Friday, October 11, 2019

The Drifter and Mr. Cronkite By F.M. Scott

Editor's Introduction: This week, Sirius Science Fiction brings you an alternate history (actually a secret history) set in Oklahoma in 1937. The story places the future CBS news legend Walter Cronkite in an encounter with an unhinged drifter on the streets of Oklahoma City (where he did an actual stint on WKY radio). The encounter escalates in a frightening way, shaking the young reporter--and foreshadowing a pivotal event in his future. Our original story this week is about...

The Drifter and Mr. Cronkite
By F.M. Scott

In the fall of 1937, Walter Cronkite made a career stop in Oklahoma City as the voice of OU Sooner football for WKY radio.  By all accounts, it was a dismal gig for the 21-year-old reporter, fraught with the technical limitations of a still young broadcast medium.
There exists very little legacy of Cronkite’s one-season stay—a fact that affords room for the legend of the newsman who would later cover the violence and upheaval of the 1960s, issuing the famous “Report from Vietnam” on CBS after visiting there in the wake of the Tet Offensive in February 1968.  The report proved to be a factor in President Lyndon Johnson’s withdrawal from a second-term nomination in that year’s election.
The small, pale, wiry man sat against the Union Station depot, huddled against the cold night air of Oklahoma City.  “Hey, Dick Tracy!” he shouted.  He scowled from underneath a dirty wool cap, his eyes a pair of shiny probes in the light of the skinny street lamps.  A gray linen bag, half-full and smeared, sat slumped beside him like a wrinkled, soiled fruit.  Nearby, passengers boarded the Rock Island train.
            A lanky, younger-looking fellow in a gray overcoat and a fedora stopped and turned.  A briefcase swung at his side.
            “Yeah, you.”  The small man rose.  His greasy, tattered clothes and shoes told the story of millions.
The gentleman in the coat moved toward him.  “What?”
“I see your H,” the man replied, pointing at the briefcase.  “And I need protection.”  Twin straps lay across a horizontal seam in the telltale shape.
“Beg pardon?”
“H,” he said.  “Heaven, hell, halfway, wherever you stop.”  He moved toward the edge of the sidewalk.  “Comin’ from the panhandle, the Rocky Mountains, the Ozarks, and waitin’ for you in every city you roll into!  Didn’t nobody warn you?”
“Uh, no.”
The little man smirked with real irritation.  “Well, I mighta known.  A man carryin’ a case like that wouldn’t know it.”  His eyes widened and he jerked his head downward.  “Don’t you talk to no stranger like that, Aldon,” he said.  Don’t do it!
The man in the coat leaned in. “You all right, fella?”
Aldon’s head shot up.  “Yeah, what’s it to you?”
“Don’t know.  Listen, I was just seeing a friend off.  I’m going back to Norman.”
“Norman, Norman town,” Aldon sang.  “Yeah, I heard ‘bout them college gals, whoo-wee!  All stacked and cushion for the pushin’.  Gonna get some on ya?”  He clapped and whistled.  “And what do they call you down in Norman town?”
“Walter,” the younger man said, extending a hand.  “Walter Cronkite.”
“A what kite?”
“Cronkite, WKY radio.  You ever listen to the Sooner football games?  That’s me, the announcer.”
“Well, that’s nice, buddy, just great,” Aldon said.
“The last game of the season’s tomorrow with A&M coming down from Stillwater.  Stidham’s boys are bound to have their hands full with—”
“You’re young, ain’t you?”  Aldon chuckled.  “You sound like you’re still learning a little bit ‘bout what you’re doin’, am I right?”  Again he jerked his head toward the pavement.
“I…suppose so,” Cronkite said.
“Well, hooray for the home team!”  The little man snickered through his teeth.
Cronkite studied him for a minute.  He’d seen beggars on the streets of Kansas City, men who’d lost everything after 1929 or maybe had nothing to begin with.  But this man told a different story.  Little he’d said or done tethered him to the idea that he was a rational human being.  But if something made sense to him, he’d call it.
“You know,” Cronkite said: “a year ago I was calling sports for KCMO, and they thought my last name wouldn’t go over on the radio.  Too German.  They made me change it to Wilcox.  I had to wait on messages coming over—”
“I’m the sweet bullet!” Aldon bellowed.  “Made it all this way through wires and holes in the ground.  Saw it all burn.  Made a light behind me.”
Cronkite turned his collar up, studying Aldon’s small frame, which seemed to sway with the wind.  “Fella, you look like you could use a bite to eat.”
Aldon issued a low grunt.
“C’mon, there’s a diner down the street there, and it still looks lit up.”
The place smelled of grease and stale tobacco smoke, odors that seemed to mix with the rest of the place.  Green and white linoleum, rutted and chipped at random, made an odd geometry along the floor.  Several hanging lamps had burned out, leaving uneven patches of light.  Aldon and Cronkite took a seat at the counter on stools with worn, ripped fabric.  Through the kitchen window, a bulky, scarred man in a grease-smeared apron stacked plates as he eyed the two mismatched patrons who dared to blow in this late on the night before Thanksgiving.  Aldon pulled a bottle from his inside coat pocket.  The label was torn and illegible.  He took a hearty swig and held out the bottle.  Cronkite hesitated a second, then took a big gulp of rye that sent a wave of heat—throat-warming, then soul-warming—through him.  He looked at Aldon, who gave him the nod for another.
“Helps me think straight,” Aldon declared.
“Hey!”  The bulky guy bolted out toward the counter; a blue vein sprang to attention on his forehead.  “You guys put that away right now!  I’m trying to keep my business here.  I got a family.”
Aldon frowned and tucked the bottle back into his coat.  The man took their orders and issued a spiteful look before disappearing into the kitchen.
“Might be a while before we eat,” Cronkite said.
Aldon shrugged.
He had been a farmhand near Medford.  Every day he worked and sweated for a strapping, thick-browed man who kept his shirtsleeves rolled up and batted green walnuts into the air with part of a tree limb, a man who swore that he and his family would be called to heaven before he lost his farm.  That was because the Lord had spared his land some of the drought that had made a fine powder of so much overworked land to the west and south.
“He seen things in the light of ‘God help any man who’d rise up against me now,’” Aldon recalled.
He built fences and pitched hay while the farmer and his two sons tended the blessed, chosen wheat.  He’d take off his straw hat, muss up his matted hair to dislodge the searing afternoon heat.  The sweat trickled down his face.  Buckets of water from the well quenched his thirst and ran down his shirt and pants legs.
There were other eyes on him.  The deep blue eyes of a girl in a light gray dress with yellow flowers on it.  She tossed a bright red rubber ball from hand to hand.  The farmer’s daughter—Aldon never said her name or the names of her family—was strawberry blonde, looked older than her fourteen years, and had a laugh “that might mean good, like she liked you, or bad, like she was laughin’ at you.”  Whenever the girl started to talk during supper, her father cut off the first word with a look that…
“That what?” Cronkite said.
“That came from the word of God,” Aldon said.  God the Father.  A girl of fourteen had no business talking during supper, and no one else did, either.  Only the Father.  But the girl would smile a lot.  She’d be in the field every day, with that laugh.  When it meant good, Aldon said, it was too much.  One day she laughed about her pa and his preaching and skipped off, her long braids knocking against her shoulders.  When she was out of sight, Aldon dropped his pitchfork and headed for the toolshed.  There was a dark corner in it, and when he had finished, the voice of the Father sounded off from across the field: “Where are you, son?”  A crack of the tree limb, and a walnut must have gone sailing into the next county.
On another day, the girl’s laugh meant bad.  Aldon tried to impress her with his imitation of a coyote; she laughed and said, “How dumb can you be?”  He snatched a small red ball from the girl’s hands and hurled it across the field to skitter on a patch of dry soil.  She stared at him, not mad or upset but with “ways about her that her pa couldn’t see.”
That night he found the ball on his bed, dead center.
“I’m lyin’ there in the middle of the night, just tossin’ that thing up in the air, over and over.  Then she tippy-toed right in with a big grin on her face.  She made fun of her pa, talkin’ real big—‘the Lord’s at war with the Devil in my house and I’m his soldier’ and all that.  She just, what with smellin’ so good and all, like a little flower.”  He let go a jarring, high-pitched staccato giggle, then cut it off.  “I told her I wouldn’t do her no harm, she’d just go out to the toolshed with me, everything’d be all right.  I took her out there, tryin’ not to wake the hound dogs.  Smelled so good, felt so good.  We was done ’fore I knew it, and then I saw she weren’t smilin’ no more.  I think she even started to cry.”  He steeled his eyes.  “Then I could tell she was thinkin’ about what I done to her.  That’s when she got right holy and asked me was I a believer.  I told her I didn’t remember goin’ to church but maybe once or twice.  She said she didn’t know was it so the Lord was speakin’ through her pa.  If not, we didn’t have nothin’ to worry about.  But if her pa did receive the word of God, then his own anger would be no less.  I ran back in my room and stuffed everything I had in that there bag.  Outside I heard the hound dogs, and I looked back at that farmhouse and I saw a lantern lit up in the window.”
Aldon pulled the bottle of rye from his coat pocket, took a gulp, and put it back.  “I ran and I ran.  I found the railroad track and kept goin’ south on it by a sliver of light at the crack of dawn.  I’d only got a couple miles or so, and that’s when I seen it.”  He drew closer to Cronkite.  “The grain elevator.  That’s when I seen the truth.  The bigger truth I could only see right then and there.  That thing was full of the poison of that place.  It was feedin’ the real devils that lived in all those folks ‘round there, everybody sayin’ one thing and doin’ another.”  He pounded the counter with his fist.  “And goddamn ‘em, they was spreadin’ it around everywhere!  I had me an old shirt and some matches and some rye like I brung here.  I tore up the shirt in three pieces.  I climbed up in that thing, hopin’ with every bit of my being it was full.  I soaked those pieces and I lit ‘em all up one at a time and I threw ‘em down the spouts.  Then I scrambled down that ladder and I grabbed my bag and ran.  That fire behind me was gettin’ brighter, and I could hear yellin’ and screamin’, then the biggest BOOM! you ever heard.  Shook the ground right under my feet.  The goddamnedest ball of flame you ever saw!”
Two plates of food arrived: pan-fried steak with a mound of fried potatoes and gravy, and a grilled ham and cheese sandwich, slightly burnt at the edges.  The two men ate in silence, for reasons tied to the moment in general and to the amount of food each consumed.  When they finished, Aldon mopped gravy from his mouth, nose, and cheeks with the sleeve of his coat.  Cronkite tossed his cloth napkin onto the crusty remnants of his sandwich.  The cook appeared in the window, wiping a glass.  He raised a hurry-up brow.  Cronkite laid money on the counter.
            Outside, Aldon threw the linen bag over his shoulder.  “You’re awful quiet, buddy.”
            Cronkite shrugged.
            “How come?”
            “Don’t know.  Just all—took me by surprise, I guess.”
            Aldon smirked.  “That right?”
            “Yeah,” Cronkite said.  “Look, pal, I’m moving on.  It’s been nice talking to you, but I’m done here.”
            “I see.”  Aldon stepped closer .  “Then I reckon you ain’t got no business doin’ what you’re doin’.”
            “Beg pardon?”
            Aldon stared for a moment, then the bag slid down his back and hit the pavement.   “Bein’ a reporter.  That’s you, ain’t it?  With your briefcase and your big-city ways.  You’re just a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed kid with some dream, I can tell.”  He chuckled.  “A dream, you and every other jasshonkey.  I just gave you a story you could take to the papers if you wanted to.  A man fightin’ his own good fight, tryin’ just to survive in the dog-piss world he’s been thrown into!  Takin’ up against the devils who’ll wanna kill me sometime down the road!  And what is it you’re all about?”  He stooped like a quarterback awaiting a snap.  “Three, four, hut, hut!  Callin’ the big plays.”  He laughed.  “Damn, I bet you don’t even know who’s who on that field, do you?”
            Cronkite frowned and drew back.  This had indeed been an issue all season, due to problems with getting relays from the spotters on the field.
            “Listen, fella, who are you, anyway?  One of the boys at the station send you on a prank or something?  How do you come off like that?  And what’s more, you sat there and told me a story that’s either a king-sized crock or it’s your ticket to the big house.”
            Aldon drew close again.  “So that’s it?  All that power, and you’re too damned scared to use it.  You’re too scared to talk about all that’s done in the name of a God who rewards those who accept his son’s blood no matter what else they do, gives them land and cattle and crops—remember Job, though yea he’s now just a distraction they talk about to remind us all of the Devil, who’s really a tool in the Lord’s hands, thank you, Jesus!”  He tore off his cap and threw it to the concrete.  “How ‘bout it?  I wanna know, big man, whose side you on?  Yeah, you ain’t on no side at all.  You don’t care, just so long as you’re talkin’ on that big radio box!”  He retrieved his cap and bag.  “Goddamned football!  Like to see the big reporter man get his nose into some real business!”  He giggled.  “How ‘bout it?  Where you gonna be when you got to stand up and say somethin’?”  Aldon stalked off into the night, the bag bouncing off his back with every step.
            Cronkite stood in silence as he disappeared around a corner.  A drifter, a farmhand.  And for someone who hadn’t gone to church much, he seemed to talk up the Bible—which was all he needed to place himself at the center of some holy struggle.
            Inside Union Station, Cronkite phoned the chief at the Daily Oklahoman.  After relating his encounter with Aldon, he got a story in return: A grain elevator had exploded in Grant County in August, killing one worker.  A man with a bag was seen running from it at the same time.  Locals found fourteen-year-old Elsa Tibbs hanging by a rope in a barn, dying with such force that one eye burst from its socket.  Justus Tibbs, his wife Ralena, and their sons Abner and Charles, were found shot to death in the family farmhouse, a 12-gauge shotgun in the farmer’s hands and a pistol lying nearby.
            “Jesus Christ,” Cronkite said.  “I never heard a word about this.  Not one word.”
            The chief cleared his throat.  “That’s because the locals wanted it kept quiet.  We only found out last month, after one of them from Medford came to us with the story, somebody who knew the family.  But it was two months after the fact.”
            Cronkite paused.  “And you guys didn’t pursue this?”
            “Why should we?” the chief said.  “This man was filling me up with some pretty cockamamie stuff.  And I think your boy was doing the same.  There’s all kinds of crazies out there who’ll hear stories and say anything.  He acted like one, you said so yourself.”
            “But, sir, you sounded at first like you believed—”
            “Look, Cronkite, number one, we’ve moved on.  Second, would you be willing to walk into a nest of shotgun yahoos singing about some guy waving the very stick of God because his land was spared all this mess—one special fella, you see—and about how he killed his daughter in honor because she’d been defiled and that brought shame and the fear of damnation upon the whole family as a result?  You think you wanna give that a go, Cronkite?  Then you have at it, buddy.  You just march on up there and get ’em, tiger!”  The chief laughed, then the line clicked.
            The wind picked up as Cronkite walked the few blocks to his car.  It hammered against him and carried those walking from the opposite direction.  Facts, those prongs of both credibility and legality, had been both friend and foe.  He’d been canned at KCMO for calling out the boss when the latter fabricated details about the casualties of a neighborhood fire.  Then a natural gas explosion at a Texas school killed 295 people, bringing him face to face with full-scale carnage, extracting from him an objective yet heartfelt story of a national tragedy.
            But facts at this hour were toothed monsters, assembling and dissolving in a murky sea of arson, murder, child rape, and a farmer swinging the stick of God at his family and then himself.  And a community that scared off reporters.
            In Norman, the tiny box of an OU dorm room stank of mildew and stale pipe tobacco.  Cronkite went to his Olivetti typewriter, a heavy little job he’d bought secondhand in Kansas City, with the number 22768 scrawled on its side in white grease pencil.  He sat at his rickety desk and tried to hammer out something, if only for his own records.  But nothing came.
            Sonofabitch!  Words failing a journalist—even the possibility of it!  Another slug of that goddamned rye, he thought.  If only.  He lit his pipe and fell back onto the thin, hard mattress on his bed.
            He lay awake at two a.m., still trying to shake the question of Aldon.  His story had come forth in such a churn from a mind (and body) twitching with an unreal ferocity.  It was shaping up to be KCMO in reverse, but with the same result.  Or a false alarm for city police, who had better things to do with liquor laws and guys who just looked at them wrong.  But goddammit, given the story from the chief, and the one from Aldon, was there a talking gun or a smoking one?
            And at this hour, with the trail of this man gone, what’s left other than to assume a silent man’s war of conscience or take the route of a renegade?  As the question sits heavy and dense, so the hour itself sits.
            Cronkite put a fresh sheet of paper in the Olivetti.  A few moments passed.  Then, as if issuing from a carefully gauged faucet, some words came and then shut themselves off:
            With each crisis, a new note of truth.  What is not taken home intact shatters thoroughly, heavily, inviting new graves.
            He pulled the sheet from the carriage and read the two sentences.  Doggerel, mishmash, nothing to do with anything at hand.  A second pass, and it became an entry in the journal of a crackpot, gleaned from a showy but anemic understanding of Shakespeare or Sidney.  A third took him to a room where the eye forms an acrostic, a shedding of bombast like the melting of fat over a flame, every first letter of every word calling up the journalist’s credo that less equals more in this line of work.
            It all came down to words.  Everything did.
            Walter Cronkite laid the paper on his desk.  He lingered on it a moment, then turned to light a fresh pipe.
#     #     #

About the Author: F.M. Scott is from Tulsa, Oklahoma, where he lives and writes.  His work has appeared in The Horror Tree, The Tulsa Voice,  The Rock N' Roll Horror Zine.  He has several works forthcoming.  He supports his fiction habit by writing grants and providing public relations for Crossroads Clubhouse, a nonprofit serving adults with mental illness

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