Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Distance, Chapter 23


January Twenty-eighth
4:20 p.m.

The drive home was turning into a far more complicated matter than Doug had anticipated.  Far too late he realized that without traffic to keep the roads clear, the blowing and drifting snow presented challenges that he hadn’t had behind a steering wheel since he left Duluth many years before.  Complicating the weather was the complete lack of any sort of snowplows, sanders, or ice melters.  He was down to twenty-five miles per hour…partly due to the ice, partly due to the visibility.  He could see the road signs, but little else beyond the side of the road.   If this weren’t the ‘real’ storm, it was an ugly precursor.
Doug had to stop between Monroe and Pella to clear the iced up windshield and wipers, a ‘fix’ that lasted all of two miles. He was almost on top of the figure walking along the other side of the highway, and slowed as the person turned toward him, waving him down.  He thought for only a moment before touching the brakes and slowly coming to a stop…then realizing that he could be in more danger than he realized if the person were armed and wanted to take his loaded Explorer….let alone potential exposure to the flu. The mask was still around his neck, and he quickly put it in place. He then pulled the old revolver from the holster and kept it in his right hand as the hooded figure appeared at the drivers’ door.  Doug triggered the power window with his left hand.

“Where you headed?” Doug asked, seeing part of the woman’s face for the first time.

“Ottumwa.  Can you give me a lift?” she asked, dropping the scarf a little more, showing her chin.  She was bouncing a little, obviously moving to keep warm. 

“Where are you coming from? Any exposure to the flu?”

“Coming from Fort Dodge. Negative on the flu thing. Just trying to get home.  Can you help me please?”  she said as she shivered. 

Doug grabbed a face mask from the bag in the passenger seat.  “Here. Put this on.  Then get in.” 

“Awesome. Thank you!” she said as she took the mask, pulled back her parka hood, then what looked like a sweatshirt hood and a balaclava, and looped the elastic over her head, securing it expertly.

Doug unlocked the doors as she rounded the front of the SUV.  He then noticed her largish backpack, and wondered if there would be room in the car for it.  She opened the passenger door as Doug holstered the revolver.  She didn’t seem to be a threat.

“Is there room for my pack? I can strap it on the roof if there’s not,” she said.

“You tell me.  It might be on your lap,” Doug said, pointing to the cargo in the back.

“Roof it is,” she said, stepping up on the running board, and Doug assumed, securing it to the rack frame.  A minute later she’d finished and was seated in the passenger seat.

“Hi. I’m Amanda,” she said through her mask. Doug thought she was smiling. She pulled off some heavy leather mittens, and then a layer of woolen mittens under that.  He was surprised at her small hands by comparison to the mittens.

“Doug. What are you doing out in this weather?” he said as he turned up the heat to full.

“My parents live in Ottumwa.  Up until noon yesterday, I was working at a plant in Fort Dodge. At twelve-oh-one, I was unemployed.”

“What happened? Economy finally get them?”

“They were owned by a European company.  Closed it up tight.  A bunch of foreign guards are keeping everything that way. No idea why or what happened.  Zero warning. Told us to clean out our lockers and be out within fifteen minutes.”

Doug was surprised.  “What kind of plant?”

“Veterinary pharmaceuticals. I worked in a lab there.  After they closed down, I didn’t have much choice but to leave.  Rent near the campus was about to quadruple, the bank didn’t open so I had what cash I had on me which wasn’t very damned much, and to top it off, some son of a bitch stole my Toyota.”

“No other way home?” Doug asked, not really thinking about it.

“Tried the bus, nothing’s running. I’ve only seen a handful of cars all day, and one pissant cop followed me all the way through town to make sure I was moving on. No one--except you—is picking up hitch-hikers.”

“They…your folks…couldn’t come to get you?”

“Couldn’t get through.  Phones are screwed,” she said, pulling the balaclava down around her neck and freeing her bright red hair. The mask stayed in place.

“What do your folks do?” Doug asked.

“My Dad’s a flight instructor at the community college. Retired Air Force.  Mom’s a property manager,” she said. 

Doug didn’t think that either sounded all that promising given current events.  

“So what’s your story?” Amanda asked, catching Doug a little off-guard.

“I live not far from Fairfield,” he started, wondering how much he should divulge. “I’m a sales rep. Had to go up to Des Moines to get samples,” he said, waving his hand toward the full cargo area. “When all this flu stuff ends, I’ll be back on the road again, or in an airplane.”

“I can’t believe how good this heat feels,” Amanda said, holding her hands in front of the dash registers.

Doug’s cell phone beeped at him.  The battery needed to be charged.

“You have a cell? That works?” Amanda said, incredulous.

“Uh, yeah. It worked a little while ago anyway. Why?” Doug asked.

“We haven’t had phone service for three days.  Cell phone service was spotty before that.  I haven’t been able to call anyone since Thursday night. I thought all phones were screwed up.”

“Some are, but from what I understand it’s mostly caused by people wrecking the lines,” Doug said, intending to explain how that happened.

“Can I..use your phone?” she asked tentatively.

“Sure. Plug it into the charger first,” he said, wondering why Amanda’s phone….or those in Fort Dodge in general, weren’t working while his was.   Maybe a coincidence.  

Amanda plugged the phone in, started the charge cycle, and dialed a number.  A minute later, she was crying as she talked with her parents, spilling the full story of the past several days.   The young woman had had a very tough time.

It took almost two more hours to get to Ottumwa, another small city almost completely shuttered for business or social activity.  Doug was met on the outskirts of town by three police cars, at the head of a maze of parked farm equipment in the middle of the highway. He pulled over as directed.  The cop asked him questions from ten feet away, with the wind blowing from the side so that neither cop nor Doug would be exposed to any airborne virus. A brilliant flashlight played over Doug and the cab of the SUV as two other flashlights tried to light up the tinted windows in the back.

“Name please,” the cop asked.

“Doug Peterson.  I live near Fairfield.  I’m bringing this young lady home,” he replied.

“Her name?”

“Amanda Jean Rogers,” she said through her mask, and then gave her address.

“How long do you plan on being in Ottumwa, Mister Peterson?”

“Just long enough to bring this young lady home.  After that, I’m heading for home,” Doug said, a little self consciously.  He realized that the pistol might be visible under his coat if he wasn’t careful.

“What’s all that cargo?  You have a receipt for that?”

“Samples. I’m a salesman for Regent.  They’re a food producer.”

“Papers on that stuff if you don’t mind,” the cop said, moving closer, tone of voice stating nothing in the way of politeness.  Doug moved to pull the cover receipt—not the manifest page—from the center console.

“Whoa, there, partner. Slow on that console,” the cop said. Doug at that point noticed the cop had a gun in his hand.

“No problem. One piece of paper, is all,” he said, slowly retrieving the cover document. He handed it to the cop. A second cop was behind the first, towards the front of the car, weapon raised with a clear shot to Doug’s chest.  Doug tried to remain calm, as he looked at the cop’s name-plate: ‘McCreedy,’ it read. 

The sausage like cop was dressed in mismatched coat, hat and pants and squinted as he looked over the receipt.  The cover page had a time-stamp from Regent, showing that Doug had been where he’d said he’d been, when he said he’d been there. He handed the paper back to Doug.

“You’ve got fifteen minutes to drop her off and be at the checkpoint on the other end of town, Highway Thirty-Four interchange.  If you’re not there by then, a warrant will be issued for your arrest. Clear?”

“Uh, sure. No problem,” Doug said, shocked by the threat.

“Proceed immediately. The clock’s against you,” McCreedy said.

Doug rolled up his window, put the Ford back in gear, and drove as directed around the barriers.  “That guy’s got a real personality,” Doug said facetiously.

“I went to school with his son.  He’s a perv,” Amanda said. “We called him ‘McCreepy.’ I can’t believe what I just heard. ‘Get out of town or we’ll arrest you.’”

“These aren’t normal times.  I can’t say I blame him.  I saw some stuff in Chicago that’d justify that behavior,” Doug said, finally settling down a little.  “Fear is a powerful thing.” 

Five minutes later, Doug pulled the Ford into the driveway and honked the horn.  Amanda’s parents rushed out of the house and to their daughter.  With a few brief words of thanks, and Amanda’s telling of the town cops’ warning to Doug, and her parents handed Doug a business card with their contact information, and a vow to someday repay him for bringing their daughter home.

He hit the checkpoint with several minutes to spare, and noticed that another cop checked his license plate as he was slowed at the checkpoint.  Doug was waved through, and back on the road home. Fifteen more miles and he’d be home.  He tried twice to call Julie, and found again that the call would not go through—no ring on the other end, despite the allegedly strong signal that his phone displayed.

“Dang it,” he said to the snow in front of him.  He knew she’d be worried about him on the road in this weather.

It took another forty-five minutes to reach the driveway, and a couple minutes to navigate the drifts. He could tell that someone had plowed the driveway earlier—had to be his neighbor. He’d have to repay him for the favor. Doug pulled into the garage and took the backpack with him into the house.  The rest could wait.
He realized how hungry and tired he was, and relieved to be home.

January Twenty-ninth
8:20 a.m.

“…correspondents.  Reportedly three were seized as they tried to flee Tripoli, their bodies later washed up on the shore of the Mediterranean. The revolutionary government stated that the three were lost in a ‘marine accident’. The French government had no immediate comment on the deaths.  Two freelance German writers were killed in a train station in Barcelona, with a third in critical condition after being shot in the head at close range.”

Doug was about to say aloud, ‘what is the world coming to?’ but had already answered the question to himself. ‘Hell in a bucket.’

“Rumored large-scale evacuations of American dependents appear to be more than a rumor.  Numerous reports from multiple American installations around the world have been received indicating a hurried evacuation of families and civilian personnel, using civilian airliners apparently chartered for the purpose.  Bases are in full lock-down, with a full communications blackout in place.  No one in the Department of Defense is commenting on this either, Pete,” the reporter said.

“Thanks, Ed,” the talk show host said. “Interesting developments indeed. Is this in anyway related to this Guangdong Flu business?”

“Doubtful.  This doesn’t follow any of the protocols already in place for infectious disease contingencies.  Cessation of commercial air traffic is drastic enough…some call it draconian.  Realistically, the government chartering all those planes is keeping the airlines out of another round of bankruptcy, because no one’s traveling anyway.  Amtrak has seen an eighty percent drop in ridership in the Northeast, with half of the trains expected to be idle throughout the region next week.  The rumors of infection are spreading faster than the flu itself, which is no small potatoes.”

“Our friends on Wall Street view this with extreme pessimism. Thoughts on that?”

“No reason to disagree, Pete.  There’s literally no reason for optimism in the investment markets at this time. I mean, Hell, the Dow closed on Friday at two hundred eighty two, which we haven’t seen since the mid-Fifties. If it keeps going like it has been, we’ll see it rival the lows of Nineteen Thirty-Two.”

“How far down was it then?” the host said.

“Just shy of forty-three.”

“Forty-three POINTS?” the host exclaimed.

“Yep. Nothing to stop it,” said the guest.

Doug stood there, half-shaved.  “So much for my investments,” he said aloud, thinking of his friend Hal Downing’s advice. “All of it gone.”   He flipped the radio to scan, and found another broadcast.

“It’s not right.  They’re not doing enough,” the voice said, apparently a caller to a talk show.

“I can’t disagree with you, New Jersey.  We’ve really seen a dramatic lack of action during this crisis from our leaders.  The longer this goes on the more it’s apparent that the leadership really doesn’t give a rats’ for working people.  They had their chance to stave this off if they would’ve taken control of the markets when there was still time, and put those pension funds and IRA’s and Roth’s to work instead of leaving them on the sidelines to benefit the few.  There are greater needs now than ever, and they’ve squandered the chance to make things right.”

“And now we’re done.  We’ve lost everything. Just what in God’s name do they expect us to do now? Our medical insurance is gone, my disability checks aren’t showing up, prices are through the roof and the banks aren’t open. Are they trying to kill us all off?” The caller asked.

“The government needs more control over the financial markets.  Anything they’ve done to date just hasn’t worked. We need to demand accountability and action and intervention on behalf of the people.  Thanks, Wichita. Moving on to Ohio.  How’s it going, Dayton?” the host asked.

“I can’t really answer that honestly without using four-letter words, Tom.  I really can’t,” the Dayton caller said.

“Let’s hear about it without the color, if you wouldn’t mind,” said the host, laughing a little.

“We’ve got to take this country back.  It’s been taken from us.  Where are we going to find a leader to get behind?  There’s no food in the markets.  There’s no freaking food! Where’s the government in all this? They’re all seeming fat enough from what I see, and we don’t see anyone here locally helping us.  Where did all the food that was supposed to be in our stores go? Who’s got it? Where’s FEMA? We need to find that out and get it back and make those bastards pay for keeping it from us!”

A chill went down Doug’s spine.  He knew just where the food was, or where it wasn’t and why.  The distribution system was failing, and once it completely tipped over, it would have to hit bottom before it could be re-established…..unless the government stepped in with force to protect it.
He’d studied food production and distribution through his time in the industry to gain a better understanding of what worked and what didn’t.  Most of the West believed that the old Soviet Union couldn’t produce enough food to feed itself effectively.  The probability said otherwise—there was plenty of arable land, potable water and mechanical resources to easily exceed the needs of the population and create a generous surplus.  But the distribution system was hugely inefficient and deliberately so, and there was no incentive for the average Ivan to work.  Food shortages, whether real or manufactured, kept the population in line. The government engineered the situation through controlling the workers, equipment production, control of the land and all other incidentals of production.  As he saw it, the Soviet model was too heavy handed; too unbalanced; while the American model was too light handed;  too unbalanced in the other direction, and would fail as a result. 

After a breakfast of granola and tea, Doug rounded up the ingredients for a big batch of chili that he’d polish over a few days’ time. He’d have it ready to simmer overnight, after dinner with the Seghers. He checked the Internet connection, and found it down again.  His mind came back to the radio program, and he wondered how many people were going hungry, while he was lucky enough to have more than enough to eat and the ability to get more.
The main to-do item for the day would be unloading the Regent supplies.  The garage was cold but not quite freezing; which saved him from damaged cans, frozen bottles, and loss. He realized that it was stupid of him not to get the stuff stowed away properly when he got home.
Each of the plastic pallets was compression wrapped and sized to just fit between the wheel wells  and roof of the Explorer, with a spare inch or two between the tops of the package and the roof lip of the rear hatch.  Someone had done some masterful planning, Doug thought.   He realized that Regent must have dozens of reps in the field, maybe hundreds of employees with company vehicles. If Regent bought vehicles for their use as they had with him, it probably wasn’t that big of a deal to understand the load size limits.  Still, it wasn’t something that he would have thought of….
The Regent product was labeled ‘not for resale or public distribution’, and Doug noticed that while the majority of the products had very familiar labels, none of them had anything in the way of ingredients or nutritional information in the spaces provided. Where a white panel might contain the nutritional information, a traditional bar-code print had been provided, along with a digital code.
The first small pallet was wrapped up in both plastic and cardboard, Doug assumed to keep things in place.  Cutting away the outer layer, he removed a large box of chocolate bars, densely packed coffee, a shrink wrapped case of canned baking powder, then a large box of vacuum sealed spices…more than one person would need in a decade.  The bottom of the first package had corn starch and corn syrup, packages of powdered eggs, cans of cocoa and highly compressed bricks of dried soup mix, sealed in mylar.
The pallet in the middle of the cargo bay had four gallons of honey, packed in quart-sized, square plastic bottles; a hundred pounds of salt, about half of which was iodized.  The rest included Kosher and sea salt, all of it vacuum packed. Two cases of evaporated milk and fifty pounds of dry milk, two gallons of molasses, five pounds of stabilized parmesan cheese, ten pounds of stabilized cheddar. 
After the second pallet was unloaded, Doug went after the mystery packages on the sides of the main load, tucked into the window shelves and around the folded rear seats. The left side mystery packages were sugar; the right side was drink mix.  Beneath the folded rear seats in the footwells, soft, squishy mylar foil packages of peanut butter on the left side; dehydrated vegetables on the right.
The final pallet was much heavier than the first due to the nature of the order. The upper half of the load included a hundred pounds of factory vacuum-packed corn meal, in five pound bags. The lower half of the pallet was loaded with fifty pound bags of wheat, cleaned and ready for grinding.  Two bags of Durum wheat, which Doug intended for pasta making; two bags of soft red winter wheat for crackers, pastries and the like; and three bags of hard red winter wheat for breadmaking.  He had two grain mills, a Country Living mill that had belonged to his late parents and a little Back to Basics mill that he’d bought years before.  
By eleven a.m., the SUV was unloaded and Doug was winded.  All of the supplies went into the basement, and a few trips down there with fifty-pound bags had his thighs and calves burning. The house storeroom was nowhere near full.  Doug imagined that there were once boxes of Christmas ornaments and canning jars stored there.  He poured a cup of tea, and found the beans about ready for the next phase of chili assembly, which would wait a little while until he rested up. He was almost seated when the cell phone rang.  ‘Unknown’ was printed on the screen.

“Hello?” he answered.

“Good morning,” Julie said. “You made it home in one piece I assume?”

“I did. Tried to call a few times last night, never went through.”

“The power was out down here. That was probably it.  How are you?”

“Tired, actually.  I just unloaded my cargo. You?”

“Just home from church.  Will you still be able to make it for dinner?”

“Absolutely. Can I bring anything?”

“Nope, just you.  Can you come early?”

“Sure—how’s mid-afternoon?”

“How’s one o’clock?” Julie countered, speaking softly and giggling. “I thought we could go for a walk.”

“I can do that,” Doug said smiling.  “See you soon.”

Sunday, June 12, 2011

So, where've you been, Tom?

Working my tail off, mostly. 

Between my business, home obligations (trying to get the garden in this year proved interesting), Church commitments, and recent and upcoming travel, it's been difficult to stay ahead of it all.  All of the aforementioned have left me maybe a spare hour or two a week to make progress on Distance.  I'd like to say this will change soon, to be honest, I have no idea if it will get better. 

I did just get home this afternoon from a business trip that once again reminded me how lucky and blessed I am to have been born in the U.S. No disrespect at all to the country that I visited, but most Americans have NO IDEA HOW LUCKY THEY ARE. 

And with that, I'll try to find some time to hoe the potatoes and do some writing today. 

Take care, gang.