Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Sonic Boom!

Around 2 pm this afternoon while I was at work, I heard an incredibly loud sound. It sounded like a gunshot, but deafening, an explosion. I could hear the walls and the roll-up doors in the building shudder with the reverberation; I could feel it, my mind went blank for a second as the shock wave hit me. There were two such emanations, close together, and then nothing else.

I work in the industrial part of town. The kind of place where industry still happens in this country, and things get fabricated. There were a couple possibilities as to the cause of the sound that came to mind immediately. The first thing I thought was that the guys next door (we share a wall in a big tilt-up concrete warehouse) had run into some pallet racking with the forklift and seriously fucked something up. I felt like I should investigate to see if anyone needed my CPR expertise. I am a certified instructor, after all.

The company next door is TNEMEC. I don't know what it stands for but they are a warehouse that sells paint by the 5 and 10 gallon cans. We punctured the wall once with our forklift and broke open a $200 can of paint. In the past, they've driven their forklift onto the bed of a flatbed truck where one wheel broke through the wood planks (forklifts are really heavy, if that's news to you) and we had to drive ours over and lift their forklift with our forklift, which seems something like the paradox in philosophy supposedly disproving the existence of God: If God is all powerful, he can make a rock so big he can't lift it. But if he's all powerful... Stupid, huh? That's why I didn't get a major in philosophy like I had intended to. They also drove the forklift off the loading dock once, embedding the forks pretty deep into the asphalt and requiring the rental of an even bigger forklift to lift it out.

The other possible source for the sound was the other guys across the fence from us. (Everyone in industrial districts are guys, literally and figuratively. Don't ask me why. Companies are also guys.) I have no idea what they do, but I gather it involves fabricating machinery, because every Friday they perform tests for what seems like an hour on something that sounds like a Giant striking his hammer against an enormous anvil. Except it's rhythmic, maybe a blow every minute, and I imagine an huge drill that looks something like an oil derrick lifting up up up and then dropping its weight down, to repeat the cycle over and over until it breaks through the rock it's been punishing.


On the radio on the way home, I find out the source of the sound is neither of these, but rather 2 F-15 fighter planes that have been dispatched from Portland at a moment's notice to fly at supersonic speed to Seattle to intercept a private sea plane that has violated the 10 mile no fly zone imposed because Obama was in town for a fund-raising event.

Apparently, 911 call centers crashed in several surrounding counties as the planes made their way up to Seattle in probably less time than it's taken you to read this post. The verb for this action in which a fighter plane is dispatched without notice for the purpose of intercepting an enemy plane is "to scramble". They scrambled, we were scrambled in the process.

What is that? Why did hundreds of people call 911 after hearing a terrifying sound to report - what? What did they say? I think my neighbor's blown up the house? Gangsters are shooting out my windows? Were they all old people with nothing better to do? The reaction seems indicative of our need to understand and have a sense of control over any unknown quantity we encounter. Is it hard to imagine hearing something like that and shrugging it off, going back to work? Is that even desirable, or should one have some sense of social responsibility kick in and cause them to pursue the issue until we know it's being taken care of? My response was to wait and see if I heard anything else, then to forget about it and carry on, for better or for worse. But I do find it hilarious and fascinating to find out it was in fact a sonic boom caused by a machine we've made exceeding the speed of sound to response to something totally banal and nonthreatening like a guy in a sea plane. A sea plane is about as goofy a way of committing an act of domestic terrorism as I can imagine.


Last weekend was Sea Fair, which would seem to be a bland mainstream event featuring power boat races and pirates that everyone who grows up here goes to at some point when they're kids and then just kind of shrugs when I ask them about it years later as an adult. As part of Sea Fair, a host of Blue Angels (Is the plural for planes "host", like with actual angels?) flies overhead, also making a lot of noise. But the worst part of it is that they practice for about a week beforehand, making sure they still known how to fly their planes, I guess, but probably just basically advertising for military recruitment and Sea Fair and enjoying the view.

I happened to be driving over the West Seattle bridge on Friday when I saw 4 Blue Angels sweep up in formation from behind Beacon Hill, hold the formation through a gentle arc and curl away back behind the hill and out of my sight. It was breath-taking, and beautiful, and immediately made me think that this is what people in Iraq and Afghanistan see, but for them, the planes carry a very different connotation. I imagined them as giant predators swooping over the topography, hunting out their prey as an eagle soars searching for mice and then suddenly dives. There is a powerlessness is seeing creatures like this overhead, and knowing there's nothing you can do to escape or even elude them, so vastly much more maneuverable and potent are they.


Obama, the Kitsap Sun reports, had an "outstanding" turkey sandwich while he was here. The owner of the sea plane was released by the Secret Service after 90 minutes of questioning and searching the plane. I don't know what the moral of the story is, but, regardless, God Bless the USA.

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