Articles from the October 1997 Unification News


Modern Times - Part One

This article originally ran in these pages in early 1994. Its first section consisted of rambling observations, done in the style-if not with the panache-of the late San Francisco columnist Herb Caen. The second described a "Made for TV" movie, about a clever salesman’s doings in an imaginary small town.

This time around we’re going to expand that second section into a short story. It’s just long enough to fill a two-part article.

Our tale is set in a small town somewhere in Mississippi. Rich and poor, old and new may be found there. Little do they suspect what awaits them!

Our Story

One summer day, a remarkably successful salesman arrived in town, a handsome fellow named Bill Sampson. He knew people, he knew American society. He a little about technology, and a lot about how people relate to it.

Almost every home in town had a VCR, and a microwave oven. This was 1992, and only a few had personal computers. These items were regarded, by most everyone, as "hi-tech magic boxes." They do your bidding, and as long as the local electronics-repair guy knows how to fix them, that’s quite enough!

The local repairman’s name was Jim Faircloth, and he lived with his wife Marta in a ranch style home near the southern end of town.

About noon on Monday, salesman Bill checked into the American Eight motel, out by the interstate that passes north of town. The contents of the cargo trailer he’d towed along were soon deposited in a storage locker.

Bill spent his first afternoon just driving around, observing the community. Right before five he stopped by City Hall, where he paid in cash for the permits required of him. He was far too sophisticated to waste energy dodging the local cops-even if redneck Sheriffs were a relic of the past.

The next morning Bill was ready to go. On the east end of town he’d found the local "junk strip," the Magnolia Highway. It was lined with repair shops, junkyards, and seedy taverns.

Briefcase in hand, Bill walked calmly into Dale’s Auto Body. On the counter lay the crumpled remains of several lottery tickets; on the desk behind it a heap of collection notices was visible amidst the clutter.

Bill smiled to himself. "Dale here?" he inquired of a boy in oil-stained coveralls.

"He’s back there." The boy pointed to back room.

A monstrous Rottweiler dog growled; Bill edged around it and found Dale bent over the engine of a cherry red stock car.

"Mighty nice! Yours?" Bill asked cheerily. Bill hailed from Detroit, but his southern drawl was nearly perfect.

"Yup," said Dale, and gently closed the hood. "Race it on weekends."

"Costs a bundle to run, don’t it?"

"You betcha," Dale affirmed. "I don’t believe we’ve met."

Bill shook hands, ignoring the grease. "I think I can help you."

Five minutes later, Bill sold Dale a forty dollar "Bill Reducing Calculator." It consisted of a calculator and an electronic, book-keeping calendar.

Bill explained, "This device contains a very special feature. It actually reduces your expenses! You merely do them up on this handy bill-paying helper, and you need pay as little as fifty percent of the amount. The memory contains the collection policies of the IRS, the credit bureaus and major industrial suppliers."

By five, Bill had worked his way a mile down the Magnolia Highway, and sold thirty two of his calculators.

At that same time, Dale returned home to his trailer and set to work on an impressive stack of bills.

The last stamp licked, Dale tossed everything into his mailbox and set out through a thick stand of pine trees. He crossed a heavily-used railroad track, then tramped generally northwards towards Jim Faircloth’s house.

Marta Faircloth was just finishing the last touches on a hearty supper when she glanced up to see their back gate opening, and a large, beefy man slipping through. "Honey, Dale’s here!" she called. Her husband was in the living room, watching the nightly news.

Jim grabbed the remote and switched to a baseball game. Dale wouldn’t be interested in the news.

By ten, both supper and the baseball game had reached their conclusion; the Braves had won and the men were in a genial mood. There was a lull in the conversation, and Dale proudly brought out his new purchase. Jim checked its functions carefully, and frowned.

Dale didn’t like the look of this. Jim had been to college, and that had to count for something. This looked like one of those times.

Marta came in, and Jim quickly explained. If he had frowned, his wife positively scowled. She was good with numbers.

"Dale," Marta said quietly, "if you weren’t such a good buddy of ours, I’d say caveat emptor and not laugh until you’d gone home."

Dale wondered what that meant, though he didn’t ask. It sure sounded like he’d be needing a refund. A careful examination of the User’s Manual revealed that one was available, upon paying shipping costs to the manufacturer-in Macao.

The next morning Marta arrived at work early, at seven. She was the bookkeeper for Crawford’s General Store, and it was largely due to her behind-the-scenes expertise that the shop had survived the opening of the Wal-Mart out by the interstate. On her way in she nodded politely to a stranger, a well dressed man in his fifties.

Bill Sampson smiled and walked on. He had other plans for the downtown area.

Another Device

Bill knew it was time to switch tactics. The Magnolia Highway was long, and it took him the rest of the day to finish doing the area.

That evening, he returned to the motel to meet Fred Brown, his business partner. Fred was younger, and had an aura of boyish sincerity that women found difficult to resist. He’d driven in from Alabama with another trailer-load of product.

This community was a center of regional commerce, and its downtown was extensive. Despite the Wal-Mart’s impact it took Fred two days to work his way around it. Meanwhile, Bill started driving out to the smaller, surrounding towns.

By three o’clock on Thursday, Marta was more than ready for her regular afternoon break. She’d been doing the shop’s annual inventory, and she was bushed. She headed next door to the diner, where she joined her friend Ellie May for a large glass of iced tea.

Ellie was usually perky, and today she was downright jubilant. "I’ve been so worried about that old Winnebago of ours," she told Marta. "We can barely afford the repair bills, and my husband really wants to take it out fishing this weekend. Why, the gasoline costs alone are eating us alive."

Ellie opened a box and took out a thin, rectangular contraption the size of her hand. Wires dangled from both ends. "I just bought this thing here. I called home and we’re going to wire it into the RV tonight, soon as I get off work."

Marta eyed it curiously. The stamped-on label read: The UltraTurboBlaster®. The instruction booklet showed how to clip the "regulator wires" onto an engine, and listed the benefits certain to ensue: decreased engine wear, improved gas mileage, and a substantial reduction in road accidents. At sixty forty five dollars, said the booklet, it would pay for itself in less than three months!

Marta asked Ellie where she might get one. Dale kept their own vehicles running, but not everyone had a mechanic for a best friend. Possibly her sisters could use something like this.

"I bought it from a traveling salesman," Ellie explained. She grinned. "Handsome fellow, too. Said he’d be around."

At that Marta remembered Dale’s unfortunate purchase, but the man Ellie described sounded like someone else.

They finished their tea and left the cafe. Ellie worked at a brick-faced office building on the other side of Main Street. She was just about to cross when she exclaimed, "Why, there he goes now."

Marta turned and saw a tall, dark-haired man entering a shop a block down. "Tell you what," she told Ellie. "How’s about you and your husband come over to our place for supper tonight."

"Gladly. I have to work late anyway, so we were just going to microwave something."

"Remember to bring along that thing you bought."

That evening Dale also came to the Faircloth’s for supper, and got to know Ellie and her husband. There he got a look at the mechanical miracle device. He was less gracious in his reaction than Marta had been, but the Faircloths were used to that. The refund, in this case, required shipment to Indonesia-and the metal-encased "turbo" weighed a lot.

Here we shall leave our friends until next month.

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