SHARING THE PAIN

One pleasant summer evening, I was leaning on a railing alongside the Thames River, watching ducks swimming in the sanctuary of Eel Pie Island. Then a swan came flapping down the river. Swans fly like heavy freight planes, and they seem to have poor eyesight. Anyway, this swan slammed into the side of the bridge to the island, and plummeted into the river.

“Drop the gun and raise your hands!” A police constable was running towards me.

“What are you talking about, I don’t have a gun?”

“Somebody just shot that swan, and you’re the only other person here.”

“Nobody shot anything. The swan hit the side of the bridge and knocked itself out.”

“If you shot that swan, you’re in big trouble because it’s a capital offense.”

“You’re crazy. First you say I shot the stupid swan without a gun, and then you say I can get hanged for that alleged crime.”

“You could have just thrown the gun into the river. Also, it is a capital offense. A law written centuries ago says all swans belong to the Queen. If you kill a swan, that is treason and you can get hanged for it.”

“Shouldn’t you be chasing terrorists instead of standing there making stupid accusations? Go ahead and arrest me. A judge will laugh you out of court.”

“Show some respect. I don’t write the laws, I just enforce them.”

While I was arguing with the cop, the swan had surfaced and was paddling to the shore. Though it had been merely stunned and not killed, it appeared to have a badly damaged wing. When it reached the shore, it hopped around and feebly flapped its wings, but was unable to launch itself into flight.

“Hey officer, looks like the swan has risen from the dead! That means you can’t arrest me for treason and swanicide.”

“That’s a different swan.”

“Oh, really? And your different swan just happens to have a broken wing from a recent accident.”

The swan made a supreme effort and started flying toward us. But the pain from the broken wing was too much, and the swan couldn’t climb any higher. It crash-landed on the head of the constable, and immediately crapped down the front of his face, shirt and tunic.

“I’ll kill that godamned bird!” The cop screamed, as he pulled out his baton and started bludgeoning the swan. It desperately tried to fly away, but the cop’s first savage blow had broken the swan’s other wing. So now it was helpless, and soon it was dead.

Meanwhile, a small crowd had gathered. One guy in the crowd was video recording the violent scene, while a woman was in tears as she phoned the police.

Two police cars and an Animal Control van arrived while the constable was still pounding on what was left of the swan. A policeman in the second car appeared to be the senior officer. He sported a gold badge and was giving orders to the other cops. Two cops escorted their crazed comrade to the second patrol car and pushed him into the back seat. This walk of shame was accompanied by abusive chants from the crowd of onlookers: “Put him in cuffs”, “Throw him in jail”, “And throw away the key”.

***

The police hoped that the incident would be forgotten. But repeated showings of the incriminating video on TV, plus numerous abusive letters to local newspapers, convinced the brass that stronger action was needed. So they dismissed the constable from the force, and charged him with treason and animal cruelty. The judge subsequently dismissed the treason charge, but delivered a suspended 90-day sentence for animal cruelty.

I felt some sympathy for the former constable who believed the swan had deliberately attacked him. Nevertheless, it seemed appropriate that he should share some of the pain that he wanted to inflict on other people—and swans.

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BLIND

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After a couple of successful high-tech startups in Silicon Valley, Bob Abrams had become a multi-millionaire. Unlike most other entrepreneurs, he cashed in his chips and didn’t try to pyramid his millions into billions. Instead, he returned to his first love—jazz. He decided to launch a record company to preserve the work of aging jazz musicians.

He lived in San Jose, but most of the musicians he wanted to record were on the East Coast. So he called some New York contacts to locate active musicians. One contact was Mike Baker, a former classmate at NYU, who now lived in New Haven, Connecticut. Mike pointed out that Connecticut also boasted some great jazz musicians, including Bob’s favorite sax player, Sam Wilson.

After a few days in New York, Bob visited New Haven to check out a recording studio Mike recommended, and to listen to some of the local jazz talent. Mike suggested they have dinner at a club called ‘The Ninth Note’, which featured a weekly jam session.

The session started with just the rhythm section led by multi-talented Nick Biello playing organ. When Sam Wilson arrived, he was wearing shades. Bob hoped that didn’t mean he’d become a junkie. The group launched into a slow blues, and Sam played beautiful long flowing melodic lines—unlike the choppy riffs of less talented musicians. Then they switched to a ballad, ‘The Nearness of You’. On this one, Sam demonstrated his versatility by tearing into a fierce double-tempo solo.

Bob was impressed. When the musicians took a break, he walked over to Sam and explained how he was lining up musicians for recording sessions. He handed Sam a sheet of music and said he’d like Sam to solo on the song (a slow blues head arrangement) for one of the recordings.

“Okay. Give it to Nick, and have him play it on keyboard so I can learn it.”

“But I thought you could read music.”

“I could read music, but I can’t see it anymore. I’m blind.”

“What happened? Did you have some sort of accident?”

“No. My eyesight just slowly got worse from year to year.”

“What did your eye doctor say? Is it cataracts, retinal damage or what?

“I can’t afford health insurance.”

Bob, a liberal among entrepreneurs, went into an extended rant about how the US should have single-payer universal health care like civilized countries. He finished with, “There are none so blind as those who refuse to see.” When he calmed down, he decided to deal with the problem.

“Mike, do you know any good eye doctors here?”

“My guy is an excellent surgeon. He did my cataract surgery and checks regularly for retinal damage. But he doesn’t take Medicaid. He came here from Canada because he couldn’t make enough money there. “

“Okay, take Sam to see your guy. I’ll give you a check for $3000 as an advance. If he needs any more, just call me.”

***

Sam had cataract surgery for both eyes. A few months later, he was back at the Ninth Note. Bob grabbed a front row seat for that. But Sam’s playing style was completely different and it sounded terrible. Instead of flowing lines, he played short, hesitant, phrases that didn’t seem to fit together. Also, his intonation sounded harsh. At intermission time, Bob asked Sam why his playing style had changed. Sam felt terrible, because Bob had paid for his surgery, but now he couldn’t deliver on his side of the transaction.

“When I was blind, I would get into a trance-like groove while I was playing. My solos seemed effortless. But when I got my sight back, there were too many distractions. I wanted to watch movies and read books, so I wasn’t getting enough practice on the horn. And when I’m playing, I’m distracted by anything that moves. Now I understand why Sonny Rollins got into yoga.“

“Apparently, what’s good for the musician is bad for the music,” Bob groaned.

SECURING THE RED BUTTON

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In 2017, the US had a newly elected President— a Tea Party President. Rick Walker had been Governor of one of the Red states. To achieve smaller government (except for defense spending) he wanted to eliminate six segments of the Federal Government, including Environmental Protection. Most of the country set record temperature lows on Election Day 2016. In the minds of voters, that supported his argument that “Global warming is bullshit.”

Walker’s biggest problem was alcoholism. That had been rumored during the election campaign, but the GOP leadership had managed to keep it concealed until after the election. They then built a sober Cabinet to control Walker. They brought back Condoleezza Rice to head the State Department, and they gave Walker a short list of candidates from which to choose a Defense Secretary. Walker selected Henry Goddard–not a career politician, but a vice president of Boeing.

Though the US and Russia had sealed disarmament agreements, the POTUS still carried a black box with a red pushbutton that could authorize a missile launch. Because of Walker’s alcoholism, the Defense Department redesigned the black box so that it now included an alcohol detector. Henry Goddard and a couple of technicians brought the new box to the White House so that it could be installed and tested.

Walker didn’t like it.

“What’s that stuff on top?” he asked.

“That’s a set of new biometric sensors for improved security.”

“Why the mouthpiece?”

“You blow into it to be tested for alcohol—like a Breathalyzer test for an automobile driver.”

“I don’t want that. It will make people think I’m an alcoholic.”

“Nobody will know you’re taking the test unless you tell them. We’ll just send out a press release saying we’ve upgraded the security in several ways, but the details are classified”
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***

A couple of months later, an international crisis erupted. Iran had developed an atomic weapon. Israel’s Netanyahu said if the US did not immediately destroy the Iranian weapons plant, Israel would go it alone. Russia’s Putin said that both Iran and Israel must leave the Middle East nuclear free. If Israel attacked Iran, then Russia might have to attack Israel.

Unexpected activity in Russia’s Siberian missile launch sites triggered a conference in the White House Situation Room. Attendees included Rice and Goddard, but not Walker. He was partying after a country music concert in the East Ballroom. The Siberian activity was puzzling. If the Russians were attacking Israel, they would use one of their Western missile sites. Rice called Vladimir Putin, and told the office manager to get Walker sobered up.

“Mr. Putin, this is Condoleezza Rice, US Secretary of State. We have reason to believe you may be readying a missile attack on the US. “

“Where’s Walker? I don’t negotiate with female functionaries.“

“Our President had earlier commitments but he will be here in a few minutes. Meanwhile, perhaps you’d like to discuss your military posture with our Defense Secretary, Henry Goddard.”

“We are not readying an attack against the US. Apparently, your military intelligence is just as pathetic as it was when I headed the KGB. “

Goddard quickly put Putin on hold. “The Russians just launched their missiles while the lying SOB was talking to us. The only puzzling part is that they’re headed South instead of East. Where is Walker? We urgently need to respond.”

“Sorry, they still haven’t been able to get him sobered up.”

“Cancel everything,” shouted Goddard. “We just got a clearer satellite picture. The activity we saw was the migration of a flock of large birds. The flashing lights were the Aurora Borealis.”

Goddard slumped forward with his head on the table. “Thank God for our drunk POTUS. We almost triggered World War III.”

PROJECT XMF

It was early afternoon on a sunny spring day in Manhattan.  Across the street from the UN building, two gay guys exited a side door of the office building that housed the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. They were holding hands and were headed for a romantic lunch. Or so it appeared!

In fact, the two guys were special agent Frank Harris of the FBI, and field agent Mark Leeds of the CIA. They were testing the prototype of a new surveillance device—eXtended Multiple Function glasses. It merged the imaging functions of Google Glass, night-vision goggles and digital binoculars. Later, it would include Microsoft’s 3D hologram technology. The existing version was bulky. The glasses looked like the aviator sunglasses worn by some police officers. The controller was an Android tablet computer–but with special-purpose apps.

Anyone wearing the glasses would look like a cop, so the guys testing the unit were forced into a gay charade as a front. Harris wore the glasses and had the controller in his pants pocket. Leeds handled voice communications. The Android controller had encrypted data interfaces so that images could be uploaded to face-recognition databases. For today’s tests, they were using the FBI database. With their gay attire, Frank and Mark could not wear body armor or carry weapons.

Harris took various pictures around the UN building and uploaded them to the FBI. Most of the subjects were typical tourists, so there were no early hits. Then Harris saw a swarthy guy with a beard who was checking the entrance ramp for the underground garage. Leeds pretended to take pictures of Harris with his cell phone so that Harris could move around and get shots facing the suspect. Soon after Harris uploaded the shots, Leeds got a call from FBI manager Stan Abrams on the cell phone.

“Bingo! You identified a guy on the “Most Wanted” list. He has several aliases, but we call him Abu Ibrahim. We didn’t know he was in the US.”

“So you want us to arrest him,” asked Harris, “then you’ll give us the reward?”

“You wish! No, just keep a tail on him. We want to stop whatever he has planned, and identify any co-conspirators.“

“The battery is flat on the XMF system, and we’re not armed.”

“Just communicate by phone.  When the suspect stops, give us the location and we’ll send relief.”

The “gays” followed Ibrahim until he entered a building on Second Ave. They didn’t follow him into the building, but stood outside the Palm restaurant, called Abrams and gave him the location.

“Okay, I’m sending more guys.

Ibrahim left the building with a teenage boy. The agents followed them to an apartment in Tudor City, then Frank and Mark returned to base.

“A probable target is Israel’s Prime Minister, who is visiting the UN tomorrow,” said Abrams.

***

Early next morning, Harris joined the other agents at Tudor City. He looked more like a cop this time. He was wearing a bullet-proof vest and carried a Glock 40 in a shoulder holster. And he wore the XMF glasses–in case he needed the digital binoculars.

Shortly, Ibrahim left the apartment and drove out of the parking lot. Harris grabbed the FBI car and brought one of the two agents to give chase. With the other agent driving, Harris called Abrams and told him what was happening.

When Ibrahim pulled into a rest stop in Syracuse, Harris called Abrams again.

“Did we get this all wrong? Ibrahim is nowhere near the UN.”

“No we were right on target. The kid was a suicide bomber. He went to the UN building wearing a bomb under his coat. We already had men stationed on the ramp. We told the kid to raise his hands, but he refused. Instead, he ripped open his jacket, and yelled ‘Allahu Akbar’. Our marksmen shot him in the head, and the bomb squad defused the bomb.”

“So all’s well that ends well?”

“Yes. Arrest Ibrahim and that will wrap things up at our end.