February 5, 2007
The Toad considered the bill lying on his desk. It bore the name of a credibly bland Midwestern congressman as sponsor, though in fact like so many other bills making their way through Congress, it had been written by some faceless drone in an industry group or government bureau. Custom needs — custom laws; that’s how the game is played.
The case for this particular bill had been presented to The Toad in a discreet Georgetown bistro by the representative of The Agri-Tech Industry Coalition — presented along with certain other considerations. Rep. Ted O’Day, the Great Centrist, smiled as he thought of those considerations. Some of them were now waiting for him in an Austrian bearer account.
The bill’s title was “The Food Supply Health and Security Act.” The few colleagues paying any attention were already calling it “A Chip in Every Chicken.”*
It took the “voluntary” National Animal Identification System” and made it mandatory — for every hobby farm, everybody with a goat tethered in the yard, every horse in every stable, every 4H animal in the nation. Every animal would not just have to be registered and reported on, but would now have to be injected with a radio-frequency ID (RFID) chip and electronically tracked anywhere it went.
The language was a masterpiece of indirection. Anyone other than an insider might not recognize that it let giant factory farms and poultry processors register their animals in huge batches, one chip per shipment. The family farmer, on the other hand, would have to chip every sow, piglet, lamb, ram, ewe, chick, duck, rooster, goose, mare, stallion, foal … everything but the mice in the barn.
The Toad chuckled. If the Agri-Tech Coalition, a Frankenstein marriage of the Radio-Frequency ID chip industry and big ag, could have figured out a way to make family farmers chip their mice, they’d have included that, too.
The day of the family farmer would soon be over. “And good riddance,” thought Rep. Ted O’Day, city born, city bred. Animals on small farms were the most likely to spread disease. So the Agri-Tech lobbyist had assured him. Big producers, on the other hand, took the latest, most scientific precautions and had the healthiest animals. So if this bill drove little rubes off their farms and ranches, well, so be it. Those rednecks were standing in the way of progress, anyway.
“Now,” Toad thought, “it’s time for a little ‘I’ll scratch your back, you scratch mine’ to get this baby through the Agriculture Committee.” Or maybe he’d feed it through the Homeland Security Committee, instead, since the bill protected such a vital national interest (not to mention his own vital interests). He knew that his counterpart in the Senate — whom rumor said had also had an agreeable meeting with the Agri-Tech representative — was considering similar options for the Senate version of the bill.
Yes, that was it. The legislation would be promoted as “vital to our national food security.” Homeland Security Committee it was then.
DYK mon tst wl put u ina Pntagon db?
wn2 gt draftd? taK d tst.
wnt Bush 2 snd u 2 Iraq? taK d tst.
U dnt hav 2 taK d tst. dey cnt mak u taK d tst.
Pass d wrd. Pass d wrd. Pass d wrd.
The text messages scrolled along on instant messages (IMs) and cellphone screens. MySpace postings and email began carrying the word. It was still only Saturday morning and Tonio Carolina and his friend Baron, slightly glazed from their all-night LAN party, were busy.
“If they ever find out I helped you …” Baron groaned.
“Don’t worry. They won’t. If you want to go in Monday morning and take the test, go. I won’t stop you. But … well, thanks for helping.”
“You owe me. Big time.”
“I owe you. Now keep working.”
While Baron sent messages from his cellphone and laptop, Tonio’s own fingers were busy Googling. He’d learned some stuff already.
Like that the test was voluntary. The school was going to make them take it, but no law said they had to — even though that’s what their teachers were telling them.
Like that the school was going to turn over every, single test result to the Department of Defense. Even the results of students who had already opted out. (Unless the school chose something called “Option 8”; even if they did that the students themselves had no choice what happened to their data.)
Like that the test was pretty useless for career placement and that its real goal, as stated in the Pentagon’s own manuals, was to provide “pre-qualified leads” for recruiters.
Like that if the school was really interested in giving students the best possible career aptitude test, there were better choices — ones that wouldn’t put everybody in a Pentagon computer.
“Posters,” Tonio called over his shoulder to Baron as the boys worked intently. “Who do we know that can make posters?”
An hour later, two art-geek girls from the junior class were taking their assignments, then heading to the craft store for posterboard and the hardware store for sticks.
“Who were those freaks?” Tonio’s sister Paris (formerly Jennifer) sniffed, dragging herself out of bed at 1:00 p.m., just as the art students left on their errands. “Your new girlfriends? Eeew.”
“Better them than you, Britney-Clone,” snorted Baron. The two boys kept on working.
mEt mon. AM O/side d skool 2 Rsist d tst.
shO ^ mon. AM W protest syns.
Hell no, we won’t go N2 d Pntagon db. Join us. Rsist.
no govt snoop tst. Rsist Rsist Rsist.
The messages went out. The replies came in — everything from “IL B W/U mon. a.m.” to … well, something that can’t be translated in a family story.
“Uh … maybe we won’t get the whole senior class,” Tonio admitted, reading one of the latter sorts of messages.
Charlotte poked her head into the bedroom briefly. Those boys. They were always so intense about their computers.
“What are you working on, boys?”
“Oh, just stuff. Usual.”
Charlotte paused, hoping for elaboration. None came. “Well, I just thought I’d check in and see if you boys needed anything. Jennifer and I are going shopping, then I’ll be dropping her off at her counseling appointment. And after that I’ll …”
“Sure, Mom. Don’t need anything. Bye.”
She paused in the doorway, thinking there must be something else to say. But the impenetrable wall of the boys’ e-ttention thwarted her. She really would have a talk with Tonio later. A good talk. Find out what was occupying him so much, these days. Maybe go somewhere special with him. But …
“MOM!” shrilled Jennifer. “If we don’t get there, somebody else might buy that sweater. If somebody’s bought my sweater, I’ll never speak to you again. I swear. I won’t.”
“Okay, Jennifer. Coming. I’m coming.”
Charlotte fled. Tonio and Baron exchanged eye-rolling glances. “dat wmn mizd d clutrain,” Baron typed to his friend.
“ey, she’s my mom,” Tonio typed back with a shrug. The two friends went back to work.
Sunday night. Baron, Tonio, and their ever-growing crew of helpers had done all they could. Almost.
“What’s missing?” Tonio asked the seven students sprawled exhausted but excited-looking around his bedroom. “What haven’t we considered?”
Everybody looked around at the signs and banners stacked in the corner of Tonio’s room. “Nothing, I think,” somebody said.
“It’s showtime,” agreed one of the boys.
“Showtime,” Tonio mused. “Oh. Wait. Showtime. Baron, toss me my cell.”
He punched buttons.
“Karen,” he spoke into the phone. “Your sister’s a reporter, right? … Well tell her if she shows up at Hamilton High on Monday at 8:00 a.m. there’ll be a good story for her … Yeah, I know her boss decides what stories to cover. But tell her he’ll like this one. Tell her it’s a good one. Free speech and stuff like that. No. A secret. Top secret. We don’t want the school to know in advance. But really good … Yeah … Okay … I know, I know. No guarantees.
“But tell her if she shows up …” He looked over at his exhausted friend, “I’ll get Baron’s oldest brother … you know, the lawyer? … the good-lookin’ one? … to buy her dinner at the Lobster Shoppe.”
Baron, sitting on Tonio’s bed, fell backward with a thump. “Oh god. Just shoot me right now,” he moaned.
And so it happened that on the following Monday morning, as Tonio, his friends, and about two dozen supporters turned up outside Alexander Hamilton High School with picket signs, Qwai Ching Paine stood near the CYACorp entrance, watching Charlotte Carolina struggle with her cigarettes and her keys.
Thus it was that, while Tonio Carolina was talking with young local reporter, Heather Ames-Becker, on the sidewalk just outside school property, his mother was blissfully unaware that her son was about to become both a local celebrity and a royal pain in the backside to school and Pentagon officials.
And thus it also was that, while Charlotte Carolina struggled to stay alert, watching the clock until the blessed relief of her 10:00 a.m. coffee break, Tonio was being dragged into the school admin office.
But thus it also was that, thanks to the weekend’s preparations, and the leafleting and on-the-spot picketing, about one third of the senior class at Alexander Hamilton High School — including a certain young man named Baron — decided they didn’t want to take the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, at least until they knew a lot more about the test and what might be done with their scores.
And thus it further was that the test scheduled for that morning was postponed.
The school principal told hustling young Heather Ames-Becker (who would soon get a long hoped-for date with a certain young lawyer) “We will re-schedule the ASVAB after our students have received a better understanding of the vital importance of this test to their careers here at Hamilton High as well as their careers in the larger world.”
But Charlotte Carolina knew none of this all morning as she struggled to stay alert and pretend interest in her work. She still knew none of it as she settled herself into the last remaining table at Starbucks that noon to drink her double-shot caffeinated lunch. Tired and tense from her morning’s labors, she ignored the insistent shouts of the cellphone in her purse. Whatever it was could wait.
She had her head down, skimming an article in the Post about the homeland’s dire security problem with diseased food animals on shamefully unregulated, outdated family farms, when she felt, more than saw, a presence across from her at the small round table.
She looked up. Another patron smiled politely and gestured with a hand that held a sleeved paper cup, communicating wordlessly: Tables full. May I sit here?
She shrugged and waved a hand at the chair opposite. Then she lowered her head again and set her whole body to send the message, Go ahead and sit there, but don’t imagine I’m going to chitty-chat with some stranger.
She hated sharing tables. Just hated it. But at least her unwanted companion was the silent type. She turned the page and pretended to be engrossed in an article about how the Selective Service was planning to test the draft system, but that really, everybody involved assured the reporter and the readers, nobody in government — well, almost nobody — was even thinking about planning actually drafting anybody. Thank heaven. The thought of Tonio … or for that matter, Jennifer … being dragged off to …
Then a soft, steady voice came from across the table.
“The universe within is reborn amid chaos,” it said.
She looked up, scowling at the slender, odd-looking young man across from her. He smiled. Inscrutably. His eyes were like deep wells. Darnit, were crazy street people infiltrating Starbucks now?
* The Food Supply Health and Security Act is fictional. However, it follows from the provisions of the National Animal Identification System (NAIS), which is now being sneakily implemented by bureaucratic fiat. After outraged protests, NAIS has been switched from mandatory to “voluntary” — for the moment.
Like Toad O’Day’s fictional bill, NAIS does demand that family farmers meet more stringent requirements than enormous agri-businesses. It does require all animals within its system to be registered and reported upon every time they leave their registered location. While NAIS will be completely ineffective in curbing diseases like mad cow, it creates absurdities like expecting horse owners to report every trail ride to some level of government. Do not expect the “voluntary” status of NAIS to last. That status is already deceptive and the pressure is on for even the smallest family farmers to comply with a system that will make their way of life impossible.
Although the protest depicted in this story is fictional, it was inspired by a real incident.
Thank you to proofreaders Darrell Anderson and EB — saving writers from themselves one typo at a time.