Monday, March 26, 2012

Distance, Chapter 38


Good Friday,
April Fourteenth,
Des Moines, Iowa

Doug had risen at six forty-five, tired, but ready to get the day behind him so that he could head back ‘home’ and to the Seghers.  He’d dreamt of Julie several times during the night; unpleasant dreams of darkness, fear, and war. He’d hoped that the day would move quickly, as he’d leave Des Moines around noon and head southeast.  He sent a lengthy list to the in-house supply, to re-provision his house and to pick up what he could for the Seghers, not really caring if anyone was checking on him.  He obviously hadn’t been able to complete his last road trip to his satisfaction.

The television seemed limited today to five channels, all news.  All other stations within the Regent closed network system were black screens.   A crawler on the bottom of the screen recapped a statement from the Secretary of the Department of Agriculture, ‘urging all Americans to plant food crops as soon as the weather permitted, to minimize hunger later in the year, and to see their County Extension Agent for instructions…’

“Fat lot of good that’ll do.  Eighty percent failure rate when people don’t know what they’re doing.  You’re providing false hope, boys,” Doug said to the television as he dressed. ‘I guess I can’t blame you for trying, though,’ he said to himself.

The President stated forty-five minutes ago that any action against Israel, or against any remaining US forces anywhere in the world, would have only the gravest repercussions against any aggressor, and that action would be taken immediately. Sources in the Department of Defense and Department of State confirm that this action can only mean retaliation with a nuclear response. Subsequent contacts with sources in the White House confirmed that this is in fact, the case.”

Doug stopped in his tracks, thinking about that statement, and the date.  Rob Dowling told him that Regent had a big deadline, which was this day. What deadline would the company have, on an arbitrary date like today, unless…they knew something, or unless this was just a coincidence. Not the end of the financial quarter, end of month, not an upcoming major holiday…nothing that a corporation like Regent would necessarily be concerned with, unless…

The television roused him back, with a switch between the reporter and the anchor.  The President was supposed to speak to the nation at nine a.m.

Doug headed off to breakfast, wondering if his dreams were a foretelling.

By ten, Doug had completed the first task of his day, a re-write of the old Leinhardt Kaizen proposal, formalizing the process for the Des Moines staff—not the ‘big picture’ stuff he’d sent to Corporate, but a narrative suited to the line workers and local management.  He’d been listening for the break in the news for the Presidential address, which never came. Furthermore, the network reported that they were reporting significant interruptions in communications for unknown reasons. Speculation immediately centered on a clampdown by the government on news networks, which Homeland Security immediately denied. 
Working in a temporary office arranged by Francine, Doug listened to one of the national talk shows, avoiding the distraction of the television.    An email came in from Columbus, demanding his attention by placing itself atop the work already on his computer screen—he’d never seen anything like that happen before.

Someone at Corporate had been busy, directing all senior management and their families to consume Preferred food products by coercing them to ‘participate in a marketing and research project,’ and ‘refrain from ‘standard’ Regent offerings during the duration.’ A financial reward would be made at the end of the six-month test period.  Doug downloaded the attachments and found a very convincing and lengthy ‘research survey’, to be completed monthly.  The financial incentive was generous indeed: Five percent of the employee’s salary.  Anyone who chose not to participate in the ‘project’ wouldn’t be punished of course, but neither would they receive the reward.  Buried in the text of the ‘offer’, was a statement that told the participants that they’d be subject to ‘random blood sampling and urine tests, all completely voluntary.’  The veiled threat of a blood or urine sample, taken from any of the participants, would almost certainly guarantee a high rate of participation by the ‘select members of the research project,’ and eliminate use of Regent ‘common’ products…those contaminated with RNEW.

“I guess that’s one way to do it…bribe and threaten them,” he said. 

“What was that, sir?”  One of the administrative staff asked.

“Nothing. Sorry. Talking to myself,” he said as something on the radio caught his ear.

“The fact remains though, is that first there is no capital to build new factories, there is little ability to manufacture, fabricate or mine materials critical to the Nation, there aren’t enough machine-tool manufacturers left in the States to build what we need! There aren’t enough steel mills! Surgical steel used to come from offshore.  Where are we supposed to get spare parts? Short answer is, we can’t!”

“The Administration…..”

“Is over their heads. This is beyond what the Government can do, even given broad emergency powers, than they fully realize. You cannot invent these things out of thin air. You cannot magically impart knowledge in manufacturing, mining and specialty engineering out of thin air. You cannot deprogram a generation of wards of the government—who do not know how to work, because they’ve never had to—and expect results. They want to be fed the same as always, by their food stamps and their welfare. They’re not workers, they’re eaters.”

“As the nation recovers….”

“Don’t use that word. Sorry, I don’t mean to interrupt here, but it’s not about recovery anymore, in my opinion. I would suggest that you phrase things like this: ‘As we progress into the Depression….’”

“Pretty pessimistic view.”

With some alarm, realizing he’d ignored a key part of any operation involving machinery, Doug immediately punched up the spare parts inventory for the Des Moines plant. Confirming his suspicion and hoping that he was wrong, he then logged into the corporate-wide server, and a sinking feeling hit him immediately.  No parts orders had been placed by Des Moines to corporate or to any of the many machinery vendors since the first week of January. Most plants like Des Moines were a composite of new and older equipment, a mishmash of manufacturers and systems, skillfully crafted by on-site engineers and machinists to meet the needs of product creation and delivery.  Doug noted that Des Moines had a lead machinist with no staff.  The plant had no mechanical engineer, or engineering division--the prior plant manager had eliminated their positions.  He picked up his phone and punched in Francine’s extension.

“Francine, I need you to get Nolan Schultz, former mechanical engineer for this plant. I need him back to work last Monday. Can you do that?”

“If he’s still around, sure,” she replied with her ever-seductive tone.

“I need his whole unit back. I also need Robert Barrett. He’s…”

“He’s my cousin. Give me a minute. I can have him in your office in ten,” she replied.  Doug could tell she was smirking.

Francine was good on her word.  Barrett was in Doug’s office in well less than ten minutes.  Doug spent a half-hour with him, discussing the plant’s machinery status and needs.  Barrett was sharp, Doug discovered almost immediately.  Without spares from the original equipment manufacturers, Barrett had used the plant machine shop to build almost every spare needed, or combined the components he’d had to build with local parts, without need of an engineer above him.    Doug told Barrett that he’d get more help as soon as possible, including giving Barrett the authority to pick his own help, as long as the machinists completed the standard Regent employment application. Barrett left the office quite happy.   Doug ordered lunch via email.  He then wrote up his concerns about spare parts, engineering support and machinists, and sent it off to Columbus, along with a note that he’d be leaving Des Moines for his residence shortly after noon.  Hopefully someone at Corporate would look at the other plants in some detail and make sure they weren’t heading for a breakdown.

Nolan Schultz was nowhere to be found. Francine couldn’t find any of the engineers or trainees who’d worked with Regent.  To a man, their home phones were disconnected; their cell phones inactive. Doug suspected that they went ‘off grid’ or ‘underground’, like his friend Hal Downing.  He couldn’t really blame them.   Doug asked Francine to get Personnel moving on hiring a new mechanical engineering lead and support staff, with a goal of having someone on board by the end of the following week.
Lunch arrived, and Doug ate quickly, telling Francine to contact him with any problems on his cell phone.  He picked up his bag from his apartment, and his repaired Explorer was waiting for him at the employee entrance, fully loaded.

“Mister Peterson?” a young man asked as he approached the car.


“Here’s your road report.  Sorry it didn’t make it into your inbox.”

“What’s this?” Doug asked, brow furrowed, flipping through the pages.

“A map out of town, along a known safe route, and a suggested route to your home.  There have been some impromptu roadblocks thrown up all over the past couple of weeks; it’s a little hard to stay ahead of it.  I’m with Regent Intel, by the way. Mark Rieger.”

“Thanks, Mark. Much appreciated. Anything serious I need to watch out for?”

“Given the two-dozen rounds you took on your way here,” he said, patting the Ford, “I think you’ll do OK.  Nothing major on the roads right now, at least not in the direction you’re headed.  Nothing in the way of organized highwaymen, at least during daylight hours.”

“What did they have to do to this to fix it?” Doug asked.

“The computer took a hit for one thing. Someone smacked you with an armor-piercing round or two. Went through the protection layers like a knife.  Another hit the transmission.  Right through the case, probably a ricochet of the pavement, dunno. And of course all the impact damage—so you’re running a primered fender and door. We left the bullet holes in the rest of it. Nothing we can do with them at the moment.”

“Adds character,” Doug said, as if he meant it. He hadn’t really looked at the damage when he arrived, and was shocked by the number of holes.  He studied the map Rieger provided for a minute.

The route that was mapped out was very similar to the type of driving he’d done coming back from Wisconsin—back roads all the way, circling the larger towns, even driving on what Doug assumed were dirt roads.

“A little circuitous, don’t you think?” Doug asked the intelligence department employee.

“Safe,” was the reply. “Figure the better part of three hours to get there. You should be good on fuel, and you’ll find you have a new addition on your property. This is courtesy of Columbus,” Rieger added as he handed Doug a folder.
The folder held photographs of a new fuel tank as it was being installed, near the wood shed. Regent had added power to the shed, provided a fuel pump, and camouflaged the work within a weathered metal shed.

“Only problem at the moment is your new vehicle. It’s not ready yet.  Might be a few days.”

“New vehicle?”

“That tank is diesel.  Your Explorer obviously isn’t.”

“What’s Corporate sending me?”

“Not sure, to be honest. Figure up-armored though, certainly not new. No point in standing out.”

Fifteen minutes before one, Doug cleared the suburbs, heading south toward Indianola.  Halfway to Indianola, Doug turned east, winding his way along farm roads, working south and east under the grey sky. The AM radio stations were all filled with speculation about the President and why he’d not spoken as scheduled earlier in the day.  Shortly before two p.m., the network reported rumors of Iran invading Iraq (again), this time, unopposed. Minutes later, a report relayed from Jordan described an attack upon a Jordanian Palace.  Members of the Royal Family were in residence at the time, and that the attack had happened before dawn.  Doug turned up the broadcast to hear more, and the station went to static.  He hit the ‘scan’ function, and found no radio stations broadcasting.  The plausibility of the Federal government shutting down communications was beginning to grow in Doug’s mind.

Turning on the CB radio, he was greeted with a high-pitched whine, and a ‘ticking’ that seemed to match the pitch of the engine. He hadn’t thought to check it before he left Des Moines; it could have been damaged when his car was shot up.
Doug drove, gripping the steering wheel, driving by empty unplowed fields.

“Cell phone,” he said and checked his phone for a signal.  He could see three cell towers on the horizon. His phone had no signal. “Dammit!” he said, shoving the phone back into the console.

Doug crossed the Des Moines River at Eldon, and found roadblocks that directed him to Libertyville, a very small town southwest of Fairfield.  The small town looked nearly deserted, and he passed through it without incident and without seeing a single person. Five miles later, he pulled into his driveway.
He’d been away from ‘home’ for only two weeks and three days, and it felt like a year.

The house was as he left it, with the exception of the shed for the diesel tank as the photos showed.  The shed was old, rusty, with a dented door. Inside, a locked fuel pump, labeled ‘Diesel’.

Before unloading much of anything, Doug checked the radio at the house, and his Internet connection.  The radio was dead; the Internet was working, sort of.  He tried an Internet radio feed, and another, and another. 

None worked.  The Regent corporate link seemed to connect, but was dial-up modem slow.  It took five minutes to load just the email window. He started some coffee.

Before heading down to the Seghers, Doug decided to unpack the rest of his supplies, and stacked them in the kitchen. He was almost finished when someone knocked on his door.

Doug recognized him through the peephole: August Kliest. ‘Great’, Doug thought as he opened the door.

“Mister Peterson, good to see you home,” Kliest said.

“Mister Kliest. What can I do for you?”

“I was just making sure you’re settling in all right,” he replied, studying Doug more than anything else. “Remember--call me Augie.”

“Haven’t been home long enough to know…except for the radio stations are all dead, and the Internet is dead slow.”

“Corporate said there might be some impacts like this,” Kliest said. “Things in Europe are the cause, I hear.”

“What?” Doug said.  “What do you mean?”

“War’s breaking out. It’s not on the airwaves yet, but its here,” Kliest said as Doug shut the door behind him. “It’ll be bad.”

Doug didn’t reply, still struggling to understand what he’d just heard.

“I understand you’ve been doing some house cleaning up in Des Moines.  Sent Jennings packing?” Kliest said, changing the subject.

“Inadvertently.  The place was a sty. I’m surprised that the FDA hadn’t shut them down.”

“Well, Regent owns the FDA inspectors up there, so there wasn’t much to worry about. Still, your work over the past few days has been most impressive,” Kliest said.

“Have a seat,” Doug said, motioning to the living room.  “I have some questions for you.”

“I’m certain of that,” Kliest said.  “You’ve made it up the ladder in fairly record time.  I would hope that you understand that my looking into your private affairs has been for the good of the company,” he said. Doug thought he was looking for understanding.

“It was a bit disconcerting, but I understand. FYI, I am heading down to the Seghers for dinner. I’m done hiding that relationship,” Doug said.  “Coffee?”

“Sure. Gonna be a long night, I think.”

“Whom do you work for, exactly?” Doug said.

“Regent Intel. Covers under Bluestone of course, and several other subs.”

“Why here? Why in Iowa?”

“Out of the way when it hits the fan,” Kliest replied.

“It hit the fan already,” Doug said.

“No, not really, but it is on the way.”

“God Dammit, you keep speaking in riddles. What the Hell is going on?”

“There are things I know, and things I can deduce.  What I know is that the Company has been for the past several years, positioning itself in ways that didn’t make a Helluva lot of sense to me. But in the past month or three, things started to add up, in one way or another,” Kliest said, taking a sip of the too-hot coffee.

“Corporate consolidations, bailouts, strategic partnerships, whatever you call it, there’s been a pattern of alignments between the government—or elements within the government—and some parts of the private and financial sector.  Companies that should have, for whatever reason, survived the financial collapse didn’t.  They weren’t the chosen ones. I don’t know ‘chosen by who’, but Regent was one of the favored.  Your former employer should have made it but it had credit denied it at the most critical time—they weren’t able to survive it.”

“How do you know all of this?”  Doug asked, flabbergasted.

“I’m in Iowa. I have lots of time,” he replied with a little chuckle.  “I was in Naval Intelligence for three tours, then went into the same line of work for several corporate clients. While I’m not occupied on keeping an ear on the ground here, I research areas that might have impact on the Company.  There are only so many ways that puzzles go together,” he said, taking another sip of coffee.

“Regent—the upper echelon—knew this was coming. They knew that this war was coming, damned near down to the day. It’s not possible to ‘know that’ unless you helped cause it.  I don’t know how deeply they are inserted into various governments, but I don’t like it.”

“Why are you telling me this?” Doug asked. “For all you know, I’m one of them.”

“No, you’re not. And no one seems to know the story on that batch of stitches there, either,” Kliest said, pointing to Doug’s scalp. “But I have a pretty good idea.”

“Enlighten me,” Doug said. He’d told the few people in Des Moines that he’d been hit by a branch while felling a tree.

“Firefight not far from your ex-wife’s location. Close?”

Doug sat down, a little harder than he intended.  “How in God’s name could you know that?”

“Word gets out. Shortwave broadcasts, news about troubles all over.  They get repeated, usually verbatim.  Hams don’t embellish reports like that. Northern Wisconsin.  Twenty-six dead, right?”

Doug nodded. “My ex-wife’s husband is a deputy.  They have kind of a militia up there. I was actually planning on leaving that day.  They had some trouble with people moving up, trying to take things. It wasn’t good.”

“Recognize that I heard two sides of the story. I heard a version similar to that, and a version where the people up there hunted down hungry people and shot them.”

“Absolutely not what happened,” Doug said, and then told Kliest the entire story, including the realization that those killed weren’t all that different than the killers.

“Fair enough,” Kliest said.  “Good to see you have some remorse.”

“I’d have more if they weren’t shooting at me.”

“Yeah, I can understand that,” Augie Kliest replied.

“Let me dress up that coffee. I have a bottle of Bourbon in here somewhere.”

Doug struggled with what he’d just heard, and wondered if he should tell Kliest what he knew about RNEW…what Kevin Martinez had told him, and what he’d seen first hand with actual ‘consumers’ and the documentation to back it up. He realized as he cracked the bottle open, that the whole conversation might have just been a way to get into Doug’s head—to solicit him into spilling what he knew about RNEW. Test his loyalty.

The consequences of doing that would probably be fatal.  

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Distance, Chapter 37


April Thirteenth,
Des Moines, Iowa
11:30 a.m.

Doug’s seven a.m. coffee remained mostly untouched, thirty minutes before the dayshift would take lunch.  He’d been up until one-thirty, preparing for what he knew would be a stressful day, distracted by the doings in the Middle East and Europe.

Word had quickly spread overnight of the imminent staffing reassignments, and fifteen percent of the day-shift workforce called in ‘sick’.  By eight-twenty, they’d been fired and potential new hires called in for interviews with potential immediate employment possible.  The Regent personnel office had six thousand resumes in the database, all fresh since January first.   Personnel knew that with Doug on the phone to Corporate, and no ‘bitch-slap’ coming his way after reaming out Jennings, that he was serious about his work.  The director of personnel told Doug that he’d have a full compliment of workers requiring minimal training by the start of first shift, Friday. Doug gave them complete discretion in hiring—Jennings had apparently exercised privilege in all hiring decisions. Doug just told them to find qualified candidates, preferably with experience in the field, free of drugs, and to be liberal with the compensation package.

That built up immediate confidence in Personnel.  By the time the conference call started, the wheels were in full motion on staffing replacements.  He wished he had time to walk through the short-staffed day shift workers on the line, knowing that had they decided to sickout, they’d be on the street as well.

The video conference had eleven attendees other than Doug and CEO Wilder.  Doug felt like he was under cross-examination by all of them, with some obviously posturing themselves for the camera.  Almost an hour of the call was outspoken criticism of Doug’s proposal on using Regent employees on assignment to the FDA. With five minutes of formal presentation by Doug and support of the CEO, and the decision was made.  Doug realized that the several other board members were on the conversation for the sake of image and would go along with the Chairman. The prior talk had been not directed at Doug, but was put forth in defense of their positions.  Francine, mid-call, passed Doug a note that Jennings had been terminated, his office cleared overnight. Doug raised his eyebrows at Francine, but didn’t mention it to those on the conference call.

Through the first half of the call, when he wasn’t defending himself, Doug had no idea ‘who’ on the board knew ‘what’ about RNEW.  He’d decided to play it as if none knew. It probably wasn’t relevant anyway.

The second half of the call was all about the ‘Des Moines Experiment’ as a female board member in the Nashville plant labeled it. Doug explained that if productivity was to increase, the employees needed incentives to improve. If the line was to produce more, there wasn’t any better way to find was to improve the operations than to involve the workers on the line in the process. The Japanese had done it for years; American businesses had adopted it far later. Kaizen, when applied properly could better all functions through continuous review and improvement--it involved everyone in the organization, from CEO to floor sweeper. Doug had heard of it while he was working at Leinhardt, studied it, and run smack into the union when he tried to see it implemented.  The proposal became shelf-ware. 

Doug proposed that Regent Corporate to have the best trained, most dynamic team leaders across the Des Moines plant get together and start with a fundamental review of processes on the line.  That team would have five days to come up with suggested improvements and an implementation plan.  That team, and subsequent teams made up of other line workers, managers and execs, would be rewarded financially and with a meal created from the E Branch menu, once a week, in addition to financial incentives should the company deem them appropriate. The process would continue, as long as the plant was in operation.  Through the process, the plants efficiency would be improved; the workers would build loyalty in the company and be better workers.

There was little negative comment on Doug’s suggestion, after the tide-shift on the first half of the phone call, and the stark reality that Regent quotas were the priority, not steaks for the executives. 

Doug was given thirty days to show substantial improvement in the output of the plant, sooner if he could pull it off.   When the majority of the video conference attendees signed off, the head of personnel in Columbus told Doug that his new compensation package and terms would be in his inbox within a few minutes.

With that, the call was ended, and the conference room quiet.  Francine knocked and entered, bringing a fresh cup of coffee and a sandwich tray.

“Everything go OK with Columbus?” she asked.

“Yes. Thanks.  And thanks for lunch.”

“Your office should be ready for you any time.  Do you want me to bring this down?” she said, looking at the stacks of reports that covered one end of the conference table.

“This stuff will wait.  I can fetch it later,” he replied. “I have an office?”

“Yes…Mr. Jennings former office.”

“Before I accept that, I want your unvarnished opinion of his office,” Doug said, knowing that there was a high likelihood that she would give him exactly that.

“It’s nicer than most houses.  Three times the size of my apartment,” Francine replied, nearly without pause.

“How long have you worked here, Francine?”

“Five years, three months.”

“And Jennings? How long was he here?”

“Eighteen months, four days,” she replied, again, without much pause.

“Was that office remodeled during his time here?”

“Yes, three times. Always a little larger.”

“OK, as I suspected.  What was that office before?”

“It held half of administrative support, personnel, employee benefits, and part of on-site daycare.”

“And where did those functions go?”

“Into a remodeled part of the plant,” she replied. “Or eliminated.”

“I need about a hundred square feet for a private office and a small conference area. How about you see to it that the rest of that space gets reassigned. Open-concept, partition walls, whatever.  I don’t want Jennings office as-is. Got it?”

“Yes, sir. I’ll get someone on it today,” she smiled demurely.

“Perfect. Find me a temp office while that’s getting done.  I’ll need…”

“I’ll take care of it, Mister Peterson,” Francine said as she swiveled and looked at him over her shoulder. “Trust me,” she said with a warm smile, and left the conference room.

‘That girl is nitroglycerin’, Doug thought as he took a bite of a corned-beef sandwich. He pulled up the email from Columbus personnel, and was pleased he was sitting down when he read it.

His salary had been nearly doubled, was inflation-indexed, and could be payable in paper currency or in precious metals or a combination. The compensation included his home in Fairfield, free and clear, with maintenance and utilities paid for by Regent as long as he was in the employ of Regent or any subsidiaries. He was given a thousand shares of Regent Preferred and two thousand shares of Regent Common, and signing bonus of fifty thousand dollars in United States silver and gold coinage, indexed at current precious metals trading rates.
The remainder of the agreement was identical to his current contract, without the end date of his current agreement. 

“That does beat all,” Doug said aloud, closing the email and leaning back in the chair. “It’s still not worth it, though.”

2:30 p.m.

Doug was running on fumes and coffee wasn’t making one bit of difference.  Falling asleep on his desk wouldn’t be a great example to the plant.  He figured he’d have about an hour, and he’d be ‘done’, one way or another.  A chunk of the afternoon had been spent  reviewing decisions made by the previous management team. Few of them made a whole lot of sense.
Rob Dowling brought in a report not long after lunch covering the transportation task force report. Succinctly, they’d come to the conclusion that by the end of May production and distribution within the current Regent model would probably be at a complete standstill. 
Transportation hinged on two things: Diesel fuel and the safety of the over-the-road (OTR) drivers.  The other perceived issues were all secondary…but could be dealt with.  Fuel was being gobbled up by the military for the Mexican war; fuel from the Middle East had ceased; refineries on the Gulf weren’t anywhere near back to capacity after sabotage and the previous years’ hurricane. Regent’s strategic intelligence team had chimed in, stating that the Saudi Arabian oil fields were in full production collapse six months before the collapse of their government; the established Mexican Cantarell complex was seriously depleted; and Venezuela’s reserves were seriously overstated from the start.  Domestic production from the Dakotas and eastern Montana would be years away from making up the difference.  Reserves in California and off-shore on both coasts, likewise.

The fuel problem aside, safety of the drivers was harder to deal with. OTR drivers were being targeted for whatever load they were perceived to be carrying, or in more extreme cases, for the tractor or the fuel.  Virtually none were being robbed, they were just being killed. Some were shot on the highways—most trucks then crashed.  Many though were being killed in the cities or suburbs, shot at traffic lights or at low speeds.  Mobs would then ‘appear from nowhere’ and sack the trucks.

No one could afford to run armed convoys all the time, even if there were enough armed men.  There wasn’t any such thing as an armored semi, and Regent and her subsidiaries would need hundreds of them, if not thousands. 

Over the road trucking in the traditional sense was no longer an option. With twenty-twenty hindsight, Regent or any other manufacturer should have seen a potential risk in maintaining critical infrastructure within risky areas.  Regent though had grown quickly, and acquired plants—it hadn’t really built anything new, as far as Doug knew.  Rail service to key locations, and limited distribution by trucks was the best option…but the product first needed to be made, and that meant raw materials to production plants.  Most raw materials came in to the plants on rail.  The problem with rail was nearly all production facilities were in the middle of cities, often in the middle of poorer, industrial areas.  A perfect setting for riots.

The Federal Government had started an aggressive new campaign to build new rail lines, also understanding the new thinking that ‘rail makes more sense’. The new lines though, wouldn’t begin to serve the small cities and towns for years.  By investing in the interstate highway system for three generations and abandoning most of the rail network, Americans would be paying a steep price. 

That price would be hunger.

Before knocking off for the day, Doug decided to make rounds through the plant, which was nearing the end of day-shift, under new management. The massive plant was capable of creating numerous products but at the moment was almost completely dedicated to creation of dehydrated drink mixes and shelf-stable foods.  Within a week the plant was scheduled to switch over to large-scale production of relief foods, in plain, military-style sealed plastic pouches. 

Doug was immediately met by the senior shift supervisor, who along with everyone else, was now wearing required hair nets, sterile smocks, gloves, and shoe covers…most missing on his previous walk-through. The supervisor, now largely free of inept workers and an overburden of non-producers, had assigned a number of the day-shift staff to cleaning the production line, top to bottom.  Second-shift would be addressing the material intake area with the same attention to detail. Third shift, the ready-delivery docks.

Within a week, Doug thought, the plant would be at production capacity under old-style thinking.  With constant improvement processes, he thought he might be able to increase production by ten or fifteen percent in a month, maybe a little more. 

By five, Doug was back in his apartment, drained.  He reviewed the dinner menu, provided in an email to the suite- and apartment-dwellers in the factory compound, and ordered the ‘special’. The meal, not typically on the menu, included a bitter herb salad with a vinagrette, lamb chops, rice pilaf, braided honey bread, applesauce with raisins, and red wine. One of the kitchen staff delivered dinner within an hour, along with a description of the significance of the Holy Thursday meal. 

As he ate, Doug was transported back to many Holy Week meals with his mother and occasionally his father, who was aboard ship most of the time it seemed.  The meals, always around the small chrome table in the kitchen, were always special and more significant to his mother than to Doug, but he never told her that.  Although he was raised in strict Catholic tradition, he had long-since fallen away from the teachings, and as he ate, he realized that he never really had an understanding of the beliefs that his mother had.  Neither he nor his father ever talked about their faith; it was simply provided to them at Mass on Sundays, and through years of Catholic school.  After dinner, Doug planted himself in an oversized recliner in front of the cable news channel, and was asleep in minutes.

April Thirteenth,
11:50 p.m.

Doug awoke with a crick in his neck and the Israeli Prime Minister shouting before a large crowd, from a live feed from Tel Aviv courtesy of a British network. He noticed that the Prime Minister, like the President a few days before, was in combat fatigues.  The crawler on the bottom of the screen had three streams running, including reports that the E.U. had voted overnight to enact crushing economic sanctions against Tel Aviv; that Brussels was demanding reparations be paid immediately to Syria; and that all diplomats from the E.U. had been recalled from the entire region.  He couldn’t remember that ever happening, anywhere.
Rubbing his neck, Doug shook off sleep and caught the broadcast in more detail.  The majority of the E.U. was going against Israel, along with virtually all of her immediate neighbors.  The cutaway to D.C. showed the lights in the West Wing burning, as well as rumors of a change in ‘Defcon status.’ The network rolled to various reporters around Washington, filling time with speculation.

Doug’s apartment phone rang at five minutes after midnight, the caller I.D. reading ‘Regent-Denver’.

“Doug Peterson,” he answered.

“Mister Peterson, please hold one moment.  You will be connected to Davis Blankenship. He is the current Vice President, Operations for the Regent Denver facility,” the woman said, not apologizing for the lateness of the call.   He was placed on hold, and took the time to mute the television.  They were either replaying video of a big Israeli tank burning furiously, or the Syrians had taken out another one. This one seemed to have a big hole melted in the side, right at the bottom of the turret.

“Mister Peterson?” a strong voice asked. Doug guessed, African-American.


“Sorry for the late call. I hope we didn’t wake you,” the man said, in a quite conciliatory tone.

“No, actually. I was watching the news.”

“Quite a bit to see there,” the man said. “I understand from the Chairman that you’re implementing a quality improvement program in Des Moines.  I’d like to see a draft of it if you wouldn’t mind.  We’re on the verge of missing expectations on delivery here in the Denver region.  I am looking for better solutions than I’m getting from my staff.”

Almost without thinking, Doug asked, “How many of them are on the full RNEW program?”

A long pause followed, before Blankenship answered. “Production line, lower echelon only.”

“Are you sure about that, sir?”

“I’m reasonably sure. Where are you going with this?”

“I’m quite green in the Des Moines plant—literally a couple of days--but I’ve seen management behavior that make me question the mental acuity of people who were placed in positions of seniority.  Most were replaced or will be soon. We had other problems here, notably a lot of favoritism, nepotism, unqualified people, that kind of thing.  I suspect though, that at least some of the problems here were related to consuming common product,” Doug said, getting no reply. He continued on.

“If there’s a test for the presence of RNEW in the body, you might check. Random urine test or whatever,” he said, again not getting a reply.  “I looked at management records today, decisions that have been made over the past several months, and then checked the personnel files of the people that made what I regarded as bad decisions. I came to the conclusion that the people that made those decisions were too smart to make the mistakes they made. Their qualifications ruled them out.”

“If they’re not taking RNEW, they shouldn’t have made those decisions? Is that what you’re saying?”

“Yes,” Doug replied without pause.

“Senior personnel are provided the Preferred line of Regent products,” Blankenship replied, with a questioning tone.

“Sure.  Provided but not required? But what if they want to take RNEW?  Do the lower echelon workers get…well, do they get ‘high’ off of RNEW?”

“No. That’s preposterous,” was the dismissive reply.

“OK, is there a particularly pleasant, if somewhat numbing feeling when on a RNEW maintenance diet?”  Doug asked, already knowing the answer.

“There is a calming effect. You’re saying that senior people are taking RNEW to get that?”

“How much stress are you putting them under? I mean, how much stress are they enduring to meet expectations? Is it reasonable? Are they used to it or have they had more stuff dumped on them?” Doug asked, again, knowing the answer.

“Everyone has had more to do,” Davis Blankenship replied, “Myself included.”

“Perhaps some of the side effect of that is staff ‘coping’ with the stress through the RNEW product line, especially if the line workers are working their asses off and are still happy as clams, while management is stressed out.”

“Have you shared this with Chairman Wilder?”

“No, it didn’t come to me until this afternoon. I’m planning on…”

“Let me take care of it, if you would. This won’t wait, and you won’t get through,” Blankenship said.  “This isn’t the conversation I’d expected, Mister Peterson.”

“Sorry about that.  I’ll send you our improvement outline as soon as I get it all on paper.”

“Appreciated.  Good night,” Blankenship said, and ended the call before Doug could reply.

‘Doug, your life would be a whole Helluva lot easier if you’d just shut your big, fat mouth,’ he said to himself, again seated in the recliner before the silent television.

Israeli air-defense missiles fired from their launchers, leaving a series of trails across the bright blue sky.  Incoming warheads tore up the horizon, chewing up the ground in an angry cloud of dirt and smoke. 
The cameraman zoomed back away from the impact area, and left the camera running as they obviously ran for cover. 

The screen went to ‘snow’ as the network lost the signal from the camera, and then went to black. 

Monday, March 5, 2012

Distance, Chapter 36


Wednesday evening
April Twelfth,
Des Moines, Iowa
6:30 p.m.

Doug had worked all afternoon with Dowling and a half-dozen underlings. Dowling hammered on some of them that were obviously far out of their depth, while Doug played ‘good cop’. Doug’s role in E Branch was ‘troubleshooter,’ based on the stack of assignments with his name on them. 

Collectively, they’d outlined a strategy to present Regent resources to the FDA—and would encourage their competition to do the same—to help the Feds with the ‘preservation of necessary regulatory oversight of the industry.’  Doug cringed inwardly at the words that he created, knowing that Regent was aiming to do just the opposite.  Rob dug deeper into non-restricted Regent personnel files, and found nearly fifty viable candidates.  The strategy was sent up the food chain for comment from Corporate.

The overall marketing strategy for RNEW was more or less running according to concept…but production was a nightmare. 

Corporate was in fact demanding numbers that could not be met with every factory in the Regent sphere of influence running twenty-four seven. Since his trip north into Wisconsin, the production requirement had increased thirty percent…twice.  The leadership in Columbus seemed to have the same understanding of simple math as the former members of Congress.  The quota was simply mathematically impossible to meet.

Distribution wasn’t much better.  Even with the new contracts to supply half of the M.R.E’s for the Federal government, massive orders for relief supplies and institutional clients, getting materials to the plants and finished goods to their points of destination was becoming a major hurdle.   Most of the shipments had historically depended on long-distance trucking.  With the skyrocketing costs of fuel and unrest spreading, over-the-road trucking wouldn’t remain viable for much longer. Freiland Trucking, one of the Regent contract carriers, had been hit hard, three times in six days. Doug put five people on finding a solution…by morning.

Staffing was a big problem, too.  Administration across RNEW was top heavy; production staff was light…this plant was no exception.  Interviews with line supervisors illustrated the universal opinion that none of them should be assigned to the production end of the business. Doug and Rob Dowling went back and forth on this…Doug finally put out the ultimatum: The company needed help in the production end of the business, and supervisory or admin staff deemed as redundant or excess would be reassigned with a slight reduction in compensation or their position would be eliminated. They could then be put first in line for production jobs….at production staff compensation rates.  If Doug had his way, the Des Moines plant would be just the first to see this change.  He decided to tour the plant to see first-hand if things really were as they seemed on paper. The tour, courtesy of one of the senior shift supervisors, was an unmitigated disaster, and Doug told the supervisor so. Back in the conference room, Doug hit that topic hard.

As the dinner hour approached, Francine Redmond interrupted the conference room meeting and brought dinner menus, printed on fancy paper and tucked into a leather portfolio. Doug was famished, but shocked at the menu. Francine waited for their order.

“OK, I know that I’m new to the Exec Branch. Is this for real?” he asked, trying not to be irritated.

“What? The menu? Sure.  Perks of the job,” Dowling replied.

“Who else in E Branch eats like this?”

“Senior staff only. Like I said, perks of the job—I’m not in E Branch, so I only dine here when a guest of E Branch. Don’t you like New York Strip steak, or the filet? The halibut is quite good too, I hear,” Rob said with a grin.

“What do the line workers get?” Doug asked, incensed. “Francine, what do you eat?”

“That menu is for executive staff only,” she replied. “I usually have a burger, chicken sandwich, wrap or soup. That kind of stuff.”

“Then that’s what we all eat. We’re a team. We work as a team, we eat the same stuff.  We tear down this wall,” Doug said, ripping the menu in half. “Pass the word.”

“Sir, that menu was sent from Columbus.  It’s their directive,” Francine said, as if warning him.

“I don’t give a damn. Where’s the kitchen?”

“Sir, I…” she started before Doug cut her off.

“Seriously,” Doug said, leaning forward.

“Mister Jennings will not approve of this, sir.”

“He can kiss my ass,” Doug answered.

“Sir, Mister Jennings is in Columbus, but this is his home plant. He’s on the board of directors!”

“And all that menu does is put bricks in a wall between production staff and management. If someone has a problem with that, they can talk to me.”  Doug figured that by eating the same food—and working in production on the floor if needed—he’d pick up some points with the employees, or get fired for the trouble, which would get him out of Regent.  “Now—take me to the kitchen.”

The shapely, overtly flexible administrative assistant led Doug to the kitchen…which in fact turned out to be an executive kitchen that was appointed with top-of-the-line everything and a dedicated staff, dutifully waiting for their orders.  Doug informed them that the executive kitchen was now closed, and that all executive staff—including visitors from Columbus—would now be taking their meals from the main cafeteria. 

That brought up a question from the lead chef, regarding the extensive kitchen inventory, which was then shown to Doug.  He thought about this for only a few moments, and remembered one of the corporate-improvement processes used at one of his former competitors.  He’d use the luxurious food for morale building while improving production efficiency…with luck.

“I want the shift supervisors from all production teams in the conference room at eight a.m., no exceptions.”

“Sir, I’d suggest the training room.  We have thirty shift supervisors.”

Doug involuntarily moved backward in surprise.  “We have three shifts. We have four production teams.  You should have twelve people to run those shifts, maybe sixteen considering spares and sick leave and cross training.  Why in God’s name do we have thirty shift supervisors?”

“It’s the Columbus model,” Rob said.

“That changes as of day shift tomorrow.  One supervisor per shift.  The spares go to line duty immediately, wherever the production manager needs them,” Rob looked at Doug with shock, and perhaps some fear. “Make it happen, Rob. I want names and personnel files of all shift supervisors and prior assignments on my desk by nine, along with every other line employee.”

“No problem,” Dowling said.

“Nine, tonight,” Doug clarified. Dowling was now much less relaxed.

Doug and Dowling had a hamburger, canned fruit salad and iced tea, with numerous stares from the cafeteria staff and several other employees who sauntered into the room, took one look and high-tailed it back to where they’d come from. 

“See that?” Doug said. “We don’t have any need for people to be doing anything but working to make this company better.”

Dowling felt better after that.  Doug headed back to the conference room as Dowling rounded up the requested files.

At seven-thirty, Doug took a break and headed back to his suite. The regular plant leadership happened to be in Columbus at a conference, and Doug’s presence seemed to stir up more than a bit of controversy, even before the shift management changes were announced.  He’d been in his room for almost a full minute before the phone rang.

“Doug Peterson,” he answered, noting that the caller I.D. stated, ‘Columbus Headquarters.’

“Tony Jennings,” the man replied, and then waited for Doug to respond.

‘Mister Jennings. What can I do for you?”

“Quit stirring up my plant, for one thing. What in Christ’s name do you think you’re doing?  You’re advanced to E Branch and two days later you’re trashing the entire production system in my home plant?” The man was obviously seething.

“Your plant is inefficient and cannot possibly come close to meeting quota given the current staffing plan.  Production quotas are increasing, labor is unmotivated, the production line is so far below a reasonable quality standard that even a cursory inspection would result in an immediate FDA shut down for health, safety and cleanliness issues. If you are the operating manager of this place, your ass ought to be fired,” Doug replied with all sincerity.

Jennings brushed him off. “You’re ordering twenty of my senior supervisors back to line duty.  I want to know why. Those men earned their place.”

“You have too many supervisors and not enough line. If these were the senior supervisors, you’d think they’d know enough to keep the line free of mouse and rat feces. You’d think they’d know that hand washing is required of employees after using the restroom.  You’d think they’d know that smoking dope on the line would result in immediate termination. You’d also think that there would be some incentive for people to actually do their job, instead of slacking.”

“Those men are friends of mine,” Jennings hissed.

“I don’t really give a damn,” Doug said. ‘In for a dime, in for a dollar’, he thought.  ‘If I’m going to make a career limiting move, this is a good start.’

“I’m ordering you to cease these changes immediately,” Jennings said.

“Fine. One phone call to the FDA, an email with photographs of the plant as of today, and they’re on this place like stink on shit.  And it’s all your problem, not mine.”

The line went dead.

Doug washed up and changed into sweats, feeling perfectly at ease with the dressing down that he’d just given a superior. The plant was a mess. He could help ‘fix’ it to the degree that he had corporate support. Without that, he couldn’t do anything.  He flipped on the flat panel television. Most of the cable offerings were repeats.  All of the news channels focused on the Middle East, with similar footage of burning Israeli tanks.  He switched the television off as someone knocked on his door. Doug looked through the small peephole.

On the other side, Francine Redmond stood expectantly.  Doug noted she’d redone her hair, and changed her blouse.  He opened the door.

“Good evening, sir.  Here are the personnel reports you asked for,” she said, flirt-mode fully engaged.  Doug noticed without noticing, that she was displaying far more cleavage than her ‘workday’ attire. He’d have to find a way to put a stop to this, diplomatically.

“Thanks, Francine. Where’s Rob?”

“I think he’s in his apartment. I volunteered to bring these over,” she said with a slight head tilt, sly smile and bedroom eyes. “In case there’s…anything else you might need,” she added, leaving no room for doubt.

“Thank you, but…I’m in a relationship,” he said quietly, showing appreciation for the offer. 

“Gotta give me credit for trying.  Besides, if you get lonely, it’s nothing serious,” she said with a warm smile.

“I’ll remember that,” Doug said, almost immediately regretting encouraging her.

The personnel files showed that fully two-thirds of the men in supervisory positions were void of qualification or training for their current jobs.  The most senior were over fifty, none with a college education, all seemed to be from the Des Moines area, four with shared surnames. Doug looked further and saw that brothers were in the plant, as well as fathers and sons, none of whom had worked for Regent until the first of January…most came on later. On further inspection, Doug saw that most of the older men came from the same high school. Probably the same school that Jennings attended…he was probably trying to look out for his friends when the economy cratered. It might have been better if he’d actually had them trained for their jobs. From the bar in the ‘living room’, he dropped two ice cubes into a cut crystal rocks glass, and poured three fingers of Bourbon.

The phone rang again, and again the Columbus caller ID came up on the screen.

“This is Doug Peterson.”

“Doug, this is Charles Wilder. I haven’t met you, but I’m CEO of Regent,” the man stated calmly.

“Nice to hear from you, sir.”

“I just got of the phone with one of my directors.  You seem to have his nuts in a vise and a blowtorch in your hand. Enlighten me, if you would.”

For ten minutes, Doug explained the results of his impromptu inspection of the Des Moines plant and the brief review of the qualifications and experience of the supervisory personnel.  He then emailed three-dozen photographs of the plant to the CEO.   The material that Doug had sent would be ‘reviewed immediately’ and ‘corrective action taken,’ since the inspection that Doug had completed was completely counter to the report that Tony Jennings had filed with Corporate.  ‘Chuck’ thanked Doug, and then thanked him again for the FDA brainstorm, and told him to be available for a conference call at nine the next morning.

Doug hung up the phone, sat back in his chair, and finished his cocktail.   He spent a few more minutes reviewing the plant staffing, finally realizing that barely five percent of the staff were minorities.  It hadn’t occurred to him earlier—it was a statistical impossibility that the racial mix of the entire Des Moines plant was so skewed relative to the urban area population. The overall diversity of the plant should have been a solid twenty-five to thirty percent minority employees…not four point nine percent.  Regent’s own policy on diversity encouraged equal representation--another strike against Des Moines leadership, which could result in negative publicity and unwanted attention.

Without historic data on the overall Regent staffing, it was impossible to tell how long the racial hiring had been going on, but it was probably a safe assumption that the change had happened recently. Any cursory review of Regent’s hiring practices by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission would have identified a systemic discriminatory hiring practice, had the EEOC been tipped off.  Now though, that commission had been disbanded as part of Federal streamlining, and no state program would likely ever take its place.  Prejudice was alive and well and thriving, it seemed.

8:40 p.m.

Doug had been mulling making the phone call all day. Finally he picked up the phone and called the Farm.

“Hello?” a strange male voice answered.

“Hi. This is Doug Peterson. Is Julie Forsythe available?”

“Please hold,” the man replied. Doug thought that it sounded like a teenager.

“Doug? Is that you?” Maria Segher answered. 

“Yes, Maria. Good to hear your voice.  Is Julie around?”

“I’m afraid not.  She’s at Peter and Molly’s, their phone is down.  Are you home?”

“Not yet.  I’m up in Des Moines. I’m hoping to be home on Friday, if work allows.”

“Good. You come by for dinner, then. It’s Good Friday.  You come for Easter service too, ya?”

“I would love to,” he said. “I’ll try to bring…”

“None of that now. You bring yourself, that is enough.”

“I’ll see you Friday.  Give Arie my regards,”

“I will do that.  You take care of yourself.  The roads are not safe.”

“Believe me. I know,” he said before saying goodnight.

After a luxuriously long shower, he poured himself a short bourbon and turned the television on again for the late news.

The lead network story was from Madison, with video of a smoking, collapsed building, fire trucks playing water over the ruins.  The reporter on scene stated that the refugee center had reported a gas leak, and most of the refugees had escaped before the devastating explosion.  Sixteen people were believed to have been killed, several city employees who were ‘trying to stop the leak’ and ‘ensure everyone’s safety.’ The ‘tragedy was just the latest to befall the City, after a devastating outbreak of influenza tore through the leadership of the City.’

The building shown on the television had been the same one that Doug had been held in.  It was not a ‘refugee center’…far from it. Kevin Martinez and Co. had apparently made good on Pete Bollard’s statement. He had no doubt that the ‘influenza outbreak’ was anything but accidental.  

Doug sat and watched the screen blankly for a few minutes, not really taking in the events in the Southwest, other than American troops scanning the Mexican frontier, now deep inside ‘old’ Mexico.   News from the Middle East and Europe brought him around.

“…massing in northern Lebanese border, with extensive overt support and backing of the United Nations.  Thirty Israeli tanks in southern Lebanon have been destroyed within the past twenty-four hours, apparently hit with some sort of ultra-fast short-range missile of unknown origin. The Israeli Defense Forces, already fully mobilized due to threats from Egypt, have now called up all civilian reserves in anticipation of full-scale war. Syria, with the recent upheaval in leadership, has fully aligned all military forces with those of Iran, sandwiching the fledgling democracy in Iraq between two radical Islamic nations.  Iraqi leaders, meeting in a secure location, struggled to mobilize defensive forces in the wake of threats made by the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. The U.N. continued to condemn Israel for ‘aggressive actions resulting in predictable escalation.’  The White House had no comment on proposed U.N. sanctions. That’s it from D.C.”

The broadcast switched back to the network feed from New York.  The anchor didn’t look familiar to Doug, and looked pretty inexperienced and edgy.

“In Europe, in disarray for months following the majority elections of predominantly Muslim leadership, pledged to help defend against any hostile Israeli attack on Islamic nations.  Thousands of protesters took to the streets and were immediately ordered back to their homes under threat of severe punishment.  The U.S. in an uncharacteristically frank statement, condemned the new European leadership publicly, and in separate communications, apparently threatened Europe with U.S. retaliation for any military action against U.S. or Israeli forces. The European Grand Ayatollah in Cordoba, Spain, condemned the United States for more than two centuries of aggression against Islam, calling for Muslims everywhere to unite behind the teachings of the Prophet and to sweep the infidel from the Earth,” the anchor said. “For analysis, we’re going to the Pentagon.”

“Thanks, Michael. We are really looking at an unprecedented alignment of nations against the United States and against Western nations in general.  Decades of in-migration of Muslims into Europe and prolific birth rates finally manifested itself this year with Sharia law in place throughout most of Europe, triggering the exodus of millions of people to Great Britain, Scandinavia, Poland and more far-flung destinations in South America and Australia.  This statement from the Grand Ayatollah is first large-scale flexing of that new power. In the past several months, most senior military officers have been replaced with new men who have pledged allegiance to the new regime. These new officers hold the keys—literally—to the military power held by Europe under the old European Union. Hundreds, if not thousands of men and women in Pentagon and in other locations have been working nonstop to understand and counteract this new threat,” the reporter stated.

“Do we know the location of the President and Vice President at this hour?” the anchor asked.

“No, we do not, officially. Both planes that serve as Air Force One are currently at Andrews, though, and Marine One is currently on standby on the South Lawn of the White House. As far as we know, the President is in residence.”

“Well I sure as Hell wouldn’t be,” Doug said to the television, immediately realizing that should the U.S. come under attack from Europe, Des Moines wouldn’t exactly be safe.

He needed to get home.