EDITOR’S NOTE BY JOSHUA FERRIS
The basic facts of the case are pretty simple: the United States Air Force, believing it required more time to detect and defend against a Soviet invasion, ordered radar towers erected in the Atlantic Ocean, one of which, Texas Tower 4, capsized in 1961 and sank to the bottom of the sea. Twenty-eight airmen and civilian contractors were killed.
You might not have heard of this. I hadn’t. After reading Jim Shepard’s story “Safety Tips for Living Alone,” I googled “Texas Tower 4” and discovered, on Wikipedia, the basic facts. From the Internet you can get an idea for the rationale behind the project, its design and construction and the compromises of both, of the problems that plagued the tower from the start, and of the tower’s foreseeable conclusion, its tragedy.
Men do monstrous things. They pursue their vanities with single-minded intent, strafing all the innocents and loved ones in their path. They abuse nature, betray their better selves, play god. They leave their chosen fields strewn with corpses. Over time, the names of casualties are forgotten. The particulars of their lives disappear. What’s left for us to glean from Wikipedia are a few motives and a final body count.
One of Shepard’s projects is to redeem a little of that monstrosity by returning to the past and to the dead. In an economical ten-thousand words, he introduces us in this story to no fewer than eight substantial characters and a few colorful others caught up in the tragedy of Texas Tower 4. He gives them jokes and arguments and painful phone calls. He embodies the bafflement of the average Joe, the non-monstrous man who stands on the tower overlooking the waves and asks rhetorically, on behalf of us all, “What the hell am I doing here?” He’s there because he’s at the mercy of the Air Force, but also because Shepard has brought him back to life so that he can dwell for a moment on the inanity that is inseparable from monstrosity. He knows that in stories like this one, the ideas are harebrained, the specifications are inadequate, and the wise are always outvoted. Throughout his retelling, we see a fruitless accumulation of missed opportunities and final warnings and private ultimatums. Shepard points these out one by one. As the wind and the waves chip away at the foundation and support of Texas Tower 4, we see how wronged the men are, and how doomed.
But we see other things, too. We see romance. We see duty acquitted honorably. We see friendship and loyalty and love. Ellie Phalen, the wife of the commanding officer who’s washed away with the tower, is “moved and appalled” by her husband the first time she meets him. There’s no better way to describe the experience of the reader of Shepard’s reimagining of this forgotten, misbegotten episode in American history.
Author of To Rise Again At A Decent Hour
Safety Tips for Living Alone
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by Jim Shepard, recommended by Joshua Ferris
Twenty-five years before Texas Tower No. 4 became one of the Air Force’s most unlikely achievements and most lethal peacetime disasters, marooning each of nineteen Air Force wives including Ellie Phelan, Betty Bakke, Edna Kovarick and Jeannette Laino in their own little stew pots of grief and recrimination, the six year-old Ellie thought of herself as forever stuck in Kansas: someone who would probably never see Chicago, never mind the Atlantic Ocean. Her grandfather wore his old brown duster whatever the weather, and when he rode in her father’s convertible always insisted on sitting dead center in the back seat with a hand on each side of the top to maintain the car’s balance on the road. This was back when the Army was running the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Navy exploring the Pole with Admiral Byrd, and the Air Corps still flying the mail in open cockpit biplanes. Gordon had reminded her of her grandfather, in a way that stirred her up and set her teeth on edge — she’d first noticed him when he’d stood on the Ferris wheel before the ride had begun to make sure another family’s toddlers had been adequately strapped in — and her first words to him when they’d been introduced had been “Who made you the Ferris Wheel Monitor?” And when he’d answered with a grin, “Isn’t it amazing how much guys like me pretend we know what we’re doing?” she’d been shocked by how exhilarating it had been to catch a glimpse of someone who saw the world the way she did.
She’d always been moved and appalled by the confidence that men like her grandfather and Gordon projected when it came to getting a handle on their situations. But like her grandfather he’d had a way of responding to her as if she would come around to the advantages of his caretaking, and she’d surprised herself by not saying no when after a few months of dating he’d asked her to marry him. That night she’d stood in her parents’ room in the dark, annoyed at her turmoil, and had switched on their bedside lamp and told them the news. And when they’d reacted with some of the same dismay that she felt, she’d found herself more and not less resolved to go ahead with the thing.
Her father had pointed out that as a service wife she’d see exotic places and her share of excitement, but she’d also never be able to put down roots or buy a house and year after year she’d get settled in one place and have to disrupt her life and move to another. Her children would be dragged from school to school. Her husband would never earn what he could outside of the service. And most of all, the Air Force would always come first, and if that seemed too hard for her, then she should back out now.
When her mother came into her bedroom a few nights later and asked if she really did know what she was getting herself into, Ellie said that she did. And when her mother scoffed at the idea that her Ellie would ever know why she did anything, Ellie said, “At least I understand that about myself,” and her mother answered “Well, what does that mean?” and Ellie said she didn’t want to talk about it any more.
“Now that we see that you’re not going to change your mind, we give up,” her father announced a few days later, and she didn’t respond to that, either. His final word on the subject was that he hoped that this Gordon understood just how selfish she could be. She lived with her parents for two more months before the wedding and it felt like they exchanged maybe ten words in total. Her mother’s mother came for a visit and didn’t congratulate Ellie on her news but did mention that the military was no place for a woman because the men drank too much and their wives had to raise their children in the unhealthiest climates. She offered as an example the Philippines, that sinkhole of malaria and vice.
They were married by a justice of the peace in Gordon’s childhood home in Pasadena, and her parents came all the way out for the ceremony and left before the reception. They left behind as a wedding present a card that read Take care and all best wishes. Mom. The following week Gordon was posted to a base in upstate New York and Ellie spent a baffled month alone with his parents and then took the Air Force Wives’ Special across the country: Los Angeles to Boston for one hundred and forty dollars, with stops everywhere from Fresno to Providence and seats as hard as benches and twenty infants and children in her compartment alone. The women traveling solo helped the mothers who were the most overwhelmed. Ellie spent the trip crawling under seats to retrieve crayons and shushing babies whose bottles were never the right temperature.
In upstate New York the place Gordon found for her while they waited for quarters on the base was the kind of rooming house that had ropes coiled beneath the bedroom windows instead of fire escapes. She had only her room to herself, with kitchen privileges. “At least it’s quiet,” he told her when he first saw it, and then asked a few days later if her nightly headaches were related to what he’d said about her room.
She was at least relieved that he mostly served his time on the base. Larry was born, and Gordon worked his way up to Captain, and when in 1957 he was offered the command of some kind of new offshore platform, he wanted to request another assignment — since what Air Force officer wanted to squat in a box over the ocean? — but he told Ellie that it was her decision, too. “You have a family, now,” she said. “I just want anything that keeps you closer.” “I wouldn’t get home any more often,” he told her. “And safer,” she said. So after sleeping on it he told her he’d take the command, though afterwards he was so disappointed that he wasn’t himself for weeks.
An Amazon.com Book of the Month for December 2014