Saturday, November 11, 2017

News from Enceladus


 My interest in ancient history first developed while I was taking Western Civilization in high school. The textbook was a remarkable work that both introduced the subject and spurred me on to further reading. Because nothing so utterly labels a clumsy, shy teenager a nerd like going to the library looking for a book on the real reasons for the Trojan War. Say “Trojan” to average high school-aged male and the only thing he thinks about is that item wrapped in a foil package hiding in his wallet.

More importantly it was a truly incredible teacher by the name of Mr. Ron Edgerton that created my sense of amazement of the ancient world and the people that lived during those times. Given that I was in his class about the same time as the first version of Cosmos aired on PBS, I feel fully justied to compare him to the amazing Carl Sagan. Like Dr. Sagan, Mr Edgerton's lectures were not only intensely engaging but almost lyrical in how he presented the subject. Like Carl Sagan appearing on his version of the television show Cosmos, I came away upset when Mr. Edgerton's class was over.

When a person is first introduced to a subject certain basic questions develop for which there is no simple answer. This happened to me as I slowly came to an understanding on why ancient civilizations never sent out fleets of ships dedicated to the exploration of the world. Yes, I now know that many did, well sort of, but bear with me for a minute or two as I explain my mistaken reasoning.

It was during one of Mr. Edgerton's lectures concerning the period when the Roman Empire stood at the pinnacle of its power and influence. The Romans owned the world centered around the Mediterranean Sea, their power touched the North Sea and the entire northern coast of Africa from Egypt to what is now Morocco. And likewise, from the Atlantic coast of the Iberian peninsula in the west to a large chunk of the Black Sea in the east. I simply couldn't fathom why the Romans didn't have fleets venturing out exploring the African coastline or Lewis and Clark-like expeditions pushing eastward.

Before I get into the meat of my semi-coherent point, in an effort for full disclosure I have to write that both the ancient Greeks and Phoenicians did in fact do a good bit of exploring. Both of those peoples established colonies all through the Mediterranean when the city of Rome was nothing but a small collection of mud huts inhabited by the ancient version of illiterate rednecks. And there are two stories, which as far as I know could be the same expedition, of Phoenicians trying to circumnavigate the entire continent of Africa strictly to see what was out there.

But as far as the Romans are concerned, I know that basically the reason they stayed largely at home revolved around the fact that they did know a little about these often desolate regions and simply saw no value in them. Of course, there was also the fact that many of the people living in those mysterious lands were quite hostile. But one component that can't be ignored is that, like many other mighty civilizations, they thought their little chunk of the world was the most special and they had everything they needed so there was no reason to go exploring.

Along those lines, China had a brief period of pure exploration during the early Ming Dynasty when they sent out the incredible Zheng He on voyages that would take him and his crew all the way to eastern Africa. What really blows the mind was that fact that his ships dwarfed anything the Europeans could build in both size and sophistication. If you could have placed one of Zheng He's ships next the best the Europeans could build at that time, it is often remarked that it would have been like placing a modern cruise ship beside a leaky rowboat.

You want to ponder “what ifs,” consider the impact if China hadn't turned inward during that time when it was truly the most powerful nation on the planet. What would the puny Europeans have done if Zheng He had sailed his fleet into the Mediterranean and visited Rome or Venice?

But the emperor that supported such expeditions died, and was replaced by a loser that probably uttered something to the effect of we shouldn't waste money such stupid projects and then went on to say he wanted to make China Great Again. This let the nations of Europe to continue their insanely slow development allowing them to build their own exploration fleets and eventually come to dominate the planet. Because of its inward looking and close-mindedness, China, once the most powerful and wealthy nation, stagnated and became the abused plaything of European countries and Japan. Just shows you how that “Making something Great Again” truly plays out in the end.

Yes, I know there are always other factors whenever some momentarily intrepid nation decides to “boldly go where no one has gone before.” For the Phoenicians, if the story I've read was correct an Egyptian pharaoh hired them to circumnavigate Africa because he wanted to claim the entire landmass. And as for the Zheng He, it was to show off the the glories of China to all the barbarians, which they considered everyone else in the world. The same is true for the Apollo Project back in the 1960's and early 1970s. We wanted to beat the Russians to the moon strictly to prove we were the baddest dudes on the planet. Pure science and discovery were just convenient passengers during the worst of the Cold War.

For us though, over time though using the space program for nationalistic purposes had taken a backseat to dedicated research. And because of that funding has dried up compared to the good old days of the Cold War, but that's not my point. What hasn't changed is the shortsighted nature of many who refuse to understand history and stupidly feel that we've discovered all that's important and are happy to spend the rest of their lives in front of a television bitching about their tax dollars being wasted.

It should be obvious to the most simple minded that just when a person, company, empire, or nation thinks they've figured everything out and can hold back change, something comes along and destroys that paradigm. This results in the creation of a new king of the proverbial mountain in the form of a new dominate empire or nation.

This all leads up to the era we find ourselves now. I could describe how certain narrow minded individuals just can't accept that the dominance of fossil fuels is now ending. Not just because our species has fraked the planetary climate, but because technology has progressed to the point that alternate sources of generating electricity now exceed oil and coal fired plants. I could mention how American car companies became complacent and in an effort to maximize profits began building crap to the point Japan came in with a better product and kicked their asses.


Ever since the Voyager space probes passed by the planets Jupiter and Saturn and their moons, we've come to understand those miniature solar systems were anything but cold and dead places. It is now overwhelming accepted that the bigger moons of both of those gas giants have liquid water oceans underneath steel-hard sheets of ice. And as far as scientists here on Earth understand, what we understand as life loves liquid water. Where Enceladus comes into play is because it has massive geysers along its south polar removing all doubt on the subject.

Recent data now suggests that Enceladus has possessed this global ocean of liquid water for perhaps billions of years. This is because its core is probably made of a porous rocky substance that when combined with the gravitational tugging from Saturn creates more than enough heat to keep the water underneath the ice sheet liquid. If I understand the idea correctly, colder water enters the porous core where it is heated from tidal friction creating a circulation effect. Hot water coming out of the core could also provide nutrients to any life living under the ice, much like ocean vents do here on Earth. In fact, the Cassini probe that until recently was orbiting Saturn flew threw Enceladus' geysers and detected numerous chemicals that are vital for the processes of life as we know it.

Yes, the average Joe Sixpack question going through many minds is just what in the hell does liquid water on Enceladus have to do with me? This circles me back to my main point, right now I admit it's extremely hard to envision some use for really distant moons. But the same could have been said for all those regions the ancient Romans ignored and the Ming Dynasty Chinese thought was beneath their contempt. Both of those empire collapsed and were replaced by other peoples and governments who were creative and dared to imagine possibilities.

In no way am I suggesting that if we put our space program into hyperdrive all our problems would suddenly be solved. Science simply doesn't work that way, if fact it often creates newer problems. What science does all accomplish though is to make humans look at life and the physical universe in a new way. For better or worse, it has created the world we live in now. Polluted and with some living in extreme misery from pissant megalomaniacs of both a political and religious nature, but it has also let us create and explore. Which if humans had to pick a purpose for existence, I would go with them.

The fact that can't be avoided, even after the bean counters and the unimaginative whine, is that we won't know what is out there and what it might teach us unless we go exploring. Only the most stunted individual wouldn't be amazed if we somehow discovered life on another planet or moon. More to the point, given that Mars and even Venus were quite similar to Earth billions of years ago, there is a real possibility that life as we know it originated on those other planets. And was seeded here on Earth after a massive asteroids slammed into one of them sending tons of surface material into space that eventually crashed here allowing evolution to take over. So it's not out of the realm of possibility that someone exploring the surface of Mars might find fossils of our ancient ancestors. Or even weirder, that a group of astronauts enter a Martian cave or deep cavern and find a few of our bacterial cousins just hanging out and occasionally releasing the puffs of methane our orbiting probes detect.

On a side note, I've left Venus out of this equation because its a real life version of running away greenhouse effect hell. If anyone ever finds a way to use it, or just explore the surface the technology involved would be almost Clarke-magical.

Pure speculation on my part but if we find evidence of life on Mars, long dead or some remnant living underground, it's probably going to be related to us. We're just too close to each other with meteorite hunters finding rocks from Mars here on Earth quite often. They can tell those rocks are from Mars from the atmospheric gases trapped inside them.

When it comes to the moons of Jupiter and Saturn possessing liquid oceans, I have a feeling any life we might find would be unique to that environment. That would mean an entirely different form nothing like we have here on Earth. Another way to compare and contrast would to liken life here on Earth to internal combustion cars while life on Enceladus (or Europa or Ganymede, or Callisto or Titan) would be an electric golf cart. Both move but are designed differently but sort of do the same thing. Discovering entirely new forms of life on those moons would mean life is common throughout the galaxy and universe.

Again this brings me back to the old question I had about why the Romans never really ventured far from home. We have a solar system filled with possibilities that could teach us things we've never imagined. Hell, if you need an economic reason there are thousands of asteroids floating between Mars and Jupiter containing all the precious metals you could ever desire. Go ahead and google the monetary value, the conservative side is so high I will not mention it.

But yet, our space program is a tepid affair, and even that is done grudgingly. But the one thing that reassures me is that someone or some group will eventually dare the impossible and take us out to those places we ignore now. Personally, I rather avoid becoming the newest version of the lazy Romans and the snobbish Ming Dynasty Chinese.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

The Meaning of Life and Chance






The morning was cold. It wasn't the new normal type of chill that forced people to wear a light jacket, only to shed it in the early afternoon. It was the old fashioned type of freezing cold that had people wearing heavy coats and quickly scurrying from one warm location to another. With the climate increasingly changing for the worse, this was the odd weather event that people would talk about for years like they once did about freakish snow storms.

Aaron Carpenter didn't mind the cold as he sat on one of the benches in Centennial Park gazing at the Atlanta skyline. The sky was a stunning cobalt blue with only a few clouds lazily floating by to give it contrast. While the park itself wasn't devoid of people, the few that were around didn't wreck his sense of solitude.

Not that he really noticed them, the nearest being an old man feeding hungry pigeons scraps of bread from a paper bag several yards away. Aaron was fully preoccupied with his own life story and the decision that circumstance had forced upon him. He damned Fate or whomever was in charge of the universe for making love so complicated.

The first time he had set eyes on Katherine Palmer was second grade in Wilmington, North Carolina. Katherine's father had taken a teaching job at the local community college and moved the family from their Arizona home over the summer. On that first day of the new school year, Aaron remembered how lost Katherine looked as children with long histories greeted each other and began stories of what they did over the summer.

For Aaron, the ill-timed birth of his baby sister had turned his summer into one excruciatingly long and boring affair. With his parents totally preoccupied with caring for the newborn and trying to reestablish a dependable routine, Aaron found that he had to learn to entertain himself. The adult Aaron sitting on the park bench found some minor amusement in the fact that during that summer he quickly learned how tiresome video games can become. The only thing worse that summer than old video games were the week long visits to his grandparents' house.

It was basic empathy that caused Aaron to walk over and begin talking to the girl he would call Kathy. He could tell she was lonely and a little scared, and knew the right thing to do was make her feel better. But by the end of that day though, the two would become fixtures in each others lives.

Best friends all through elementary school, it was the middle school years that foreshadowed how their relationship would become more complex. Halfway through redrawn school lines physically separated them, their evolving relationships with peers and changing social interests pulled them apart even further. So much that there was period they could actually pass each other on a street and not speak.

The high school years changed their relationship again. The friendship was rekindled slowly but by their junior year they found their emotions for each other far deeper than they could have imagined. After graduation though there wasn't a happy ending. Accepted at different universities hundreds of miles apart, they had originally planned to stay a couple and keep the relationship going. But their last night together a small disagreement turned into a fight, harsh words were exchanged and feelings were deeply hurt. Two weeks into the first semester of college Kathy finds out that Aaron was dating another woman.

But like stars locked in long-term elliptical orbits, they encountered each other again after having lived in Charlotte, North Carolina for several years. It was their careers that forced the two back together, merging marketing firms put both of them in the same department. At first their relationship was casual and strictly work related, while neither was married they were both seeing other people. But neither could fight whatever force that had put them together as children.

Over the following months the attraction and history couldn't be fought. Kathy and Aaron moved in together and for a year the two were the picture perfect couple. So happy, that they became engaged and started planning their wedding. Fate seemed to have other intentions, a coveted position in Seattle was offered to Kathy and she eagerly accepted. Having traveled down this road before and knowing long distance relationships rarely work, they parted as friends both figuring for the last time.

Several years slipped by with Kathy in Seattle and Aaron eventually taking a management position in Atlanta, Georgia. On almost opposite ends of the country, the demands of their separate lives severed the remaining bonds binding them together. Kathy and Aaron carried on, both found other loves and in time married them. Neither felt the need to invite the other to their wedding.

Having been pushed back together several times by sheer chance or mischievous Fate, neither was surprised when they found each other working together after Kathy was transferred to Atlanta. Bosses of different departments that required close cooperation, in a brief but formal meeting they promised each other to keep any relationship strictly professional. They assured each other that their respective spouses were the most important people in their lives and would do anything required to keep it that way.

Their mutual promises last about six months. Kathy and Aaron's respective spouses knew they had a history with each other but both never claimed it went beyond friendship. So, there was little worry by them when Kathy and Aaron were required to make a business trip to San Francisco.

The affair began on their second night in San Francisco, both knowing it was as torrid and tasteless as anything in a badly written, second-rate romance novel. It was in the motel room that they finally revealed the things neither had dared to mention since Kathy had arrive in Atlanta.

Kathy had married a cardiologist, a handsome and brilliant man whose one flaw was alcohol. After one too many errors in diagnosing patients, both agreed that a change in scenery could reboot their relationship and his career. Moving to Atlanta was a step down career-wise for Kathy but after her husband promised to seek help, she figured it was a good move.

For Aaron, his seemingly happy marriage was hamstrung by he and his wife suffering through two miscarriages. Aaron told Kathy that he could feel his wife slipping away and cursed himself because there were times he really didn't care.

Weeks went by with neither Kathy's husband nor Aaron's wife seeing the handwriting on the wall. But then again both were dealing with their own complex issues. That was when Kathy came up with a plan. During one of their secret rendezvouses, Kathy told Aaron that one of her Seattle coworkers was opening up a new firm in London and needed anyone with experience. She told Aaron that they should just runaway, leave Atlanta and their spouses behind.

Aaron at first agreed, but arrangements for his wife would have to be made which would require them to keep everything secret for a couple of weeks. Kathy was okay with that arrangement, telling Aaron she would fly out to London and get things ready on that end. When the two parted from the apartment used for their trysts, they agreed to meet in Centennial Park and from there make the final announcements to their spouses and employer.

Aaron watched the old man feeding the pigeons and envied the guy in some ways. Without knowing his history, to Aaron the old man seemed carefree, able to pursue his own interests without regard to other people. The weight of his decision concerning leaving his wife and going off with Kathy had been unbearable. Part of Aaron felt he was on an endless loop, commended to repeat the same choices for all eternity. Aaron chalked his feeling up to he and Kathy's inability to finally settle down together, they had been down this same road far too many times. But in the back of his mind there was another facet to his history with Kathy that seemed almost malevolent, like he was an unwilling part of some grand experiment. Aaron shook off such an insane idea, especially since he spotted Kathy walking towards him.

As she approached Aaron fought off his inherent desire to hold her body next to his. If there was any truth to the ancient myth that people could be soulmates, individuals destined by the gods to be together, she was that person for him. The problem was that some event always pulled them apart, it was one of the main reasons he had come to his decision.

“You're not leaving Carol,” Kathy said with a smirk, once they stood in front of each other.

“No,” Aaron answered feeling every fiber of his soul rebelling again him. “I want to leave with you so badly it hurts, but I can't abandon Carol. I don't believe our marriage is going to work. But I will not leave her like she is now, it would be as if I was daring her to commit suicide. I don't want to live with that on my conscious, even if it means losing you.”

“That's entirely what it means, Aaron. Everything is in place in London, when I fly out today, I will not be coming back.”

“Its for the best then,” Aaron responded. “All I can do is wish you happiness. We had our chances and let them all slip away.”

***

The old man looked on as the two parted ways. The finality of the scene would have been clear to anyone looking on without knowing the couple or their history. It was time for him to move on as well. He pulled a normal looking cell phone out of his pocket and tapped a couple of buttons on the screen. From there the Atlanta skyline and Centennial Park disappeared as he consciousness returned to the real world.

“Doctor Daniels,” the laboratory AI said as he removed the headpiece that allowed him to interface with the simulation. “You have a scheduled appointment with an agent from the Office of Scientific Inquiry in an hour. But Agent Mathai arrived early and is already waiting in your office foyer.”

“Excellent, tell her I will be in my office in a few minutes. I need to clean up and pause the simulation.”

Agent Zahra Mathai was more than a little relieved that she wouldn't have to wait for the scheduled appointment time. She viewed the assignment to interview Gregory Ogden Daniels as a minor annoyance in an otherwise busy agenda. The North American Commonwealth was dealing with far too many issues, and interviewing a second rate Caucasian scientist on the ethics of his research was best left to rookie agents. But as the old man entered the office she attempted to smile and exchange pleasantries with him to try and get honest answers.

“Now Dr. Daniels, you know the reason the OSI has sent me here to talk with you?”

“Yes Agent Mathai, I know the dean of my department has informed your agency that my reality simulations have taken a dramatic turn. Using just an old Cygnus mark two quantum neural net, I have constructed a reality simulation where some of the artificial inhabitants are showing actual sentience. Right before you arrived I was doing a run through on two of my favorite subjects.
"They are an American couple, business professionals who I introduced to each other back in their childhood. During the initial run of the simulation the male was already showing borderline sentience. Which crossed the 1.0 boundary by his early thirties. Once I isolated the individual, I began rerunning his life multiple times to the point he was not only making truly independent choices but I have a strong suspicion he might have some awareness of the true nature of his existence." 

“Sir,” Mathai began now showing concern, “you know there are ethical concerns with that type of research. There are even United Nations regulations granting such simulated people rights. Both China and India would have a strong reaction if they found out you were in effect torturing a planet full self aware individuals. They went to war with the Greater Arabian Federation to stop them doing just that in their high tech recreation lounges. You have undoubtedly saw the videos of hundreds of real people linked into a simulation using the conscious inhabitants of those artificial worlds as fodder in wars and the building of insane video game empires.”

Daniels could feel the condescension oozing from the young woman. “Yes Agent Mathai, I did see those videos and when I designed my simulations it was meant strictly for historical research. None of the inhabitants were supposed to exceed a level .4 in actual sentience. The hardware itself should have precluded anything greater, but as the simulation moved into the ninetieth century the average level increased to .6 with actual sentience being reached by a global minority by their late twentieth.”

“From my report you're running the simulation in the past but at the same rate as real time.” Mathai asked absentmindedly as she inputted information on her hand terminal. “My notes say your research was centered around cultural and societal simulations during the late period of the United States?

Mathai paused for a moment thinking to herself. “Oh my god, Dr. Daniels, you don't have them suffering through the Gilead Schism and the Global Upheavals that followed?”

“No, before you get any further upset in the simulation the years is 2017, six years before the Mayday Attacks. Even before sentience started appearing amongst the subjects my intention was to short circuit the plot and have them go off on their own timeline. Once past our current year I would increase the rate of time and allow that universe to play out to the expected Cold Death several trillion years from now.

I wouldn't force even non-self aware simulations to live through the Gilead Terror. I've never told anyone but the Gilead government took my grandmother away from her family when she turned sixteen and had her in one of the Red Centers to train as a Handmaid.”

From the look on Agent Mathai's face, Daniels could tell that information changed her perspective on him. He was no longer just a Caucasian, the ethnic group that had controlled North America for centuries. And then overthrew the very Republic they created and bragged was God's gift to the world when they realized that in a few decades they would be just another minority. The Gilead abomination lasted thirty-four years before it was finally overthrown. The North American Commonwealth eventually rose out of the ashes and restored liberty and freedom to the tortured land that was the former United States.

She was quiet for almost a minute, but when she spoke it was easy for him to understand her disdain of the Caucasian Remnant.

“My great grandfather was living in Minneapolis when the coup occurred. As he and the rest of the family were going through the wilderness and the depopulated areas trying to flee to Canada, they were spotted by a Guardian patrol a few kilometers from the border. My great grandfather allowed himself to be captured so his wife and daughter, the woman who would become my grandmother, could get out. The Gilead government didn't kill him, instead they used him as a token to show the world they weren't truly racist. He was the public face of the Gilead Justice Department in Minnesota and they made him sentence countless people to death.”

“Agent Mathai,” Daniels began, “rest assured I will not let the inhabitants of my simulation face such terrors. Of course, this brings up the question that scientists have pondered since the very idea of artificial reality and computer-generated historical simulations were first conceived. Do we exist in some sort of computer-based simulation?”

“Well doctor, what is your position on that subject?” Agent Mathai asked.

“I honestly don't know, our reality could very well be just one of millions nested inside increasingly complex computers. The fact that sentience seems to spontaneously appear in systems not designed for such entities suggests that might be the case. Either way, paraphrasing something one of my subjects said just recently, our world is finally on a firm footing, it's best we not let anymore of our chances slip away.”

(Author's notes: No, I haven't given up on writing more of “The Adventures of an American Misanthrope. I just couldn't ever devote enough time this week to write a decent chapter six. This particular story comes from several articles I have read on the speculation that our reality, including our universe, may be nothing but an elaborate computer software based simulation.

If you're wondering why I was so detailed with the story about Aaron and Kathy it was just me trying to paint a full picture of their existence inside Daniels' quantum neural net. I wanted those character to be fleshed out as much as possible to make them seem real. That's also part of the question, could such simulated people actually be considered real if they had free will? And falling further down the rabbit hole, do we, who supposedly live in the real universe, even have free will?

Some may have gotten my little deity joke.

Finally I threw elements of fan fiction into the mix during the last part. I wanted to create a truly alien but recognizable environment in the reality that exists above Aaron and Kathy's. Read the book or watch movie or Hulu series entitled “The Handmaid's Tale” by Margaret Atwood to get the full exposure.)

Monday, October 30, 2017

The Beginning of a Long and Dirty War



Understand, I have loathed Trump long before he considered running for political office. It was back in the 1990's when his reality television career was starting. From the very beginning something seemed "off" about the individual from what I felt was his unhealthy need for constant attention and adulation from others.

I use to be a fan of the performer who goes by the name Meat Loaf, until he was on Trump's reality show and looked at him with something akin to god-like worship one episode. It made my skin crawl in such a way I simply couldn't take Mr Loaf or his music serious again.

So, it goes without saying that with the first indictments being issued to Paul Manafort and Rick Gates and George Papadopoulos  pleading guilty to making false statements to the FBI this morning, I'm feeling pretty damn good. All three individuals played key roles in gaming the election system so Trump could occupy the White House.
The only problem is that this is not the end to the Trump nightmare and everyone like me should understand that. We are all in for a long and very dirty war that will shake this country to its core. More importantly, Democrats like me should understand this will only harden those who belong to Trump's cult of personality. I know many such members personally, unfortunately, and they will follow him almost to death since he has become their Great White Hope.

What I am essentially saying is that rational Americans should write off the 30 to 33 percent of the country that would follow Trump off the side of a cliff. No logic or reason will dissuade them that he is a deluded narcissist without the barest understanding of how the world and the United States runs. More importantly, everyone should understand that in the coming days he could fire Mueller, at the very least, or start issuing blanket pardons to those indicted and anyone else, especially his family, who might be under investigation. In short, he would in all likelihood burn the country down if he felt it would save himself from criminal exposure.

Another factor we need to consider, when the leading world power is preoccupied with internal issues, outside forces have all through history used this time to try and redraw the world map to their advantage. Which I am sure Trump would greatly appreciate since it would allow him to possibly weasel out of these growing problems with the law.

We are in seriously dark and dangerous territory here folks.      

 

Friday, October 27, 2017

Chapter Five: The Adventures of an American Misanthrope






Epic journeys are said to begin with a single step. In my case that translated into burning off the tank of gas I bought before hitting Interstate-26 heading down to the South Carolina coast. There was no grand plan, no destination, the main reason I was heading south was because that was my general direction when I left the Quincy town limits behind me. But as I merged into the flow of traffic in the back of my head this felt like the best way to start off my journey.

On the way towards Charleston the idea of hitting the Atlantic coast and then deciding to go north or south began forming in my head. Old U.S. Highway 17 runs roughly parallel to much of the southeastern Atlantic coast and from Charleston I could either head down to sunny Florida or up north towards North Carolina and Virginia. So I drove feeling a freedom that I could barely remember from that small segment of time after the army but before marriage and the demands of work made life truly a burden.

My initial intention was to drive until I was tired and then get a motel room. Which I figured would be Charleston, but as I hit the junction of Highway 17 the urge to go on was overwhelming. So, acting instinctively my decision was to head north which would take me towards the Grand Strand area of the state. With the local NPR stations providing news and later my collections of CDs keeping me entertained, I made it all the way to the curious town of Georgetown before hunger forced me to stop.

I say curious because while the municipality can trace its history back to the colonial era in the form of stately churches and grand colonial houses, they did something really stupid that endangered it all. Back in the late 1960's the city leaders allowed a steel mill to be built next a small inlet of the bay the city lay next. It was a great place for two reason, the first being that it allowed cargo ships carrying scrap metal to dock and unload. The second reason was because the finished product could easily be shipped out on the railroad tracks running right beside the property. There was one huge problem though, that combination of advantages placed the steel mill right in the middle of town.

For several decades the mill provided hundreds if not thousands of high paying jobs that allowed families to build a future. An issue no one foresaw was that in the early years of its operation the mill produced a rust-colored haze that descended on the houses and other buildings close to the mill. In a manner of a few short years ancient homes that had survived the American Revolution, Civil War, and numerous hurricanes and tropical storms decayed away into ruins.

Clean up operations and anti-pollution additions to the steel mill itself halted the disaster but the damage was largely done. The residents decided to ignore the outward signs of what couldn't be saved but a brave few did speak up saying that if the ocher-tinted dust ruined houses, just what in the hell did the stuff do to peoples lungs? Southern sensibilities against making a fuss, and upsetting a money making apple cart, soon came into play and all that worry over health and well being was hushed up.

Proving once again that all things change eventually, many times for the worse, by the 1990s the steel mill began facing competition from other operations overseas producing a cheaper product. Like other American business, namely my former employer, cost saving measures were instituted but the spiral downward couldn't be resisted. The mill ended up being sold on several occasions with the new management each time going through the required motions of promising to bring it back to its old glory.

My ex-wife and I visited Georgetown during one of the truly good years in our marriage. The excursion was a just a day trip to allow us a breather from the kids. Like normal children, they had both become quite adept at exhausting their parents. One of Emily's friends had recently told her about how many of the colonial homes offered tours and that Georgetown's main street was now dominated by cutesy boutiques and stylish bistros. Near the end of the day she and I strolled the waterfront walkway on the inlet and while everything was perfect both of us were shocked at seeing the rear of the largely defunct steel mill.

While I stand by my assessment of the decaying outward appearance of the Tightlock factory back in Quincy, the disaster of the Georgetown steel mill made it look truly trivial in comparison. From our vantage point looking at the open, rear area of the plant, everything suggested it had long been abandoned with cranes, railroad cars, and piles of scrap metal seemingly waiting for the workers to return from their long lunch. The plant and all other buildings on the site were painted the same rust color of the dust that had settled on all the nearby structures when it first opened. This only added to the general eyesore when compared to the all the efforts to make the main street look green, healthy, and most of all, full of life.

A local saw us looking at the plant and gave us the full rundown on its history and said that the current owners keep a skeleton crew employed to prevent the federal government from forcing them to cleanup decades worth of toxic compounds that saturate the soil. When I asked this gentleman if he thought it would ever be cleaned up, he just laughed and walked away.

***

When I reached Georgetown it was long after sundown and my concern was finding a decent place to eat. The bar and grill I picked overlooked the waterfront but there was a chilling aspect to the glow of the city. Bright lights illuminated much of the scene, all except where the steel mill was located. It was like a black maw of nothing coolly residing amongst the oblivious living.

It was probably just me still getting use to being part of the daytime living folks, but I felt overwhelmed by the people around me. At the other tables in the bar conversations going on seemed more lively.

Surreptitiously, I watched a young couple holding hands while leaning in close and whispering intently to each other. The engagement ring on the young woman's left hand suggesting their conversation in all likelihood revolved around some aspect of the future. I found myself wondering if they actually understood the nature of what they were trying to do, or if “love” had overwhelmed them almost assuring a messy downfall.

Several tables over from them a group of about five or six people were celebrating a birthday, whose I couldn't rightly discern since they were all having a great time. Every time the noise started to get a little too loud two of the waitresses would come over and skillfully defuse the situation. When one of the party-going customers placed his hand on the backside of the short-haired brunette waitress, she quickly grabbed it and twisted to the point he went silent and grimaced in pain. To the rest of the partiers it was the funnest thing to have ever happened, the offender realizing his mistake backed down and apologized profusely. The waitress, to her credit, didn't release the man's hand until he promised to personally triple her tip.

I did take some pleasure seeing an obviously exhausted mother and father trying to eat dinner. Their children, one a toddler clearly enjoying the mastery of the word “No” and the other an infant, laughing hysterically at each other. The consumption of food seemed to be the least of their concerns. I must admit, I enjoyed the laughter because it was real and didn't require the humiliation or the degrading of another person. One of the things that made me uneasy around people was that such humor was so widely accepted these days.

“You okay honey,” the short-haired brunette waitress said to me. The young woman, looking to be in her late twenties of early thirties totally had totally surprised me.

“Oh absolutely, I'm just a million miles away. Food is great, I haven't eaten this well in a long time.” I said hoping my words were coherent. I simply didn't want to tell her I was snooping on the other customers.

“Great, I'm here if you need me,” she said with a professional enthusiasm before walking away that a less worldly person would take as personal interest.

It pains me to no end, but for the briefest second, a small part of me wanted her interest to be something other than making her customers comfortable, and then receiving a good tip. In all the years I worked night shift, I had seen other guys and gals fall into that trap. You spend a few years sentenced to working when most everyone else is asleep and its unreasonably easy to start misinterpreting the slightest show of interest or compliment as something more than it was intended. One poor fool who worked nights with me for a few years became so inept around daytime people the rest of the crew and myself stopped inviting him to our annual Christmas party at one of the bars in Quincy.

Thinking of that former workmate, I was suddenly struck by an idea that while on the surface seemed insane, given the demands of work and a person's natural desire to find companionship it actually made a little sense. There were specialized internet dating sites that catered to all manner or modern idiosyncrasies, why not one for poor fools who worked night shift? The idea was so outrageously funny I must have made some sort of sound because my waitress instantly reappeared at my table.

“You sure you're okay, sir,” she said now showing real concern. “Can I get you another drink?”

“No, really I'm fine. In fact I'll take the check now.” I said to the waitress. Looking back over at the couple with young children another thought crossed my mind. “Yeah, these is one more thing,” I said to my waitress before she had a chance to walk away.

Motioning for her to lean in close, something she seemed a little wary of, I told her I would cover the bill for the couple and their children. But she couldn't say a word to them about it until I left.

“I'll do just that,” she said giving me a real smile this time and maybe just a little bit more. For a minute, I allowed myself a lurid fantasy of us meeting after the bar closed and then heading off to some place we could be alone. Not realistic, but I chalked it up as part of my journey to learn to live again.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Chapter Four: The Adventures of an American Misanthrope


To paraphrase Winston Churchill, to me lawyers and what they do have always been a riddle, wrapped inside a mystery inside of an enigma. Luckily, until my divorce I never did anything stupid enough to require their services. I'm not knocking lawyers, it's just that their profession is more abstract and nuanced than my glorified bruised-knuckle mechanic mind can comprehend. Then again, no one would ever confuse me with an insightful and forward thinking person. The prime example of my inability to metaphorically see beyond the tip of my own nose being my years working at Tightlock Corporation.

So, despite my admiration of the man who helped me navigate the numerous vagaries of getting dumped and uncoupled from my now ex-wife, I still felt a pretty large level of trepidation upon arriving at the offices of the Lund Law Firm. That was party because my lawyer's office was on the second floor of an obscure building in a bad part of town with the first level housing “Raunchy Red's Tattoo Parlor.” A fine Quincy, South Carolina business, even after the county sheriff made the drug bust twelve years earlier that resulted in them carrying off three large bails of high grade Colombian marijuana, a kilo of cocaine, and enough weapons and ammo to supply an infantry platoon.

Despite the incriminating evidence, the original Raunchy Red protested his innocence even though he was found passed out of top of the three marijuana bails and using the cocaine as a pillow. Red was adamant that the National Football League, the CIA, and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir had framed him because he had found the lost city of Atlantis and discovered that Elvis was not only still alive but that he had converted to Islam. The judge overseeing his case, a devout Christian and Elvis fan whose favorite vacation destination was Graceland, was highly offended at the suggestion that the King would convert to another faith. This resulted in Red's psychological examinations, which stated in no uncertain terms he was completely detached from reality, being ignored.

Raunchy Red was convicted on every count and sentenced to four life terms in one of the supermax federal prisons. After a few years' rumors started floating through Quincy saying Red did eventually get psychological help. Where things get weird though the story goes on to say that once he returned to sanity Red enrolled in one of the online colleges where it was discovered he had a talent for theoretical physics. Pure bullshit if you ask me, but somehow the local newspaper received a photograph from an antonymous source showing Red's mother, the longtime Quincy queen of quilting, giving the frail but brilliant physicist, Stephen Hawking one of her blankets.

Back in Quincy, the tattoo parlor didn't stay shuttered long, another guy quickly bought the business and in the spirit of cost saving measures started calling himself “Red” to avoid changing the signs. The new Red, went about business differently than the old, he cultivated a close relationship with the county sheriff and his department. The new Red had a standing fifty-percent discount for tattoos for all the deputies, which they took full advantage of because their patrol cars were often seen at the location. A now standard joke about the new Red and his tattoo parlor suggests he must have also started making donuts since no one had ever seen one of the deputies sporting a tattoo.

The second reason for my nervousness came from Jim Lund himself. The day my marriage officially ended Emily came home early from her job at the local hospital to tell me that I had a week to move out of the house. Emily was a nurse in the Air Force and after her discharge from the service she transitioned quite successfully to civilian life. As opposed to me who had served in the Army infantry and had to attend the local community college to gain a real skill beyond my talent for proper camouflage techniques, knowing how to dig a latrine, and field stripping a fifty caliber machine gun.

After calling in several favors, I found a really cheap but crappy trailer to move into and once that was done my next task was finding a lawyer to represent me. Lawyers get an undeserved bad rap, at the core of the profession they literally hold society together. Television audiences have been trained like salivating dogs to hate the sleazy and amoral defense attorney protecting a dastardly criminal and deny justice to some innocent victim. But if any of the wide eyed, largely overweight couch potatoes feel they have been wronged in any manner, the first thing they do is begin looking for an attorney.

That being said, the stereotype of some lawyers as cheesy ambulance chasers out to screw over their clients and insurance companies is unfortunately true. My problem back then, besides living in a twenty-year-old trailer with dubious electrical wiring and a leaky roof, was that I couldn't afford any of those of the high profile shysters.

A couple of weeks went by with my soon-to-be ex-wife, Emily, wanting to be rid of my ass so she could move on with her life. Which in hindsight I took that to mean that she and her future second husband, and my dentist, were tired of their illicit rendezvouses at the Hide Away Motel. Luckily, I was at the Quincy coin operated laundromat late one Saturday night with the other dregs of local society when I came upon a business card pin to an ancient community bulletin board.

The card declared that the Lund Law Firm could provide reliable but cut rate legal services for those in need. The services it listed included wills, powers of attorney, and no fault divorces. With that level of advertisement, I figured this Jim Lund, Esquire would be just the guy to help me. The business card did have a website address for the Jim Lund Law Firm which said he was a graduate of the New Carolina Law and Accounting School down in Charleston. While not an expert in law schools by any means, I had never heard of the place but at that moment I only cared that he was an attorney licensed to practice law in South Carolina.

When I arrived at his Jim's office there were already several preconceived notions running around my head. The first being that he was probably a bit of a loser, like myself, meaning poor social skills along with being overweight and balding. Since I also assumed his law school was at best a fly-by-night organization, I also expected him to be barely competent.

I opened the door and entered his office after knocking. “Hey Mr. Lund,” I said rather loudly since I didn't see anyone.

“Jason Lance, I presume,” was the immediate and cheerful response coming from the connecting room. “Take a seat please sir, I'm making some coffee and will bring you a cup.”

At first Lund's office reinforced every lackluster notion I had about the man. The room itself was run down and needed a cleaning, several coats of new paint on the walls, and new furniture since the desk and chairs looked like castoffs from the 1960's. The only thing that looked new and given special attention was the large framed diploma saying Jim Lund had graduated from the New Carolina Law and Accounting School.

When Jim Lund walked into the office about a minute later to say I was surprised was an understatement. Instead of the social awkward, overweight and balding guy, Jim walked in looking like a male model and Olympic athlete wearing a suit that sure as hell didn't come from a department store. After I told him my story, cool and utterly confident he proceeded to spell out the legal avenues I could take if I wanted to challenge Emily for custody of the boys. I course, I told him this was going to be an uncontested divorce since I didn't want to hurt anyone, least of all my sons.

After all the legal wizardry was complete we talked for about an hour and I came away wondering just who in the hell this guy was really. Jim Lund was the type of lawyer that should be arguing cases before the United States Supreme Court, not handling glorified white trash divorces in the middle of Nowhere, South Carolina. That his office was above a tattoo parlor that once sidelined as a drug warehouse and was probably still doing something illegal made the situation even more surreal.

What truly sent shivers down my spine was that a few months after the dust from the divorce had settled I looked up the New Carolina Law and Accounting School on the internet. Websites are ridiculously simple affairs these days and nothing about the one for New Carolina Law and Accounting School suggested anything other than the most basic of creations. I was about to close the laptop when I noticed the supposed physical address for the school. One summer during high school I worked for a company that did basic maintenance on the now closed Navy base, so I was well acquainted with the layout of the property. That's why I was dumbfounded upon realizing the address for Jim Lund's law school was now an abandoned warehouse.

Now with forty-two million dollars of lottery winnings in the bank, part of my brain screamed at me to find another lawyer that at best wasn't part of the U.S. Marshal witness protection program. Then again, remembering the conversation I had with my reflection in the bathroom mirror yesterday evening Jim Lund's strange situation wasn't that weird.

Hey, Mr. Lund,” I called out the same way I did on my first visit years after finding him not at his desk. “It's Jason Lance, I left a message on your answering machine about needing to see you again.”

“Sure thing Jason, have a seat, I'll be out in a minute.” He finally called out from the other room.

Quincy, South Carolina isn't a big place but since the divorce seven years before, I could count the times I had seen Jim Lund driving around town on one hand. When he walked back into his office I was frankly shocked at how much he exactly looked the same age. He had the same athletic body along with the movie star face that would have probably cause my ex-wife to go weak in the knees and begin scouting out locations to push her current husband off a cliff. The only difference this time being he was wearing casual clothes that still probably cost more than my 1997 Ford truck was worth.

“What can I do for you today Jason?” He asked in a genuinely friendly manner taking his ancient seat behind the worn and stained desk.

Even though I was considering the possibility that he was either an alien or time traveler, I figured it was much too late to go running out the door. “Here's the deal Jim, you know the lottery winner from last week who didn't go public, it's me. I'm leaving town and need help organizing my affairs and I figure you're the best person to help me.”

Given the curiosities about Jim Lund's existence, there was a double meaning in my words I hope he didn't detect.

Jim just leaned back in his chair and smiled. “Yes, Jason,” he said “believe it or not I'm probably the best person in South Carolina that can setup your affairs and keep them protected.”

I didn't even dare ask him if his own words had a double meaning. I just listened as he laid out a plan that both secured and invested my money.

***

The afternoon sun was unfortunately beaming through my windshield as I sat in the Quincy Credit Union parking lot making me reconsider the idea of buying a new car or truck before I left town. While the end of summer was a month away, hot weather was sure to stay around for a considerable period no matter where I went. My truck's air conditioning was weak at best and maybe it was the money talking but I as I sat waiting for Mikey, I pondered what the open road would feel like in a fine luxury sedan.

Mikey's older brother, Derrick was my best friend in high school. As graduation approached with no real prospects when we entered the adult world Derrick and I talked each other into joining the army. The original idea was that we would hinge our joining on going through basic training together as well as serving at the same permanent post, something we heard the army would allow back then. Well, five weeks into basic and Derrick decides to break his leg on the obstacle course. He had the option of being medically discharged but instead was just recycled back to the beginning of basic training once he was healed. However, his injury voided the original enlistment contract meaning the army reassigned him to a new MOS—Mission Occupational Specialty, or job once he finished basic. Whereas once we were both supposed to be infantry soldiers, Derrick wound up in a transportation unit driving what amounted to semi-trucks hauling supplies.

Then came Persian Gulf War with Saddam Hussein showing his ass by invading a smaller Arab country that in truth was led by a collection of individuals that were certified douchebags in their own right. The difference being that Saddam was a brutal tyrant that would use chemical weapons on his own people while the Kuwaiti ruling class just acted like everyone under them were slaves. I really didn't see any combat beyond a few semi-crazed and starved Iraqi soldiers firing off their AK's in an effort get the attention of the convoy I was riding in so they could surrender. The high point of my wartime experience was being a part of a detail guarding around four-hundred prisoners who truthfully were happy to have American MREs, clean water, and real toilet paper.

Derrick wasn't so lucky, he was killed one morning when the wadi embankment he was driving near collapsed overturning his truck.

When I finally returned home to Quincy after my enlistment, Mikey and I started hanging out together. Something that wouldn't last long since he had become a local high school football star and was getting a full scholarship ride to the University of South Carolina. Something that was going great until Mikey received a massive concussion during a game, which several months later because of both medical and other complications caused him to be kicked out of college.

Mikey came home but spiraled downhill until he met the woman who became his wife, a saint of a woman named Diane. She literally saved his life and sanity but because the birds and the bees still hold sway over people in their early twenties they were parents before they could develop a plan for a real future.

One of the worst thing I ever done was get Mikey hired on as a production worker at the Tightlock factory. But with a baby on the way the man needed a job, even if that meant a place where the age of the average worker was around forty. As the years passed, I watched Mikey die a little each day but at least I could now offer him a way out.

Just when I figured he wasn't going to show, Mikey's car finally pulled into the parking lot and I signaled him to hop into my truck.

“What's so important that I had to get up early, Jason? You know how floor supervisors act if they think someone isn't fully awake.” He said more than a little irritated.

I have never been a person who could deal with the warm fuzzy aspect of friendship, so I just laid out the fact. “Shut up for a minute and just listen. You heard about the winner for last week's lottery, well it was me.”

The look on Mikey's face after revealing that fact was actually kind of funny. Sort of like how some get when they accidentally bump into a famous person at the grocery store.

“You're a smart guy Mikey, you can probably guess why I skipped work Monday night and walked into the plant Tuesday morning looking like someone going on a cruise. But here's the thing, I've known you since the day your brother and I became friends in elementary school.. Hell, right now you're my best friend and I can't let you waste your life working in a plant that in truth probably has less than five years before it is closed.

“So here's the deal I've setup an account at the credit union for a million dollars in both your name and Diane's. My advice is that you two figure out a plan that gets you both back into school so you guys can have a future. You're both young enough to still have one.”

Mikey was stunned to say the least. “Where will you be during this time, Jason?” He asked.

“I'm leaving town, probably forever. I'll keep in touch, of course but unless the boys take sick I can't imagine a reason why I would ever come back.”

After I gave him the paperwork concerning the account we shook hands and he left. At that moment everything I had to do was done. All that was left was to point my old truck in some direction and just drive. I felt bad about not seeing my boys, but they were out of town with Mark and I sure as hell wasn't going to stay around long enough for word about my windfall to reach Emily.

So, with all my worldly possessions stuffed into one duffel bag and one medium-sized storage box in the back of my truck, I pulled out of the parking lot and just drove.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Chapter Three: The Adventures of an American Misanthrope



Call me cruel, or maybe a little vindictive but I left the Pancake Palace emotionally buoyant after throwing a huge monkey wrench into my ex-wife's social standing. Yes, her new hunky hubby's past relationships with all manner of Quincy women, both single and married, had long been one of those small town open secrets. But my mentioning it loudly, and in a very public place was just a bit too much for folks to ignore. And like blood dropped into water filled with hungry sharks, everyone within hearing range of my words would forego social convention and immediately begin blabbing to others. I chuckled to myself as I drove towards my employer wondering just how in the hell I could top that performance.

Anyone driving by the Tightlock factory would be correct in thinking the business was long past its prime. The color of the huge main building housing the office folks up front and factory in the rear had long since faded to a sick, pale yellow from years of neglect. Every year the management and senior bosses have a little corporate pep rally where they break out the stale vending machine snacks, weak iced tea, and gifts like beer cozies and actually brag about how not painting the building was a bold cost saving measure. That having the building repainted the original dark beige just wasn't cost effective.

The same could be said for the grass in front of the building since the duties of mowing had been turned over to the maintenance people. Back when those pep rallies meant something everyone would go outside for the annual company picnic, a truly grand affair that the company catered with steaks, BBQ chicken, along with the normal burgers and hot dogs. Afterwards with everyone still in good moods and about to fall to the ground unconscious from overeating, both management and the lowly hourly types would have a group picture taken on the professionally manicured grounds. Now, management refuses to even mention those picnics and as for the grass, there are so many thin and outright bare spots from lack of proper care the group pictures are taken inside the plant.

Then there were the flags. If anything should upset the fiercely patriotic and proudly conservative men and women of Quincy, South Carolina you would think it would be the condition of the flags flying on the property. Old Glory had long since faded past the point it was presentable and was showing visible fraying on the ends. The state flag of South Carolina was in a similar condition but where as the palmetto tree and crescent moon were still white, the field of blue they were on had become more purple. Curiously enough though, no one ever noticed that the Tightlock corporate banner was always replaced whenever weathering began to take a toil on its appearance.

But for me personally it was the parking lot that suggested far more about the true condition of the place that I had worked since graduating from the local community college with my technical degree. When Tightlock first opened it employed well over a thousand people. Back then the parking lot was so full with the cars of employees that management eventually had to assign spaces to prevent confusion. Now with the work force around two hundred people and with everyone naturally parking close to the plant entrance huge cracks in the asphalt of the unused sections have appeared. These cracks would look like sinister, monster-like vanes if it wasn't for the grass and even small saplings now growing from them. I tend to think of it as Life saying “screw you” to mankind and its attempt to smother the planet.

I actually got in trouble with management once when I quipped to the wrong person that if the Tightlock Corporate suits wanted to earn extra money they should rent out the factory campus to movie producers looking for some dystopic wasteland. A few days later my supervisor, an otherwise decent guy named Bill Phillips, pulled me aside and gave one of those standard lectures taught at corporate leadership development seminars telling me that such an attitude didn't show the proper teamwork skills. Bill was obviously just going through the required motions, to the point he slightly rolled his own eyes reciting official policy on how keeping the plant open required everyone to be all motivated and upbeat. And that everyone should refrain from saying or thinking anything that might undermine that philosophy.

Because I liked and respected Bill, I wholeheartedly agreed so I wouldn't cause him anymore issues. But I walked away from the episode convinced that a similar occurrence involving religion happening a few hundred years in the past would have meant a trip down into a dark section of a castle and me then becoming acquainted with a red hot piece of metal.

Even though I stopped for breakfast, I pulled into the Tightlock employee parking lot for the last time a few minutes before the 7:00am shift change. A few employees running late caught sight of me in my civvies walking towards the entrance both the production and maintenance folks used. I could tell from the confused but experienced look on their faces that they instinctively understood something different was going to happen. In a place that literally hadn't change in decades anything out of the ordinary was instantly noticed.

“Hey Jason,” one of the ladies from quality control whose name I could never remember yelled out. “You maintenance guys change uniforms?” She asked about my Hawaiian shirt, jeans, and beach sandals.

I just waved and followed her inside. For the last time, I took a deep breath taking in all the scents associated with the factory like burned plastic, old hydraulic oil, sweat, and unfortunately despair.

Despite it all, Tightlock Corporation was once a fantastic place to work. Makers of all manner of plastic storage containers from large residential trash cans to something no bigger than a shot glass. To get hired on there in its Golden Age meant that a guy would make enough money to get married, eventually buy a house, and begin the long slow slog to a comfortable retirement. For a woman Tightlock was one of the few places that paid them equally and allowed them just as much opportunity as a man, even if they were single. Historically, healthcare benefits were so good that if a spouse or child took gravely ill they didn't have to worry about going bankrupt. All that changed when Tightlock got the exclusive contract to supply Megamart with all types of plastic storage containers.

Anyone who works in manufacturing is well acquainted with the boom and bust cycles associated with the industry. One month things can be balls to the wall, all vacations and off time canceled, and mandatory overtime. Have a contract fall though and the next month you can have some productions lines shut down and managers freaking out if someone accidentally stays five minutes over their twelve hour shift. If the business doesn't recover the following month that's when things can get really bad with reduced hours, if the workers are lucky, and if they're not, it means layoffs.

So everyone with Tightlock thought they had entered the promise land when word about the Megamart contract went public. Thousands of giant stores across the country should have meant a steady production level. Steady production levels meant no more boom and bust cycles with workers juggling the normal demands of their families and the requirements of their jobs. But just as quickly as the level of optimism reached orbit, it came crashing down as the details became known.

The first was that Megamart had let it be know that buying from an American company was just a ruse so that the down home suckers in flyover country would think they gave a damn about them. Megamart was upfront to the Tightlock corporate suits in saying that it would be more cost effective for them to buy from a country overseas where the workers were paid cents on the dollar. Public perception and the whining by certain politicians who controlled their ample federal tax breaks were the only things forcing them to “Buy American.” That being said, Megamart wouldn't think of letting their own profits take a hit by having any of their suppliers charge them anything more than the absolute minimum. What that meant for the workers at Tightlock were an immediate reductions in benefits, a smaller work force, longer hours, and no pay raises. Overnight Tightlock went from one of the best companies to work, to a semi-police state with disturbing cultist overtones.

In what is sure to amaze future historians and social scientists who examine human behavior the workers of Tightlock, along with thousands of other factory employees across the country during the same time period, did not live up to the living in the land of the free and home of the brave creed. Instead of getting really pissed off at what amounted to the reinstatement of draconian working conditions reminiscent of the worst aspects of the early industrial age, they meekly bowed their heads and accepted the situation. Even worse, in what amounted to a form of Stockholm Syndrome some openly embraced their serf-like state and desired nothing but to make their overlords happy, even at the expense of their own lives and family.

Of course, the question as to why anyone stays at such jobs is unfortunately easy to answer. Sidestepping the abstract fact humans love stability, on a personal level it's easier for modern working class Americans to adapt to harsh conditions than to possibly risk bankruptcy and homelessness by searching for a new job with a totally unknown future. When I was first hired onto Tightlock, the Golden Age had just ended but there was still the hope that things might someday return to their original glory. While hope is a beautiful thing, it is a sad fact of life that it can grow stale and become an addicting delusion.

The reason I stayed boiled down to the fact that when it became apparent the situation at Tightlock was only going to get worse Emily and I had been married for a couple of years with our first son, Wilson, a toddler. If I had lived in a different state with bigger cities and more opportunity, I might have risked it and taken a new job with an uncertain future. But like far too many other people, I played it safe and stayed with a company only a fool would believe wouldn't eventually padlock the doors and reopen in a country that had something a little closer to actual slave labor.

Luckily, all that worrying and uncertainty was now behind me. And while I had wrecked my personal life showing a combination of fear and unrequited dedication that had ultimately cost me my family, I could give another soul a chance to avoid my fate.

Sure enough, as I walked further inside the factory I saw the night shift people pooling around the time clock while their daytime counterparts were quickly swiping their ID cards through the device and rushing off to their work stations. The night shift folks naturally looked tired while their counterparts showed the standard grim determination to get through another day. It was then that I spotted Michael Carter.

“Hey Mikey,” I said walking up to the kid. “You got a minute, need to talk with about something important.”

“Sure,” he responded a little puzzled while stepping out of the line leading to the time clock.

“What are you doing around three o'clock this afternoon? If it doesn't involve saving a life or inventing something akin to the light bulb you need to meet with me.”

“Hell Jason, you know the drill at three I'll be trying to sleep.” Mikey said slightly irritated as anyone would be after working a twelve hour shift.

“Listen, I can't say anything inside the plant but you're going to have to trust me here. If you meet me in the Credit Union parking lot at three you won't worry about the sleep you're missing.” I told him just as the seven o'clock horn sounded inside the plant.

Mikey didn't say anything else but only nodded before walking back towards the time clock an exit.

***

Maybe I was just getting use to my new situation, but I walked into the office section of the plant feeling a confidence that seemed limitless. Stepping through the door I glanced over to my right and saw what looked like an endless number of cubicles that stretched down the open office area. It occurred to me at that moment that in many ways the scores of unused cubicles were more depressing than the slower dying production area. However, I was only concerned with the section that was actually used by the Human Resources lady, Jill Miller.

I found her settling into her uniquely decorate cubicle with a cup of coffee. “Hello Jill,” I said feeling far too chipper for my own good taking notice of the latest plant she had brought to work. Jill's cubicle looked less than an office work space dealing with personnel and more like a small indoor jungle.

“Jason,” she responded, “I see here you called in sick last night. What was that about and did you go see a doctor and get an excuse?”

Jill was another victim of the crappy economic trends affecting the working class. Her situation made worse by a shit for brains husband who ran out on her and their baby daughter about the same time Emily and I were divorced. Jill didn't have the time to mope and become a semi-hermit like me. Jill had a daughter to cloth and feed which she went about with the determination of a mother bear naturally out to protect her offspring. Already working at Tightlock, she quickly became a master at office politics and stabbing people in the back not just to protect her job but move up the available ladder of advancement. It wasn't just the factory workers that were cut as the plastic container business went to shit, the office boys and girls suffered worse in some ways, all those empty cubicles being a testament to that fact.

The only problem though was that those actions took a toll on Jill's soul. Cold and calculating to the extreme, absolutely no one working for Tightlock wanted to get on her bad side. In fact, even though I had forty-two million sitting in the bank, I found myself more than a little nervous just getting ready to tell the woman I was quitting.

“I'm sorry Jill, I don't need an excuse because as of this very minute I am quitting my job.” I said fishing the ring with all the keys I kept related to the factory out of my left pant's pocket. Jill just stared at me as I laid the keys on her desk followed by the fancy ID/timecard card I wore around my neck.

“This is quite sudden,” was all she could say before turning to her computer and started typing. “You won the lottery didn't you, Jason?” She said in an offhand manner that could have either been her attempt at humor or a straight out insight worthy of a cop.

I just nervously laughed with the intention of giving here the same spiel I told my ex-wife at the Pancake Palace about the job on the island in the Pacific.

“I really don't care Jason,” she said while typing on her keyboard. “So save whatever story you made up for the suckers. I'm actually happy for you but one word of advice. Don't let the money go to your head, you could easily wind up broke and coming back here which would be a fate worse than death.”

Whatever Jill's faults she didn't really know me, except as one of the night shift maintenance bozos and in less than a minute she had correctly guessed the situation. What I found really curious though was that Jill didn't pull some stunt trying to weasel a monetary prize out of me for figuring out the truth. Call me slow, but at that moment I realized the assumption that Jill was just a remorseless bitch was totally wrong. Yes, she was still a victim of a dying industry and way of life but instead of retreating into a form of hopelessness, she had learned to play the game most men think reserved for themselves.

Realizing all this, an idea began forming in my head. I opened my mouth to say something but Jill turned away from her computer and looked at me with eyes that made it instantly clear to me she was far smarter than I could comprehend.

“What are you going to do, offer me some of your money because you feel sorry for me?” Jill said about to laugh. “You think I haven't already figured several courses of action when this place is finally closed. Don't insult me Jason, I've lived through more shit that you could possibly understand.

“Truthfully Jason,” she continued handing me a sheet of paper from her printer confirming I was free and clear of anything to do with Tightlock Corporation. “Up until this very moment if anyone working for this company needed to be felt sorry for, it was your dumb ass. Just go, save whatever stunt your little mind had conceived as a parting gift for the company for another time.”

Feeling both chastised and enlightened, I walked out of the building that up until last Monday had dominated my life, got in my truck and drove away without looking back. I had a couple of more errands to run, then have that talk with Mikey but after that I would be hitting the road.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Chapter Two: The Adventures of an American Misanthrope






 There was a time when my hometown of Quincy, South Carolina had a real identity. Situated thirty miles to the south of the state capital of Columbia, it was close enough to allow residents access to the advantages of a much bigger city but far enough away to keep its own businesses and personality. That was before suburban sprawl reached Quincy and it turned it into a colorless copy of every other residential community across the country. Truthfully, things have progressed to the point that Quincy is now just a rather distant section of Columbia since strip malls, national restaurant and store chains, along with mass produced subdivisions have physically connected the two.

The forced corporate amalgamation of the town has long since swept away locally owned hamburger joints, mom and pop restaurants, along with the independent department and grocery stores. The saddest loss for me was the old Mark Twain Book Store that was located on Front Street. It was a place I spent a large part of my Saturday mornings before the grumpy old bastard that owned it just gave a me a book so I would leave him alone.

From there I would make my way back to the legal office my mom worked doing boring research for upcoming court cases. Being the weekend, the bigwig lawyers were no where to be found so I would find a comfortable seat and read my new book until she was ready to go home. My father worked at the long defunct steel mill and his hours back then were about as crazy and cumbersome as mine. But he was usually home by the early evening of those long ago Saturdays where we would sit together and just talk and enjoy each other company.

The exception to the mass destruction or assimilation of Quincy's local businesses was Peter's Pancake Palace. Established way back in the ancient 1960's as a diner close to my long extinct book store, the founder and chief cook for years, Peter Wilson, outlasted three of the national chains that usually run such local establishments out of business. So it was with a certain sense of pride that Peter's daughter moved her father's creation into one of those vacated buildings back in the late 1980's.

Despite the corruption of Quincy, the Pancake Palace remained one of the few locations that the two differing but equally obnoxious groups that made up the population of the town enjoyed. It was sophisticated enough for the upper middle class suburbanites, but yet offered a down home charm that allowed them to brag to the others of their subspecies that they mingled with the lesser common folk. For the long time residents, who for various reasons made up the working poor and less educated, the Palace could be thought of as an ancient temple that allowed the downtrodden natives to feel superior to the invading foreigners who now dominated their ancestral lands. It didn't take me long to start seeing both groups as not really human but more akin to two different species of insects who could not see the world beyond their own narrow perceptions.

That pretty much summed up my feelings about how I became alienated in my own hometown. When I left Quincy to join the army after high school there was only the slightest hints of the coming suburban sprawl. Hell, back then the only thing that could be said to connect Quincy to Columbia, besides the highways, was the weirdly fast growing kudzu vine. When I returned home in 1996 Quincy had all but changed into its current form.

That being said, my first destination the morning after my brush with the Twilight Zone was the Pancake Palace. I arrived a little before six o'clock and took a seat at the counter still figuring out how I was going to square away all the details of me leaving town. Quitting my job would be easy, I did want to make a bit of a memorable splash walking out along with helping one of my few friends. Then there were the arrangements to be made with my lawyer. We weren't friends by any means, but given the retainer I was about to lay on him to keep my affairs in order the man should be more than willing to kiss my pale, hairy ass. Then there was the situation with my two sons, my failures and circumstances had pulled apart our relationships but I was determined to say goodbye properly.

Since my night shift work schedule was ass backwards to all the good folks who lived their lives during daylight hours, the Palace seemed strangely crowded. On the days and times I usually dropped in the only chatter I heard was that of the wait staff talking with each other. That morning a cacophony voices made recognizing any individual person impossible. Which was just as well, it allowed me to concentrate on my own thoughts while I savored my breakfast. That is until I heard the voice of my ex-wife.

“Jason Lance,” Emily Langley called out like an angry elementary school teacher did to a student she thought mentally deficient and destined for a life of crime. “What are you doing here this time of the morning? Shouldn't you be at work?”

“Hello Emily,” I responded without turning around and after taking several deep, calming breaths. I desperately wanted to shoot back with a snarky response but I had long learned such behaviors were ultimately self defeating. Although, given my opinion of Emily and why she divorced me seven years ago, I figure forty-two million in lottery winning now sitting in my bank account could buy a lot of peace of mind if I decided to tell her off. But there wasn't need to sink to her usual level of loathing.

“No,” I said taking the high ground, “I was going to give you a call later and ask if I could come over and see the boys before I leave town.”

“Leave town,” she almost screeched, “just where do you think you're going, especially the way you look, is it a Jimmy Buffett concert?” She asked with a detectable degree of ridicule in her voice.

Emily had always taken a dim view to the clothes I wore, but I was kind of insulted with her degrading the Hawaiian shirt, jeans, and beach sandals I was wearing to celebrate what amounted to a lottery winnings inspired independence day for me.  Realizing Emily wasn't going away until I dealt with her, I spun my bar stool around to look her in the face. The one thing I had to admit about my ex-wife was that she was still quite beautiful. Dressed in stylish skintight exercise apparel, it was obvious she wanted to show off that fact to as many people as possible. 
Having turned forty-five years old a few months back she could have easily passed as someone in her mid-thirties. Which wasn't just because she was now a gym rat, my sons had let it slip that Emily had several secretive sessions with a plastic surgeon down in Charleston. The two differences that were obvious since the divorce though was how she dyed her hair blonde and and her posse of sycophants.Three women who would not have giving Emily the time of day until she married the hunky Mark Langley, DDM.

Despite it all, I actually liked Mark, we had known each other since high school and I was one of his first patients when he established his practice. All jokes aside, he was a great step-father to my kids. Since management at my work had long since locked me into being permanent night shift, he had taken up the slack in being there for Wilson and Barry as they grew up. Yeah, I did resent the hell out of him showering the boys with gifts and other expensive junk that I could never afford, but there was worse things a step-parent could do to children. Over the years though, Mark's gifts had taken a toll on the relationship I had with my sons.

The one thing that did piss me off about the man who for years was Quincy's most eligible bachelor and raging Lothario was the suspicious timing between Emily divorcing me and them becoming a couple. I would be lying if I didn't say there was probably a period of time that while Mark was still my dentist, he was playing a different type of doctor with my wife.          

Standing in the middle of the path customers used to get to the restroom and wait staff traveled to get to the kitchen, Emily was the picture of everything I felt wrong about Quincy and people in general. Seven years after the divorce Emily had evolved two different personalities when it came to dealing with me. The first was almost human acting and only appeared when no one else was within hearing distance. As far as Emily was concerned, I was the dead bug splattered all over the windshield of her life. But on the good side I was the father of her boys so on rare occasions she sort of acted nice to me. The second personality was the one I was dealing with now, it was the one that appeared in public and treated me as if I was a mushy, wet pile of dog poop she couldn't remove from her expensive shoes.

I hadn't expected to roll out my cover store about leaving this early, but like the younger version of myself that appeared in my bathroom mirror the day before, life likes to throw four dimensional curve balls. “Yeah, this is something that's been in the works for several months. One of my old army buddies and I stumbled across each other on Facebook and he offered me a job after finding out what I do. He runs an engineering business and has several overseas contracts that needs more people. After a leisurely drive across the country spending my hiring bonus, I'll be living out on a tropical island in the middle of the Pacific for at least five years fixing equipment on the military base located there.”

Getting back to my theory on how the current, mutant natives of Quincy just couldn't conceive anything out of their own narrow existence, I could tell from the look on Emily's face her now upper middle class mind was utterly blown. “Your joking,” was her response “surely you would never leave the job you've had since before we got married.”

“No, I'm not joking in the slightest and do not call be Shirley .” I said feeling a small opening for a harmless bit of post-marriage snark. After several seconds though I could tell the information had finally sank into her brain was processed.

“I'm sorry, you can't see the boys, they're with Mark in Chicago at a convention and won't be back until Friday. So you'll have to postpone this joy ride until then.” Emily said regaining a bit of her composure, being stumped by her lackluster ex-husband in front of her coven of suburban witches was simply something that she couldn't allow.

“Well, then I'll send them an email when I stop and rest along the way.” Feeling my blood begin to turn hot. “I'm glad Mark has taken the boys, that way you won't have to worry he's returned to his old ways. I hear the clerks at the Hide Away Motel still whisper his name in admiration. We all know how often he used the place, on an hourly basis.” Just because she had ticked me off, I really emphasized that last part while looking her straight in the eyes and loud enough that the other people at the counter and the the nearby tables all went silent. While Quincy wasn't the town of my youth, the Pancake Palace was still the best location to get the latest gossip.

It was probably good that I was leaving town that day because Emily stormed out of the Pancake Palace with her small coven trailing behind. Knowing how things ran among the natives, word of my heavily implied accusation was already burning up the cell towers. Emily would be in damage control mode among her social circle for weeks. I just turned around and enjoyed the rest of my breakfast.