Tech Horror

Airwaves (Tech Horror #4)

In 1989 I had the privilege of working on some radio relay towers, as an independent contractor. These were used by AT&T long lines (and later Bell) from the forties on. Much or most microwave relays have been obsoleted by underground fiber. Starting perhaps in the late nineties the towers started coming down, and relatively few remain operational today. When I worked on towers outside of the Chicago area the radio relay network was very much still in operation. There were hundreds of continuously active towers all over North America, communicating by line-of-site microwave horns meters in diameter.

Few people were radio savvy at that time, and I was not one of them. I was there to help with the copper side of the system, where the radio equipment interfaced with the underground trunks. The radio techs would spend the better part of the day installing or troubleshooting equipment. My work must have been easy in comparison since I was usually done by lunch, and would spend the rest of the afternoon getting in the way, trying to help out with the radio stuff.

The long lines culture was very different from what I knew from switching and working on the local loops. I gave up trying to fit in early on and contented myself with quiet observation, trying to figure the radio guys out like a sociologist. A unifying trait of radio techs was, and still may be, their stories. No matter which tower I'd go to, and what group I'd work with, I'd hear the same tales. The one I remember most was about a guy who went to work on a radio tower during a snow storm. He curled up inside a microwave horn to warm up and fell asleep. When they found him the next day he was cooked from the inside out. I don't believe that story, and the microwave techs probably didn't either, but I must have heard it dozens of times during my short attachment to long lines.

When it comes down to it, radio is strange. Talk to a radio guy long enough - it doesn't matter if he's a telephone tech or a physicist - and he'll eventually admit that his knowledge of radio and electromagnetics is very limited. We have done a good job of modeling and harnessing radio for our own use, so much so that we may be prone to refer to ourselves as masters of the subject in delusional moments. The thinly veiled reality is that there is a great amount that we don't understand about the topic. The guys I worked with were smart. Now and then we'd even have a PhD on crew. Still, phrases like "That might have happened because..." and "Weird, it just started working again." were frequent. While mystery to some extent pervades all technological disciplines, I am convinced that it is most prevalent in radio.

In March of 1989 there was a massive solar storm that put on a show for a big chunk of North America, and I suppose other continents as well. The storm was unique in intensity, and had caused some problems with a few power grids. I was in a radio tower during some of the most intense moments of that storm. It was during that time that I saw how mysterious radio can be.

As usual I had finished connecting the copper downstairs and was up near the dishes, reading an Agatha Christie mystery. There were three radio guys up there. I don't remember any of their names, but I remember their positions and activities in the tower at that moment vividly. One was attaching feeder line to an RF horn. The other side of that line went into some radio equipment, and the other side of that equipment was connected to some kind of radio test set that another guy was monitoring. The third guy was squatting on the ground watching. As the line made connection with the horn there were visible sparks from that connection, and audible clicks from the piece of test equipment. The technician inserting the line jumped back, leaving the line connected. The clicking in the test equipment turned to white noise, which slowly formed into coherence. The coherent audio faded in and out, with new sounds becoming prevalent each time. Many of the sounds were identifiable. There were brief and variable intervals of silence between them.

The sequence of sounds went something like this:

(What sounded like crickets, the growl of an animal.)

(What might have been rocks banging together, with fire in the background.)

(Intense words in an unintelligible language.)

(Gunshots with an English cry of 'Advance!'. A bugle in the background.)

(More animal noises (This went on longer than the others, about 30 seconds.))

(Growling of machinery.)

What came next changed all of our faces from smirking wonder to terror. We heard:

(The sound of our own voices in a discussion we had had earlier that afternoon.)

Then the clicking noise was back. None of us moved for awhile. Then one of the radio techs said, "Well, it's time to pack up for the day." But nobody moved. After a few minutes the clicking turned to white noise again, and soon more audio followed.

(The sound of my own voice, saying 'I guess it's time to go.')

(The sound of a crumbling building.)

(A very large explosion.)

(Cries and screams, someone saying they were thirsty.)

And that was it. The clicking noise returned and remained. We all waited, in silence, for an hour, but nothing happened. I said, "I guess it's time to go.", and we started packing up.

Nobody ever mentioned what happened. After a couple days of initial shock everyone was back to their usual selves. I discretely tried to bring up the subject a few times and the techs very honestly seemed to have no idea what I was talking about. That's why I don't believe the story about the guy who curled up inside the microwave horn. When something horrible happens, you are reluctant to talk about it. I learned that day that when something completely inexplicable and impossible happens, something so extremely horrifying and unlikely that you cannot explain it to even yourself, you tend to ignore it. You go back to the real world. The alternative is to lose sight of everything you know to be true, and to live in a world where you have no control and where literally anything can happen at any moment. The average human brain will simply refuse to live in such a state.