I run a little acting business. You might say I’m the coach, manager, agent and cheerleader for the actors I work with. You probably have never heard of me, but I’ll bet you would recognize the actors I represent from various movies, television programs, advertisements, and theater productions they’ve starred in. My name is Frederick James, I’m forty something, with brown frumpy hair, not quite six foot tall, and people say I bear a strong resemblance to Michael J. Fox. My job is training animals for shows, movies, and television. My business, Animals on Call, is located in California’s Yorba Linda area. Animals on Call operates from my ranch, not a big ranch, eight-hundred acres. Close enough to Hollywood to be known and close enough to the ocean to be fun.
Right now the problem is that there’s a real drought in animal movies. For a while the rage was dogs, they were in every movie and television program that had families and kids. Everything from Rinn Tinn Tinn, Lassie, Benjie, Eddie, the list goes on and on. Now, fuhgeddaboudit, you could have the most brilliant dog in acting history, but she will be lucky to be doing Kennel Ration commercials. Acting has always been that way, one day you’re hot and in demand and the next, no one remembers your name. Therein lies my problem. Every animal on the ranch continues to eat and needs tender loving care, whether money is coming in or not. Right now, money was only going out of my account. Therefore, we also board horses, teach people how to ride and, at times, have even sunk so low as to do pony rides at county fairs.
It was a normal day; the morning chores had been done and I was at my desk deciding which bills to pay and which ones to let slide. Suddenly the door burst open and two men in military uniforms walked into my office.
I stood up and introduced myself, “Good afternoon, I’m Frederick James.”
“I’m Lieutenant Baker and this is Sergeant Smith.”.
We shook hands.
“Please have a seat.” I said, gesturing to a set of chairs.
“No thanks Mr. James, Do you by chance have a conference room where we could speak in private?”
“Please, this way,” I led them through the door to the right of my office. It used to be a conference room but now it was more a storage area of props, posters, boxes of…I’m not sure…stuff from the glory days.
I went to the back of the room, opened the refrigerator door, and said, “Care for a drink? We have beer, Diet Coke, ginger ale, and water.”
The Lieutenant said“ No thanks, but help yourself .”
“I’ll have a Diet Coke.” the Sergeant responded.
I handed the Sergeant a Diet and grabbed an Amber Bock for myself, twisted the cap off and tossed it into one of the many boxes sitting next to the wall.
“Please have a seat.” I said.
We all took a seat, and the Lieutenant pulled his briefcase up on the table and opened it.
“I took a slug of my beer and said, “Nothing like a cold drink on a hot day.”
Ignoring my remark the Lieutenant asked, “Is it okay if I call you Jimmy?”
“My name is Frederick James,” I answered, “But I’ve been called Fred, Freddie, James, Jimmy, Jim, and even Rick. Having two first names is confusing but as long as the check is good, I don’t really care what you call me.”
Not even a smile. Both of the army men sat there with such blank expressions on their faces. I was tempted to wave my hand in front of their eyes and ask, “Hello? Anybody in there?” I thought better of it and instead asked, “So, Gentlemen, what can I do for you?”
“Before we get into that, let me give you the backstory.” Lieutenant Baker said. “Is that okay with you Jimmy?”
“Hey, whatever you want to do is fine with me,” I said.
“We’re from Fort Hunter Liggett,” He said, “I hear you’re the best of the best when it comes to training animals. At least that’s what Colonel Potter believes. He feels that if you can train an opossum, you could train anything. Potter was at his granddaughter’s birthday party and saw the children’s movie, “Petie the Petrified Possum.” Old Potter got so excited he made the entire staff watch it. That was some funny stuff. The way Petie would faint every time he got scared.”
“How in the world did you get the possum to go into a dead faint like that??” Sergeant Smith asked.
“It’s just what they naturally do…” I started to say.
“I SALUTE YOU JIMMY!!” Lieutenant Baker loudly exclaimed as he stood up and saluted.
“Thanks, but I’m not sure what I’ve done…”
“What you’ve done is give Old man Potter hope for a holistic solution to a huge problem that he inherited from the previous administration.
Lieutenant Baker moved to the chair next to me, sat down, put his hand on my shoulder and quietly said, “What I’m about to tell you cannot be repeated outside this room. Understand?”
I nodded the affirmative.
In fact,” he continued, “if you didn’t have a Tier Four security clearance, we couldn’t even discuss this with you. “
“Wait a minute! There’s obviously been some mistake,” I said. “You’ve got the wrong guy; I’ve never been in the service, and I don’t have ANY LEVEL of security clearance.”
They both burst out laughing. I had the feeling I was about to hear the punch line from some kind of practical joke.
Lieutenant Baker held out his hand and the Sergeant handed him some papers from his briefcase.
“This was so important to the Old Man that we fast-tracked your security clearance.” he said, handing me an envelope made out to Frederick James. While I opened the envelope, and looked over my security clearance papers, he continued with his explanation.
“Jimmy, have you ever heard of Lyme disease?”
“Yeah, people all over the country get it from tick bites.” I said.
“That’s right! But what most people don’t know is that the disease was developed in one of our labs in Northern Connecticut. The idea was to develop a disease, not to kill, but to weaken enemy soldiers. And, this is the brilliant part, this disease would come from infected ticks. It was so simple,” He said, “All we had to do was fly over enemy combatants and drop a few million infected ticks into their camp. We would give the ticks a few days to do their work and sweep in and take the area away from men who were too sick to fight.”
“If this was a military idea, how has it spread to the civilian populations?” I asked.
“Those ticks are not as easy to control as we thought. We figured an infected tick hitched a ride out of the lab and the rest is history.” he answered.
“We can’t let our troops get infected,” he continued, “and we used to think that, before we sent our troops in, we would simply spray the area with insecticide, killing every tick that crawled.”
“So, why not just stick with the original plan?” I asked. “I mean it sounds like a good idea to me.”
“Two words. Agent Orange. The Pentagon is looking for other ways to kill the ticks: holistic, natural, Non Chemical ways.”
“Let me paint a picture for you.” Sergeant Smith said, staring off into space, his hand moving across his line of vision. “The ticks have done their worst to the enemy combatants, who are lying in their bunks, too sick and weak to pick up a gun. The moment is right to attack but we know that the ticks are still there. Under cover of darkness a few trucks pull close to the front lines. Cages in the back of the trucks carry the one animal that loves to eat ticks, opossum. The order is given, cage doors fly open and out come the possums. They run through the fields, into the enemy camp, and, when the ticks are gone, circle back to the trucks. When they return, we know, without a doubt, that the area is safe for our troops to move in.”
“Wait a minute!” I said. “Are you saying you want ME to train opossums to sweep a field clean of ticks and when they’re finished to return to the trucks?”
“BINGO!” Baker yelled, “We’ve seen what you did with Petie the Possum in that movie. If you can train one Possum, we believe, you can train many more.”
“And teach our troops how to train them as well.” Sergeant Smith added
Lieutenant Baker reached into his briefcase and pulled out a stack of papers. Handing me the top six sheets he said, “Here’s the proposal in writing with a budget, and expectations. If you agree to everything in the document, sign it and we will be on our way.”
I scanned the documents. My eyes quickly found the amount that I would be guaranteed and the bonus if we succeeded in a certain amount of time. All I had to do was sign the paper and I wouldn’t have to even think about doing pony rides at the county fair for a few years down the road. This was too good to pass up and yet…. Training Petie Possum to run around in front of a camera, and faint on cue, was simple compared to what they were asking me to do.
“This is a big commitment.” I said. “Do I have to decide right now? Could you give me a few days to go over the proposal and get back with you?”
“How about I give you a call tomorrow at Seventeen Hundred hours?” Lieutenant Baker said. “That gives you a little more than twenty-four hours.”
“Yeah, that should be fine.” I responded.
Baker and Smith stood up, and Baker closed his briefcase. I followed suit and opened the door. I reached out to shake Lieutenant Baker’s hand. He pulled me close, patted me on the back and said, “This is a proud moment for you, Jimmy. Your country is counting on you.”
I watched as they drove off, feeling nervous, concerned, I’m not sure what the feeling was. But it wasn’t even close to being proud.