Thursday, January 2, 2014

George Fong, FBI, with thoughts on civility.

RHYSBOWEN: I always pictured FBI agents as steely-eyed, ruthless and scary. That was before I met George Fong. He is kind, generous, with a great sense of humor and yet he has had a distinguished career involving many high profile crimes, drug busts, murders, kidnappings. And now he has written his first novel and I’m delighted to have him here as our guest on Jungle Red. So welcome, George. The stage is yours:

When Rhys Bowen asked me if I would be interested in writing a blog for the Jungle Red Writers, I was elated.  Then I got worried.  In my prior life as a federal agent with the FBI, I have briefed Senators, Premiers, and foreign dignitaries throughout the world and was comfortable – dare I say – confident.  Twenty-seven years on the job gave me comfort.  But this one made me sweat. 

That night, I went to bed thinking of all the cases I have investigated, all the undercover assignments and thought – The Jungle Red Writers don’t want to hear your war stories.  Mystery writers have heard them all. 

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy speaking about the cases I have worked on, doing so at many conferences and writer’s groups.  But as much as I think procedures are important to a story, I have found what forms a protagonist’s character and perspective on life is far more interesting.  It was something I have learned from the many writers that have helped me in my writing endeavors over the years. 
And so, for this blog, I want to tell you about something I recently observed and how it affected me.  I hope you find it interesting.
Looking Out the Window

Last week, my wife Rebecca and my daughter Rachel decided that we should attend the Newport Beach Boat Parade, one of the top ten things to do during the holidays, according to their website.  Touristy things never sounded good, being local to the area but the idea felt like the right thing to do.  It brought a bit of normalcy to a life that - in the past as a federal agent - was usually crowed with bad news. 

I spent 27 years as a Special Agent with the FBI before retiring in 2010.  During that time in my life, holidays and family functions were usually – if not the norm – interrupted by a kidnapping, a drug delivery or a gang shooting.  On the phone or off to meet with an informant, my time rarely belonged to me, let alone my family.  When I retired, I took on a new job – Head of Security for ESPN, the Worldwide Leader in Sports.  The job offers different challenges that after four years, gave me a huge perspective on what really is a crisis.  Take that boat parade as an example.

We departed the house mid afternoon, hoping to catch a bite on the pier before hopping aboard The Amigo, a ferry that would tour us around Balboa Island to watch the colorful lights hung on multi-million dollar yachts as well the ocean view homes encircling the bay.

Driving to the pier, we passed an endless line of parked cars and lots with signs stating “LOT FULL.”  Nearly two miles from our destination, finding a place to park going forward was going to be a lost cause. 

As we entered Balboa, an hour had passed and still, no sign of an open space. We pulled into a public parking lot and decided to wait for someone to leave.  Three others had the same idea.  It was another 20 minutes before a family walked up to a car parked close by, getting ready to leave. 

One of the waiting cars, a woman driving an SUV, crept forward in an attempt to claim the spot but before she could get into position, a large black SUV sped forward, positioned to claim the open slot.  I watched as the driver of the black SUV refused to give in, even though others had been waiting for quite some time.  

The two vehicles lurched and braked, squaring off like a pair of angry dogs, challenging each other in a game of chicken.  A little girl exited the back of the black SUV, watching the two 5,000 pound vehicles dare each other to see who would be willing to bend metal over a parking space. Muffled words were exchanged between the two, the message clear from their hand gestures.

Just then, another woman walked up and entered another car next to mine. Rebecca hopped out of the car, confirmed the lady was departing – cheered – and gave me the thumbs up sign.  I was elated, knowing we would still have time to catch a quick bite before hopping on board the ferry. I started to ease forward. 

As I started to pull into the slot, the woman in the SUV accelerated forward trying to take my parking space.  Trying to reason with her through my open window, the woman began to scream in a mantra of phrases that would not have surprised me to contain the words, “Kennedy, CIA and grassy knoll.”

The little girl from the black SUV, who was still standing in the fray of this very dangerous mix of vehicles, looked over at the woman and quietly remarked, “You’re in the wrong lane.”  The woman screamed her reply, “Shut the f**k up, you little b**ch!” 

It was at that moment, my world took a pause. I was stunned at the reaction she had to an innocent remark coming from a little girl. From the other side of the parking lot, the voice of another woman called out, “Merry Christmas!”
We got our parking space and made it to a Bar-b-que stand before boarding The Amigo.  As we finished the tour, the three of us reflected on that little girl who stood in the street, unattended by her parents while being screamed at, civility being tossed to the wind.  

Then, I thought about the days as an FBI agent, when I would meet with the parents of missing children, of finding their child’s body in a shallow grave. The guilt I felt, being the one that gave the news, not receiving it.  I was the person looking out a window into a world of dangerous realities that no person should ever have to experience. 

Having seen the woman in the parking lot screaming profanities at a little girl without provocation and the fact that the parents of that little girl were nowhere to be found reminded me of how people need to take a breath and reflect on the priorities of life.
  What really justifies anger and where has the holiday spirit gone? 

It was at that moment that I realized I was outside the window, looking in - with everyone else.  The difference was, I saw what it was like from the inside and knew parking slots and aggravated crowds were nothing to get hostile about. Besides, it’s the holiday season. 

I try not to over-analyze every situation, but I have to admit, having witnessed the worst in society, gives you a bit more pause when things go awry.  I still get angry but in most cases, my wife reminds me, “No one died, no one got kidnapped.”  Good point.  

George Fong was born in San Francisco, California in 1959, to a Chinese immigrant father who joined the US Navy, met his Japanese mother in Okinawa and brought her home to America.  His father didn’t speak Japanese, his mother, not a lick of Chinese.
After a distinguished career in the FBI, including investigating the infamous Yosemite murders, he found a need to write.  The result is a debut novel entitled Fragmented and is loosely based on a kidnapping case of a ten-year-old girl when he worked as a rookie agent in Bellingham, Washington.
RHYS: Thank you for joining us and for the insightful story, George. And good luck with the book. I can't wait to read it! George will give away a copy for his favorite comment on JRW.


  1. I am constantly amazed by the “me-first” attitude that seems to be so pervasive these days. The woman driver’s horrible behavior is appalling, especially knowing that her invectives were directed at an innocent child. There are many times I wish some of the “me-first folks” would get some much-needed perspective.
    “Fragmented” sounds intriguing and I look forward to reading it . . . .

  2. That story of the parking-place battle is the best argument I've heard in a long time for public transportation. Imagine if all participating families had been able to hop off a nearby streetcar/bus/subway and just proceed to their destinations without the wait time, without the hostilities.

    It always amazes me that people who will pay to take a spinning class or who will run a mile or two every the morning cannot ride a bike to a destination, or walk half a block from a more distant parking place. Sad.

    But how do you let your kid out of the car in a parking lot? And who screams profanities at a child? Is this the new Christmas spirit?

  3. When will it be available? I went to Amazon and couldn't find it.

  4. Ellen makes some great points. When my youngest daughter was taking a semester in Sydney, Australia, we went to visit. While we were there she got us tickets to a "footie" game, Australian rules football, which is a wacky and delightful combination of soccer, basketball, and football, played on an enormous oval field.

    This particular game took place in the same stadium where they held the Olympic games a couple of years before, and our tickets included train fare to and from the stadium. There were no parking lots anywhere close to the stadium, as far as we could tell, since it seemed to be plunked down in the center of a mostly residential section. Fans could take public transport to Victoria Station in downtown Sydney, then board the train to the stadium, and then go home the same way. It was brilliant, and must save tons of energy, not to mention tempers.

    We seem to have lost our ability to prioritize these days, and to discern the difference between needs and wants. Your wife seems to have a good balance, George. Thank you for sharing your story with us.

  5. Thanks so much for visiting George! Would love to hear more about how your experience in the FBI might change how you see things around you. I imagine it's not so different from someone with experience in the police force...

  6. George, what a riveting story. I was with a friend once who'd been waiting for a car to pull out of a parking spot, signalling all the while, and just as he started to pull forward a car backed into the spot. He pulled up alongside so close to the driver-side door that the woman who'd stolen the spot could not get out of her car. It was really scary, and I remember thinking, was it really worth a parking spot?

    The little girl in the mix makes it even a more telling moment.

    Congratulations on the new book, George! I'll be getting it.

  7. The visual of a little girl pointing out an adult's mistake, and getting yelled at for her trouble, is really powerful. I am left wondering about the little girl's reaction.

    Nosy person that I am, I will point out that I like the line in your bio that neither of your parents spoke their native languages. An unfortunate, but intriguing, detail.

  8. Great to see that the book is coming out, George. We met at Book Passage in 06, the same weekend I first met Hallie. I'm looking forward to reading it.

  9. Karen, I attended the Sydney Olympics and the organization was brilliant and the whole atmosphere so friendly. Hardly any waiting, no long lines. London was the same--great atmosphere and public transportation at its best.
    But women like the one George encountered would show their ugly side anywhere.

  10. Hi George! Great to see you here, and looking forward to your book!

    Your story reminded me of trying to park at Costco on a Saturday afternoon:-)

    I saw a bit of craziness here in Texas over the holidays, but was actually surprised by the amount of civility--Now that's a thought, that we should be surprised by civility instead of assuming it's the norm...

  11. George, thank you. Perspective, huh? And such a lesson in point of view..

    At Michael Palmer's funeral, his son told the story that his dad would always slow down to let a pushy driver go first. Michael told him "Where he is going is just as important as where we are going."

    In the parking lot after the funeral? Everyone was incredibly kind and patient.

    And it must be difficult, in law enforcement, to remember the human-ness of people.

  12. I think perhaps the best deterrent to saying unthinkable things to people, especially children, is to imagine that the child is yours, or the person is someone you love. How would you feel if your loved one was blasted by profanities and unreasonable anger? Of course, I realize that a person who is unreasonably angry doesn't usually take time to think, and counting to ten would be a waste of advice, too. The world is an impatient place, and even I have been guilty of being impatient when I shouldn't. However, being abusive to a child is never acceptable. When I taught, I would keep in mind that each child was somebody's baby, and I tried to treat them the way I wanted my own babies treated.

    These days I'm trying to remind myself that patience is not only a virtue, but it is an essential element to a life well lived. A sense of humor comes in very handy, too.

    I am appalled at both the parents who let their child out into this fray of madness and the person who vented her frustrations so insanely at an innocent child. Let's just hope that the innocence wasn't all lost that day.

    Your story is a cautionary tale to all of us, George. You certainly served as an excellent example to your children that day. I love your wife's take on it, "nobody killed, nobody kidnapped." There are many issues about which to feel righteous anger, but a parking space certainly isn't one of them. Thanks for reminding me that we need to choose carefully what is worth fighting for.

  13. Rhys - George reminds me of the FBI friend of "{the Skeleton Detective" in the books by Aaron Elkins.
    I will be looking for the book.

  14. Along with Ramona, I'm dying to know how your parents communicated with each other! I've heard similar stories, including a family story about a cousin of my grandfather's whose first language was Italian marrying a woman whose first language was German - while both of them were still struggling to learn English.

    Your parking lot story reminds me of a time I was sitting in my car making a list of things I needed to do. Then I got out of the car. A very angry driver who had apparently been waiting for me to leave so he could take my space honked his horn at me and used, um, a form of sign language...

  15. Dear George,
    What a thoughtful essay. It's food for thought, and it also makes my want to read your novel - you are clearly insightful when it comes to human nature. Combine that with your personal experiences with the FBI, and you have the perfect recipe for compelling fiction. Best of luck t you!

  16. I had a story about people yelling and honking and other things while I was waiting in a parked car. But the Internet ate it. Sigh. :)
    The book sounds fascinating.

    Pen M

  17. George Fong -- judging from your ability to put my heart directly in my throat as you described the parking lot, I can only imaging how I will react to your fiction!!!

    Thank goodness no one was hurt.

    I had a woman scream, "Wicked b****" at me in front of my children when I was parking at a mall -- the girls still remember that woman's fury.

    Civility. Yes. Thank you.

  18. I had a friend who was from NY and a little over the top. One day when someone was waiting for a parking place, she slipped in, quite pleased with herself. She said just as she was getting out of the car, there was a tap on the window. A little girl was standing there who said, "My mom said to tell you you're mean." My friend said she sighed, turned the car back on and gave up the spot. It made a great story--a much more humane story that the one you had to go through, George.

  19. Parking spaces - such tempests, such incivility, over something so small and temporary. I still remember you talking at BP about your deeply personal response to the Yosemite murder case, realizing you had a big heart and wondering how such a big heart could do such a tough, tough job. Good luck with the book - all your mystery writing friends are cheering for you!

  20. I am reminded of a line (paraphrased) from one of Louise Penny's characters: "Who wounded you...?" Are we all so wounded, bruised, and battered inside that we have no civility left to us, even in the face of a child? That a parent would place a parking space above their child's safety?

    Something else occurred to me in your description of the event, George--that it was a manufactured holiday event: MUST SEE! MUST DO! TOP TEN! And we rush like lemmings to the call of the advertisers and merchants.... And yet, what mattered most to you? Time spent with your wife and daughter. Best of luck with your new book, it sounds like one I may well enjoy--one where character matters, informs the plot, and leaves us waiting for our next adventure with them!

  21. Thank you for all the wonderful comments. I beleive we all have it in our souls to be kind, it's just in some instances, we become blind to what we do until someone hits you over the head with a 2x4. Appreciate all the support for my debut novel, hopefully being released at the end of January. I can't think of a better group of people than mystery writers and readers. Even with a dead body, no one has to get arrested.