Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Remnant, Chapter 10


I had just enough time to grab a bite to eat at the cafeteria before getting ready for Pete’s memorial service. I’d started to work through another pile of reports on my desk, and realized that time had drifted away from me.  I noted outside, the snow was drifting as well.
The cafeteria was located in the old, ornate County Courthouse building, designed to imitate a French castle, and completed in the 1890’s. The quake had caused significant damage, which would require far more resources than we had available to repair. The damaged portions were boarded up to keep the weather out, and power was off in about ninety percent of the building. If things remained on the course they were on, it would resemble Frankenstein’s castle in another ten years.
The offices held a skeleton crew of staff for the mid-day meal, just enough people to keep information flowing in case there was some urgency that wouldn’t wait until after lunch. Most of the staff had either headed to lunch in the cafeteria or over to their temporary quarters over in the Public Safety building.  I grabbed a tray and was served a pasta-heavy casserole, with some ground beef and a creamed corn-looking sauce, along with a large wheat roll.  A far cry from the pre-War days, when there were ‘choices’ of what one could have for lunch.
I recognized a few of the staff from my floor as I shook the snow off my boots, and headed over to their table. I noted that there was some whispering about ‘who was coming over’ as I approached.

“Afternoon everyone. Mind if I join you?” I asked.

“No, sir. Please do,” one of the building department guys said. His name escaped me.   Had we met?

“Thanks. I’m Rick Drummond. You are?” I asked as I set my tray down.

“Dub Henshaw,” he said as we shook hands. “I think we met before your trip down south.”

“Right,” I said, remembering now.  “Pardon me for not remembering. You’re W.T., right?” remembering a lively discussion on his first and middle names, unknown to everyone, even the Human Resource department. Dub held multiple degrees, the most notable a structural engineering degree from Northeastern University, I recalled.

“Yep, that’s me. And no apologies necessary for the memory. You’ve been through some tough times.”

“I have at that, as have many of us,” I said, deflecting the attention from my own bumpy past.  “Since I have you for a minute, let me ask you a question.”

“Shoot,” he said, taking a seat.

“Snow loads on undamaged and damaged buildings. How much can they carry? Obviously it varies, but what do you think is a safe amount?”

“Pre-War undamaged buildings could take several feet of depth, it really depends on the moisture content. Forty pounds per square foot was the minimum requirement.”

“OK, so real-world, say that we’re in the third week of October and it snows, and we have eight or eighteen inches on the ground. And say, it keeps going off and on through March. What are we facing?” I asked, knowing the answer, as I took a bite of the casserole. Too much pepper.

“Without removing a sizeable portion of overburden, collapse, of course.”

“Right. Can you figure out, based on some of the sloppy patchwork construction that has passed for interim repairs, when we’re going to be needing to remove snow?”

“Commercial buildings will be the biggest threat. Flat roofs, no snowmelt,” he said, thinking it over more thoroughly.

“Right. And those comprise the balance of our salvaged materials warehousing, food warehouses, and a slug of small industries and residences. Have you seen any problems of this nature yet?”

“None in permanently occupied shelters, but we’ve lost temporary shelters---basically beefed up carports, already due to wind and rain. Not snow, yet anyway.”

“Can you get some staff to look into that? We can’t afford to lose what we’ve got.”

“I can do that.”

“Need any additional bodies to throw at it?”

“Always,” Dub said with a grin. “You’ve got a magic supply of structural engineers in your private stash?”

“No, but you might be able to put together a training session for some of our need-work people, and have a professional supervise a team of temp employees. Would double or quadruple your force,” I said, taking another bite.

“That might work. Timeline?”

“Well, looking outside, I’d say sooner rather than later.”

“I’ll have a training outline put together by the morning. How many people can you supply for me as temps?”

“A report on my desk that I just finished, said that we have six hundred unemployed men and women looking for something to do in eleven neighborhoods around town. And that number is growing.”

“I’m sure we can use at least some of them,” he said. “Pardon me for askin’, but how are you gonna pay them?”

“Working on that.”

“Good enough. If you’ll excuse me, I appear to have a new task to complete,” Dub said, rising to go.  I stood as well.

“I hope I didn’t sidetrack your other work too much.”

“We’ll get by. Engineering for maintenance and bulk material storage facilities. None of them are at risk from what you’ve mentioned though. They’ll wait.”

“Thanks, Dub. Let me know when you’re ready with your training outline. I’ll set up training sessions in the neighborhoods and get some of these folks to work.”

“Will do. See you tomorrow.”

I finished lunch, chiming in a little on staff conversations of the train derailment that took lives and some of our hopes, correcting some of the rumors with fact.  We wrapped up lunch and I headed back to the office to get cleaned up a little before Pete’s service. 

By five minutes of two, the Auditorium was full to standing room only. Mike Amberson had thoughtfully saved me a seat in the front row, near the rest of our department heads. Townsmen filled three rows, behind five rows of uniformed deputies and police officers.
We stood as the colors were presented by the Sheriff’s Honor Guard, and only took our seats when the priest of Pete’s ‘home church’, St. Aloysius, over on the Gonzaga campus, beckoned us to prayer.
As the service continued through hymns, eulogies and prayers, my thoughts kept returning to the many services that I’d attended this past year, and in years past, with each seeming to be more personal and poignant than the last.
Someone once said to me, that each loss we experienced was like the loss of a library of life experience, never to be retold, regained, or known again. I could not disagree.
By three o’clock, the service had ended and we slowly filed out of the Auditorium, and back upstairs towards our offices. I noted that as we did so, the law enforcement officers and military units in formal dress stood at attention and saluted a photograph of Pete, draped with a black cloth ribbon, as it was carried to the Public Safety building. It would join fifty-six other photographs in the entry lobby, each officer lost since the first of the year.

Back in my office, I was greeted by a half dozen emails through the buildings’ intranet system. Tonya Lincoln provided a nice summary on ‘normalization of trade procedures with the eastern States’ and ‘pacification of rail corridors through Oregon and Northern California’. Her attachments appeared to show the locations of the attack on our train and on six interstate highway chokepoints, all allegedly under the control of a single ‘entity.’  I thought it odd that she didn’t use the word, ‘gang.’   I saved the lengthy memo to my flash-drive to read later, at home. I wasn’t up to reading fifteen pages of text, and three in the transmittal letter, and wasn’t about to waste the paper on printing it.
The Personnel Department forwarded back their recommendation on accepting Dean Akers as ‘Engineer in Training.’ He’d be sharing time between Utilities and Transportation Departments. I fumbled with the keyboard, unaccustomed to the computer, as I gave them my thanks for addressing my request so promptly.
The next email, again from Personnel provided me notice that Akers’ permanent replacement would be selected from the current County employee ‘pool’, and if no suitable candidate could be found, then the position would be opened up to the general public. I assumed that this was standard pre-War procedure. For the time being the position would be filled by a ‘temp’ employee selected from a pool of applicants who were not currently employed by the County. I suppose this was a way to get their foot in the door. As some would say, a way of ‘sidling up to the public trough.’
By four-fifteen I was dragging, and I could hear the sounds of the second-shift—which I suppose I was on as well—getting packed up or meeting with third-shift staff to inform them of progress on assignments. First shift—midnight to eightish, would do the same for second shift tomorrow.
The whole two- or three-shift system was set up right after we found our feet in the spring, and was working fairly well. First shift was really a skeleton crew, about a third of our normal staff level throughout all departments. They were really there to handle continuing assignments on infrastructure, administration, supply and finance, and ‘crisis management.’ Second shift was the baseline against which first- and third-shifts were created, with full staffing in all positions, during a ‘normal’ workday, five days a week, although many worked six.
Pre-War, the County had about twenty-seven hundred employees. We now were making do with two hundred forty-one, about half of which weren’t employed by the County a year before. The loss of institutional memory, let alone skills, was crippling.  In order to make the infrastructure work better, or more consistently, or to repair damage, we needed more people. In order to provide a higher level of service in the ‘peace officer’ category, we needed more deputies. We needed more firemen. Nurses. Engineers. The list would fill pages. The problem was, we didn’t have enough money—real money—to hire anyone beyond the staff we already had, and we were flirting with not having any money on a monthly basis. Our governmental financial system was a cobbled-together mishmash of bartering, compensation in silver or ever-scarce gold, or payments of food or other goods. It couldn’t last forever.
Our ‘economy’ would get to a point in the near future, where savings outstripped spending, taking ‘real money’ out of circulation, and ‘traded and bartered’ goods would not be able to fill the void.

‘What then?’ I wondered, as the desk intercom reminded me that my ride home was downstairs.

“Be right there,” I said, grabbing my parka, putting on the black watch cap over my stubble, and stuffing some more files into my backpack. ‘What then, indeed.’
Downstairs, there was a small group of folks waiting for the shuttle bus to the Central Line, huddled against the building, trying to keep clear of the light snow and out of the wind.
The shuttle bus in the County’s case was an old GMC school bus that someone had begun to convert to an RV, then abandoned. A couple of County mechanics had put the interior back together, after a fashion, and tuned up the diesel as best they could. Still, it resembled a prison bus, similar to those the State used to use to transport convicts to The Big House in Walla Walla, the Washington State Penitentiary.   My ‘ride home’ was already there, this evening a stock-looking Suburban.

“Anybody heading east?” I asked, as a couple staff took note, looking at each other, and then nodding. “I’m allowed, aren’t I?” I asked my driver.

“No one’s told me otherwise, sir.”

“Six seats in this or eight?”

“Six besides the driver. Some of the back end is filled with an emergency kit.”

“Let’s go then,” I said, beckoning to my co-workers. “No sense in taking an empty out east.”

I took the front seat, with finance guy Bill Winkler, who just needed a ride down to Bridge Avenue—he’d be transferring to another shuttle heading north and east. Our three other passengers were all ‘new’ employees since the Domino, most of who lived within walking distance to the Red Line.  One young man that I didn’t recognize; the other two from Utilities, both women that I’d seen before, but couldn’t remember exactly where.

“Thank you for the ride, Mr. Drummond,” one of the ladies said, after Bill was dropped off.

“Rick, please. I don’t think we’ve met.”

“Susan Connolly. This is Margie Hunt.”

“Nice to meet you both,” I answered.

“I’m Jim Benker. I’m an RN over in Health, although I’m working in the Jail at the moment.”

“Really? Staff assignment?”

“Dealing with a number of maladies in the prisoner population. AIDS and HIV among them, although without meds and in their weakened condition, most of that element won’t be around this time next year.”

“How’s nutrition over there?” I asked, suddenly interested in the captive population.

“As good as we can do. Better than some of the general population in parts of the country, according to the rumors anyway. Three meals a day, no work detail, not that any of them would be trusted for a New York minute out of their cells.”

“How many prisoners total?”

“Fifty-five. Eleven with either advanced HIV or full-blown AIDS.”

“Why aren’t they at the hospital?” Margie asked.

“Too dangerous. Not the disease---the men.”


We were passing again through the eastern end of Downtown, past the Intermodal Center where the trains were loading. It was nice to see streetlights on every block again, or almost every block.

“Streetlights. Nice,” I said.

“You’re welcome,” Susan responded.

“Utility Department. Right.”

“Not just that. We’re linemen in real life. Or, line women, more correctly. Margie and I ran these lights, last month.”

“Well thank you. You’re in the office now though?”

“One day a week. Trying to round up record drawings for restoration work.  The last of Sprague Avenue was hooked up last Friday, all the way to Greenacres.”

“You work with Lou Pecquet then?”

“He’s the boss. We’re his minions,” she replied.

“How is he to work for? Off the record, understand,” I didn’t want them to feel that they were ratting him out, I was just curious.

“Honestly, if I would have had had a boss like him pre-War, I think I’d have killed him,” Margie said.

I laughed a little bit, which may or may not have been appropriate. “Sorry, I couldn’t help it.”

“That’s OK. Lou’s not the easiest guy to work for. He’d rather work with you, and be in the trenches, than tell you to do something. We do know how to run wire. We’re all journeymen electricians. But if things aren’t done his way,” Margie said, “you’ll never hear the end of it.”

“I know the type. I’ve some of that in me, myself,” I said. We were approaching Altamont, where I noted the collapsed wreckage of the old Safeway-store-turned-bingo-parlor had been cleared away. I was pleased to see Northwest Seed was still there, with lights on inside. I used to buy my garden seed there…before the War.

Not too far to the east, just beyond Freya, the streetlights were out, it looked like all the way to Havana, home of the Fairgrounds.

  “Looks like your repairs need repairing,” I said.  The hair stood up on the back of my neck though, for some unknown reason.

“Stop the car. NOW!” Margie said before I could. “Back it up quick-like.”

“Yes, Ma’am,” our Army driver replied, perfectly happy to take orders from anyone who sounded like they were in charge.

“What’s up?” Jim asked. “It’s just the streetlights.”

“Individual services are still on,” Susan pointed out as we slid around to the west. “Somebody killed those lights, and that’s not exactly easy to do.”

“Head north, up to Broadway,” Margie told the driver.

“You thinking ambush?” I asked, the obvious question.

“Highwaymen are out there. Why not pick the low-hanging fruit?”

“Because the Red Line is a hundred yards north of Sprague,” I said.

“Doesn’t mean a thing. Might as well be in Kansas,” Margie said. “Not enough manpower to cover places like this.”

We were now at Broadway, and turned east again. “Soldier, do me a favor and call this into dispatch,” I said before addressing Margie again. “This happen often?”

“Coupla times a month. They’ll pick off a stray, a car or truck or a transport, traveling alone, leave the driver alone unless he does something heroic, and take what they want.”

“’They’ you say.”

“Thugs. Yes,” Margie said. “Why do you think we’re all armed? Who’d wanna shoot the guy or gal that’s putting power back in your house?”

“The guy who wants your copper, that’s who,” Susan replied.

“This stuff showing up on the black market?”

“Eventually it will,” Susan answered. “Ten percent of our parts inventory goes missing every week. To be re-bought again.”

“That’s gonna end quickly. We can’t chase our tail anymore.”

“Tell that to the thieves.”

“I will see to it,” I said as we passed the far end of the Fairgrounds, and then headed south to Sprague again, where the lights were still on.  I rode the rest of the way pretty much in silence, thinking about this new little evil in our midst.   Part of a verse from Hosea came to mind: ‘….They practice deceit, thieves break into houses, bandits rob in the streets.’

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments are welcome!