— Lewis J. Bates
American Poet (1832-1932)
Last week’s snowfall took my conscience for a ride down a path I haven’t traveled in 21 years — when I ended my first tour in newspaper work to pursue a career in corporate communications and public relations.
The fact that those flakes fell on the purest of occasions — Christmas Day — might have instigated the cleansing of my contaminated soul.
Regardless of the reason, it’s time to come clean.
The gig’s up.
Here’s my shameful story.
May Jim Cantore one day find room in his heart to forgive this turncoat revelation.
For decades the consumer public has suspected a kickback connection between those who report about the weather — TV meteorologists, The Weather Channel, radio DJs and newspaper reporters — and those who benefit the most from snow and its forecast.
In my early years of yellow journalism as an easily influenced and impressionable young cub reporter, I vehemently denied with shaking head any such accusations. I as a newspaperman had nothing to do with published stories of doomsday snowfall forecasts that sent hundreds ... thousands ... of well-intentioned Cleveland and Bradley County shoppers rushing to their local grocers in search of life-sustaining staples like milk, bread and eggs in order to survive the meteorological travesty that almost certainly lay ahead.
But which never arrived.
“Sure,” I told countless accusers. “I wrote that story about the pending blizzard that turned north. I realize it never made it to Bradley County. But I reported it as a community service. My intentions were honorable. I could not live with the knowledge that I failed to publish warnings of The Big Freeze knowing that if you were caught unaware you could spend ... hours ... snowbound in your home without two extra gallons of milk, a family-size loaf of white bread and eggs enough to feed cheese omelets to the neighbors on both sides, and across the street, for a week.”
I assured him, “I don’t write these stories of snow doom to benefit the grocery stores or to send dairy pricing into an agrarian stratosphere. I write them for you, my friend ... because I care. Consider me your personal moniker of meteorological justice. Yes, I write about snow and forecasts of snow, but I write it for the right reason. I would never accept a Pulitzer for doing anything less than the right thing.”
As he turned to leave, mumbling something about “ ... snowball job,” I assumed his concern was the imminent snow storm about which I had just written, again.
Yet I knew the ugly truth.
It stung my heart like a roasted jalapeno.
Looking to the horizon at the approaching clouds that teased a community with its realistic 23 percent chance of one-tenth-of-an-inch of snow, I hung my head in shame ... fully aware the story I had just written falsely warned of a 90 percent likelihood with half-a-foot by dawn, serving as gateway into a modern Ice Age by week’s end.
I was among the guilty.
Along with others.
All because of greed.
TV news anchormen.
We were conspirators of meteorological proportion whose personal profit grew at the fingertips of unknowing grocery clerks innocently ringing up sale after sale of just-in-time milk, eggs, bread ... and the chance addition of an 8-roll pack of toilet tissue ... all this as a cold winter breeze wafted in ominous puffs whose true innocence remained untold on blank screens of unplugged weather radar.
My thoughts carried me back.
To another time.
A different place.
When it all began.
I was there ... in that dark, secluded, smoke-filled room when The Agreement was hatched.
A big round tabletop levitating above a thick, oak pedestal.
Broad shoulders cloaked in shadows whose slow dance mimicked the flicker of candles at the scratched surface’s center.
Unshaven faces silhouetted by an uneven light.
White dress shirts.
Sleeves rolled at the cuff.
Neckties loosened from the collar, top buttons unclasped revealing sweat-stained t-shirts.
A pungent aroma of cigars, their red tips glowing from the darkened recesses of the table’s perimeter.
I was the last to enter this secret place.
The heavy wooden door closed behind me.
The click of a metal lock told a story of misguided souls, lost direction and errant ways.
“Come in,” a deep, gravel-throated voice offered from the abyss. “You’re the last. Now we can begin.”
The filtered light revealed a heavy forefinger emerging from the night and motioning to an empty straight-back chair to my left, the remaining unclaimed spot among this myriad of conspirators and their circle of evil.
I sat ... uncomfortable in my surroundings yet drawn to its mystery.
Dull, unblinking stares.
Blank, empty faces.
Our weave of wrong-doing began its spin.
(Next: The forecast-for-food-for-fortune conspiracy takes shape as The Agreement is born).