Monday, August 18, 2003

Channeling Jayson Blair

I’ve been scanning the papers looking for the cause of the blackout. Insane terrorists were quickly dismissed. A lighting bolt, an act of God, was also ruled out. Human error would seem to be the cause.

So far most of the stories have been about the result of the blackout – hot, dirty people sleeping on the street and long walks home. I’m waiting for the look inside the power plants. A look at the guys whose mistakes caused this mess, and the hero in PA who stopped it. I’m waiting for the next kid-rescued-from-the-hole story or miners-trapped-in-the-hole story. Well, wait no longer.

Our story begins in a plant in Ohio. Three guys supervise an army of switches and dials. Little hands waver on half circles marked with numbers. There are some handles for pulling in case the whole place is about to blow. These three guys, Cliff, Hank, and "Smally," are chatting about their plans for fishin’ over the coming weekend. They aren’t really watching the switches and dials, because nothing ever really happens. Every day the same thing, but that’s okay, because it gives them lots of time to talk about fishin’.

As they laugh at Smally’s method for tying flies, the switches and dials start moving slowing to the red, angry side of the semi-circles. They don’t notice until the control panel begins wailing a warning alarm. Lights flash. And the guys turn dumb faced to their equipment that hasn’t so much as whimpered in all their years at the plant.

What to do? The decision falls to Cliff who has the most seniority. Should he pull that large handle in front of him which will localize the problem or will he wait and hope that they can borrow some juice from Canada. What to do? He has seconds to make that decision, and complicating it all is that he is only a couple of years from retirement and the wrong decision will cost him his job and who will hire him at his age. He tells the other guys who are on their feet looking at him, to wait. "Let’s see what happens in Canada."

Then the Dateline camera turns to a map of NE America and Ottawa. Little Christmas lights on the map indicate the location of power plants. Like dominos, the lights are dimmed.

The camera zooms on one little light in Northern Pennsylvania. In the next shot, we meet George, who like the guys in Ohio, is holding down the fort in front of the exact same switches and dials. George is wearing a white, short sleeve shirt that is a little too baggy in the sleeves. From the pocket hangs an ID with an unfortunate picture of him with one eye closed. While absent mindedly munching on an apple, he notices the dials going into the red. And like Cliff, George faces the decision that he never he thought he would have to make. But he pulls.

And the power plant is saved. So is Pennsylvania. And so is most of the South. It takes a while for the media to locate George, because they were busy covering the stories of human misery. It is his local paper that first cracks the story. They take his picture in front of the dials and switches with a big smile and his hands on his hips. It is not long before he has signed over his story to Disney.

Dateline should feel to air my story, along with my notes to their camera crew. I interviewed all these guys personally. Really. It’s all true.

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