Friday, January 23, 2015

Even More Musings about Weird Coincidences and Strange Happenings

In this installment:  Three premonitions of trouble, conflagration and disaster come true.

By the age of 27 or so, I had pretty much put behind me the unusual coincidences and other strange happenings that had taken place earlier in my life.  By this point, I was a level-headed news professional, or so it appeared, employed in a big city TV newsroom and not appearing to be any more of a whackjob than anyone else working in that environment.   But then three incidents happened in rapid succession that made me sit up and say, “Wow.”  All three were spectacular.  Two took my breath away.

The first of those at first seemed like just a funny—hysterically funny, in fact—but ultimately meaningless coincidence.  It prompted a round of laughs all round, but didn’t strike me as possibly having any real significance until much later.  It should have.  

As has been the case for the other anecdotes in this series, the details for the stories I’m about to relate are true and are not exaggerated in any way.  The dialogue is approximated from memory but reflects the spirit of what was said.  I have changed the names so as not to embarrass anyone.

In 1985 I was a the producer of a 6 pm newscast for a TV station in Texas.  The producer is the person who makes most of the decisions about the newscast, arranges the stories, and writes most of the anchor copy.  The 5 pm producer, Leslie, was a friend of mine, but also a rival.  In that shop, her newscast was considered to be more important than mine.  In the daily editorial meetings, our boss, Marla, usually gave Leslie most of the really good stories.  One morning, Leslie passed up a story that had great potential, but which had not yet been shot.  It concerned allegations that rats were overrunning a downtown sandwich shop, and that in the morning hours the rodents could be plainly seen through the restaurant window having a grand old time.  I took the story on spec.  When the video came back later that day, it exceeded our wildest expectations.  The rats were having a party and absolutely everyone was invited.  Leslie grumbled, but a deal was a deal.  Except that it wasn’t.  By mid afternoon, Marla had figured out what was going on, and took the bulk of the story out of my newscast and gave it to Leslie.

Leslie thought she’d pulled one over on me, and was very smug about it.  “My newscast is going to kick your butt,” she assured me.

Now, I’m not saying I’m superstitious, but I’d been raised not to tempt fate with braggadocious comments predicting success in advance of the fact.  I pointed out to Leslie the danger of doing such a thing, and added, “You’d better knock on wood,” which my mother had told me was the remedy when such comments had been blurted out unthinkingly.   But Leslie scoffed at this idea. 

It then occurred to me that not only had she tempted fate in a very dangerous and provocative way, but that she’d picked the worst possible day on which to do so. “Leslie, this is Friday the 13th,” I pointed out. “Really.  You need to retract the comment, and knock on wood.”

She looked at me with an expression of utter contempt.  “Oh, give me a break,” she said, rolling her eyes.  “This newscast is going to wipe the floor with yours, and there’s not a thing you can do about it.  Quit your whining.”

I shrugged.  “It’s your funeral,” I said with as grim a tone as I could muster.  “But mark my words, you are going to regret what you said.”

Two and a half hours later, all the video tapes were edited and stacked for playback, the scripts were in place, and the carefully coiffed anchors were sitting on the set, ready to go.  The open to the newscast rolled.  A tally light blinked red on one of the studio cameras.  The anchors gave their customary greeting, and then the male anchor began to read the lead for the rat story.  At that moment, an overhead studio light above the anchor ruptured.

Now, studio lights do burn out from time to time, often with a flash and an audible pop.  This was nothing like that.  The lamp violently exploded, sending flaming shards of glass and smoking bits of red hot metal flying.  The debris showered onto the anchor desk.  A few pieces landed on the anchor’s head and shoulders.  Pandemonium erupted as he brushed wildly at his head and clothes, and the floor crew rushed to help him.   The acrid odor of burning hair drifted through the studio.

Within a few moments, everyone had settled down.  The anchor gracefully apologized, and then started the lead-in from the beginning.  “Jane Smith has that report,” he concluded, which was the director’s cue to roll the tape.  But instead of the promised video of rats mobbing the restaurant like Beatles fans at Shea Stadium, what viewers at home saw was the picture flip and then go to snow.  Simultaneously, in the studio, the lights went out.   There had been a power failure.  And since the station had no emergency generator, there was nothing anyone could do but wait for the power company to restore the juice.  It did so about 20 minutes later.  But the damage had been done.  The blackout had completely trashed the newscast.  Later we learned that a blown transformer at a nearby substation had been the culprit, and that the outage had only affected a very small radius around the station.  It was almost as if our studio been the target.

The 5 pm newscast having crashed and literally burned, the rat story wound up in my newscast, which proceeded to air flawlessly.  Leslie refused to accept that the events were the result of any temping of fate on her part of any failure to knock on any wood afterwards.   Truly, I didn’t believe it, either.   But the true significance of what had transpired didn’t occur to me until many years later, when I began compiling a list of strange happenings.  This was the very first occasion where I predicted a mishap out loud, warned someone to take corrective action, was ignored, and then got to stand by and watch as the disaster unfolded.   Of course, in this case the “disaster” in question was only a ruined newscast.  But it was no less dramatic. 

And it would not be the last.  Not by a long shot.  Nor would the next two be so harmless.

In every television newsroom, managers and others gather daily in the morning editorial meeting to choose stories and divvy them up by newscast.  Sometimes the available selections are pretty lame.   On such occasions, our boss, Marla, would sigh and say, “It’s time to pray for spot news.”   Spot news basically means an important but unplanned incident that erupts without warning “on the spot.”  For local newsrooms, such stories most often first present themselves by way of the police and fire scanners, which eavesdrop on official radio transmissions.   Nothing good for humanity ever comes over police and fire scanners. 

Marla’s statement that she would pray for spot news is something she’d said many times before on many other dull coverage days.  Nor was she the first colleague I’d ever heard utter such a prayer.  But for some reason, I chose this particular morning to raise an objection.  “Marla, don’t pray for spot news,” I said.  “Those prayers don’t go up.  They do down.  It’s a form of devil worship.”  She laughed off the comment, but as I recall, I persisted, pointing out that nothing but tragedy ever results from a prayer for spot news. 

I can pinpoint the date for this exchange with precision—not because I remember it, but because I can look it up.  It was August 2, 1985.   In mid afternoon that day, Delta Flight 191 crashed while attempting to land in a thunderstorm at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, killing 137 people.   It was the lead story on all of our newscasts that day, of course, and for many days afterwards.  Marla’s prayer for spot news had been answered.  She was quite shaken up about it, and vowed never to pray for spot news again.

By about a year later my work shift had been changed to the late news.  Marla had a habit of issuing continual reminders to me before leaving at the end of her day.  And sometimes, when she got home, she’d call me again with additional reminders.  On one evening, she’d come by my desk more times than usual with admonitions not to forget this and not to forget that.  After the last such reminder, I exclaimed, “Marla, go home!  And don’t call me when you get there!  I don’t want to hear from you again tonight unless it’s to tell me that you’ve just looked out your window and spotted a four-alarm fire.”  Laughing, she assured me that she would not call me unless such a thing were to occur.

Two hours later, my phone rang.  It was she.  “Marla,” I said, exasperated, “What did I tell you?  You weren’t supposed to call me short of a four-alarm fire burning within view of your apartment.”

“Forrest,” she said, deadly serious.  “That’s why I’m calling.  The building across the street is burning down.  I can see it from my window.”

The fire was my lead story that night.  It went to four alarms.

As I mentioned in earlier posts in this series, for me weird coincidences like this often happen close together, after long dry spells.  Those three were the most dramatic I’d had in about a dozen years.   Some such incidents have been associated with health issues.   These were not, at least not in any way that I could tell.  And after the last one mentioned above, there wouldn’t be another for three years.  But it was very memorable.

I had a dream one night that I had picked up the morning paper to read that a well known cultural institute in my city was having a funding crisis.  The image was so powerful that when I got to work, I double checked the morning and afternoon papers and also the news wires to see if any such story had crossed in recent days.  Nothing.  Two mornings later, when I went to pick up the paper, there it was, with the headline exactly as I had seen it.  This was the first time I had “flashed” onto something in print that I had not yet actually read, and it left quite an impression.  But as we saw in the previous installments in this series, it would not be the last.

Next in this series:  a major premonition comes dramatically true, and my wife and I experience the mother of all coincidences.  Find the full series to date here.

Meanwhile, I invite you to check out my post-apocalyptic sci-fi novel, AJournal of the Crazy Year, which Publisher’s Weekly calls “a fascinating read” from top to bottom.

©2015 by Forrest Carr.  All rights reserved.

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