When Will Baggett drove his automobile in Raleigh, North Carolina, a lot of people honked at him. Of course, the personalized licensed plate—ZATUWILL?—had a lot to do with it. Personalized licensed plates are popular in North Carolina, available for an extra twenty-five dollars if you're vain, cute, or just want to be recognized. In Will Baggett's case, it was the latter. Being recognized was part of Will's business. He was, arguably, the most recognizable man in Raleigh because he was Raleigh's most popular TV weatherman. Twice a night on Channel Seven, Will would tell you if it would rain or shine or anything in between, and do it with wit and charm. The folks who owned and ran Channel Seven were delighted with Will's recognizability and popularity. In fact, they reimbursed him the twenty-five dollars extra it cost for a personalized license plate. Will was good for business.
As Will left his home on LeGrand Avenue and drove through Raleigh early on a Friday afternoon in April, he got lots of honks and waves. It was a lovely spring day, the air clear and cleansed by a thunderstorm the night before, warm but not too warm in the embrace of a high pressure system that had established itself along the coast between Wilmington and Myrtle Beach. Other motorists had their windows rolled down, and they honked and called out to Will as they recognized his face or caught a glimpse of the license plate.
"Yo, Will! What's the weather?"
"Tune in tonight and see," he called back, his spirits buoyed by the lovely day and the good cheer of the good people of Raleigh who had made him their favorite TV weatherman. Yo, Will! What's the weather? It was a catchphrase in Raleigh, thanks to a series of promotional spots on Channel Seven in which local citizens were filmed leaning from car and house windows, poking their heads out of manholes, riding bicycles, standing on street corners—all of them calling out, "Yo, Will!"
It was impossible to escape Will Baggett in Raleigh, even if you were one of those odd people who never watched television. His face was on billboards and in newspaper ads and on brochures which Channel Seven distributed at the counters of a string of fast food restaurants throughout the city. There was a whole series of brochures—tips for saving on your utility bills in the winter, safety advice for tornado season, hurricane plotting charts, lawn care do's and don'ts—all of them written by Will from his own research and personal experience. He had never been in a tornado, but as any Channel Seven viewer knew, he enjoyed his lawn almost as much as he enjoyed doing the weather on TV.
Will's face was everywhere, and so was his voice. Just now, on the radio in his car, Will could hear himself giving a brief forecast for the Triangle area. Hey, it's Friday! Get your barbecue grill ready, because it's a glorious start to the weekend, folks. Saturday, clear and pleasant with a high of seventy-eight, just a hint of a breeze from the northwest. Now Saturday night and Sunday, that's a different story, but you won't know the whole picture unless you tune in tonight at six.
Just about any time of the day or night, you could hear Will on the radio. He tape-recorded a morning drive-time forecast before he left Channel Seven each midnight, and he updated it from home in the late morning. If you listened to the radio, you would think Will Baggett worked all the time. And that was the idea: a man who loved his job and was always standing by to help you through your day.
Will encouraged his celebrity. He was thoroughly at home with it. He did a lot of ribbon-cutting and contest-judging and banquet-emceeing. He spoke to garden clubs about soil moisture content and to classes of schoolchildren about the dangers of lightning. He was on billboards and brochures and the radio, and he had the personalized license plate, and when people waved and called out, he considered it a payoff, evidence that they thought him a good fellow, and useful to boot.
The billboards were Channel Seven's idea, but the brochures and the around-the-clock radio forecast were Will's. It was all part of the packaging, and Will instinctively understood packaging as well as he understood weather. When you got down to it, the details of the weather were pretty routine stuff—pressure gradients on a map, temperatures and precipitation and computer models. What you had to do was personalize the weather: relate it to how people lived, whether they needed an umbrella or sunscreen; and make an unbreakable connection in their minds between the weather and the weatherman. Will Baggett was the weather in Raleigh. He told people, only half-jokingly, that he worked for God. If you didn't believe it, ask the minister who phoned and asked him to be sure they had good weather for the Vacation Bible School picnic.
Will's first stop on this spectacular April Friday afternoon was a police roadblock on a busy street not far from his LeGrand Avenue home. Will glanced at his watch and drummed his fingers on the steering wheel as his car crept along in a line toward a young officer who was checking driver's licenses. Will was wearing sunshades, but he took them off as he pulled up. The shiny silver name tag above the officer's shirt pocket said his name was Grimes.
"What's the problem?" Will asked.
"Routine license che..." He peered in the window. "Hey! I mean, yo, Will!"
"Hi, Officer Grimes. How are Raleigh's Finest today?"
Grimes turned to another officer who was a few feet away, handling the opposite lane. "Charlie, look. Will Baggett." The other officer turned, grinned, popped off a little salute. "Yo, Will!"
"Heard you speak at the Police Athletic League banquet last month," Grimes said.
"Enjoyed it. Great crowd. Good kids. Laughed at my jokes." "And the way you stayed around for an hour after, signing autographs..." "Part of the job," Will said. "Say, could I get your autograph?"
"I'll do better than that." Will reached into the glove compartment for the stack of five-by-seven glossy photos he kept there. Traffic was backing up behind. Several cars to the rear, somebody honked his horn. "I been watching you since I was a kid," Officer Grimes said, ignoring the honk. "Grew up in Smithfield. Channel Seven was about all we watched. My granddaddy said the knob was rusted onto Channel Seven."
"What's your first name, Officer Grimes?"
"Cleo. That's short for Cleotus, not Cleopatra."
Will wrote across the bottom of the photograph, To my friend Cleo Grimes. With admiration and warmest good wishes, Will Baggett. He handed the photo out the window.
"Could I have one for my girlfriend?" Will autographed another photo for one Samantha Dugan. Thanks for watching! He shook Officer Grimes's hand. "Cleo, you have a nice day. Tune in at six."
As he pulled away, it occurred to him that Cleo Grimes had never asked for his driver's license.
An hour later, Will peeked out from behind the stage curtain of the multipurpose room at an elementary school in the bedroom suburb of Cary. The floor was filled with a seething, chattering mass of children—wide-eyed kindergartners and first-graders cross-legged on the front row, sullen sixth-graders along the back wall, and everything in between. Teachers were scattered among the crowd, islands of adult battle fatigue in a sea of squirming arms, legs, tennis shoes, giggles, whines, near fistfights. The air was thick with the heat of massed bodies in the unair-conditioned April afternoon, and the aroma of meat loaf and cauliflower still lingered from lunch hour in the adjacent cafeteria.
The principal—a stout woman, gray hair gathered in a ponytail and tied with a bright red ribbon—beamed at the crowd from in front of the stage, seemingly oblivious to the chaos. "Children..." It took a minute or so for the disorder to quieten to a dull roar. "Children, we have a special treat this afternoon. Is there anyone here who watches television?"
Hands shot skyward, the noise level mushroomed. The Simpsons! Barney!
"...and you all watch the local news..." Naaaahhhh. Booorrrrring.
"...well, a local television celebrity is here with us today. Let's give a big welcome to the Weather Wizard!"
Will entertained them for forty-five minutes, dressed in a long, black velvet cape and a tall, pointed hat decorated with glittering stars, half-moons and lightning bolts. He did magic tricks, enlisting volunteers to help and keeping up a running chatter with the audience. He made a stuffed rabbit appear and disappear with the tap of a wand and had the place in hysterics while he pulled several yards of silk scarf from a teacher's ear. And when he had them eating out of his hand, even the sixth-graders, he talked about the dangers of lightning, about scooting for home at the first rumble of thunder, about lying down in a ditch (never, ever under a tree) if you were caught in an open area when a storm hit. He told them about hunkering in a bathroom on the ground floor of your house in case there was a tornado warning. And he reminded them to drink plenty of water while they were playing outside during the hot summer months coming up. Finally, he told them to go home and share all they had learned with their parents and be sure and watch the news and weather on Channel Seven every evening without fail, especially tonight, because they would be the stars of the show. Charlie, the Channel Seven news photographer who had slipped in a side door midway through the performance and reeled off several minutes of videotape, would make sure of that.
There was a small crowd of parents and school staff waiting for him out front, and he chatted and signed autographs for several minutes before heading back to Raleigh and the Channel Seven studios on Wade Avenue. The Weather Wizard costume was stowed away in the trunk of the car until next Tuesday, when he would make another appearance.
He only did elementary schools. Junior high students had lost the last of their innocence and thought a guy dressed up in a goofy cape and hat and talking about lightning safety was geeky. And junior high teachers, he had once said to a group of them, should get combat pay.
Will had done the Weather Wizard bit just once at a junior high. The show had bombed and his son, Palmer, one of the seventh-graders, had thrown up midway through the performance. After it was over, the principal took Will to the school nurse's office where Palmer was scrunched in a tight, miserable ball on a cot, face against the wall. Will sat on the edge of the cot and put his hand on Palmer's thin shoulder. Palmer flinched and pulled away. "Son, are you okay?"
A muffled "No."
"Do you want me to stay with you until Mom gets here?"
He called home at midafternoon to check on Palmer's condition and Clarice, his wife, could barely contain her anger. "That was a terrible thing to do."
"You embarrassed him."
"How? My costume?"
"Just being there. It's hard enough on Palmer, having a father who's on television every night."
"For God's sake, Clarice, it's what I do. Other kids have fathers who fix cars and sell stocks and drive trucks..."
"But they don't do it in front of everybody. You don't realize what you do to people, Wilbur." (She never called him Wilbur unless she was angry or sexually aroused.)
"Yes I do," he shot back. "I do it on purpose because it's part of my job."
"Well, don't do it to Palmer."
He had never done it to Palmer again. And even though Palmer was grown now and in medical school at Chapel Hill, Will still stayed away from junior high schools. But since the day he had embarrassed his son, he had performed for several thousand elementary school kids in the Raleigh area. They gazed upon him with wonder on their upturned faces, their mouths making small "o's" of dazzlement and fascination, warming him with a glow that lasted for a long time afterward. Kids, bless their hearts, loved the Weather Wizard. Channel Seven loved the Weather Wizard because all the kids went home and made sure their families watched Channel Seven. And Will Baggett loved being the Weather Wizard because he loved his job.
Will worked at his computer in the Weather Center, a spacious room just off the station's newsroom. Putting together a weathercast was part meteorology, part graphic design. Will was not a meteorologist, not in the academic sense of the word, but he had studied and taken correspondence courses and earned the Seal of Approval of the American Meteorological Association. The best thing he had going, though, was experience. Twenty years on the air in Raleigh, watching the peculiarities of the local weather, the way systems would sweep in from the Midwest and hit the mountains over by the Tennessee line and do strange things. Will didn't always agree with what the meteorologists at the Weather Service said. Usually, he was right.
"Yo, Wiz." Charlie the photographer. "Whatcha want from the school?"
"Forty-five seconds, one magic trick, a quick sound bite where I talk about scooting for home when you hear thunder. And lots of cutaways of the kids. Lots of kids and teachers."
"My kid's selling Girl Scout cookies," Charlie said.
"Sure." Will fished in his billfold for a ten and a five. "Whatever that'll buy. You pick 'em."
Charlie consulted an order form. "How about thin mints and the butter stuff?"
"Fine. When you get 'em, just put 'em out in the newsroom. Don't you dare bring 'em in here." Will patted his belly, which was beginning to strain against the waistband of his trousers these days. "Urban sprawl."
They were good kids, Charlie and the rest of them in the newsroom. Kids, he thought of them, because he was the oldest person there except for ancient Bettie Fink, the newsroom secretary, who—as one fellow conjectured—might have been on the receiving end of Marconi's first wireless transmission. They were bright, eager kids, the young reporters and photographers and editors and desk assistants, the ones who pushed the studio cameras and swept the floor, reminding Will of himself years ago in New Bern, hoping for the big break. When things were slow, they congregated around the Weather Center because Will was good about listening to what was going on in their lives—a news scoop, a child with homework problems, a bit of gossip, a dead battery.
"Kids doing okay?" Will asked.
Charlie made a face. "Little one's got a cold. Susan had to stay home with her again today."
"Lots of chicken soup."
"Thanks, Uncle Will."
Fifteen minutes before airtime, his weathercast prepared and firmly set in his mind, Will applied makeup—a bit of pancake stuff to cover even the merest hint of beard stubble, powder to cut down on glare, and a dash of eyebrow pencil. The station's makeup consultant had told him he had weak eyebrows.
He put on his tie, a nice burgundy silk with fleur-de-lis design, and the jacket to his navy pinstripe suit. At home, he had a closet full of nice ties and suits and dress shirts, bought over the years with the generous clothing allowance that was part of his compensation at Channel Seven. The station provided the services of a clothing consultant who numbered all of his suits, shirts, and ties and gave him a chart he used to coordinate them into ensembles. When he got ready for work each day, he selected one from each category—tie twenty-three, suit five, shirt fourteen. It was idiot-proof. And it was part of the packaging. If people thought you knew what you were doing when you got dressed, they would assume you knew what you were doing when you forecast the weather.
By 6:15, the Channel Seven newscast had proceeded through a drive-by shooting, a huge traffic tieup on the Beltline caused by a wrecked cattle truck (two rednecks and a State Trooper chasing cows while motorists howled from their cars), and a state senator from the mountains haranguing the legislature over Harry Potter books in school libraries (he was opposed), all delivered with good cheer by Jim and Binky, the news anchors.
"Wow, what a day, Will," Binky chortled.
"Put this one in your scrapbook, Binky."
"Gonna put in that swimming pool at your house this year?" Jim asked. Folks in the newsroom were well aware that Clarice had long wanted a swimming pool in the Baggett back yard, but that Will had been resisting.
"Yessir, this is the year," Will said. "Soon as I get it from WalMart and blow it up."
Will moved from his chair at the long, curving anchor desk to the nearby weather set—to amazed studio visitors, only a large flat blue panel. In the control room, the director electronically wiped out all the blue and substituted the maps and graphics Will had prepared on his computer in the Weather Center an hour before. Will could see the composite picture—himself and the maps—on monitors just off-camera. Another piece of weather wizardry, he told the visitors.
High pressure down here along the coastline, just dawdling along, taking its sweet time. Give this guy credit for the terrific weather today, folks. High of seventy-seven, just missed it a degree, so gimme an "e" for effort, huh? You know about a high, right? Winds go clockwise, just like this. And what's down here in the Gulf? Water. And what's the high gonna start pumping up our way? Bingo. Enjoy your Saturday, because the combination of the higher humidity and this cold front slipping all the way down from up here...well, we've got the makings for thunderstorms Saturday night. Could be strong ones, too. Lightning, high wind, maybe even some hail. And speaking of lightning...
Roll the tape. Forty-five seconds of the Weather Wizard at the elementary school. One magic trick, then the sound clip. Lots of good cutaway shots of the little kids on the front row, eyes big, mouths going "o." And a final shot of the Wizard posing with the principal and teachers.
...and remember, you can pick up this handy brochure on lightning safety from any Burger Barn in the Raleigh area. Kids, make sure Mom and Dad get one.
Wind up with the five-day forecast.
Couple of days of wet weather. Then clearing by Tuesday and cooler temperatures, maybe even down in the low fifties at night. We'll update you at eleven. If I don't see you then, have a great weekend.
Jim: "Coming up...can you really trust tanning beds to be sanitary?"
Binky: "Stay tuned for an exclusive Channel Seven investigative report."
Will called home and got, as he expected, the answering machine. He didn't leave a message. He was faithful about calling home as soon as the early newscast was over, and if Clarice was there, he would go home for dinner. She rarely was anymore, not since her real estate business had really taken off. With newcomers pouring into the Raleigh area and her firm, Snively and Ellis, one of the hottest sellers in town, she was up and gone early and out late. They were, Will sometimes thought, like ships passing in the night. He grabbed a hamburger, fries, and chocolate shake—at Burger Barn, of course, where he autographed Lightning Safety brochures for several of the customers while he waited for his order. And then he went to the mall.
He had started doing the mall thing in the mid-eighties, five years after he joined the staff at Channel Seven. When the Nielsen rating service sampled Raleigh's viewing habits one November, it found that Channel Seven's popularity had taken a rather sharp and unexplained dip. Old Man Simpson, who owned Channel Seven, called the staff together and issued a call to arms. "We've got to go out and meet the folks," he said. "We've got to prove that we're real people. Their neighbors and friends."
The staff was galvanized to action. They loved Old Man Simpson, who was generous and fatherly. And they loved their jobs, which seemed a little precarious. The on-air personalities assaulted Raleigh with eager, outstretched hands and smiling faces. The station sponsored a contest: win a dinner with Hal and Hollee, then the news anchors. Promotional announcements showed Howard, the sportscaster, playing church softball. Will started working the malls during the evenings between shows, shaking hands and chatting up the shoppers. He spoke to civic and garden clubs and appeared at church picnics and Little League games.
Within months, Channel Seven was again Raleigh's most-watched station and had remained so ever since. A grateful Old Man Simpson told the staff, "You did it. You went out there and invited 'em in. Whatever you've been doing, keep doing it." The station adopted a new advertising and promotional slogan: "Your Friend Seven." Even the switchboard operator used it.
Since then, Hal and Hollee had moved on to Boston and Portland respectively and Howard the sportscaster left to operate a fishing pier at Myrtle Beach. Will remained. He became a fixture—a durable, dependable guy who made even bad weather seem palatable. It was, as one newspaper reporter had written of Will in recent years, "like having your uncle Harry sit down at your kitchen table over a cup of coffee and tell you not to worry about the tornado bearing down on the house. Will Baggett can make wind chill seem downright friendly." Channel Seven's ratings had remained solid.
This evening, he stayed at Crabtree Valley Mall until closing time. He drew crowds. He signed autographs and posed for pictures. He met a family of seven from Creedmoor who had driven over for the evening to buy a new television set, a teacher who remembered the Weather Wizard's appearance at her school two years before, and a widow who told him he looked like her brother who had been lost at sea in World War Two.
Five minutes into the late evening newscast, Will delivered a thirty-second capsule of the weather from the remote camera in his Weather Center office. He had insisted on having something about the weather soon after the beginning of the late show. "What are the three things people want to know at eleven o'clock?" he asked the News Director. "They want to know if the world's gonna be there when they wake up in the morning. Is it gonna rain? And did the Braves win? Not necessarily in that order." The News Director had balked at putting weather so high in the newscast. Old Man Simpson had settled the argument.
At 11:15 he did a complete weathercast.
Back in the newsroom he took a call from a man in Zebulon inviting him to speak to the Rotary Club in mid-May and accepted.
Then he drove home to his house on LeGrand, dark and quiet except for the gurgling of the fountain in the back yard. Clarice, as usual, was asleep. "If you think I'm going to stay up 'til you get home every night," she had said early on in their marriage, "you've got another think coming." She was bright, vivacious, sexy, witty in the mornings. But after eleven o'clock at night, she slept profoundly. From almost the beginning, he had worked the night shift—leaving the house in the early afternoon and returning after midnight—and she had never once, to his knowledge, awakened when he came to bed.
"You could have a woman somewhere," she had once said.
"But I cling only to you, my love."
"Not in the middle of the night, you don't."
"I do, but you just don't know it."
He sat now on the rear deck, unwinding from the day, thinking of all he had done and been since he had arisen at eight o'clock this morning, all the hats he had worn—weatherman, wizard, Channel Seven ambassador to the community at large, civic servant. He worked hard at it, and the people he worked for appreciated him and rewarded him handsomely.
He just wished Clarice thought more of it.
At the beginning, when they were first married and he was working at a small station in New Bern, he took her with him one evening and showed her the cubbyhole where he prepared his weathercasts. She pulled up a chair and watched while he read the Associated Press wire and roughed out his maps with pencil. "Why all those warm fronts and stuff?" she asked, peering over his shoulder. "Just tell me if it's going to rain or not." He tried to explain that folks at home wanted more. It was a show, a performance. "Smoke and mirrors," she said. Well, yes.
"Why," she had asked him once several years later, "do you keep talking about the Youpee of Michigan. Is it an Indian tribe?"
"No. It's the Upper Peninsula. U.P." He showed her on a map how Michigan was divided by Lakes Michigan and Huron, with Sault Sainte Marie stuck off up there by itself.
"Well, why would anybody in Raleigh, North Carolina, be the least interested in what happens on the Youpee of Michigan?"
"Because," he explained, "sometimes the weather that happens up there today comes here tomorrow. Especially in the winter, when you have these polar air masses..." His voice trailed off. He might as well have been speaking in Farsi.
These days, since she was up to her eyeballs in the real estate business, she rarely watched television at all. She usually got home after the early newscast was over and was asleep by the time the late news came on. She listened to the radio in the morning for the forecast.
"TV news," she said with a pained look. "You just scare people with all those stories about murders and convenience store holdups. It's not good for the real estate business. One of our agents was in Tillery the other day, and a man actually asked him if it's safe to go to Raleigh."
"But I don't do stories about murders and robberies. I do the weather."
"Then they should let you do the weather first so people who don't want to watch all that other mess can turn it off."
"I can't argue with that."
But then, she hadn't said anything about the TV news or the TV weather for a good while now. She was busy with her own thing. She was happy and productive. Their relationship had changed, sure, but maybe even for the better. They remained ardent lovers. There was still a lot of the old, good stuff left—probably as much as you could count on having in any marriage of twenty-five years.
The rest of it—well, it was pretty close to perfect. He sat in the quiet of his back yard on this soft April night and let the pretty-close-to-perfectness of it envelop him like cashmere. He was a mighty lucky man. A lot of people thought well of him. He had a job and a life that made him vibrate like the finely tuned strings of a bass fiddle, deep and resonant, in harmony with the world.
As he rose finally and headed for bed, he thought to himself, I can't believe they pay me to do this.