Friday, June 01, 2007

Least Favorite Ingredient

When I was still reporting a few years ago (god has it been that long?) I was sent to a factory that sits high on a bank of the Mississippi River in Keokuk, Iowa, a crappy little town on the Southeastern tip of the state. I saw this foreboding yet bland blonde-bricked structure a couple hundred times since I moved to the area, but I never really noticed it. Every time you cross the bridge from Illinois into Iowa, there it sits puffing out smoke from its stacks, aloof and safe behind miles of chain link fence topped with barbed wire. I never wondered why a factory would need such security, with guards at the front gate and at every break in the fence. They were not friendly in general, but they were particularly unfriendly on this day. The story I was there to cover was an explosion at the plant and word on the street was that someone got hurt.
“Can I ask what you’re doing here?” Cocksure as he was, I decided to respond without sarcasm.
“We heard scanner traffic about an explosion here something about an injury. We’re here to see what happened.” I was sweet as pie, smiling even.
“There is no news story here,” he chuckled “why don’t you go on back to Quincy-nothin’s going on here.”
And thus sarcasm ….
“Sir, I am sure that in your capacity as a security guard your news judgement is impeccable and that you might think you know better than me what constitutes news from the perspective of that little box you sit in every day. But from where I stand I think it would be in this plant’s best interest to set to ease the minds of the gossiping masses in this town as to what has happened here today….” Meaningful pause….”Especially since everyone knows that a major explosion here could potentially level half of Keokuk.”
It was true. In all the little towns along the Mississippi the people who live there add danger to their lived in the absence of actual crime with the knowledge that doom lurks in those big grain silos on the river. They could blow up at any minute and take out one half to an entire town- depending on the town’s size. The grain is kept dry to keep it from rotting and it heats from a little fermentation and the friction of movement in those sun-baked silos. Any good ol’ boy in any of these towns will indoctrinate newcomers with this unsettling news. One spark and it’s all over for Keokuk, or La Grange, or Clarksville, or Myer, or Hamilton, or Hannibal. They’d never knew what hit them- like an atomic bomb, sort of.
Sure the factories say it ain’t so…but we know better.
Anyway, I was told to leave and that I was not allowed on the grounds of the plant and that no one was making a comment. Fine, I expected that.
So my photographer and I drove around the perimeter, along a river bottom road, and found a little gap in the fence, drove in and saw the fire engine, lights and all, down one of the roads in the complex. Ray is getting a ground level long shot, and I see a security guy in a golf cart coming at us- a different one from Mr. Newsman at the front gate. I chat with him and stall while Ray pretends to be turning his camera off, rolling the whole time. I tell the guy I thought we were off the actual property since there wasn’t much of a gate by the river dock….So we get thrown out again with specific instructions not to even step on the green grass on the other side of the fence since that is their property, too. We were only legally able to shoot from the street- from where you could see nothing. Of course we got plenty of shots of Mr. Newsman (from the street mind you) and made him a ten second celebrity against his wishes.
Eventually I got through to the CEO in Charge of Damage Control for the plant by telephone. He sounded like a PR guy hired by the KGB. “One man injured slightly in stable condition in an explosion that was very minor in a maintenance shed on the grounds.”
No big deal, but everyone was talking about it and exaggerating it so we need to set the record straight- I thanked him for his time and the information.
“So tell me, what is it exactly that you make here at Rochette America?” I asked.
“Corn syrup.”

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