Sunday, January 31, 2010

Remnant, Chapter 21


Friday afternoon,
November Seventeenth
2:05 p.m.

Tonya was late, which meant that I had a few more minutes to read a recent status report on County service disruptions. Two more sniper incidents had taken out the engine blocks of County plows out in East Farms, out near the Idaho state line. Single shot, fifty caliber round. No one wounded. The loss of the truck, which was abandoned in place until scarce military units could arrive to go hunting, meant that both road links to North Idaho would be closed with the snowfall.  I was still reading, and pondering how far away the sniper had to be to take out a moving truck, when Tonya Lincoln knocked on the doorframe.

“Sorry I’m late Rick. Problems, problems.”

“Apology accepted, and I have some more bad news for you.”

“Add it to the pile,” she said as she shook my hand.  She was smartly dressed as always, today in a cream colored business jacket that accentuated her African heritage and beaming smile.

“Interested in a new job?” I teased. She knew what was coming, I was fairly sure.

“If it comes with better pay and less hours, sure,” she said with a little bit of a snicker. Tonya worked more hours at her job than anybody in the senior staff.  And the pay stunk.

“It is what you make it. I’ve been asked to accept a commission in the Guard by Dave Hall.” Tonya had met Governor Hall at a conference in late September, while I was still laid up in bed. “I want you to take over my position, with a starter course beginning right now.”

“Kinda sudden isn’t it?”

“I’m feeling pressure from above, it seems…”

“And things flow downhill,” she said, cleaning up the analogy from the waste-plumbing version to something more civilized.

“They do. You have anyone to move up to fill in as Commerce Director?”

“My deputy director. He knows the system and what I expect of him, and most importantly knows what works and doesn’t.”

“Good enough. Now, to get you up to speed on some more bad things going on, we’re losing most of our rail capacity effective tomorrow,” I said, ready to gauge her reaction. She was unsurprised.

“We saw this coming, not that there’s anything we can do about it anyway.”

“You’re taking that, well, better than I did. I was ticked.”

“Armies move on wheels. When you have the wheels, you become pretty popular.”

“Impact locally?”

“We’re running a deficit for three more weeks, due to stepped up shipping from southern Idaho, Utah, Montana, and Oregon. We bought a lot of stuff in anticipation of losing rail.”

“Stuff?” I asked, with more than a little surprise. We had as a standing order, doing everything in our power to run a ‘balanced budget.’

“I apologize for overstepping, but we traded two months worth of lumber production for livestock, canned goods, cement, and dehydrated foods. We also have a request from the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory that we’re not yet able to fulfill.”

“What’re they looking for?” I asked, dismissing Commerce’s ‘overstepping’ their spending authority. It was prudent, assuming we could meet the production order for lumber.  Our one working mill  didn’t exist in Spokane before the Domino, or not in operating condition. The mill had been shuttered and been slated for demolition. The earthquakes fixed that, though.

“Mil-spec aluminum.”

“Your ears burning today?” I asked. “Mike and I were talking about Kaiser not two hours ago.”

“Makes sense. It’s a huge resource we’ve all but ignored,” she replied.  “Preliminary analysis by one of the former plant workers said it’s four weeks from a return to operation, with the right amount of labor thrown at it and adequate raw materials.”

“OK, then. You’re ahead of me again. I was wondering if anyone had taken time to check it out.”

“The Valley team did, last week. It’s been on the list for awhile, but we needed to find somebody who knew enough about it to pronounce judgment.”

“Who’d you find?”

“Ex-crane operator….that was his last job there. Retired three years ago. Started out sweeping floors. Did everything of consequence in the production line. Worked the hot-line up at the old Mead plant, too, before they shut that down.”

“So back to INL,” I said, using the acronym for the National Lab, “what are they looking for?”

“Request said they’re looking for shaped mil-spec aluminum and specialty alloy products. Beyond that, they didn’t specify.  They did say that the other plants in Washington, like the old one over on the Columbia…”

“North of Wenatchee,” I interrupted.

“Right. Alcoa plant, I think, was too badly damaged to produce for the foreseeable future. Longview plant is coming back, but it will be awhile too.”

“They check with Columbia Falls? Over in Montana?”

“They’ve locked up production at that plant for the next two years.”

Had I heard that right? “Two years?”

“That’s what they told me.”

“They want the same from us?”

“I would not be a bit surprised. This plant I think is more advanced than the Columbia Falls plant.”

“Hmm,” I said, thinking of the potential.  “That’s great news, Tonya. Good job.”

“It’ll be great news if we can make it happen.”

“Hopefully from this chair you’ll find a way to make it happen. Some advice though…”

“Absolutely,” she replied deferentially, which was not necessary, I thought. She had a good head on her shoulders, or she wouldn’t have the job she had.  There were a lot of days that I thought that I ought to be working for her, not the other way ‘round.

“Stay close to the ground here. Don’t get desk bound, get out in the field with staff and the field crews. Run away from the power mongers. Better yet, put them in places where they can’t muck anything up. Do the job, and get out. Don’t let it run you, because given the chance, it will.”

“Sage advice.”

“There are things you can do. There are things you can’t, even though you might want to. Do what’s necessary. We’ve seen too much of the former and not enough of the latter for too many decades to count. Necessary is unpopular, sometimes ugly, and quite utilitarian. Necessary is cheaper though for the population, but won’t make you all that popular.”

“Sounds like you’ve been in this job for thirty years.”

“No, but there are days that it feels like it.  This is one of them,” I said. “There’s a stack of electronic paper that comes in every hour, more than you can take in, which then affects your decision-making. One task though that you cannot delegate is recovery planning, and that really needs to be the highest priority.”

“We’ve been busy just keeping things going,” Tonya said, correctly.

“Right. But where are we going? If we just focus on the now, the immediate, the next meal, and blunder along that way, we’re likely to never really progress. Just exist. That isn’t succeeding.”

“Suggestions?” she asked. “You’ve obviously been thinking about this for a while.”

“Gave me something to do while confined to bed, as well as retraining myself to think.”

“Got it---you don’t seem the type to ever rest,” Tonya said with a smile.

“Like I used to tell one of my pastors, ‘I’ll rest when I’m dead,’” I said as I stood up to stretch, and look out at the snow and the east wind. “Recovery doesn’t come from an office and it isn’t imposed on people. It has to come from them and they have to want to be engaged. They need to be part of their community locally and feel that their voices are heard. We’ve tried to do that, but it’s been more of trying to help them and less of trying to get them moving forward,” I said, leaning back on the windowsill. “Sometimes I think we’re failing them,” I said with some frustration.

“Without being part of the whole process, they’ll never be engaged. They need to relearn the cost of freedom, the price of it, and that complaining about their elected representatives can only be fixed by putting the right people in place and keeping them accountable,” I said, “and that’s not what we have in place throughout most of the State, and probably most of the country. Sure as Hell not in the S.A.”

“Agreed, but what did you have in mind? I mean here? I’m not sure I know where you’re going with this.”

“I’m not sure I know myself. I think at a minimum though, the population in the urban area is under-represented. The Township system works fine for nice, even representation in rural areas, but it’s unfair to the more dense areas—we haven’t really paid enough attention to moving forward. And the townsmen keep loading up their relatives in jobs they’re not qualified for. Find a way to differentiate the two, but provide balance, and deal with the rural and urban issues fairly,” I said, finally coming to my conclusion. “I think the point I’m trying to make is this: Get the neighborhoods to use their voices. Have them elect a representative, make sure they’re having scheduled discussions, votes, whatever, to make sure that you’re hearing what they want you to hear. Term limit them too, so you don’t have the same three percent running the show all the time. What you’re really doing is grooming a generation of new leaders, from the ground up.”

“Teaching them to lead.”

“Yep. You can’t force it on somebody—they have to have the spark to want to make a change.  I think once that process is really going, the workload of the person in that chair,” I said, pointing at the chair she’d be occupying shortly, “will go down precipitously. As it should.”

She thought about my statement, which was not really something I planned on talking about in the slightest. It was just on my mind.

“So, you still interested in the job?” I asked.

She looked at me for a moment, “Perhaps now more than before.”

“Good. Right answer.”

By four p.m., Tonya was at the saturation point, and I’d talked myself hoarse, reviewing Metro-wide organizational issues, reviewing staffing needs, reviewing procedures for our new ‘flash traffic’ alerts to Metro supervisors and line crews. I then gave her one of the laptops with more gigs of information than she could consume for her evening read.  She shook my hand, thanked me for the opportunity, and headed back to her office. I was sure she had a pile of work to do herself, and to get her replacement up to speed.

I could tell she’d be a good fit for the job, perhaps permanently. Maybe come next fall, we could have new elections for a new leadership structure that depended more on equal representation and less on the shoulders of one person. She’d be a good candidate, I thought as I sat back in my chair.

“Mr. Drummond? This just came in. Flash traffic again, sorry,” one of the communications staff said as she handed me a canary yellow piece of paper.

“Everything’s an emergency,” I said. “Thanks,” I said as dug out my reading glasses. Central Command. ‘Great’, I thought. ‘Another missive from Austin.’

16:01:00 HOURS


Tactical analysis of attacks against civilian infrastructure has been identified as functionally identical to swarm attacks used in Iraq and Afghanistan against US forces. ‘Swarms’ in those cases are small groups of three to five acting autonomously to disrupt and destroy targets of opportunity within a specific region over a period of days or weeks. The groups may work together or may be working individually within previously identified regions.

Swarm attacks are intended to demoralize the population through constant harassment and disruption of infrastructure, communications and basic services. Personnel are not typically targeted unless they have been identified as crucial to repair and reinstatement of services. Enemy agents conducting the swarm attack may blend into the civilian population, may pose as military, or may be concealed during part or all of their operations. Weapons include common-caliber rifles, handguns, and improvised devices.

All commands are ordered to pursue swarm agents with all resources available. It is noted that no swarm agents have been captured alive during current operations, and have killed EMTs and civilians trying to treat their wounds.

CENTCOM recommends civilian leadership inform the civilian population immediately of the current threat and tactics of the enemy.

End transmission, 16:01:03

“Swell,” I said to myself, reaching for the phone.

By the time I was heading out the door, with my security detail in front and flanking me, the notice was being broadcast to the general public on both public radio stations, AM and FM. TV was gone again, with the transmitter taken out I’d read, by an armor-piercing round from a 30.06. I had a case of those myself, squirreled away. I wondered how many others were out there.

The ride home tonight was shared with a couple of our community center directors and staffers from out in Liberty Lake, who’d catch the Line at Fancher Road.   The wide-ranging conversation covered most of the plausible scuttlebutt about the War, with me holding my tongue when I ought to have. 

“So, Mr. Drummond, who’re you rooting for this basketball season?” Liberty Lake center director Jeff Bronson asked.  A change of topic was welcome. I was weary of war talk.

“Central Valley Combined,” I said. “But Jeff, I’m prejudiced. I went to the old CV. Kids were at University High before it hit the fan.”  The combined Central Valley district, far smaller than before the war, conducted specialized high school classes at one of the former middle schools roughly in the center of the Valley. Most academic classes were held in neighborhoods, at elementaries that were universally in walking distance.

“You don’t think North Valley or one of the City schools can make a show?” 

“You sound like an alum of one of the former schools in those districts.”

“No, I went to Ferris just after the last Ice Age. I just hear a lot of talk on that sports channel on CB.”  One of the single-digit CB channels had been taken over in a local version of sports talk radio. When there was no dependable television or radio, or when the network coverage of the War, or the inane sitcom reruns were too much, there was always Fat Mickey and Rabbit to keep the locals entertained. I’d discovered them myself right after getting out of the hospital. They had a pretty good following, with comments coming to them on the adjacent frequencies. Three hours a day, they gave people something else to focus on. I’d like to meet those guys. I wondered what they did for a real job. Hopefully something legal.

“Kerry Jacobson will clean up,” I said. Kerry was a classmate of Carl during grade school. He was now six foot five, I’d heard.  I’d seen him play league ball against Carl, and Carl learned to his dismay that basketball wasn’t in his future. “Phenomenal shooter, saw him hit from half-court three times last year.” 

“Yeah, but North Valley….they got that kid, what’s his name….Aveolela. That Samoan kid,” Jeff’s assistant said.

“Haven’t heard too much about him.”

“I heard that one of the Cal schools was recruiting him before the War,” Jeff replied.

“Well, if they were, they were probably violating more than a few rules,” I said. “Like that matters.”

“We’ll all be home in time for the game, and we’ll just wait and see,” Jeff said as we pulled near the train platform.  “Channel three, I think. Starts at seven.”

“Where are they playing?”

“The old Trentwood middle school, I think.”

“I might have to listen in,” I said. “Be a nice change of pace.”

“Take care, Mr. Drummond. Thanks for the lift outbound,” Jeff said in thanks. “You saved us an hour.”

“No problem guys. Take it easy,” I said as the door closed.

“I’ll tell ya, sir, no disrespect, but City Central’s gonna mop up when the Valley schools play ‘em,” my driver, a buck sergeant contributed.

“Speaking as if you know, Sergeant?”

“Yes, sir. Our unit was billeted at North Central where they practice. They’ve got five starters that could be playing college ball anywhere. The smallest of them is six-six. My money’s on them all the way.”

“Good to know when it comes to wagers,” I said.

“Sir, I don’t bet unless I’m dead sure I’m right.”

“Neither do I, Sarge. Neither do I.”

Fifteen minutes later, the Sarge dropped me at the gate, where Buck decided that my glove looked like a chew toy, despite my hand being inside. He was playing tug of war, ‘talking’ with me as we wrestled up to the porch. I looked up the street, and saw lights on up at two of our recently vacated homes.

“Buck, we’ve got new neighbors. Looks like Alan and Ron made an executive decision. Good for them, huh?” I said, giving him a tug and a smack on the top of his head. That served to encourage him all the more.

I unlocked the front door, and heard a kitchen full of noisy friends and relatives. Kelly ran up and gave me a hug.

“Hiya Daddy. How’s your day?”

“Pretty average. Yours?”

“Great! We learned how to make jalapeno cheese today, and can it of course, and I got an ‘A’ on my advanced placement exam.”

“Good for you! My day wasn’t quite so exciting.”

“Do you have to go in tomorrow? To work I mean.”

“Nope. Monday. Which should be my last day.”  That let the air out of her balloon.

“Are you going in the…Army then?” She looked worried already.

“No. I’ll go in on Monday for awhile, but that’ll be it. Tonya Lincoln, you remember her? She’s taking over for me next week.  I’ll go in after Thanksgiving,” I said, as Ron and Libby noticed me.

“Friday night, and you need a drink,” Ron said from behind Lib.

“How’s your day?” Libby asked.

“Too early to tell. Maybe after I decompress with whatever Ron’s going to serve me….” I said as I stowed my pack and shucked off my shell and shirt-jacket.  “Where’s Karen?” I asked.

“She’s over at her Mom’s. Should be back in a bit. Sarah’s over there with one of the Doc’s. Mom took a fall this afternoon,” Ron said.

“And Alan and Mary are with her too,” Libby added, passing me the drink that Ron was cradling.

“She OK?” I asked as I took a drink. Bourbon. Very, very good bourbon.

“Might be a concussion. Might be a hip, too. Maybe, more,” Ron said with appropriate gravity.

“When did this happen?” I asked. I don’t think it had hit me then.

“About an hour ago. Karen didn’t want to call you—she knew that you couldn’t get here any sooner anyway.  We’re helping out with her canning, and by extension, dinner. She was processing a bunch of meat for canning when Mary called over. She called us to finish up.”

“Thanks. Should I go over?” I asked, probably a stupid question.

“Probably a good idea,” Libby said.

“Hence, the drink?” I asked.

“These days, yes. This might not end up well,” Ron said.

“Thanks. Where’s Carl?”

“Down in the radio room. Sounds like the fighting in Colorado’s getting pretty intense,” Ron said. “He came back over a little while ago.”

“Yeah. Heard a little of that myself,” I said, taking another swig.

“What does the S.A. have in Colorado worth fighting for?” Lib asked, perhaps rhetorically.

“Pride. I can’t imagine what else,” I said honestly.

“Especially in the winter. I can’t imagine what that must be like,” Libby said, obviously putting her son in the position of the replacement ground soldier in a winter offensive.

“John will be OK, Lib,” I said, taking her hand and giving it a squeeze. “I better go across the field.”

“I’m ready, Daddy. Here’s your heavy coat,” Kelly said, handing me my Eddie Bauer parka.

“Your job to shuttle me over?”

“After giving you a minute to decompress, and have Aunt Libby and Uncle Ron get you that drink, yes.”

“You’re what, fourteen going on thirty?”

“Some days, yep. C’mon,” she said. “Oh, and Mrs. Amberson won’t be able to make it. The twins are coming down with a bad cough. Carl got that on your County radio from the Sheriff.”

“Darn,” I said. “Probably just as well all told.” I said. “You put her up to all of this?” I asked Libby.

“Nope, this she came up with all on her own.”

“Ron, you and Alan get the new houses filled up?” I asked.

“Yeah—we’ll go over that later. They’re good choices.”

“Karen and Mary and I made the final choices,” Libby said.

“Well then, I’m sure we’re good. Be back in awhile,” I said. Thanks, you two.”

“Glad to do it. Now get moving,” Libby said, giving me a hug.

Across the ‘back forty’ as we called it, the house was fully lit up.  Kelly and I walked without much talk across the field, without Buck or Ada to scout.

We entered through the back door, and Karen met us there.

“How’s she doing?”

“Stubborn as a Kansas mule,” she said. “Not great.”

I could hear Sarah and one of the doctors from the clinic down the hall in Grace’s bedroom.  “Is she going to be OK?” I asked as I embraced my wife, who was starting to tear up.

“They’re stitching up her head. Cut her scalp when she fell. Landed wrong on her chair too, and might have broken her hip or her pelvis.  She has a lot of pain in her back, too.”

“Dang. Any idea how she fell?”

“No. She doesn’t remember it. Mary and Rachel heard her. They were downstairs when it happened. Mark was outside.”


“Probably soon. Ambulances were all busy.  Doc Abernathy made a call though.”

“Can I go in?”

“Sure. I had to get out for a minute.”

“OK. Be right back.”

“Kel, give your Mom a hug. And say a prayer for your Grandma.”


Back in the bedroom, I quietly entered the room, where Grace had been mildly sedated, and relatively immobilized. Sarah was finishing up the sutures as Sandy Abernathy looked on. Alan was staying out of the way, and Mary I noted was in the room across the hall, keeping the little ones out of the way, but keeping an eye on Grace, too.

“Hey,” I said softly to Alan, “How’s she doing?”

“I heard that, and I’m fine,” Grace said, with eyes closed.

“Mom, hush now. They’re going to take you to Valley to check you out.”

“Waste of time. I’ll be fine tomorrow.”

“Don’t argue, Grace. You’re outnumbered,” Sandy said. “And I’m tougher than you are.”

“Fine general practitioner you turned out to be,” Grace said with a wince as Sarah tied off the last stitch. “Not so tight, dear, unless you’re trying to take the wrinkles out.”

“Sorry, Grace. Kinda new at this.”

“I noticed,” Grace said as I heard a vehicle out front.

“Bus is here,” another unfamiliar voice said.  I heard the voice, talking to a radio, “Transport in five….”

“Look at it this way, Mom. You get breakfast in bed for awhile,” I said, trying to put a cheery spin on it.

“In a pig’s eye. You ever had a catheter?”

“Why yes I have, and recently,” I replied. “Maybe they’ll get you a nice male nurse,” I said as I heard the gurney enter the living room and unfold.   I stepped out of the room, and called over to the house on Alan’s hand-held radio, and made a quick request of Ron. 

“Grace, we’re going to move you now,” Doctor Abernathy said calmly. “I want you to relax and let us do all the work, OK?”

“Like I have a choice?”

“Tensing up while we move you might cause some more problems. And pain. If we do this, you’ll be more comfortable, OK?”

“All right, let’s get this over with,” she said.

“Clear the room please,” Sarah asked, quite officially.

We filed out of the room as the parameds moved in.

“You going to the hospital?” I asked Alan and Karen.

“I think so,” Karen said. “Alan?”


“Ron’s bringing the car around,” I said. “Kel, are you OK to stay here with the kids and Mary?”

“Yep. We’ll be fine.”

“You need anything, call Ron or Libby. OK?”

“We’ll be fine. We’ll play some games and make some popcorn. Just let me know how Gram’s doing when you can.”

“Thanks, babe,” I said as Grace was moved out the front door. “We’ll find a way to call over soon.”

“K. Love you.”

“You, most,” she said as I gave her a hug.

Another fifteen minutes, and we were camped in the ER at Valley General.

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