Welcome to Booker, Texas. [Photo: Al Jazeera]
Ten miles. Sixteen kilometres. That’s how deep I got into Texas before being asked to leave.
Allow me to explain. I’m in the middle of a two-week drive across the United States. I am stopping along the way in small towns and big cities to talk to people of all walks of life about the wide-ranging impact (or not) of 9/11 on American life.
As we’re driving though the panhandle of Oklahoma, and as small towns whizz by outside the window, I noticed the local high schools seemed to be preparing for Friday night football. And the only thing better than Friday night high school football in Oklahoma is Friday night high school football in Texas.
“Great,” I say. “Let’s stop at a random high school and film a game and talk to people about 9/11 what better a setting to immerse ones self into Texas rural life than high school football.”
The Texas border is only a few miles away. We decide to take an abrupt right turn on Highway 23 (maybe it's a state road, and not a highway, not sure) and about 15 minutes later we come across a sign that reads, “Welcome to Texas: Drive Friendly, the Texas Way.” I slowed to 75 mph.
About 10 miles into The Lone Star State we came across the first town: A place called Booker, population about 1,500. It’s about 10 blocks wide, and 10 blocks deep.
I roll down my window. “Excuse me, where is the local high school?” I ask a woman at a stop sign.
Within four minutes we are pulling into the parking lot of Booker High School and the scene could not be more ideal for someone in my business. The timing is spot on: Twenty minutes before kickoff sun setting over the plains a warm, dry breeze and a faint sound of a high school band warming up.
There are about a dozen cars in the parking lot, and about 150 people in the bleachers awaiting kickoff. This isn't exactly Cowboys Stadium, but that is not what I was looking for anyways.
This is Friday night in Booker, Texas and the Booker High School "Fighting Kiowas" are about to take the field.
For me, it was just a beautiful scene in every way.
I easily imagine sitting in the bleachers, eating a hot dog (or three) and drinking a Coke, talking football (the American kind) with parents and maybe slipping in a little 9/11 if they allow me.
It’s a no brainer for me. I love this stuff. I’ll take this over sitting in a White House press briefing any day of the week.
I walk towards the bleachers and see a guy collecting money to enter. “How much to watch the game?” I say.
“I can swing that,” I say.
A guy standing nearby says: “Feel free to give a donation. You know, just in case our school bus breaks down or something, the extra money helps a lot.”
I wasn’t sure if he was serious or joking, but I kick in an extra dollar, and smile. Karma.
So it was $3 to get in. What a deal.
At the snack bar teenage-looking girls are selling soda and snacks.
Some people are sitting on beach chairs on grass, with giant plastic mugs in their hands.
Everyone seems happy and friendly as can be.
We probably could have just started filming right then and there, but since we popped in unannounced I thought it would be best to introduce myself.
“Hi, where is the principal?” I ask one woman.
“Oh, Mrs Yauck, she is right over there sitting down in the bleachers, near the top.”
After the national anthem was over, I approached Mrs. Yauck.
“Hi, my name is Gabriel Elizondo. I am a journalist, I live in Brazil, and I am driving across the country to talk to people about the 10 year anniversary of 9/11. I randomly stopped in here in Booker and I would love to film a little of the football game and maybe see if anybody, like the parents, want to talk to me about their views of 9/11 during halftime.”
Mrs Yauck bounced up from her seat, approaches me warmly, and gives me a wonderful Texas hospitality smile and said something to the effect of “what an interesting project” I was doing.
She was all grins and good cheer. Could not have been nicer, really. I think her brain was still trying to process: Journalist. Brazil. 9/11. But that was understandable, as I am sure it’s not everyday that trifecta comes to Booker.
“So you will need to send me the link of this when it goes on the internet or whatever,” she says.
“Absolutely,” I say.
She said she was out of business cards, so I reached into my back pocket, pulled out my wallet, grabbed by business card, and handed it to Mrs. Yauck.
I don't think anything can wipe that double-wide smile off Mrs Yauck’s face. But my Al Jazeera business card does the job pretty quick.
“So you’re from Al Jazeera,” Mrs Yauck says in a sharp tone, still looking down at my card. Looking up at me, she adds quickly, “ So what’s your spin on this story?”
“I don’t have a spin,” I say, still smiling to try to ease any sudden tension. “What I told you is exactly what I want to do. Just talk to people, film a bit. That is it. Nothing more. Nothing less.”
“But you’re with Al Jazeera?”
“Yes,” I say proudly, still smiling.
But Mrs Yauck is again staring down at my business card.
“Our superintendent is here, let me just go talk to him and I’ll be right back.”
(A superintendent is like a CEO of a school district, the top boss).
I guess ‘my project’ is not quite as interesting anymore to her.
She then leaves, taking my card with her.
I sit down in the bleachers. And wait.
About five minutes later, a man comes walking up to me, alone, and he is clearly the superintendent. He just walks up to me and glares. It’s a sharp glare, like I intentionally backed up over his daughter’s puppy and laughed about it.
Needless to say, he is not smiling.
He doesn’t introduce himself to me, that I recall. But it doesn't take Julian Assange to figure out later he is Michael Lee.
So I tried my best: “So, I guess Mrs Yauck told you who I am. I am a journalist crossing the country doing random stories about the 10 year anniversary of 9/11 and I was hoping to talk to some people here about it at the game, and get some opinions.”
He then said something I could not entirely make out, because his voice sort of quivered from a combination of being obviously furious and nervous at the same time.
But I am pretty sure he said:
“I think it was damn rotten what they did.”
“I am sorry, what who did?” I say, not sure exactly if he was calling me rotten, the terrorists rotten, Al Jazeera rotten, or all of the above.
“The people that did this to us,” he says back to me with a smirk, still glaring uncomfortably straight at my eyes.
“Well, I think it was bad too,” I say. “Well, do you think, sir, we can film a bit of the game and talk to some people here about just that?”
“No. You can’t film, you can’t take pictures, or interview people.”
“OK, can I ask why? And if you allow me can I explain…”
“No, I just expect that you will respect it.”
Clearly he didn’t want to hear anything from me.
Al Jazeera is not welcome here.
Me, in the parking lot, after being told I was not welcome at Booker High School football game. [Photo: Al Jazeera]
He then hands me back my business card – a true sign of patronising disrespect. I hate you so much and think so little of you I don’t even want your dirty business card.
As we both turn away from each other to walk off, I am pretty sure he said, “I guess you can stay and watch the game if you want, if you wish.”
That was sort of like telling your neighbour: “I made lasagna, I put rat poison in yours, so come on over as we’d love to have you for dinner!”
Mr Lee later issued a public response to Gabriel Elizondo. You can read it here.
I am not one of these journalists who thinks a press badge gives me access anywhere I want. (If I did, I would have never bothered to ask permission at Booker High School in the first place). Mr Lee is the boss of the schools, and it's his right, I guess, to say I am not welcome on property.
But as I walk away, I must admit I am dejected and truly disappointed.
Mrs Yauck is sitting in the bleachers a few feet away.
“Well, I guess I am not welcome here,” I say to her.
She just sort of nods and gives me a fake sympathetic, “Oh, OK,” thing. And a smirk. She doesn’t get up. Her big Texas hospitality smile still hasn’t reappeared. At least not with me. I seemed terrific to her 15 minutes ago, but now I am toxic, I guess.
“Good luck with the game tonight,” I tell her, and walk down the bleachers and back to the parking lot, deflated that I could not tell this nice little story about the town.
"OK," I think she says.
I guess I could have snuck back in and secretly filmed with my Blackberry. I could have went back in with a camera rolling and confronted Mr Lee, which would have certainly got the classic shot of him putting his hand in front of the lens of the camera and likely provoked him to call the local sheriff. It would have turned into the largest scandal Booker had likely ever seen. But I quickly decide against it, not wanting to make a mockery of 9/11 just for a cheap TV confrontation trick. That was not my objective going in, and wouldn't be my objective now.
But what about my three bucks?
I wonder what the refund policy is here in Booker if you get kicked out of a high school football game?
I thought about asking the ticket guy for my three dollars back, but thought better of it. It was an easy call.
Plus, if the fuel pump blows on the school bus, I, at least in good conscience, will know I did my part.
(But, Mr Lee, if you really feel that strongly about it, and for the sake of principle don’t want Al Jazeera money in your school district coffers, you can make a check out to Al Jazeera Network and mail to PO Box 23127, Doha, State of Qatar).
On the drive out of town, I see a train parked on a grassy knoll and it has painted on the side the words, “Welcome to Booker.”
I get out and snap a picture with my Blackberry camera.
I got back in the car, and ponder how interesting it would have been to cut through the red tape of Mr Lee and talk to the people at the game. How had 9/11 affected them? Do they feel safer now than they did on September 10, 2001? How would this All American town commemorate the 10 year anniversary?
I unwittingly get my answer to the last question, and I don’t need Mr Lee’s permission on this one.
On a main intersection in Booker a little sign reads: “Gun Show. Sept. 10 – 11. Legion Hall.”
Well, I guess that's my spin on this whole story.
A sign in Booker, Texas [Photo: Al Jazeera]
Follow Gabriel Elizondo on Twitter @elizondogabriel and tweets from his journey across America at #AJE911