The Shock and Vibration Society

From the LabLit short story series

Steve Bills 2 September 2007

Who would care about the air-bag deployment or tire performance or roll stability in a nuclear blast?

His credentials are overwhelming. Sixteen patents, ninety-eight published articles, a chapter in “the definitive text” on ballistic shock, author of twenty-two books. He’s MIT – BS, MS, PhD. He’s part of the Cold War victory dance. Yet, he senses the election is close. He is fat and his luster has faded. Of late he becomes flustered when criticized. The membership seems entranced by his opponent. His head bobs watching her breasts as she crosses the stage to deliver her final speech before the votes are cast. He is next. Those breasts are a tough act to follow, but at least he, the three-term incumbent president, Wallace J. Wilcox III, has the last word before the votes are cast.

The President’s term is two years. The Shock and Vibration Society bylaws require nominations for officers in March, campaigning in April, elections in May at this annual convention. The Philadelphia Marriott and the Navy are this year’s hosts. Henry R. Jones, the Society’s octogenarian treasurer and blast dynamics luminary, nominated Wallace for reelection on March 1. Wallace remains shocked to have competition. He still senses tremors at the thought of a woman running against him. Some youngster nominated her on the last day of March – just when Wallace was ready to take his victory lap, unopposed. What can a woman know about running a state-of-the-art, highly technical, scientific engineering organization that is central to world peace? His record, not devoid of minor fissure, seems structurally intact. Her record is non-existent. She has been on the roster for only four years – on the Membership Committee, for God’s sake. She serves tea and cookies to graduate students. Her resume includes a few published articles, no books. Her work has been criticized in the journals. There are rumors about her work. He’s heard his cronies gossip about her:

Her patent pending Liquid springs rupture; dozens Perish, stairs collapse.

His mouth waters as she approaches the dais. Polite applause greets her. Her specialty, she claims, is crash dynamics. Her dissertation, from a state university, was in fractural mechanics. She wears a red blouse with a metallic sheen. Her silver three-year Society pin is attached above the left nipple – like she’s pinned to a fraternity beau, he thinks. He is drawn to her shimmering vibrating gold hoop earrings. Encircling her dainty neck is a gold chain holding a crescent moon-shaped charm with a single sapphire in its center. His pin has three diamonds and a ruby–one diamond for each decade of membership and a ruby worn by the President and Past Presidents. (No Past President is living.)

She introduces herself to the audience, Maureen Day-Nixon. He hates hyphenated names. He hates the name Nixon though he still thinks Richard Nixon got a bum rap. Does her husband call himself Day-Nixon, Wallace wonders? Her skirt is too short, her heels too high, he thinks. He stares at the back of her legs as the audience politely applauds. That skirt will win votes, he thinks.

He thinks crash dynamics is lightweight. How can it compare with nuclear shock detection or ballistic environmental engineering or advanced dynamic physics – his areas? Her speech has cadence. It has rhythm. It vibrates. The audience’s heads bob as she speaks. The entire front row, all with pocket protectors and crew cuts, munches doughnuts and swills black manly coffee, splashing it on the hotel’s sky-blue carpet. He makes a note to expect a carpet-cleaning bill from Marriott.

She is charming. The women in the audience, ten or twelve, he thinks, are too far back in the crowd for him to see even if he were wearing his spectacles. He sees clusters of Oriental men, mostly PhDs he knows – Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Vietnamese scattered throughout the room. There are military officers from all services looking official, looking orderly. He loves the Air Force guys. The Navy gives him heartache.

She praises his stewardship as President. She asks him to stand, shocking him from lethargy and he staggers to his feet. They give him a standing ovation and he notes more spilling coffee in row one and dropped chocolate doughnut segments on the carpet. He sits down with such force that the temporary stage shudders. He is relieved to feel the harmonic motion dissipate. He snags the sweater of the man sitting next to him with his cell phone. The man calls him a fat bastard in a barely discernible whisper. Wallace is shaken and apologizes.

She shifts tone. She suggests that she offers fresh perspective to the Society. She implies he is a relic of the past. The Society lacks diversity, a moral requirement. He feels himself redden. He perspires in drenching gushes and reaches for his embroidered handkerchief – hand-embroidered and ironed by his wife. She dutifully packed five of them in his Samsonite shock-resistant suitcase just before she left for Palm Springs. She dislikes their La Jolla house in spring – too cold. He wipes his brow, his handkerchief soft against his triple chin. He feels his shirt stick across his chest and under his bellow-shaped arms.

He wonders how he can turbo-charge his speech. How can he tuck his shirt in over his stomach with subtlety as he approaches the platform? Will his sports coat button across his stomach? His old friends on the front row can’t be serious about Maureen Day-Nixon in her tight blouse and silver pin and her boring crash dynamics analysis of the Ford Explorer. It wouldn’t take much analysis to see how a Ford Explorer would do in a nuclear blast, he thinks smirking. Who would care about the air-bag deployment or tire performance or roll stability in a nuclear blast? He imagines Maureen inside a Ford Explorer at ground zero. He imagines the graphical depiction of the blast dynamics curve. He fantasizes sliding his hands under her blouse in the back of a Ford Explorer. He’d make the suspension and shocks ebb and flow, rock and sway. He starts at the vision of his wife knocking on the Ford Explorer’s windshield.

Day-Nixon tells a joke. He laughs with the audience, a charade because he didn’t hear the punch line. The laugh comes easily because it coincides with his fantasy – coupling with her in the back of a Ford Explorer. He is startled when he notices coffee splattered on his tie. He knows his wife will rescue the tie. A bead of sweat bounces off his tie like a rubber ball and disappears into his cotton shirt. There is pandemonium in the audience. It is not the crowd he knows. They have lost focus on their decorous profession. He knows no jokes he can tell in public. He scans his memory, his endless catalogue of stories and anecdotes. His candidate selections are either too obscene to tell or he is unsure if the information is classified.

The auditorium’s lights dim as she begins an audiovisual presentation. He twists awkwardly in his chair to view the slides. The man with the snagged sweater moves away to see better. Her colorful slides are animated. Phrases and pictures come flying in and land on the screen like perfect gymnast dismounts. Wallace has no slides. Wallace is afraid of this. Wallace thinks he is going to lose as he scans the audience on each side of her shapely legs. She unveils a newly designed logo for the Society – it eliminates the mushroom cloud backdrop in the current version. She presents drafts of mission statements and management agendas and refocused research priorities in electronic environments. It’s time to put away the slide rules, she says. Wallace is encouraged when he sees two of his old friends on the front row nod off to sleep. They don’t see her use her laser pointer or strut across the stage with a news anchor’s smile. They don’t hear the explanation of crash dynamics algorithms that Wallace recognizes, without doubt, as brilliant.

And so she finishes. The lights come on and the audience seems to stretch while clapping. Somebody in the back gives a hoo ah! and a female voice yells you go, girl.

The election committee chairman introduces Wallace who has composed himself. Wallace feels strong. He walks to the end of the platform where she sits and offers his hand. She stands demurely, grasps his chubby fingers and gives him a soft peck on the cheek. How could this woman blacken his day? He notices that she stands in his shadow as the spotlight follows him back to the podium.

Wallace thanks Dr. Nixon for her high praise. He doesn’t call her Day-Nixon. He sees his friends in the front row smirk. He reminds his colleagues that his father, Wallace J. Wilcox II, was the Society’s first president. His family, he says, has devoted their lives to the study of nuclear shock. The frail world has achieved peace because of you wonderful guys who have served so loyally in our nation’s labs in both the public and private sectors, he says. His remarks resonate, he thinks. There is a buzz, a vibration, a movement toward acclimation, he thinks. He gains momentum. He bounces on the balls of his feet when they interrupt him with applause. The tide is turning and he makes a mental note:

Vibroacoustics Analysis indicates Sharp sentiment shift.

He acknowledges this year’s award winners – all-powerful friends of his at Cal Poly and Stanford and Los Alamos and Texas. The award-winning papers are filled with mechanical engineering genius, filled with the truth of physics, he remarks. He smashes the podium with his hand to make a point. It hurts. He tells a story about Nikita Khrushchev beating the table with his shoe at the UN in the midst of the cold war. He thinks the story will raise the ire of the membership. They don’t seem to know who Khrushchev was. He curses inside because his thumb is throbbing but vows to finish without revealing his pain. Humiliating announcement avoided:

Shock and Vibration Society President Breaks thumb knuckle.

He suggests there is still work to do that only experience can lead. Only experience can show the way forward and continue to save lives and protect the people. Peace through strength, that is the only way, he says.

The metallic blouse catches his eye. He glances at Day-Nixon and sees that the light makes her complexion appear golden. He knows he must sit down to remove her from sight. His thumb hurts like hell. His dull substance, past prime, he thinks, pales near her. He takes out his cell phone and wonders whether it is too early to call his wife in Palm Springs three time zones away – just to see if she made it there safely from La Jolla. He knows he will cast his own vote for Maureen Day-Nixon. He thinks he will test-drive the Ford Explorer. He anticipates confidently the Shock and Vibration Society Newsletter headline:

Wallace J. Wilcox The Third Reelected to Serve Society