Chemophobia (A Fear of Chemicals)
“So far, 35 people around the country have died from e-coli contamination of broccoli. All supplies of the contaminated broccoli have been traced to growers in Bakersfield and the state government is working with the growers to work out a system of compensation for the destruction of the current crop. In other news today…”
Walter Sohne turned the television off and thought to himself, “Thank God, I don’t like broccoli! I’ll just have to make sure to doubly soak any food that might have been sprayed or left out in unsafe conditions.”
Walter Sohne is a 39 year old man who lives by himself in a studio apartment. He has thinning brown hair and is 5’11” tall. The only thing about him which would fit the stereotype of a Walter Mitty is that he doesn’t wear any glasses. He was very lucky in that aspect when the elements of the gene pool came together. Ironically, he lives in Washington DC and works in a low level position with the FDA. He got his job through a strange twist of fate. He had been working as a stocking clerk in a grocery store one bright and sunny day, when he noticed a woman standing in front of a shelf, trying to decide which brand of canned mushrooms to buy. He noticed that when she made up her mind, that she choose a can with a slight dent on it. He walked up to her and suggested that she might consider getting fresh mushrooms instead and told her that the can that she had selected had a dent on it and might not be safe to eat.
“Goodness, thank you, young man. I didn’t even see the dent. I will certainly take your suggestion, but I’m afraid that I might not have a very good eye for good produce. Would you be willing to help me?”
“Yes, of course. Please follow me.”
Once they arrived at the produce area, Walter began to give the woman a brief tutorial on what to look for in mushrooms. The woman was very grateful for his advice and attempted to give him a five dollar bill for his help. Walter, of course, refused the money saying that it was against store policy to accept money from customers. The woman put the bill back into her purse, then handed Walter a card.
“Call this number tomorrow. My husband is the deputy director of the FDA and when I tell him how helpful you’ve been, I’m sure that he will be able to find a suitable position for you.”
Walter took the card and thanked the woman for her kindness. The next day, he called the number and was set up with an appointment. Fortunately, this was his day off, so Walter did not feel like he was betraying the manager of the grocery store. He took care to dress up in his best suit and tie for his appointment and managed to get to the FDA building with ten minutes to spare. He checked in with the secretary, who told him to have a seat and that the deputy director would be with him in a few moments. An hour later, after filling out paperwork and having his photo taken for his employee badge, Walter was an official employee of the United States government. Once he was assured of a position, he went to the grocery store that he worked at, and gave his manager his notice. Walter spent the rest of the day wandering in the Smithsonian Museum, a place that, despite living in DC for over twenty years, he had never visited.
The longer that Walter worked for the FDA, the more he became meticulous about what he ate and drank. He also spent less time at the YMCA swimming pool since he became more suspicious about what chemicals were being put in the water. When he went grocery shopping, he only bought organic fruits and vegetables and gallons of bottled water. This radical change in his lifestyle caused him to lose weight and, even though he knew that it would benefit him, he refused to go to the gym in order to keep his muscles toned up because he saw gyms as breeding grounds for bacteria and he didn’t like the smell of the disinfectants that they used.
One day, while he was at work, Walter ran into the deputy director’s wife as she was going to her husband’s office to collect him so that he could take her out to lunch. The woman was happy to see Walter and Walter, for his part, was surprised that she even remembered him.
“Of course, I remember you. You helped save my dinner, actually, it was a dinner party. George called me after I returned home with the groceries to let me know that he had invited some people over that night. My husband and I are from Missouri and we don’t believe in going out to some of these high-class restaurants if we can help it. In fact, the only servant, if you will, that we have is our maid, Lisbeth. I always make the meals for our little family…”
At this point, the deputy director walked out of his office and gave his wife a kiss on the cheek.
“I hope that I didn’t keep you waiting too long, my dear.”
“Oh, no, dear. I’ve been having a very nice chat with Walter here. You remember Walter, don’t you, dear. He’s the nice man who warned me about the canned mushrooms.”
“Oh, yes, hello, Walter. Are you ready, my dear?”
“Yes, let’s go. It was a pleasure running into you again, Walter.”
Walter just grinned and waved to the couple as they walked away. He then stood in the corridor for a minute, trying to remember where he had been going before his boss’s wife had sidetracked him. It came to him and he turned around and went back in the direction that he had come from. He had been on his way to an employee meeting and, quickly glancing at his watch, realized that he was ten minutes late. Despite quietly slipping into the meeting room, his section chief noticed his late arrival but said nothing. Walter took a seat and listened.
“Now, despite the quarantine of the contaminated broccoli region and notifying the markets about the removal of any potential hazardous product, we are still receiving reports about people getting sick. It is true that the numbers have decreased, but we are still worried that some areas have not received notification. Those areas which we may not have been able to notify, are being mailed notices which warn them of the danger and we predict that we should have this contained by the end of this week. You will be notified about this when we have all of the necessary information. If there are no questions, then this meeting is over.”
No one raised their hands and after most of the people had left the room, Walter went up to his boss and apologized for being late and explained that he had been detained by the deputy director’s wife. His boss told him not to worry about it and said that he would send him a copy of the minutes of the meeting. Walter thought that that was unusual, but accepted it without thinking that mention of the deputy director’s wife had nothing to do with this. When he returned to his cubicle, he saw that the copy of the meeting’s minutes was already at his desk. He became excited when he noticed that applications were being accepted for food inspector positions. Walter thought about the pros and cons of applying for one of the positions because he was sometimes reluctant to take risks. He liked his current position, but the thought of doing more to decrease the dangers to the people’s health appealed to his childhood obsession with being a superhero. Here was his chance to get down into the fields and make a difference. Two other factors that helped decide him were 1.) The FDA really needed more people in the field, and 2.) it meant a $10,000/yr increase in pay. Walter made up his mind and went to his supervisor’s office and requested an application. When he had finished filling out the application and turned it in to his boss’s secretary, she told him that he would be notified within a week if he had been accepted. Walter returned to his cubicle, mentally crossing his fingers.
One week later, Walter was notified that he had been accepted and that he was to report to room H-1102 the next day at 9:00 AM. The next morning, he clocked in and went to room H-1102 ten minutes early. He was unsure if he was required to bring anything, such as a notebook and pen, but he brought them anyway, just to be on the safe side. At 8:59 AM, a middle-aged woman walked up to the door and unlocked it. There was nine other applicants besides Walter who entered the classroom. When everyone had taken a seat, the woman took a piece of chalk and wrote on the blackboard the title of the class and her name, which was Mrs. Ludden.
“Today, class, we will be learning the various contaminants which you will look for and how to get rid of them. Your training will consist of three parts: first, classroom lectures, second, laboratory experience, and finally, in-field experience. I will be teaching you the first section which will last for two weeks and you will be give a written exam at the end. Those who pass the first section will go on to the lab section, while those who fail, will return to their previous positions. Are there any questions?”
A woman, who looked to be in her mid-30’s, and who sat at the front of the class, asked what time the class would be over and would they have to report to their supervisors each day. Mrs. Ludden told her that class would be over at 3:30 PM and they would not have to notify their supervisors or clock in or out. Another person, this time a man in his early 50s, asked what was the procedure if someone called in sick or had a medical appointment. He was informed that if they called in sick, they were to call a phone number, which she gave them. The same applied to medical appointments, but in which case, they should let her know at the end of the day. Mrs. Ludden also let them know that, due to the importance of the material that they would be covering, only one absence would be allowed and they would have to make arrangements with one of their fellow classmates to copy their notes. After all of the questions had been answered, Mrs. Ludden read the roll-call and class began.
At the end of the first day of classes, Walter made arrangements with the lady who asked about the hours to be “study buddies”. Her name was Lydia del Rio and she. had two children in junior high school. Walter found her to be a very enjoyable classmate and decided that they would get along quite nicely.
At the end of the two weeks, Walter and Lydia were waiting outside of room H-1102, expecting to get their test results. During these two weeks, only one person had been cut from the class. This had been the man who asked about the illness policy. He had made it through the first week of class, but had had a mild heart attack in the middle of the second week. Finally, Mrs. Ludden opened the classroom door and told them that they had all passed and were to report next Monday morning at 9:00 AM to the Albertson Building, Lab Room 692. Walter and his classmates decided to celebrate their good fortune by going to a local watering hole called The Rusty Nail. While his classmates were drinking alcoholic beverages, Walter settled for a bottle of lemon Calistoga. Walter had never been much of a drinker, especially when he found out about the sanitary conditions of some breweries. He and Lydia, in fact, were the only two who were not drinking alcohol, but Lydia was doing it for another reason than Walter; she had her two kids to go home to. It wasn’t that important, anyway, because none of the other classmates paid much attention to either one of them. Two hours later, Walter offered to escort Lydia to her car and she accepted.
“I’ll see you Monday morning, Walter.”
“You too, Lydia. Drive carefully.”
SIX WEEKS LATER:
Walter Sohne walked over to the dais to receive his credentials. He had graduated from the course and would be receiving his first assignment within the next 24 hours. Unfortunately, Lydia would not be joining him in his celebrations. One of her sons had been shot on his way from school and the tragedy had been too much of a distraction for her to return to class. She had returned to her previous position after returning from her paid time-off, but she had managed to send Walter a congratulations card with a short note. Walter was touched that she had taken the time to think of him after what she had suffered.
“Well, Mr. Sohne, I see that you’re managing to get ahead in life on your own.”
Walter turned around when he heard this, and saw that the Deputy Director and his wife were standing there. Walter’s face turned red but he managed to mumble “Yes sir” loud enough for them to hear.
“I’m so glad to see that you’re doing so well, Walter.” the wife said with a broad smile on her face. At that moment, a man dressed in a suit walked over to the Deputy Director and whispered in his ear. “Well, come my dear, we must be going. Once again, Sohne, congratulations!” Even though the exchange had been brief, Walter was surprised that the man knew his last name. His wife must have been behind that, which Walter felt a bit of pride thinking that he now had a patron, which in government circles, is a major accomplishment.
Walter’s first assignment had been to inspect a chicken processing factory in this small southern town. Walter, at first, thought that someone was playing a cruel joke on him, since most of the people who he worked with knew that he was a vegetarian. He made a few inquiries and found out that this was not a joke. He accepted the assignment without any further fuss because he didn’t want to lose this hard-fought for job. Instead, he decided to look upon this as a chance to do some traveling. He had never really been outside of Washington DC, except for when he was ten and visited his grandparents in Pennsylvania.
He had had to take a bus from the airport in Little Rock when he arrived because Waynesville didn’t have an airport. He wasn’t that impressed with the town when he arrived, and was even a bit repulsed when he noticed an unusual smell in the air. He asked the motel clerk about it as he was signing in and the old man told him that the smell was coming from a local pig processing plant on the other side of town. “Pigs and chickens! Is that the only kind of manufacturing jobs that this town could get?” he thought to himself. He checked into his room, took a bath, and went to a local cafe for dinner. The waitress looked at him like he had come from another planet when he only ordered a salad and bottled water for his meal. Especially, when he asked if the vegetables were local.
“Sure, honey, they’re local. Why do you ask?”
“I don’t eat anything that isn’t organic.”
The waitress just shrugged her shoulders at this and turned to put in the order. When his food arrived, Walter cautiously sniffed at each forkful. When he opened his bottle of water, he took his napkin and wiped around the lip before drinking from it. All in all, Walter was satisfied with the meal, considering the local conditions. He went back to his room, checked to make sure that he had all of the equipment that he would need the next day, then tried to go to sleep. The smells from the plants caused him to toss and turn for an hour, but by ten o’clock, he was asleep.
The next morning, Walter got dressed, picked up his bag of equipment, and got onto a bus which would take him to the chicken processing plant. He managed to find the manager’s office and, surprising the man when he told him who he was, proceeded to do his job. By the time that he had finished checking and testing everything, the manager’s face was sweating enough to look like a waterfall. All through the inspection, Walter had not spoken a word or let any expression appear on his face. The workers were also nervous, since management had not notified them that this stranger was going to be coming to the plant. They didn’t know that even the owner of the plant didn’t know that Walter would be coming. They were worried that this stone-faced bureaucrat might decide to shut the plant down and they would be out of work. When Walter was finished with his inspection, he told the manager that he would go over his results with him in his office. The manager led the way.
Once the man had closed the door and sat down at his desk, Walter began.
“For the most part, I did not find any major violations. There are, however, a few things that must be rectified. First, how often do you wash down the machines and what do you use to clean them?”
The man sat up straight in his chair and said,
“We clean the machines every night on the late shift. They use hot water, a sterilizing compound, which I have to admit, I don’t remember what it’s called, but I can assure you that it does the job. The machines are also scrubbed down with bristle brushes.”
“I see. I suggest that you do it at least twice a day. Plenty of bacteria can build up in the first twelve hours after a cleaning. Secondly, the supply closet is not being properly taken care of. I found at least two one gallon plastic bottles with their lids missing. This could be considered a fire hazard. Finally, although your workers did a decent job cleaning up blood spillage under the machines, there is room for improvement. For now, I’m going to give you a “provisional” pass. This means that your plant can stay open for now, but I shall recommend that there be another inspection within a month to make sure that you have rectified these issues. If they have not been taken care of, you will be facing a $500,000 fine and the plant will be closed. Do you understand?”
“Good. Thank you for your cooperation.”
Walter left the plant, boarded the bus and returned to his motel room where he wrote a complete report and recommendations regarding the plant. When he had finished, he went downstairs to ask the motel manager when the next bus to Little Rock would be leaving. The man told him that the Greyhound would be stopping in front of the motel in two hours. As far as Walter was concerned, that was two hours too long. The smell from the pig processing plant was making him nauseous. Walter couldn’t understand how anyone could live in this town smelling these noxious odors day in and day out. Walter decided to wait awhile at the “cafe”. There was a different waitress working when he walked in. He was tired and wasn’t thinking clearly when he placed his order, so when the waitress brought him his salad, he didn’t bother to sniff it and didn’t clean the water bottle lip when he opened it. An hour after he finished his meal, he felt dizzy and passed out at the motel door. Later, when he came to, he didn’t know where he was. His eyes were aching and his mouth was dry. A woman dressed as a nurse walked over to his bed and asked him how he was feeling.
“Where am I? What’s going on?”
“You got a touch of food poisoning.”
“Food poisoning? From what?”
“That’s what the doctor is checking into right now. He’ll be here in about an hour to talk to you.”
“Food poisoning?!? How could that happen? Damn! I bet that salad had been sprayed with chemicals. I knew that I should have said something to that waitress!” Walter raged to himself. What made it just as bad was that this hospital, which couldn’t possibly have more than a dozen beds, was in Waynesville. He couldn’t seem to escape this god-forsaken town for love or money. Eventually, the doctor arrived and confirmed to Walter what the nurse had said.
“We want you to stay over night and we’ll release you in the morning.”
When Walter was finally released from the hospital, he called for a taxi, which this small town surprisingly did have, went back to the motel and grabbed the first bus back to Little Rock. Even though Little Rock was considered a “major” city, he had to wait three hours at the airport before being able to get a flight back to DC. At least Little Rock didn’t have putrid air like Waynesville. Walter was thanking God all the way back to “civilization”. When his plane landed at Dulles Airport, Walter had to keep himself from kneeling and kissing the ground. He took a taxi to the FDA building and turned in his report. His boss asked him how everything had gone and Walter managed to keep his feelings inside, but he did tell him that it was almost as bad as some third world country and hoped that all of his assignments wouldn’t be like that.
“It was that bad?”
“Not necessarily the plant itself, but the air from that plant and the pig processing plant was unbearable. I don’t know how the population can live like that.”
“People will endure almost anything in order to make a living. Thank you for your endurance, Mr. Sohne.”
“One other thing that I should mention, is that I had to spend a day in the local hospital due to food poisoning. You will find it mentioned in my expense account.”
“Yes, I’m sure that they’ll approve it. Are you alright now?”
“I’m fine, sir. Thank you.”
“Good. I suggest that you write up your report and send a copy to Director Colton.”
“Yes sir, I will.”
For the next month, most of the assignments that Walter received were minor. He was kept busy enough that the nightmares he suffered eventually disappeared and his life seemed to go on as usual. The only reminder of his visit to Waynesville was that he took special precautions in case he found himself in a similar situation. First, he always checked the internet about the cities or towns that he was assigned to; secondly, he made sure that his medical insurance was up to date and covered food poisoning, and lastly, he bought a gas mask. He would have bought a hazmat suit, but it was too expensive and he didn’t want to appear as a nut job at work. One day, he arrived at work and found a note from his boss that requested him to come to his office. Walter wondered what he may have done, but thinking of nothing major, he appeared at his boss’s office. The secretary told him to go right in.
“Ah, Sohne, thank you for stopping by. We have a slight problem. All of our inspectors are out in the field except Jamison. She called in sick, so we are asking you to take over her assignment. Now, unfortunately, she was scheduled to do the follow up inspection at Waynesville, so we are going to ask you to do it. Will this be a problem for you?”
When Walter realized what his boss was asking of him, sweat formed on his forehead. Considering the circumstances of the situation, Walter said that he would do it, but he was shaking inside. His boss thanked him, handed him his plane ticket, and told him that he had to be at the airport by noon tomorrow. He also told Walter that, due to his last experience in Waynesville, the department was allowing him to rent a car in Little Rock and he would be reimbursed. For the rest of the day, Walter’s mind was wandering so much that he was almost got run over in the parking lot. He managed to get home without any more incidents. When he got home, he walked into his apartment like a zombie, went to his bedroom and packed, making sure that his new gas mask was on top of his clothes in the suitcase. He also went down to his local health food store and stocked up on enough food and water to take with him, unsure whether he would be allowed to take it on the plane.
When he arrived at the airport the next day, he was told that he would have to leave behind some of his provisions because there was a 25 lb. weight limit. He said that he would need everything and was willing to pay for the extra weight. He even explained his situation to the woman at the counter, and feeling some sympathy for him, allowed the extra baggage, which Walter was more than happy to pay the extra $75. The woman, however, did ask him why he didn’t wait until he got to Little Rock to buy all of this, but Walter told her that he didn’t trust any place in Arkansas to have what he needed, even though he knew deep down that this wasn’t true. Walter actually felt lucky that the woman didn’t have him escorted out by Security, but his government badge helped alleviate most of her fears. As soon as Walter found his seat and got settled, he fell asleep. Two and a half hours later, Walter’s flight landed. He went up to the Avis counter, rented a two door blue sedan, and headed off towards Waynesville.
When he was five miles out from Waynesville and he was beginning to get a whiff of the two plants noxious odors, he pulled off the road, opened his suitcase and grabbed his gas mask. Before getting back on the road, Walter checked to make sure that it fit and that the seams were all tight. He did not want to breathe any more of those noxious odors. Sure that everything was secure, Walter pulled back onto the road. He had just gone a mile when he felt that he was starting to suffocate. Unfortunately, Walter was in the fast lane and traffic had picked up so much that he was unable to get over to the slow lane so that he could remove the mask for a minute. He didn’t even notice the occasional stares that he received when people passed him by, seeing a strange man wearing a gas mask, looking like a creature from another planet. The inside of the mask was starting to get warm and a light mist from Walter’s breathe was fogging up the eye pieces. Walter made a decision; he looked in his mirror to see if he could pull over safely, saw a clear spot and pulled over to the slow lane. Walter, however, had barely got into the lane, when a large truck hauling chemicals for the chicken plant that he was on his way to inspect, started to swerve in front of him then tipped over, blocking both lanes of traffic. Walter slammed on his brakes, but hit some of the chemicals and the rental car slid off of the highway and hit another car. Both cars slammed into an earthen bank and the other car burst into flames. Unfortunately, so did Walter’s car. By the time that the Highway Patrol arrived on the scene, all they found in the ruins of Walter’s car was a charred figure with a partially melted blob on his face.
No one would ever know whether Walter felt any karmic justice in the fact that the other car that he hit had been driven by the owner of the chicken processing plant, who also died in the accident.