September 11th, 2007


9-11 Writings

September 11, 2001 was a terrible day to be an American. On September 12 I wrote the following. Most of my friends were angry with me for writing it -- it was too soon and too harsh, and I offended a lot of people I didn't want to offend. And yet, in hindsight, I think I was on the right track:

Another Open Letter to George W. Bush

O Caliph of the Ivory Palace, Emperor of the Hemisphere and Largest of the Somewhat Large:

Yesterday's tragic events in New York City, Washington D.C. and Pennsylvania have sent the American people into a state of confusion and terror. As we mourn the casualties of a horrifying terrorist attack on our nation, citizens of the United States look to you, our leader, for direction and understanding. Now more than ever, you must shoulder the burden of your office and act, firmly and with decisive purpose, in the tradition of great American presidents before you.

This is no time for caution or forethought. Deliberation is a luxury enjoyed in serenity, but in these turbulent times we require immediate action. The American people are crying out for some response to this travesty, Mister President, and it is you who must respond. You must answer. It is time.

It is time to demonize somebody and then smack the crap out of 'em.

- * -

America has a long and proud history of putting the boot into impoverished backwater nations in times of trouble. Whether it's eradicating the Injuns or invading Grenada, our nation has a knack for stomping on the little guy to divert attention from our troubles. Why did we invade Panama? Wherefore Cuba?And what business did we have, exactly, in either the Halls of Montezuma OR the Shores of Tripoli? There is no answer, of course, but there doesn't need to be one -- we flex our muscles when we want to, because we are a superpower and, dammit, we have a really big penis.

Now is the time for further military action for its own sake. Our global community houses a veritable cornucopia of unlovable peoples, some of whom don't look even remotely white! Let us single out one or more groups of these foreign devils and teach them a lesson they won't soon forget! Let us unite behind Uncle Georgie's Jingo Banner!

Consider the gypsies. It has become fashionable in most of the European nations to persecute their Roma populations -- a meme that we could mine for our own benefit. Picture these swarthy, unphotogenic, squinty-eyed fellows, clumped in their ghettoes and wittering in their peculiar ungodly tongue. Now imagine a flight of cruise missiles rising up to destroy them in cleansing flames! Hip hip hurrah! Go America! Bush in '04!

Of course, a highly popular move could be to select an Arabic nation for annihilation. If there's one thing your father learned during his tenure in the Presidency, it's that nothing fires the imaginations of red-blooded Americans quite like the tele-operated pasting of howling desert savages. There are plenty of Middle Eastern emirates that would be fine candidates for topographic rearrangement -- why not Kuwait? Our boys already know the terrain; the media can reuse stock footage; we can drop a few more bombs on Iraq while we're there! And did we ever get a decent 'thank you' from the Kuwaiti peoples for bailing out their sorry asses? Cheeky monkey-men! let us level their cities -- it will help us heal.

Now, an excellent candidate would be the Palestinian peoples, who actually had the gall to express joy in the face of our misery. If there isn't a law on the international books saying we can kill them with nuclear fire, then by golly it's time to write one. The trouble here is that the Israeli people would also be affected -- but let us pause to ask whether this would be so bad? Sure, Israel represents our only stable ally in the region, and the ties between our nation and theirs are many and strong -- but dammit, they killed the little baby Jesus! Somebody's got to go down for that!

In the long run, of course, it doesn't really matter who we choose to attack. The important thing is to show our people, and everybody else in the world, that a brutal terrorist attack will not keep America from the business of conducting our own brutal attacks. Confronted by yesterday's destruction, the American people now doubt that we can kick more ass than anybody else. We must renew their faith once more.

- * -

President Bush, tarry no more! the beauteous countenance of Lady Liberty has been soiled by the jizz of foreign aggression! From sea to shining sea, Americans call out for vengeance, and we're not particular about who gets it!

Round up the usual suspects, Commander! we ride again!

I remain your Modest Subject, as Loyal as I Was the Day You Were Elected,

Andrew J. Solberg

A short time later I wrote the following 100-word science fiction story:

The towers rise again, impossibly, creakily erecting themselves, straining skywards, bamboo through humus, chaos into order. Onlookers boggle at buildings reforming through swirling dust. The doors open.

Emerging first, the firefighters and police -- battered but whole, stoic heroes waving to acknowledge cheering throngs. Next come phalanxes of traders, chefs and secretaries, coughing and shielding eyes in daylight.

Here are the plane passengers, pumping victorious fists, still dragging carry-ons. And with them, the attackers -- captured and defeated.

Sighing, sagging, the edifices resubmit to reality and collapse; ash and plaster scatter once more.

One billion minds relax their wills, their point made.

I have no agenda for posting them here, other than wanting to keep these things in a place where I can find them again.


NOTE: something else in the category of things I wrote long ago and want to save. I used to write a lot about job-related weirdness. I get asked to tell this story at parties.

This is another engineering story. If such things bore you, move along.

The serial numbers have been filed off this one, because there are some legal issues still at stake.

- * -

A month or so ago, my good buddies at the Fubar Building gave me a buzz on the phone. "Andy," said the building maintenance manager, Mr. Anonymous, "we're knee-deep in filth." These are words a consulting engineer loves to hear, so I jumped in the Dangermobile to pay Anonymous a visit.

Anonymous was exaggerating; the filth was only ankle-deep and really wasn't terribly filthy, consisting as it did of slightly dirty rainwater. The building maintenance crew had already identified the source of the flood: a storm drain stack had cracked open inside one of the walls on the ground floor, and since it was raining like incontinent cats and dogs, the water was coming in pretty good.

I need to explain storm drain stacks. Wherever it rains, you need some means to get water off roofs. This is particularly true in the sodden Houston area which regularly gets 4 inches of downpour an hour during thunderstorms, and can gust up to twice that over short intervals. It is vital to remove this water from your roof because water is pretty heavy, and the structure of the building was not built to hold several feet of water for any length of time. Also, standing water tends to rot your roof and cause pesky leaks, which is why you almost never want to live on the top floor of a high-rise.

Houses tend to be peaked, and water runs off the slope into gutters which spill the water outside. Office buildings have flat roofs, however, so the water doesn't just fall off the side. One way to get the water off the roof is to use scuppers: holes in the parapet wall of the roof that just splash the water down the side of the building. This is a lousy solution if you like how your building looks, because after several years of regular precipitation runoff, the walls of your building will have more drip staining than Tammy Fae Bakker's face. Usually, instead of using scuppers, you put in a roof drain system.

Roof drains are like your shower drain; they have a kind of grating that keeps big stuff from getting into the pipe. You scatter a number of them across the roof. The drainpipes gather together up above the ceiling of the top floor, and then they drop in a single pipe called a storm drain stack. The stack gets the rainwater below the slab of the building; then it turns horizontal and runs out the building to the storm drain system of the neighborhood. This system of piping is kept totally separate from the other drainage that comes off a building; that stuff is called the sanitary sewer. The two are kept separate because storm water doesn't need to be processed at a water purification plant. Sewage, on the other hand, does, unless you're a third-world country and enjoy dysentary.

- * -

Mr. Anonymous and I checked out the damage. The cleaning people were forlornly running portable sump pumps trying the get the water up off the floor, but they were fighting a losing battle -- the broken storm stack was spewing water through a ragged hole in the drywall at a pretty good clip. I shone my flashlight on the break, revealing a chunk of missing pipe about the size of a softball. I rummaged for the chipped-off piece in the water under the pipe, but I couldn't find it.

"What could cause this to happen?" asked Mr. Anonymous. "There are four other storm stacks in this complex; if there's anything I can do to keep this from recurring, I'd like to do it."

"Sure," I said, "but there's not a great deal we can do until we figure out why it happened in the first place. Cast iron doesn't usually spontaneously crack like this. Is there any chance somebody could have whacked the pipe recently?"

Anonymous shook his head. "This pipe has been sealed up in this wall chase as long as this building has been standing."

"How about from the inside? Has there been any roof work done recently?"

Anonymous' eyes lit up. "Yes! We've got roofers on site right now; they're repairing some spots on the roof membrane. Why does that matter?"

Why indeed, Watson. "Because to get at the roof membrane, they would have to clean the roof pebbles up. To get at them, they would have to remove the grates on the roof drains. And if they removed the gratings, there's a chance one of them could have dropped a tool down the drain. That's a long enough fall for something heavy to cause some damage, especially if it's a straight shot. Let's look at some plans."

We looked at some plans. Normally, your roof drains all tie together and run a short ways before dropping down the stack. In this case, however, the cheap sumbitch who erected the building had the storm stack dropping straight down out of one of the drains. It would have been easy for the roofing guys to accidentally drop something down the drain and all the way down the stack, even if it was just a large roofing pebble that was mistakenly kicked down the hole. That could have been enough to cause the damage.

Anonymous got hold of the roofing foreman, and we called a meeting with the roofing crew. "Guys," said Anonymous, "Is there any chance any of you knocked something down the roof drains while you were up there the last few days?"

"Nope." "Nuh-uh." "No, sir."

We adjourned the interrogation. "We'll probably never know exactly what caused it," I said to Anonymous. "In the meantime, you might want to get a plumbing contractor in here ASAP to fix this up."

"I think I'll take a look at the other storm stacks while I'm at it," added Anonymous. "I'd really hate for this to catch us unawares again."

"Let me know how it turns out," said I, and went to lunch.

- * -

Last week I got another call from Mr. Anonymous. Boy was HE pissed off.

"Hey, remember our storm stack problems?"


"You'll never guess what caused the damage."

"I don't know, what?"

"Go on, guess."

"Uh....a wrench?"

"A two-by-four."

"Say what?!"

"A BOARD. Those morons dropped a bunch of goddamned BOARDS down our drains."

Oh no. "Now, when you say _boards_, do you mean 'More than one board'?"

"Yes, that's the good part. They didn't just drop it down ONE drain. They dropped one down EACH STACK."

"I'll be right there."

I hung up the phone. Last time I looked, sabotage was a crime, and while my job description covers a number of vile and sordid tasks scorned by all but the most untouchable of castes, crimefighting is not one of them. Nevertheless, a client was in trouble, the Bad Guys were on the loose and the very Fires of Liberty were being threatened with extinguishment by the Perfidious Winds of Pure Evil. Donning my fedora and strapping on my trusty measuring tape, I hoofed it out of the office and onto the track of yet another case -- a case that could only be solved by me:

Andrew J. Solberg --


- * -

We called another meeting with the crew of one Generic Roofing Contractors, Inc. This meeting was considerably less friendly than the first one, and involved Mr. Anonymous jumping up and shouting quite a bit. A number of other Fubar Corporation people were there, as were the upper management of Generic Roofing, and none of them were in a great mood, either. As a professional, I felt it necessary to keep my cool and say nothing -- partially to avoid getting between a mother polar bear and her cubs, but largely because I felt sure that the deadly surety and calm I was radiating would eventually penetrate the ruffians' armor and make them crack.

Right as always. The roofing crew eventually wilted under my continuous barrage of silence and admitted to dropping boards down the storm stacks.

"Why?! why would you do this? did you think you wouldn't get caught?" shrieked Mr. Anonymous.


"Were you angry about something?"

(shake heads)

"Then why did you pull this stunt?!"


"...well...." said a crewman slowly, " makes a cool noise."

Mr. Anonymous, for once in this meeting, was speechless. It was up to me to carry on the good fight.

"Er....what kind of noise would that be, then?"

Sheepish grin + puzzled thinking look. "Well, it's kind of a CHONNNNNNGGGGGG."

Oh my STINKIN' God. "So, then, you did it to make this noise."

More sheepishness. "It's a *really* cool sound."


- * -

After the fuss died down, Anonymous and I returned to his office to discuss our next move.

"How much did the repair bill come to?" I asked.

"A ton. In addition to the cleanup, there was the plumber's bill, which cost an arm and a leg. There was damage to all but one stack."


(ponder ponder ponder ponder ponder ponder ponder ponder ponder ponder)

"I just can't believe those guys. Who would risk their job just to make a bizarre GONG noise?"

"More of a CHONNNNNGGGGG, wasn't it?"

"Yeah, that's what he said. CHONNNNNNGGGGGGGG."

(ponder ponder ponder ponder ponder ponder ponder ponder ponder ponder)

"Well, I confess. Now I'm curious."


"I wish we could have heard it."

(ponder ponder ponder ponder ponder CLICK!)

"You know...."

"Oh no."

"'s not clear to me that they would KNOW that one stack was undamaged."

"Oh NO."

"I mean, four stacks; five stacks; they'll wind up paying the bill anyway."

"Where can we get a board?"

"I'll meet you on the roof."

- * -

It was a beautiful December afternoon when Anonymous and I popped the roof hatch -- two students on the path of knowledge and self-discovery. Birds were singing; there was a light breeze and the air smelled like pine needles. What new experience lay just around the corner?

Am I whole? I asked myself as I lifted up the roof drain grille. What will I find when I drop this board? Will the universe rearrange itself? Will I form a new paradigm of self? Will the eye, turning in upon itself, witness its own sight?

The board dropped.

dink denk
dink denk
dink denk


And the student was Enlightened.