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Chapter 18: The Bulletin
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Friday, January 3, 12:06 P.M.
As the AP announcer swung into his lead story, Dan took off his headphones and stood up for a good stretch. A dull pain in his lower back reminded him he'd been in the saddle for two solid hours without standing up. He'd spent the eleven o'clock newscast on the phone with an advertising client.
With a good three minutes of network left, Dan decided to make a quick trip to the men's room across the hall from the control room. When he ducked back into the studio 90 seconds later, the wire service alert light was flashing a blue signal from above the board. Ten-bell bulletin, Dan counted. Wonder what that's all about?
On impulse, he decided to change the basic format of taking off the network news with a local forecast and live ID. Instead, he brought up the pot on the master music hard drive and punched the random play option. He would start the music cold after the network news dropped out. The hard drive would play songs randomly until the cows came home, or however long it took.
With the random music on the air, Dan brought up the AP on the 20-inch computer monitor and clicked his mouse on DISPLAY BULLETIN.
(New York) an unconfirmed report indicates that a hospital on Long Island is missing all eight infant patients from its second floor nursery. Hospital officials are speculating that a black market baby ring may have executed a mass kidnapping.
- - MORE - -
Dan clicked Save Bulletin and suddenly the green network alert light was flashing and he pulled the network pot down on cue to check it out. The whing-wang tone instantly verified that the network was getting ready to feed an audio bulletin. A voice verification followed.
"Please stand by, station. Here in Washington we have unconfirmed reports that hundreds of school children are missing from schools in the District as well as in surrounding counties of Virginia and Maryland. Stations, we suggest that you give this top priority. We repeat: Please give this bulletin top priority. The bulletin will move sixty seconds from . . . mark."
While the announcer in Washington had been setting up the audio bulletin, Dan set the news hard drive to record the incoming bulletin. He always put a priority bulletin on the air live but he liked to record everything the AP sent, as a backup and also for future reference. Just in case a major story of national or even international impact might be breaking.
With everything ready, he checked the clock. Fifteen seconds till bulletin air time. He faded a yellow cut with the AP satellite on cue. Long years of experience kept his voice cool and there was no hint of breathlessness despite his recent rushing around.
"You're listening to WMOR-FM Stereo Camp Hill. We now interrupt this program for a live bulletin from the Associated Press in Washington."
A network staff announcer's voice followed Dan's by exactly two seconds but it was apparent that he was under considerable emotional stress. His voice quavered, his throat filled, and he did not have a prepared script. With a stab of bitter memory, Dan was reminded of the coverage style that Friday afternoon in November 1963 after President Kennedy had been shot. He continued listening while checking that the AP feed was being recorderd properly on the news hard drive. That drive had 20 gigs of space. That should be enough for whatever was coming in from the AP
" . . . still scant but we do know that a large number of people in the metropolitan Washington area are mysteriously missing. At first we thought that only children were among the missing but now it looks like the situation is much more widespread. We repeat, however, that we're working here with a relatively small amount of information so please, folks, don't panic. And this very urgent request on behalf of the phone companies as well as news gathering agencies and emergency services: Please do not use your telephone to get information. Stay tuned to this station and we'll provide you with every bit of information the Associated Press can obtain, just as soon as it's available to us. But please stay off the phone unless you have an emergency or have important information to contribute.
"I repeat. We don't have complete information on this situation yet but I'll try to outline for you what we do have so far."
The network announcer paused and off-mike voices could be heard faintly in the background. When he came back, his voice was so distorted with emotion that he was difficult to understand. "Ladies and gentlemen, I . . . I, hrummph, I seem to be having a little trouble with my throat right now and I'll surrender this microphone to one of my colleagues."
There was another long pause and Dan felt an alien fear knot his stomach and moisten his brow. As a professional broadcaster, he realized with sickening clarity that the sloppy job the AP was doing on a national audio bulletin meant that the event being reported was of unprecedented significance.
The long pauses in the AP's bulletin caused the dead air alarm to flash an amber warning from above the control panel. Dan disabled the alarm.
A rustling of paper indicated that something might be happening at AP radio down in Washington. Dan turned up the volume on the studio monitor speakers. A female voice came on, cool and precise. The delivery was extemporaneous but smooth.
"Ladies and gentlemen, as you already know, the general Washington area has suffered the unusual disappearance of a fairly large number of people. We have just received word that this phenomenon is not only nationwide but global in scope. The president has declared a general state of national emergency and martial law is in effect in all 50 states. By order of the president of the United States all citizens are ordered to stay indoors unless you are providing an essential service or you yourself are in a state of emergency. In addition, all operators of motor vehicles are reminded to immediately pull to the extreme right side of the road as soon as an emergency vehicle needs the right of way. As we've already noted, don't use your telephone unless you are in a state of personal emergency. The president feels that more information can be conveyed to more people by using regular broadcast stations. So please stay tuned to this station for the latest information from the Associated Press. This is Betty Grayson, reporting from Washington."
Dan started to open his mike and then changed his mind. Instead, he hit an ID cart and went back to music. As he listened to the music he had just put on the air, he decided the bright, lilting sound didn't fit the mood created by the AP's bulletin. Quickly he punched the ALL BLUE button. Elevator music seemed to be more suitable right now.
The enormity of what Grayson had just reported regarding the president's orders suddenly hit Dan. His intention was to dub the president's orders onto a cart and run it between music cuts. Before he could access the news hard drive, however, the AP's alert tone warbled from the cue speaker.
In 15 seconds a male voice came on with a station advisory. "Stations, we have just gotten word that the President is getting ready to make a statement from the East Room of the White House. Coverage from the East Room will be fed to you 60 seconds from ... mark."
At that moment, Dan decided to go on the air himself, reasoning that at a time like this, his listeners might gain some assurance from a local voice. He faded the music in the middle of a cut and opened the mike. Precisely he summarized what had been reported by the AP so far. His voice was resonant and calm and he spoke with a surety born of countless hours before a microphone.
" . . . stay tuned to WMOR-FM Camp Hill for live coverage by the Associated Press of the President's statement from the White House." Dan had paced his lead-in to conclude just two seconds before the point marked earlier for network coverage to begin.
This time the network came on with a male announcer speaking smoothly and reading from a script. He concluded with, "Ladies and gentlemen, the President of the United States."
The next speaker's distinctive regional twang left no doubt it was indeed the President. "My fellow Americans. Within the last hour, the entire world has suffered a calamity which exceeds in magnitude anything known to man since the great flood of Noah's time. At this point we still don't know the exact dimensions of this event but I do want to share with you what we do know."
A difference in inflection indicated the President's next words were not from his script. "Before reading this list, I want to personally urge all of you to remain calm. Except in case of a real emergency , limit travel and phone use. I've already stated that something extremely serious has happened and I'm not trying to take anything away from that fact. However, I do believe panic, great or small, will do nothing to help our situation."
"Now let me share with you what we believe has happened as we understand it so far . . . "
Again there was a pause and a considerable amount of dead air, broken only by off-mike whispering and the rustle of papers. Those persons watching television coverage could see that an aide in military uniform had just hurried to the President's side and was conferring with him just beyond mike range. The aide then produced a sheet of light blue paper from a brief case chained to his wrist. The President stepped back to the podium.
During the dead-air interlude, the radio and television commentators had maintained an almost ominous silence in distinct contrast to their usual prattle during any break in activity.
Now the President spoke again. "I must repeat that the total scope and characteristics of what has happened to this country, to the world, in fact, is still not known to us. However, I firmly believe that you, the American people, have a right to know as much as we know so far.
"First, I want to emphasize that there is absolutely no evidence of any hostile action on the part of any nation in the world. All of our radar stations and satellite monitoring installations world-wide have been reporting consistently nominal conditions in all sectors of the globe. As you might expect, I have already been in touch with major world capitals. They aren't saying too much about the situation in their own countries but they do admit they have experienced some disappearances as well. And they confirm that they have not detected any hostile activity against themselves and do not have hostile intentions toward this or any country."
Up to this point the President's voice had been reassuring and almost mellow. But when he began to run down a list of currently-available facts, Dan's professional ear could detect a strong undercurrent of anxiety.
"Now let me share with you some specific facts which appear to be quite firm. The phenomenon occurred at precisely Noon Eastern Standard Time. In terms of clock time, the incident consumed no more than one-tenth of a second. Persons not in the presence of anyone who disappeared apparently were not aware that anything unusual had taken place."
Dan remembered the strange blip he'd heard in his earphones just as he put the AP network news on at Noon. The churning in his stomach moved higher and his palms were clammy.
The President had to clear his throat twice and sip from a glass of water before he could speak again.
"All babies and children, birth through about six years of age, have disappeared from all countries in the world."
Pandemonium broke out in the East Room and Dan's chest constricted in the vicegrip of unvarnished fear. If every child is missing up through age six, does that mean Kevin and Kellie, too? No! That can't be true. This is crazy! Some kind of hoax, another "War of the Worlds" hoax. Any minute now a current-generation Orson Wells is going to break in and tell us this whole Presidential press conference is a new version of the worn-out farce.
With the President's last statement, Dan had leaped from his chair and was now pacing furiously in the small confines of the studio. Out of habit he stopped beside the news hard drive, which was still recording the AP feed, and checked the VU meter. The racket being broadcast from the White House was peaking at +3. Automatically he backed off the record level to zero.
It was maddening to hear and not see and then Dan remembered the13" color portable Blake Jenks, the chief engineer, kept on his work bench for special occasions. In 20 seconds he had a sharp picture was glowing on the screen from MS-NBC, a 24-hour cable news service.
A marine in dress uniform was at the podium trying to get the reporters quiet enough for the president to continue. And as the camera panned across the unruly crowd, Dan could see that some were standing up and shouting for the President's attention, others were shouting at each other across the room, and a few sat with heads down, apparently weeping.
Tears had been trickling down Dan's face since the announcement of the missing children and his body convulsed with unuttered agony. "It's a hoax! Why don't you guys get on the street and get the facts?" After this irrational outburst, he slumped in his chair and stared stonily at the screen.
The President returned to the podium. "I'm fully aware of the agony that announcement represents. I can only confirm that we are sparing no effort to find out what has happened to these children so we can restore each one to his or her family."
The haggard President went on to discuss other categories of missing persons including a smattering of people of all nationalities and walks of life. They ranged in age from 7-year-olds through senior adults. Dan didn't hear a word of it. His mind and soul and spirit had been transported to a small country elementary school 30 miles away and to a pair of the cutest, smartest, sweetest twins a father could ever love.
Kevin and Kellie, please be all right. Please be safe. Karen, Honey, please, please take care of our babies. Don't let anything hurt out babies.
The broken man was staring at the TV with unseeing eyes when Tim returned from lunch. He correctly assessed the situation in an instant. "Dan, old man, why don't you knock off and go home?" he asked softly. "Ole Bachelor Tim will hold the fort till one of the part-timers or Lacey comes in. The President now says it's okay to drive as long as your destination is either home or work. What do you say."
Without a word Dan rose from his seat in front of the TV screen and walked down the hall to his office. Woodenly he slipped his arms into his parka sleeves and walked out.
stood in the doorway and watched his boss get into the elderly Bug and back out
of the parking area. Tim had a worried frown on his face. Dan seemed to be driving
rather fast down the still-snowy Greenwood Circle hill.
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