I’ll start with something most people don’t know about me: I can’t drive.
(This will seem like a total non sequitur, but hang in there, I’ll deliver the goods, trust me.)
But… I don’t have a driving license. A little odd, considering I once dreamt of being the world’s greatest rally driver.
The question that everyone inevitably asks is ‘Why don’t get your license?’ I’ve even owned and insured 3 cars in the vain attempt that it would spur me on to take my test. It didn’t. I’ve taken numerous driving lessons, and even passed my theory test… but still, 8 years on, I still haven’t taken a single driving test.
Because I always meet interesting people on trains and planes. There are other reasons, like the running costs and how fat I would get if I drove everywhere. No doubt, the benefits probably outweigh the inherent problems of having to get trains, planes and taxis everywhere.
However, if I drove a car, I would never have met Donald Rumsfeld’s chief political analyst. Neither would I have been invited to join the American secret service.
It was a blisteringly hot day in July. I’d just said goodbye to my beautiful, blonde hostess in Los Angeles and climbed into a train that would take me through some beautiful vineyards to Fresno — the armpit of America — and then onto Yosemite. Just a few seconds before the train departed, a small, wiry-haired man stumbled up the stairs into the carriage and sat down opposite me. He smiled at me apologetically as I hastily took me feet off his chair — my comfortable trip to Fresno had been scuppered by a very innocuous-looking, slightly-rotund man!
After he’d caught his breath, I introduced myself.
‘Hi.’ He nods back at me. ‘How’d you do?’ (I actually say that — sue me!)
We banter a little. I explain what I’m doing so far from home, alone; he explains why he’s on a train to Fresno, alone. He seems awfully friendly, but then most middle-aged, geeky bachelors tend to make the most of human contact when they can get it — something I have to get used to, I guess…
‘So, what do you do?’ I’d noticed he had a very expensive-looking suitcase, but that was the only hint of affluence about him.
‘I work for the government.’ He grins. My mouth forms a little ‘o’ and every muscle tenses. An awfully large number of misdemeanors from my younger years quickly flash before me. Was this really going to be the end of my short but sweet tale? He must’ve noticed my alarm because he quickly elaborated: ‘I’m a political analyst.’
I relaxed and sunk back into my oversized, supportive Amtrak chair (they’re made to be comfortable for large Americans, I guess). ‘I’m just back from the Middle East, actually.’
And so we talked, and talked and talked some more. I quickly learnt that this guy had a very serious job: to visit countries that America would soon declare war on, or were thinking about declaring war on in the future. It was his job to visit Iraq and find out if the populace would welcome an American invasion and occupation. He was there, in the Balkans, before NATO bombed Yugoslavia, calculating if the risk was worth the reward.
Who did he report to? How was he actually connected to the government? He finally opened up, a little way past Bakersfield, with the grape vines of Central Valley sliding by in a blur. ‘Donald Rumsfeld. He’s my boss.’ He grinned again, and not for the first time he looked apologetic. Humble, resigned to whatever fate he’d cast upon Iraq, and the other nations he’d visited. He flew around the world, analysed the political climate and then reported back to Donald Rumsfeld; if his findings said ‘go’, they went.
If he had reported back with different findings, Rumsfeld might never have given the command to proceed with such shock and awe. Perhaps that’s why the analyst looked so bashful and minced his words. Sitting opposite was his most loyal and unswerving ally: a man from Britain, an allegiance that had been quite severely tested.
As the conversation twisted and turned — my eager inquisition digging deeper and deeper – I could tell he wanted to talk about different things. He was single, without kids, travelling to see his mother. He wanted to talk about his life, and how troubling it was to be responsible for so many millions of Americans, and the citizens of other countries that might soon feel the brunt of the world’s only super power.
I listened for the rest of the journey. Eventually, we came to a standstill in Fresno. He stood up and smiled properly for the first time since we’d met 3 hours ago. I don’t know if it was my awesome listening skills, or the fact that he was going to see his mother — I like to think I was at least partially to blame.
As I was gathering my bags, he begun to make his way down the stairs. At the foot of the stairs he suddenly stopped and turned around. He said my name and paused; until he had my attention, or steeling himself, who knows.
‘You know, Donald was always against the war in Iraq.’