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The Other Friend

We got to Ian's condo that evening. It was quite a place, with carefully tended gardens and an impressive entranceway. It looked as though GM was doing well by our boy. The living room was spacious and nicely furnished with Danish Modern stuff. Indeed, it looked a lot bigger than it actually was. I found out the reason when I sat down. The furniture was tiny! It turned out that he had furnished his "pad" with the three-quarter sized stuff they make to put in model homes, so they can fool people into thinking they're buying more than they're actually going to get.

It all fit Ian just fine, though, and it was his place after all. It got me to wondering if anybody made furniture to fit proper-sized people like me. Not that I could afford any furniture, much less a place to put it in.

But what wasn't undersized was Ian's motorcycle.

"Hey, you bought a Harley?" I said.

"What's wrong with buying American, Tom?" Ian said.

Ian was using my name, and Hasenpfeffer's as well, a whole lot more than he used to. Obviously, while I was gone, he'd taken a Dale Carnegie course. "How to Win Friends, Influence People, and Be A Complete Phony in Ten Easy Lessons."

"Well, nothing, when you're buying cigarettes or cars," I said. "But the engineering in that thing is forty years out of date."

"It's tried and true engineering, Tom."

"Tell you what, little buddy. I'll lend you a hand the first two times a day it breaks down. After that, you can find me at the next bar up the road."

"Have you ever considered the advantages of autocopulation, Tom?"

Back in college, I'd ragged Ian a lot about swearing as much as he did while at the same time being such a regular churchgoer. This last statement obviously represented his attempt to cut down. It didn't last.

The next morning, we were on I-75 heading north. The plan was to go to Washington State by way of Minnesota, head south through California, and then get Ian home in three weeks by way of Louisiana.

By noon, we were off the expressways. We didn't plan to use the Interstate system all that much. The best way to travel while on vacation is get a map, figure out where you are, and where you want to be that night. Then you draw a straight line on the map between those two points. After that, you try to stay as close to that line as possible while staying on paved roads. This gets you into the country, where things can get interesting. The expressways are efficient, but they're also boring.

Ian's Duo-Glide held up better than I had feared, with only a half hour lost for repairs that day. We went over Big Mac (the bridge, not the junk food) that afternoon, but an hour later it started sprinkling, so we pulled up to the only building in Pine Stump, Michigan.

It was a combination gas station (one pump), general store (one small shelf of canned goods) and tavern (four stools at a linoleum topped bar and two chairs at a small table).

The town's mayor and sole inhabitant was the little old lady who ran the place, tended the bar, and lived in the building's other room, in back. She looked to be eighty years old. She was skinny, and about as frail as a crowbar.

The surrounding area really did have pine stumps. Thousands of them! They were huge for White Pine, probably world record setters when they'd been cut maybe eighty years before, when the area had been logged over. Nothing growing there now was even close.

The three of us packed the place, since there were a couple of locals at the table and an Indian at the bar. He was dressed in blue jeans and was wearing a bow hunter's cap, but he wasted no time explaining that he was a full blooded Ojibwa. Then he stood up, shouted "Jesus Christ!" at the top of his lungs, slammed his can of Blatz down on the linoleum bar, and sat down.

I asked him what seemed to be the problem, and he launched into a tirade about the hunting and fishing rights he had as a result of a treaty between his people and the government. I had a hard time understanding exactly what he was talking about, not because of any accent—he spoke perfect, standard English—but because every so often he would stop in the middle of a sentence, stand up, shout "Jesus Christ!", slam down his increasingly flat can of beer, and then sit down again as though nothing had happened. After this happened about six times, Hasenpfeffer whispered to me that the fellow was on a fifty-three-second cycle. He'd been timing the guy.

After maybe a half hour of this, I figured out that the treaty said that the Indians could hunt and fish whenever they wanted to, without needing a license, and it didn't say anything about the manner in which they should accomplish this.

Now the government game warden had written him up for dynamiting fish, a thing he felt he had a perfect right to do.

Well, that was interesting, and shot down all the nonsense you hear about Indians being natural ecologists, but the constant standing up and screaming was starting to get to me. It was getting to Ian worse, nursing his coke while everyone else was into their second six pack, him being a Christian and all, and he was on the side that was being sprayed with beer every fifty-three seconds. I think Ian was just trying to quiet the Indian down in a friendly, humorous way.

"My friend, you swear too fucking much," Ian said, a perfectly normal statement to make in a Detroit auto plant, but not, as it turned out, in the UP. (That's pronounced You Pee, with an equal accent on each syllable.)

Things quieted down in a hurry. There was dead silence for a few seconds, then one of the locals got up from his chair and knocked Ian off his bar stool.

"What—what's wrong?" Ian said from the floor. He was more shocked than hurt.

"You was using vulgarity, and in front of a lady!" The man explained. The bar keeper nodded in agreement, happy to have her honor defended.

"Vulgarity? After all the swearing that has been going on in here? You're out of your fucking mind!"

"That was taking the Name in vain, and it ain't the same thing!"

"Shouldn't simple vulgarity be the lesser offense?" Ian said, still flat on his back.

The local didn't know how to answer that, so he hauled off to kick Ian when he was down, and naturally, I couldn't sit quiet for that. I picked up the would-be kicker from behind with my right hand on his belt and said, "Gentlemen, please fight politely."

At this point the other local and the Indian piled onto me, ignoring Ian entirely. I thought it best to take them outside, since the furnishings of the little place didn't look too sturdy. There wasn't much to it since I was already carrying the one, and the other two were crawling all over me trying to wrestle me to the ground. I even had a free hand with which to open the door.

I walked over to a twenty-foot gully near the road, threw them rolling down it and went back into the bar, locking the flimsy screen door behind me.

"I think I've deduced the problem," Hasenpfeffer said, writing hurriedly in a new notebook. "It seems that in this subculture they differentiate between two types of swearing. . . ."

"Yeah, I got that much," I said. "You all right, Ian?"

"I think so, Tom. Geeze, I thought I was making a joke!"

"It was a nasty joke!" The old bartender said, "Nasty!"

"Yeah. Well guys, the rain's stopped. Let's drink up before they think about knocking over our bikes."

"These are good, solid interactions," Hasenpfeffer said as we left.

* * *

Later, the three of us were camped way off the road in someplace called Ontonagon County. It was Sunday morning, and Ian was trying to talk us into going to church with him, since he had stopped at all those bars with us. I allowed as how that seemed fair, but did he know of a church that served beer? After all, he'd been able to get a coke at each of our bars.

"Maybe we can find one that serves wine with communion," Hasenpfeffer suggested.

Ian looked disgruntled, and a change of topic seemed in order. I was doing the cooking, and thus by ancient custom I had certain conversational rights.

I said, "Back to what you were saying last night, Ian, I still maintain that stupidity, true stupidity mind you, is not an individual function. Oh, anybody can do something dumb, and usually does, but to create truly monumentally ridiculous edifices, it takes large groups of people working diligently together. A case in point can be taken from my recent Air Force experience.

"This organization, if I may use such a term on a group of more than ten people, which are inherently disorganized, is obviously—"

"Share out some coffee, and your ramblatory obfuscation will be sharply reduced by the caffeine," Jim said.

"Yeah, and you won't talk so funny either, Tom," Ian added.

"Right," I said, pouring. "So like I was saying, somebody at the Chief of Staff level became convinced that the best way to insure that the United States Air Force had officers of the finest quality was to require that all such new people were college graduates. Just who this person was, I'm not sure, but you can be certain that he was a college graduate.

"As an aside, I point out that General Chuck Yeager (the first man to crack the sound barrier, an ace pilot in WWII and the commander of the most efficient flying unit in Viet Nam), was only a temporary general. His permanent rank was sergeant, since he talked funny and didn't have any Ivy League accent at all. They figured that he didn't measure up since all he knew about was flying, fighting and getting things organized. How could anybody with a redneck accent be officer material?

"Anyway, in some very different nook or cranny of that same service, some committee looked out and observed that enlisted men who had been trained in fields like electronics, and who could thus earn three times their Air Force pay working on the outside, rarely reenlisted. Since there was nothing that this committee could do about pay rates (those being the prerogative of some other committee somewhere else), but needing sergeants trained in electronics to boss the peons they were perforce training in vast droves, and yet heaven forbid that they should make a sergeant out of anyone without first giving him grey hair, passed the following ruling: As an incentive to reenlistment, any troop choosing to reenlist could pick the career field (like electronics) of his choice, and receive up to two years worth of training in that new field.

"Unbeknownst to any of the above committees, the Air Training Command decided that all that an instructor had to know was what was in the training guide, and that practical experience was unimportant in such a fast-moving field as electronics, where things were obsolete before they were installed anyway. Furthermore, they didn't have any sergeants trained in electronics in the first place, what with none of the airmen reenlisting, so they might as well use airmen right out of school to teach the next class. This set up a situation where airmen were training sergeants who were taking advantage of the reenlistment training bonus, sergeants they could very well be subordinate to on their next tour of duty. Oddly enough, those sergeants all got very good grades, whether they proved capable of learning Ohm's Law or not.

"The committee that had set up the retraining program compiled all these grades on neat charts that proved that the experienced troop was always the best student.

"Then the Air Force bought the 465L Command Control System, which at that time was the most complicated computerized control system known to man. And the committee in charge of manning this monster decided that it would take some pretty bright boys to keep it working, so they scheduled troops to be trained for repairing it on the basis of IQ. I was one of them they selected.

"So they paid me to go to school for a year, drink a lot, and do pushups in the sandburrs. Once I got to my duty station, I found that my boss was a sergeant with an IQ of about ninety. While he wasn't a bad guy, he had been too dumb to make it as a sheet-metal repairman, so he had been retrained by the Air Force in the exciting new career field of electronics.

"He was running a major computer repair section and he was afraid of electricity. The fact that all of our equipment ran on five volts, and was as safe as a flashlight, didn't faze him. He knew that the stuff could electrocute you, so he wouldn't touch it. He made sure that we kept the floors clean, though, so no one of any importance suggested replacing him.

"My Officer In Charge was a college graduate, as per regulations. Only there weren't any Degreed Electrical Engineers around who wanted to take on a low-rent job like Second Lieutenant, and the Air Force, with no sensible candidates available, had to take what it could get. The only officers we got were those who had taken degrees in fields where there were no civilian jobs available. My OIC, who was in charge of a quarter acre of computers supposedly defending North America, had his degree in Marine Biology and didn't know for shit about computers. His boss had a degree in Forestry and his had a master's in Music Appreciation.

"Then, at the bottom of this strange pyramid, surrounded by a half billion dollars worth of inoperative equipment, were us four hundred misfits. None of us had the social graces to get a college degree of our own and every one of us had a sad story as to how he ended up in uniform. Yet all of us had IQs of over one forty! All of us were subordinate to sergeants with IQs of under ninety. All of whom were commanded by officers who hadn't the slightest idea of what was going on.

"The result was obvious chaos, and there are stories to be told about it, but not just now, breakfast being over and it being Jim's turn to do something about the mess. But on some future date I shall relate the tale of the atomic clock that failed."

"Tom, you fry a good pancake, but they weren't worth having to listen to your bullshit."

"Every word of it is true, I swear it! Do you think that I could have invented a story like that?"

"Hmm. You have a point there. You're not that smart. In fact, I don't think that anybody could invent a story like that one. Yet could such a situation actually be?" Jim said.

"There could and there is, for I was just there and it's not likely to change. But my point is that each step of the above was sensible, or at least not thoroughly insane when looked at in its own small context. But when an organization gets so large that nobody can possibly know everything that is happening elsewhere, many small sensible steps generally congeal into a major conglomeration of mass stupidity."


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