Things that Fall from the Sky

Gary Fincke Click to read more...

gfincke-103Winner of the Flannery O’Connor Prize for short fiction, Gary Fincke is the author of many books, including the poetry collection Standing Around the Heart (Arkansas) and the short story collections Sorry I Worried You and The Stone Children, both published by the University of Missouri Press.  He currently directs the Writers Institute at Susquehanna University, where he holds a distinguished chair.

Rocks
From a freeway overpass in Central Pennsylvania, four teenage boys fling rocks at traffic passing beneath them along Route 80. One misses hitting anything but the highway. One nearly the size of a bowling ball bounces off the cab of a semi. At last, one strikes the windshield of a car heading east. When the car immediately slows, pulls off the highways, and parks, the boys hurry to their car and drive off.

Space Junk
In 1962, a twenty-one pound metal object plummeted from the sky and landed at the intersection of two streets in Manitowoc, Wisconsin. Eventually, it was confirmed to be the remnant of Sputnik IV, becoming the first example of a significant piece of space junk surviving re-entry after falling out of orbit. When first noticed, it was imbedded three inches deep in the asphalt street.

Powder
In 1969, in South Carolina, a white cloud spewed from the new Borden plant near the small town of Chester. It rose and drifted and hovered above the town, eventually beginning to fall. The day became white and sweet like the air above a rolling pin thinning cookie dough. Children stood beside their mothers, their hands clutching toys they would not part with. The weather seemed to cut the neighborhood into the shapes of families. The cloud was soluble on tongues. It surrounded each face. Already there were footprints on sidewalks, the anticipation of brooms. Some of those dusted by that shower took vows. As if time was ending, there were declarations of love and promises to do better. But not for long. The powder turned out to be Borden’s nondairy creamer. The company offered reassurance. Though later, when the whitened bathed, some of them stroked the film that had formed along their cheeks, their fingertips dizzy with the wonder of children touching the rouged faces of the dead.

Nuclear Bombs
The United States government calls nuclear bombs that go astray “Broken Arrows.” Four such broken arrows fell from the sky on January 17th, 1966 when two US Air Force planes collided over southern Spain. A B-52G bomber was struck by the KC-135 tanker plane sent to perform routine air-to-air refueling and broke apart. Three of the bomber’s H-bombs landed in or around Palomares; the fourth landed about five miles offshore in the Mediterranean. There was no nuclear blast, but plutonium was scattered over a wide area.

Rocks
Sharon Budd, a middle school teacher from Ohio, is a passenger in the car the boys hit. She is struck full in the face. In her husband Randy’s 911 call, he says, “This is bad. Something came right through the windshield.” He is unhurt. So is the driver, his nineteen year-old daughter. “There’s a rock that came in,” he goes on. “She’s grasping for her life. My God, half her brain is gone. Oh, my God.” His daughter can be heard screaming during the 911 call.

Space Junk
Nearly every day during the winter when my younger son was thirteen, he searched the sky for the first sign of space junk that was forecast soon to tumble out of orbit. “What if it lands here?” he asked more than once, and each time I told him that was so close to impossible there was no sense even thinking about it. “But not 100% impossible, right?” he said, and he began to research the size and weight of what was about to fall, how much of it might survive re-entry. He relayed the following details to me:
The name of the object is Salyut 7, the last of nine space stations the Soviet Union launched from 1971 to 1982. It blasted off on April 19, 1982, and has stayed aloft for nearly nine years. Six different resident crews have spent time aboard during its operational life. It is about 52 feet long and 13.6 feet across at its widest point. It weighs about 22 tons. A spaceship called Cosmos 1686 is still docked to the station. It weighs just as much as the space station, and all 44 tons of it is about to plummet toward Earth.

Seeds
A father calls his wife and children outside to witness the eastern sky turning dim with clouds the color of blood. They stand transfixed, staring skyward until rain falls like a swarm of sand. They live in Italy. The year is 1897. What falls are seeds, all of them from Judas trees, none of which grow anywhere near them. The light after the shower is so yellow it seems to have traveled from a jaundiced star. The father kneels to run his hands over those seeds, reading the Braille of what might be said by a solid rain.

Nuclear Bombs
The bombs that fell near Palomares from the destroyed plane weren’t armed, so there was no nuclear explosion. Parachutes attached to the bombs were supposed to bear them gently down to earth, preventing any contamination, but two of the parachutes failed to open, and those bombs blew apart on impact, scattering highly toxic, radioactive plutonium dust, a major hazard to anyone who might inhale it. And there was the issue of finding the one that fell offshore.

Rocks
Randy Budd says his wife had just finished speaking with their eldest son before the vehicle was struck by the rock. After hanging up the phone, his wife asked their son to send her a selfie from his station in Fort Bliss, Texas, which he did. “I really miss you,” he texted. Shortly after, the windshield exploded. Randy adds, “I didn’t know where her head was.”

Space Junk
My son asked to sleep downstairs in the room where his older brother had lived before going off to college. From time to time I caught him walking with his eyes focused on the sky. “Will we be able to see it coming?” he asked, and when I said, “Not likely,” he had me go outside with him with binoculars. He worried that most of the late January and early February days were cloudy. By then he understood that the space station and its attached ship would break apart and mostly disintegrate before it reached Earth, but still he worried. “So many pieces makes it worse,” he said. The whole thing plunged back to Earth on Feb. 7, 1991, breaking up over Argentina. Some debris was discovered scattered over a town called Capitan Bermudez. There were no reported injuries.

Small Stones
When I was in first grade I was proud of being able to throw stones across the wide street in front of the house where we rented three upstairs rooms. I stood on the wall that ran up from the sidewalk and waited for cars to drive by in the far lane, tossing small rocks over them as they passed. Standing on the wall gave me the advantage of height. The stones, hardly more than pebbles, looked to my six year-old eyes as if they were arcing down from the sky. Eventually, one fell short and landed on the windshield of a blue car. When the car pulled into the alley beside the house and the driver stepped out, I ran inside, up the stairs and into the room I shared with my older sister. Within a minute a man was speaking with my mother about the small crack the stone had made.
The crack, it turned out, was tiny and so far into the corner of the glass that unless it spread, the driver wouldn’t ask for money. All I had to do was apologize, forcing the words out between sobs.

Nuclear Bombs
Nobody on the ground in Palomares was killed by the falling bombs. 700 US airmen and scientists were employed to search for bombs and clean up. Three inches of topsoil was removed, sealed in 4,810 barrels and shipped to a storage facility in the United States. Twenty ships, including mine-sweepers and submersibles, were deployed by the US Navy to find the missing bomb that was in the Mediterranean. The cost of the sea search was over $10 million. Four months later, the missing bomb was finally hoisted on board a US warship from a depth of 2,850 ft. How much plutonium is still near Palomares is unknown.

Rocks
The teenage rock throwers’ names are brothers Dylan and Brett Lahr, Tyler Porter, and Keefer McGee. McGee was driving his Mitsubishi Eclipse when they stopped on the overpass near Route 80’s Milton Exit. When the car below them slowed, they fled to the house where the brothers lived. They tried to watch a movie, but dying to know how much damage they’d caused, they got in the Lahr’s gold Honda Accord and drove past the scene to see what was happening. When they saw a police car, they returned to the house. They went back yet again and saw more police cruisers. The police took notice of the Honda’s license plate.

Documents
In 1973 a set of papers fell from a distance higher than a nearby 300-foot radio transmission tower. It looked, to the witness, as if a briefcase had opened, a latch sprung loose among the clouds. A hoax was suspected, but a few lines about the event eventually appeared in a newspaper. The documents, it was reported, were full of graphs and formulas that explained “normalized extinction” and the Davis-Greenstein mechanism of astrophysics.

Nuclear Bombs
My first air raid drill was in second grade. Everyone in the grade school was herded downstairs to the basement and told to stand against a wall away from any windows. Close your eyes, the teacher said, don’t open them until I tell you. After that, we had those twice a year. We had fire drills once a month. In third grade we dropped beneath our desks and covered our heads with our hands. “All clear,” the teacher said both times. The school was six miles from Pittsburgh. She told us that the city and its steel mills were prime targets. “Pittsburgh is very important,” the teacher said, something I always remembered when the nearby fire station tested its air raid siren. “Could we see the bomb falling?” I asked her, and she answered, “Don’t you worry about that.” Every time I was home alone when the sirens wailed, my father sleeping, my mother at work, I watched the sky believing this was the time the warning was for real.

Rocks
At the hospital, the teacher’s forehead and skull cap was removed to allow for swelling in her brain. She had lost an eye and the other was severely damaged. In a short period of time, she underwent five surgeries, first to save her life, then to reconstruct her face, and, at last, to provide her with an artificial skull cap. In the first newspaper report after the boys were arrested, one of them denies throwing any rocks as if abstinence is a synonym for innocence

Frogs, Toads, Fish
Not rare, these things falling from the sky. In fact, they are so common that a standard reason is provided by scientists–whirlwinds sucki up water and carry what’s in it until everything falls from the sky.

Nuclear Bombs
A B-52 was flying over North Carolina on January 24, 1961, when it suffered what was reported as a “failure of the right wing” and two atom bombs plummeted toward the ground near Goldsboro. The parachute opened on one; it didn’t on the other. The bomb whose parachute opened landed intact. The bomb with the unopened parachute landed in a free fall. The impact of the crash put it in the “armed” setting, but another part of the bomb needed to initiate an explosion was damaged, and it did not explode. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara said, “By the slightest margin of chance, literally the failure of two wires to cross, a nuclear explosion was averted.”

Rocks
When I search for other incidents of rocks thrown from overpasses onto passing cars and trucks, there are dozens of stories. The one closest to where I live and where Sharon Budd was struck happened shortly after. A man was driving his Kenworth truck on state Route 924 within a few miles of the Budd incident when a rock crashed through his windshield. However, it missed striking him. When I move to recent incidents farther away, I read about a man who was driving home on Interstate 35 near Austin, Texas when a rock came through his windshield and smashed into his face. He is paralyzed on his right side and is unable to talk or write, according to a television report on KEYE. Another station KXAN reports that three other motorists were injured in rock throwing incidents on the same highway within a month of the one that paralyzed that driver.

Concrete
One afternoon, just after recess ended, a corner of concrete from just under the roof of my elementary school broke off and fell fifty feet into the playground. Our teacher kept us in our seats. She told us to pay attention to what we were doing, not what was happening outside, but when school ended, everyone I knew veered out of the path to where the school buses waited to take a look at the crash site. We all knew exactly how long it had been since we had stood in the spot where the stone struck the cement. Last week. Yesterday. That morning. Minutes before.

Space Junk
I look for a more recent example of enormous objects falling from orbit and find the story of the 6.5-ton UARS satellite. NASA’s space shuttle Discovery deployed the climate satellite in September 1991. The $750 million satellite was decommissioned by NASA in December 2005. When it fell to Earth, the event was reported this way:
NASA estimates that UARS will come crashing back to Earth Friday night (Sept. 23) or Saturday morning (Sept. 24). At the moment, they’re not sure precisely where; pretty much anywhere on the planet between the latitudes of northern Canada and southern South America is a possibility. About 1,170 pounds of UARS’ 6.5-ton bulk will survive re-entry. NASA pegs the chance of a piece of UARS debris hitting anybody anywhere in the world at 1 in 3,200.

Nuclear Bombs
Two months after the incident near Goldsboro, another B-52 was flying in the western United States when the cabin depressurized and the crew ejected, leaving the pilot to steer the bomber away from populated areas. The plane crashed in Yuba City, California, but safety devices prevented the two onboard nuclear weapons from detonating.

Rocks
When asked by reporters who are covering the Sharon Budd story, Pennsylvania state police can’t say how many times someone threw an object that struck a vehicle last year, because its database lumps those incidents in with incidents in which something lands on a highway. What is known is that in 2013, troopers responded to 213 “assault-propulsion of missile” incidents that include both categories. The numbers of such incidents was 229 in 2012, and 282 in 2011. What the reporters also learn is that in Pennsylvania, fences are erected on highway overpasses in urban areas that have sidewalks and are near a school or playgrounds. The Gray Hill Road overpass in the New Columbia area from which the rock was thrown that hit the Budd car doesn’t meet that criteria because it’s in a rural area, with no sidewalk. The overpass is 22 feet high.

Water Balloons
At the beginning of ninth grade, at the high school band picnic, I followed four other freshmen and one sophomore up the winding outside staircase that led to the top of the water tower at Allegheny County’s North Park. The sophomore had given us balloons to fill with water and shown us how to tie them securely. I had two that wobbled in my hands. Some of the other boys balanced two in each hand. “There’s always somebody who doesn’t know we’re up here,” the sophomore said. He played French horn. I played trombone, and by the time we reached the 100 foot-high observation deck, I was uneasy with the height and being associated with boys who thought tossing water balloons was cool. Every other boy screamed when a balloon burst close enough to somebody to soak them. I was the only one who didn’t lean over the railing to see the damage. Before the last balloons were tossed, I made my way down the stairs and hoped that anyone coming up the 154 metal steps would remember that I wasn’t part of the group that tossed the balloons, that anyone soaked would see me half way down while the next balloon arced toward them.

Nuclear Bombs
The Defense Department has disclosed 32 accidents involving nuclear weapons between 1950 and 1980. Nuclear weapons were lost, accidentally dropped, jettisoned for safety reasons or on board planes that crashed. The accidents occurred in various U.S. states, Greenland, Spain, Morocco and England, and over the Pacific and Atlantic oceans and the Mediterranean Sea. Another five accidents occurred when planes were taxiing or parked.

More Powder
On July 10, 1976, an explosion at a northern Italian chemical plant released a thick, white cloud. Close by was the town of Seveso, and the powder quickly settled upon it.
Soon small animals began to die. Cats. Dogs. It took four days before people felt sick. They were nauseous. They had blurred vision. And things were worse with their children, who broke out in a skin disease known as chloracne. The town wasn’t evacuated until weeks later. The white mist that fell on Seveso was dioxin. After a while, the residents returned. Eventually, babies were born disfigured. Liver disease became common.

Rocks
The police questioned Ron Johnson, who lives only 100 feet from the Gray Hill Road overpass. He mentioned to them that kids had tossed rocks at tractor trailers from the same bridge about seven years ago. “Then they put the signs up, ‘No standing on bridge,’ and there for a while the cops were coming by on a regular basis checking. But nothing happened, so the cops stopped coming by.”

Space Junk
The largest stone meteorite in recorded history struck Earth near Kirin, China in 1976. More than 100 pieces of the original large meteor reached Earth, some of them weighing hundreds of pounds. One The weighed 3,902 pounds, the largest ever recovered.

Pennies
When I was fifteen I watched as a friend sailed a penny out a window from the 25th floor of the University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning. “If you’re high enough,” he’d said, “a falling penny will kill somebody.” We rushed to look down, but I already knew there was no way he could throw it far enough out to have it hit the ground without bouncing off the outside walls that were built wider at the bottom like a narrow wedding cake. When I said so, he threw another. “We should go higher,” he said, but we couldn’t get access to any of the seventeen floors above us, the full 535 feet of height. Minutes later, on the street, there was no sign of anyone harmed by the pennies he’d tossed from about 300 feet high.

Nuclear Bombs
A website, nuclearsecrecy.com, allows users to simulate nuclear explosions. It says that one bomb the size of the two that fell on North Carolina in 1961 would emit thermal radiation over a 15-mile radius. Wind conditions, of course, could change that. The website warns that calculating casualties is problematic. Population clusters vary. So does topography.

Rocks
There have been reports of fatalities from rock throwing incidents, including two drivers killed by rocks as big as soccer balls tossed onto a German highway in 2000. Like the boys who hit the Budd car, all of those rock throwers were teenagers. They were charged with murder.

Space Junk
Twenty-six large asteroids have exploded in the Earth’s atmosphere in the first thirteen years of the 21st Century, all of the explosions registering the power of at least one kiloton. The frequency of an asteroid striking earth with the power to destroy a large city is calculated at about once per century.

Bodies
One famously landed on a car in San Diego, dropping from a mid-air accident like a fantastically narrow storm. The driver and her child were unharmed, but afterward, she had a habit of glancing up like a weather forecaster. An episode of the television series Six Feet Under begins with a scene that recreates this improbable landing.

Rocks
I learn that before the boys threw rocks, they drove through a corn field to see how much damage they could do, and I remember riding through a corn field in a car as a freshman in college. It was October, not July. “We do this every year,” the driver, a townie, said. “We’re not hurting anything. It’ll just all get cut down in a few weeks anyway.” I was anxious the entire time we plowed through the stalks, not because I was worried about being caught, but because it was so hard to see that anything could have been in front of us before that driver could react. The farmer, knowing this vandalism happened every October, could have laid boulders in the field, anticipating the annual car full of teenage jerks.

Space Junk
The largest iron meteorite weighs more than 60 tons. It was discovered in 1920, on a farm in Namibia. It is now a national monument visited by tourists.

More Bodies
It’s rare to believe a body is falling from a cloud. It takes height that turns us breathless, a thousand feet or more to make us think “sky.” In high school physics class, we learned Newton’s Second Law, the one that offers a formula for the acceleration of a falling object: g=32 ft. per second squared. The velocity of the falling object could be calculated by the formula v=g x time. The World Trade Centers were over 1300 feet high. The morning of the terrorist attacks distance and speed throttled our breath while suited bodies plunged like drops of a passing shower. Those bodies were falling about 120 miles per hour when they hit the ground. They have been filmed. They have been watched again and again. How some held hands when they leaped. The sky, that morning, was clear.

Nuclear Bombs
In December 1965, a month before the accident at Palomares, the James Bond film Thunderball was released. The story line was eerily similar. Bond’s mission was to find atomic bombs that had been lost at sea, and news stories about Palomares made the connection. In real life, it was much harder to locate and recover the bomb from the seabed.

Rocks
Four months after the incident, as part of a plea deal, Keefer McGee agrees to testify against his friends. In court, he says, “We decided to throw rocks at cars, just go out and be bad.” He describes how, when they reached the overpass, Dylan and Tyler jumped out armed with rocks they’d gathered earlier. “There was a loud crash when Dylan’s stone hit,” he says. “We all laughed as we drove away.”

More Bodies
The newly completed World Trade Center is 1776 feet tall with its antenna, a 408-foot spire, included. The builders have called the antenna a mast to insure the Trade Center is judged the tallest building in the United States rather than the Willis (formerly Sears) Tower in Chicago. The new Trade Center has fewer floors but has been designated tallest by the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat. In Chicago, years ago, my friend refused to go up in the Sears Tower, so I went alone. As always when I was close enough to the edge to see down into the city, every instinct told me to stay back, but the safety shield was high enough for even me to relax. Even so, riding down in the elevator felt like rescue.

Nuclear Bombs
University of California-Los Angeles researchers estimate that, respectively, Hiroshima and Nagasaki had populations of about 330,000 and 250,000 when they were bombed in August 1945. By that December, the cities’ death tolls included, by conservative estimates, at least 90,000 and 60,000 people. All of the United States nuclear bombs involved in major accidents since then were far more powerful than those.

Rocks
Sharon Budd spent weeks in an induced coma. It took thirteen hours of surgery to reconstruct her face. The surgeon said it was the worst case he’d ever seen. In a later interview, Randy Budd talked about growing up in a rough Ohio neighborhood, learning early to take care of himself. How that affected his feelings about the four boys. “There’s only a few ways I have of if someone does something wrong to you how to handle it.”

More Bodies
People have experimented with postures in the air to acquire maximum velocity.
The record free fall speed is 330 mph within ordinary atmosphere. However, claims have been made for falling at beyond the speed of sound from the upper atmosphere. Jumping from the stratosphere in 2012, Felix Baumgartner became the first man to break the speed of sound in free fall. He climbed to 128,100 feet in a helium-filled balloon. Recently, Alan Eustace, a senior vice president at Google, fell from the top of the stratosphere, plummeting nearly 26 vertical miles in the span of about 15 minutes. In doing so, he broke Baumgartner’s 2012 record for world’s highest-altitude free fall. The official figure on Eustace’s maximum altitude was given as 135,890 feet, or 25.74 miles. On his return to Earth, Eustace achieved a top speed of 822 miles per hour, breaking the sound barrier and generating a sonic boom, but shy of Baumgartner’s Guiness Book of Records approved speed of 833.9 mph.

Rocks
In October, when Sharon Budd steps out of the Geisinger Medical Center for the first time, she wears a pink #BuddStrong t-shirt. Her artificial skull is covered by a pink and white knit cap. Outside the rehab facility, she is filmed ringing a victory bell reserved for patients who overcome long odds. When she first entered the facility, she was so confused she couldn’t manage any of the therapy. Three months since the incident, she has no memory of it. I watch the video of the event several times. As she walks, Sharon Budd is braced on both sides by smiling attendants. At the victory bell ceremony, she is still lightly supported. According to her doctor, she is now “nearly independent, walking with a little assistance, able to take care of herself.”

Rocks
In November, Sharon Budd’s family notices seepage coming from a scar that runs across her forehead. She has to undergo a sixth surgery at Geisinger Medical Center to treat an infection underneath her artificial skull. The cap is removed and has to remain off for four to six weeks. Now she must wear a protective helmet but is able to return home. However, she will need to come back to Geisinger every two weeks for an exam.

Pebbles
It’s not far to the now-infamous section of Route 80. Within half an hour, I’m traveling east and looking up at the overpass. I keep my speed. The odds of being devastatingly struck seem impossible, and yet I slow as soon as I pass under and have to fight the urge to stop on the shoulder like a re-enactor.

It’s harder to work my way on unfamiliar back roads to reach the overpass. When I reach it, I park and look over, but each time a car approaches I expect it to stop, some driver stepping out to accuse me of rubbernecking or worse. When I feel patches of gravel under my shoes, I bend and gather a small handful. I look both ways and wait for the highway below me to clear before lofting those specks into the air.

Rocks
The two boys who were seventeen at the time want to be tried as juveniles. The lawyers for all the boys want certain evidence to be suppressed when their clients come to trial. Most important, they say, is not to admit as evidence the 911 call made by Mr. Budd. Likewise, pictures of Mrs. Budd should not be permitted to be shown. They are prejudicial, the lawyers claim. These exhibits are too emotionally charged.

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