My death was foretold but not foreseen. One moment, I was in my office skittering about the Internet and reviewing the electronic debris of the day and the next I was dead. Or, at least, I should have been dead.
Therein, there lies a tale.
When I informed my family we were standing in our kitchen having a family hug. I had requested the hug. And as I held them, my wife, my 12-year-old son and my 10-year-old daughter, I told them about my death. The hug exploded. I became a sun around which the planets of my family revolved. My wife looked fearful as if armed men might crash into our home to complete the job. My son was immediately intrigued by the prospect of death coursing so close to his personal space. My daughter reacted with excited skepticism. There was a clatter of voices and questions I could not answer.
My own questions had answers but not simple ones. What had brought me to this moment that I could be an observer at my own death? How had I taken this path? How would I react? Would I humiliate myself with excess piety or renounce my carefully tended habits or forego eating the flesh of other animals? Would I find golf and television and movies and music, my primary forms of entertainment, tinny and false now that death has spread a darkened wing upon my world? Would my appetite for risk and my search for adventure and meaning end? Would I become another man other than the one standing in my shoes? Would the rest of my years play like a coda to the 42 I had already passed? Would fear find me a willing partner and haunt my every decision about rollerblades and the stock market and beef steaks and martinis and boarding airplanes in bad weather? Could I now admit to myself that I saw it coming? Could I admit to those closest to me that I felt their own fears and disapproval about my plans? Would I be able to write or think without hearing remnants of this event ringing like a tuning fork held close to my ear?
Most of the breaths I have drawn have been of Southern air. I was born in the mountains of East Tennessee, far from the cities that would hold my interest as an adult. I came of age in the public schools but my primary education came on a 200-acre family farm in Southwest Virginia and on an eight-acre farm that became my mother and father’s homestead in Mount Carmel, Tennessee. The first year of my life was lived in a simple white house on the big farm.
Our next house was on the small farm. It was a simple country home with a dirt-floor basement dug under one end, a well that pumped clear spring water from deep in the earth and three bedrooms, one for my mother and father, one for my brother and I and another for my sister. Our bedroom was in the back corner of the house and required us to walk through either our sister’s or parent’s bedroom to rejoin the rest of the house. In the summer, I would lay a pillow in the windowsill at the foot of my bed and open the window so that I could have a relatively unobstructed view of the night sky. For hours I would watch the sky looking for shooting stars. I would identify constellations with the aid of a flashlight covered with a red gel and a map of the heavens taken from one of my uncle’s back editions of National Geographic.
I developed the workaholic tendencies that I still have today. I joined the band in the fourth grade and selected the trumpet as my instrument of choice. Band practice after school beginning in the seventh grade was a respite from the work of the farm. I would come in from school, lugging my books and trumpet up our long, unpaved driveway, stop for a snack in our country kitchen and then go out the back door to feed animals or work in the garden or tend to the other crops and chores. My father kept a large garden and a few cattle on our small farm. And he and his three brothers and one sister were expected to work at the big farm on weekends and even during the week during the harvest. We once had 66 pigs and hogs on the little farm in addition to the other agricultural enterprises that once included two acres of yellow squash that had to be picked daily and taken to a local cooperative to sell. After dark, it was homework and a bath and then to bed to rest before the next days school and work.
Woven tightly into our daily schedule was love and laughter and sacrifice. My mother and father had to sacrifice and struggle for everything they provided us. My silver trumpet alone was a tremendous sacrifice of several hundred dollars. Braces on my teeth required the sacrifice, literally and figuratively, of a pick-up truckload of steers. My father worked the graveyard shift at the plant going to work at around midnight and returning early the next morning to eat breakfast and begin his day’s work on the farm or farms. My mother worked in the home and fields and cooked and cleaned and washed clothes until she was exhausted. The fact that we were cash poor was impossible to detect at the dinner table where it looked as if we had robbed a produce truck. Fresh vegetables of every description, often a platter of steaks, or pork chops or a fried chicken and, almost always, fresh biscuits or cornbread or any of a dozen other magnificent concoctions for which my mother remains famous in our community even today. Sunday was for church or rest but somehow rest could sometimes include minor farm chores and, in the case of milking cows, the Sabbath was not sacred. And, in the specific case of the Southern Baptist tradition, going to Church was very much like going to work except you paid for the honor. Sunday School followed by a worship service often followed by a luncheon. A few hours at home and then back for choir practice or what was called a Prayer Meeting.
It was during this time I developed several traits that would serve me well and ill throughout my life, ultimately leading me to my self-observed death surrounded by equatorial jungles. I developed a curiosity for technology. This expressed itself in the 35 millimeter camera I bought and the darkroom I built in our dirt basement. I spent every dollar I made bailing hay or working on other farms and every dime I got from my parents on bulk film, chemicals and photographic paper. I longed for finery and things of luxury. My father came to call this my “Champagne taste on a beer budget.” I was infected with wanderlust. I developed a love of travel both mental and corporeal. I loved to be on the move even when I had never journeyed farther than my grandfathers orange groves in Florida. And I spent night after night lying on my back watching the stars. These tastes and traits began to combine themselves into my own ethic. With the help of my best friend, we built a very fine telescope by ordering parts from the Edmund Scientific Catalog and grinding the mirror ourselves. I began to sell photographs to local newspapers. I now had an excuse for my frequent photo expeditions that I took on foot, by bicycle and, when I finally acquired a car, as far as it would safely take me. When I proved to be a very literal photographer I began to write to express myself. This caused amazement to those around me who could still remember my struggles with spelling, grammar and the threats required to make me write even the most modest of school assignments.
The discipline of the farm, my mother and father’s personal example and, I believe, the influence of learning to play music somehow rewired my brain completely and created an unquenchable thirst for knowledge. This has primarily expressed itself in the form of reading and writing. I read without ceasing and have now for about 35 years at this writing. As a result, I became an excellent student where I had been only mediocre before. My current reading diet includes several newspapers each day plus a number of weekly publications, a half dozen magazines each month, and books of every description. Within arm’s reach of my favorite chair there are no less than 25 books. Most of them are novels but there is a book about Bobby Jones, the legendary golfer, Tom Wolfe’s latest book and a big novel he recommended that others read in an interview he gave about that novel. There is a Tom Clancy thriller and an Anne Rice rewrite of a novel she put out a few years ago which was issued by her publisher to an unsuspecting public. There is a Norman Mailer collection I read sporadically and a book about film director Billy Wilder. There are some small books about roses that I use as reference for those I am growing in the yard by the river in front of my house. There is a perfectly awful self-help book about figuring out what to do with your life. A man in mid-life crisis gave the book to me even after I told him I don’t read self-help books. He said this book was different. He got it out of the back of the enormous car/truck where he had a whole case of them for proselytizing. I read the flap of the dust jacket. I could tell it was horrible just from that. Across the room on a shelf is a collection of Mark Twain books, many of them early editions. They are watched over by a small pewter statue of the Bard of the Mississippi. On top of the Bobby Jones book that is designed to be on a coffee table but currently resides on my leather footstool, there is a book sent to me by my business partner’s father about a female journalist and her lover who took a trip up the Congo River into the heart of Zaire, a country in Central Africa now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
In college, my commitment to be a man of letters flowered. I went to work for the campus newspaper my first day at college. I was the features editor my sophomore year and editor-in-chief by my junior year. I went to work for the daily newspaper in my college town during my senior year. I also got married and, right after graduation, we moved to Nashville. I became the editor of a weekly newspaper and after about a year I was promoted to the job of managing editor of a group of weekly newspapers in that city. My wife was a seamstress and worked in forgettable retail establishments selling clothing sewn by children in sweatshops in Third World countries. At the age of 23 or 24, I began covering the state legislature for The Nashville Banner. I was a l’enfant terrible. Aggressive, abrasive and fearless. I once had six front-page stories in five days and on several occasions I would have two front page stories on one day until the managing editor adopted a rule, specifically for me, that a reporter could only have one bylined front page story a day. I covered the campaign for the office of governor that pitted the mayor of an East Tennessee city and the infuriatingly condescending practitioner of the politics of small things, Lamar Alexander. I often stayed on the road for a week at a time only coming home to wash my few clothes, pick up my check and go back out. I also conducted several sustained investigations for the newspaper including one that took several months but never ran due to an accommodation between my publisher and the media magnate I had investigated. My marriage failed from the pressure of my frenetic lifestyle and I found myself divorced and living the pale lifestyle of the working poor. I was unable to meet my obligations on my meager salary at The Banner so I left to embark on a series of jobs that would result in the establishment of my own political and media consulting company as I had, along the way, learned to make television commercials.
Making television commercials for politicians combined all my passions and skills. Travel. Photography. The ability to read and absorb vast amounts of research. Music. Writing. And, since I only worked for Democrats, I was allowed to pistol-whip fascists. In my first political campaigns, I had the good fortune to make commercials for two men who would become my patrons and guardians, Bart Gordon and Joe Haynes. Bart was elected to Congress in 1984 and Joe defeated an incumbent member of the state senate in that same year. I wrote speeches and assisted with strategy and made television commercials for both of them. To this day they remain my friends and they continue to rely upon my creative pursuits in the service of their campaigns. I parlayed their success and my role in it into a company complete with an office, a dedicated partner, the requisite array of office machinery and more than 250 campaigns in 34 states. I found my wife during those first campaigns and we were married at her parents home surrounded by friends and family with Joe’s wife, Barbara, who was now a judge in her own right, administering the oath. Before she would agree to marry us she made me commit to get a decent pair of shoes. I complied with a pair of snakeskin cowboy boots.
I’ve helped defeat weak men, strong women and Republicans who would sign Bibles at campaign rallies as if they had written a few of the books. I have helped win campaigns for people who now won’t speak to me. I have engaged in losing campaigns for men and women who hold me in such high regard that I find it secretly humiliating. I defeated a man twice who now is our client. My partner, John Rowley, is like a brother to me. He’s the kind of guy who will come over your shoulder in a fight and who can match me quote for quote. For most of my clients I have nothing but respect and admiration. For some, I have a true loathing that can only come from being so far inside someone’s defenses that you can smell the fetid odor of their rotting soul. I generally leave it to them to figure out which category they deserve.
And then there was Cynthia. I first met Cynthia McKinney in 1991. Her Muslim campaign manager called a meeting on Easter Sunday in 1992 to make the final selections for the media consultant to the campaign. I went and withstood a cross examination at the hands of her father that might have wilted a less confident man. On her behalf, I have helped defeat every Democrat and Republican who has challenged her for the lion’s share of a decade. We survived even when the Supreme Court threw out her district and forced her to run in a collection of counties that was just over thirty percent African American instead of the black majority district to which she was first elected. Isaac Hayes and Andrew Young and Robert Redford and Magic Johnson have made commercials for her in various battles. She calls me with the most interesting problems. “Fletcher,” a phone message might begin, “The Supreme Court just threw out my district. Call me.” Another time she called and left a message that said, “Fletcher, I’m sitting here with Isaac Hayes. Say something Isaac.” The rustle of a phone receiver being handed off was unmistakable then the rich baritone voice of Black Moses saying, “Hello, Fletcher.” Then Cynthia again, “He wants to help. Call me.”
She once called me from the jungles of Zaire on a satellite phone. She was with Laurent Kabila. She asked me to write him a speech to use when he marched victoriously into Kinshasa after rooting out the corrupt, American-backed regime of Mobutu Sese Seko. I wrote him a statement and faxed it to him in the jungle. I don’t remember much about it except for one beautiful line. It was a line that spoke of the hope that I felt for him. The hope that I hoped he felt for his country. It was one line. “A flower is blooming in Africa.” I had hoped it would be a democratic flower. I had hoped it would be a flower of peace. Flowers are nothing but hope on slender stalks. A few months later after the promise of the Kabila regime began to fade, I wrote a statement for Cynthia to give in which she asked the question as to whether of not Kabila had become Mobutu Two that was widely quoted and used as the basis for editorials about the fading promise of DRC.
Cynthia encouraged me to help her on her Kabila project. She encouraged me to make a proposal to him so that I could help him march toward democracy as effectively as he had marched through the jungle to take over his country. But, I disapproved of his actions and his reputation and I did not pursue the opportunity.
A few years passed. And then, through an international attorney I’d met through Cynthia’s office, the discussions with Kabila’s regime were rejoined. It seems they remembered and were favorably impressed with my disapproval. They felt abused and mistreated by those who had flattered them and taken their money and their diamonds. Somehow, my disapproval became a sign that I could be trusted.
Kabila couldn’t even remember my name. He told Cynthia, “I want to talk to the man who told me no.”
Proposals were written and translated into French. Discussions were held with various officials in New York. An invitation was issued for the attorney and me to meet with Kabila to finalize our working relationship. The attorney was to address the various international charges pending against members of the government of the DRC. My job would have been to help them communicate to the American and international press. I would have helped with strategy and I would have written for them. I had fantasies about helping to write a constitution. I worried about the impact the association would have had on my political and corporate clients. I began to read books and other research to prepare me for the tasks at hand. Passports and visas were arranged. Plane tickets were forthcoming. I wanted to get a book about Armand Hammer. But there was a gnawing in my gut. Fear? Perhaps. Anticipation? Certainly. My wife was opposed to the trip. My children through the idea of me calling them from Africa was cool. Friends murmured their concerns but I was in the throws of the adventure and I was going. I had mentally already gone. I was making preparations. Getting my decks cleared at work. Taking care of household chores. Within 48 hours I would be in Brussels then I would board a Sabena aircraft and fly to Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Then, half a world away, a 20-year-old palace guard began to walk toward Kabila who was, according to reports in the international press, conferring with his aides. A few feet away, the young guard’s gun cleared its holster and two bullets were sent into the flesh of Laurent Kabila. One in the back. One in the leg. A third grazed his arm. A fourth went wide as the guard began to run. There was a gun battle. The young guard was killed. Troops flooded the streets of the capitol city. People milled about looking for news the same way I desperately looked for it on the electronic web. I posted messages in chat rooms dedicated to Africa and compared stories from the BBC and CNN and the Wall Street Journal among others. It is still unclear, at least to me, whether he died on the spot, in hospital later that day, or the next day on an airplane on his way for treatment in another country as the official government line holds. Doesn’t matter. Because I felt I died with him. And thus, seven time zones away, I began to contemplate my death and ruminate about my life and then to write this that you now read.
So now, I’ve brought us all back to the present. No matter when your eyes might find these words we are, for this moment, together. Perhaps these words will be in black ink on a glossy page or in a small book or, more likely, expressed in some pulsing electronic format with no more permanence than an African flower. Again, it doesn’t matter. For now you must contemplate your own life and death just as I have mine. I’ll leave you alone for a moment. Come back when you are finished.
As I hugged my family, I started not to tell them. There was a chance they would never find out. There was a chance I could say, “Oh, no. That was another guy in another country.” There are actually two Congo’s in Africa anyway. I wanted to keep my options open to make the trip when things cooled down. I thought about whether sparing them the details would be wise and loving or selfish and deceitful. I held them. I sighed. I told them. It’s been a few days now. The children seem to have forgotten it. My wife has greeted me on two mornings by saying how happy she is I was not in Africa. One friend called to say he was relieved I was not there and that he had experienced feelings of deep foreboding that he decided not to express. My father told me he was relieved I wasn’t going and that he and my mother were opposed to the trip. My partner, John, came into my office several times as the news was breaking to say it was “chilling.” Indeed. We could only stare at each other and engage in gallows humor. We were two warriors far from the battle contemplating the blood that had been shed. As for me, I began seeking opportunities to tell everyone I could that I was not going. But, within days, I clarified my position. “I’m not going right now,” I told my shocked wife. “I will go some day.” Maybe I will. Maybe I won’t. I don’t know.
I do know that this experience has changed me in some way. I had a steak yesterday and I have never enjoyed a steak more even though I have had many that were prepared better and in better, more elegant, surroundings. I’m reading a novel my son wanted me to read. The books about Africa have lost their interest for the moment. I watched a golf tournament today and I stood and checked something about my own swing that has been bothering me. I saw two movies this weekend. John and I are aggressively pursuing a campaign in Los Angeles, a special election to fill the seat of a congressman who just died. I spent Sunday afternoon writing some materials for a corporate client. I am changed but it is unclear how. I am more aware of small things. The feel of my khaki pants on my legs. The leathery smell of my shoes. I notice more detail on my drive to and from my office as I circle the nondescript architectural mediocrity of Nashville’s skyline. I seem somehow to have acquired distance from my own actions. I seem to be watching myself at times. I’m doing it now. I see myself sitting in this leather chair with my feet up on the leather footstool. I see the computer on my lap and the telephone wire running across the room and under the couch.
Last week, my attorney partner and I traveled to Washington to meet with representatives of the new government in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. We did not meet the new president as he was consumed with meetings with new President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell not to mention the enigmatic Paul Kagame, the president of Rwanda, one of the countries currently invading DRC. We met with the quiet, unassuming Mr. Muenze Kongolo, the Minister of Justice of the DRC. He is a stout man who wears round, schoolboy spectacles. We met with him on two evenings after his official events had ended. As we walked down the hallway to his hotel room there were men with Secret Service-style earpieces posted at the elevators and in the hallways. They did not challenge us but their hawkish eyes watched our movements carefully. A cracked door across the hall from the Minister’s room revealed a man standing in the center of the room watching us with distrust and perhaps a hint of disgust.
On the second evening, security was nonexistent and Mr. Kongolo apologized for greeting us in a white, terry cloth bathrobe. His thick feet padded across the floor of his hotel room and he sat heavily upon his bed. He signed. He said he was tired. He said he wanted to get home and play some soccer. We all laughed. Three tired men, far from home. An American. An Australian. A Congolese. We spoke of honor and loyalty. We spoke of death and betrayal. He said he wanted us to come to his country, to meet with his President and to brief the President’s cabinet on attacking DRC’s legal and public relations problems.
When I returned to my home, I waited a few days and then, on a lazy Saturday morning while still in bed with my wife I told her I was going to Africa. She did not seem surprised. She knows me all too well. Tonight, I will tell my children as I am leaving tomorrow. I started not to tell them but it seemed to be unfair to them. I don’t want them to worry but I also want them to know that I trust them. They, too, will come to know me all too well.
Tomorrow, I will board an airplane in Atlanta that will take me to Dallas. Then from Dallas to Brussels. Then from Brussels to Kinshasa. I will be a stranger in a strange land. I will walk there unafraid. I will speak of honor and loyalty. I will speak of death and betrayal. Perhaps, at long last, I will be given the opportunity to help them start the long march toward democracy. Perhaps I will leave and the thieving and lying and betrayals that have marked that country will continue unabated. I am reminded of a favorite quote. It’s a quote from a Raymond Chandler novel I’ve never read. “Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean; who is neither tarnished nor afraid.” I shall read that novel upon my return.
(I wrote this about 15 years ago. I have since divorced and remarried and have now consulted on more than 600 campaigns. I have returned to Africa but not, yet, to DRC. My wife made the pillow in the photograph from a piece of cloth I brought back with me from the Grand Hotel in Kinshasa.)