Spearfish Lake Tales
Contemporary Mainstream Books and Serials Online
Mike glanced up and saw the outer door to the Record-Herald office open and George Battle come through it, carrying a copy of the paper and a full head of steam. “Speaking of which,” he said to no one in particular.
Susan leaned back against a desk. This, she thought, could be interesting.
The inner door burst open with Battle’s words. “McMahon!” he shouted. “Is this shit true?”
“Actually, it only scratches the surface,” Mike told him. “For obvious reasons we decided to only print stuff that could be documented, but we, well, actually Henry, found out a lot more than we felt we could print.”
“I thought that idiot was up to something,” Battle fumed, his voice a little more muted – but only a little.
“Gingrich?” Mike smiled. “It was pretty clear to us that he wasn’t all he was cracked up to be.”
“He’s just the kind of idiot I expected Glenn Aho would try to ram down the board’s throat, and this time he managed it. What an asshole! That idiot can’t be trusted as far as he could throw a fit! If I could have gotten one more damn board member to listen to me, we could have avoided this whole damn thing. But no, they had to listen to that asshole, and now we’ve got this shit all over our hands.”
Susan picked up a reporter’s notebook off the desk, and began to take notes. It seemed pretty clear that as mad as Battle was, he was going to spill something. She didn’t know the man – well, she’d seen him on the street and recognized him, but that was all – but he’d come up in conversation regarding the story as the more-or-less leader of the group that had voted against hiring Gingrich. Presumably he knew something the Record-Herald staff didn’t. It would be interesting to see what it was.
“That’s something we’re not real clear on,” Mike replied, trying to project a little calm. “We know that Glenn pushed pretty hard to get Gingrich hired, but we don’t know why.”
“Damned if I know,” Battle shook his head, settling down now that he knew he was among friends, even though it was obvious that he was still pretty angry. “He pulled every damn string he could think of, called in every favor he had, and look what we got out of it! We got this sack of shit, that’s what. That’s what those idiots got for listening to him.”
“I’m not at all clear on what Glenn did to get the votes,” Mike said, glancing over to see that Susan was busily taking notes on the conversation. “We were having staff problems at the time and it didn’t get covered as well as it should have.”
“I don’t know the whole story myself,” Battle replied, still obviously angry but calming down a little. “I know he went to Ed Rickenbaugh and offered to support Ed in not renewing Jerome Weilfahrt’s contract as football coach when his contract expires. That’s ridiculous! Weilfahrt is a breath of fresh air as a football coach after that idiot Johansen, and he’s as fine a man as we’ve ever had in the job.”
Susan rolled her eyes, but kept her mouth shut. She only had a limited interest in football in general and the Spearfish Lake team in particular. However, that was enough to know that no matter how fine a man that Jerome Weilfahrt may have been, all anyone had to do was to look at the team’s lousy record to tell that he wasn’t much as a football coach. It seemed pretty clear to her that Battle was as blind about Weilfahrt as Aho apparently was about Gingrich. But still, Battle was a source of inside board information they hadn’t had before.
“Since Ed voted for Gingrich, I take it he went along with the deal,” Mike commented, obviously trying to drag Battle back to the topic of hiring Gingrich rather than getting into the ongoing controversy about the football team. That had gone on around town for years and showed no sign of ever ending.
“Oh, yeah, of course, all he can think about is winning; he doesn’t look at the overall experience for the kids. Football players are supposed to be kids and have a little fun, not be some kind of damn machines that march up and down the field like a bunch of little tin soldiers. We’re not done with that yet, not by a damn sight.”
“Do you know what Glenn used on the other board members to get them to go along with him?” Mike said, again trying to drag Battle back to the topic everyone really wanted to know about.
“Not really,” Battle shrugged. “Ed was the only one who came clean with me about it. Glenn didn’t come to me about voting for Gingrich, not at all. He knows goddamn well I’d never have listened to him. Asking me to vote for the guy would be as good as getting a vote against, he knows that. Even the bastard had to stall the final vote until Don Friedenbach came on the board, and I don’t know what that idiot said to Don, either.”
Apparently there wasn’t much love lost between George Battle and Glenn Aho, Susan thought. I wonder what that’s all about. She didn’t voice her words; she was too busy trying to get the gist of the notes down.
“Yeah, I thought that was a little cute, but like I said, with the junior reporter we had here then I didn’t know what really happened until it was long over with,” Mike said.
“It probably wouldn’t have mattered; it was cut and dried by the time it came to a vote. Don at least has his head screwed on right about the football team, so there’s that in his favor.”
“The thing we’ve all wondered about,” Mike said, again trying to keep the discussion from heading off into football, “was that we can’t believe that any kind of investigation at all wouldn’t have turned up Gingrich’s court problems. I mean, Susan turned it up on the Internet, and I don’t think she looked for two minutes.”
“Investigation?” Battle snorted. “What investigation? I mean, there was supposed to be one, and the committee was supposed to do one on all three of the candidates, but what Ed told me was that Glenn said he would take care of it. Ed said the only investigation results Glenn gave the committee was a verbal report that consisted of ‘They’re all OK.’ I didn’t think Glenn did much investigating, and if you turned up that stuff that easy, I guess I’m right. I’m goddamn going to do something about that, don’t think I won’t.”
“We suspected something like that,” Mike said, a lot of suspicions being confirmed in that one statement. “But nobody’s ever come out and said it in so many words until now. I take it you don’t think much of Gingrich, either.”
“I thought he was an asshole when he was being interviewed, and I was pretty damn sure he was covering something up, but of course I had no idea what it could be. This,” he said, waving the paper around, “just proves I was dead right, not that I didn’t already know it. All Gingrich has done with the board so far is keep us in the dark and feed us shit, like we’re a bunch of mushrooms. Now that this has come out, we’ve got to do something about that, too.”
“Glenn was able to get enough votes to hire Gingrich,” Mike observed. “But now that this has come out, do you think he’s going to get enough votes to keep him?”
“Hell, if Gingrich gets one vote now it’ll be Glenn’s,” Battle snorted. “And that idiot will be stupid enough to vote for him, no matter what.”
“Do you think they’ll be willing to eat the cost of his contract to get rid of him?”
“It doesn’t matter,” Battle snorted again. “Have you seen the contract?”
“No,” Mike said. “Like I told you, the junior reporter we had at the time was just about the next thing to useless. All we’ve had to work with on that are the board packets from last summer, and if there was a copy of the contract in there we’ve never found it.”
“There’s a ninety-day grace period buried in it, and we’re still inside it,” Battle told him. “Glenn tried to get it removed when we worked out the contract; I guess Gingrich had bitched to him about the clause. At least I was able to fight him off on that. I told the board that the grace period language has been in there for the last several superintendents and all the other personnel the board has hired, so there was no good reason we ought to go to a special effort on that one. Friedenbach went along with me on that one, thank God, and we at least won that one on a four to three, and it may save our asses. That means we’re going to have to move pretty damn quick, and we’d never have been able to do it, if this hadn’t come out.”
“I sure would like to know why Glenn thinks Gingrich is so great,” Mike mused aloud, obviously for Battle’s benefit.
“I’d like to know myself,” Battle replied. “It can’t be anything good, not if Glenn is involved. I mean, he sold Gingrich up and down as being such hot shit, and I didn’t think much of him at the interview. When we started the superintendent search, I told the board that we needed to get someone with experience with a big school district who could help us get some grants and stuff to ease the financial situation we’re getting into. With this idiot governor we’ve got, the school funding is just getting worse and worse since she sees the schools as a place to dip into for funds for all the damn left-wing liberal programs she can think of. That’s going to bite us in the ass, and sooner than we think. Hell, she took a bunch of money from the schools and dumped it into some damn college expansions downstate, as if the goddamn colleges don’t get enough money anyway with the fees and tuition they’re charging. That money should be going to the school foundation grant where it belongs.”
Although Susan was doing her best to note down Battle’s rant, as a college student facing the need to come up with the money to go to school, she wasn’t exactly sure how much she agreed with him. In Germany, of course, most of the unis were fully supported by the government, but that sure wasn’t the case in this state. She was pretty sure that some of the money Battle was ranting about were funds used to get Southern Michigan University going, so whether she wound up going there or not, it was money well spent as far as she was concerned. At least Mizuki would benefit, she thought.
“You probably have a point on that,” Mike replied, being conciliatory for the sake of keeping the conversation going. “I haven’t looked into it enough to be able to have an opinion. But getting back to the situation at hand, you’re sure there was no investigation done.”
“Honestly, I can’t say if there was one done or not,” Battle said, now a little more reflective and a little calmer. “I really doubt that there was, but all I can say is that there was no formal report ever made to the full board, and according to Ed, there wasn’t one made to the search committee, either. But with this kind of stuff lying out there and as easy to find as you say it was, that makes me think that Glenn just didn’t bother. That’s not going to happen again if I have anything to say about it.”
The conversation continued for another fifteen or twenty minutes, but there was little added to what had already been said. As it finally wound down, Battle said he had to be getting back to work. Mike thanked him for his help, and said it would be useful as things progressed. Finally, Battle headed back out the door, still carrying a head of steam but at least not mad at the Record-Herald. Susan suspected that the phone wires from his office were in real danger of melting in the next few hours, though.
As soon as Battle was gone, Susan glanced at her mother, who was taking each one of the three lines running into the building off hold – she must have done it early in the conversation so as to not be interrupted by the phone. With this story now out on the streets, in the back of her mind Susan had wondered why all three lines hadn’t been ringing at once.
“All right, everybody,” Mike said loud enough for the rest of the staff to hear – nobody had left while the whole thing was going on; this was important, and they all knew it. “I know everybody heard all of that conversation. Let’s keep a little quiet about it for a while, though. I’d just as soon the rumor mill didn’t pick some of that up just yet. I think George gave us our lead story for next week, but we need to cross-check it and expand it as much as we can. Susan, you got good notes on that, didn’t you?”
“Most of it,” Susan smiled. “He was going pretty fast there at times so I may have missed some. I think I want to sit down right now and pull them together. Maybe someone will have gotten what I missed.”
“I can’t fault you if you missed something,” Mike shook his head. “There was a lot there, but the basic points are pretty simple. Like this week’s story, we’re not going to say anything we can’t prove, or that we can’t quote directly, so get your notes pulled together while it’s still fresh in everybody’s mind.”
“Will do, Dad,” she said, heading for the junior reporter’s desk. “It sure makes me wish that I’d taken shorthand somewhere along the way, though. Maybe I will if the chance comes up sometime.”
“You know, that’s something I often thought about way the hell and gone back when I was in journalism school, and I never followed up on it. I’ve often wished I had.”
“What I don’t understand,” Susan said as she started the computer on the junior reporter’s desk booting – it hadn’t been done yet that morning – “Is why Battle hates Aho so much.”
“I don’t know,” Mike said. “But I know George has never had a good word for Glenn, as long as I’ve known him, and that must be twenty years, at least.”
“I know,” Anissa piped up. “It goes back to when we were all in school. I don’t want to call Glenn the school bully but he thought he was some kind of bad-ass, and he enjoyed making a pest of himself, especially to George. I don’t know what started it in the first place, but there was a whole series of fights that lasted over several years, and usually George came out on the short end of them. About the only place George ever managed to get back at Glenn was during scrimmages on the football field.”
“How’d that work?” Kirsten asked.
“Oh, George sacked him every chance he got, or clipped him, or pulled whatever dirty move he could manage. Several times it turned into fist fights. I wasn’t there at the scrimmages so I don’t know the details, but I’ll bet Harold could tell a story or two. I know he had to sit the both of them down a couple times when things got a little too personal. Anyway, I guess Glenn more or less grew up and got over it, but George’s philosophy has always seemed to be, ‘Never forgive, never forget.’ He’ll take a chunk out of Glenn’s ass every time he gets the chance.”
“Boys will be boys, I guess,” Susan commented as she clicked a couple spots on the screen to keep the boot-up going.
“It does seem pretty childish,” Anissa agreed. “But it’s a fact of life. I suspect the only reason Battle is on the school board is that he thinks it’ll give him the chance to take another shot at Glenn, and I guess now he’s got a real good one.” She thought about it for a moment, then added, “I suppose those scuffles in football practice have something to do with why George likes Jerome Weilfahrt so much as a football coach. Weilfahrt isn’t anything to write home about when it comes to discipline, and just lets the kids play rough with each other. That means that the kids who don’t want to put up with bullying and bullshit like that do something besides play football, and why the team is so lousy to begin with.”
“You’re right, pretty childish,” Mike said. “And now that you mention it, I remember a little of that crap that went on when I still had to cover football years ago. But stupid though it is, right at the moment I’m glad that it’s still going on and that George is still being so vindictive about it, because it gives us a real lever into this story. When you get right down to it, the question of why the board was so stupid as to hire Gingrich is a bigger story than the fact that Gingrich is a jerk and most likely a crook. It has more local implications, that’s for sure.”
“So we’re going to help George in his feud with Glenn, right?” Kirsten asked.
“In a way,” Mike agreed. “Not specifically, but we’re going in the same direction; we don’t want it to look like George is using us to take another layer off of Glenn’s ass. I would still like to know why Aho thinks Gingrich is such a big deal, but I suspect that it’s something we may never find out, or if we do, we won’t be able to print it.
“There’s something there that has to be important but invisible, that’s for sure,” Anissa agreed.
“True. But the fact remains that if George is anywhere near close to right, Glenn is at least partly at fault in the whole deal, so we need to do some serious work on it. Look, people, in the next few days the phones around here are going to be busy and there are going to be a lot of people asking how the board could have screwed up so bad. I think we know at least a little about it, but we need to know more since we’re the ones who give the community the answers. When you get right down to the bottom line, that’s what a community newspaper is all about, and we’re going to do it and do it right. If you hear any rumors on this, pass them along to Susan or me, but try to not start any yourselves. I know that’s going to be hard, but this is important.”
“Susan or you?” Anissa asked, with more of a question in her voice than she put into the words.
“Right,” Mike said. “Susan was the one who turned up the story on Gingrich in the first place, in several different ways. I know we haven’t talked about it much, but she has her own reason to want to take a chunk out of the superintendent’s ass.” He gave the staff a very short summary of Susan’s problem with Gingrich, and why it had caused her to go to college. “So, anyway, I think we need to give her a chance to take a shot back at him now that this is out. Susan, I want you to figure on researching and writing the story of how the board screwed up and hired the idiot in the first place. Be very sure of your facts, and like we did this week, we’re not going to print anything we can’t document or where we don’t have a direct quote. I will go over the story with you line by line, but I think it’ll be good for you to have your byline on the story. It needs to be strictly factual, but I’m planning on writing a pretty good editorial about it, so if there’s some opinion that needs to be worked in somewhere, let me know what it is.”
“I don’t know,” Susan shook her head, just a little overwhelmed by the idea. “I mean, I’m glad you have the faith in me, but this is an awful important story.”
“That it is, and it’s why you should have your byline on it,” her father said. “Like I said, I’ll help, we’ll all help, but this time it’ll be your story.”
“But I haven’t been to journalism school or anything,” she protested. “I’m not even sure journalism is what I want to do.”
“That part of it doesn’t matter,” Mike said. “Anissa has never been to journalism school, either. In fact, you already have a longer college career than she has. But walk down the hall and see how many sports reporting or photography awards she has from the state newspaper association. I know being a reporter isn’t something you want to do, but you have all the tools you need to be a good one, and this is where we’re going to prove it to you. You showed me you had the bug when you pulled out that notebook after Battle walked in. Now, what’s the next step, besides getting a legible and complete hard copy of those notes you took?”
“Well,” she said, not really having to think about it at all. “I could write a story right now based on what Battle said here earlier, but it would all be Battle making charges. At least some of what he said has to be backed up by talking with other people. I mean, I know we should at least try to talk to Aho, but he’s probably not going to say anything. If he does, all he’ll probably do is deny everything.”
“Right,” Mike agreed. “And you probably ought to have your ducks pretty well in a row before you go to him in the first place.”
“I figured that,” Susan nodded. “Right at the moment, it seems like the most important thing to do is to talk to Ed Rickenbaugh. He’s the only one we know who’s in a position to say there was no formal investigation report that he saw. If there was one, he ought to have seen it, but apparently he didn’t. It would be nice to be able to quote him directly.”
“Right again,” Mike said. “And we need to confirm that point. Beyond that, what else?”
“Someone, you or me or the both of us, needs to at least try to talk to the other board members, to get statements that confirm what Battle said. And, we probably ought to do it soon, while everyone is still worked up over the story that ran today.”
“Timing is everything. Just like Battle today, people sometimes will say something when they’re angry that they might not have said when they’ve had a chance to think about it.”
“We still don’t say anything about the deal that Gingrich tried to pull on me, right?”
“Again, right,” Mike said. “And we may not ever say anything about it in print. That would make it personal, so it’s something we need to avoid. I know you were angry as hell about it, but this way you get your revenge.”