Saturday, July 8, 2017
He felt like a father figure when they talked on the morning bus from Kanata. They usually got a seat together because they were first at the park n ride which took them downtown, he to the headquarters of National Defence, she to the waitress job at the hotel. They were actually close in age, he, the married father of two, almost bursting his uniform buttons from the desk job, she, the single mother of three, a kind of speed freak, the kind of person who couldn’t gain a pound if she tried. Lady Madonna. His was an understated importance in the military. He got used to deflecting direct questions about it. The odd time it required a quiet “secret” to a persistent questioner, but mostly “bureaucratic stuff” or “paperwork” covered it. She diplomatically changed the subject when she felt they had entered forbidden territory in their morning conversations. Her son, Chris, was the usual topic of conversation anyway. He had just joined the army. The other kids were still in school and she was glad to see Chris do something. The dead end jobs and bleak prospects were too much. Even if it seemed crazy once, now it made more sense for him to join the army. He highly recommended it though he was privately glad that Danny, his eldest son, had avoided the army and gone on to play football for the university. She felt better when he praised the discipline and character the military instilled in young men. And she did see a difference in Chris when he came home on his first leave. In fact, he looked better than he had in years. She still couldn’t imagine anyone getting him up at 5 AM never mind all the other stuff they made them do. Some mornings, especially in winter when the outside world was still dark, they lapsed into long silences, each contemplating the day ahead as the bus carried them into the city. When spring turned to summer, the sun rose every morning over the fields on either side of the six lane highway and they chatted about Chris’s latest adventure in the army. One day that summer he had endured a hard shift at his computer, fielding access to information requests, filling in for annual vacations being taken, when she saw him on the same express bus going home to Kanata. They stood all the way, hanging on, the bus packed with people. She told him that Chris’s unit was going to Afghanistan next month. In herself, she wasn’t sure about Chris’s gung ho attitude and she definitely didn’t trust the government mouthpieces. The more they praised it, the less confidence she had. But Chris said when you sign up, that’s it, no more choice, you have to do what you’re told. So he was going. She allowed herself a little touch of pride when she told him, grateful to see that he was impressed. He made a mental note to see which units were about to be rotated to Afghanistan as he walked across the lobby of DND. Captain Rogers, that little bastard from RMC. will be there this afternoon. Everyone will think the superior officer is monitoring his new crew but the jumped up little bastard will really be there to learn something. He knew nothing about public relations and the information wars. And they had put him in command of the whole bunch of them, the information warriors. Not a clue, hadn’t ever worked behind the scenes where the real fights were fought. Someone had enough drag to promote him fresh out of university, young and confident, but lacking the one thing necessary in this business, experience. You had to know the law to a point, but it was mostly experience. Almost a gut instinct. What the public will swallow, what it won’t. What to hide and what to offer. Only learned by experience. He could see the little bastard at the back of the room, watching while he led the classroom full of future intelligence officers through the basics of the trade. It was policy now to immerse the new ones in as much of the machinery as possible before they were sent out into the world. “Embedded reporters are no problem” he crossed out the words on the blackboard. “A one way ticket home will not be questioned by headquarters if it is necessary. Sometimes, not often, but sometimes, they get out there and go a little crazy. Not sure if it’s too much of that Afghani hash or what” It brought the usual chuckle. “Anyway, ‘operational security’ is a good enough reason if they get out of line. If we see bad news here, news that hasn’t been approved, they’ll be on their way home and somebody over there will be in deep shit” He enjoyed using the word because it always brought a further chuckle from his audience. It also drew a silent, disapproving frown from the little bastard at the back. He was good at what he did so he was given free reign in these sessions with intelligence officers, diplomats and spin doctors of the future. The younger people related to his intelligent but homey style. They loved his forays into irreverence. “This” he held the paper up between two fingers, at arm’s length, with a distasteful expression “is an access to information request form. There is a standing order, unspoken and unwritten, of course, that the first one gets shitcanned. Maybe even the second one. If they’re persistent and keep after the information, there are a whole bunch of lawyers who you’ll probably meet later, who’ll take over. They have lots of ways to delay it. But if they’re that persistent, hey, my personal advice to you is, cover your ass first. Get your commanding officer or somebody above you to contact the lawyers. Believe me, when they’re really persistent, really determined, it’s best to get away from it” An appreciative grunt came from the audience as if they’d suspected that all along. The little bastard’s frown deepened at the back. He got up and slipped out. She sat with him on the express downtown on the Friday before Labour Day. They chatted mostly about her job, some of the crazy tourists she saw, how glad she was that the busy season was almost over, the restaurant was always so hectic. She had to work through the weekend. The busiest time, the most tips. The tips paid for the sitter and more. He admired her pluckiness and inexhaustible energy. He had Billy to register in his hockey league, his wife had Becky. He also had the shopping to do and the lawn to cut. And maybe a little time for some beer and CFL football. They said goodbye when he stood up so she could get out on Laurier Ave, one stop before his. He awoke with adrenalin coursing through him, his heart beating fast. The phone. His wife interrupted her snoring with a complaining grunt. He picked up the receiver. “Hello” “Deaver?” “Yes, who’s this?” “It’s Briggs, Deaver” General Briggs. What the hell did he want? “Sorry to wake you, Deaver, but we’ve got a problem” “No, no, it’s okay, sir. What problem?” “There’s been some soldiers killed and wounded in Kandahar. We don’t have all the details but it’s bad. We need someone senior in the office. Now. Tonight” A pause. “The press has some of the story, Deaver. They don’t have all of it and we need time” “Ok, sir. I’ll go down in my car. It’ll take me about an hour” “Good man, Deaver. Everyone’s on vacation. We can’t have the press talking to that crew that’s there now. They’re all recruits or temps. Call me at home when you’re there. You might have to write a press release but use operational security as much as you like. Talk to you soon” “What about Captain Rogers, sir?” “I’ve already talked to him. I know you guys were pissed off that he got made up to your commanding officer right after graduation. He’ll stay out of your hair. I made it clear that you’ll be in charge for this crisis. We’ll probably have to give details by Tuesday, after we tell the families. You know what to do. Don’t give em a thing till you hear from me. I’ve got to go, Deaver, call me” He showed his id to the soldier at the entrance to the underground parking where a burly sergeant with a sidearm met him. Another soldier parked his car and he was escorted by the sergeant up to the ninth floor office. If the man had heard anything, he showed no emotion, said nothing. Mayotte, Ryan and Dupuis, three raw recruits who were manning the office for the long weekend, looked up as he walked in. He wasn’t in uniform and they didn’t have their hats on but they stood up as he entered. “As you were, gentlemen,” They sat down and watched him as he turned on the screen on his desk and read. When he twirled around he spoke directly to Dupuis in a low, steady voice, “I want the numbers on how many allied forces have been killed by the American Air Force in Afghanistan. Injured too, if you can get it.” Dupuis looked up from writing on a pad. His stubble cut was growing in. He spoke with earnest young eyes, “It’s not the kind of information the US military is likely to give up, sir” His mind was racing as he called General Briggs. “No, you probably won’t get anything out of them, try NATO, try the armies, try the governments, see what you can find. We may not need it right now, but I want it, in case” “Briggs” “Hello sir, I’m here. It looks bad. Two killed, a couple seriously wounded and some walking wounded. They’ll be out of commission for a while. The report says friendly fire” “Shit. Americans?” “It looks like it, sir” “What the hell are they doing? Something’s wrong there. This is ridiculous” “Some good news though, sir, no reporters” “Good, that’s a relief. There are some press reports but they’re vague. Ok, Deaver, I’ll be in touch. You know what to do. I’ll get back to you when I hear how they want to handle this. Good luck” “Thanks, bye sir” He turned to address the others. “Ok. We’ve got a few hours. Then the phones are going to start ringing. It’ll be the media. I’m going to write down five talking points. Make a copy and as you answer the calls, stick strictly to the script” Mayotte and Ryan watched him with expressions like Danny’s, wide eyed, almost innocent, respectful. They were Danny’s age or younger, Ryan still with a bad case of acne. He wrote out the points he wanted them to follow when dealing with the media...basically, tell them nothing. He gave them a lecture on the importance of shitcanning the first access to information requests about this incident and told them to pass it on to whoever relieved them. Who knew how long this would go on? The first few days of vagueness and saying nothing were necessary in order to give them time. It looked bad but maybe it could be massaged, manipulated, fed to the public slowly so it didn’t look so bad. He spent the rest of the night answering nervous phone calls from General Briggs and drafting a press release which showed the military was on top of the situation. When the day shift, such as it was, arrived, called in from cottages and parties celebrating the end of summer, he ate breakfast alone in the food court across in the Rideau Centre and called home to rearrange his schedule. His wife was angry but she would cope. He might be home in the afternoon. He and his counterpart, Captain Shields, were constantly busy talking to officers who called or showed up when they heard. Their computer reports didn’t really communicate the tragedy like talking to another person did. Especially someone like him, someone right in the heart of the crisis. Finally, after innumerable conversations which he couldn’t avoid and two meetings with the staff at which he emphasized the importance of secrecy, General Briggs ordered him to go home, get a shit, shower and shave, and return to the office, in uniform, for however long it took. So far there were no big problems but a situation like this could turn volatile at any time. He resigned himself to a lost weekend as he pulled out of the parking garage and adjusted the radio. When he stopped for the light at Laurier and Elgin, there she was. She was looking straight at him from the bus stop. He pulled over when he was through the light and waited until she ran to the car and jumped into the passenger seat. She was surprised to see him downtown on a weekend but glad for the lift. The shift had been exhausting and she was ready for a rest. She chatted on as they approached the Queensway, quieted down while he negotiated the ramp and speeding traffic. When they were safely traveling in the middle lane, she told him that she had just gotten an email from Chris, that he had been made a corporal. “Corporal Chris Defalco” she said with a laugh. “Defalco? That’s not your name. Isn’t it Mackenzie?” he said with s glance at her. He could feel it burn through his breast pocket. His hand involuntarily rubbed it. He felt sick. She stared at the line of cars ahead, said that Chris had kept his father’s name and that she had gone back to her own. She looked over at him. “Your eye. Something in it?” she watched the tear run down his face. “Yeah, yeah” he reached blindly for a tissue below the dash. She handed him a tissue. He wiped his eye. “Something blew in the window...” he rolled up his window a few inches. They drove in silence as the Queensway climbed the hill to the Kanata park n ride. “Thanks for the lift, Captain Deaver, see you Tuesday morning” she shut the door and walked to her car. “See you Mrs Mackenzie” He pretended to look into his eye in the mirror as her car passed behind him. They waved goodbye. He turned the key. The car stopped, the radio played. Lady Madonna. He fished the list out of his breast pocket, unfolded it slowly. At the bottom. Names of the dead. Corporal Chris Defalco. He leaned his forehead on the steering wheel and wept.