JL Bogenschneider

The Weathermen Were On Strike


Spokane Daily Chronicle, Mar. 13 1948

Did I ever tell you about when the weathermen went on strike? It was an uncertain time, which is to say that all times are uncertain. Every age has its concerns and one day you’ll figure out yours, if you haven’t already. When I say weathermen, I mean all of them – the women too – but weathergirls sounds patronising and weatherpersons… Well, you know how I feel about that.

I forget why they went on strike but the point is that they did. And you might think, ‘So what?’ but it was a big deal. We didn’t have then what you have now: gadgets that tell you anything you want and plenty of things you don’t. We relied on those people telling us what to expect.

You know, someone once said that when two Englishmen meet, their first talk is of the weather. I used to think about that saying a lot. Because it’s true, even now. I bet you find yourself talking about the weather a lot more than when you were younger. Am I right?

I’m right.

But I thought about it a lot because I thought it meant we all had something in common and that maybe the weather was it. I mean, there’s not much that separates us in that respect, save that it rains more in the north and it’s warmer in the south. But it’s good – it feels good – to have commonality, connection, even if that connection is some inexplicable phenomena you have no control over; maybe the lack of control being the very thing that unites you. It’s actually how your mother and I got to know each other. Small talk leads to bigger talk. Of course, you’re setting yourself up for a fall, because once you start talking big you can never talk small again.

Nothing changes but the way you view things. After the strike—

What? How did we get to know each other? That’s a different story, one I’m not sure I’m ready to tell. But we had a connection. And what you’ll find – again, if you haven’t already – is that connections can break, even if in the beginning the idea that those connections could be anything other than permanent and forever is unimaginable. Didn’t I just say how you saw things was all that changed?

I think I did.

But after the strike I looked at the weathermen differently. Because I got to thinking about what it was that made them essential. I mean, if you want to know what the weather’s like, you can look out the window. If it’s raining you stay in and if it’s not you go out. There’s not much more to it than that.

Except there is, because it’s not just the weather for that day, but also the day after that, the day after that, and the day after that. We make plans based on how things might be in a week, a month, a year, and still forecasting isn’t an exact science. How many times have you left the house without your umbrella on the advice of the meteorology bureau only to come home drenched, or lumbered around in a duffel coat sweltering in your own perspiration?

Alright, maybe it’s just me.

But this unpredictability, this uncertainty… There’s something in us that insists on the need to know. Which is where the weathermen came in. They provided reassurance and knowledge, yes, but we could also feel paradoxically secure in the fact that they weren’t always right, as though their being accurate one hundred per cent of the time wouldn’t be so comforting. Might, in fact, actually be a bit frightening.

Does any of this make sense?

Maybe it’s not be something you can relate to because of technology. Some problems are solved whilst others never are. Does that bother you? That there might not be an answer to a question? Because this need to know doesn’t go away. In almost everything we do we look for conclusion. In the books we read, the conversations we have, the anecdotes we tell… Everything tends toward an end. It’s a compulsion, maybe even a sickness. I don’t know if we’ve always been like this or if something happened to make us this way. I wonder sometimes how things used to be…

I digress.

The longest strike I ever heard of was held by an entire school who downed tools – or pens – for twenty-five years. You don’t believe me? Look it up. Not now, later. The weathermen didn’t strike as long as that, but it was for some time. Again, your mother would know.

But I think the reason it lasted so long was that we hadn’t understood how essential to our lives the weathermen were. We relied on them, then one day weren’t there. There was an absence and we had to fend for ourselves. We didn’t know how to observe weather patterns; didn’t know how to make predictions or forecasts based on what had gone before. Some of us were fashioning home-made gadgets: anemometers and pluviowhatsits for all the good it did. The signs were there, but we didn’t know how to read them, and the only people who could had gone because we’d taken them for granted. 

Maybe there’s a lesson there, maybe not.

Anyway, in the beginning it didn’t seem to matter because – as I say – who needs to be told how things are on the outside? But time went on and certain difficulties developed. Physical ones, of course – disruptions on the roads and railways – and plenty of people went out under– and later, over-prepared. But there were psychological effects too, because we were no longer certain of what to expect. We didn’t just plan for the best or the worst: we planned for everything. No one went out without a raincoat or a sun hat. We were bulk-buying ice-cream in case of a heatwave and cocoa by the barrel in the event of a wintery snap. It sounds ludicrous in retrospect.

As I’ve said, more than once, it’s just your view that changes.

But it was only after these factors came into play that anything was done. Because tangible things like travel delays and the constant carrying of umbrellas, people can handle. And tangible problems can be dealt with too: if the fire brigade strike, you call on the army; when civil servants down tools, you get the top brass in or… Well, I don’t exactly know.

But psychological effects are another thing entirely: when the weathermen were on strike the whole country was headed for a nervous breakdown. It wasn’t just that we didn’t know if it was going to rain one day or snow the next; if we needed to wear an anorak or a sunhat. We didn’t know anything at all.

Sometimes the worst things are the ones you’re unaware of. There are known knowns, there are known unknowns and there are unknown unknowns. Did you hear that one before? It wasn’t a saying that caught on. I could never decide – I still can’t – what was worse: not knowing about a thing, or knowing about it but also knowing how that thing was going to be. Maybe if the strike had gone on longer we’d have dealt with it somehow; would have adjusted ourselves, or maybe the outcome would have adjusted us. It’s hard to say. I mean, what would you rather: to know or not know? Bearing in mind that knowledge doesn’t necessarily change anything. Maybe it’s just us, the way we are: adaptable creatures resistant to change, even if that change is for the better. Might even make us happy. What does that say about us, that we can both want something and still decline it?

Again, I digress.

In the end the whole thing was resolved because those in power were suffering just as much as we were, and – as I’m sure you know by now – that’s when things get done. By then you could feel the uncertainty: it crackled and popped. We were haunted by future ghosts, never knowing how things were going to be, never knowing what they were going to be. And so the weathermen were granted their demands.

Your mother had left, returned and left again by the time it was all over. We’d agreed that certain things had to change, but then they didn’t. Afterwards, when friends asked why I hadn’t done anything, I wasn’t sure how to respond, so I just said that the weathermen were on strike, as though it were a satisfactory explanation. That’s where that saying comes from by the way, meaning an excuse for being wilfully oblivious to something. It’s not often you can say you coined a phrase, although it’s a rather dubious claim to fame, and given another chance I’m not certain I wouldn’t have looked at things differently at all.

JL Bogenschneider has had work published in a number of journals, including The Stinging Fly, PANK and Ambit. In 2021 he was invited to join that year’s cohort of the London Library’s Emerging Writers Programme. He is currently seeking representation for his first collection of fiction.

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