Chapter 14 A Distant Puppeteer
In his bungalow outside Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines, Lieutenant Gopher J. Trilling pawed through his refrigerator with broad stubby hands like paddles. Then he shoved into his mouth, underslung beneath the long pyramidal protuberance of his nose—an imposing and improbable organ that blended like a ski slope sunk into his forehead—an artichoke-and-mayonnaise sandwich from which excess mayonnaise dropped in globs. Then he flung himself into a stuffed chair and began peering through thick glasses at the Wall Street Journal. Then he smiled the warm, glowing smile of a desert father who has just had breakfast with God. This was Lieutenant Trilling’s response to money. McDonnell Douglass had gone up four points.
On the walls, lizards copulated vigorously with little cries of, “Urk! Urk!” He didn’t notice the lizards.
Nobody suspected that he was the richest man in the Air Force. In fact, almost nobody noticed that he existed. Lieutenant Trilling was, except for his proboscis and his inexplicable understanding of the stock market, perhaps the most nondescript man in the Air Force. He seemed to have no characteristics. He didn’t date. He was neither brave nor cowardly. Nobody liked or disliked him. Except for artichoke-and-mayonnaise sandwiches, heavy on the mayonnaise, he seemed to like nothing. Or to dislike it. It was true that he looked very much like a mole, which made some of the wives nervous when he walked past their lawns, but it was nothing they could put a finger on.
Every day he went to the Office of Personnel, Housing, and Inclement Statistics, where he was in charge of maintaining records. His purpose in the great scheme of the Air Force was to manage a wall lined with filing cabinets. These contained forms dealing with nobody knew what, since no one ever looked at them except the pool of eight Philippina secretaries who filled them out in large numbers. Someone had once known what the forms dealt with, but he had been transferred to Europe and, since things were running smoothly, nobody had ever inquired again. If it ain’t broke, the Air Force felt, don’t fix it.
The filing system never broke, because Lieutenant Trilling was a good manager. When the cabinets filled, he emptied the last cabinet into the Dempster Dumpster late at night, and moved the empty cabinet to the front of the row of cabinets. When the new cabinet filled, he emptied the current last cabinet into the Dumpster. The Philippina secretaries were grateful because they always knew where to put their forms. However, it had the effect of causing the cabinets gradually to migrate around the walls.
This puzzled his boss, Major Dornington, who had a vague feeling that the furniture in his offices was up to something.
“Lieutenant Trilling,” he occasionally asked, “Wasn’t… I mean, wasn’t this filing cabinet somewhere else yesterday?”
Lieutenant Trilling always answered this question in the tones of one soothing the disturbed, “Everything was always somewhere else yesterday, sir. The planet circles the sun and the galaxy moves through space. We’re always somewhere else.”
“Ah, that must be it. I knew it was somewhere else yesterday.” Major Dornington was pleased that he wasn’t imagining things.
By midsummer however the cabinets had reached the desk of the first Philippina secretary, which faced the wall. Lieutenant Trilling moved her desk along the wall by the width of a filing cabinet, and pushed the other seven desks down by the same amount. Soon the office was being orbited by eleven filing cabinets, eight Philippina secretaries, a magazine stand, and a portable water cooler. Major Dornington became vaguely anxious and began to dream of being trapped in whirlpools.
“Lieutenant, do you notice anything odd about the furniture?”
“No sir,” answered Lieutenant Trilling. “It looks pretty ordinary to me.”
“Ah…Then you don’t have a suspicion that it’s …you know …trying to get behind you?”
“No, sir,” Lieutenant Trilling said in a voice tinged by concern.
Major Dornington didn’t answer. He did begin turning his desk so that it always faced the migrating cabinets.
Lieutenant Four-Eyes Trilling had gotten rich after inheriting ten thousand dollars from his great aunt Planaria. When Four Eyes inherited the ten thousand from his aunt, he put it in the bank. He didn’t have any particular need for money, and he was content watching his cabinets migrate around the edge of the office, which seemed about as reasonable as anything else people did.
He had then begun casually reading the Wall Street Journal, and discovered that he had an eye—an astonishingly good eye, as it turned out—for stocks. Further, he found that he loved stocks. They were fun. Few things were. Soon he was making money hand over fist, rolling in lucre almost, and loving every penny of it with the affection of a boy for his cocker spaniel. His telephone bills to his broker in New York were large, but paled beside his earnings.
This fiscal flowering had its drawbacks, mostly involving taxes. A man making eighty thousand a year plus a lieutenant’s salary, he learned, is vulnerable tax-wise. He began to cast about for shelters, and discovered that anyone in a combat zone could take a tax credit of $2000. It was a law designed to benefit officers. He also found that supply flights went from the Philippines to Bangkok every month, flying over Vietnam briefly. By flying six times a year, he could get twelve months of credit, or $24,000. It helped that he was in charge of the records.
He was making so much money however that $24,000 wasn’t enough. He began making a twofer flight every month, which gave him twelve thousand in credits and twenty-four months per year of combat flying. For a while he wondered whether the computer would object to his existing at twice the normal rate, but it didn’t. The Air Force just wasn’t set up for people who lived twenty-four months a year.
Still his earnings outran his tax credits. He found that if he stayed in Bangkok overnight, and flew back over Vietnam en route home on the first of the months, he could file for his credits through Offutt Air Force Base in Oklahoma, on the other side of the International Date Line, where it was still the thirty-first. This doubled his credits to twenty-four thousand, but gave him combat time at the rate of forty-eight months per year.
Normally a lieutenant would not have been permitted to make long flights to Bangkok every month. However, Major Dornington was concerned about his own mental balance, and Lieutenant Trilling assured him that he wasn’t crazy. Several times a month Major Dornington asked about the galaxy and how things were never where they were. It comforted him, so he left Lieutenant Trilling pretty much free to do as he liked.