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Thursday, June 23, 2011

Signal to Noise - an excerpt from a work-in-progress

What if you were a reputable scientist, a skeptic about all things paranormal, and you suddenly had evidence of something that was beyond the boundaries of science as we know it?  Would you believe it?

Would you even recognize it when it was in your hands?

Tyler Vaughan, the main character in my work-in-progress, Signal to Noise, is faced with a dilemma -- take seriously a situation that is putting the citizens of Crooked Creek, Oregon in mortal danger, or ignore the evidence he's got in order to protect his reputation as a scientist.  But when the girl he's fallen for disappears, the choice becomes obvious.

Below is the beginning of chapter one of Signal to Noise, which I am currently hard at work on, and hope to have completed by the end of the summer.


“Dear Professor Vaughan:

“I can’t TELL YOU how excited I am to finally write to you. I have studied your work EXTENSIVELY and I finally felt like I was ready to take the plunge and contact you. I admire all you’ve done to bring the field of cryptozoology into its own as a SCIENCE, which is where it SHOULD BE, not relegated to the BASEMENT which is where many unbelievers want to put it. I’m sure that you are aware of the many who criticize you and your efforts, but you should continue to FIGHT THE GOOD FIGHT.

“Toward that end, I would like to offer you my assistance. I feel that with my expertise in psychic contact, and your knowledge of zoology and animal behavior, we could team up to track down Bigfoot ONCE AND FOR ALL. I am prepared to come to Oregon as soon as I receive your HOPEFULLY positive reply…”

Tyler Vaughan sighed heavily, dropped the letter into the recycle bin, and opened up the next letter in the stack.

“Dear Tyler,

“I hope you don’t mind my calling you by your first name, but I feel like I know you already. I saw your interview on Good Morning, America, and just watching you talking about working in the field, and imagining you out there in the wilderness, sleeping alone in a tent, got me so hot. You are the most gorgeous man I have ever seen, and I can’t sleep at night because I’m thinking about what I’d like to do to you. What I’d start with is that I’d unbutton your shirt…”

Tyler rubbed his eyes, and pinched the bridge of his nose. It was only nine in the morning, and he could already feel a headache coming on. It always happened whenever he started going through correspondence, which he had had to do at least three times a week since the ill-advised interview on Good Morning, America four months ago. He’d thought that the volume of correspondence would decrease, but it hadn’t – not since a clip of his interview had found its way onto YouTube and had gotten more than 100,000 hits. He got an average of a hundred letters a day, and three times that many emails. It was either go through them one at a time, or else simply trash them all unopened and risk discarding something important – a bill, a letter from his mother, or, god forbid, an opportunity for grant money. He sighed again, and opened the next letter in the stack. There was no salutation; it just jumped right in.

“You call yourself a scientist. Well your not. Your just a fraud and a phonie. I heard what you said on the Good Morning show about how their could be bigfoots and that kind of thing, and how we evolved from monkies and these bigfoots could be like our cousins and stuff. Well my opinion is if we evolved from monkies why are their still monkies? Can’t answer that, can you, Mr. Smart Scientist? And how did the bigfoots and all survive the Flood? I never saw that Noah went and got any bigfoots, their isn’t any mention of them in the Bible and that’s my science. I’m sending a copy of this letter to my congressman because I know you scientists get you’re money from TAX PAYERS LIKE ME and I’m sick of it…”

Tyler added this one to the growing pile of letters in the recycle bin.

At the time, it had seemed like a good idea. Even Joe had said so, and Joe DiStefano, the director of the Cascadia Zoological Research Station, was one of the most cautious men Tyler knew. It seemed foolproof – a quick interview on a nationwide television program, an opportunity to get some publicity for his work, which was monitoring mammal populations in logged areas in the Cascades. A chance to highlight the effects of the logging industry on nature, to talk about Minimum Dynamic Areas and Migration Corridors and Keystone Species and How Logging Roads Generate The Edge Effect. A chance to be a combination of Mark Trail and Steve Irwin, with a touch of Jane Goodall thrown in for good measure.

And the whole thing had gone south the moment Robin Roberts asked him, a smile in her voice, if he’d ever seen Bigfoot while on his long, lonely campouts in the Oregon wilderness.

“Not yet,” Tyler had said.

“You expect to, then?” Robin responded, one stylishly plucked eyebrow rising.

“I don’t know,” Tyler said. “As a scientist, I can’t definitively say that they don’t exist. The Cascades represent thousands of square miles of heavily forested land. We can’t rule out the possibility that a large, intelligent, presumably wary primate, some evolutionary distant relative of humanity, could be there somewhere, and we might still have no hard evidence. We discover new species every year, after all.”

In retrospect, Tyler thought, he should have seen what was happening, and diverted the conversation back onto Minimum Dynamic Areas and the rest of it. At the time, though, being in the spotlight was a little like the couple of times in college that he’d tried drugs. It was disorienting, dazzling, and made him feel like he was in complete control while simultaneously causing him to feel like he was holding the steering wheel of an out-of-control car.

Robin laughed, and said, “That’s true, of course. You never know what scientists like yourself are going to come up with next. Well, I’m hoping that if your research ever turns up proof of Bigfoot’s existence, you’ll come back on Good Morning, America and tell us about it. But I’ve seen some of the photographs and video footage people have taken, and I don’t think I’d want to camp out there by myself…”

And that was all it took. In under thirty seconds, Tyler had gone from up-and-coming zoologist, out risking life and limb to preserve our wildlife, to a wacko crank who believed in Bigfoot and god alone knew what else.

Of course, it was a forlorn hope that news of his interview wouldn’t get to the peer-reviewed world of grant providers. The “grant denied” letters always came with a good reason; the high degree of competition for funds, problems with his proposed budget, the difficulty of supporting a study that had no clearly defined outcome. It all sounded reasonable, but Tyler knew, and his boss Joe knew, that the interview had played its insidious role. For now, Joe was keeping him on at the research station, but Tyler felt that it was only be a matter of time before Joe would realize what a liability Tyler’s name had become, and then it would be off to try to find another job. And with that interview hanging around his neck like a millstone, what lab in the world would hire him?

And as the funds dried up, the letters and emails started to pour in. Within a week after the interview clip had hit YouTube, he already had them mentally sorted into categories. These were:

1) Offers of assistance. Never financial, of course, but usually very earnest.

2) Anecdotal reports of evidence for some combination of: Bigfoot, modern dinosaurs, ghosts, vampires, werewolves. These included the letters, not common but usually very long, from people who believed that they were vampires or werewolves. Many of these people had apparently discovered that they were vampires or werewolves after reading Twilight and were eager to come to Oregon to be part of Team Tyler.

3) Proposals of marriage and/or sex, the latter usually very explicitly described. Tyler had been excruciatingly single ever since last year, when his last girlfriend had dumped him for “a man who actually has a career and a salary.” It also helped that her new lover had a BMW and a posh apartment in downtown Portland. Tyler, by comparison, lived in a run-down trailer in the Three Sisters Wilderness Area, drove a Honda Civic that went through a quart of oil every two weeks, and his only permanent companion was a chronically flatulent dog named Ahab that humped everything that would stand still long enough. In his more realistic moments, he understood why Kelly had left him. In his less realistic moments the proposals of sex sounded good, but eventually even those seemed as ridiculous as the missives from people who knew they were vampires because their skin sparkled when they stood in the sun.

4) Hate mail. These usually had the worst spelling and grammar, but they still got under his skin. He couldn’t help the feeling that despite the catastrophic damage he’d done to his own standing as a scientist, he’d done worse damage to the reputation of science itself. Given the percentage of Americans who believed the Earth was 6,000 years old, the last thing scientists needed was Tyler Vaughan making the whole lot of them look like nimrods, spouting off about Bigfoot on national television.

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