ACCURATE FORECASTING. 3-7-11
Ernest Chambers built up such a good reputation for himself as a weather forecaster that when, one day in early spring, he announced that he was going to retire it caused consternation throughout the district.
No one could ever remember him being wrong, which, in his profession, is close to being miraculous and especially seeing that he’d never been schooled in meteorology and had been given the job only because his predecessor had left the area suddenly and because he knew the people in the back office and had told them that he had a talent for it and asked to be given a shot. They’d done so reluctantly and had covered their backs by telling him that it was to be for a trial period only and that the first time that he made a big mistake that would be his job.
As stated, he never made a mistake, big or small, and those people who were foolhardy enough to arrange for a picnic, or some other open air activity, without checking Ernie’s forecast first seriously risked the chance of being rained out.
He didn’t have the looks to be on TV – even in the early days when it was only just getting to be ubiquitous – and although he got good offers from big radio companies to go and work for them in the city he turned them all down because he knew that they’d check his credentials – and find out that he didn’t have any – and anyway, he was comfortable with being able to escape to his little house that was five miles out of town and a thousand miles from turmoil.
When the news of his quitting got around lots of people, including his immediate bosses who were proud of his – and thus their – record, pleaded with him to change his mind and work for another year or two but he was adamant and he quit on the last day of the month that he’d picked out.
His radio station had been given enough time to find a replacement for him, a man named John Watson, and he too wasn’t attractive enough to try for the big money that TV offers.
However, he’d had a lot of experience with weather forecasting for various radio stations out west and he came with a bona fide degree in meteorology. Cum Laude if you don’t mind.
On his interview for the job he’d been quick to show his prized diplomas and to expound on his CV but it was when he agreed to accept only three times the $25,000 that he was told had been his predecessor’s salary – all of the other applicants had snorted in derision on hearing their offer and had demanded five times that amount – he was given the job. He knew what the going-rate was, as you’d expect, but he really did want the job because one of his sons needed a special school because he was – well, special – and the one in town was one of the best in the entire country. Besides which, his wife had been lucky enough to be endowed, at birth, with a substantial trust fund so making money was a relatively small consideration for him.
When he arrived for his first day on the job his boss had left a message at the front desk that he was to come directly to his office and, after the usual greetings had been offered, he got around to telling him how successful his predecessor had been – “Old Ernie never once called the weather wrong in all his years here. Not once.” – and he went to say that he expected nothing less from him.
John didn’t believe him for one second and he said so – “Well now, one hundred percent accuracy in weather forecasting is not achievable by anybody because we’re talking about capricious Nature here. Things can change radically in a matter of hours and so a ninety per cent average is really good and eighty-five percent overall is still quite good and that is a reasonable goal for anyone to aim for.”
His boss wasn’t a bit happy to hear that and he said, “Be that as it may, I’m telling you that our Ernie never got it wrong in all the years that he worked here.”
He did some more unhappy mumbling and then he reminded John that he was on probation for a year and then – “Well now, let’s get to work shall we? We’ll see how you do, right?”
John found out a few minutes later that he not only didn’t have an assistant he didn’t have an office to work in either – no one can call a corner desk with a phone on it an ‘office’ – nor were there any of the instruments and computers and monitors, and the rest of the paraphernalia, that were essential if he was going to do a good job.
He went back to his boss and complained and after forcing himself to keep from screaming while he was being told that, “Old Ernie didn’t need any of that stuff and he was never wrong.” he explained his position again and he was given, reluctantly, a ludicrously small monthly budget for purchasing equipment.
Until he could set up his own lab he poached from the local papers and TV channels and although the area that they covered was far too big for local accuracy it was the only way that he could think of to get something to say on the radio five times a day after the news.
One of the station’s employees – John never found out which one – had been given the task of keeping a check of his day-to-day accuracy and at the end of each month he’d average it out and then tell his boss what that number was.
So, John’s boss would call him into his office on the first day of every month and smirk the current number to him – “88%. Old Ernie was never wrong, no matter about 88%, and he didn’t have these fancy, expensive instruments that you make me buy. Try to do better, you hear me?” – “87%. Old Ernie was never wrong, no matter about 87% and he didn’t have any of these expensive instruments that you make me buy. Try to do better, you hear me?” – “85%. Old Ernie was never wrong and he didn’t – – – “
When he’d fitted out his lab to his satisfaction he was able to start making his own predictions instead of poaching them and then, instead of dreading it, he confidently waited to be told what his average had been that month.
It didn’t turn out that way – “91%. Old Ernie was never wrong and he didn’t – – – “
He was proud of having reached the 90% range, although he kept hearing about ‘Old Ernie’s’ prowess, and he soldiered on happily for several months before – disaster struck with the force of a twister.
On the 3rd of July he’d confidently predicted, “Light, intermittent showers,” for the big day and the rain poured down solidly from nine in the morning to night time and it ruined the town’s floats, not to mention the citizenry’s Sunday best clothes, and his boss, and the station’s owner, heard about it from all sides and were not a bit pleased. Not a bit.
He was called into the President’s office the next morning and John’s boss was there too and they told him that although it was getting near the end of his probationary period and, to be fair to him they were going to wait until then before firing him, they’d come under so much pressure from the town’s council, and other big-wigs, that they’d had to promise them that he’d “be let go” the very next time that he messed-up, big time, whether his probationary period was over or not.
John and his family had grown to like the town and their neighbors, and his special son had liked his school from the very beginning and was showing distinct progress, so none of them wanted to leave.
Although he thought the threat about firing him to be very unfair he had to admit that his disastrous Glorious Fourth prediction had been a huge error and so he took time to try to come up with a way to regain his esteem in the eyes of – well, of everyone who lived within earshot of his broadcasts.
Eventually he came to the conclusion that, like it or not, he would have to swallow his pride and seek out the vaunted ‘Old Ernie.’
On the drive out to Ernie’s house he fully expected to be told, “My right knee plays up when rain is due and if my left ear twitches it is going to be sunny,” or some such nonsense, but he knew that he had to at least talk to him because doing so might, just might, let him keep his job and, nearly as importantly, keep his CV clear of even a hint of failure.
He found Ernie sitting on a rocking chair on his porch and in one hand was a glass of Bourbon, with a bottle of Makers Mark in close attendance, and in the other was one of those huge, decorated Meerschaum pipes that had a fine head of steam going. Clearly, John thought, the guy was going to enjoy his retirement even if doing so killed him.
Ernie had been loath to see him, no matter about agreeing to talk to him, when he’d called for an interview but, when it was a done deed and they were face to face, his inborn sense of politeness forced him to invite his visitor to sit for a while and when John, astutely, said that he admired both his pipe and his choice of liquor he couldn’t help but pour him a glass.
After tasting it John, more astutely still, gushed over the quality of the bourbon and called it, “sipping whisky” which made all barriers between them fall and they became positively, “Hail, fellow, well met,” by the time that they’d both lowered a second glass of it – in sips, which is what it deserved.
They both indulged themselves by dragging out reminiscences under the title of, “Noteworthy happenings in my time as a weather forecaster,” and that gave Ernie the chance to come out with what he thought was a witty observation and, not having had anybody to talk to who was in the weather business since coming up with it, he was glad of the opportunity to use it with someone who would appreciate it properly.
“You know how often people quote that old saying by the comedian – uh – well whoever it was, ‘Everybody talks about the weather but nobody ever does anything about it?’ Well, it occurred to me a few months ago that that’s no longer true! We all still talk about the weather, sure, but nowadays we’re all doing something about it. Every time that we light a wood fire or start up our cars we’re doing something about it! Yes? Am I right?”
When they’d exhausted their shop talk John tried to get down to the business at hand by asking Ernie about his history and he started in with where and when he was born and how many siblings he had and how difficult it had been for his parents to make a decent living and – on and on – but his visitor realized that, in retirement, Ernie didn’t get many chances to talk with strangers and so he had enough compassion to stay still and listen and when he’d finished describing his time in the Navy, in the Korean war, he slowed down as he was trying to come up with the exact order and dates of all the odd jobs that he’d held after leaving the Navy and John seized the opportunity to ask him about how he’d gotten started in the Weather Forecasting business and thus got spared from having to listen to a possibly interminable list of ordinary jobs in ordinary towns across the State.
Ernie readily admitted that he’d had no schooling in the profession but when he’d heard about the vacancy at one of his old school friend’s radio stations he’d bought and read some introductory manuals to augment what he already knew about the job from having listened to it for most of his life and to pick up some of the vernacular – like ‘isobars’ and ‘cold fronts’ and so on – and then he applied for the job. He also admitted, also readily, that the only reason that he’d been given it, “although only on a one-month trial basis, mind you,” was because he “knew someone.”
He said that he’d gotten on all right through the first few months by stealing his copy from other sources and selecting relevant parts of them and “messing” with the words and re-arranging them to make them untraceable but in that same period it had come to him, “out of the blue,” that the town was situated on a nearly flat plain that extended for a hundred miles or so in every direction and, because there were no big hills to speak of, nothing was going to happen in the way of weather in his town that hadn’t already happened in one of the neighboring towns.
To put his idea into action he drove to a town that was a hundred miles north and he searched for a farmer in the proximity whose property looked to be a half way decent and who had a phone in his home and who wanted to make fifty, later seventy-five and still later a hundred dollars a month for doing next to nothing.
Getting the initial payments agreed to by his boss had needed a whole lot of arm-twisting but when it got to be time to ask for raises for them his, by then solid, reputation aided him.
He’d decided to use farmers exclusively because they were always very aware of current weather conditions and were well versed in possible coming changes to it and who knew how drastically it could, and often did, disrupt peoples plans, whereas town people usually couldn’t so much as point in the direction of the north or the south with any confidence and who never seemed to remember whether a South wind came from the South or was blowing towards the South and who only bothered to check on the weather when they had to leave home and wanted to know what clothes to wear.
He repeated his search for an informant in the east and the west and the south and then, “Bob’s your father’s brother! That got it done!”
From then on he would call all of his farmers at six o’clock in the morning and again at noon and at six in the evening and one last time just before their bedtimes and they’d all tell him how the weather was where they were and in which direction it was moving and how fast, approximately.
He chortled, “How could I go wrong after that? Never once in all those years, ha!”
The level of the whisky in the bottle had sunk to a half inch by then and they both began to look a bit despondent at the sight and it was then that John told himself that it was nearly time to go and so he asked his last question: “Seeing that you could do all of your leg work without leaving your desk I’m wondering why you quit at all. Surely, you could have kept doing it until you got to be about ninety years old and would only have to stop when you began to have difficulty with picking out the phone numbers?”
“Well, this is how it was. For years by then I’d wanted to stop having to get up early every morning and I could certainly do without having to drive into town so often but in June of last year my contact in the north let me down by dying and in August the one in the east sold out and moved down to Florida so I decided that it was time to make the break.
“I’d either have to go out and make new contacts in the north and the east or force myself to accept the fact that from then on I could only guarantee an accuracy of fifty percent in my forecasting and I knew that one of you scientists with all your new-fangled instruments could achieve better than that so the combination made me decide to quit while my record was still intact.”
They emptied the bottle a few minutes later and when John had done the same thing to his glass he stood up and shook his predecessor’s hand and then he left after thanking him and he knew – they both knew without having to say so – that being able to swap ‘war’ stories with a guy in the same business is always gratifying, and bonding too, and so he knew that he’d made a friend for life and would, hopefully, be able to repeat the experience every few months or when the opportunity arose, which-ever came first. He also determined to find a way to buy a bottle of Maker’s Mark and get it delivered to Ernie and to always bring a bottle of it with him in future.
He got into his car and he drove, very slowly, until he got to a lay-by and then he pulled into it and closed all the windows and locked the doors and sleep overcame him seconds after he’d closed his eyes.
Under different circumstances he’d never have so much as thought about driving after drinking all that whisky – but there, he assured himself, he’d never have drunk that much whisky if he knew that he’d have to drive home before too long – but he knew that for Ernie’s generation being able to ‘handle’ your liquor was a macho thing and so when he was saying goodnight he’d pretended that he didn’t have double-vision nor that he was unsteady on his feet. His excuse for his uncivilized behavior was because he’d known all along that the old man wouldn’t have opened up so much – if at all – if he hadn’t matched glass for glass with him.
John did a lot of driving the next day and although he’d decided to not go west to look for a collaborator he was successful in the other three directions – he didn’t go west because in that part of the country west is the least vulnerable direction in regards to incoming adverse weather.
His overall accuracy improved tremendously from then on – always above 97% – and his job became secure.
Out of respect for Old Ernie he never tried for 100% although he used his conventional lab instruments assiduously in an attempt to cover the ‘uncovered’ west adequately and by doing that several times every day he justified, in his own mind at least, drawing down his $75,000.00 salary as a highly trained and fully accredited Meteorologist as opposed to the measly $25,000.00 that had been paid to his predecessor.
A guy who had been, essentially, nothing more than a Telephone Operator.