Southern Trials

FBI Badge and GunThursday, February 7, 2002 started out as any other typical business day. It didn’t end as such.

Around 4:30, I answered my Macon, GA office phone with my usual friendly-yet-businesslike greeting: “Richard Eisel, may I help you?” Trust me when I tell you this: your bowels will turn to water when you get this response: “Yes, this is FBI Special Agent Coleton Steele, calling from Anchorage-frigging-Alaska.” (Parenthetical aside: he didn’t really say “frigging;” that was just my new, clever descriptor. Also, is Coleton Steele a cool name for an FBI agent, or what? His name wasn’t really Coleton Steele, but it was an impressive-federal-agent name. Maybe they’re all required to come up with names like that, when they join up. Same deal with porn stars, I’m guessing.)

My immediate thought, to use the acronym so favored by the text-set these days, was “WTF!?” except I didn’t think the acronym. I thought, with emphasis aforethought, each and every word thereunto represented.

To make this part of a long story short, a customer of the national financial-services company for which I was then senior credit manager had apparently faxed us some fraudulent financial statements, and was being prosecuted by the feds for wire fraud, and a host of other stuff, including bank fraud. Agent Steele was calling to inform me that I might be called to testify for the prosecution, depending on how the U.S. Attorney decided to proceed.

Oh, OK, no problem, I thought. These things drag on for months, so it’ll probably be several months before I’m called to testify, if at all. Hmm, a few days in Alaska in the summer, on Uncle Sam’s tab…sounds OK to me.

“The trial starts Monday,” said Agent Steele. “If we need you, we’ll need you here by this Tuesday morning.” This Tuesday morning? THIS TUESDAY MORNING!? (Again with the silent-but-emphatic “WTF!?”)

“Uh, any chance of having the trial moved, to, oh, I don’t know, maybe Miami?” I asked the good agent. He laughed and replied, “Sorry, but don’t worry, we’re actually having a mild winter. It’s been above zero a couple of times already.” Why Special Agent Coleton Steele wasn’t working the weekend gig at the Yuk-Yuks Laff Factory was beyond me. Anyway, he said he’d have the Federal Court’s “Witness/Victim (to this day, I don’t know which I was) Coordinator” call me on Friday to let me know if the lawyer needed my testimony, and if so, to work out the travel arrangements.

Well, by now you’ve gathered that Ms. Coordinator indeed called me Friday with my travel plans. And by EARLY the following Monday morning, I was on the first of several planes that would eventually get me to Anchorage-frigging-Alaska. You’ve doubtless flown on a commercial flight before, so you know that, at its essence, it’s this:

  1. Walk through a climate-controlled departure airport.
  2. Walk down a climate-controlled hallway (that would be the jetway).
  3. Sit in a climate-controlled-but-very-long-and-narrow room with very-uncomfortable-furniture (that would be the airplane).
  4. Walk up a climate-controlled hallway.
  5. Walk through a climate-controlled arrival airport.

The key words there, of course, are “climate-controlled.” Because when I finally got to Anchorage-frigging-Alaska late that night and took my first step outside, my first thought (besides, of course, the now-obligatory “WTF!?”) was, “Damn, I know those were long flights, but surely not long enough for me to arrive on NEPTUNE.” But, in fairness, Agent Steele was right: the snow was only about six feet high, and I could actually feel my feet for at least five seconds.

My testimony got delayed for a couple of days, and in fact, I ended up enjoying the beauty, friendly people, and good food and drink that Anchorage-frigging-Alaska had to offer, despite me staying in a Walt Disney-type cryogenic state the entire time. So, on Thursday, I had given my testimony, and was in the Witness/Victim Coordinator’s office so she could make my return trip arrangements…when it happened.

She was just finishing a call to an airline when the building shook a bit. Nothing major; sort of like standing in an office when a big air conditioner or heating unit a floor away kicks on. “Well, how about that,” said Ms. Witness/Victim Coordinator. “We just had a little tremor.” I thought, OK, now I’ve had the Full Monty of Alaska experiences: cold, snow—and an earthquake. Of course, I’d embellish everything by the time I got back to good old Georgia.

Turns out, there was nothing to embellish. Because right about then, the building really started shaking, and books fell off shelves, and pictures fell off the walls, and OMG, WTF!? WTF!? “Oh, my, this is a bit stronger than what we usually get,” said Ms. Coordinator. “A bit?” “A BIT!?” I’m looking for a doorway to stand under—that was the only thing I could remember about what you’re “supposed” to do in an earthquake (besides whimpering and wringing your hands helplessly)—and you’re sitting there calmly, saying it’s “a bit” stronger!? Um, I hate to be a bother, but could you please pass the Xanax?

It lasted about ten seconds…plenty of time to accept Jesus as my personal lord and savior. I found out later that it was classified as a “minor earthquake,” vs. a “major tremor.” Seems such events quit being tremors and start being earthquakes once they reach a certain point. Nowhere near the horrific, cataclysmic, tragic earthquake which recently devastated Japan, but plenty enough for me to gain an even more profound admiration for the courage of those who live in such tectonically active zones. As well as a profound desire to get the hell out of there.

This “minor” event registered 4.8 on the Richter Scale, while logging (probably a poor choice of words here) a 10 on my Sphincter Scale. When I finally got back to good old Georgia, I didn’t kiss the (firm, warm) ground, but I sure appreciated it a lot more than I had a few days earlier.

Oh, and the jury convicted the guy. I learned that when Ms. Coordinator called me a few days later to thank me for my testimony, saying that it helped the jury vote “guilty” on all counts. Good, I thought. I’m glad they convicted the guy, who was the cause of all I had just gone through.

Including the earthquake, probably.

Richard Eisel

Richard Eisel

Richard Eisel lives in Georgia. Besides writing, he enjoys reading, sailing, and baseball. He has been working on his first novel for about thirty years.  So far, he has written three paragraphs, but they are really good paragraphs.