There was no doubt the campaign was sabotaged. Divine Fury. Chapter 21

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Chapter 21

THE ROWS OF artichoke plants seemed to extend forever, starting just off the shoulder of the highway and reaching to the low barren hills in the distance.  Dozens of sun-baked workers, men and women dressed in worn denim and flannel, worked in the perfect dirt paths between the plants, just wide enough to wield a hoe in the never-ending battle against wild grass and other intruders.

Lee climbed out of the car he’d shared with two other reporters and a photographer for the two-hour drive to the Harper campaign event outside Salinas.  He walked down an embankment to get a closer look at the artichokes.

Out of each plant a few immature flower buds shot skyward. Each was the size of a man’s fist and seemed to be held aloft by a thin green wrist.  They looked odd, like something out of the dinosaur era.  Lee knew the huge flower buds would be cut before they could bloom and, with some further trimming, packing and trucking, eventually satisfy the nation’s artichoke needs in the months ahead.

The Harper campaign had picked this empty lot along the artichoke field to unveil the candidate’s immigration platform.  Harper and a few staffers, a half dozen television crews, and a scattering of other media types had arrived for the event.  As usual, everyone was waiting around for the television equipment to get set up and for the cameras to start turning for the media extravaganza to formally begin.

Harper wore a blue blazer over new, pressed blue jeans and an open dress shirt.  Campaign casual.  When the camera folks signaled they were ready, he assumed his position in front of several microphones with the fields and workers behind him.

“Thanks for coming today,”  he said.  “We’re here to talk about immigration.  But I wanted to start with what we can see behind me.  We’re at one of the largest farms in the Salinas Valley, sometimes known as the ‘Salad Bowl of America.’  Eighty percent of the lettuce grown in the United States is grown here and virtually all of its artichokes.”

“Only migrant workers from Mexico make this industry possible,” said Harper.  “The same holds true for the California wine industry.  Simply put, there are not enough home-grown Americans willing to do this kind of tough work to make many of our farms and wineries possible.”

As Harper paused, Lee heard a buzz off in the distance.  He looked in the direction of the noise and saw a small plane, perhaps two miles away, flying low.

“So, to begin any discussion of policy, we must recognize both the history and value that immigration has brought to our state,” said Harper.  “It’s overly simplistic to just say, ‘Build a fence. Hire more guards. Keep everyone out.’”

The plane was drawing closer and getting louder.  It looked to Lee as if it was heading directly toward them.

“And, we must realize that many people may not be here legally, but they have paid taxes, had children and been productive parts of our economy and society for decades…”

A quarter of a mile away, a smoky trail began pouring out from the back of the crop duster and spreading outward behind it in a billowing plume.  Everyone on the ground turned and stared, mouths open, as the plane passed directly overhead and whatever it was emitting fanned out in a white cloud that drifted down on the assembled group.  It had a smoky smell with a slight but definite rotten eggs odor of burning sulfur.

“Run!” someone yelled.  People started running for their cars and vans, covering their mouths.  Some ran to the opposite side of the road – anything to try to get away from the smelly mist.

Lee could hear a lot of swearing before he jumped back into the car and slammed the door shut.  Harper and his staff hid in their vehicles along with most of the media.  After the smoke settled and then began to dissipate they ventured out again.  But the television folks had no interest in the press event.  They just broke down their equipment and loaded it up, in a hurry to get away.

“What a mess,” said Lee, looking around at his co-workers in the car.  They passed around a box of Kleenex and were doing their best to wipe off their hair, faces, and exposed skin. “Where to now?”

The consensus was to head back to Salinas, find a motel, and do their best to get whatever nasty stuff was on them off as soon as possible.  Maybe it was just smoke but who knew?  They could take showers, even buy new clothes downtown if they wanted.

Lee started the car and pulled out of the lot.  As they passed the van with Harper and his staff, he could see them watching the television vans and other cars pulling out one by one.  They looked defeated and he couldn’t help feeling sorry for them.  He assumed they’d be able to identify the pilot and sic the authorities on him.  He’d probably not be up in the air again for a while.  But the damage to the campaign had been done.

“What a disaster,” he thought as he pulled out onto the highway.

Chapters of the serial are published Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday.

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