Thursday, around dusk, my sister called from Highway 17 near the Camp Lejeune Marine base, just a few miles from Topsail Island. She was on her way to join our family vacation. Dense smoke on the road: Should she turn back?
Everything's fine here, we reported, deep in littoral oblivion, making a fish stock for our monkfish dinner.
Later that night, we learned of a wildfire at Camp Lejeune, probably a windblown explosion from a weapons test. It had been very windy on the beach that day. The forecast had warned of fire risk. But by the sea?
We had dinner. We watched the NCAA Tournament. We slept.
In the morning, just over the bridge from Topsail, a thick, towering plume of smoke dominated the sky, turning the day partly cloudy. You could smell wood burning.
Soon after, the smoke drifted to North Topsail Beach, where we were staying. It was sunny over our rental house, but visibility ended a few hundred yards up the beach.
The Internet told us that Highway 17 had been closed. The wind changed; the smoke was moving south, right toward us. Were we supposed to worry? Evacuate? We shrugged. Our vacation went on. We walked on the beach. We had breakfast. We surfed (the Internet).
Anyone who has read Don DeLillo's 1985 novel White Noise will already have thought of the famous "Airborne Toxic Event" (an indie rock band took its name from it) that occurs when a chemical accident causes a deadly cloud, forcing the evacuation of a small, complacent college town. Three of us invoked White Noise on Friday morning.
Rereading the short but monumental Airborne Toxic Event section (I was surprised to discover that it actually spans only 54 of the novel's 326 pages) clarified why White Noise is such a great book: It remains, 25 years later, well ahead of us, anticipating the winds of 21st-century life. Ours is, even more than the '80s, what DeLillo called "the age of unreliable menace."
The authorities' first response in White Noise, as in Camp Lejeune, is to close the highway. This ostensibly small precaution strikes deep fear in Americans, who associate vehicular freedom with personal liberty—the open road, the road trip, the road movie. Not for nothing is one of White Noise's characters obsessed with car crashes, an iteration of the novel's fixation on man-made disasters.
Sure enough, the closing of Highway 17 was our first pinprick of anxiety. We had nothing really to worry about—there is another bridge off Topsail, 10 miles south of where we were. But what if they closed that off, too?
Menace like this creates new vocabulary. In White Noise, the threat is first called a "feathery plume" and then a "black billowing cloud" before it is finally christened the Airborne Toxic Event. This new language is both comical and comforting. On the local news, they were now cutely giving us weather "firecasts" instead of "forecasts." They were also telling us that the fire had "jumped"—not the ordinary "crossed"—the highway. It was now on civilian land.
We drove down to the Surf City pier, ostensibly to buy some fish for dinner and get away from the smoke nuisance for a beach walk. But it couldn't have been a coincidence that we were now right at the only open exit from Topsail. On the way, a stork in a marsh looked unusually cautious, its motionlessness suggesting that the wrong flap of a wing could blow the smoke in a more catastrophic direction. One of us reported seeing a "confused" chameleon unsure which color to take on. We ourselves weren't sure if we were having pollen allergies or smoke reactions.
Our trip to Surf City was also for better pictures. White Noise shows how we step outside and falsify our experiences by mediating them. The 21st-century advent of social media enlarges the phenomenon DeLillo had already spotted. In White Noise, there is "the most photographed barn in America," and ever-present SIMUVAC agents rehearse disasters with real people playing "victims"—one agent is disappointed when "the insertion curve" of the Airborne Toxic Event evacuation and subsequent quarantine "isn't as smooth as we would like [...] Plus which we don't have our victims laid out where we'd want them if this was an actual simulation."
"I feel sad for people and the queer part we play in our own disasters," DeLillo's narrator confesses.
That part includes rumoring. "The toxic event had released a spirit of imagination," DeLillo writes. "People spun tales, others listened spellbound. There was a growing respect for the most vivid rumor." The fishmonger told us he knew a Camp Lejeune officer who said that some Marines were about to be deployed, either to Libya or Afghanistan, so they were trying to squeeze in a few more drills despite the wind hazard, he guessed while he gutted our fish.
The media can help—sometimes—but it just as often doesn't. The coverage didn't extend past the local news, and even that was brief and statistical. The fire had expanded to 10,000 acres. The military was "investigating" the cause. About 20 area fire squads were assisting. School in Dixon had been canceled. A few evacuations had been ordered, mostly from a trailer park.
The reports were that the fire was "30 percent contained." What did that mean? "There's nothing on CNN," we carped, watching the crisis worsen online rather than through the window, where the differently hued plumes—one now from each side of Highway 17—could be clearly seen. We felt cheated that our predicament was earning us no fame. We barely even made the news back home in the Triangle.
"There's nothing on network," one of DeLillo's evacuees complains. "Not a word, not a picture. [...] Does this kind of thing happen so often that nobody cares anymore?" In the age of unreliable menace, what's as unreliable as the menaces themselves is which of them you devote your worry to: tsunami and nuclear catastrophe in Japan, another earthquake in Myanmar, war in Libya, the death of Elizabeth Taylor and Geraldine Ferraro. No wonder our little smoke signal had failed to reach the world.
The next morning, the sky above us had cleared up, although smoke was still billowing across the sound. On the beach, the only sign of the fire was a sprinkling of black ash, an afterthought as common and harmless as ground pepper. Apparently our Airborne Toxic Event was over.
We were all, I think, a little disappointed.