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The Trial Of Gilbert Gunderson

Lectionary Tales For The Pulpit
62 Stories For Cycle B
Gilbert Gunderson has been the editor of the Willow Bluff weekly newspaper for as long as I, and everybody I know, can remember. Gilbert inherited The Free Press from his father, old Jack Gunderson, who, according to local lore, was reputed to have won it in a card game sometime around the turn of the century. To hear Gilbert tell it, the old man was never sure that he had gotten such a good deal in the long run. The Free Press, in both old Jack's and Gilbert's time, was never very profitable, but it had always been known as an honest, no-nonsense newspaper. "We print the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth," old Jack used to say, and Gilbert had carried on the tradition, though sometimes it had cost him readers and advertising revenue.

One community leader, in the midst of an enthusiastic introduction at the annual Lincoln Day Dinner, had referred to Gilbert as "the conscience of Willow Bluff." Gilbert had quickly demurred, saying, "I'm not anybody's conscience. I just try to provide accurate information so that everyone can decide what is right." The truth was probably somewhere in between these two extremes. Gilbert's blistering editorials were certainly more than "accurate information." He used every bit of his considerable persuasive power to convince his readers of the truth of certain ideas that were contrary to their prejudices.

I was surprised, then, that day not long after Gilbert became ill, when he declared that he had been a failure as a father and a newspaperman. He said, "When it counted the most for my family and this community, I was silent." I knew he was depressed about his lung cancer, and so I didn't ask him to elaborate. At that point, we were optimistic that the cancer could be contained by the radiation and chemotherapy treatments.

There was a smell of cleaning chemicals in the air as I walked down the long hospital corridor toward Gilbert's room. He had sounded urgent on the phone. "Get over here right now!" That was the way he always talked to us when he passed out assignments at the paper. But this was different; it was personal and I feared the worst.

Gilbert was propped up on a pillow with IVs in each arm and tubes trailing off to monitors on both sides of the bed. He looked pale and painfully thin, but the smile and the hearty hello were vintage Gilbert. All that was missing was the trademark cigarette dangling from his lip. It was the three packs a day of these "detestable cancer sticks," as Gilbert called them, that had brought him to this "deep, dark abyss into which every mortal is fated to plunge." That was another "Gilbertism" that all of us had heard him spout often down at the office.

"Get out your pad and pencil," Gilbert commanded, "I've got a story for you to print before I die. When I'm dead, the paper will be yours and you can print anything you please."

This was Gilbert's way of telling me he was leaving me the paper. It was all I could do to hold back my tears and keep myself from hugging him. Gilbert knew how much The Free Press meant to me. It was his way of telling me he loved me. He had treated me like a son ever since the death of his own son after the war. But Gilbert was not one for hugs, even in these dire circumstances, so I dutifully took out my pad and pencil.

"I dreamed that I died last night," Gilbert began, "and I found myself in a great judgment hall, standing before Christ himself. He was seated on an alabaster throne and dressed in a translucent white robe that was trimmed in a shimmering substance that sparkled like diamonds. There was a gold crown on his head and he held a silver scepter in his right hand. The Book of Life was spread out before him on a low table carved from the wood of a melaleuca alternifolia tree. The sweet fragrance of the melaleuca tree's healing oils filled the hall."

Gilbert loved to use obscure words and phrases that sent the rest of us scrambling for our dictionaries and encyclopedias. And he was a stickler for detail, so I struggled to get down every word.

Gilbert took a slow, painful breath and went on, "Christ pointed to the book of life and said, 'I see here that you are a newspaper editor and your name is Gilbert Gunderson. Is that true?'

" 'Yes, my Lord, I am Gilbert Gunderson.'

" 'Yes, yes, a very good record, indeed,' Christ said as he glanced down the page. 'But there is this one matter of the chemical company.'

"Christ looked up from the book and looked me square in the eye.

" 'It seems you knew about the danger of the chemicals produced there, but you wrote nothing to warn the public in your newspaper. It says here that you had seen a State Department report showing that these chemicals caused cancer in adults and birth defects in children.'

" 'Yes, I knew the chemicals were dangerous. But, the town needed the jobs. That chemical company paid the first decent wages that the people of Willow Bluff had seen since World War II, and they provided health and pension benefits. It brought economic stability to Willow Bluff, probably saved the town. I doubt if there would be anything left of Willow Bluff today if it hadn't been for that chemical company, and the Vietnam War. I figured that since the chemicals were being used to defoliate the jungles in the war effort, maybe it wouldn't hurt if no one knew what they were making. I would have been crucified if I had published one bad word about that chemical company. No one would have advertised in my paper and everyone else would have canceled their subscriptions. It would have been the end of The Free Press.'

" 'I see,' Christ said. 'And I see here that thousands of American veterans who fought in that war, and thousands of Vietnamese soldiers and civilians, have died as a result of cancers caused by exposure to these chemicals. It says that your own son, Jack, was one of those who died. Is that true?'

"It was at that point I woke up in a cold sweat with my body trembling from head to foot. I didn't get a wink of sleep the rest of the night."

Gilbert looked at me with tears in his eyes and said, "I cannot carry this burden of guilt to my grave. I must tell the community of my sin. It was wrong of me to keep silent. Write it all down: the dream, Jack's death, the huge profits the chemical company earned from selling their death potions to the Defense Department, the pressures from the leaders of this community to ignore what the chemical company was doing, my complicity in keeping the secret; write it all and print it on the front page in this week's edition. Go to the library; look up Agent Orange. It's all there."

Gilbert dismissed me with a wave of his hand and I knew there was no more to be said. I headed to the library and set to work. One of the best resources I found was a book called My Father, My Son by Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, Jr., and his son, Lieutenant Elmo Zumwalt III. The blurb on the dustcover said:

... Elmo volunteered for one of the most dangerous Vietnam missions, commanding swift boats that patrolled rivers and canals. It was along these very rivers that Agent Orange, approved by his father in an effort to save Navy lives, was sprayed. Elmo miraculously survived to marry his college sweetheart, begin a successful law practice in North Carolina, and father two children. Then in 1983, he found he had cancer. He, and his father, believe it was Agent Orange that caused his cancer as well as severe learning disabilities in his son. Elmo tried to beat the odds with painful chemotherapy and bone-marrow transplants ....

Elmo succumbed to the cancer not long after the book was published. The Zumwalts discovered in their research, during their vain attempts to save his life, that Agent Orange is a potent herbicide ..."as devastating to foilage as DDT is to insects."

The chemical itself is a fifty-fifty mixture of two herbicides, 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T. A third element, dioxin, which is an extremely toxic chemical, was found as a contaminate in Agent Orange, apparently as a product of the production process itself ... Eleven chemical companies were involved in defoliant production, including some major ones such as Monsanto, Dow, Diamond, Shamrock, Hercules, and North American Philips. (p. 235) ... investigations have revealed that some of the chemical companies knew at the time of the State Department's report that evidence existed indicating 2,4,5-T caused birth defects in animals. And when evidence was later published suggesting there were potentially serious health hazards with this chemical, the companies denied it ... As one Food and Drug Administration researcher reported, dioxin would be as potent a cause of birth defects as thalidomide. (p.236)

It was all starting to fit together. I knew now why Gilbert felt so guilty. I read on ...

As reports about Agent Orange's potential hazards mounted, and congressional hearings brought additional pressure to bear, this country discontinued spraying Agent Orange in Vietnam in April 1970. (p. 237)

The Zumwalts quoted a Swedish study by Dr. Lennart Hardell which was published in The British Journal of Cancer:

... it suggests in summary, that exposure to organic solvents, chlorophenols and/or phenoxy acids (2,4,5-T) constituted a risk factor for the incidence of malignant lymphoma ... (p. 237)

This was the final piece in the puzzle. I knew what had caused the untimely death of Gilbert's son and my best friend, Jack Gunderson. Jack had served in the same area in Vietnam as Lieutenant Zumwalt. He had been discharged in January of 1970 and had died of lymphoma cancer in 1987, the same year the Zumwalts book was published.

I wrote it all up, and then I paid a visit to our local chemical company. They admitted manufacturing Agent Orange in the late 1960s, but they refused to comment on what they called "any alleged toxic effects."

There was enough for a story without their cooperation. I set it up for the front page, and then I took it over to the hospital to show Gilbert. I was surprised to find that his condition was much worse than when I had seen him earlier in the day. He was flat on his back, his eyes were closed, and there was an oxygen mask over his nose. Gilbert opened his eyes when I took his hand. He motioned for me to remove his mask. The attending nurse, who had been adjusting his IVs, nodded her approval. Gilbert thanked me for coming. I started to tell him what I had discovered at the library, but he put his fingers to his lips and said, "Get out your pad and pencil." I quickly complied.

"I had another dream while you were gone," Gilbert said, "although this time I think it was more like the real thing."

I realized Gilbert was trying to tell me that he had had a near death experience.

"I felt myself slipping away," he said, "floating upwards out of my body and through a long tunnel toward a bright light. My son, Jack, and my father came to meet me. They embraced me and told me how glad they were to see me. I hugged them and heard myself laughing out loud in utter and complete joy. Then Jesus came and took my hand. I have never felt such peace in my whole life. He said, "We've been waiting for you, Gilbert. It is time for you to rest. But first you must go back and say good-bye to your friend. That's when you came in," Gilbert said, smiling up at me.

Then, with uncharacteristic tenderness, Gilbert said, "Now, give us a kiss and let this old man die in peace."

I kissed him and hugged him for a long time. The next day, my story about Gilbert's dreams, his silence about Agent Orange, and the cause of Jack's death appeared on the front page of The Free Press in the column next to his obituary. I printed every word, just as he told me, except the part about the kiss. That would always be mine to keep.


Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, Jr., and Lieutenant Elmo Zumwalt III, My Father, My Son (Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1987).

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