BY JEFFREY BLAIR LATTA
Partly, this is a result of the military's heavy-handed clamp-down on all transportation into and out of the disaster zone. If a recent article in Maclean's ("Disaster in the Limestone City") is to be believed, this cordon is being especially enforced in the case of reporters, with the effective result of a ban on anyone even seen to be carrying a camera.
This may be the only explanation we require to explain the strangely ambiguous reports, but, just the same, I cannot help but suspect there is another reason, one more voluntary in origin...
You see, I was in Kingston the night of October 31 -- the first night of the disaster. I know what it is the soldiers are presently facing, and I can hardly blame any reporter who, learning even a tenth of what I have learned, feels it necessary to turn in a report in somewhat expurgated form. If nothing else, any publisher who dared to print the facts in toto would find him or herself branded either incompetent, a hoaxer, or insane.
Having said as much, I now intend to do precisely that, to reveal the complete and unedited facts as I lived them during the days of October 30th and 31st, those marking my own encounter with the disaster. Why do I feel it necessary to tell this story? Partly, I am driven by a simple need to unburden myself of the crushing weight I have carried all this last week.
Partly, though, I wish to tell my story in the hopes that I might influence events; specifically, that I might encourage the armed forces to take certain necessary steps which I fear they are not taking.
Knowing the nature and magnitude of the disaster against which they are presently struggling, I can hardly expect them to expend energy on what might seem like trivial side issues. With my story, though, I hope to make clear that, however appallingly dire and immediate may be the present threat, it nonetheless pales before a still greater peril, one which might be dealt with quickly and definitively with but a few sticks of dynamite.
Then too, I feel a certain obligation to reveal what I know concerning the fate of Globe and Mail reporter, Howard Noel, whose disappearance last year has caused such concern at his paper.
I have said that my own encounter with the origins of this disaster centred on the day preceding Halloween, but this is not strictly true. Though I did not know it at the time, a hint of what was to come reached me two winters previous when, in January of 1998, while at home in Toronto, I noted a small article printed in the Toronto Star concerning the so-called "Ice storm of '98".
The reader may vaguely recall that horrific natural disaster which struck Ontario, Quebec and New York only days after New Year. An unlikely combination of warm air in the upper atmosphere and below zero temperatures near the ground caused falling rain to freeze on trees and power lines, accumulating several inches of heavy ice, resulting in the complete and literal collapse of the electrical grid. In the middle of summer, this would not have proven such a problem, but, coming as it did in winter, the resulting week-long blackout created a disaster unparalleled in that part of Canada and the United States.
The article in the Toronto Star appeared a week after the ice storm itself, but many areas between Kingston and Montreal were still blacked out. The piece concerned the night of the storm itself, describing in detail the experience as witnessed by various citizens of Kingston.
It was an eerily evocative piece, as witnesses recalled that long dark night, waiting in vain for the light and heat to come back on; how, many of them, unaware of the heavy ice coating the burdened trees, wondered why, in spite of the wind, no branches swayed and the night was ominously still.
Nor could they account for the strange, brittle crashes which erupted out of the silence on an unnervingly regular basis, which went on and on all night long.
Of course, with dawn's light, they understood that the sound had been the shattering of innumerable branches weighted with the terrible ice. Again and again, the same phrase was used as the witnesses recounted their shock on encountering the dreadful devastation wrought in the night: "Like a war zone", they said.
But, in that article, a further detail was described. Several of the witnesses recalled noticing eerie flashes of blue-white light, bursts of luminance which many of them attributed to lightning. Yet, they noticed a strange regularity to the flashes. The bursts seemed to occur in groups with quiescent periods in between.
Along with the motionless trees, the breathless hush, the shattering crashes, the cold and the dark, these inexplicable lights only added to the growing alarm of the anxious witnesses.
The article went on to explain that there was some present disagreement as to the cause of these odd flashes, some believing they were occasioned by arcs of electricity created by power lines touching under their burdens of ice; others attributed the lights to the explosions of several electrical substations throughout the city.
At the time, I accepted these explanations and gave the story no more thought.
But now, having witnessed for myself what occurred in Kingston on the night of October 31 nearly two years later, I believe I know what caused those eerie flashes, and knowing, I find myself overcome with a truly numbing horror.
When I think of that January night, of those people standing gazing unknowing from bedroom windows, the darkness broken again and again by bursts of livid radiance, I say, when I think of what walked those frozen streets in the chill dark and the silent devastation...and why...
My story began with a positively mysterious letter from my uncle, Tobias Marshal.
Uncle Tobias, the brother to my late father, was a physics professor at Queen's university and, though I had only occasionally visited him at his home in Kingston, we corresponded on a fairly regular basis. I am myself an English professor at the University of Toronto (hence, prone to a certain overly-florid elocution) and completely hopeless where science is concerned, but, somehow, as fellow educators, the two of us have always managed to find enough of common interest.
This letter, however, was far from the usual friendly missive. The tone seemed queerly urgent, hysterical even. At the same time, it was remarkably short on specifics.
Uncle Tobias urged me to visit him immediately. Any delay, he seemed to feel, would be too late. Too late for what, he did not say.
To force the issue, he had even gone so far as to buy me tickets on a train leaving the very next day. Whereas under other circumstances, I might have found this behaviour exceedingly rude, the whole tone of his letter left no room for other than acquiescence.
The strangest part of the letter, however, was saved for the last, where Uncle Tobias, unaccountably, appended a list of three "Suggestions". More than the letter proper, these served to indicate that my uncle was truly suffering some terrible strain of mind.
The first on the list read: "1) Do not confide in anyone within the city limits."
The second, more mysterious than the first, ran: "2) Do not enter the hanging tower."
And the third, oddest of all: "3) If you value your life, plug your ears tightly with cotton when you sleep."
I was loath to be away from home, because my wife, Denise, was feeling under the weather, but she assured me not to worry and so, the next day, I set out by train for the "limestone city"...
In the Dark of Kingston is copyright 1998 Jeffrey Blair Latta. It may not
be copied or used for any commercial purpose except for short excerpts
used for reviews. (Obviously, you can copy it or print it out if you want
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