Letters from the Author

Occasional musings from the author of IP Pascal


Our new king

2006/04/09

The IPO of Softnomics, inc., had made James Hopkins a rich man. But that was 3 years ago, an eon in the short time periods of Silicon Valley. Many companies that came out of the gate as strongly as his were floundering by now. But Softnomics had turned in quarter after quarter of amazing profit growth, and Jim was looking beyond the simple acquisition of a trophy house and car.

In fact, the next toy to purchase would have been obvious for him. The corporate jet was a toy with a purpose, and made a nice tax deduction. A yacht, with all of its useless perk and personnel, was just the thing. Or it would have been. One of the advantages of corporate power was rubbing elbows with other software CEOs, some of them very rich indeed.

"An Island", John Proust had said. "Its the ultimate status symbol. Its a couple miles wide, wooded, beautiful, and even has its own airstrip. Its within 100 miles of the USA, so its easy to get to. And I am selling it". Why? Jim had asked, feeling like he had just asked the expected question. "I had it, it was fun, now I'm tired of it. There are few people who can afford such a luxury, and I was not anxious to sell it, so I have had it for years now without using it.".

And it had seemed perfect. The pictures of the place were too good to believe. White sand beaches combined with a forest inland consisting of Walnut, Birch and Pine. Like a tropical island, but not hot, and with a New England woodsy feel. Jim made the arrangements via the company lawyer, bought and paid for, signed for, all without ever seeing the island. He had people for that. They said it was nice.

In the months that followed, Jim had the pictures of the island pinned up above his desk. Somehow the happy, sunny shores did him good just to see. In his few idle minutes, he dreamed about laying on those beaches, and walking through those forests, and felt calmed. He wanted to build upon the land, a nice summer home to relax in. But he wanted to see it first. Just him, a backpack, and the idea of being alone, really alone, if for just a time, on that island.

Jim stood alone on the empty tarmac of the airfield, watching his corporate jet wing off to the horizon. He didn't really remember how long it took to make that dream come true. Weeks or months went by, with everyone telling him he needed to get out, to go relax. The simple backpack had turned into several duffel bags, a large tent, several coolers full of food, and other supplies. The bulk of it basically dictated that this empty field had become home base.

But that was fine. The airfield, really just a short, marked road by the seashore, was next to the woods. Already he felt at peace, feeling the sea air, hearing the crashing of the waves, and seeing the trees stretching off as far as he could see. The island was just far enough from the USA to be beyond the horizon. He could be anywhere on the planet.

Jim eyed the woods, and contemplated a walk there after getting situated. He had a feeling that the entire island was this idyllic. He now noticed that the woods seemed to be alive with small creatures. The squirrels, for they were clearly squirrels, ran frantically from tree to tree, seemingly at random. There certainly seemed to be a lot of them. As he watched, one of the squirrels left the trees and seemed to be making straight for him. His amusement turned to alarm at the small critter who seemed determined to charge him.

Only a few feet from him, the squirrel came to a halt, reared back on its hind legs, and regarded him. It began squeaking frantically. Jim picked up a walnut and offered it gingerly to the squirrel, but it kept on squeaking, uninterested. With a shock, Jim realized that the squirrel was speaking English, albiet with a high and rapid voice. He leaned closer, and he could just make out what the squirrel was saying.

"...the representative of the squirrels here on this island. We knew you were coming. We watched your airplane arrive. You are our new master, our new king. We profess our love for you. We are all ready to do your bidding. You have only but to ask."

Jim was stunned, but spoke. "I...I appreciate that, and as the new owner of the island, I promise to leave you in peace. I want only for you and the rest of the squirrels to enjoy this island and its woods."

The squirrel nodded in agreement. "We all are most grateful. We honor and respect you, our king".

Jim, still feeling like someone had slipped him a hallucinogen, felt the need to be honest with his newfound charge. "Well, there is one thing I do need."

This seemed to be exactly what the squirrel wanted to hear. It bowed and scraped, and outstretched its little paws. "Name it, oh great one, it shall be done".

"Well, I would like to build a house on the island. I promise that I will cut down the minimum amount of trees to make a clearing for it, and will tell you all well in advance where it will be. After this is done, I will cut no more trees."

At this, the squirrel stood to attention again."We have a clearing, a large clearing for you already. Also, we are prepared to build you a great palace. It will be several acres around, it shall reach to the sky. It shall be our tribute to you, and it will be done quickly, without your spending a single dime, or sending a single piece of equipment to this island. It will use the natural materials on this island, and the island will not be harmed in any way. Please, please let us do this for you, oh great one."

Jim had sincere doubts about what kind of building a bunch of squirrels could construct. However, it didn't seem that they could do much harm either, so he said, "Yes, that would be nice," without much further thought. There was, of course, a lot more for him to say. He wanted to ask how the squirrels came to be able to talk, and why the squirrels wanted to worship the island's current owner, and so many other questions. But before he composed himself, the squirrel turned and ran off, back to the woods. In fact, he noticed that all the squirrels seemed to be running, all the time, in seemingly random directions.

Aside from what was clearly a mental breakdown caused by overwork, the rest of Jim's day proceeded normally. He walked along the beach, ate the simple, prepared lunch from his supplies, and after a time, even ventured into the woods. A bit afraid of the squirrels after the mornings experience, he noticed that there seemed to be no difference in the squirrels from any other squirrels he had known. They were running to and fro though the woods at random, carrying one large walnut each. And none of them appeared to feel the need to stop and talk.

After a long day, Jim prepared his tent by the airfield and bedded down for the night. The next morning, after breakfast, he decided to again venture into the woods, perhaps straight across the island. He walked about a mile inland, and came to a large clearing. The sight of the clearing made him suddenly need to sit down. The huge clearing was covered with squirrels, each carrying a single walnut in their mouths. In the center of the clearing rose a huge mound of walnuts, already several feet high, and covering several acres.

After this, he was hardly surprised when, what he assumed to be the same squirrel representative, appeared on hind legs and started talking to him. "You see, we are working night and day to build your great palace. It is true that each of us can only build a small structure, but together we can build any structure as massive as man can. I know that you didn't believe what I told you yesterday, but now, see your palace rise. We will be done within a few weeks."

Jim returned to camp after this. In the ensuing days, he tried to walk a few more places on the island, see a few more sunsets. But shortly he realized that he was fascinated with the squirrels building project, and moved as much of his camp as possible to the edge of the clearing to watch it.

Day after day the project continued, and Jim began to see the intelligence of the nutty scheme the squirrels were carrying out. The squirrels could only, after all, build piles of nuts, but they had worked out the structure amazingly well. It was the shape of a hill with terraces cut into it in surprising complexity. He remembered just enough of the engineering principles for building and construction that he had picked up in college to understand the basic laws that governed the squirrels work. The "angle of repose" for any given pile of material was the angle for which, if made any steeper, the material would slide downhill and thus restore order. The angle of repose wasn't an exact figure. The hill could grow steeper, based on the friction of the material, and a measure of sheer luck. People with way too much free time on their hands had studied the problem extensively, and decided that when, and if, a hill has its inevitable landslide was firmly within the realm of chaos theory.

Indeed this was borne out in the squirrels labors. With thousands, tens of thousands of squirrels or more, the pile of nuts proceeded skyward at a steady pace. Each squirrel had one walnut in its mouth, and they were light enough to race up the slopes of the great pile without much disturbing it. Occasionally, part of the pile did give way in a landslide, but the squirrels dodged out of the way deftly-and had the rift repaired in no time.

After many days, Jim began to see the problems with the squirrel construction as well. They carried the nuts to and fro, and some squirrels seemed as intent on taking the structure apart as much as putting it together. Besides the small landslides, he had seen great landslides, and was sure he had seen several squirrels buried into the pile. The squirrels seemed to take no notice of this, and continued work as before. Even these major setbacks didn't seem to slow down the work for long.

The day finally came when he knew the work was complete. There was no denying the work was impressive. Several square acres at its base, the pyramid rose to a height of hundreds of feet. Although it was basically a mound of nuts, it had an impressive terracework up the sides, and he could see that a great spiral terrace went up to the top of the structure.

About midday, all work suddenly ceased as if on command. The squirrels departed for the woods again, and Jim was alone in the clearing with the massive structure. The leader of the great squirrel army came once again, and spoke, "See here, we have created your palace in just a few weeks. Please come and inspect it, enjoy it, and live in it." With that, the squirrel started off up the spiral terrace.

Jim trudged along after the squirrel. It was amazing how stable the upward road on which he strode was, considering it was basically a pile of nuts. The angle of it went up very slowly, and only a few sudden "nutfalls" occurred in the face of the pile next to him going upward. He could hear a few slides caused by his comparatively heavy stride at the outward edge, but he was afraid to go look, since the nuts would clearly give way there. They continued on to the top, and Jim was amazed to find a large flat area there. He could see the entire island from the top, hundreds of feet in the air, and many miles out to sea. He could even see land in the distance. The wind was blowing briskly at this height, and the view was breathtaking.

At this summit, he could see that the squirrels had constructed, as well as possible, a throne with a seat, arms and back. The squirrel leader bounded to that and outstretching  its paw, was clearly motioning him to sit upon it. Jim approached it gingerly, his feet crunching on the nuts under him, and as gingerly, he sat down. Although he had doubts about the stability of this new chair, he had to smile. This was quite an experience, to be the king of the squirrels.

It was short lived. Leaning a bit too far back, perhaps shifting in the nutty throne, the seat collapsed with him in it. It stopped resembling a chair so much as a lumpy pile of nuts that he had stumbled into, and he carefully got back on his feet.

The squirrel diplomat began to squeal frantically in a language he could not understand. The absent squirrel army suddenly swept over the edge of the great terrace, and set upon fixing the throne. In a few seconds, the throne had been restored to its former appearance, and the army of critters disappeared as quickly as it came. The squirrel spokescritter once again stood in a stiff bow before the chair, motioning towards it with his paw.

Jim suddenly felt a need to retire from the amazing experiment. "I thank you and the squirrels so much. I am tired, and I'll come back tomorrow. I have to go down ...and... get my things.... to bring up here." Smiling at his quick thinking. Jim trudged down the spiral slope with a clearly distressed squirrel trailing him. Although he felt that a slow pace was best, the closer he came to the bottom, the more urgency he felt... to get out of there quickly. The images of the squirrels being buried alive came back to him, and now every sudden slide of nuts around him became menacing.

Jim sat by the tarmac of the airfield the next morning, and watched his corporate jet arriving from afar. The lone squirrel squeaked incessantly by his side. "Master, have we done wrong by you? Do you wish us to rebuild it in another way? Please, we will do whatever you wish."

"No, the palace is fine. Don't change a thing. I'm coming right back. Yes, I have to do some business on the mainland, then I am coming right back", said jim as he intently eyed the aircrafts approach.

"Did you have a nice vacation?" asked the pilot. "Yes, it was very nice. Relaxing". Jim knew the pilot could tell he was distracted. The squirrel had disappeared when the airplane arrived. It was not the time to bring up talking squirrels. He thought to himself that having the plane fly over the great stash of nuts might prove he was not crazy, but he had a sudden urge to get well away from that island without the pilot, or anyone else knowing what had happened there.

"I'll sell the island", he suddenly said to himself. "What?" the pilot asked. "Nothing, just thinking to myself". No, he didn't have the heart to build on the island after all, and show the squirrels he didn't trust or appreciate their work. He thought the great pile would not be there long in any case. Wind, rain and the basic nature of millions of rotting nuts would work their course to eliminate the structure within a year or so.

To really erase all traces of what had occurred, he guessed he would wait a few years, then turn over the island to someone else. A few years. Just like the last owner, he thought.

Suddenly a sardonic smile filled Jim's face, as he flew back to join the familiar world.


For more information contact: Scott A. Moore samiam@moorecad.com
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