Inspector General

By: Ernst Luchs


General Sternwood

Department of Diminishing Returns

Camp Squanto, Massachusetts


Five-year deregulation program

Operation Overbite

Dear Jake,

My recent unofficial visit to Camp Suzie convinced me that the present five-year program, now in its sixth and final year, is in trouble. Jake, they were shocked as hell to see me there last Sunday morning. If I had arrived any later, I’m sure the whole place would have been whitewashed and spitshined.

For starters, no guard was posted outside the compound. I had to honk the horn for 15 minutes before anyone let me in. It was Commander Moss himself who opened the gate and he was still in civilian underwear. Now this was well past eight-thirty; Sunday school had been over for an hour. I was wearing regulation skivvies, of course, but the man still failed to salute. He then stated that if I paid a two dollar toll he’d let me through, no questions asked. Jake, I had to look up at the flagpole to make sure I was in the right country. Moss maintained that the regulations manual never specified as to the public display of undergarments. I checked his facts. I can hardly believe it but he’s right. I’ll be damned if there’s a single sentence in the book which details a mandatory code of dress. We should rewrite the whole shebang, starting with the introduction, “Why We Serve” (the obvious answer — “Because it’s there” — doesn’t fool them anymore).

According to the list Commander Moss gave me, 47 percent of the camp personnel were absent without leave, 35 percent were missing in action, and another 5 percent never existed. A brief investigation, which involved poking around inside the perimeter bushes with a cattle prod, brought that last figure down to an acceptable 3 percent. It can only be hoped that the other figures are the result of gross clerical incompetence.

Among other problems at Camp Suzie, the living conditions are substandard. Everyone’s fed well enough — the Red Cross sees to that — but where are they supposed to sleep? We promised them a row of barracks four years ago. Well, Jake, they’re still living in abandoned boxcars and running around with shoeshine kits. Out of pity, I paid for a shine seven times that day. If only you’d seen the look on those men’s faces when I tossed a quarter up for grabs.

As I continued the inspection I began to realize that, although Moss is the highest ranking officer on base, he’s not the man who’s running the show. The Chaplain, Sergeant Lemmus, is a very charismatic character to whom all personnel exhibit an unusual degree of loyalty. Mass is held every night in a secluded area that he designates as his “invisible church.” All who attend are required to wear “invisible robes,” and from what I hear it’s quite a ceremony. You’ll laugh if I admit this, but the man disturbs me. When I said, “See you later,” he just smiled and shook his head no.

Now Jake, I’m aware that Operation Overbite is a pet project of yours, but I can’t beat around the bush. In this case I can only advise to terminate with extreme prejudice. There’ll be other five-year programs, you wait and see. Meanwhile, deregulation is not the answer. What we need are fewer chaplains and more shoeshine kits.


Garage Sales

By: Ernst Luchs

Who can pass up a garage sale? I know I can’t. Mostly they’re just tangled heaps of useless junk which no one without serious mental problems would want. Yet, everything I have was purchased or stolen at garage sales. It used to be that only gypsies or Scotsmen would dare to be seen picking through piles of rags and button boxes. Nowadays, even the very rich will pick diligently through piles of rags and button boxes, pausing only to raise a monocle and inquire, “Is this Scotsman really for sale?”

The garage sale is a tradition which goes back to long before the invention of the garage. In the Elizabethan Age, noblemen and peasants alike would gather under brightly colored tents to barter:

“I will give you this fine goose for that old Gutenberg Bible.”

“Nay, this is a signed original, the only one of its kind. I will not part with it for less than two fine geese.”

“‘Tis a pity I have but one goose. But take a gander at yon maiden. I offer you the hand of my daughter, if such be fair trade.”

“What? My Gutenberg Bible for that? Surely you jest!”

“Nay, do her looks startle you? ‘Tis but the pox, which soon will pass. Let us bandy no more. Take my offer, oh merchant of Venice.”

“Oh, fudge! Behold, while we have haggled your goose has laid waste to my wares. Begone with your goose and your geek daughter! I don’t know what came over me, wanting to sell this rare first edition for a couple of smelly birds.”

Truly, Gutenberg would have rolled over in his grave. Except for a few plague years, the Renaissance fairs were so successful that they soon surpassed in popularity other social gatherings such as witch burnings and hangings.

After the invention of the garage, some aspects of the sales changed. It became harder to find a rare first edition and it became harder to get the owner to part with it at an absurdly low price. But bargains can still be found today. A friend of mine recently bought an antique milk pail for five dollars. Unknown to the previous owner, inside the pail were five long-lost copies of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The scrolls made a unique decoupage covering for the outside of the pail, with enough left over to do a suitcase and a lunch box.

A number of art objects are rediscovered at garage sales. If it hasn’t been used as a dart board or a place mat for too many years, an old master can go for millions at auction. I once finagled a painting away from widow woman in Missouri. I thought it was a Rembrandt. She thought it was a Van Dyke. In fact, she did have a genuine Van Dyke, but that was on her chin (and not for sale). I told her, “You know, I like this old Schickelgruber. I’ll give you a few bucks for it. What do you say?”

The old lady parted with it very reluctantly and only on the condition that I call her once a week to tell her how it was doing. I called her a week later and said, “Hey, I just sold your painting for ten million bucks. How about that?”

She’s probably still standing there in Missouri with the telephone glued to her ear. I was only joking at the time, but the real joke was on me because the painting was a Rockwell, not a Rembrandt. I couldn’t get more than four million for it.

Garage sales mean very many things to very many people and very few things to a few other people. Even a couple of other people that I forgot to mention before have some kind of opinion about sales in general. But don’t let them boggle you. Follow my example. Wherever there’s a stack of old newspapers, a bushelful of chipped procelain or a lampstand made out of petrified French bread, that’s where I’ll be. Unless I’m somewhere else.