“Marta, is that you? You’re as beautiful as you were when we first met fifty years ago.
“Yes, Alex, this is me here at Xeaven Sent.” She tossed her head and brushed a tress of raven hair behind the shoulder of her red sundress.
“You look so healthy…so, so alive.” He scratched the paunch over his wide belt.
“Yes, and I always will. That’s because you loved me enough to buy me the Xeaven Sent premium package. That allowed me to select my age for eternity. And because you also signed up for the special, I was able to pick a new skill. I can play the piano, now, something I’ve always wanted to do. It’s all because of you, Alex, your love for me, and the wonderful people here at Xeaven Sent.”
“Don’t thank me, Marta. I never gave it a second thought. For a reasonable down payment and low monthly fees, I’ll be able to care for you forever. You’ll never die and never grow old.” Alex shook his head. “But how will I ever keep up with you?”
“Don’t you remember, Alex? Since you took the double-bonus option—for only a small increase in your monthly fee—you’ll be able to join me whenever you wish. You can call on the friendly euthanologists here at the Xeaven Sent any time. There’s no need to wait, and you don’t have to go through that messy business of dying.”
“Oh Marta, that sounds wonderful. I can hardly wait.”
“Yes, and if you apply before the end of the year, you’ll qualify for the Xeaven Sent world tour. I’m already signed up.”
The view receded to reveal Marta in front of an arched doorway. Smiling, she gestured Alex to follow and stepped through the door. “Paris,” she called and, as the mist cleared, pointed to the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe beyond. “Come soon, Alex, and we can share wine, cheese, a baguette, and a stroll along the Champs-Élysées. I always told you we should come here. Now, we can, thanks to Xeaven Sent.”
The scene shifted to a dark, handsome man in a white shirt, red-and-blue-striped tie, and flashing a wide, toothy smile.
“Wanna live forever? Here at Xeaven Sent that’s not a trick question.” He leaned forward and lifted a finger. “We pride ourselves on offering the best afterlife services on the market, state-of-the-art, with benefits and options to suit every taste and wallet—as Marta just said, including eliminating the formality of actually having to die.”
He stepped from his desk into a garden of mulched flowerbeds, manicured lawns, and broadleaf trees. “Everything you love in life you can have here in Xeaven Sent. Yes, you can take it with you. Work, certainly, if you insist, and better. You can instantly attend meetings anywhere on Earth, even two or three at a time. Or—” He stepped toward a slender, cornsilk-haired beauty and passionately embraced her. “Xeaven Sent is not only about business meetings.”
He winked as the scene ended.
# # #
“And cut.” The director swiveled to the actors seated behind him. “Fabulous. Love it. You can all pick up your checks at the front desk.”
He looked to the fat, bald man in the t-shirt who played Alex and pointed. “I wanna keep you on contract. We can always use a common everyman type.” He then turned to the fashion model who played Marta.
“You were beautiful, just beautiful, sweetheart. I wanna use you in my next major film. Of course, we must wait till this commercial is off the air a couple months. You available for dinner tonight and drinks? I wanna introduce you to our sponsor.”
Kalon Kuday took his seat in the market square just as he did every week. After the children gathered, he told them a story. “Three men went down to the sea to sail,” he began.
The first man walked to his boat and climbed in. While he waited for someone to untie the lines and push him off, the man’s gaze never left the horizon. A breeze filled the sail and carried the man and his boat out from shore and onto a calm sea. The breeze remained at his back and shifted occasionally, also shifting the sail, so the man had no need to touch either the sail or the tiller. A short while later, the man found himself across the sea, entering a safe harbor, and lined up with a berth. A cheering crowd greeted him, tied his boat securely, and helped him ashore.
The second man, before untying his boat, studied the rigging of the sail and motion of the rudder. He then stepped aboard and, when others came to advise and help him, he thanked them. By this time, the gentle breeze had grown brisk and unsteady, and clouds gathered. Leaving the harbor required the man to steer and adjust the sail. Shifting wind and waves demanded constant adjustment to remain afloat and on course. No one noticed when he entered the far harbor, stepped onto the pier, and tied his boat.
In no hurry, the third man inhaled the sea air, felt the breeze pick up, and watched the clouds gather. When people onshore said it had gotten late and a storm was coming, he scowled and waved them back. As if to prove them wrong, and with no preparation, he took his place in the boat. The untrimmed sail snapped and swung; the lashed tiller remained immobile. When no one came to help, the man shouted, waved a fist, and cut the bow and stern lines. The misaligned sail folded in the wind and the boat spun, forcing the man to row in order to leave the harbor. The boat drifted and rocked, moving forward only when a wind shift caught the sail just right. When waves flooded the boat, the man cursed at his fate bailed water with a bucket. After many days, the boat grounded on a reef, and the man washed ashore. Locals to this day recount the odd man swearing and blaming everyone for his misfortune.
Kalon Kuday rested his hands on his crossed legs. The children waited for his first question.
“Which of the three men was most successful?”
Radib had his answer ready. “Easy. The first one, because he crossed the sea and didn’t have to work much.”
Anik agreed. “And everyone cheered when they saw him.” He paused. “And now everyone knows him so he can be the King.”
Tima shook her head. “The second man learned how to sail, so he did the most, and he’s the smartest.”
Anik protested. “But nobody saw him, so he didn’t get any credit, and his trip was wasted.”
Kalon Kuday stroked his thin mustache. “And which of the three would you say got what he wanted most?”
“The third man didn’t, but the other two did.” Tima bobbed her head.
A wide-eyed girl sitting in front spoke up. “No, everyone got just what they wanted.” Kalon Kuday smiled down at little Sibanya.
Radib frowned at his sister. “All the third man got was angry.”Sibanya held up her chin. “That was what he wanted—to be angry at everyone all the time. All three men got what they wanted most.”
I sat up in bed laughing and shaking my head, happy that I’d woken up before my dream became a nightmare.
In the dream, I’d boarded a plane to attend an economic conference in Switzerland. Representatives of the big economic powers sat forward in business-class; those of smaller countries sat on the rear side of a partition, in tourist.
As the US representative, I had one of the forward seats, beside China, across the aisle from Japan and Germany, and just ahead of India and Russia. Everyone wore some sort of costume related to their national identity. Mine was a red Ohio State football jersey, complete with shoulder pads, and a Detroit Tigers baseball cap. My Chinese seatmate wore a long, loose garment, white with full open sleeves, and a green, Chairman Mao cap with a red star above the visor. Looking back, I saw turbans, a Samurai helmet, veils, Arabian headdress, and other covers and hair embellishments.
As our plane pulled away from the terminal, a German flight attendant came around with a menu. The China representative beside me called the flight attendant over and offered a stack of renminbi to be first served. She pocketed the money, whereupon the Chinese ordered multiple servings of everything on the menu. When the attendant pointed out that our flight only included one meal serving, he offered more renminbi and his credit card. The Japanese across the aisle thought this improper as did the Indian behind me, but the German and Russian reps vetoed their complaints.
Food service began shortly after takeoff with food piling up around the Chinese, along with full beverage service. The rest of the passengers got crackers or nuts in cellophane wrappers and bottled water. Grumbling from the tourist section drifted forward, but for several minutes, everyone contented themselves with their cellophane treats. Then the Iranian rep came forward. He bowed, handed over a basket of rial banknotes, and carried back a contoured tray with a chicken breast, a biscuit, a chocolate graham cracker, and a plastic-covered cup of tea.
The Chinese ate quickly and seemed to gain both appetite and bulk as he ate. An Italian stewardess brought the next round and, after collecting her own stash of renminbi, never looked at another passenger.
Soon more in business- and tourist-class came forward with ever increasing offers, paying several times what the food might have cost and forgetting that it had already been included in the fare.
The Chinese beside me, now double his original size, tore out of his clothing and poured over the armrest into my seat. When I slid over, he raised the seat arm, which immediately increased his flow. Pushed far out into the aisle, I left my seat, walked to the back, and stood beside the restroom door. The food cavalcade and money transfer continued, as did the growing girth of my former seatmate. The Japanese came to join me standing, then an Indian lady in a green sari. Threatened with suffocation from the growing bulk of bare flesh, soon everyone in business-class was in the back and the passage from business- to tourist-class entirely block by a broad, bare behind.
Lights blinked in the cabin then went off. The red fasten-seatbelt sign came on with a BING. As the plane went into a steep dive, oxygen masks dropped over the seats. Those of us standing wedged wherever we could.
I awoke startled, heart pounding, and dizzy from my dreamed freefall.
I spent my first two weeks of the war cooling my heels in Paris at the Chateau Rothschild after escorting cases of scotch to senior staff officers fleeing Brussels ahead of German panzers (For the preceding story see My Night in Paris). I heard about the Battle of the Bulge in daily briefings and watched it on 16mm newsreels. Each morning, I put on my uniform, ate a formal breakfast, and reported for duty.
“Orders on hold,” the Captain at the desk said. When I pressed him, he had me sorting mail. The top brass got a lot of mail, mine was held up until they knew where I’d be based.
I wrote to my wife Phyllis in the evening and toured Paris alone during the day: the Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe, Notre Dame, windswept boulevards, wine in the cafes. An unwashed earthy scent hung over the city. Soldiers and sailors wandered about laughing and pointing, officers and enlisted in every sort of uniform. Parisians swept and carried rubble, fixed doors and windows, and washed red and black Nazi regalia from walls.
My fortune changed quickly. “Lieutenant Kenny, 404th Fighter Group, 508 squadron, St. Trond.” The desk Captain checked my orders, looked up, and smiled. “They’ll be real happy to see you, Lieutenant.” He wrote and circled a big red ‘25’ in grease pencil on the first page, handed me my orders with a train ticket, and pointed to the front door. “Jeep’s waiting.”
The train from Paris to St. Trond, Belgium crossed the path taken by German columns a month earlier and in June 1940, when their swift attacks led to the fall of France. Along the route, I saw broken rail ties and twisted rails, and work teams, sledgehammers and rail spikes in hand. Collapsed buildings and bridges marred the view of rolling, green hills.
We passed the great bend of the Meuse River at Namur then continued on to St. Trond, a quiet town of about 15,000 people. The town featured a central square, three-spire skyline, Carmelite monastery, narrow side-alleys, and cobblestones. A jeep met me at the train station and took me directly to the base which was designated A-92.
It had belonged to Staffel 12 of NJG 1. (Night Fighter Wing One). There were three crisscrossing concrete runways and dozens of covered revetments, camouflaged by the Germans to resemble barns and blocks of homes. A few smashed planes, Ju-88’s and Me-110’s, remained on the grounds. A large brick-and-concrete hangar and three-story control tower and operations building had been restored to operating condition. Thunderbolt fighters filled the parking aprons and the area in front of the hangar. Maintenance teams climbed over them, checking bullet holes and missing pieces, revving the engines. It was late afternoon and the squadrons had recently returned.
The jeep pulled in front of operations. I hugged my coat tight and cap down against the frosty January wind, grabbed my B-4 bag, and jumped out.
“Lieutenant Kenny?” A sergeant, standing in the doorway, shouted over the roar of a dozen radial engines. I nodded and showed him my orders. He pointed to the red ‘25’ on the front page, gave a thumbs-up, and pointed to another ‘25’, on a banner inside the operations building. “Major Garrigan—he’s 508’s commander—said to send you in as soon as you arrived. Give him a minute; he’s with Captain Shelton.”
A corporal, overhearing our conversation, went quickly to update the roster in the briefing room. He chalked LT. EDWARD KENNY in six-inch letters at the bottom of the list for 508 squadron pilots. Beside it he wrote an outsized ‘25’, underlining it twice.
Damn friendly group, I thought.
“Major’s ready for you now,” the sergeant said, waving me toward the office.
My heart leaped. I felt excited and a bit intimidated. This was a veteran outfit. 404 Group and 508 squadron had led ground attacks into Germany since D-Day. St. Trond was forward deployed to support attacks everywhere along the German border.
I walked in and saluted. The office was Spartan, old wooden desk, trashcan, two wooden chairs, a low dresser used as a filing cabinet. Garrigan returned my salute without standing and gestured to the open chair. He was the designated ‘old man’ of the squadron, though barely twenty-six.
“Good to see you, Ed. Quite a setup, huh?” He gestured around the room and out the window. “Sorry your orders got held up. Blame the Germans. Two panzer divisions passed fifty miles south of here—last week a recon unit came within twenty-five. We almost pulled out. Anyway, I wanted to welcome you to the 508. Have you looked around? Need anything? Any questions?”
“My driver brought me here first,” I said. “He pointed out the mess hall and officers’ billets as we drove in. I haven’t seen my mail for a month.”
“In good weather, a gooney bird drops off the mail each morning. I’m sure you’ll get a bag full. Anything else?” Before I could speak, Garrigan added, “We’re having a little ‘Hail and Farewell’ drink at the O-club this afternoon. Starts in a few minutes. You’re the guest of honor. If that’s all, Ops briefing’s at 0400.”
He must have seen me hesitate. “Don’t worry, Ed. On your first mission, you’ll be my deputy’s wingman. No slight to you. The Germans are on the run, but they’ve still got some wolves up there … good machines, good pilots, and a lot more flying experience than we’ve got.”
I nodded and asked. “One question.” Garrigan leaned forward. “Being twenty-five is a big deal in this squadron. I guess we’re at full strength—with twenty-five pilots, I mean?”
Garrigan smiled. “Twenty-five’s a special number for us because we’re only authorized twenty-four pilots. That means somebody gets to go home.” He stared past me. “No one’s left any squadron in the 404th for some time, not unless they were in really bad shape. Some of these guys have flown over a hundred missions, and some volunteered for extra missions, did two or three a day.” He took a breath and looked back at me. “Any more questions?”
That thought brought the war home to me, fast. “No, sir. Thank you.” I turned to leave.
“Save a drink for me, Ed. I’ll be over as soon as I wrap up.”
The party that evening was short and spirited—everyone had to fly the next morning. We had a honky-tonk piano and a hot jazz group. Some of the guys took a break off the flight line just to have a beer with twenty-five—me. Local Belgian beer, wine, cheeses, and bread arrived in a horse-drawn cart.
Some of the guys tried to teach the Belgian girls to jitterbug, but a couple nurses from the local nursing school jitterbugged better than the guys.
Toward the end of the party, I met Captain Jack Tueller of Morgan, Utah. Jack was the happiest to see me. Tomorrow his name came off the top of the roster, and mine moved from twenty-five up to twenty-four. Jack was going home to his wife and two little girls.
Beside me, Jack raised his beer and shouted, “I love you guys, and I’ll never forget you, but tomorrow, January 27, 1945, I’m going home.”
Everyone cheered and raised their glasses, and it struck me. Not 25 but 21. Tomorrow was January 27, my birthday. I would be 21 and I was going on my first combat mission.
* Special thanks to Andrew F. Wilson, Ex-404th Fighter Group, Ex-507th Squadron S-2, for much of the background provided in his book, Leap Off the Combat History of the 404th Fighter Group. In Wilson’s forward he writes, “This book is designed to give those who were members of the 404th Fighter Group during the period 1943-1945 some basis of fact around which they can weave their own fairy tales of personal wartime experience.”
“Happy birthday, Button. After lunch we’re having a birthday party for you. All your friends are coming, and they might even bring you some presents.” Dave smiled, nodding wide-eyed.
“I remember once you told me when I was six years old I could have a puppy?” Dorothy said, rocking as she stood.
“I remember saying that if Mommy agreed you might have a puppy.” Dave chose his next words carefully. “You know there aren’t any real puppies or kitties anymore. All gone. Now we have robots. Easier to care for and better for the environment.”
“I know that.” Little Dorothy’s body wobbled as her head bobbed. “My teacher told me that at school. She said old robots need homes. When they wear out, people put them into new furry bodies and teach them to play with children, wag their tails, and lick my face, and love me, and sleep in my bed, and keep me company when I’m sad, and—”
“Yes, I think the new doggies can do all those things, even purr if you want them to. People program them for all the things you want them to do.”
Dorothy scrunched her mouth to one side and dropped her eyes. “Mommy didn’t want me to have a puppy. But I told her you promised, and she said it was okay.”
Dave put on his best frown to look upset. “Okay, Button. But when you go to the shelter, I’ll go with you. I don’t want you picking out a hair dryer or a vacuum cleaner.”
Dorothy giggled. “That’s silly, Daddy. Why would I get a vacuum or hair dryer?”
Dave lifted his daughter onto his knee. “Of course, you wouldn’t do that on purpose, but you might make a mistake. Robots never die and some are very old. Long ago people made them to do just one thing, like clean floors, or wash dishes, or play games like chess. That made some people angry. They said robots should all be created equal. After that, all robots got the same brain even when they only did one thing.”
When Dorothy rubbed her hands in worry, Dave raised his tone and lifted his arms. “Of course, it might be nice to have a doggie that cleaned instead of messed on the floors.”
Dorothy laughed, gave her father a neck hug, then looked up into his face. “I’m sorry, Daddy. I didn’t know you wanted to go to the shelter. I wanted to have my puppy here with me for my birthday party.”
“That’s okay, Button. I’m sure if Mommy went with you, everything will be wonderful.”
“Oh, it will. My doggie will have black and white fur with floppy ears, and …” She paused. “Daddy, remember when you said I could have a giraffe?”
“Same as eight minutes ago … making friends.” Greg’s eyes darted as his fingers skipped over his lap device.
Justin peered over Greg’s arm. “How many friends you got now?”
“A lot … five … six … seven … since morning I’ve added two thousand, two hundred and seven … eight … nine …” Greg clicked down the accept list.
Justin threw his arms out and flopped back in his chair. “Wow! You’re the most popular guy I know.”
“Don’t say guy, someone might take it the wrong way.”
“Sorry. You ever gonna meet any of your new friends?” Justin asked. Greg shook his head. “Not even the girls? Girls really go for popular guys, I hear. Makes ‘em get all … you know … like … ahh, excited.”
Greg faked a yawn. “Since when? Girls get all their fantasy characters online, avatars wayyy cooler than me. That way they get to play like they’re magical princesses and don’t even have to comb their hair.”
“I thought it was just me they didn’t like,” Justin said and grimaced.
“Been that way ever since the world got perfect. Who wants normal dudes? Too much work.” Greg shrugged, and Justine went back to clicking.
The galactic overseers watched the scene as they rocked in silence in the mist of the saline hearth. When the monitor darkened, Otch turned to Cot. “You see what we’re up against? That was years ago. We didn’t do anything then, and it’s gotten much worse.”
Cot did not respond and continued waving its many eyestalks in the warm, briny mist. Then it casually lifted a slark worm from the hors d’hoeuvre tray and proceeded to sip extrusion from its shell.
Otch pressed. “Tell me, Cot, how are your humans doing?”
Cot paused only an instant then returned to slark-surping.
Too direct, Otch thought. Cot was sensitive about discussing its humans. Every conversation they’d had on the topic had ended with an argument. Otch retracted its eyestalks, biding its time while Cot ate.
When the last of the slark disappeared from the tray, Otch tried again. “I’m sorry Cot, but I must persist. As you saw on the monitor, my humans are failing to thrive. I don’t know what’s wrong with them. I’ve done everything to make them happy, given them everything they’ve asked for, and yet they’re dying. Humans don’t know they’re no longer on Earth, but the problems began right after the relocation …” No response. Otch knew what Cot wanted.
“Okay, I apologize,” Ocht said. “I admit, you may have been right about the humans. And I was wrong to side against you in the relocation meeting.”
“You laughed at me,” Cot finally said, its tendrils oscillating.
“I’m sorry for that, too.”
“Then you voted to have my opinions struck from the record.”
“And that, too. But listen, Cot. Nothing is working. The new habitats are identical to the ones humans had on Earth. We just removed the obstacles and smoothed the rough edges—diseases, poor climate, shortages. We made everything perfect for them. Abundant delectable foods, lavish entertainments, rewards for every act, complete safety. We know we missed something. I’m down to a few dozen females, no males. Justin and Greg are gone. When females showed no interest in them, the males kicked around for a while then just stopped living.” Cot nodded as if this should have been expected.
“We want you back on the team,” Otch said. Cot nodded and, after a beat, Ocht asked again, “So how are your humans doing?”
“I’ve got twelve hundred and thirteen,” Cot said quietly.
“No, that’s not possible,” Ocht said, his voice rising in disbelief. “That would mean an increase. Are you saying your population has grown?” Cot nodded. “What? You’ve found some new entertainment for them … some new drug?”
“We’ve had this discussion before, and I won’t go through it again. You and the relocation team only want to hear answers that support your thinking.” When Ocht began to protest, Cot held up a dozen tendrils. “I think we’re done here. Thank you, old friend, for the most excellent slark worms.” With that, Cot bowed and slid from the room.
On returning to its neighborhood, Cot donned the guise of a barn owl and flew out to visit its humans. They worked together to grow food, traded goods, repaired homes and various devices, talked about last night’s storm and how their children were doing in school. Boys and girls talked, sharing their dreams and plans. And everyone complained about how hard life was.
Life journeys take many paths, and they cross often. All must answer the same life questions. So though our sojourns differ, those new to the path may benefit from familiar footprints at the intersections.
I believe it is difficult to understand those whose skill sets and concerns differ significantly from our own. That is a major reason we see things differently. Depending on the tools we possess, an obstacle for one may be an opportunity for another. If all one has is a hammer, one may never think to use a screw—or a saw. Won’t a board split if we pound it hard enough?
It has become fashionable, even prideful for some, to claim or strive for complete independence in all things. Forcing oneself to struggle in areas of lesser talent, insisting that greater effort is all that is required, keeps one from nurturing their special talent and perhaps using it to benefit others. It also keeps us from recognizing and appreciating the special talents of others. I think that recognition is important for finding partners and building teams, and an important quality for leaders to cultivate.
Someone once asked me, “What would it be like to be God, to have God-like power?” My answer was, “I have been God. My dog Freya sees me as all-knowing and all-powerful, the deliverer of all good things, immortal, and invulnerable.” I don’t let that go to my head. When I make the mistake of roughhousing with her—a 110-pound Rottweiler-Shepherd with a lot of sharp edges—she teaches me otherwise.
I walk away bloodied, but that doesn’t shake her faith in my perfection. Many have commented on how she follows and seems to worship me. I remember my children when small behaving in much the same way. The mantle of godhood should be taken seriously but worn lightly. As with many pretenses of godhood—PhDs, certified credentials, modern breakthroughs and discoveries—I find little that is new. Discarding ancient wisdom, we rediscover what was long known and, hearing it coming from our mouths, declare it brilliant and extraordinary.
Out of curiosity—a trait I have in abundance—I have tried many things. Except for all the added mysticism, I found Yoga little different from the stretching exercises I learned for wrestling and Tai Kwan Do. The fact that they bring peace and relaxation doesn’t require an advanced degree or expensive class to appreciate.
I met with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi when he toured the country—the same person John Lennon visited in India. His teachings predate “Mindfulness” and were certainly not about voiding the mind. It was all about thinking clearly. Cleeer-leee was how he pronounced it. One clears the mind to filter out the nonsense repeated and shouted at high volume, often with the intent to manipulate and sell everything from happiness to politics and used cars. These claims of new and perfect knowledge cannot stand close examination.
I believe the early Genesis story was intended as a metaphor. Eve died in the perfection of the garden and was born into the life of struggle necessary to survive and grow in an imperfect world. Like mine, her sin was curiosity, wanting to know and understand what was outside the gate. She may have been willing to pay the price for the mistakes she made.