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Turn down the lights! You’ve tuned in to Ricochet Silent Radio, our long-running theater of the mind. Once again, Tales of the Pit conjures up images you can’t see, and sounds you can’t hear, in the first half of this week’s adventure, Utah Wheels and Rails, a work of fan fiction featuring Ricochet members in the Beehive State. And now, our presentation.
(Music cue) (Sound of a clock ticking. Then sounds of a cat.) (Voice of Jason Rudert) “Every cat I had would do that weird, deep, sorrowful meow when they’d killed something, or maybe when a mouse or bird would sneak in. I thought of it as their bragging meow, but you could also think of it as a high-pitched roar of triumph.”
(Announcer:) Jason sighed and got out of bed. It was still dark. He turned on the bedside lamp. It’s a small apartment, neatly kept, with lots of hobby gear and books. He plugged in the coffee pot and turned on the shower.
“Repo day. I never liked Repo day. For about ten years, we did financing. Dude would buy a two-post lift for about $3,500 — $500 to install and 18% interest. People mostly paid eventually, but sometimes Dad had to drive over there and see them personally. Today, it was my turn. I snapped on KSL and let it play while I got dressed.” (Faint sound of local news.)
(Announcer:) The sun is rising over Salt Lake City and the view of the mountains is stunning, but he’s too preoccupied to notice. Jason climbed into his work truck. It bristles with whip antennas and has several two-way radios mounted under the dash. As he heads out on the road, he’s got AM news and traffic. He also monitors Citizens Band, with the usual chatter of interstate truckers passing through Utah.
“The opportunity costs of extending credit were just too high. We could always get them a better rate by sending them to a lease company, but there are a lot of people out there who were too radioactive for even the most generous lease companies. You’re better off working for rich people, even at 18%. Oddly, at the other end it gets weird, too.”
Now far from the city center, Jason drove past a row of new, high-tech buildings on the edge of town. “Yes, ATK Thiokol, or whatever you’re calling yourselves these days, we’d love to come fix your spray booth. Wait, Net 120 days? No.”
The neglected two-lane road, bypassed by the Interstate, comes to an end at the edge of a disused railroad yard, in front of a shed attached to a faded, abandoned-looking auto body shop. A sign read, “Utah Wheels and Rails. U Crash ‘Em, I Fix ‘Em”.
“We haven’t repo’d anything for a long time. The last few were for our buddies at the lease company, because we’re your best bet for actually extracting a paint booth from a building and not ending up with a pile of scrap sheet metal.” As Jason approaches the ramshackle office, he sees the office cat in the window. “It, too, had that weird, deep, sorrowful meow. Like it had just killed something, or was about to witness the killing of something.”
I rapped on the glass door-. An old man appeared, unshaven, glaring at me. He unlocked the door reluctantly. He’d been drinking. And crying.
“Hi, Bert”, I said gently. “You know why I’m here.” He nodded. The fight had gone out of him. He sat down at his desk and I took out the papers he’d have to sign. I’d known this man since I was a kid, when I used to ride along on my Dad’s business rounds. Bert was no robust specimen even then, but it was sad to see him so far gone, so down on his luck. While we talked, the crew showed up in the dismantling truck. We nodded to each other as they silently went to the paint booths and started taking them apart.
“I’ve got no way to pay your Dad the rest of the money, Jason, I’m sorry”.
“I know, Bert. The courts will deal with it. Let them worry about it”. We shook hands and I walked back outside. The bleak rural and industrial landscape had a rugged beauty to it, if you imagined it in the viewfinder of a Depression-era black and white photographer. I used to carry around a bellows-style camera with a flat back, part Matthew Brady, part Ansel Adams. Today I just carried a twin lens reflex, the kind of thing that would have taken Sophia Loren’s picture.
In truth, old Bert was into us for almost fifteen grand, serious money for us. We could wait for our distribution of assets from the bankruptcy judge in a year or two, and get back maybe $2-3,000. There wasn’t much tangible that we could take with us to settle our lien on better terms. No office equipment to speak of. No vehicles. A large but irregular plot of nearly worthless land.
There was one thing, maybe; in better days, decades ago, when old Bert’s Utah Wheels and Rails was a thriving business, freight handlers used to pay a decent rental on his rail sidings, storing flatcars of cargo there. The business dried up years ago, Union Pacific pulled its little switching locomotive, and the connection to the Main Line fell into disuse. But there were still three rusting flatcars forgotten and abandoned out there, loaded with what looked like big pipeline segments made of rust-free alloy. High quality metal is worth something, so I drove the truck over to take a closer look. I took the Rolleiflex with me and made some pictures.
The flatcars hadn’t moved in decades, by the looks of it. Each of the three had four of these 12-foot diameter metal cylinders chained down. They were open on both ends. Several had bits of cardboard and plastic still clinging to their rims. I recognized the DuPont logo. They were segments of x-ray film, the kind used to certify welds. Curious, I pocketed several segments. The metal was about an inch thick, ferrous (I used a magnet to check) but a stainless alloy. I took a test scraping; my old professors at the University of Utah’s Materials Engineering department would have been proud, I thought. Twelve of these huge things, like open-ended cans; the alloy melted down could fetch at least $6,000, and maybe they could be sold as they were for more than that, already machined to be made into water or fuel tanks.
With the work crews almost done pulling the paint booths out, I headed back into town. On the way, I fired up the VHF set, the professional, licensed two-way radio. I made a “simplex” call direct to our business base station to let them know I was inbound. Once I got to the compound, the forklift guy said the secretary was looking for me. I wrote a quick report and filed it, with Bert’s signed release. Dad wasn’t in the office. He was shopping at a place here called NPS, which sells all manner of surplus and freight damaged stuff, from pipe fittings to oil paintings. I figured NPS as one likely customer for our shiny metal rings in the desert. I take after Dad a bit in that way, because I’m a packrat. It’s a nervous thing for me: I hold on to things I’ll never use, but then something I’ve stashed away will save my bacon. You never really know what.
I headed home after work, treating myself to no less than a Stouffer’s microwave dinner before the evening’s regular social hour, getting on amateur radio and joining up with a ragtag cloud of old and new friends, as well as any new and distant stranger who drifted into our circle, via the signal repeater on Farnsworth Peak.
That was, of course, named after local hero Philo Farnsworth, considered by many historians to be America’s greatest television inventor. Outsiders are usually amazed by the number of tech geniuses and billionaires who hail from this stern and beautiful land. Some of the non-billionaire geniuses are my friends, I’m proud to say. At one minute after 8 pm–“20.01” in geek time—we all went on the air together.
Mostly, we knew each other by our handles, our on-the-air nicknames. Tonight’s lineup included Crazy Uncle Douglas, C.U. or CUD for short, an electrical designer who lives in the suburbs south of here; Codename, who lives two hours south of him, and works in the medical department of a government facility with strong walls and excellent radio antennas; and the appropriately dubbed Thinking, who lives between the two, and helps keep a college campus running. After the usual shambolic opening, where we all interrupt each other with jokes, we got down to CUD and Thinking’s sour moods about politics. Codename is reputed to work with some pretty tough characters. Nonetheless, he acts like he has a somewhat better opinion of humanity than the rest of us. Code is no Suzy Sunshine, though. Just a nice guy.
There are other differences between us, generally just enough to keep it interesting. C.U. is very religious in a very religious state, but his background is Protestant, not Mormon. He’s also a family man; most of the rest of us are unmarried. Thinking’s outlook is more cynical even than mine is, and if anything, even less conventional. I know we’re getting screwed, but Thinking wants the grim details, hot over the internet. We try to meet up in person at least every other week. “So, it’s settled?”, I asked. “Tomorrow at Rick O’ Shay’s?” We bantered a while and then signed off.
One last thing before bedtime. I use a pair of shelves in the bathroom as an improvised photo darkroom. It took only a few minutes, loading film into a humidor-shaped tank and pouring chemicals in. I didn’t need an enlarger; the Rollei negative was big enough to make a decent-sized contact print. The DuPont X-ray film also took a standard black and white developer. I hung the negatives out to dry overnight.
My day starts early. Today, I was cramming in a first stop at “the CME”, center for the materials engineering faculty of my alma mater, the University of Utah. The department head, old Zeb Jenkins, was a wire-tough descendant of early pioneers. Alas, he’d died a few years back, but his successor, Collier, agreed to see me before his first class at 9.
Appraising the metal scrapings, the photos, and X-ray film I’d handed him, he put down a magnifying glass and asked me, a bit sharply, “Where did you get this?”
I told him.
“I think you’ve already guessed what this is”, he said. “These are alloy steel case segments for SRBs, the space shuttle’s solid rocket boosters. They were, of course, manufactured here by Thiokol. The rim perimeter X-rays show badly cast graining. Just bad technique.” Actually, I hadn’t guessed, and was very surprised. “Is this strip of film historically significant?”
Collier shook his head. “No. Well, probably not. Judging by the 1976 date burned into the X-ray film, these were early test items that never came close to being used in flight.”
Evidently a good thing. “Just in case it adds to the record, I’ll mail it to the NASA archives”.
Collier looked at me curiously. ”Why?”
“One more bit of old data”, I concluded.
“The Rogers Commission”, he said. “William Rogers is long dead. So is Richard Feynman. So is Sally Ride. Let it go, Rudert”.
Collier’s 9 am class was starting soon. He walked me to the office door. “You’re too young to remember what a scandal the Challenger disaster was. Particularly for Utah”. He had a listen-to-me look in his eyes. “For all of us. Goodbye, Jason”. He closed the office door. In minutes, I was back in my truck, leaving the northwest end of the U campus.
“For all of us”. He didn’t mean metallurgists. Without laying it on too thick, he was making a subtle appeal to group solidarity. Whether it’s Morton Thiokol, or the 2002 Winter Olympics having problems, the Mormon community shudders at any whiff of scandal reaching the outside world. It’s a relatively small group in a big country that still doesn’t 100% understand or completely approve of it.
That northwest road out of campus took me near The Avenues, the blocks where I grew up, full of houses from the early 20th century. The neighborhood is very expensive now–my parents were gentrifiers–but it was a little scruffy when I was a kid. I kind of span white collar/blue collar, very useful for someone who’s reluctantly inherited the family business role of enforcer, no, strike that, of gentle persuader of financial realities. You’d be surprised how often a kind word is enough with a past due account. I don’t get tough with them. Due to my rather burly presence, they very seldom try to get tough with me either.
(Network Announcer): You are listening to Ricochet Silent Radio’s presentation of Tales from the Pit. Tonight’s adventure is Utah Wheels and Rails. We pause for station identification.
(Local Announcer) This is KRCH-AM, 980 on your dial, your source for MGM Lion News in Los Angeles. We now return to Ricochet Silent Radio.
(Jason Rudert:) I live in the largest place in America where religion, one specific religion, really does inform and shape the laws of civic life. It is more than just “nice” that people here are mostly wonderful. But it has its dark side. Of course, not everyone wants to be a saint.
My family background is LDS Church, but my parents didn’t want to force a religion on their kids. So even though we were surrounded by friendly neighbors, still part of the group, growing up effectively non-Mormon made me a bit of an outsider. Looking back, there were times I was an arrogant jerk. I developed what a high school guidance counselor once called “a loner’s tough fiber”. Best review I ever got. It’s proven to be a very useful trait in life. Maybe ironically, maybe not, most of my friends have been loners too. Takes one to know one.
By ten am, I was in a light industrial area east of I-15, making another body shop cash collection. Auto paint is slightly intoxicating, because it contains xylene–older painters who came up not wearing a mask would literally go through withdrawals if they didn’t paint for a few weeks. Some alcoholic auto mechanics, when they run out of paycheck at the end of the month, will eat the grease in the supply room to get a little buzz. This shop paid in full and on time, but it had to be cash. Easy to steal, hard to trace, invisible to tax cash. I shrugged; we paid our taxes, it was no business of mine how our customers conduct theirs. The auto body business is just a little sketchy, and it did sometimes give this middle-class kid from the right side of town a glimpse into the demimonde.
Then I parked in front of another mid-sized industrial building, called Studio Cat III, to pick up the proprietor for the drive to lunch. Speaking of “demimonde”. Cat III’s the one non-radio “ham” in our social circle, such as it is. He’s outspoken and funny.
Cat works in the auto body field, sort of. He custom paints amusement park ride cars with scary horror images, which teens love, for roller-coasters, haunted house rides, and as a semi-comic contrast, other, perfectly normal paint jobs for micro-transit ride cars for airports, fairs, and theme parks. He has four employees, all apparently as crazy as he is. His specialties included Goth, Pagan, Japanese Manga, and Mexican Day of the Dead motifs. He was just downing the spray gun on another nightmare masterpiece and shutting off the compressor when I arrived. I had to express my qualified admiration. “Cat, you’ve got a genuine gift for images that are not merely shocking, but profoundly disturbing on any human level”. He positively blushed with pride.
Cat’s own car, a fragile, underpowered English sports car from the Fifties, was often in the shop, so I was giving him a lift to the biweekly meetup.
The restaurant that lent its name to our radio net, Rick O’ Shays, was medium-crowded. Codename lived and worked in Gunnison, far to the south of us, and couldn’t get away on most weekdays, so I propped my phone on the table and he participated via Zoom. He was wearing his work clothes, a white lab coat. We welcomed him to lunch. “We put the con in convivial”, he said. Codename usually sought a generous way of putting things.
Bearded, thoughtful C.U. Douglas read the menu. “Can anyone remind me why we came here? It can’t be the food.” He and Thinking were on the other side of the table.
“Couldn’t we make it Ogden next time? God, this is a Molly Mormon town”, said Cat III. The table was silent. The waitress, standing at the next table, heard him and frowned. Codename knew it was a joke, but his face on the phone said, quietly, “It’s kind of an insult, isn’t it?” Cat would hear none of it. “Oh, come on. Don’t act like you don’t know what I mean.”
Thinking ran a maintenance crew on a college campus. He was preaching the cold realities of office life, once almost everyone goes home. “If you have a nice chair, it will be sat in. If you have an unusually nice chair, the janitor will probably want to check it out. If there is something that could be read on or near your desk, it’s free game. Custodial work can be pretty boring. If there’s anything that you don’t want read, make sure it’s secured”.
I had the right quote for that one. “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes, eh?” It got laughs.
Thinking nodded. “That’s about the size of it”.
Cat got that mischievous look. He affected a slightly mad oratorical pose. At moments like that, he reminded me of Star Trek: TNG’s Q. “Nam si tibi sidera cessant…”, he intoned. He got the Roman author right, Juvenal. C.U. Douglas frowned, puzzled, and started to Google the phrase. I hastily interrupted. “Uh, Cat…”
Fortunately Thinking changed the subject. “Alas, things come to an end. Our group of Magic players went away to other things – after three years, our friendship was more than just about a card game. We’d still play occasionally, but it just wasn’t the same. I also tried a few other CCG’s. They didn’t have that special something that Magic has”.
“You can just pit any random deck of yours against any of theirs. An Empire deck, or a Rebels deck, or Fellowship vs. Orcs, and so on”.
The waitress, a motherly type, came over and took our orders.
C.U. Douglas was a fan of Japanese pop art, like the rest of us. “I love Anime openings”, he said, “For many reasons, and the longer-standing programs with multiple seasons will have multiple title and credit sequences, creating a wealth of material. There are story reveals and visual expositions within them that when you later watch, you can be surprised with or give yourself a pat on the back for cleverness”.
“And the music!”, Cat enthused. C.U. nodded. “What really sets it apart is the music, something that sets this entire series apart. That full-bodied walking bass and flashy jazz song prep you far more for this show than just about anything else. I bought two of the soundtracks for this album back in the ’90s”.
The waitress brought our meals over. My phone buzzed with a text from the office. Surprising news: someone bought Bert’s place and paid off his liens. We’d have a check for our fifteen thousand within a week. Hallelujah! Sure, we didn’t need it to make payroll or anything like that, but whether you call it 15K or 15G’s, it was good to have.
As I rejoined the conversation, the topic had changed again, to another perennial.
C.U. said, “Science fiction today owes a lot to John W. Campbell. He demanded his writers understand science, and above all, understand people. But as for him being a racist — well, that might well be true”. Thinking replied, “If we recognize his great influence, are we responsible for dismissing his major personal flaws?”
“Campbell was known to play devil’s advocate — taking provocative views to foster discussions. There are too many things that lean towards actual racist, however.”
Cat’s phone beeped at him. He too looked mighty pleased. “We just sold six ride cars, the best, list price, no questions asked. Six heavy-duty chassis. Man-oh-man, that’s a good order”. He asked curiously, “Where did you say you were yesterday?” He showed me his phone screen. “Isn’t that where it was?” I nodded, surprised at the coincidence; Cat was supposed to have the ride cars trucked out to old Bert’s place, UW&R–what used to be old Bert’s place.
“180 grand, and half of it sticks to us!” It put Cat in a happy mood. “I have a message for young Mormons. At moments like this, don’t be afraid to order champagne”.
Thinking raised an eyebrow. “Not here, you won’t”.
“Well, then I have a message for everyone. Stop fretting about such things. Be like me. Have I ever let the fear of being kicked out of a Joann Fabrics or of serving jail time stop me from yelling whatever’s on my mind? Of course not.”
Even 120 miles away, Codename didn’t buy that. “Cat, you’re about as Mormon as Hedonism Bot on Futurama”.
The dishes were cleared. Observant LDS members don’t drink coffee, but outside of church facilities, restaurants serve it. It’s really no big deal.
“Not ordering Coca-Cola? Drinking warm water in place of tea? Sure, being diplomatic is all well and good, but I say, let your opinion be known and if you have no opinion, make one up so you have something to scream at social workers. It’s always worked for me. Why tamper with a proven formula?”
C.U. stared at his phone and interrupted. “Hey, I’ve got news too. This is supposed to be my day off, but I’m being called in. Big electrical contract, rush job. Transportation of some kind. Top experimental rates. And they’ve already paid! In full! I’ve got to get going”.
Lunch was over and we all headed out. Someone was spreading big money around in town, and we liked it.
Tune in tomorrow for the second half, the conclusion of Utah Wheels and Rails, this week’s presentation of Ricochet Silent Radio. Tonight’s cast featured or mentioned members @jasonrudert, @cat iii, @cudouglas, @theroyalfamily, and @ltpwfdcm. As a reminder, RSR stories are not an official Ricochet activity, but satirical fan fiction. Dialog, attitudes, personal and family details are fictional.Published in