DES MOINES, Iowa -- Of course, I was in the airport bar. It was a non-descript place with overpriced drinks and lousy food. But I needed a drink, and there was no place else to go. After something like 72 straight hours of mind-numbing corporate training gibberish, my mind was a sea of useless tripe and only several (or a dozen) snorts of Absolut were going to calm the waters.
With a half-empty bottle in front of me, thanks to a company credit card that was now near its limit, I sat alone in this plastic bar in humiliation and disgrace waiting for my flight back to Detroit. My traveling partner, a nice woman from the accounting department who regarded my current disheveled, catatonic state and my personality in general with a mixture of disgust, fear and pity, came bursting into the bar, bellowing at me. Through the alcoholic haze, all I could see was a whirling mass of brown hair and navy blue polyester.
"Christ, there you are!," she screeched. Her jabbering exploded inside my head like a hand grenade.
"The plane is about to take off. I shoulduv known to look for you here. Let's go."
I hadn't heard any boarding announcement. The gate was only about 50 feet away, but in my current condition, Carmen Policy could have been atop the ticket counter shrieking about "Death to the weird" and I wouldn't have heard a thing.
I gathered up my bags, including several new purchases such as a copy of the Financial Times, the latest edition of Hustler and a foam football in the shape of a corn cob and began an unsteady and unhurried shuffle toward the door.
"Hurry up!" she yelled again. I followed. There was an incident at the gate because my boarding pass was a mass of scrawled notes about "the metaphysics of the NFL," but the flustered ticket agent finally just waived me through. Our plane was one of those small businessman deals. I had to make my way down several flights of concrete stairs then across the runway to the waiting jet. By the time I reached the tarmac, I knew getting up the plane's steps was going to be a hit-or-miss proposition. I was a walking time bomb loaded down with junk, carrying a glass of vodka and a hotdog -- with a head full of powerful yet legal drugs. There were baggage handlers on the runway, so I had one young lady hold my drink while I pawned off my luggage to her partners. No way was I going to be able to negotiate the steps and aisles of the tiny aircraft in my condition. Bad craziness ahead. In fact, I was sure a sky marshal on board would spot me and immediately hose me down with mace. Fear began to grip me. America doesn't tolerate any weirdness aboard its jetliners these days. How was I going to cope?
Damn this demon drink. How the hell did I get here? Where am I? Iowa? God hell. What was I supposed to be doing? Flying home? Yes, that's it. The mission? Christ, I'd forgotten about that. Sweet merciful Jesus, I'd failed to learn anything about Iowa football or Eric Steinbach while I was in Des Moines. What had become of me? I was once a determined sports writer who never failed to get the story. Now I was a degenerate mess standing on a runway in the middle of a cornfield.
The training. Of course. That's why I'd been here. My company wanted me to become a better leader, so it sent me to the heartland, where some highly paid experts would fill my head with neat tricks and little games to play back home. Dammit all, I would come home as newspaperdom's Audie Murphy on speed.
What foolishness. Journalism is a corrupt trade that fouls everything it touches. That would be a tragedy, but we're all cheats, liars, pimps and whores to begin with, so it's a wash in the end. Editors and publishers squawk about ethics and lofty ideals, but grotesque profit margins are the idols worshiped at America's newspaper altar. How could they expect to send someone with half a brain .. who realizes what an evil and stupid business this is … to a lecture about newspapering without that person burning down the building for everyone's own good?
Ah, the madness of corporate America. They always send nonconformists like myself to these awful events. My spirit was nearly broken, saved only by a steady stream of vodka snuck in the men's room during my many breaks. After all, I was suffering from a debilitating kidney stone attack, so they certainly couldn't complain about my continuous visits to the bathroom. And of course, I had my powerful medication with me. All very legal. Little white capsules that, when taken with alcohol … zang! What the speakers were saying no longer made any sense -- and I certainly wouldn't have believed their mindless nonsense in the first place -- but it was all more palatable while under major sedation.
Of course, a self-induced semi-comatose state was the last thing I needed. I'd come to Iowa on a mission. Not the corporate uselessness and lies, but to discover something about one Mr. Eric Steinbach. He's the very large young man the Cleveland Browns would be wise, by my estimates, to hire Saturday. And he played his football at Iowa. So, my plan was to suffer through the "official" part of my trip as quickly and painlessly as possible, then get down to the real business -- investigating Steinbach. How had this unassuming kid from Illinois become a one-man machine that bulldozed any man or beast in his path? What do the locals have to say about him? If you mention his name on the streets, do the women swoon and men quail in fear?
I'd never find out. Things went steadily down hill the moment I got off the plane. I was already fairly loaded, thanks to the pain in my lower back, and there was a steady stream of maddening incidents and bars that kept me off track.
That, however, is a story for another day.
Now, three days later, my mission failed and my head and gut pounding, only booze was going to soothe the professional embarrassment of not getting the story. The airport bar was filled with faceless travelers, but I couldn't bear to look any of them in the eye. My shame was too great.
Perhaps the greatest embarrassment was learning that Steinbach didn't play in Des Moines.
How many cities could Iowa have? The state is a sea of cornfields. If the locals don't live in a barn, they must live in Des Moines, right? To my chagrin, the University of Iowa is in Iowa City, not Des Moines. Naturally, that would make tracking down insight into Steinbach far difficult than I'd anticipated. But this was Iowa. How different could one city amid the corn be from the next?
So instead of hitting the streets each night in search of the True Meaning of Eric Steinbach and Iowa football, I spent my time sloshing around the bars. Back at the hotel, some 19th century flop house downtown masquerading as a historic place, I cranked up Steely Dan on my portable stereo, turned on some porno for a nice background effect, ordered half the menu from room service and prepared to write.
Nothing came, naturally. I had nothing to say. All I'd see of Iowa was its airport, the skywalk and some bars. Winton's, for example, is a fine watering hole. Raccoon River Brewing Co. has good booze and food. The Olde English atmosphere at the Marriott's bar is relaxing.
But you don't want to read about Des Moines' bars. You want lusty tales of high adventure on the gridiron. It's Draft Day, and I've failed to bring you any insight into why the Cleveland Browns should draft Eric Steinbach. Why should this 6-foot-7, 290 lbs former Big Ten Lineman of the Year be the guy to blow open holes for William Green and protect Tim Couch or Kelly Holcomb's backside?
Well, why the hell not? After nearly 30 years of the sturm und drang of Browns football, I no longer believe there is any logical plan or path to follow. It's in the hands of a higher power. The Gods of Football behave in strange ways, and who are we to cross them? My ailing gut says this kid is the answer. I know nothing more about him than I did 10 days ago. Smarter, better paid men than me will decide if he's the answer. This is merely the ignorant opinion-rant of an unwashed, drunken sports writer.
All of us, however, are slave to karma. Not even Butch can fight it.
That was my epiphany on that runway in Des Moines. I will no longer consult the I Ching. We won't try to divine the difference between a priori reasoning of the Rationalists like Descartes versus the a posteriori reasoning of the Empiricists like Locke and then apply it to the Browns' decision-making process.
Which is closer to truth, art or philosophy? We'll leave that to Plato.
Which is closer to the ideal, finesse blockers or road graders? We'll leave that to Butch Davis.
My head hurts. No more football right now. No more Goethe or Rimbaud.
I'm headed back to the bar.
Former Ohio newspaper editor and reporter Bill Shea writes the Doc Gonzo column for Bernie's Insiders. He now spends his hermit-like days tending his miniature dachshunds deep within the misty forests along the storm-swept Lake Huron shores of Michigan's untamed Thumb. He can be reached at email@example.com.