“Men still live who, in their youth, remember pigeons; trees still live who, in their youth, were shaken by a living wind. But a few decades hence only the oldest oaks will remember, and at long last only the hills will know.”
–Aldo Leopold, “On a Monument to the Pigeon,” 1947
My grandfather was a great man, the governor of Michigan, but my mother married a man of weak moral fiber, of flimsy character, a drunk, some might say, a gambler others would insist, a loaf with magnificent ambitions, Iâ€™d say, and weâ€™d all be right. As a result, I exist balanced precariously on that ambiguous tightrope between doing what is sensible and what draws me. And what is sensible rarely draws me.
Had I not followed what drew me, Flint, the town I transformed with courage and vision and genius, would not exist. Or it would simply exist as a mud-flecked memory on the road to Detroit. Years ago, I started my carriage business there and, when I realized how the automobile would transform the modern world, introduced manufacturing.Â Â Seventy-seven thousand workers would eventually work at General Motors; held fast by the deep roots Iâ€™d sown.
Regardless, Iâ€™ve come from the Buick offices in Flint to hear why General Motorsâ€™ stock has plummeted and, as a result, why they â€“ the board of directors, the bankers, Raskob and Du Pont — will use this ripe news to oust me. Theyâ€™ll act like they had nothing to do with it, that it was my stewardship that brought the great and mighty General Motors, the corporation I built from the ground up, to its knees. They are liars. They artificially collapsed the stock to get their hands on it, to gain control. They are vultures picking out the eyes of an injured calf. They are maggots that survive by laying eggs in dark, moist places only to emerge as scabrous flies. The J.P. Morgan partners are the fattest maggots of them all; their lies and deceit stink.
I should have never trusted them â€“ not Raskob, who is the Du Pontâ€™s representative, not the Morgan Partners, not the Du Ponts. But I was cut from a different ilk, a product of a generation where friendship mattered. Where loyalty reigned supreme. Friendship and loyalty are words that turn sour in these menâ€™sâ€™ mouths.
Now I stand outside General Motors Corporate headquarters, the building Raskob commissioned at a price of $20 million. Itâ€™s a magnificent bright spring day but the breeze brings the scent of sewage from the Detroit River. Cars rumble down the street, damn near all of them Buicks or Chevys…and, of course, Fords. As I look up at the building Iâ€™m about to enter, I notice thousands of long-winged birds circling the building, their underbodies iridescent against the rising sun. While I find this somewhat odd, Iâ€™m too distracted by my worries.Â Â What schemes has the board hatched this time? What lies will they present as facts?
My devoted assistant, Mr. Murphy, stands by my side. We both wear dark suits, vests, our ties silk and knotted smartly, our hair slicked back, our shoes polished. Heâ€™s a good foot taller than me, though, his height feeling magnified today against my five-six-inch frame. Iâ€™m still lithe, though. Even at 59 Iâ€™m a spry man. Iâ€™m quick-witted and optimistic because thatâ€™s what the stockholders expect. So thatâ€™s what I portray. But, inside, and for the first time in my life, Iâ€™m torn up. Iâ€™m scared. My hands perspire as I try to hide my wifeâ€™s cotton handkerchief that Iâ€™ve wrapped around the handle of my briefcase. My wife had our housekeeper sew cotton pads under my armpits to absorb what feels like fountains flowing out of me. I must not let my fear betray me. I must not allow them to see that theyâ€™ve won.
I try to remind myself that Wall Street crowned me â€˜the bull of bulls,â€™ that I fought off the bears â€“ the short-selling leeches of Wall Street â€“ more times than I can count, that I handled more than 11 million shares of stock at one time. One-point-two-billion American dollars in stock. I could have wiped these menâ€™s asses with the money I made and never known Iâ€™d flushed a cent down the toilet.
Financial winds change quickly, though, and as of today, Iâ€™ve poured every last cent into retaining control of my company, of General Motors. Iâ€™ve rescued it from the bankers before, always come out on top, come out smelling prettier than rose water. This time, though, Raskob and Du Pont join the fray to form what feels like a solid mass against me. They feel impenetrable.
â€œShall we, Mr. Murphy?â€? I open my palm to the heavy brass door. It was meant to be a confidant gesture but it feels weak, inefficient.
He bows, just slightly, the way he always does, â€œAfter you, sir.â€?
The boardroom is on the top floor of the main tower. It is magnificent. Even I will give them that. The limestone is so white that it appears translucent, the marble polished to a high sheen, the ceilings barreled and inlaid with intricate mosaics, the windows reach from floor to four-story ceiling. Six directors sit on one side of a monstrously long mahogany table. At the far end sit the banking pawns from J.P. Morgan. They quiver with excitement. The floors are grey and white granite squares, and I suddenly see them as pawns on a giant chessboard. The king and queen — Mr. Du Pont and Mr. Raskob — sit at the far end of the table, at the greatest distance and opposite from where Mr. Murphy and I sit. Blood drips from their beaks.
As we situate ourselves, the buzzardsâ€™ low hum recedes into the cathedral-high ceiling, wraps around the marble balustrades. I hide my hands under the table and use the hankie to dry them enough to grip my pen. For some reason, two thoughts run steel-rail hard and fast against each other. One is the fear of being ousted from the company I created. The other is my concern for my daughter, the one I denied my name, the dearest thing in the entire world to me, Adelaide.
My sensible side lost when it came to the women in my life, too. Yes…hard to believe. My first wife and I were married too young and had two children. I never loved her. The children are both spoiled rotten, shiftless, make poor decisions, gamble, play hard and fast with my money, marry on a whim, divorce soon after. My second wife, a friend of my daughterâ€™s, is an elegant, fine woman. She is twenty-five years my junior (yes, I am an old fool, too!) but I do love her. And she me. We have no children.
Adelaide is the child of my mistress (a woman of sensitive emotions, prone to fits of dark moods unlike anything Iâ€™ve ever seen) and is the dearest thing in the entire world to me. She is the one I worry about. The one to whom Iâ€™ve left nothing. The others were sharp enough to take what Iâ€™d given them and let the lawyers hide it in places where I could not get my hands on it. Adelaideâ€™s portion, however, I put back into my business dealings. I was always optimistic about my success. Now I know that was a mistake.
She has neither my name nor my fortune. Sheâ€™s only in high school, quiet and book-smart to a fault, lovely in a way that breaks my heart, and completely impractical about what it takes to survive in the world. For instance, she writes long treatises about the plight of the carrier pigeon and sends these arguments about the human butchering of a species to newspapers all over the United States. And they are published! The carrier pigeon, for heaven sakes! The Ectopistes Migratorius, she argues, was once the most common bird in the United States. Millions, perhaps billions of them darkened the skies so that people thought that the end of the world had come, the flocks gigantic enough to blot out the sun and send people into cold shivers. They are now extinct. Humans went at them hard and without mercy. Cut them down with rifles, nets, raided their nesting areas, preyed on the squabs.
Raskob clears his throat, calls the meeting to order, and I am brought back to the matters at hand.
â€œMr. Durant,â€? he begins, his fine white skin and feminine features practically glowing in the morning light, â€œlet me get right to the point. The Morgan partners, the du Ponts, and I are concerned that your recent financial missteps could be disastrous to several banking houses and to General Motors itself.â€? He prattles on, throwing out words and phrases like heedlessly buying stock on the margin and over extended and indebtedness, until I whir with rage. Then he smirks, â€œAnd worst of all, your misguided decision to sell GM stock on the installment plan has given riff-raff the opportunity
â€œMr. Raskob,â€? I interrupt, â€œthe riff-raff, as you refer to them, built this company! It was only through their investment that General Motors exists today!â€?
Iâ€™m not going to lie. In my attempt to regain control of General Motors, I was guilty of his accusations. But the line between risk and failure is often not distinct. Through my recklessness, I had built the company that the bankers were now very close to wresting away from me. Raskob continues, barely allowing me to speak or defend myself in any way. Hours pass while they pull out pie charts and graphs and toss around numbers to prove their points. Mr. Murphy and I try to defend our positions but the longer they prattle, the more steam they build. Outside, through the conference roomâ€™s floor to ceiling windows, I mark day turning into night as the moon traverses the sky and the sun glows just below the horizon. I look at my watch. Itâ€™s 6 am and the sun has broken brilliantly over the horizon. The entire room is washed in light and all of us, right down to the vultures at the end of the table, shade our eyes.
The sky suddenly darkens to an inky blot. Upon closer inspection, I see that the black sky has pressed into the huge windows and my blood chills. The sky has become a living thing — shifting, flapping, pounding â€“ against the windows until the glass shatters like a jagged waterfall and millions of birds pour through the openings. The men at the other end of the table stand, suddenly huge and vulturous, flapping enormous wings. The birds pouring through the window have powerful breasts, wedge-shaped tails, long pointed wings, shining metallic bronze, green, and purple necks, rose-colored breasts, bright red irides.
The powerful downdraft knocks Mr. Murphy and me off our chairs and my skin ripples in gooseflesh. Mr. Murphy has brought his briefcase over my head to shield me but I push it away to stand, lift my arms to welcome this flock — the Ectopistes migratorius — reborn out of extinction to cow my enemies. And, while the vultures deadly black wings break the necks of thousands of pigeons, they keep coming and coming and coming. By sheer number, they overpower the vultures, peck out their eyes, and as quickly as they entered, exit carrying every last one of them out the window with their lake-colored talons.
I help Mr. Murphy to his feet and we stand there looking out the window through which our enemies have disappeared until a young woman, surprisingly similar in stature to my Adelaide, walks in with heels clicking.
â€œCoffee, Mr. Durant?â€? Her irises are bright red. Her arm swoops to reveal two china cups, a small pitcher of milk, sugar cubes in a bowl.
â€œWhy, thank you,â€? I manage, wiping a bright white dropping off my suit sleeve, â€œwouldnâ€™t that be just lovely.â€?
Christine RiceÂ is the editor-in-chief of Hypertext Magazine and the founder of Hypertext Studio. She lives and writes in Chicago.