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“Why’s this so good?” No. 32: Darcy Frey on the brink

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It’s been 16 years since I first read Darcy Frey’s piece about the overwhelming, stressful job of being an air traffic controller – 16 years since I first swore never to fly into Newark. Frey’s powerful narrative scarred me for life.

Something’s Got To Give” ran in The New York Times Magazine in 1996, 15 years after President Ronald Reagan broke the PATCO union and fired more than 11,000 controllers. Frey made it clear that things had not recovered. He concentrated on Newark, the busiest air traffic control room in the country, where he found aging, unreliable computers; mandatory overtime to the point of exhaustion; steadily increasing air traffic; and so much stress that controllers sometimes went bonkers. It happened so often that they had a term for it: “going down the pipes.” The driving theme of the piece is staving off disaster.

I re-read the story this week, and even if the facts no longer hold up (I have no idea how much has changed in the industry), the power of the piece certainly does. I got scared all over again and have renewed my vow to stay out of New Jersey.

How did he do it?

It’s all about control. Frey has control over his material, his tone, his voice, his characters and his structure. As you read the piece – which follows a couple of men managing a whole lot of airplanes on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, the busiest air travel day of the year – you know instantly that you are in capable hands.

In this piece, as in others of his that I have read (“Does Anyone Here Think This Baby Can Live?” and his book, “The Last Shot”), Frey is a master at what some writers call the pivot and some call the swoop and at least one (Alex Tizon) calls “blobs.” That is, he gets you going down the line of the story until you are so captivated you can’t turn away, and then he turns away, away from the narrative line and into facts and background and information (blobs) that you need to know in order to understand what is going on. And you do not get impatient with him because he tells it so cleanly and engagingly, and because he knows exactly the moment at which you will get annoyed or impatient, and it is right before then that he pivots (or swoops) back into the story.

In this piece, Frey writes in the language of the people he is writing about. He doesn’t lapse into jargon or techno speak, but look at the word choice in the lead:

All the way down the bank of radar scopes, the air traffic controllers have that savage, bug-eyed look, like men on the verge of drowning, as they watch the computer blips proliferate and speak in frantic bursts of techno-chatter to the pilots: “Continental 1528, turn right heading 280 immediately! Traffic at your 12 o’clock!” A tightly wound Tom Zaccheo, one of the control-room veterans, sinks his teeth into his cuticles and turns, glowering, to the controller by his side: “Hey, watch your goddamned planes – you’re in my airspace!” Two scopes away, the normally unflappable Jim Hunter, his right leg pumping like a pneumatic drill, sucks down coffee and squints as blips representing 747’s with 200 passengers on board simply vanish from his radar screen. “If the F.A.A. doesn’t fix this goddamned equipment,” he fumes, retrieving the blips with his key pad, “it’s only a matter of time before there’s a catastrophe.” And Joe Jorge, a new trainee, scrambling to keep his jets safely separated in the crowded sky, is actually panting down at the end as he orders pilots to turn, climb, descend, speed up, slow down and look out the cockpit window, captain!

“Savage, bug-eyed.” “Frantic bursts of techno-chatter.” “Sucks down coffee.” Casual words, carefully chosen to set a particular scene and a particular jittery mood. Throughout the piece, controllers don’t eat; they “take chow.” They aren’t startled or worried or annoyed – the machines “mess with their heads.” These men look like they’re on the verge of drowning. Their legs pump like pneumatic drills. They fume and squint and scramble and pant. It makes me anxious just to read about them.

Frey’s verbs are powerful and carefully chosen: Huge, passenger-packed jumbo jets barrel up the river and streak across the sky, nervous controllers curse and twitch. They don’t just bite their nails; they “sink their teeth” into their cuticles.

Frey is a great observer, and he spends his day well, watching these poor guys intently as they deal not only with the stress of heavy air traffic and long, long hours (one guy has had two days off in a row only seven times over the last year), but also with the frustrations of rickety equipment: ancient computer screens that suddenly go dark when they are guiding a dozen planes, or radios that fritz out. He watches as they perform rituals that they hope will ward off disaster – rituals that I’m willing to bet these traffic controllers don’t even realize they do:

One controller stands and paces in tight circles while issuing commands; one drops to his knee, his nose touching the glass; one taps the scope with a finger; one holds himself together by singing out loud.

Frey’s voice is so calm, so authoritative, that we do not miss direct quotes. He uses them sparingly – this is narrative, but he has a lot to say, and he doesn’t want the piece to get bogged down. The quotes he uses are spice, not the main ingredient, and yet he chooses them so well you get an instant, strong flavor of the person speaking. For example:

Tom Zaccheo: “I’m gonna come over there, and then I’m gonna rip your lungs out!” and later: “They made a rule you can’t threaten another controller on the job,” he says, bringing his fingers to his enormous chest. “Somebody like me, I had to change my operating way.”

That might be all you need to know about Tom Zaccheo.

What drives this piece is pure tension – the tension in the room, the tension that underlies all the jokes and bravado, the tension that infects the reader. We are all waiting for a crash, waiting for a disaster, waiting for the computers to fall dark, the radio to short out, the controllers to go down the pipes and the planes to smash together in midair.

He keeps this tension going by sprinkling the narrative with reminders of how terrible things are. He doesn’t clump it all together in one blob, but every few paragraphs, every few scenes, he rolls out another reminder that everything could fall apart in an instant. A controller named Jughead finishes an “Iron Man” shift and finds himself at home without recalling how he got there. On a busy Sunday afternoon, controllers with “headset wires wrapped around their ankles” pace and scream like “short-order cooks on speed.” Some of the fired controllers are brought back years later, but they are unable to keep up with a pace that has only become more frantic in their absence.

Nervous yet?

I am. I am never flying into Newark, or, maybe anywhere, ever again.

Frey writes about one traffic controller whose amazing skill is also his downfall; they rely on him so heavily he can’t get any time off and can’t get reassigned and so is slowly going nuts. He writes about how hard it is to learn the job (half of the trainees wash out); he writes about another controller who panicked and deleted all the planes from his screen while they were still in the sky:

Then he turned to his supervisor and announced: “No more planes. Time to get off.” He, too, was sent to counseling, and after a couple of months tried to return, but he could never bring himself to work traffic again. A new nickname entered the lexicon: Dr. Freeze.

And then, just when you feel like you can’t take it anymore, the story hits its climax: the pilots stop responding to commands from the controllers, and after a few terrifying minutes they figure out that the radio isn’t working, so they switch to the backup radio – which also isn’t working.

Man, if that last scene doesn’t keep you out of Newark, then the ending of the piece will. These overworked, jittery men have managed to stave off disaster for that whole terrible day, but it’s not over. That’s the thing about their job: It’s never over. And Frey makes sure their jitters rattle you long after you finish reading.

Laurie Hertzel (@stribbooks) is senior editor for books and special projects at the Star Tribune, and the author of “News to Me: Adventures of an Accidental Journalist.

For more from this collaboration with Longreads and Alexis Madrigal, see the previous posts in the series. And stay tuned for a new shot of inspiration and insight every wee




One comment

  1. Carole Barrowman
    posted February 28, 2012 at 10:02 am | permalink

    Love this series and thrilled to see my editor and friend, Laurie, on the page. I teach close reading in most of my writing and lit courses at Alverno College and I use these essays as examples. Glad to have another good one.

One trackback

  1. [...] traffic controllers, published in the New York Times magazine in March 1996. Laurie Hertzel’s look back at why this article is so good jogged my own memory of reading this when it first appeared. Great [...]

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