Sunday, April 11, 2010

An incomplete work of fiction

This has nothing really to do with the struggle over power in the corporate suites. Just a bit of fiction I started on a while back. I think I'll post it here just for fun.

The Flight From East Africa


In the Ratskeller, below Champlain Hall, on the campus of Aquinas College, sometime in the early 1970s.

This was before anybody cared that students were smoking in a campus facility. This was also before anybody cared very much whether the freshmen with steins of beer at their tables were below 18 years.

Two young men and a young woman sat at one table. One of the men was Karol Wozniek, a philosophy major. He was expounding about how the rest of the room disappeared once he closed his eyes. Gladys laughed a little at this, enjoying the paradox of it.

But the third at the table, Hank Wagner, didn’t laugh at all. He found the idea repulsive. He said, “I dare you to close your eyes for five seconds, then open them and tell me that again!”

Wozniek obliged, closing his eyes while continuing to expound on Berkeleyan themes. When he opened his eyes at last, his stein had been emptied of its contents.

“Well, there was some sort of disappearance after all,” said Hank, wiping mysterious drabs of beer off the left corner of his mouth. “Congratulations on the confirmation of your theory.” At this, Gladys’s laughter resumed, and Karol shrugged elaborately. With perhaps a bit too much of a flourish for the moment, he headed back to the counter for a refill.

Act One: Twenty Years Later

“What was her name? The girl who never dreamt?”


“Do you really think she never dreamt?”

“None of us had the dreams we claimed to have. It was just the way we threw the shit around. We’d hoist a beer at the Rat, much like we’re doing at this dive now, and ask each other ‘had any dreams lately’ and compete for who pretended to have had the wildest one. I remember you once claimed to have had a dream in which you were a gnat flying out of a monkey’s butt. You made quite the elaborate story out of your emergence from the ‘stinking tunnel of a simian colon.’ Isn’t that how you put it? Nobody could top that.”

“I said stinking corridor of a simian colon, balancing the sibilance of the ‘s’ adjectives with the alliteration of the ‘c’ nouns. Anyway, there were wilder dream reports as our little tradition matured….”

“And we refused to,” the friend chimed in.

The bartender came by – our scene is set at Joyce’s pub, midtown Manhattan, and this conversation took place sometime in the 1990s. We don’t need to be specific. But by this time in history a customer who wanted to light a cigarette was expected to step outside.

Joyce is a self-consciously Irish place with d├ęcor of shamrocks, and for historical significance the wall to the left of the bar holds up a framed faded newspaper that describes the rebellion of 1916.

And the two friends? The one who once dreamt – or claimed to have dreamt – that he was a gnat is the chief subject of our inquiry. He’s Hank Wagner. The same – insofar as one is “the same” after the passage of twenty years anyway – as the philosopher’s nemesis of our preface. Karol isn’t in this scene, though. The old college drinking buddy with whom Hank is holding this impromptu reunion is Ishmael. Or we’ll call him that.

And Hank didn’t want to leave the memory of Gladys, or of the early 1970s, alone just yet.

“So, do you think she always said that she had no dreams because that was her way of bullshitting the rest of us?”

“OOOH, she was cute, wasn’t she?”

“Ish, please. Cute is an understatement.”

“Anyway,” said Ish, “enough about old times. I’ve got a tip for you.”

“Everybody’s got a tip for me,” Hank said, sounding tired.

I should mention here that after he and Ishmael, and Gladys, and Karol, and the whole rest of the crowd had all graduated, Hank got a job as a reporter. He soon had the grand title of “East Africa Bureau Chief” for World Press. The grandness of the title was misleading. There was hardly any such thing as World Press. There was a dreamer in New York who thought he could beat the AP and Reuters with a start-up, so he created WP. He hired gullible but bright young men and women and sent them to distant places with high-falutin’ titles like that and little else. Then he gave himself the task of marketing whatever they wrote.

So Hank was the whole of the East Africa Bureau, the poobah of a tiny office in Nairobi, Kenya.

There came a day when Israel raided Entebbe airport in Uganda, and there came the following day, when the dreamer in New York got on the phone, “Amin is the story, fool! Who ever told you to go to Kenya?”

So the East Africa bureau moved to Uganda, and endured tedious weeks of getting the proper credentials, in time becoming one of the elite members of the press corps entitled to hang around waiting for Amin or some flunky to make a statement or for the flunky’s flunky to hand one out in writing.

Wagner was tall and thin in those days. He looked like a basketball player – indeed, he looked a bit like Larry Bird. And the press corps attached to the Presidential palace often played pick-up basketball – somebody had attached a basket to a lamp out in the parking lot they used. When they were bored and the mosquitos weren’t too punishing – the former condition was constant, the latter was rare – they’d go at it.

And so it was that President Amin, in high spirits after some diplomatic coup in March 1977, walked out of the palace, saw a game underway, and shouted before anyone realized he was there, “Who wants to take me on?”

Nobody stepped forward, but someone did bounce the basketball in Amin’s direction. The dictator laughed, picked it up, and threw it, more or less at random. It hit Hank in the gut. Hank was chosen.

So it was that the two men played one on one. Amin scored a couple of quick baskets, and laughed. “These white boys aren’t so tough. I’ll give you one more time,” he said, and tossed the ball back to Hank’s gut.

Hank dribbled and walked forward, and Amin stretched out his arm to steal the ball. Hank slipped, the ball escaped from both of them, but before anybody knew exactly what had happened, Hank again had the ball, and was two steps closer to the basket than Amin. The credentialed photographers in the group saw what was happening and got their cameras ready.

Hank’s bloodstream filled up with adrenaline and his brain told itself, “I’m only going to have one shot at this.” He jumped, managed a perfect dunk for the only time in his life, and about fifteen flashbulbs seemed to go off at once.

The best of the resulting photos was the one that showed not only Hank, the ball, and the basket – but Idi Amin to the side, with what looked like grudging admiration on his face. That photo was on the front pages of newspapers around the world the next day. And the caption usually read: “World Press’ East Africa Bureau Chief, Hank Wagner, scores against Idi Amin.” World Press was … a real news agency. And he was its star.

In another two years, the East Africa Bureau was a real bureau, with offices in Kampala, Nairobi, and Mogadishu. That was when Uganda went to war with Tanzania over the disputed Kagera province. The notoriety won him by that basketball shot made Hank the recipient of valuable tips from leakers within both governments, and his bureau was unique among competitors in being able to wire New York about the crucial battles as they were underway – AP didn’t know about them until its beavers read about them in WP stories.

Amin fled Uganda in April 1979, and as the new Tanzania-supported government took power, Hank thought that a part of his life was over; a story that he had been immersed in telling had come to its end. He asked for re-assignment in New York.

In later years he would come to regret this. There were surely other stories to be told in East Africa. He could have stayed and continued to tell them. Instead, he was sending out assignments to the tellers of such tales, and fending off people who opened conversations with “I’ve got a hot tip for you,” since the leads they gave generally turned out to be crusts of bread long since eaten by the birds of the competition.

And he didn’t like being the guy in the newsroom who kept telling the same old stories. There was that time in 1991 when the regime of the Ethiopian dictator, Mengistu, was falling apart. Unfortunately, on the day that Mengistu fled the country, the AP had the story first. Hank started to say, “I remember when the AP got its news from East Africa by reading the WP’s dispatches.” But by the time he uttered the words “news from” a crowd of people around him was nodding in tired unison and then they all said as a chorus, “by reading the WP’s dispatches.”

But there was another strand of reaction by now. He sometimes wrote his own obituary in his mind. In the lead paragraph, Hank knew, he would be described as the reporter who once played one-on-one basketball with Idi Amin. No administrative excellence in his current duties – nothing he could do about Mengistu – would change that. He’d have to involve himself with something really big to get Amin out of the lead of his own obit.

So when, at Joyce’s pub, Ishmael said “I’ve got a tip for you,” Hank had two very distinct first reactions. The one that won out was to clutch at a chance for something new and big. He remembered Ishmael as a natural linguist who had astonished the Russian-language department of Aquinas College. He must have something in mind.

Act Two: The Simian Colon Again

So it was that a major New York publishing house invested a considerable sum (get a plausible number) into a publicity campaign for the forthcoming book, The Wartime Diary of Josef Stalin. Stalin’s account of events in his original Russian ran on the left hand side of each page. On the right hand side was an English translation. In the back of the book there was an extensive commentary by a team of distinguished scholars of Soviet history and military affairs.

Did the diaries tell the world anything new? They proved, sometimes in very colorful language, that Stalin was contemptuous of his allies, especially the English-speaking ones: Roosevelt, “a cripple, a dandy, and a fool,” Churchill, “afraid to get his sleeves dirty on the beaches of France – the invasion they keep promising will never come off.” Stalin thought DeGaulle a “rather clever little monkey” but planned to have him shot when the war was over – surely the French Communists would take over after that country’s liberation from the Nazis and the new government would take Moscow’s instructions in such matters.

All this was a bit disappointing. Though the language was colorful, nobody had previously thought that Stalin admired any of those folks – no wagons were toppled by such revelations.

A bit more novel were those portions of the diaries in which Stalin speculated about post-War China. It was clear from the diaries that he did not believe that Mao led a tenable Communist movement, and he anticipated the shriveling of Mao’s rural power base once the war was over. The Stalin of these diaries anticipated a friendly post-war relationship between the Soviet Union and the Nationalist government in China.

The book hit bookstores (Amazon dotcom existed, but was very new and had little following as of yet – old-fashioned brick-and-mortar stores were still employed in the marketing of books) on a Tuesday, and the first printing was sold out by Friday. That was a heady week for Hank. In front of the book there was an essay with his name attached to it on the historical significance of this discovery, which he modestly refrained from calling “my” discovery.

He was no longer “that guy who went one-on-one with Amin years ago.” His obituary would start with something else.

That weekend, four days after the publication date, the AP ran a story with a headline that reflected typical wire service caution – but that may have reflected, as well, some institutional memory of the days when the AP had to learn about battles by reading the despatches of a man who had gotten lucky on an improvised basketball court. The headline read: “Questions Raised About Stalin Dialect and Diary.”

Stalin, of course, was a Georgian, and had grown up speaking Russian as a second language. If this diary was really a personal journal, wouldn’t he have written it in Georgian? That’s the chief question the AP reporter had posed to several historical and lingual experts. None of the experts found it extraordinary that the diaries were written in Russian. The best the AP guy could get out of them was some skepticism about the lack of dialect. Georgians speak and write Russian, when they do, in a distinctive regional manner – they don’t use the same Russian as one would use if one had been brought up in Moscow or Leningrad. Or if one had been a diligent student of Russian in an American college. Stalin seemed unlikely as the author of the Russian of these diaries.

Hank met Ish later that day at Joyce’s, and they dug into their corned beef while Ish explained why it was of no significance.

“Many Georgians of Stalin’s generation felt inferiority in the face of Russians. It’s a common phenomenon. Those who grow up on the edge of an empire, even the crumbling Czarist empire, envy and wish to emulate those at the center. He composed his diary in the language that he knew Lenin would have used, and that the deposed but grudgingly admired Trotsky would have used.”

This made sense. And Ish, after all, was the language expert.

Hank appeared on Meet the Press later that week and gave just that answer. He came in for more skepticism than he had expected. Even earlier episodes in his career came up for not-so-friendly discussion.

“You’ve always said that when Amin came out to play basketball, it was because he had just scored a diplomatic coup, so he was in high spirits.”


“What was that diplomatic coup? Wasn’t it your job to find that out? Did the basketball game help you in that endeavor?”

Hank started to explain about the rotating chairmanship of the Organization of African Unity.

“Let me interrupt you before the glaze on our eyes becomes terminal,” said the host, “We have to go to commercial break. Then we’ll come back and talk about how strangely unrevealing these diaries have turned out to be.”

The public response to the diaries turned nasty after the broadcast of that show. And oddly enough Ish disappeared. Hank continued to make public appearances, defending the authenticity of the documents. Eventually, though, the publishing company agreed to let a laboratory test a tiny slice of the paper the diaries were written on. By this time….


Two security guards came to ‘help’ him out of the building. The younger one was rather full of himself – and his face was unknown to Hank. The older guard had been hired about a year after a certain photograph of a basketball dunk had become world renowned. The dreamer/founder of WP had by that point taken the title “chairman of the board,” taken up golf, and was letting a professional management team run things. The managers decided to “optimize the opportunities for exploitation of this fortuitous exposure” and had moved themselves into a big new headquarters building, one big enough to call for security guards and cameras for them to monitor. Siegfried’s career had begun then.

“Let’s go sir,” the younger guard was saying. “ Haven’t you packed everything up yet? You don’t want to keep everyone waiting. Somebody else will be using this room,” and so forth.

Hank finished filling up his cardboard box in his own time, and spoke to the older guard in words he had heard in an old movie, last seen many years before. “Teach your friend some manners, Siegfried. Without me there wouldn’t be a WP.”

The older guard smiled, either approving of the sentiment or just recognizing the Norma Desmond reference.

Act Three: Our Resolution

Days after his quick expulsion from the offices of WP Hank answered a telephone call. He had been receiving hundreds of calls, almost all of them from lunatics. Some thought he was a pro-Stalinist dupe. Some thought he had invented the diaries himself out of a vicious hatred of all things Russian. Or Georgian. Or socialist. Some demanded he ‘do the honorable thing’ – brace a hand gun carefully in your ear and fire, was the most common suggestion. Yet others offered to help with that. He of course made no response to such calls.

But to this one he did reply. It was from Karol Wozniek, the one-time philosophy major. Wozniek had sounded friendly, and it would be a shame to ignore an offer of friendship at such a time.

The exchange went thus:

“Are you looking for work, or are you going to take time off and live a life of leisure?”

“I don’t do leisure.”

“Do you happen to know the name of the new chief executive of the Associated Press?”

“I remember when the AP had to get … um, no. No, I don’t. I think I saw a brief mention of her. Kerrapith?”

“Kerrapith, yes. But you probably remember her as … Gladys.”

Hank was stunned.

“She could use an experienced hand in her East Africa bureau. Somalian pirates, you know. Somebody has to tell the story.”

“I’ve been away from East Africa for a long long time.”

“Yes, you have. All I can tell you about East Africa today is … well, something you taught me long ago.”

Hank waited for the punch line, determined to say nothing.

“Things don’t disappear just because you’re no longer looking at them.”

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