The Elevator That Won’t Go Down

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Tired of crappy news? Me too. So let’s take two really bad current events – Fort Worth (cop shooting) and buildings falling down (our own not-so Hard Rock hotel), and try to find some light.

Tough call, I know. But that’s what I’m here for.

These two concurrent tragedies provoked a memory of a story I wrote a long time ago for the Times-Picayune – a really long time ago – but which I recount here for, well – I don’t know why. Maybe laughter and forgetting?

It was the Spring of 1989. I held the position of “Southern Regional Correspondent” for the Times-Picayune, which was a fancy title meaning my job was to pack a bag every week and head off anywhere from West Texas to Atlanta to Miami to find a story for the next week’s front page.

If there were no stories of national import – natural disasters, factory closings, Space Shuttle explosions, serial killers – I had to enterprise my way through the beat. So, I would comb through regional newspapers and peruse the AP and UPI wire services looking for stories in the Southern Heartland.

I chased down stories about kudzu invasions in north Mississippi; apparitions of the Virgin Mary in southern Alabama; Elvis sightings in El Paso; an auction of the gun Jack Ruby used to kill Lee Harvey Oswald in Dallas. Stuff like that.

Good work if you could get it.

So, one day I came across a weird story out of Fort Worth. A group of developers had purchased a 28-acre lot of formerly agricultural property, now abandoned and idled in the rapidly suburbanizing stretch of interstate between the old cow town and its encroaching cosmopolitan neighbor, Dallas, with plans for an office/retail complex. Most of the land was already clear. All developers had to do before breaking ground was demolish 19 old grain elevators on the site.

Sounds easy. Particularly if you’re not trying some delicate downtown demolition project where everything has to collapse in on itself and not wreck a bunch of surrounding buildings. Just blow the crap apart, right?

Problem was, these grain elevators were built back when American workers built structures to last. Nearly a hundred years old, their walls were two-feet thick with concrete and steel. And try as they might, demolition experts were having a devil of a time bringing it all down.

By the time I heard about the story, they had been at it for days – and expended 3,000 pounds of dynamite. The project was falling into delay and cost over-runs. Yet one silo still stood. After ten days of blasting, one last grain elevator still stood in the dust.

By this point, it had become a cause celebre. (Although I’m not sure that’s the Texas term for it.) But whatever the nomenclature, the story had taken a grip on the Dallas/Fort Worth region – and the news cycle. Preservationists were cheering the last stronghold and symbol of Lone Star prairie life; modernists were gritting over the final impediment in the way of creating a truly contemporary twin-city metropolitan complex.

As the days went by and the last silo stood – and stood, and stood – advocates, gawkers, passersby and just plain folks on their lunch hour started to arrive at the site every day at lunch time, with brown bags and lunch buckets in hand, to watch the demolition. At first it was tens. Then it was hundreds. By the time I got there, it was thousands.

Local news stations started covering it live on the radio and TV. Traffic snarled along the nearby interstate and local highways. The story I wrote for the paper is lost to time, but a story I recently dug up quotes a construction foreman as saying: “It has become us against the grain elevator. And the grain elevator is the underdog, so everybody is for the grain elevator.”

A few days into this ex-urban drama, I rushed to my editor and said: “I’ve got a great story. And better than that, I’ve got one of the best headlines we’ll ever publish.” He gave me the green light.

So I flew to Dallas, rented a car and joined the madness on the side of the highways. It was like….what was it like? Picture the old TV footage of all the cars parked along the side of the road near Cape Canaveral in Florida back during the Apollo space launches in the ’60s and ’70s. And couple picture the crowds that gather outside Area 51 waiting for the inevitable alien invasion. Now picture them together.

Crowds growing day by day. Cheering. Arguing. Drinking. Killing time. Waiting every day for the BOOM and the shudder of the earth below us and the cloud of dust rising and then eventually settling and – the tower was still there.

National Anthem, anyone?

After a few days of this nonsense, my editors called me home. The local contractors had called in national demolition experts to finish off the job. By the time, I was back in the newsroom.

“You got a story?” my editor asked me.

“You bet,” I said. “Better than that, I’ve got a headline.”

“What’s that?” he asked.

Easy, I said: THIS IS THE STORY OF AN ELEVATOR THAT WON’T GO DOWN.

Read all about it.

 

 

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