Book 2: The Return Home

by Rick Beck

Chapter 15


The next morning a uniformed guard showed up with the envelope for the Foundation's account shortly after I'd finished morning mail deliveries. I was busy setting aside the outgoing mail I'd collected on my rounds for Ms. Mars to check over before posting. She signed the receipt for the guard, opened the outside envelope to remove the inner envelope, and wrote out the receipt she needed to prove Mr. McMichael's office had received it. She handed it to me once it was ready for delivery.

I took the stairs two at a time. The sugar from the donuts surged through me. I could likely have flown up the stairs after two jelly donuts—one maple, and one chocolate with chocolate icing—one cup of coffee, and two glasses of milk. I bounced out of the door on the fortieth floor before I knew it. I pocketed the receipt after Barbara signed it before indicating I should take the envelope into Mr. McMichael's office. I knocked politely before stepping inside.

He had the envelope opened and everything out on his desk like he'd had a few donuts himself. He went through the pile of money, writing numbers on a piece of paper he'd removed from his top drawer. Finishing what he was focused on, he put a paper clip on the pile of checks and tossed them to me.

"Do your thing," he said, getting up to go to the bathroom door and disappearing from my view.

There were only three out of twenty-seven checks that weren't round numbers. He came back carrying his jacket. He looked at the slip of paper he'd written on after asking me for the number in my head. He looked at me and back to the paper again, before tossing everything into the envelope and putting the envelope into his briefcase.

"You interested in going to see what I do with the proceeds? You seemed interested in what the Foundation is all about. Maybe seeing a meeting of the Board would better explain it to you."

"Sure, but I've got work to do," I said, catching myself reminding my boss I had work to do.

"You can drop the receipt off to Ms Mars and tell her you're accompanying me to the bank," he said. "I think she can hold down the fort until I get you back. This is important."

"There might be mail deliveries. I shouldn't leave the office," I worried.

"Let me put it another way. If I kept you up here talking about the Foundation for the next hour would that be okay or would you tell me you had to be going because you have more important duties in my company than pleasing your boss?"

"No, I don't think I could say that to you," I said with caution.

"It's the same thing. I want you to come along. You wanted to know about the Foundation and most of the Board meets at the bank after events like this one."

"Yes, sir," I said, accompanying him to the waiting executive elevator.

He followed me out of the elevator and into the mailroom as I gave the receipt to Ms Mars.

"I'm taking young Mr. Walker with me, Ms Mars. Is there anything pending that makes sparing him for an hour a hardship for the mailroom?"

"No, Mr. McMichael, we're caught up and I don't expect anything else this morning. The day after a holiday is usually slow. If something comes in that can't wait, I can get it delivered."

"See, you are expendable. We'll take the stairs," he said, and I followed him to the parking garage.

The Lexus was a step up from John's five year old sedan. It was a smooth quiet ride with something like Mozart drifting out of the stereo in light well-measured tones.

The bank was a few blocks away and the briefcase with the envelope in it was set down on the manager's desk in the back of the bank. Mr. McMichael handed him the items out of the envelope that were bankable along with the two slips of paper with the Foundation's count on the funds being deposited. He placed the pledges back in the briefcase and closed it.

We climbed a flight of stairs and went into an office on the second floor. It was similar to Mr. McMichael's office, paneled in dark wood with windows on one side that gave us a nice view of the windows in the building next door. There was a gray haired man sitting at a long table, reading through some papers. He stood and smiled, once we'd entered the room.

"Brad," Mr. McMichael said. "This is my calculator, Mr. Walker. Mr. Walker, Brad Knight. He's the Foundation's top attorney."

I felt funny in my shirt sleeves. Brad wasn't sure what to make of the introduction. He shook my hand vigorously in any event. I was sure if he was curious he'd ask for a clarification when I wasn't present. It felt a little like being the punch line in a joke. I was feeling very much out of place.

More men came in and someone was called to bring the coffee after six people were seated at the table with Mr. McMichael and Mr. Knight. I sat to one side as the men made small talk. The bank manager came in with the official tally and a deposit slip. This was handed from man to man and each man glanced at the figures before it came back to Mr. McMichael and was filed in his briefcase for safe-keeping.

"What's the news on State Senator Bailey?" someone asked.

"He's introduced the bill for the reopening of the salmon runs we've specified in the minutes of the May meeting. We've got some support from several localities directly impacted by the move. Friends of the Foundation have expressed their interest in supporting the measure. We are currently working to identify next group of runs that are the easiest to rehabilitate. With our funds on hand we shouldn't have any difficulty financing the first segment of the project. We are on schedule."

"Contact me at RamTech if there is any change in the wording or the locations specified. I do have funds set aside to use to continue the study which will identify more runs with the least environmental impact coming from their rehabilitation. Even if we can get them open this year, it'll probably be two or more years before we are capable of reintroducing salmon safely back to those environments.

"We'll need to identify local environmentally friendly allies who may already have done studies on natural runs that have been subverted in corporate efforts to divert water to their own interests in local areas around the state. We need to get our newsletter in their hands so they know what we're doing.

"The faster we can name culprits who are spoiling our environment for profit the faster we can get them in front of a judge, who just might help them to change their ways. We don't have time to play nice with the people who will stand in our way. We need to investigate the possibility of recovering the cost of rehabilitating the runs from those responsible for their closure. That will add funds to the project," Mr. McMichael said. "The best we can get might be for them to relinquish whatever rights they've secured to the property."

There was agreement and nods to Mr. McMichael's ideas. There were motions to take the actions specified and two other men offered statements suggesting complementary approaches to expedite the rehabilitation of specified areas. There was conversation about pollution from insecticides and fertilizers, not to mention the garbage people threw into the abandoned salmon runs. The greatest cost was cleaning up the manmade mess. They'd approach other environmentally sensitive organizations for manpower assistance to clean out the garbage before attempting to redirect water back into each of the areas in question. It was only then they'd assess what level of contamination might be present and how best to neutralize chemicals that might be a hazard to the fish or their eggs.

It took about fifty minutes and all the men met at the door, shook hands and left. It was all more agreeable than I imagined a group of men being. There was no rancor and only a few comments that didn't follow Mr. McMichael's vision closely.

"Come on, young Walker. Let's go get a good cup of coffee from Starbucks before getting our collective noses back to the grindstone."

I ordered a Mocha Grande, feeling a need for a sugar rush only chocolate could provide me. Mr. McMichael paid. We took the coffee to the Lexus. He assured me we wouldn't move until the coffee was consumed.

"That was a meeting of the Board. Usually it lasts five or ten minutes and we exchange the numbers we are working with. There are several attorneys, the banker, and we have two state legislators associated with us but for obvious reasons not on the Board. Believe me nothing gets done without attorneys to make it legal and politicians who grease the skids. As distasteful as it is jumping through hoops to get the right legislation, nothing happens if you don't go through that maze and sometimes nothing happens once you do. Most politicians know how to wheel and deal for other politicians' votes on the bills they want to pass. You give me your vote and I'll give you mine."

"You can't just do something about things that are plainly wrong?"

"Nope. Not allowed. The things that are wrong are usually the carefully orchestrated results of someone who is making a lot of money keeping it wrong. These people have money, politicians, and more attorneys than it should be legal to allow. I should talk. We have attorneys any time we need them. They volunteer their services so it isn't like it costs us anything but just the time and effort it takes makes it difficult to get anything important done. Attorneys with consciences are the best allies of this kind of foundation. They believe in what they are doing and are tireless. If it addresses their own interest, they'll do all it's legal to do… and sometimes more."

"Opening the runs is that important?"

"Yes, it's the key to saving the salmon in the wild. It might come to forbidding the fishing of salmon for a few years, until they begin to recover. They use the runs to get to where they reproduce. Salmon have unique radar. It takes them back to where they were born so they can spawn. Then they die but they leave the next generation of salmon behind, waiting to be born. They can no longer get back to where their ancestors spawned, but they know where to go if they have a way to get there."

"How will they know how to get there if they weren't born there?" I asked, confused.

"Instinct. They have remarkable instinct. That alone is worth preserving. If we open those runs the salmon will find their way back to their ancestral spawning grounds, even though they've never been there. It's rather amazing. All wild creatures are amazing."

"They have built in GPS," I said, sipping my Mocha.

"Yes, in a way it's like a built-in GPS, encoded into their genes."

"Cool," I said, wondering how it worked in fish.

"Well, polish that off and we'll get back. Did you learn anything, Billie Joe," he said friendlier than usual.

"Yes, sir. I followed the conversation. It was all quite civil."

"Yes, we all have the same interest at heart. We don't always agree on how to achieve our goals. It's important your generation takes responsibility for the injustices, especially in our environment with the kind of difficulties that are created by people not protecting their own interests. Believe me, if people went to their taps tomorrow morning and nothing came out, or, worse yet, what came out looked like oil or mud, you'd hear the howl from here to eternity.

"The problem is that the problem has existed for years, decades, and sometimes a century or more before the tap stops producing water. Nothing happens over night. It takes a lot of people and a lot of work to make things right."

"Yes, sir, I understand that. It's good to see someone doing something about it."

"This was time well spent. I anticipate that one day you'll be involved in creating a better world for us all. It's a job for all of us, you know. This has nothing to do with RamTech and my work, yet it has everything to do with RamTech and my work."

I didn't completely understand what he was telling me but the experience taught me something. He'd sensed my interest and exposed me to the inner workings of his foundation. I went back to work feeling a tiny bit smarter about how his foundation got things done. It was an incredibly large task. Taking on the powers that be to keep the salmon from becoming extinct, sounded like a big deal.

I remembered reading about Louis and Clark reaching the Columbia River after a couple of years of journeying across the continent in search of the Northwest Passage. They were near starvation for a time near the Pacific Ocean. The Indian offered to trade them salmon. Unfamiliar with the food value of the salmon, Louis and Clark and his men wouldn't eat it, even though the water boiled with the fish at times.

Now, like so many other things, the greed of some men had the once king salmon of the western waterways in danger of disappearing. Was it possible for a handful of men, even with attorneys and legislators, to reverse the damage done over many years and save the once plentiful fish?

I loved salmon but I wouldn't be able to eat it again, not unless I knew they were no longer in danger. My heart told me it was likely to be a taste that was lost to me forever. What I'd seen of man's cruelty to man told me their cruelty to wildlife was even more brutal. I couldn't figure out what such men valued if their fellow man and the natural beauty of wildlife were only there for them to exploit. How sad they must be.

I wrote Carl about my adventures with Mr. McMichael. We wouldn't be able to talk about it after agreeing Carl should save his money for when he returned home. We were going to need a place where we'd start our lives together. This meant writing every night and trying to remember the details that I would usually tell him on the phone as we searched for subjects to talk about.

I was once again feeling guilty about my plan to leave RamTech the final week in August. Each time Mr. McMichael paid special attention to me or went out of his way to teach me about something he valued, my guilt increased. He was investing in me on a long-term basis and I was a short-time employee.

I wanted to tell him the truth but I needed the job and the money for the same reason Carl wasn't there to talk to several times a week. I was again left with the feeling of being dishonest for accepting lessons I considered to be of great value. Did this make me a thief of sorts?

Learning from someone as anxious to teach as Mr. McMichael, made it worse. How could I tell him I intended to make the down payment on a life I was starting across the country with my wages from RamTech? Was it any of his business, and how bad should I feel about accepting his hospitality? I didn't want to insult the man and I didn't like feeling dishonest.

He'd watched my face and eyes for a reaction to the thousands of dollars he poured out of an envelope I carried to his office. He knew from my reaction that I was honest and wouldn't steal his money. Did he see that I could deceive him, even if I wasn't a thief? My first job presented me with a dilemma with no answer I could find. At least not an answer I liked thinking about.

"John," I said on our way to work the next day, "how do I tell Mr. McMichael I'm leaving next month?"

"Don't. Lots of guys work there over the summer. Most of the younger guys are college kids. They leave or make part-time arrangements. You shouldn't bring it up until it's time."

"I'm not going to college and he keeps trying to teach me about things, important things like he's planning on my being around."

"This is a problem?" John questioned.

"I feel like I'm betraying him," I said.

"Billie Joe, I hate to point out to you that the rocket scientists don't start in the mailroom. Usually they start in rocket science. Accept what you are learning as part of your job."

"Very funny. I feel guilty about taking up so much of his time."

"Don't. When the time comes you'll tell him. In the mean time do your job and don't short change the man. That's what you're paid to do. He didn't hire you to be his running-around buddy. Let the man run his company the way he wants. You don't know everything and he can teach you things you might never learn otherwise. I'd shut up and listen, but that's my warped sense of idealism. The man is doing what he wants to do at his company. Humor him. He hasn't asked you for a thing."

That was a big help. Keep on lying until it's too late to keep it to myself any longer. My morning was no fun. I did my usual deliveries without my heart being in it. There was no envelope for the fortieth floor and Ms. Mars kept looking at me as if I'd grown another head. I went about my business and did my best not to short change the man. It didn't help my disposition.

"You okay, Billie Joe?" Ms. Mars asked after I'd tidied up the work area for the third time that morning.

"Yes, ma'am," I said, wondering why she'd ask.

"You don't seem like you're feeling all that well. If you'd like to take the rest of the day off, I can arrange that."

"Oh, no, ma'am, I'm fine. I was just thinking."

"Anything I can help you with?"

"No, it's personal. Just giving some thought to my future."

"Ah, as you should. I hope RamTech figures in there somewhere," she advised.

"Well, I don't know," I said.

"I didn't mean the mailroom, Billie Joe. Of course you'd want to try for something with a little more meat on its bones."

"I like the mailroom. I don't want to be tied to a desk."

"I'm sure Mr. McMichael has his eye on you. If you find something that interests you he could probably make arrangements."

"Yes, ma'am," I said, needing another line of thought. "I haven't gotten that far. I like what I'm doing, but I do have other things going on in my life."

"Of course," she said, going back to her morning records keeping.

It was well into July, when the invitation came. Mr. McMichael had stayed busy and had not had time to be bothered with me. I got a return letter from Carl and he agreed that my life and decisions weren't tied to a lifelong commitment to RamTech and therefore I should feel no guilt for doing what was best for me. After a few weeks to think about it, I accepted he was right overall but this didn't relieve me of my responsibility to be aboveboard in my dealing with others.

It all boiled down to finding a way to best announce my intention to leave. Did I tell Ms. Mars first, because she was my direct supervisor, or did I tell Mr. McMichael first because he might be considering me for something more important in his company?

The invitation to dinner came through the mailroom as an interoffice memo. I was to be ready at 7p.m. and a car would pick me up. The dress was shirt and tie, which was the same as work. I decided I'd tell Mr. McMichael over dinner that I'd be leaving RamTech at the end of August in case he had plans for me within his company.

The dinner was on Mercer Island at the golf club where I'd carried his father's clubs. It was a celebration after the legislature unanimously gave his ecology foundation control over the salmon runs he'd been after. The water flow was to be restored to its natural course as fast as was prudent. Several politicians and a similar number of attorneys sat at the head table. I sat at a table with Mr. McMichael and his lovely wife Linda. He wanted the credit going to the men who had fought the fight and so our table was off to one side.

"I let you see the inner workings of what this dinner represents. We've gotten the first salmon runs we approached the legislature about restoring. The day you attended the meeting was for the third set of runs we're after."

"You're succeeding," I said.

"It's a start, Billie Joe. Success comes in small steps. I haven't had a lot of time to share the details with you but I've been really busy with company affairs."

"Oh, that's not necessary. I have no doubt you are busy," Mr. McMichael."

"I'd have you call me Dan but there's work to consider. This is a social setting but one I felt like sharing with you. What's this Ms. Mars tells me about you not being as happy with us as you were. Is there anything I can help you with?"

"No, sir, I do the best job I know how," I said in my defense.

"No, she's very happy with you, Billie Joe. She mentioned you seemed to be under some kind of stress or pressure. Is there anything I can do to help? I'm not interested in intruding just helping."

"There is one thing. I'm going to be leaving at the end of August. I really like my job and the time you've taken with me. I just felt like I needed to tell you that I have plans."

"You're going to college. I was hoping you would. You're a clever lad, Billie Joe."

"No, sir, I'll be going east."

"It sounds like you know where you are going. You are an impressive young man. I'm glad you came our way and I hope some of what I've shown you will be useful to you. We all need to get involved if we hope to have the kind of world we want to leave to our children."

"Yes, sir, I've never been exposed to environmental concerns. I've had my own but nothing I acted on."

"When I was your age, and this is not a recommendation, I was involved with an environmental group and we went down the Amazon River to try to stop the cutting in the rainforests. Speaking of learning something, I learned there is a time to run. The people doing the cutting weren't about to let a bunch of Anglos come to tell them they're wasting resources. We never had any time to reason with them, but being an Anglo turned out to be a drawback for our little band. We were lucky the army was nearby and we got out without any trouble, but they told us we weren't likely to be that lucky again."

"Wow!" I said. "I can't imagine doing that. The Amazon? That had to be totally amazing."

"Yes, as I said, that's not something I'm promoting for nineteen year olds. My family did have some interest in the environment and I was a headstrong kid. As you can see it hasn't changed, but if your leaving has anything to do with your stress at work, don't ever think of us as being anything but supportive of anything you decide to do in life, Billie Joe.

"I do business all over the country, all over the world, and if you find yourself in need of work or some kind of help, don't hesitate to ask. You are an impressive young man and it's been obvious to me since we met, you know where you're heading.

"My advice for you, young Walker, is follow your heart. Be passionate about your endeavors and you'll never be disappointed by life. Choose your battles carefully, but fight like hell once you find a cause."

"You do remind me a little of myself, except I could never add numbers in my head. I have to say that was impressive. Young Walker here took the checks from the foundation he'd added on a calculator I'd given him, and he double-checked the calculator in his head. It might have looked like a stunt, except his figures were correct," he said to his wife. "You never did explain to me how you do that."

"I add the numbers together is all," I explained. "I get a total."

"How do you do it? Certainly there's a formula or some new math they teach you or some such as that?"

"I don't know. I look at the numbers and add one to the next. I can't explain how I do it. It's how my brain works. Up to five figures I can add immediately."

"How interesting," he said. "Einstein couldn't teach, you know. He was so smart everyone thought he'd end up a college professor. His own professors couldn't fathom him at all. He always had the right answer to their questions, but he lacked the ability to explain how he came to his answers. I think he ended up going to work at the German Government's patent office.

"There is one thing I'm certain about, I'm no Einstein," I assured him. "I wasn't very good in school. I hated Geometry and didn't much care for Algebra."

"I can't add a column of numbers but Algebra and Physics fascinated me. I'm an abstract kind of a guy," he confessed.

"I understand you haven't left yet, but don't have any second thoughts about leaving us. Get out there and live, Billie Joe. Find what excites you and go for it. I want you to let me know what you're doing and where you go. If you ever get back out here you can think about rejoining us. Most of my interest and activity is in the west but I have contacts all over."

"Yes, sir," I said, feeling as if he'd just lifted a major weight off my shoulders.

I could mark this experience up as a lot of worrying about nothing. I felt really stupid for spending all that time worrying about how I was going to quit his company. I should have known he was going to accept my departure gracefully. My brother ended up being correct. Mr. McMichael hadn't asked me for anything. What he taught me was what he wanted me to know.

I had the best dinner and I found it easy to enjoy the celebration.

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