God of Thunder (NPR)

October 17, 201411:09 AM ET

In 1904, Charles Hatfield claimed he could turn around the Southern California drought. Little did he know, he was going to get much, much more water than he bargained for.

GLYNN WASHINGTON, HOST:

From PRX and NPR, welcome back to SNAP JUDGMENT the Presto episode. Today we’re calling on mysterious forces and we’re going to strap on the SNAP JUDGMENT time machine. Our own Eliza Smith takes the controls and spins the dial back 100 years into the past.

ELIZA SMITH, BYLINE: California, 1904. In the fields, oranges dry in their rinds. In the ‘burbs, lawns yellow. Poppies wilt on the hillsides. Meanwhile, Charles Hatfield sits at a desk in his father’s Los Angeles sewing machine business. His dad wants him to take over someday, but Charlie doesn’t want to spend the rest of his life knocking on doors and convincing housewives to buy his bobbins and thread. Charlie doesn’t look like the kind of guy who changes the world. He’s impossibly thin with a vanishing patch of mousy hair. He always wears the same drab tweed suit. But he thinks to himself just maybe he can quench the Southland’s thirst. So when he punches out his timecard, he doesn’t go home for dinner. Instead, he sneaks off to the Los Angeles Public Library and pores over stacks of books. He reads about shamans who believed that fumes from a pyre of herbs and alcohols could force rain from the sky. He reads modern texts too, about the pseudoscience of pluvo culture – rainmaking, the theory that explosives and pyrotechnics could crack the clouds. Charlie conducts his first weather experiment on his family ranch, just northeast of Los Angeles in the city of Pasadena. One night he pulls his youngest brother, Paul, out of bed to keep watch with a shotgun as he climbs atop a windmill, pours a cocktail of chemicals into a shallow pan and then waits.

He doesn’t have a burner or a fan or some hybrid, no – he just waits for the chemicals to evaporate into the clouds. Paul slumped into a slumber long ago and is now leaning against the foundation of the windmill, when the first droplet hits Charlie’s cheek. Then another. And another.

Charlie pulls out his rain gauge and measures .65 inches. It’s enough to convince him he can make rain.

That’s right, Charlie has the power. Word spreads in local papers and one by one, small towns Hemet, Volta, Gustine, Newman, Crows Landing, Patterson come to him begging for rain. And wherever Charlie goes, rain seems to follow. After he gives their town seven more inches of water than his contract stipulated, the Hemet News raves, Mr. Hatfield is proving beyond doubt that rain can be produced.

Within weeks he’s signing contracts with towns from the Pacific Coast to the Mississippi. Of course, there are doubters who claim that he tracks the weather, who claim he’s a fool chasing his luck.

But then Charlie gets an invitation to prove himself. San Diego, a major city, is starting to talk water rations and they call on him. Of course, most of the city councilmen are dubious of Charlie’s charlatan claims. But still, cows are keeling over in their pastures and farmers are worrying over dying crops. It won’t hurt to hire him. They reason if Charlie Hatfield can fill San Diego’s biggest reservoir, Morena Dam, with 10 billion gallons of water, he’ll earn himself $10,000. If he can’t, well then he’ll just walk away and the city will laugh the whole thing off.

One councilman jokes…

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: It’s heads – the city wins. Tails – Hatfield loses.

SMITH: Charlie and Paul set up camp in the remote hills surrounding the Morena Reservoir. This time they work for weeks building several towers. This is to be Charlie’s biggest rain yet. When visitors come to observe his experiments, Charlie turns his back to them, hiding his notebooks and chemicals and Paul fingers the trigger on his trusty rifle. And soon enough it’s pouring. Winds reach record speeds of over 60 miles per hour. But that isn’t good enough – Charlie needs the legitimacy a satisfied San Diego can grant him. And so he works non-stop dodging lightning bolts, relishing thunderclaps. He doesn’t care that he’s soaked to the bone – he can wield weather. The water downs power lines, floods streets, rips up rail tracks.

A Mission Valley man who had to be rescued by a row boat as he clung to a scrap of lumber wraps himself in a towel and shivers as he suggests…

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Let’s pay Hatfield $100,000 to quit.

SMITH: But Charlie isn’t quitting. The rain comes down harder and harder. Dams and reservoirs across the county explode and the flood devastates every farm, every house in its wake. One winemaker is surfacing from the protection of his cellar when he spies a wave twice the height of a telephone pole tearing down his street. He grabs his wife and they run as fast as they can, only to turn and watch their house washed downstream.

And yet, Charlie smiles as he surveys his success. The Morena Reservoir is full. He grabs Paul and the two leave their camp to march the 50 odd miles to City Hall. He expects the indebted populist to kiss his mud-covered shoes. Instead, he’s met with glares and threats. By the time Charlie and Paul reach San Diego’s city center, they’ve stopped answering to the name Hatfield. They call themselves Benson to avoid bodily harm.

Still, when he stands before the city councilman, Charlie declares his operations successful and demands his payment. The men glower at him.

San Diego is in ruins and worst of all – they’ve got blood on their hands. The flood drowned more than 50 people. It also destroyed homes, farms, telephone lines, railroads, streets, highways and bridges. San Diegans file millions of dollars in claims but Charlie doesn’t budge. He folds his arms across his chest, holds his head high and proclaims, the time is coming when drought will overtake this portion of the state. It will be then that you call for my services again.

So the city councilman tells Charlie that if he’s sure he made it rain, they’ll give him his $10,000 – he’ll just have to take full responsibility for the flood. Charlie grits his teeth and tells them, it was coincidence. It rained because Mother Nature made it so. I am no rainmaker.

And then Charlie disappears. He goes on selling sewing machines and keeping quiet.

WASHINGTON: I’ll tell you what, California these days could use a little Charlie Hatfield. Big thanks to Eliza Smith for sharing that story and thanks as well to Leon Morimoto for sound design. Mischief managed – you’ve just gotten to the other side by means of other ways.

If you missed any part of this show, no need for a rampage – head on over to snapjudgment.org. There you’ll find the award-winning podcast – Mark, what award did we win? Movies, pictures, stuff. Amazing stories await. Get in on the conversation. SNAP JUDGMENT’s on Facebook, Twitter @snapjudgment.

Did you ever wind up in the slithering sitting room when you’re supposed to be in Gryffindor’s parlor? Well, me neither, but I’m sure it’s nothing like wandering the halls of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Completely different, but many thanks to them. PRX, Public Radio Exchange, hosts a similar annual Quidditch championships but instead of brooms they ride radios. Not quite the same visual effect, but it’s good clean fun all the same – prx.org.

WBEZ in Chicago has tricks up their sleeve and you may have reckoned that this is not the news. No way is this the news. In fact, if you’d just thrown that book with Voldemort trapped in it, thrown it in the fire, been done with the nonsense – and you would still not be as far away from the news as this is. But this is NPR.

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