Every Memorial Day, my longtime friend David would honor both his family and fellow Vietnam War veterans with a visit to his hometown cemetery, an hour’s drive west of St. Louis.
Once there, and with the help of his siblings and cousins, David would mow the grass in the family plot, scrub its granite and brass grave markers and place colorful, fist-sized peonies on the graves of those he knew and those he didn’t know.
Rain or shine, whether he was living in Miami or Tokyo, David tried to spend every Memorial Day doing what he believed was his sacred duty: remembering the dead and what they had sacrificed so he could stand that day, sweaty but free, in their collective, remembered presence.
David had sacrificed to be there, also. Two tours of duty in Vietnam as an aircraft carrier-based medic meant that he and his crewmates were always in danger whenever they helicoptered to rescue downed pilots on land or sea. The high-risk escapades also gave him a saucy, lifelong swagger.
The war and its divisive effects on the U.S. never left him. In fact, he left the U.S. and lived in Japan for nearly 20 years because of it. Japan brought him peace, a family and a career as an international trade consultant fluent in Japanese just as U.S. business ties to Asia began to bloom.
Interestingly, the most lucrative, far-reaching American contacts he made were in the then exploding U.S.-Asia grain trade. Investment money and U.S. ag exports were flooding Japan and South Korea and were about to get a toehold in China and smooth, charming David was smack in the middle of it all.
He returned to America in the late 1980s when the grain giants expanded into ethanol, fructose and several never-heard-of-before biotech processes — “bugs,” they called them — to “engineer” new items like lysine, a livestock feed supplement, and citric acid, a food additive.
Then, in 1993, a bolt of lightning struck farm country: The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) announced it was investigating Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) for allegedly fixing prices in some of its markets. Even more incredible, DOJ confirmed that its evidence included video and audio tapes made by an ADM insider, an executive named Mark Whitacre.
Whitacre had two weaknesses no corporate mole should possess: he couldn’t stop talking and his best friend in the grain trade was David. Whatever Whitacre knew or learned, David soon would know or learn.
And, soon thereafter, David’s contacts at the New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, and other outlets would know.
The ADM story, however, was unlike most tales of corporate wrongdoing. It was a multi-layered, multi-year saga of power and corruption that claimed the careers of both ADM executives who lived it and journalists who covered it because the truth was often hidden in a haystack of lies.
One of its biggest victims was David. He came to believe that the Justice Department had intentionally botched an even bigger case against ADM because of the company’s legendary political connections. To him, it was 1968 all over again; the nation had betrayed its values — and him — and he slowly sank into a sea of bitterness and paranoia.
The last time my family visited him before his August 2015 death, I spotted a sawed-off, 12-gauge shotgun painted to match the living room wall it was leaning against making it — in plain sight — all but invisible.
Why? I asked.
“Because,” he said, “you never know.”
Maybe not, but I do know that when his fear and anger at individuals replaced his love and duty for his nation, this honorable lion became a gun-hiding mouse. It was a tragic unwinding — one that no one would wish on anyone or any friend.
Or any nation.
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