requested to be temporarily relieved from duty, that his request was reasonable, and he followed regulations in signing out and in. Furthermore, immediately on return, he perceived the possibility of a mid-air collision and tried to prevent it. For his quick thinking and action---though the attempt was unsuccessful----he was commended by the board.
The question of the length of Keith's absence from the control room did not arise initially. Near the end of the investigation---perceiving the way things were going for Perry Yount---Keith attempted to raise it himself, and to accept the major share of blame. His attempt was treated kindly, but it was clear that the investigating board regarded it as a chivalrous gesture---and no more. Keith's testimony, once its direction became clear, was cut off summarily. His attempted intervention was not referred to in the board's final report.
An independent Air National Guard inquiry produced evidence that Lieutenant Henry Neel had been guilty of contributory negligence in failing to remain in the vicinity of Middletown Air Base, and for allowing his T-33 to drift near Airway V44. However, since his actual position could not be proved conclusively, no charges were preferred. The lieutenant went on selling automobiles, and flying during weekends.
On learning of the investigating board's decision, the supervisor, Perry Yount, suffered a nervous collapse. He was hospitalized and placed under psychiatric care. He appeared to be moving toward recovery when he received by mail, from an anonymous source, a printed bulletin of a California rightwing group opposing---among other things---Negro civil rights. The bulletin contained a viciously biased account of the Redfern tragedy. It portrayed Perry Yount as an incompetent, bumbling dullard, indifferent to his responsibilities, and uncaring about the Redfern family's death. The entire incident, the bulletin argued, should be a warning to "bleeding heart liberals" who aided Negroes in attaining responsible positions for which they were not mentally equipped. A "housecleaning" was urged of other Negroes employed in air traffic control, "before the same thing happens again."
At any other time, a man of Perry Yount's intelligence would have dismissed the bulletin as a maniacal diatribe, which it was. But because of his condition, he suffered a relapse after reading it, and might have remained under treatment indefinitely if a government review board had not refused to pay hospital bills for his care, maintaining that his mental illness had not been caused through government employment. Yount was discharged from the hospital but did not return to air traffic control. When Keith Bakersfeld last heard of him, he was working in a Baltimore waterfront bar, and drinking heavily.
George Wallace disappeared from sight. There were rumors that the former trainee controller had re-enlisted---in the U.S. Army Infantry, not the Air Force---and was now in serious trouble with the Military Police. According to stories, Wallace repeatedly started fist fights and brawls in which he appeared to go out of his way to bring physical punishment on himself. The rumors were not confirmed.
For Keith Bakersfeld, it seemed for a while as if life would go on as usual. When the investigation ended, his temporary suspension was lifted; his qualifications and government service rating remained intact. He returned to work at Leesburg. Colleagues, aware that Keith's experience could easily have been their own, were friendly and sympathetic. His work, at first, went well enough.
After his abortive attempt to raise the subject before the investigating board, Keith confided to no one---not even to Natalie---the fact of his washroom loitering that fateful day. Yet the secret knowledge was seldom far from the forefront of his mind.
At home, Natalie was understanding and, as always, loving. She sensed that Keith had undergone a traumatic shock from which he would need time to recover, and she attempted to meet his moods---to talk or be animated when he felt like it, to stay silent when he did not. In quiet, private sessions Natalie explained to the boys, Brian and Theo, why they, too, should show consideration for their father.
In an abstracted way, Keith understood and appreciated what Natalie was trying to do. Her method might eventually have succeeded, except for one thing---an air traffic controller needed sleep. Keith was getting little sleep and, some nights, none.
On the occasions he did sleep, he had a persistent dream in which the scene in the Washington Center control room, moments before the mid-air collision, was re-created... the merging pinpoints of light on the radarscope... Keith's last desperate message... the screams; the voice of little Valerie Redfern...
Sometimes the dream had variations. When Keith tried to move toward the radarscope to seize George Wallace's radio headset and transmit a warning, Keith's limbs resisted, and would change position only with frustrating slowness, as if the air surrounding them were heavy sludge. His mind warned frantically: If he could only move freely, the tragedy could be averted.... Although his body strained and fought, he always reached his goal too late. At other times he attained the headset, but his voice would fail. He knew that if he could articulate words, a warning would suffice, the situation could be saved. His mind would race, his lungs and larynx strain, but no sound came.
But even with variations, the dream always ended the same way---with the Beech Bonanza's last radio transmission as he heard it so many times during the inquiry, on the played-back tape. And afterward, with Natalie asleep beside him, he would lie awake, thinking, remembering, longing for the impossible---to change the shape of things past. Later still, he would resist sleep, fighting for wakefulness, so he would not endure the torture of the dream again.
It was then that in the loneliness of night, his conscience would remind him of the stolen, wasted minutes in the route center washroom; crucial minutes when he could have returned to duty, and should have done, but through idleness and self-concern had failed to do so. Keith knew---as others did not---that the real responsibility for the Redfern tragedy was his own, not Perry Yount's. Perry had been a circumstantial sacrifice, a technical victim. Perry had been Keith's friend, had trusted Keith that day to be conscientious, to come back to the control room as quickly as he could. Yet Keith, though knowing his friend was standing double duty, aware of the extra pressures on him, had been twice as long as he needed to be, and had let Perry down; so in the end, Perry Yount stood accused and convicted in Keith's place.
Perry for Keith---a sacrificial goat.
But Perry, though grievously wronged, was still alive. The Redfern family was dead. Dead because Keith doodled mentally, dallying in the sunshine, leaving a semi-experienced trainee too long with responsibilities which were rightly Keith's, and for which Keith was better qualified. There could be no question that had he returned sooner, he would have spotted the intruding T33 long before it neared the Redferns' plane. The proof was that he had spotted it when he did return---too late to be of use.
Around and around... over and over in the night... as if committed to a treadmill... Keith's mind labored on, self-torturing, sick with grief, recrimination. Eventually he would sleep from exhaustion, usually to dream, and to awake again.
In daytime, as well as night, the memory of the Redferns persisted. Irving Redfern, his wife, their children---though Keith had never known them---haunted him. The presence of Keith's own children, Brian and Theo---alive and well---appeared a personal reproach. Keith's own living, breathing, seemed to him an accusation.
The effect of sleepless nights, the mental turmoil, showed quickly in his work. His reactions were slow, decisions hesitant. A couple of times, under pressure, Keith "lost the picture" and had to be helped. Afterward he realized he had been under close surveillance. His superiors knew from experience what might happen, had half-expected some such signs of strain.
Informal, friendly talks followed, in upper-level offices, which achieved nothing. Later, on a suggestion from Washington, and with Keith's consent, he was transferred from the East Coast to the Midwest---to Lincoln International for control tower duty. A change of locale, it was believed, would prove therapeutic. Officialdom, with a touch of humanity, was also aware that Keith's older brother, Mel, was general manager at Lincoln; perhaps Mel Bakersfeld's influence would be steadying too. Natalie, though loving Maryland, made the transition without complaint.
The idea hadn't worked.
Keith's sense of guilt persisted; so did the nightmares, which grew, and took on other patterns, though always the basic one remained. He slept only with the aid of barbiturates prescribed by a physician friend of Mel's.
Mel understood part of his brother's problem, but not all; Keith still kept the secret knowledge of his washroom dawdling at Leesburg solely to himself. Later, watching Keith's deterioration, Mel urged him to seek psychiatric help, but Keith refused. His reasoning was simple. Why should he seek some panacea, some ritualistic mumbo-jumbo to insulate his guilt, when the guilt was real, when nothing in heaven or earth or clinical psychiatry could ever change it?
Keith's dejection deepened until even Natalie's resilient nature rebelled against his moods. Though aware that he slept badly, Natalie had no knowledge of his dreams. One day she inquired in anger and impatience, "Are we supposed to wear hair shirts for the rest of our lives? Are we never to have fun again, to laugh the way we used to? If you intend to go on this way, you'd better understand one thing---I don't, and I won't let Brian and Theo grow up around this kind of misery either."
When Keith hadn't answered, Natalie went on, "I've told you before: our lives, our marriage, the children, are more important than your work. If you can't take that kind of work any more---and why should you if it's that demanding?---then give it up now, get something else. I know what you always tell me: the money'll be less; you'd throw away your pension. But that isn't everything; we'd manage somehow. I'll take all the hardship you can give me, Keith Bakersfeld, and maybe I'd complain a little, but not much, because anything would be better than the way we are right now." She had been close to tears, but managed to finish. "I'm warning you I can't take much more. If you're going on like this, it may have to be alone."
It was the only time Natalie had hinted at the possibility of their marriage breaking up. It was also the first time Keith considered suicide.
Later, his idea hardened to resolve.
THE DOOR of the darkened locker room opened. A switch snapped on. Keith was back again in the control tower at Lincoln International, blinking in the overhead light's glare.
Another tower controller, taking his own work break, was coming in. Keith put away his untouched sandwiches, closed his locker, and walked back toward the radar room. The other man glanced at him curiously. Neither spoke.
Keith wondered if the crisis involving the Air Force KC-135, which had had radio failure, had ended yet. Chances were, it had; that the aircraft and its crew had landed safely. He hoped so. He hoped that something good, for someone, would survive this night.
As he went in, he touched the O'Hagan Inn key in his pocket to be sure, once again, that it was there. He would need it soon.