Fiction

The Boy Who Predicted Earthquakes

MARGARET ST. CLAIR June 15 1950
Fiction

The Boy Who Predicted Earthquakes

MARGARET ST. CLAIR June 15 1950

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The Boy Who Predicted Earthquakes

Fiction

MARGARET ST. CLAIR

was the Pinner kid who wasn’t much different from most fifteen-year-olds you’d find down your street. Yet his ability to foretell the future made him famous. Then while the whole world waited for his vision of another tomorrow, the boy fell strangely silent

NATURALLY, you’re sceptical,” Wellman said. He poured water from a carafe, put a pill on his tongue, washed the pill down. “Naturally, understandably. I don’t blame you, wouldn’t dream of blaming you. A good many of us here at the studio had your attitude, I’m afraid, when we started programing this boy Herbert. I don’t mind telling you, just between ourselves, that I myself was pretty doubtful that a show of that sort would be good television.”

Wellman scratched behind an ear while Read looked on with scientific interest. “Well, I was wrong,” Wellman said, putting the hand down again. “I’m pleased to say that I was 1,000% wrong. The kid’s first, unannounced, unadvertised show brought nearly 1,400 pieces of mail. And his rating nowadays ” He leaned toward Read and whispered a figure.

“Oh,” Read said.

“We haven’t given it out yet, because those buzzards at Purple simply wouldn’t believe us. But it’s the plain simple truth. There isn't another TV personality today who has the following the kid has. He’s on short wave, too, and people tune him in all over the globe. Every time he has a show the post office has to send two special trucks with his mail. I can’t tell you how happy I am, Read, that you scientists are thinking about making a study of him at last. I’m terrifically sincere about this.”

“What’s he like personally?” Read asked.

“The kid? Oh, very simple, very quiet, very very sincere. I like him tremendously. His father —well, he’s a real character.”

“How does the program work?”

“You mean, how does Herbert do it? Frankly, Read, that’s something for you researchers to find out. We haven’t the faintest idea what happens, really.

“I can tell you the program details, of course. The kid has a show twice a week, Mondays and Fridays. He won’t use a script—” Wellman grimaced—“which is pretty

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The Boy Who Predicted Earthquakes

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much a headache for us. He says a script dries him up. He’s on the air for 12 minutes. Most of that time he just talks quietly, telling the viewers about what he’s been doing in school, the books he’s been reading, and so on. The kind of stuff you’d hear from any nice, quiet boy. But he always makes one or two predictions, always at least one, and never more than three. They are always things that will happen within 48 hours. Herbert says he can’t see any farther ahead than that.”

“And they do happen?” Read said. It was less a question than a statement.

“They do,” Wellman replied, somewhat heavily. He puffed out his lips. “Herbert predicted the stratosphere liner wreck off Guam last April, the Gulf states hurricane, the election results. He predicted the submarine disaster in the Tortugas. Do you realize that the FBI has an agent sitting in the studio with him during every show out of range of thescanners? That’s so he can be taken off the air immediately if he says anything that might be contrary to public policy. They take him that seriously.

“I went over the kid’s record yesterday when I heard the University was thinking of studying him. His show has been going out now for a year and a half, twice a week. He’s made 106 predictions during that time. And every one of them, every single one of them, has come true. By now the general public has such confidence in him that—” W'ellman licked his lips and hunted for a comparison—“that they’d believe him if he predicted the end of the world or the winner of the Irish Sweepstakes.

“I’m sincere about this, Read, terrifically sincere. Herbert is the biggest thing in TV since the invention of the selenium cell. You can’t overestimate him or his importance. And now, shall we go take in his show? It’s just about time for him to go on.”

WELLMAN got up from his desk chair, smoothing the design of pink and purple penguins on his necktie into place. He led Read through the corridors of the station to the observation room of studio 8G, where Herbert Pinner was.

Herbert looked, Rea thought, like a nice quiet boy. He was about 15, tall for his age, with a pleasant, intelligent, somewhat careworn face. He went about the preparation for his show with perfect composure which might hide a touch of distaste.

“ I have been reading a very interesting book,” Herbert said to the TV audience. “Its name is ‘The Count of Monte Cristo.’ I think almost anybody might enjoy it.” He held up the book for the viewers to see. “I have also begun a book on astronomy by a man named Duncan. Reading that 1 book has made me want a telescope.

My father says that if I work hard and 1 get good grades in school, I can have a small telescope at the end of the term.

I will tell you what I can see with the I telescope after we buy it.

“There will be an earthquake, not a ] bad one, in the north Atlantic states tonight. There will lie considerable property damage, but no one will be killed. Tomorrow morning about 10 o’clock they will find Gwendolyne Box who has been lost in the Sierras since Thursday. Her leg is broken but she will still be alive.

"After I get the telescope I hop«; to become a member of the society of variable star observers. Variable stars

are stars whose brightness varies either because of internal changes or because of external causes ”

At the end of the program Read was introduced to young Pinner. He found the boy polite and co-operative, but a little remote.

“I don’t know just how I do do it, Mr. Read,” Herbert said when a number of preliminary questions had been put. “It isn’t pictures, the way you suggested, and it isn’t words. It’s just—it just comes into my mind.

“One thing I’ve noticed is that I can’t predict anything unless I more or less know what it is. I could predict about the earthquake because everybody knows what a quake is, pretty much. But I couldn’t have predicted about Gwendolyne Box if I hadn’t known she was missing. I’d just have had a feeling that somebody or something was oing to be found.”

“You rr.^an you can’t make predictions about anything unless it’s in your consciousness previously?” Read asked intently.

Herbert hesitated. “I guess so,” he said. “It makes a . a spot in my mind, but I can’t identify it. It’s like looking at a light with your eyes shut. You know a light is there, but that’s all you know about it. That’s the reason why I read so many books. The more things I know about, the more things I can predict.

“Sometimes I miss important things, too. I don’t know why that is. There was the time the atomic pile exploded and so many people were killed. All I had for that day was an increase in employment.

“I don’t know how it works, really, Mr. Read. I just know it does.”

Herbert’s father came up. He was a small, bouncing man with the extrovert’s persuasive personality. “So you’re going to investigate Herbie, hum?” he said when the introductions had been performed. “Well, that’s fine. It’s time he was investigated.”

“I believe we are,” Read answered with a touch of caution. “I’ll have to have the appropriation for the project approved first.”

Mr. Pinner looked at him shrewdly. “You want to see whether there’s an earthquake first, isn’t that it? It’s different when you hear him saying it himself. Well, there will be. It’s a terrible thing, an earthquake.” He clicked his tongue depreciatingly. “But nobody will be killed, that’s one good thing. And they’ll find that Miss Box the way Herbie says they will.”

T*'E earthquake arrived about 9.15, when Read was sitting under the bridge lamp reading a report from the Society for Psychical Research. There was an ominous muttering rumble and then a long, swaying, seasick roll.

Next morning Read had his secretary put through a call to Haffner, a seismologist with whom he had a casual acquaintanceship. Haffner, over the phone, was definite and brusque.

“Certainly there's no way of foretelling a quake,” he snap|>ed. “Not even an hour in advance. If there were, we’d issue warnings and get people out in time. There’d never be any loss of life. We can tell in a general way where a quake is likely, yes. We’ve known for years that this area was in for one. But as for setting the exact time—you might as well ask an astronomer to predict a nova for you. He doesn't know, and neither do we. What brought this up, anyway? The prediction made by that Pinner kid?”

“Yes. We’re thinking of observing

“Thinking of it? You mean you’re only just now getting around to him? Lord, what ivory towers you research psychologists must live in!”

“You think he’s genuine?” “The answer is an unqualified yes.” Read hung up. When he went out to lunch he saw by the headlines that Miss Box had been found as Herbert had predicted on his radio program.

Still he hesitated. It was not until Thursday that he realized that he was hesitating not because he was afraid of wasting the university’s money on a fake, but because he was all too sure that Herbert Pinner was genuine. He didn’t at bottom want to start this study. He was afraid.

The realization shocked him. He got the dean on the phone at once, asked for his appropriation, and was told there would be no difficulty about it. Friday morning he selected his two assistants for the project, and by the time Herbert’s program was nearly due to go out, they were at the station.

They found Herbert sitting tensely on a chair in studio 8G with Wellman and four or six other station executives clustered around him. His father was dancing about excitedly, wringing his hands. Even the FBI man had abandoned his usual detachment and impassivity, and was joining warmly in the argument. And Herbert, in the middle, was shaking his head and saying, “No, no, I can’t,” over and over again doggedly.

“But why not, Herbie?” his father wailed. “Please tell me why not. Why won’t you give your show?”

“I can’t,” Herbert said. “Please don’t ask me. I just can’t.” Read noticed how white the boy was around the mouth.

“But Herbie, you can have anything you want, anything, if you only will ! That telescope—I’ll buy it for you tomorrow. I’ll buy it tonight!”

“I don’t want a telescope,” young Pinner said wanly. “I don’t want to look through it.”

“I’ll get you a pony, a motorboat, a swimming pool! Herbie, I’ll get you anything!”

“No,” Herbert said.

Mr. Pinner looked around him desperately. His eyes fell on Read, standing in the corner, and he hurried over to him. “See what you can do with him, Mr. Read,” he panted.

Read chewed his lower lip. In a sense it was his business. He pushed his way through the crowd to Herbert, and put his hand on his shoulder. “What’s this I hear about you not wanting to give your show today, Herbert?” he asked.

Herbert looked up at him. The harassed expression in his eyes made Read feel guilty and contrite. “I just can’t,” he said. “Don’t you start asking me too, Mr. Read.”

Once more Read chewed his lip. Part of the technique of parapsychology lies in getting subjects to co-operate. “If you don’t go on the air, Herbert,” he said, “a lot of people are going to be disappointed.”

Herbert’s face took on a tinge of sullenness. “I can’t help it,” he said.

“More than that, a lot of people are going to be frightened. They won’t know why you aren’t going on the air, and they’ll imagine things. All sorts of things. If they don’t view you an awful lot of people are going to be scared.”

“I—” Herbert said. He rubbed his cheek. “Maybe that’s right,” he answered slowly. “Only

“You’ve got to go on with your

Herbert capitulated suddenly. “All right,” he said, “I’ll try.”

Everyone in the studio sighed deeply. There was a general motion toward the door of the observation room. Voices were raised in high-pitched, rather nervous chatter. The crisis was over, the worst would not occur.

THE first part of Herbert’s show was much like the others had been. The boy’s voice was a trifle unsteady and his hands had a tendency to shake, but these abnormalities would have passed the average viewer unnoticed. When perhaps five minutes of the show had gone, Herbert put aside the books and drawings (he had been discussing mechanical drawing) he had been showing his audience, and began to speak with great seriousness.

“I want to tell you about tomorrow,” he said. “Tomorrow—” he stopped and swallowed—“tomorrow is going to be different from what anything in the past has been. Tomorrow is going to be the start of a new and better world for all of us.”

Read, listening in the glass-enclosed room, felt an incredulous thrill race over him at the words. He glanced around at the faces of the others and saw that they were listening intently, their faces strained and rapt. Wellman’s lower jaw dropped a little, and he absently fingered the unicorns on

“In the past,” young Pinner said, “we’ve had a pretty bad time. We’ve had wars—so many wars—and famines and pestilences. We’ve had depressions and haven’t known what caused them, we’ve had people starving when there was food and dying of diseases for which we knew the cure. We’ve seen the wealth of the world wasted shamelessly, the rivers running black with the washed-off soil, while hunger for all of us got surer and nearer every day. We’ve suffered, we’ve had a hard time.

“Beginning tomorrow—” his voice grew louder and more deep—“all that is going to be changed. There won’t be any more wars. We’re going to live side by side like brothers. We’re going to forget about killing and breaking and bombs. From pole to pole the world will be one great garden, full of richness and fruit, and it will be for all of us to have and use and enjoy. People will live a long time and live happily, and when they die it will be from old age. Nobody will be afraid any more. For the first time since human beings lived on earth, we’re going to live the way human beings should.

“The cities will be full of the richness of culture, full of art and music and books. And every race on earth will contribute to that culture, each in its degree. We’re going to be wiser and happier and richer than any people have ever been. And pretty soon—” he hesitated for a moment, as if his thought had stumbled—“pretty soon we’re going to send out rocket ships.

“We’ll go to Mars and Venus and Jupiter. We’ll go to the limits of our solar system to see what Uranus and Pluto are like. And maybe from there —it’s possible—we’ll go on and visit the stars.

“Tomorrow is going to be the beginning of all that. That’s all for now. Good-by. Good night.”

For a moment after he had ceased no one moved or spoke. Then voices began to babble deliriously. Read, glancing around, noticed how white their faces were and how dilated their

“Wonder what effect the new setup will have on TV?” Wellman said, as if to himself. His tie was flopping wildly about. “There’ll be TV, that’s certain —it’s part of the good life.” And then, to Pinner, who was blowing his nose and wiping his eyes, “Get him out of here, Pinner, right away. He’ll be mobbed if he stays here.” Herbert’s father nodded. He dashed into the studio after Herbert, who was already surrounded, and came back with him. With Read running interference, they fought their way through

the corridor and down to the street level at the station’s back.

READ got into the car uninvited and sat down opposite Herbert on one of the folding seats. The boy looked quite exhausted, but his lips wore a faint smile. “You’d better have the chauffeur take you to some quiet hotel,” Read said to the senior Pinner. “You’d be besieged if you went to your usual place.”

Pinner nodded. “Hotel Triller,” he said to the driver of the car. “Go slow, cabby. We want to think.”

He slipped his arm around his son and hugged him. His eyes were shining. “I’m proud of you, Herbie,” he declared solemnly, “as proud as can be. What you said—those were wonderful, wonderful things.”

The driver had made no move to start the car. Now he turned round and spoke. “It’s young Mr. Pinner, isn’t it? I was watching you just now. Could I shake your hand?”

After a moment Herbert leaned forward and extended it. The chauffeur accepted it almost reverently. “I just want to thank you—just want to

thank you—Oh, hell! Excuse me, Mr. Herbert. But what you said meant a lot to me. I was in the last war.”

The car slid away from the curb. As it moved downtown, Read saw that Pinner’s injunction to the driver to go slow had been unnecessary. People were thronging the streets already. The sidewalks were choked. People began to spill over onto the pavements. The car slowed to a walk, to a crawl, and still they poured out. Read snapped the blinds down for fear Herbert should be recognized.

Newsboys were screaming on the

corners in raucous hysteria. As the car came to a halt Pinner opened the door and slipped out. He came scrambling back with an armload of papers he had bought.

“NEW WORLD COMING!” one read, another “MILLENNIUM TOMORROW!” and another, quite simply, “JOY TO THE WORLD!” Read spread the papers out and began to read the story in one of them.

“A 15-year-old boy told the world that its troubles were over beginning tomorrow, and the world went wild with joy. The boy, Herbert Pinner, whose uncannily accurate predictions have won him a world-wide following, predicted an era of peace, abundance and prosperity such as the world has never known before . .”

“Isn’t it wonderful, Herbert?” Pinner panted. His eyes were blazing. He shook Herbert’s arm'. “Isn’t it wonderful? Aren’t you glad?”

“Yes,” Herbert said.

They got to the hotel at last and registered. They were given a suite on the sixteenth floor. Even at this height they could faintly hear the excitement of the crowd below.

“Lie down and rest, Herbert,” Mr. Pinner said. “You look worn out. v Telling all that—it was hard on you.” He bounced around the room for a moment and then turned to Herbert apologetically. “You’ll excuse me if I go out, son, won’t you? I’m too excited to be quiet. I want to see what’s going on outside.” His hand was on the knob of the door.

“Yes, go ahead,” Herbert answered. He had sunk down in a chair.

READ and Herbert were alone in the room. There was silence for a moment. Herbert laced his fingers over his forehead and sighed.

“Herbert,” Read said softly, "I thought you couldn’t see into the future for more than forty-eight hours ahead.”

“That’s right,” Herbert replied without looking up.

“Then how could you foresee all the things you predicted tonight?”

The question seemed to sink into the silence of the room like a stone dropped into a pond. Ripples sprend out from it. Herbert said: “Do you really want to know?”

For a moment Read had to hunt for the name of the emotion he felt. It was fear. He answered, “Yes.”

Herbert got up and went over to the window. He stood looking out, not at the crowded streets, but at the sky -where, thanks to daylight-saving time, a faint sunset glow yet lingered.

“I wouldn’t have known if I hadn’t read the book,” he said, turning around, the words coming out in a rush. “I’d just have known something big — big - was going to happen. Hut now I know. I read about it in my astronomy book.

“Look over here.” He pointed to the west, where the sun had been. “Tomorrow it won’t be like this.”

“What do you mean?” Read cried. His voice was shurp with anxiety. "What are you trying to say?”

“That tomorrow the sun will

be different. Maybe it’s better this way. 1 wanted them to be happy. You mustn’t hold it against me, Mr. Read, that I lied to them.”

Read turned on him fiercely. “What is it? What’s going to happen tomorrow? You’ve got to say!”

“Why, tomorrow the sun—I’ve forgotten the word. What is it they call it when a star flares up suddenly, when it becomes a billion times hotter than it was before?”

"A nova?” Read cried.

“That’s it. Tomorrow , , the sun is going to explode.” if