The Flight of Black Friday
by Tom Achor
NOV. 9, 2022 – PORTLAND, OR- On November 11 this year, citizens of the Southeast Portland neighborhood of Brooklyn will gather to watch the 10th annual launch of the Black Friday, their own community-built space ship, from its launch area near the former rail yards off SE McLoughlin Blvd. This tenth flight, which will be the last for the Black Friday, will cement its status as the longest-serving community owned reusable space vehicle, given that it remains the only one in existence.
As longtime residents of the area recall vividly, the Black Friday was originally built and launched subsequent to the November 2011 destruction of Friday’s, the neighborhood’s beloved 22-hour donut shop, as well as its hidden basement speakeasy, the Day-Hole Whisky Lounge.
As the neighborhood legend goes, the owners were finishing up a big morning’s production of vegan apple fritters when the owner of a neighboring business, Vera’s Psych/Out Psychic Consulting Services, came banging on their window, telling them to get out.
Subsequent to the disaster, local investor and processed food heiress Sarah Wesson banded with the owners and funded development of a bio-diesel powered extraterrestrial transport to help fund a citizens’ exploration of the heavens and attempt to settle theistic debates that had arisen from the experience.
Vera was out of breath and could not explain exactly why they needed to run, but given her past success with day trading and fantasy football, Friday’s owners Alison and Bob knew they had no choice but to heed when she sounded the alarm. The three of them fled the premises with a half batch of donuts still in the fryer. The pre-dawn skies weren’t getting any darker but they could sense the thickening mass of clouds above them as they bolted from the store, across the street and toward the edge of a bank above the Willamette River.
The hairs stood up on the backs of their necks as they ran and the wind and rain whipped at them, but they did not turn to see if there was lightning. The air was filled with the scent of rain-wet ground, blackberry leaves, and hints of oiled metal and of wood smoke. They stepped out into air at the edge of the small embankment and dropped as one over the slope four-foot, taking shelter behind a car-sized chunk of basalt.
With a flash and a roar that sounded like a plane crash, the little donut shop erupted in brilliant white light , scattering cinder block shrapnel down the block. The destruction was so complete the ensuing fire — which was mostly fryer oil — burned itself out before the fire department could even mobilize. From the noise and the light, nearly all the residents of the nearby neighborhood came running in bathrobes and boots to see what had happened.
The police responding to the disaster were at a loss. There were no apparent casualties and little to do so they gathered along with the rest of the citizens to observe the smoking pit in the ground that had been Friday’s, all of them wondering how they were going to fill the sudden emptiness in their lives. Sulfur and burned canola oil filled their nostrils.
But that pit in the ground opened a debate that has not been settled to this day.
The germ of the argument lay in a singed donut found a day later in the shell of the cinder-block building. A stream of batter had obviously just hit the grease when the lightning struck and this particular fritter was long and thin except for a broad hammer head at one end. Strangely, the hammer-shaped donut seemed to have an actual head to it, a rock shaped like a prehistoric hammer, almost completely covered in fried batter.
Nobody really wanted to investigate a rock in a donut, that is, nobody who had the official power to investigate things, that is.
“A rock in a donut might be an issue for consumer protection or maybe county health, but it’s sure not a fire department problem,” said the investigator from Portland Fire, as he tromped through the muddy rubble of the shop, stringing yellow safety tape around the premises.
“Somebody would have to have bought that donut or the health inspector would have needed to find it on an inspection for anybody to follow up,” the Multnomah County Health Department supervisor said. “And now that the shop is gone, that’s not going to happen.“
The only reason the rock hammer donut became public was the reluctance of the insurance company to pay for replacing the business. The lightning strike that had erased Friday’s from the earth was, in the insurance company’s opinion, an Act of God and therefore exempt from their policy coverage. Only the grease fire was covered and that was negligible enough a payout that no new donut shop was going to be built with it.
“Act of God?” shouted Gary Gantenbein when this news was dropped at the next neighborhood meeting, four weeks after the incident. He was a long-ago dropout from the graduate calligraphy program at Reed College who had since that time resided in the neighborhood, making a spotty income selling rain barrels and a very good one developing web technologies for the online porn industry. “Really? God? Where do they get off making that kind of pronouncement? There’s no God in the Rose City, I can tell you. God is a construct that cowards and insurance companies hide behind. Here there are only men and women and they are alone with their struggles in the Universe. Also, Royal Rosarians – I’m not sure where they fit in.”
“Of course there’s a God,” said Reverend Emmerson, the local United Church of Christ minister, his baritone voice soothing in the midst of the commotion that followed Gantenbein’s outburst. “But does an insurance company have the right and the ability to define His acts? I don’t think they do and I don’t accept their premise that the loving God I know would cavalierly destroy a donut shop, a community anchor and a family’s livelihood.”
“Maybe, Reverend,” said Vera from the back of the room. “Maybe you don’t know this God as well as you think. Maybe she or he isn’t telling you the whole story. Some people might argue that your God — or someone very much like him — would go right ahead and bring down wrath on a speakeasy such as the one under that donut shop.” Another kerfuffle erupted as she spoke.
“But that doesn’t mean they’re right.”
“They’re not wrong, either.” This time it was Alison, the erstwhile owner of Friday’s, who had been explaining the delays in rebuilding at the time that Gantenbein had interrupted her.
Now all heads turned back to her. “Everybody knows it was a lightning strike that wrecked our place, but that’s not the whole story. I mean, nobody saw the strike. And nobody can remember hearing thunder, although most people around can’t remember anything but being blasted out of their beds.
And there isn’t any explanation for this.” Alison took out a photograph of the donut, blown up to 8×10, and showed it around, while explaining the odd donut and the rock embedded in it. “There is no way a rock ended up in our fryer.”
“Maybe it’s a chunk of the cinder block wall,” a helpful voice chimed from somewhere along one wall.
“It’s not cinder block,” Alison said. “It’s not even porous. It’s smooth, hard rock , with chiseled edges and we don’t know where it came from.”
“Where is it now?” Vera said.
“We took it to the geology department at PSU. They thought it might be a meteorite – which would be quite a coincidence with a lightning strike – but now they can’t locate it. “
“With the budget cuts there have been a lot of layoffs and things fall through the cracks,” Alison said. “Believe me, I’ve raised holy hell down there.”
“You haven’t raised anything,” said another woman. She was another well-known character in the neighborhood, a large blond woman who owned a tile installation business. She stood just about six feet tall and had broad shoulders; her hair was often worn in two braids when she worked and combined with her size this earned her the nickname of Thor, which she accepted. Her trade and the way she carried herself caused most people to assume she was lesbian but she’d never been romantically linked to anybody and was mum on the topic so there was no way to know.
“All this talk of insurance and budgets and even religion,” said Thor. “It doesn’t address the real problem, friends. The problem of perspective.
“We can’t get a good idea of what’s really happening from down here on the ground. And we’re left to trust corporations and governments who tell us what to believe about the outer side of our atmosphere.”
“It’s true,” Vera said. “Now I remember the dream I had the morning of the… thing. I was in the ladies room at the old Day-Hole. It was Thor in my dream who told me to get Bob and Alison and run from the donut shop. She said we don’t know what we don’t know.”
“Then let’s go find out for ourselves.” This time the speaker was Sarah Wesson, a distant heir to the vegetable oil family and an investor in an Oregon biofuels company. She rarely came to neighborhood meetings, although she had lived nearby for years. “I’ve been working with a startup in Milwaukie to build a jet engine that runs on a super-purified biodiesel. I’m thinking we could get this thing off the ground in 8 months.”
The weeks and months that followed were some kind of a blur. Many of the core team on the project of getting this ship off the ground were self-employed so were able to devote more than half their weeks to designing and building the ship, outfitting it and planning its mission. Bob and Alison didn’t participate in the creation of the craft, consumed as they were with squabbling with the insurance company and trying to get funding to rebuild.
The first flight was pulled together with such haste, little more was thought through for experimentation than to bring some hens along from Vera’s flock. As experiments go this was poorly designed in that there was no theorem to prove or disprove, only that the crew was curious how eggs would cook in zero gravity.
But if the purpose were only to reach the edge of the atmosphere, have a look around and return safely to terra firma, it was ambitious enough for an unofficial outfit such as theirs. Many neighborhood associations never got beyond an annual cleanup and ivy removal day.
The launch day arrived, a year to the day after Friday’s had been obliterated. The ship was sturdier than she appeared. She been cobbled together from shipping containers that had been stranded in the nearby rail yards for years, having disgorged their contents of Chinese-made espresso machines in America and there being no significant export going the other direction. The cab was fashioned from a Hummer H1 that Gantenbein had picked up on craigslist during a spike in gas prices and unemployment the year before.
Although the ship, christened the Black Friday in honor of the charred and beloved donut shop as well as its overall color scheme, didn’t look exceptionally aerodynamic, Wesson and her team of geniuses at the engine company assured everybody the thrust provided by the super biojet engines would be more than enough to get the ungainly vehicle past the boundary of gravitational force, to be able to attain a circular orbit. And so the crew loaded up their gear and got ready to board.
Sarah Wesson, as the primary funder and project leader, was the de facto captain of the flight team. As her co-pilot she had Gary Gantenbein, who had also set up webcams to cover all aspects of the launch and voyage, using technology he had perfected for Naked-Dorm.com. Thor would be the navigator and all around technical person. Vera signed on as well, because watching 11 season of Star Trek The Next Generation taught them all that psychic was an essential role on a space ship crew.
As they boarded, the neighbors gathered to cheer them on at an advisable distance, some with tears in their eyes. Thor took a white crayon and scrawled on the underside of the hull, “No Sleep Til Brooklyn”, then grabbed the ladder and swung aboard.
The doors were sealed with the four aboard and with a whistling and roaring the jets wound up to speed. The Black Friday was designed for Vertical Take-Off/Landing, so its jets pivoted to point directly into the ground. Wesson slowly increased the thrust until the noise was almost a solid mass at ground level and the craft skittered just a bit sideways on the gravel of the yard.
She adjusted the angle of the engines with some delicacy and increased the thrust again. Now the ship lifted smoothly and vertically so she pushed the throttle further and the Black Friday began its ascent. The neighborhood association had filed a flight plan with the FAA at Portland, but they were perhaps a little vague about their undertaking. There were no private VTOL jets and no form to follow for flight plans, so they just used helicopter. This worked fairly well except of course that helicopters do not ascend to more than 40,000 feet, nor do they attain forward speeds of more than 600 MPH.
But by the time this might have been relevant to the FAA the craft was well above and away from any traffic to PDX. The Black Friday climbed until it was safely out of the range of air traffic, then Sarah shifted the jets to horizontal and before the craft could fall she began edging it further and further from the Earth’s surface, picking up speed to negate the effect of gravity.
The hens, who could not be in any way prepared for this kind of trauma, went limp, as they do when held upside-down and did not recover throughout the voyage. They would be off their lay for weeks to follow. Vera and Gary were not doing much better, fighting nausea mixed with panic, although Gary felt it necessary to act as though he were at least as fine as Thor. His skin was gray and his eyes glassy but his jaw was set and he continued to try to do his job. After all, the cameras were on him this time.
For her part, Thor was calm and focused, more so even than Sarah. She checked gauges and took notation on their position and speed. Although she had no formal education in aeronautics, she had an aptitude for math and found she picked up calculus easily.
After more than four hours of violent noise and turbulence the vibration and wind noised faded away. They had achieved enough altitude and speed to be nearly clear of the atmosphere.
Up to this point only the reinforced windscreen had been available to view through, the other windows protected by blast shades. But now Gary flipped a couple switches and the shades raised all the way around. The crew took a deep breath together, excepting the hens, who remained more or less unconscious.
The navigation Thor had planned for them had ended up with them traveling in a circular orbit from south to north, but by the time they were now able to view their position they had passed over the North Pole and grazed Greenland and were heading south past the upper reaches of Norway. All the continents they could see were unrecognizable because with the southward heading they were upside down to the familiar globe.
Three of the crew twisted their necks to try to view Europe with Scandinavia toward what would be the ‘top’, so that they could get their bearings. Only Thor looked straight ahead, unconcerned with that. There at the blue edge of the atmosphere she saw something she could not understand. She sat up straighter and squinted at the blue line, that appeared to be bending away from the solid Earth, rather than with it.
As she sat up, she felt a change in her spine, as if somebody had sent a mild electric current through it. It reminded her of a treatment she had once had from the chiropractor. As she felt it, Vera turned from peering out the window. She looked startled. “That’s it – that’s how you looked in my dream.”
Thor turned slowly to look at her. “Like what?” Her own voice sounded strange to her but space could do that.
“Like… I don’t know. Not one of us.” Vera could not put her finger on the difference.
“Haven’t you always thought that? I mean, really.” She laughed. But even as she said this, Thor knew what Vera was talking about.
“It’s like you’re not really here, like you’re way off in the distance,” Vera said. “But I can see you and hear you like you’re here.” She squinted and pinched her thumb and forefinger in front of one eye, making Thor’s head fit in between.
“It is perspective, just like you said. You’re actually far far away but you’re so huge it seems as if you’re talking right with us.”
Thor considered this. “Is that really not like everybody? Do you think you are really right here with me and Gary and Sarah? If that’s true, how was I able to warn you in the ladies room that night last year?”
“That was a dream. When I had that dream it was 5 in the morning. The Day-Hole wasn’t even open.”
“And time in your dreams always works just the way you’d expect? No I remember now, I warned you about the lightning hammer weeks before but you heard me across a time and space that makes sense… down there.”
They looked down at the strange upside down Europe. Italy appeared to be kicking its boot skyward like a can-can girl, with Greece in the front row for the show.
© 2011 Tom Achor