It was the day of the press conference, a gloriously sunny day. I wandered downstairs and greeted Roscoe sitting in the kitchen.
" The Iron Lady called," he said as he shoved a cup of coffee in my hands.
"No, the other one, she'll be here in an hour," he chuckled.
For a final debriefing no doubt, I groaned. I was already tired as I had tried, unsuccessfully to sleep last night.
"What happened to your face?" Roscoe asked, pointing to a bandage above my left eye. I was so damn nervous during my morning routine I had banged my head while opening the medicine cabinet.
"I'm surprised you didn't slice your neck," he commented with a raised eyebrow.
We drank our coffee in silence. He didn't want to add to my stress with idle conversation.
Maybe the show won't be such a big deal after all. The Iran-contra scandal was dominating the news so it was possible the press was more interested in that than the flying guy.
Stori arrived promptly at ten and I was pleasantly relieved Victoria was with her. She gave my arm an encouraging squeeze.
" You aren't wearing that are you? Don't you have a good suit? And you need a tie," Stori regarded my rumpled khaki shorts and faded tee shirt with disapproval.
"No tie. I hate them. It will just get in the way and flap around when flying. Where is this happening?" I asked, changing gears. She had been very secretive about the details and location, saying it was nothing for me to worry about.
"The Point. Look for the large white tent," she answered. That was the park downtown where the Alleghany, Monongahela and the Ohio Rivers converged.
"A tent?" my brows folded in puzzlement. She informed me it was best to have it outdoors where everyone could see me fly in.
" Being outside will give them the photo op they want and allow you to control when you arrive and leave safely on your terms," she continued. That certainly made sense.
After a heated discussion about my attire, I went upstairs and changed into dark slacks, comfortable shoes, and a pale blue short sleeve shirt under my better, but warmer gray herringbone wool coat. Stori nodded in approved. I suddenly remembered something and pulled a folded note from my shirt pocket.
"I did the homework you requested and have a fact sheet about my flying," I offered it to Victoria, who glanced at it and laughed.
"You won't be handing out an information form to the press," she said, amused with my naivete and I scowled at her superior tone.
" I know you think it's a pain in the ass but you have to accept that they will ask you a lot of questions and you have to answer them, no matter how inane or redundant. Reporters like to hear what you have to say, not read dry facts," she explained patiently.
"Darling how do you think Vic would have reacted if you showed up at her doorstep with 'Hi I'm the flying guy here's a fact sheet'?" Stori elaborated. I sighed and tucked the carefully prepared page to my shirt pocket. Victoria realized they were being harsh on me and touched my arm again to ease my disappointment while Stori went over some last minute reminders.
"When I tug on my ear ala Carol Burnett that means your answer is no. When I put a finger to my jaw like this-- " she pointed to her jaw as if in deep thought--" it means I don't know and if I clutch my necklace," she always wore the most elegant jewelry "It means no comment--got it?" we went over the cues a few more times. No, I don't know, no comment.
"You're going to be fine sugar," she said sweetly and gave me a big hug. Inwardly I was frantic and returned an unconvincing smile.
"We'll see you in an hour, don't be late," Stori directed.
"Yes ma'am." I saluted smartly.
While Stori was sucked into the adorable baby zone when Roscoe insisted on showing off Tina, I walked Victoria to her car parked in the back alley.
"Remember when I said we should keep our relationship professional?" she said gazing at me intently. I nodded, recalling her remark the last time I left her apartment.
"Now that things have changed," she said, choosing her words with care. "And even though I will be with the media crowd, I think we can safely say my days of reporting on you are over." She seemed pleased to be out of the shark pool.
"Okay Victoria," I said in a neutral tone. It was bound to happen, with the conflict of interest forcing the decision. If that meant I wouldn't see her as much, I was disappointed. At that moment Stori came bounding out of the house, telling her to hurry. Victoria opened the driver side door and unleashed a smile on me.
"Call me Vic, all my friends do," she said, giving me a quick peck on the cheek and drove off.
While the ladies went off to prepare for the show, I nervously had a snack to shore up my energy. With one last check of my clothes, and making sure my fly was zipped, I was ready.
Roscoe was in the backyard gearing up for the next weekend's big Fourth of July barbeque. He leaned on the fence talking to Mr. Brown who was tuning up for the day's music session with his sons. Mr. Brown shook my hand and Roscoe gave me a hug to wish me luck. I put on my sunglasses and I was off.
It felt beyond strange to be flying over the city in broad daylight. I couldn't believe I had license to do so. It took me a moment to get my bearing, then I followed the Allegeny River west toward downtown. Even at three hundred feet up, it was still hot and humid and I regretted wearing the coat.
I expected to see a small canopy one usually sees at outdoor concerts or open air markets but--oh my God. A forty foot square of white graced the wide lawn. The street nearby was blocked off and it looked like the entire population was waving as they caught sight of my approach. Holy shit, did Stori rent a billboard sign to announce this? What are all these people doing out at noon on a Monday?
Stay calm I told myself as I headed down, removing my sunglasses and buttoning my coat as it flapped in the wind.
The police had a barricade set up along the sidewalk to keep the crowds at bay but the photographers rushed forward as several cops cleared a spot where I touched down gently, waving and smiling pleasantly amid the clicking of cameras and applause from the crowd. Stori directed me to the open sided tent and to a table with dozens of microphones perched along its edge and we waited for everyone to get to their seats.
Sweat plastered hair on my forehead and trickled down my back--the hell with formality, I shrugged out of the coat and draped it over the chair. When I turned back, I saw the large assembly of reporters with the oddest expressions on their faces as if they had just witnessed the second coming. I glanced at Stori in puzzlement and she smiled like a Cheshire cat. Vic sat three seats behind her and nodded with the same kind of awareness lost to me.
After Stori's brief introduction, she spelled out the rules, each reporter had a two question limit and she requested each give their name and media. This was a good idea as I had no clue who any of these people were.
"Good afternoon everyone, it's a pleasure to be here," I began. Actually, I'd rather be anywhere but here, I thought.
" I'd appreciate it if you kept your interest to me, work and recent events,” I continued, meaning stay clear of my parents and friends.
Despite that speech I had made at Mom and Dad's, the little shits returned to harass them. I told mother not to talk to them and under no circumstances let a reporter into the house. They had little patience with nosy people anyway. If someone was particularly bothersome, Mom directed them to Dad, who would exaggerate his slow speech to a maddening degree forcing them to flee within minutes.
" I understand you are all intensely curious about me, this is all new to me too, so go easy on me please. I will do the best I can to answer your questions. Who wants to start?" Every hand shot up. I pointed to a fellow from the Baltimore Sun.
"How do you fly?"
" Honestly, I have no idea. I've been able to do it since I was a child-- it's as natural to me as walking," I explained, figuring that was the end of it.
"So have you always been able to fly like you did today?" another asked.
"Well, when I was a kid it was more like a high jump but it developed as I got older," I replied. I had the urge to blurt everything out, get it over and leave, but I did as Stori coached. Be nice, stick to the point, present a friendly image to the public so people don't freak out like Sally the clerk or Rueben.
"There was a recent incident where a nine -year -old boy jumped off a roof, how do you feel about that?" Another asked.
I knew what he was referring to, some kid had jumped off the roof of a garage and promptly broke his leg. Now was the time for a disclaimer before the next parents came after me with dollar signs in their eyes.
"Seriously. The only way to truly fly is from the ground. If you can stand on the ground and jump up--you're flying. Any other way is falling, and falling will get you hurt or killed. If you get hurt it's your fault because that is the wrong way. So don't try it." I playfully scolded the reporter and he ducked his head.
"But you did jump off the roof of the DuPont apartments," someone else pointed out.
" No, I jumped up into the air not over the side of the building," I said, raising a finger to note the distinction. They followed with more questions about flying and I pulled out my fact sheet. If they weren't going to use it, I was.
"I cruise at about 25 and can go about 65 miles per hour in a sprint." I figured this out by marking off a mile on a country road and timed myself.
" I get closer to the speed of a skydiver, about 120 miles an hour in a dive but I prefer to go slower to avoid the high g's when braking out of them. Going above ten thousand, like pilots, requires the use of oxygen," I said, explaining how I used an altimeter to gauge the altitude.
“The view from that height is awesome, by the way,” I offered.
"Where did you get the cut on your eye?"
"I fought a medicine cabinet door and it won," I said with a straight face. Everyone laughed and I relaxed.
"Did you receive any special training from the Bureau of Fire Academy to develop your powers?"
"No but the training was grueling enough," I replied, pushing back the memory of that exhausting time.
I would drag myself home after eight hours of heavy physical work with equipment or endure long classes absorbing mountains of facts about building codes, procedures, chemistry and the behavior of fire. On top of that was the additional time of medical training as an EMT.
I'd eat a big meal and spend hours pouring over huge three ring binders of highly technical jargon. I often woke up where I had been studying, a spot of drool staining a page of text.
"Fighting fires is pretty basic, put the wet stuff on the red stuff and you'll be fine. It's all the other stuff that's complicated," I remarked simply.
"Do you show up on radar?" a young woman with a high pitched voice and bright red hair inquired, a pen poised over her notebook. A man next her shook his head at her naive question. I answered kindly to make up for his rudeness.
" I haven't had to deal with airport monitoring yet, but probably not, because of the way radar works. Like birds, I don't have enough reflective surface for the signal to echo back. Unless I wrap myself in aluminum foil, which would look silly," I said. That got another laugh.
"What other powers do you have?" A burly fellow from a west coast newspaper asked. He was sweating profusely but made no attempt to take off his oversized coat. I was a bit irked by his terminology.
"Let me clear up some things. I am not Superman. I don't have super hearing or x-ray vision-darn. Although I am strong, I can't lift a car over my head," I said, referencing the famous Superman comic book cover.
"How strong are you?" the same guy asked. Using up his second question quota, he winced in regret.
I looked on the back of my fact sheet where I had scribbled the results from my trip to the gym and recounted my findings. There were some gasps and shaking of heads.
"What about the track races you won in high school? Was that possible because of your unusual speed?" Wow, that reporter from Chicago obviously did a lot of homework.
I had visions of my record being invalidated after a lengthy, melodramatic investigation but remembered Mr. Carlson was still coach and he had no patience for such nonsense.
" I won them honestly, even the best racers lose if they are sick, distracted, or off their rhythm. Sometimes I just didn't feel like running,” I answered truthfully.
"Are you bulletproof?" I recognized Phil Braxton immediately.
" Not as far as I know and don't wish to find out. However, as a paramedic, I have been shot at, been threatened with bats, bricks, and knives. People react in strange ways to someone trying to help them. It goes with the territory," I replied sadly. I wondered how Mom and Dad would react to that as I paused to take a drink of water. I wondered when they will see this interview. I found out later CNN aired it live.
The burly guy whispered something in the ear of a thin balding man who then raised his hand.
"You carried two people at a time during the DuPont apartment fire, is that your limit?"
"Well I only have two arms," I joked, flexing my biceps. He wasn't as amused as the others.
" My full kit with breathing apparatus weighs 65 pounds plus whatever gear I'm hauling, so two people is no big deal." I explained. Fire fighting requires a lot of brute muscle, I once saw Roscoe carry out two people, one under each arm.
"Are your powers genetic?" the thin man followed up. There was something about the way he asked that set off my internal alarm but I couldn't tell exactly why.
"Not that I'm aware of," I said. The answer sounded vague and a forest of hands shot up.
"What I meant was, my parents do not have any of these special skills. Sorry.” They persisted with more questions along that line but were disappointed and it pained me to realize they were more interested in conspiracy drama than answers.
The questions turned back to specifics about my flying. Do I feel weightless when I'm in the air, can I hover? Am I ever afraid of heights? Stuff I never considered and had no ready answer so there were a lot of "I don't know " responses, even without Stori's prompts. This ended up frustrating everyone, including me.
"Can you give us a demonstration of your strength?"
"I'm not a trained seal who performs on command," I snapped, my growing irritation showing.
"Are you involved with a government project to develop super soldiers?" A nerdy guy in thick glasses put in. Where the hell did that come from, my expression implied.
"No," I said, as in that's ridiculous.
"Are you an alien?" he continued.
"Are you kidding?" I retorted. I was humoring him but he wilted under stares from the others.
"Have you been approached to have any scientific testing of your powers?" I was about to answer when I got a cue from Stori.
"Would you be willing to be tested?"
"No comment. And the term I prefer is special skills," I evaded before more follow up questions were posed. Stori tapped her wrist to remind me the time was running out. I indicated I had time for a few more questions.
"I'm getting hungry." I playfully patted my stomach but truthfully, all this talking was wearing me out.
"When you were in the National Guard, were they aware of your skills?" the guy looked too clean cut and precise to be a regular reporter and I noticed he didn't introduce himself.
"No they were not," I said in an icy tone and he got the hint.
In fact, I was sorely tempted to reveal how much I had hated the Guard. I dislike authority figures pushing their power trips on me and the Guard was full of them. Ask me nicely, explain your reasons, no problem. Bully or demand I obey--screw you.
"When did your co-workers and Chief Mallin find out about your skills?" that was a tricky one and I glanced at Stori but there was no easy way around this one so I fudged to save face.
"A few weeks before the DuPont fire," I replied, and I could imagine everyone at work breathing a sigh of relief.
There was a momentary pause at the unexpected response and I had the feeling I had dodged another controversy. Curious. An older woman from the Washington Post broke the tension with an obvious question.
"Why did you keep this a secret for so long?" Ah yes, I was waiting for that and swept the audience under the white canopy with a wave of my hand.
"What do you think? How are you all reacting to this?" came my rhetorical response.
They knew all too well how people reacted and a lot of it was due to their manipulation. He's a fake, a fraud, a demon, a government agent. The usual knee jerk speculation Victoria--Vic so eloquently spoke of in her original article that, ironically, set all of these events in motion. I spotted her sitting with her arms and legs crossed, a wisp of a smile evident, as she knew exactly what I was talking about. The reason for the lawsuit became clear to me as just another publicity stunt.
"How do your parents feel about--"
"None of your business," I cut the man off coldly. I recognized him as one who had been harassing them.
"Has the President or other government officials contacted you?"
"How about the FBI?" someone asked quickly. I narrowed my eyes at the slender black woman whose hair resembled the foam cover of a microphone.
Clarissa Jones was a reporter from a local paper credited with being the first person to reveal my name. She was far more ambitious than her boss realized when she was hired as the token minority. I glanced at Vic who looked equally peeved. They vaguely knew each other but it was not a friendly acquaintance.
I paused longer than I should have. I had not taken the time to think about how the government would deal with me and I was about to answer "no" when I saw Stori clutch her necklace.
That generated another forest of hands. I was beginning to panic at the dark implications of this line of questioning and my energy was seriously flagging. I held up my palms imploring patience.
" Look people, up until a few weeks ago I was just a regular guy doing a regular job. I have no hidden agenda, no nefarious plans to take over Pittsburgh or the world. I want you to know I'm one of the good guys, okay?" Checking my watch, it was time to go.
"Please give me time to figure things out and I'll get back to you. In the meantime just let me do my job rescuing people and fighting fires. As far as my special skills are concerned they are for my work and not for entertainment. I only went public so I could use them openly in emergencies. Today was the first time I ever flew in public and I hope I don't have to hide anymore. You've all been very patient with me so far and I'm thankful. I will be accommodating in the future as long as my family, friends and co-workers are not bothered. Please respect their privacy and mine. Thank you and good day."
They tried to get in one more question but I had already picked up my coat. As I walked out, I saw the crowds still pressed against the steel barriers and I waved to their wild cheers. It was nice to see them react positively. Photographers rushed out to get a shot of my departure. I posed for the crowd to take pictures.
I was about to leave when Stori shook my hand and surreptitiously pressed a note into my palm. I put it in my pocket with the pretext of retrieving my sunglasses and waved to everyone as I took to the air in a fast arch up and out towards the river. I wanted to fly high but remembered the airport flight path was right above so stayed just below the height of the tallest building downtown.
I leisurely took the scenic route home and arrived to find a block party in full swing. Cars and people filled the street. Roscoe's entire family was in the backyard along with the Brown's mini blues festival. Everyone was having a great time and greeted me warmly after I landed in the alley.
"What's the occasion?" I asked Roscoe as he tended a grill of steaks and brats while smoking a cigar.
"Didn't you hear? The flying man lives here," he said. I was shocked-- what did he reveal?
"You kind of gave it away when you flew off earlier," Roscoe said laughing at the look of confusion at my own stupidity.
"Oh shit," I groaned. He laughed again and offered me some food and a beer which I gladly took. I sat down to chat with George and Roscoe's three equally large brothers. How his mother-- a petite woman--sired such big boys was a mystery to me. I went inside to change when I remembered Stori's note in the pocket of my coat. There was an address and a message: "Come to my house at six, look for the big X on the roof."
Did she expect me to fly?