|Notes from the field: We saw the anguish in their eyes as we watched our fuel gauge head south
By Arkansas communications contractor Bruce Holsted
September 5, 2005 -- We got the call on Sunday afternoon. I expected it, of course. After 18 years of doing this I can always sense when the call is about to come. We gathered supplies on Monday and got out the tents, Coleman fuel, cook stove, lanterns and bedrolls. Becky graciously went to the store for our provisions, then to the bank for cash, and by dark we had all in order.
We went by to see the customer on Tuesday morning to equip ourselves with radios, site maps, and lists of those that we would be reporting to. As we departed on Tuesday mid day I knew that this would be another great adventure. All was good through Pine Bluff and Lake Village, Arkansas. Greenville, Mississippi was even tolerable. By the time we got to Yazoo City, however, things had changed. No ATM's, no gas, no ice. I knew we were in trouble when the lines at the check cashing places were longer than those at the banks. We had half a tank. I had stopped in Dumas and bought 12 half pints of whiskey knowing that with such legal tender a full tank could be mine whenever I wished. We pressed on.
We arrived in Jackson to the sight of long lines at the gas stations and grocery stores with crowds gathered outside. How wonderful it felt to have the secure gates of the Entergy compound locked behind us. There was little electricity and no hotel rooms. We readied the camping supplies and checked the map for a good state park. A little fuel from the Gods at Entergy and we were on our way. We found a decent park (no electricity, of course) and pitched camp. Dinner was chicken helper, mashed potatoes and tea. It began to rain but thankfully we had brought a huge roll of Visqueen. A large tent was erected above our sleeping bags and in no time Wednesday morning found us nursing our mosquito bites and eating oatmeal. After that it was off for a day in the air.
I should mention at this point that I brought my stellar lead man, Paul Fitler. Paul spends too much time in jail, too much time in the sauce, and too much time attending to women that can't take care of themselves. He is constantly deep in debt and out of a place to live, and good transportation. He is also the best, and highest paid towerdog in the state. An average week for him is $1000.00 gross. He'll easily double that during his tenure here. In fact, I'd imagine that he may have a $2500.00 week before it’s all over. He has worked for me over eight years. He can't last working for anyone else more than ten days.
We take off Wednesday in a search for fuel, ice, and towers on our maps and find all of them. It is another long hard, hot day. We are constantly greeted with bewildered folks looking at trees impaled in their roofs, cars mangled and electric lines in their yards. We have Entergy signs on the side of the van at this point and when they see those signs their looks are heart wrenching and desperate. We look back with sympathy. They do not understand. They want us to have the answer. They want us to make it all better. They want relief which we cannot give. We give 100% that day and many communications tower sites come back to life. We see the line trucks begin to roll as we leave town. We are glad to have played a part in this process.
Thursday finds us in the office. The telecom crew is going ballistic. There are people everywhere barking out orders. So and so needs 19 phones installed at the office in Hattiesburg , the computers are down at thus and so, the radio system has died at Tylertown and the line crews can't work. The locals see the trucks sitting idle and they are getting angry. The locals don't understand that the line crews can't work unless they know for sure that lines are not energized.
The line crews can't be assured of that unless they have good communications. They can't have good communications unless the telecom guys do their jobs and in turn, unless we get the antennae fixed. So the locals are mad. Mad as Hell.
We listen to all of the banter going back and fourth and suddenly someone is shoving a piece of paper in my face and screaming loudly... Generating station (power plant) South of New Orleans … it's off line... no output... city is dark enough as it is... something has to be done… they need a 20 KW generator ASAP in order to have lights so they can get the plant back in service. Someone has to go. It is a war zone down there. The plant must come back to life... And then the inevitable question: "Will you go?" It echoes in my mind... Will I go? Will I? Can we take that chance? I smile. Actually, I grin. Yeah. I'll go. I give them the inevitable response to their inevitable question. "You bet your sweet ass I'll go... Press hard pal, Five copies"!!!
We top off the tank, load the shotgun, holster the pistols and hit the road. This is going to be a trip to remember. As we head out there are few cars on the road. No gas. The traffic is minimal and we set the cruise on 60 so as to conserve gas. Getting there will be easy. Getting back will not be as assured. I know, however, that we have enough gas to get to the plant and at least back to the Mississippi/Louisiana state line. I've got food, ammo, tents and lots of water. If I get stranded I'll be ok. We drive along saying little. We know that one wrong turn or wrong word at the wrong time to the wrong person could change things real quick.
With the Entergy signs on the truck we glide through every roadblock with ease. Cops don't ask for our ID or license. They don't search us. They really don't even look at us. We are riding on a magic carpet. No one will mess with us. They can see what we have in tow. Ah yes. The generator. The magic elixir that everyone wants.
Generators make oxygen systems work; they bring food refrigeration units back to life; they bring light to the darkness, life to the newborns at the hospital. We have the generator. We are the stewards of all that the citizens hold sacred at the moment. We are the golden boys. They smile us and we smile back.
We get onto I-310 and then onto US 90 headed for the plant and suddenly our swollen heads and large egos begin to shrink. We are greeted by bands of wandering blacks about 15 to 20 in number. Every store front is destroyed. Some buildings are burned. All of the glass is gone from every window. We do a quick mental calculation as to wind direction during the storm. We realize quickly that many of the broken windows are on the downwind side. We see the crowds... it all makes sense then.
We get to the end of US 90 and make our turn towards the plant. We are confronted by a policeman in full riot gear. The intersection is desolate save for him. An industrial wasteland with this one shred of order standing in the road. He reminds me of some cavalryman in Oklahoma in the early 1800's or some sheriff in a town of lawless criminals. He looks over our cargo curiously and gives us a halting look, letting us know that "Entergy trucks have been taking fire in this area. I suggest you remove or cover your decals".
We see the plant up ahead. The sign of the guard lowering his shotgun is a welcome one. We make our delivery and point our truck for Jackson.
The men at the plant we visit with are worried. They don't want to risk the ride home. Some have wives and kids they must attend to. They have no choice. The others opt to sleep in their trucks to avoid venturing from the perceived safety of the 12 gauge in the hands of the guard.
I envy neither of them. Either choice is dangerous. The gangs in the streets are hungry, thirsty and angry. Neither the guard nor the men on the way home are any match for them. The gangs know it and the men know it. For the first time I understand the delicate balance between prison guards and their charges. The criminals really do have the upper hand at some moments. Everyone just allows the perceptions to be different than that.
As we head home among fallen timbers, power lines and buildings we come across a group of cops with side arms drawn and pointed at a group of men. On the ground are 15 or 20 individuals cuffed and laying on their faces. There are 9 or 10 cops and only 5 or 6 in the crowd, save those on the ground, so we figure the cops are winning and we punch it and move on. Every store has the front doors kicked in. One shopkeeper had the brilliant idea of putting his coke machines in front of the doors to prevent entry. The thugs were offended and responded by putting a truck through the windows. After they finished their shopping they left their calling card by way of a Molotov cocktail. How quaint.
I thought we were going to burn a hole in the gas gauge on the way home with our eyes. We calculated and recalculated. Every road sign showing mileage to the next map point was checked and rechecked. We were always cognizant of the five gallon can in the back. The fumes it emanated were like sweet perfume to our olfactories. That was the sweet smell of a soft landing. We knew that we could make it back. We felt good about that.
I thought of the B-29 pilots flying missions over Japan in 1944. Their calculations were much harder and there was much more at stake. I wondered what it was like for them when they ran the numbers and the result was death. What were those last hours like? What did they say to one another? I said a prayer for their souls and paid my respects. Real men. Let me never forget that.
My air mattress coupled with the floor of the Entergy Radio shop at Jackson, MS was a welcome relief. I looked forward to a good night’s sleep only to be haunted by the looks of those on the streets. Why them and not me? I guess I'll always ask that. I always have. Why am I even here? What drives me to do these crazy things? Why would I put my best lead man along with the father of my children in harm’s way? I don't know the answers to those questions. Frankly, I don't really care about the answers. I'm just glad to be safe and alive tonight.
I feel bad for those that are without homes and families tonight and wish I could do something to take away their pain.
I think when it is all over I may go back down to that stretch of Highway 90 where the shops were burned. I think I may go back there and meet with the owners. Yeah. That's what I'll do. I'll meet with them. All that they have worked for was taken away from them by one violent act of nature and many lewd acts of men. I'll go meet with those men and women and engage in commerce with them as I can. And when I do… I'll tell them that I understand. Because I do. And they will know that I do. And in the end… I will know that everything will be OK. And they will know that too.