In celebration of my having work, I present something that requires no thinking (on my part).
DANCES WITHOUT FEATHERS
Part I of III
Kick…two, three, four…twist…six, seven, eight…hip walk, hip walk—pause—pivot step and…bow.
I didn’t need the pivot step—the clouds started forming by the first hip walk.
Call me a perfectionist, but it’s attention to detail that separates the good from the great meteorologist. And if you’re doing jazz—my specialty—you have to have style.
The farmer whose fields I had just danced over was appreciative. He gave me a clap, which coincided with a brief peal of thunder just before the rain started.
I had been called out by the Wichita Central office of the National Weather Service to do a small, private irrigation job. It was an unusual request for this time of year, but I didn’t complain. I needed the gig. Spring is a dry time for rainmakers like me; too much competition from Mother Nature.
The farmer had an NWS account and wouldn’t be paying cash, which meant that I’d have to wait six months for my pay day.
I could dance up a storm, but that wasn’t making me rich. Any rainmaking I did “fell as precipitation and not pennies from heaven.” That lousy pun was Flinty’s. He used it with all freelancers to comfort us while we sat tight, waiting for our money. He’d have his joke and laugh and laugh. Big fun.
I was sweaty and out of breath and I needed a beer, but I had to check in first—which I wouldn’t have had to do if I were in the service. The Weather Service, that is. The prestigious, full-fledged Feathered Uniform Forces.
The feathers were a holdover from the old days. I don’t mean from the Cherokee—although we influenced early researchers—but from when weather dancing was a new science. Feathers (from birds of prey only) are “turbulent sticky”, meaning they tame non-laminar flow. In English, this means feathers calm the air so that it becomes “chaos predictable”. Turbulent air can’t be danced. Expert dancers didn’t need the feathers, but it was tough to buck tradition.
I got in my car and punched “office” and soon the real reason I didn’t enlist showed outside my port window. The Chorus Line. The Kansas branch of it, anyway. The biggest group was in Oklahoma, with Texas right behind. Every newbie weatherdancer had to put in time on the Line.
Their job was to perform an almost endless Rockettes-like kick dance, arms linked, knees to the chin, the whole nine yards. They were at it three, four hours every day in the spring. They looked like complete idiots.
“But Fred,” Flinty always called me Fred, after Astaire of course, because he knew it irritated me. He also knew I modeled my best work after the old hoofer, “The Chorus Line performs a necessary function. Why, since they began their routine there hasn’t been even one tornado anywhere in the tri-state area.”
“What about Tulsa?”
“Oh, yeah.” Flinty reminisced, already chuckling. “Tulsa. If Brakowski hadn’t got that Charley horse and thrown off his high kick…Well, these things happen.”
“These things” being an F5 tornado. It rumbled through the center of town and onto the Tulsa Drillers’ minor league ball field on what had up until then been a sunny Saturday afternoon. Killed everybody in right field bleachers. Served them right for being cheap. People who sat in box seats got away without a scratch. Something good did come of it. The Drillers were ahead 7-5 when the tornado hit, but since they had played 7 innings, the game went down as a badly needed win. They even made the playoffs that year.
I got back to the office and tossed my signed chit on Flinty’s desk.
“I ain’t accepting this, Freddy-boy.” He kicked back in his chair and re-lit his forbidden cigar, blew the smoke into an electronic filter. A good one, because the cigar smell was barely noticeable. Everybody knew about Flinty’s cigars, but he had never been caught smoking by any Higher Ups. The chair uttered its soft and familiar clicking grown. I wondered again how it could take his heft without breaking.
“What now, Flinty? Job is done.”
“No, it isn’t. The farmer called ten minutes ago complaining that you dropped a butt-load of hail on his fields. Says he’s screwed and has to re-seed. He’s pissed.” He saw me about to protest and held up his palm. :Hail, Freddy. I already checked it.”
He swung his monitor around and showed me successive satellite shots. Clear sky, then clouds, rain, and, sure enough, hail. Right after I left.
There wasn’t a lot of hail—the farmer was exaggerating—but there shouldn’t have been any. I did the standard rain dance. How did hail come out of it?
“What dance did you do?”
I admitted it. “The same number I always do for small fields like this. I checked with the Lorenz Group before I went out. Conditions were OK.”
Flinty shook his head. “The jazz routine, right?” More cigar puffing, more complaints from his chair. “Freddy, you know a slow waltz is standard.”
“Yeah, well, the waltz takes twice as long.”
“But it always works. You freelancers. Always cutting corners.” He chomped down on the cigar, narrowed his eyes through the smoke, gave me a look. “Or were you trying to show off?”
I kept my mouth shut while he pulled out some paperwork. “I’ll have to comp the guy, and after he re-seeds you’ll have to go back out there.” He paused for the best part, pointing his cigar at me. “And I’ll have to halve your rate on this one, Freddy.”
“Look, Flinty, you —”
“Look, nothing. You’re lucky to get anything out of this. Service don’t need no negative publicity.”
I plunked down into a chair, thinking about my empty wallet. “This is going to leave me short.”
He punched a few keys. Looked me over, sighed, and took a draw from the cigar. “I don’t have anything now. Why don’t you go downstairs?”
I nodded. “I’m sorry about the hail. Won’t happen again.”
“Yeah, I know. These things happen.”
“Downstairs” was the Lorenz Group, where they kept the brains of the outfit. That meant the computers, the geeks who programmed them, and the brains who told the geeks what to program. Dancers weren’t trained here, but in the Florida Keys, where any mistakes could dissipate harmlessly over the ocean.
The original rain dance research began at the Severe Storms Lab, down in Norman, Oklahoma. You probably heard that that office was destroyed in a training accident. Officially, it was a training accident. But it’s an open secret that the guy who started the program—Cecil Lang—pushed things too far, too fast, and that the accident wouldn’t have happened had he been less zealous.
At the time of the incident, predictive chaos had only just begun be investigated systematically and made a real science. Lang contributed the first theorems on how the rain dance could push the air one way here and have it move another way there. The Dance was developed as a way of controlling the Butterfly Effect. A lot of cultures through history hit on the idea of rain dancing, but was Lang who figured out how to make it reliable.
What happened? Lang wanted to control all weather, everywhere. No more hurricanes, no tornadoes, no floods. No blizzards, no droughts, no heat waves. Ambitious. But his dances were too complicated and could only be mastered by a few. One false step and, well, you get what happened. He and his recruits created a storm so big that…Let me put it this way: there’s this ancient Ray Stephen’s song (Speedball; my old ma is a big fan of 20th century music) describing a motorcycle crash where the lady rider just smeared her lipstick…aallllll over the highway. Lang just caused a breeze, and spread the Storms Lab aallllll over the highway. Killed most everybody.
Anyway, that was history. Now, I couldn’t stop thinking about that hail. Where did I go wrong? I mentally went through each step, checking my hand positions. A common rookie mistake is to forget about the hands. But, no, my hands were on target. Everything seemed OK. Only thing that was different from my last dance was that I had the heels replaced on my soft-shoes. New heels could account for the lightning, but not the hail.
Letting it bug me would be a mistake. It would affect my dance and then I’d make more mistakes, which would make me worry more, and so on. A negative feedback. I knew all about feedback. We dancers build our lives around feedback.
I walked past Dawn, gave her a smile. She didn’t smile back. I wasn’t surprised: women take longer to forgive than men. I went by the math guys, who were gathered around a desk, arms waving, arguing about something. Despite what you might have heard, mathematicians are high strung. Least little thing sets them off. Least little mathematical thing, that is.
I ignored them and went all the way back to Rapheson’s office. As usual, he was standing with his back to the door, tracing out equations in the air with his forefinger. This would have affected the weather, incidentally, at least on a small scale, had the Group not been sealed off from the air outside.
Rapheson was one of Lang’s surviving recruits and the man who had pushed the field farther than any other since Lang’s death. I knocked on his open door.
Took a couple of knocks, but he finally noticed me. “Ah, Mr. Blackfox.”
“Just saying hi, doc.” I tried the friendly approach.
“Looking for work, eh?” No fooling the doc.
“Somebody’s gotta pay my bar tab. Might as well be me.” I took a seat.
Rapheson smiled. “Good thing you came by. I was going to put the word out for you. Wait a minute.” He walked over to a map which took up an entire wall. “See this? We’ve begun to notice some anomalies.” He indicated a couple of spots.
“I thought anomalies were your business.”
His bushy eyebrows furrowed to form a large V. He peered over his glasses and said in a concerned voice, ?They are, the controllable ones. But not these. What we’re seeing—and I stress it’s only on a small scale and sporadic—are events that appear direc…That have not been predicted.” He stopped, narrowed his eyes and appeared to be waiting for me to say something. I didn’t. He went on in a lighter tone. “Why, it’s like the old days of forecasting, when we had no idea whether or not precipitation would occur.”
“‘Red sky at night’ doesn’t mean what it use to.” Maybe I should have mentioned the hail, but I was thinking more of the possible gig.
“Not that bad. Not yet. Here’s what I’d like…” He thought for a moment, chewed his nails. “Here. I want you to go here,” his wet finger hit a spot on the Texas panhandle, “and make me a cirrocumulus. Let’s see…” a few mental calculations “about six and a half klicks up. Plus or minus, say, a quarter klick. The size doesn’t matter, but it should be visible from the ground. And I need it by tomorrow noon. Can you do that?”
“Oh, sure. No problem.”
Problem. The higher the cloud, the more work, and the longer the dance. It’s not that cirrocumulus were weird or anything: cumulus were the easiest clouds to make. It was the six kilometers that worried me. Worse—I shuddered—it meant ballet.