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The Chicken Zoo, part 6: The base (a non-fiction novel)

Posted Aug 11 2009 10:43am
[ This story is based on my experiences as a reporter for The Delaware State News from 1990-93. Some names and dates have been changed. This was part of my unpublished novel, "The Chicken Zoo," that I wrote five years ago. ]

Nikki left the paper. She stayed home in Newark, out of touch. Over the next few weeks, I got the urge to grab the telephone and call. But I resisted. Jenny, meanwhile, ran out of people for me to talk to. Absent any help from above, I felt helpless. Other than writing occasional updates on the police’s investigation, my own probe went nowhere.

Jenny grew frustrated, and began to pin the blame on me. On several occasions, I was dispatched to her office where she questioned my effort. By the end of July, I heard whispers that Jenny was preparing to have Theresa Barton relieve me of my murder-investigation duties. I, as a result, grew increasingly insecure, and my work suffered. All the while, I hoped for some kind of a breakthrough.

In August, he finally got it: Iraq invaded Kuwait, and Dover Air Force Base was involved. In my short time there, I learned that the base was like the other side of the Berlin Wall. Reporters frequently complained that it abused its privilege as a preserver of national security. But in August 1990, the C-5s were moving their big loads to Saudi Arabia, and the base was in show-and-tell mode and boasting of its usefulness to the national media. It granted unique access, allowing reporters to enter and canvass the ground – though within limits, and always with an escort.

Days after the invasion, I was summoned to Jenny's office. Jenny who was sitting there, staring out her tiny window, and smoking a cigarette.

“Here’s our chance,” she said.

“What are you talking about?” I said.

“I’m saying, here’s our chance to interview somebody who knows what they’re talking about,” she said. “So far, we’ve just been swatting flies. Now we can get to the root of all evil.”

“OK,” he said. “What should I do?”
“The base is giving tours to the media, you know, because of this whole Desert Shield thing,” she said. “They’re taking reporters out the planes, doing the dog-and-pony thing, you know…”

“Right.”

“They’ve got a tour today – it’s in a half hour, so you should head out now,” she said. “Some crew is being dispatched to Saudi Arabia, so they want the media there to write about it. Go do that, but see if they’ll take you to the mortuary, too.”

“Do they let people go to the mortuary?” I asked.

“I have no idea,” she said. “But it doesn’t hurt to ask.”

“And you want me to find people who worked with Cramner, you know, back in ’78…”

“Yeah,” she said. “Some of those guys have hung around for a long time. Then you’ve got contractors and volunteers who are gearing up for casualties from the gulf – you may encounter somebody like that…”

“But this Jim Jones thing happened 12 years ago,” I said.

Jenny pulled out another cigarette, and with a quick light, filled the stale air with her smoke.

“Just go over there, and get a tour, and see what you can get,” Jenny said. “See if you can do it…it never hurts to try…”





I drove to what’s called “the main gate,” and rolled his car up to the guard.

“License, please!” the guard belted out.

I nervously reached into his pocket, pulled out his driver’s license, and displayed it. The guard, wearing sandy colored cammies and a tight, flat hat, waved him toward a neighboring parking lot.

“Over there,” he barked.

I drove over, and then waited. A woman appeared in a car – she called herself a “media escort” – who pulled up alongside me and rolled down her window.

“Hey, follow me,” she said.

I did, and she led him to the runways – they call it “the flight line” or “tarmac” in the military – where a long line of media waited. Everybody – ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN – was there, rolling television cameras and clutching notepads as they waited for their next instruction.

I got out of my car, and walked. It was a hot day, but a heavy wind swept through these flatlands anyway. Some television reporters covered their hair, worried that the wind would blow it out of place. I walked right by them, and looked for the escort.

I thought she was funny-looking, like she was a too-skinny waitress at a roller drive-in. Her hat was tilted to the side and almost on top of her ear, and it was attached to her tightly woven hair with a big pin. I had a hard time taking her seriously.

“Excuse me,” I said. “Can I ask you a question?”

“Quickly,” she said.

“Hi, I’m Tom Davis from The Delaware State News,” he said. “Thanks for inviting me out here today.”

“What is it you want?”

“I’d like to ask you a favor…”

“I don’t think I’m authorized to give out favors,” he said.

“OK,” I said, who was getting nervous. “Well, um, I was just wondering if we can…um…”

“Sir, I don’t understand you.”

“OK, look, I’m not just here to cover Desert Shield,” he said. “I’m covering a murder investigation, see, and it involves this guy who worked at the mortuary 12 years ago and …”

“Sir, what does this have to do with Desert Shield?” she asked.

“Nothing,” he said. “But what I’d like to know is if you can – you know, when this whole plane thing is done – if you can escort me to the mortuary…I’d like to talk to some folks over there.”

“Negative…”

“Really?” I asked. “I mean, how hard would that be?”

“We’ve got a program today and we have to stick to it,” she said. “We’re on a tight schedule.”

I looked around, and thought about it. His mind drifted for a bit. “Well,” he said, “can you at least point it out for me.”

“It’s over there,” she said, pointed toward a medium-sized, bland aluminum building. It was just beyond a big C-5 jet, where troops were loading cargo.

“That is the mortuary,” she said. “It’s the military’s main mortuary for serving the European Theater.”

The woman turned away, while I continued staring at it. Then I started walking. And walking. And walking. And walking. I walked right past the ABCs and CNNs. I walked right by the sign that said “DO NOT CROSS.” It was a big sign, but it wasn’t in my way. The only thing that really stood in my way was a concrete barrier. I hopped that, too.

Then I walked right past the thick red line that stretched across the tarmac. It was on the ground, but I was looking at the mortuary up ahead, so I didn’t see it. My mind was in a tunnel, and I continued on his path until – finally – a siren blared. My brain was so fuzzy that I didn’t hear it as first. But when the siren’s sound became long and sustained, I made a dead stop.

I then felt hands gripping me, tightly, and I crashed to the pavement. I was on the ground, and I turned my head slightly to see that I was trapped by a muscle-bound man carrying 30 pounds of gear and guns. The MP then grabbed my head and turned it back toward the pavement, digging my chin into the asphalt. Another camouflage-wearing soldier appeared, and he stuck a gun in my ear. I could feel the cold steel barrel touch my skin. I shouted. “HELLP!!”

Then I heard deep, hoarse yelling, so loud that the words just ran together.

“WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU’RE DOING?!!!?” the man barked.

“What? What? What’s is going on?” I pleaded.

“May I see some identification please?!?!?”

“It’s in my back pocket. Go ahead. Take it. Take everything!”

The man reached in and grabbed the wallet. He rose up, but I could feel his foot stepping on his back. He pressed so hard that my legs felt numb.

The MP then removed his foot, grabbed my shirt and pulled me up from the pavement.

“You work for The Delaware State News?” the guy said.

“That’s right,” I said.

“C’mon!” the MP declared. “We’re going to have to have a little discussion with your employer!”

“Can we not do that,” I said. “Please?”

“Excuse me, are you trying to tell me what to do?” he said. “Who broke the law here?”

The media escort hustled over. “It’s okay, he’s with us!” she shouted. “I’m really sorry about this.”

The MP pulled out a small notebook and began scribbling.

“Sir, may I have your name and your boss’s telephone number please?” the MP asked.

“Yes, my name is Tom Davis. I work for the Delaware State News. The telephone number is 555-2000.”

She wrote fast, and quickly closed up her pad. “Thank you,” she said. Within seconds, what looked like a golf cart rode over, the MP hopped in and she was whisked away.

“Thanks for helping me there,” I said, turning back to the escort.

“You’re in trouble,” she responded.

I sighed, and rubbed his eyes. “Well, hey, I’m sorry, but does he really have to call my employer? I feel like I’m going to the principal’s office, for Christ’s sake.”

“You have to understand that there is protocol here,” she said. “Unlike other professions, we go by the book.”

At that moment, a walkie-talkie on her hip crackled. She pulled it out of the holster and pressed on one of the side buttons.

“Yeah,” she said, speaking into it.

“Okay, State News has been contacted,” it said, through gargled static.

“They would like to see employee Tom Davis front and center immediately after media event is over.”

“Oh, great,” I said.

“Well,” she said. “They should have told you how things work around here.”


A half-hour later, I was back in the newsroom. Immediately, I noticed my mailbox, where a white piece of paper was sticking out. The heading said “memorandum;” the text was just as simple and terse.

“Employee Tom Davis was hired June 1990,” the text began. “Employee Davis has failed in several aspects that have brought much harm to the paper’s reputation.”

“What the hell is this?” I thought.

It went on, using vague words like “deficiencies” and harsh words like “transgressions.” It mocked his inability to be a “self-manager,” and ridiculed my “frenetic” and “disorganized” work style. It ripped what the management considered his “repeated mistakes” not only in story content but also in approach.

Its conclusion: My performance fell “way, way below expectations.” Just as I read that, Jenny walked into the newsroom and past me.

“What’s up?” Jenny said, smiling. “I see you got it.”

“Oh yeah. I got it,” I deadpanned.

“You remember, right, that you’re supposed to be evaluated just when you’re coming off probation?”

“I suppose.”

“Well, the bad news is, you’re still on probation,” Jenny declared, smiling. “Unfortunately, I don’t have any good news to tell you.”

I turned toward his mailbox, and shoved the paper back in there. “Look,” I said. “Is this about the base today?”

“It’s not just about the base,” Jenny said. “It’s a pattern of behavior that has to end, that is, if you so desire to continue working here.”

“I don’t get it,” I said.

“Don’t bother trying to ‘get it,’ ” Jenny said. “Just do it.”



That night, I retreated to my apartment. I was spent. Heartburn burned in my chest. He sucked down a half-gallon of milk to cool it off, but it only made me feel worse. I felt like throwing up, again. I really, really wanted to. I went as far as the bathroom door. But like I’d done a hundred times, I stopped myself. I had promised myself that I would never do that again. And I didn’t.

This Delaware State News sucked. I had no friends. I had no fans. I had no fun. I was so desperate that I called MY parents. And even they were surprised.

“What’s wrong?” his dad asked. “Did somebody die?”

“No,” I said. “But I’m pretty tired.”

“So?”

“Look Dad, I don’t know if I can handle this anymore.”

“What are you trying to tell me?”

“I don’t know. It’s not going too well here,” he said. “I miss home. I’m lonely and everything. Can you understand?”

“I still don’t understand,” his dad said. “What have they got you doing there?”

“They’ve got me covering this murder here. But I feel like I’m just running in place,” I said. “This editor I’ve got – man, she is out there…”

“Well, she’s the boss,” MY dad said. “You’ve got to do what the boss says.”

“Yeah, but what if the boss is wrong?”

“You know what Billy Martin said about bosses?”

“What’s that?”

“He said there’s two rules about bosses,” his dad said. “Rule number one: The boss is always right.”

“OK, I’ve heard that before,” I said. “What’s rule number two?”

“Rule number two is this: If the boss is wrong, see rule number one.”

I laughed. “Uh-huh,” he said. “But I don’t know if you’re totally getting it…”

“Sure I do,” Dad said, interrupting. “You know, when I was young, I lacked a lot of confidence. I used to get stomachaches all the time – real ones, not like the ones you get.”

“Uh-huh…”

“I couldn’t eat much,” his dad said. “And eventually, it affected everything I did. I couldn’t hold down a regular job – I laid bricks. I sold encyclopedias. I just got really sick – a lot.”

“So what happened?”

“Well my Dad – he was a pip,” his dad said. “I was living at home, sleeping on a bunk bed, when one day he got in my face and he wagged those long fingers of his – they were like T.V. antennas, they were so long.”

“And he’d wag really close, almost to the point of sticking them in my eye. He said, ‘Son, just do your job, just do it well, and do it hard, and everything will be fine. And whatever you do – whatever you do – don’t ever, ever give up.’ ”

“He said that?” I said.

“He said it’s a sign of weakness if you quit, and if you’re weak, you don’t get any self-respect. And if you don’t get any self-respect, you have nothing. A man without any self-respect is nothing. You are a man without a soul.”

“So what did you do?” I said.

“Well, dammit, he made sure I got my ass out of bed every day and got to work,” his dad said. “He had a friend who had an insurance business, and he got me a clerk job. Then every day, he’d wake me up and he’d poke at me with those long fingers of his, and help me get out the door. He’d watch me, and he made sure that every day I was well-fed, that my tie was pulled tight and that my suit was as sharp as a razor blade.”

“I see.”

“And then it all becomes habit. You’ll see. Work is like brushing your teeth every night. It becomes you, and you become it.”

“Right.”

“Ask your mother – although, I tell you, it wouldn’t be too bad if she were home a little more often to cook dinner,” his dad said. “I’m not very good at it.”

“Well, I tell you what,” I said. “I call you in a couple days or something, just to get an idea on how mom’s doing. All right?”

“Okay. See you then.”
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