THE MESSENGER WEBISODES Episode 2.1: Wednesday, April 9, 2008

For someone who prefers not to fly to these assignments, I find myself on an airplane disturbingly often of late.  This wouldn’t be necessary if I weren’t being sent so far away each time.  Chicago.  Am I to believe that there was no one else available between Illinois and Maryland who could take this on?  Or have I been so exemplary in my work that I’m the ideal person for the job?  Flattering as that thought is, I’d just as soon have let somebody else take this one.  Once again, I’m called upon to protect a child; well, not a child exactly.  He’s sixteen.  But young enough to make the word accurate.  What bothers me is who I’m protecting him from.

If the details of my assignment are to be believed, Gregory Tallungan is on the verge of being targeted by the United States military in a bizarre black-ops maneuver to control—of all things—his high school science project.  I don’t know exactly what his science project entails, but I suspect it’s something beyond the usual boozing up of white mice or the effects of diet cola on teeth and chrome bumpers.  Knowing our beloved military machine (no offense, guys), I’m going to suspect weapons of some sort.  Though I have to wonder, what self-respecting high school science teacher would let a student experiment with weapons sophisticated enough that the military would want them?

Although the details of the project itself aren’t clear, the antagonists’ intentions are.  At the Cook County Science Fair on Friday, two high-ranking intelligence officers will be there, checking out the students’ projects.  They’ll be all smiles and sunshine, suggesting that a career in the military after high school is an excellent start for today’s new batch of young scientists.  But when they see Gregory’s project, things will take a turn.  They’ll take interest in it, too much interest.  Then they’ll take interest in him, realizing that without him, they have nothing.  Everything would be fine, if he were interested in buying what they’re selling.  But young Gregory has other ideas, and as a result, I’m sitting in an airplane, with a half a can of ginger ale and a small bag of salted pretzels in front of me.

Safely landed at O’Hare Airport, I rent a modest, nondescript car and make my way to a small hotel near Horizon Science and Technical High School on the city’s northwest side.  As I bring my suitcase into my room, I can’t shake the uneasy feeling I’ve had ever since I received this assignment last night.  Beyond the physical pain that always accompanies each new mission, this time there’s a feeling of dread.  My father always taught me to respect the government, respect the military; they’re keeping us and our country safe.  To have to treat them as a threat, as an enemy, feels disturbing.

Then there’s the practical issues of an assignment like this.  How do I, a single man in his thirties, insinuate myself into the life of a high school student?  Schools tend to frown on strangers walking in and chumming up to their students; not surprisingly, the students aren’t too keen on it either.  Hence the need for—and I can’t believe I’m using these words—a disguise.  I open my suitcase and pull out the necessary materials: a bogus photo ID, a file folder, and even a white lab coat.  Until this is over, I am William Hauptmann from the National Science Foundation, here to help young Gregory finish his science project before the fair on Friday.  And yes, for the record, it makes me feel simultaneously very stupid and very transparent.

At 3:15 p.m., I check in at the main office of Horizon High, introducing myself to the secretary as an NSF representative.  I am, of course, met with surprise and confusion.  They’re not expecting me; how could they be?  I barely had time to get my disguise together.  In no way did I have time to contact the school and tell them I was coming.  So I make a joke about bureaucracy in action and hope that my credentials look authentic enough that they’ll let me in.

“They told me Gregory’s project is quite remarkable,” I offer, “but he’s having a few challenges in getting ready for the science fair.  The Foundation believes there’s great promise here, and they want me to help your school continue its tradition of excellence in education.”

The words sound to me like total bullshit, but after years in big business, I’ve accumulated quite a vocabulary when it comes to telling people what they really want to hear.  The secretary excuses herself and goes to ask the school principal what to do.  The principal looks up at me from her desk and then converses with the secretary some more, before rising and approaching me.  “I’m Dr. Carson,” she said.

“William Hauptmann, National Science Foundation,” I reply.  “Sounds like the notification of my arrival didn’t reach you.  I’m sorry about that.”

“So you’re here to help Gregory Tallungan with his project, is that correct?”

“Yes, ma’am.  The NSF is reaching out to the most promising science students in America, supporting their studies.  We won’t do anything that compromises the integrity of the project for the fair; we understand it needs to be the student’s original work.  We’re acting in an advisory capacity.  I was informed that he spends time in a science lab here at the school each afternoon, working on the project.  I’m here to offer assistance during that time.”

Dr. Carson looks at me and then at my credentials, deciding that I am who I say I am, though I most certainly am not.  “Let me take you to the lab where he’s working.”

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THE MESSENGER WEBISODES

Episode 1.4: Tuesday, January 1, 2008

At the sound of my voice, the four of them turn and look at me.  The children, obviously conditioned to respect an authority figure, do pause in their progress toward the river.  The woman, less keen on taking one-word orders from strangers on a park bench, moves toward the children, putting herself between them and me.  It’s exactly what I would do, if I were in a position to do such a thing.

“What do you want?” the woman asks me, her voice like a can of mace held up against me.

“The river’s not safe for sledding,” I answer calmly.  “Ice isn’t thick enough.  It’s best if the children don’t take their sleds out this afternoon.”

She looks at me carefully, most likely trying to discern my motivation. “Do you work for the parks department?”

“Yes,” I reply, hoping that lends credence.

It doesn’t.  “You’re not in uniform.”

“It’s a holiday,” I tell her.  Feeble, but it’s the best I’ve got.

“Do you have identification?” she persists.

“No, not on me.  I’m not here in an official capacity.  I’m just sitting by the river.  I saw the kids with their sleds, and I spoke out in the interest of their safety.”

I watch as she thinks over my words, looking at the river, the children, me, back at the river.  She looks intelligent, so it baffles me why she would even hesitate.

One of the boys looks at her and says, “Mom, can we go or not?”

“The temperature’s been below freezing for three weeks, and there’s a solid sheet of ice on the river,” the woman says to me.  “They’ll be fine.  Go ahead.”

“Don’t go!” I warn the kids, perhaps more sternly than I should, but she’s getting on my nerves.

Clearly, the feeling is mutual, as she tells me, “Don’t you speak to my children that way!  I don’t care who you are.  It’s their day off from school, and they want to go sledding.  You step out of the way and let them go, or I’m calling the police.”

“Call them.  Call whoever you want.  Let’s get a consensus going here.  But don’t you let those kids out on that ice until you get one.  Because what I’m telling you is that if they go out there on those sleds, they’ll get maybe ten or twenty feet, and then they’ll go through that ice.”

“Mommy …” The little girl sounds scared now, which is perfectly fine by me.

Bizarrely, the woman persists.  “These are the safest sleds money can buy.”

The privileged rich.  Sometimes they make me sick, even though technically, I’m one of them.

“Are you willing to bet your children’s lives on it?”

She doesn’t answer, but I see doubt creep into her expression, and for the first time, the doubt is about the wisdom of letting these children out on the ice.

She changes tactics on me.  “Who are you?”

“Someone who wants to help.  Someone who means you and your children no harm at all.  Someone who, all things being equal, would rather be at home where it’s warm, reading a book or watching a football game.”

“Then why are you here?”

“Because if I weren’t, somebody could get hurt or killed.”

“Somebody?” she repeats.

I point to the children discreetly.

“So you’re saying you came here on your day off—”

“It’s not a day off.  I don’t work for the parks department.  I said that in the hope that you’d believe me.”

“So you came here because you thought somebody might come out to this particular stretch of the Charles River and fall through the ice.”

I sigh in frustration.  Contradicting her again will only strain the already strained belief she barely has, but I’m in this now, and it’s time to show all my cards.  “No.  I came here—I was sent here—because those children, your children were going to go out on that ice, and they were going to fall through.  Not might.  Were.  Unless I came here and told you this.  Now, if you want to call the police or the parks department or the weather guy from channel 2, go ahead.  I’ll even lend you my phone.  But if you let your children go sledding, I can’t go out there and rescue them.  All I can do is stay here on the bank with you and watch them drown.”

Like the fragile ice itself, I watch as her suspicion begins to melt.  “Who are you?” she asks.

It’s a question I never relish answering.  In a few minutes, she and I will never see each other again, so my name carries no relevance.  “I’m a messenger, and this was my message for today.  Somebody wanted these children to live, so I was told to come here and do everything I could to make that happen.”

“Do I … owe you anything?  Is there something I have to do?”

“That’s between you and whatever you believe in.  If there’s somebody or something you want to thank, you can do that.  Right now, the only thing you need to do is get the kids back in the car; maybe find a nice, safe hill somewhere they can sled down.”

With that, I turn to leave and take a few steps toward the car.  The difficulty I faced in performing this simple task leaves me feeling frustrated.  To my surprise, she calls out to me.  “Wait.”

I turn and face her again.  She says, “You just saved the lives of three children.  Why do you look so unhappy?”

All I can tell her is the truth: “If I knew why I look so unhappy, then I wouldn’t look so unhappy.”

Now my mission is over.  I get to return my rental car, fly home, and wait for the next jolt of pain to disrupt my life.  And three children get to go to school tomorrow.  Happy New Year indeed.