Monday, June 10, 2013

Getting the lead out

I just finished David McCullough’s excellent book on the Johnstown, Pennsylvania flood of 1889, which killed 2,000 people. Reading it made me think of my own run-ins with flood waters over the years, both covering them and as a victim.

In the mid-1990s my wife and I owned a weekly newspaper in a small town in Washington State. About every third decade the town flooded. It was situated stupidly between two rivers in a flood plain.

The last flood had been in the sixties. So, guess what?

Causing the flood was something quirky and particular to the Pacific Northwest. Called a Chinook, warm air in winter causes temperatures to rise suddenly.

A snowstorm had thickly blanketed nearby mountains when temperatures violently skyrocketed, melting ice and snow into gushing torrents, cascading off the hills into the low-lying town of 1,000. All night waist-high, yucky brown water spread like soup, covering homes and businesses. It literally ran through our newspaper office: in the back door and out the front. The flood deposited eight inches of dead-fish smelling silt inside. We moved the paper’s computers and printers to our house on high ground so we could continue publishing.

As always happens in disasters, people began showing up, volunteering to help.

We had to move several heavy cases of lead ingots and lead type out of the building to clean it. A gang of men showed up and volunteered to move the wooden cases. The eight guys spent a half hour moving them out the back door. Afterward I stood outside with them, saying thank you. One of them mentioned that some of the lead type that had fallen out of the cases was “really cool.”

“Pick up what you want and take it with you,” I said to him, pointing at little Z’s, W’s and M’s sprinkled on the muddy ground. Near them was a two-pound lead ingot for melting and making letters in a linotype machine.

“I better not, man,” he said, quietly. A few of the guys he was with snickered.

“It’s OK,” I said. “I own the lead and it’s yours if you want it. Put it in your pocket. It’s my way of saying thank you.”

The guy looked behind him sheepishly and shook his head. “Man, they won’t let us have no lead.”

“Who’s they?” I inquired.

He gestured around the building, and I walked out to look. For the first time I saw a uniformed, armed guard. Unbeknownst to me the state prison nearby had sent a gang of inmates to assist flood victims.

I had covered enough cops and courts to understand the meaning of aiding and abetting. Immediately headlines flashed through my brain.

“Inmate clobbers guard with lead ingot. ”

“Editor helps prisoners escape.”

I turned quickly back to the gang. “It’s cool,” I said, nodding and holding my hand up in a non-verbal whoa. “Better leave the lead lay.”

Ironically, months later we sold the lead to a fellow who made practice bullets for county sheriff’s deputies.


(Excerpt from an upcoming memoir about four decades in news by R.D. Byron-Smith. Look for his novels, including Image of Evil, and Murder Under London Bridge, and his works of non-fiction, including Dinner With A Killer at Web booksellers.)