Friday, 19 June 2009

BINARY CODE-Chapter 6-Deal Street

Return to Table of Contents As we stood there on the beach under the last of a starlit sky, looking at the flames receding away from us, I realised that there are many ways to go through this confusing charade called life. By his act, Stokely had shocked the complacency clean out of us. Isn't that what leadership is all about? The others perhaps thought differently, but the sheer decisiveness of his action had cowed them into saying nothing. We were also seduced by the twisted beauty of the flames which smacked their lips in the distance. We stood there in silence for a long time, a tiny group huddled together in the freshening wind. The moon, which from behind us looked benignly down on this scene of awful destruction, suddenly had its throat cut by a sliver of cloud. The wind changed and began to blow from offshore. Stokely suddenly spoke up. His voice was steady and calm. "We'd better get back through in case the wind changes round this way. Say your last goodbye to the Old Woods." He was coolness personified, calculating and confident. Nobody argued with him. We climbed back into the Green Monster and headed back towards the woods. We went more slowly this time. Halfway through on the right there were two columns guarding a driveway running longitudinally through the woods. We stopped for a moment and peered down it. Closer to us was the blackness of the charred remains of grass and bushes lining the road. Further away the road disappeared into the fire. In the moonlight, the perspective made it look like a blackened needle with a red hot tip. This was the hideous beauty of destruction. By the time we rolled past the line of firetrucks, the action had moved down further away from the road. Nobody was there to notice us as we snuck by, conspicuous in our green finned monster. That was it for the weekend. Nothing could top the excitement, the sheer mad reckless lunacy of the fun we had just had. We had survived and nobody wanted to dwell on the danger. We filed back into the Bungalow and shuffled off to bed, our bedtime delayed by the need for extra blankets as the weather had turned sharply colder. The next morning we awoke to leaden skies. The season had finally made up its mind to dive headlong into winter. Soon, the autumn holidays would start tumbling like dominoes--Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas-- and another year would end. As students, we had also subtly moved into the end game, nearing the last semester of college when we would really start playing for keeps. There was a gloom and a slight edginess around the breakfast table that morning as we planned the cleanup and the phased withdrawal from Valhalla. A marine corps sergeant had nothing over Stokely and Tess, who would go to any length to avoid the withering criticism of their parents, or God forbid, the Aunts. Beds had to be stripped, bathrooms cleaned, spare food thrown out. Down at the dock the boats had to be put on their trailers and dragged into the barn, and the outboard had to be drained of gas for the winter. I was put in charge of the bedroom detail along with Lydia, who volunteered to join me. The irony of this only struck me much later. I was chosen because I had been to camp and knew how to make hospital corners and tight beds that would stop a quarter in its tracks. No detail could be missed, if we wanted to be welcomed again at Valhalla. I read where the difference between success and failure in any endeavor is the last one tenth of one percent of effort. On this tiny knife edge of extra effort the balance of conflicts is often turned. It may be an imperceptible detail which others have missed. My father always called it going the extra mile, but it could just as well be the extra one inch. It only took the two of us an hour to get all six bedrooms into tip top shape. Working together with Lydia, this was not a chore but a pleasure. I had definitely turned the car of my emotions down her street, but there was still a long way to go. We were happy with the quality of our job, but I decided to go have one last inspection myself before being reviewed by the two Haynes commandants. I have often wondered what would have happened if I had never decided to go this one last inch, if I had not decided to check each drawer and each closet to make sure nobody had left anything behind. Without doing this I would never have found the key in the top left hand drawer of the bureau in my room, and I would not be where I am today. In such insignificant details does fate intervene in human affairs. The key with the card attached to it was exactly where I left it, the same place I always left the contents of my pockets when I cleared them out of habit each night before I went to bed. It was something my mother had drilled into me, and since I never took out as much as I put in, the left hand drawer of my bureau then and ever since has always been a bedroom junkyard filled with the detritus of my daily life. The key caught my eye, and just as I had scooped it up from where Stokely had thrown it in the attic, I pocketed it once more. We were ready for inspection, as were most of the troops who reassembled in the Kitchen of the Bungalow. It was 11:30, and we were ahead of schedule. We all passed muster with flying colours. A celebratory lunch would be outside of Richmond. With the tinge of the premature nostalgia that I would feel that entire last year of college, we loaded up the car, locked the Bungalow, and started back towards Duke. Tess drove, with Stokely and myself riding shotgun in the front seat. On purpose it seemed, Clare had chosen to sit in between Jonah and Dewey. She was making a not very subtle play for the impassive Mr. Ravanel. Her relationship with Stokely was definitely the major casualty of the weekend. Stokely began flipping through the box of cassettes, searching for the inevitable Springsteen tape. I had confiscated it earlier in the weekend, as he had pulled the Green Monster up next to the porch and was playing it incessantly. "Looking for this?" I held it up, having palmed it from its hiding place under the seat. He grabbed it and put it in. The tape had run ahead to Jungleland. We passed through Matthews and whizzed by the road which led down to the Old Woods. The smell of smoke was still in the air. It definitely felt like the morning after. I decided the moment was right to ask Stokely about the key. "Stoke," I said. "You remember that key I found in the attic?" He looked at me puzzled. " about it?" I pulled it out and handed it to him. "What do you suppose this card is?" "That's easy," he replied. "That's Helmut's legacy. The punch card. His Census Tabulating Machine was the first machine ever to use binary math. The punchcard tripped levers when it was fed in and the machine did calculations. You know, like a modern computer. The holes are ones and the blank spots zeroes. You know binary code, Evan. Those are just numbers." "Maybe they mean something," I said, and took the card and key back. Grunting, he went back to listening to Springsteen and closed his eyes. I rummaged through the glove compartment and pulled out the stub of a pencil. I drew horizontal lines across each row of holes and then vertical lines, making a waffle pattern on the card. I left enough room to write a 1 under each hole, and then filled in 0s in each empty quadrant. There were four sections of numbers, all five digit. The top section was three numbers, followed by a blank row, then two more numbers. Another blank row, six numbers, blank row, and finally four more numbers. Using Stokely's foolproof finger method, I translated the binary numbers and wrote their decimal equivalents in the margin. The end result looked like this: 1 0 0 1 0 18 1 0 0 1 1 19 1 0 1 0 0 20 0 0 1 0 1 5 0 0 1 1 0 6 0 0 1 0 0 4 0 0 1 0 1 5 0 0 0 0 1 1 0 1 1 0 0 12 1 0 0 1 1 19 1 0 1 0 0 20 0 0 0 1 1 3 0 0 1 1 1 7 0 1 0 0 1 9 0 0 0 1 0 2 Stokely was right. They were just a series of numbers, and I'd be damned if I knew what they meant. I looked at them, trying to discern a pattern. It reminded me of the scholastic aptitude tests, only this time there were no multiple choice answers to bail me out. After ten minutes of mental gymnastics which got me nowhere, I gave up, and put the key back into my pocket. I lay my head back against the seat and in a true Dewey pose with my adenoids for all the world to see, I fell asleep. I was awakened by Jonah snapping his fingers and saying something. Lydia broke in. "I still don't get it," she said. "I'll do it again," said Jonah. "Ready, Dewey?" "Fire away," said Dewey. Click, click, click. Jonah clicked his fingers three times. "Let me see here. Do you have the facts?" Five clicks. "Can you tell me who it is?" Two clicks. "Mussolini," Dewey shot back. "That's amazing!" said Lydia. "How do you do it?" "Try and figure it out." Jonah was not going to yield the secret so easily. "Choose somebody else." She whispered something in his ear. Jonah thought for a moment. He fired another verbal shot across the bow of Clare, asleep between the two of them. Four clicks. "Let me get this straight." Two clicks. "Better keep the facts straight in your head. Leave all else aside." Five clicks. Two clicks. Two clicks. "You now know who it is." Two clicks. "See if you can tell me the answer." Dewey frowned. "Frank Sinatra," he said finally. "That's incredible," Lydia exhaled. "You've lost me." I smiled. We had spent hours sitting around the university union, honing our talents on the snap code. It was our college generation's version of Pig Latin, and if we did it fast enough it was virtually impossible to crack, especially if we got fancy. The code was quite simple really. Clicks represented vowels. A was one, E two, I three and so on. The rest of the code consisted of the first consonant of the first word of each sentence. Anything you said after that was smoke designed to confuse. Jonah's first clue for Mussolini was Il Duce. Three clicks. I. "Let me see here. L. "Do you have the facts? D. etc. Sinatra was Ole Blue Eyes. We also had variations. Six clicks at the start meant you spelled the clues backwards. Picking your nose before you began meant that the consonants were the first letter of the second word in each sentence. Jonah gave in and began explaining the code to Lydia, practicing with Mickey Mouse. "Maybe you have an idea." Three clicks.... They droned on. She was a quick study. Another snapper joined the club and was initiated with a vow of silence. Peripheral thinking is best done when the brain is half-awake. Then connections are often made when the subconscious takes over. I was still dozing when I suddenly was awakened by a flash of the blindingly obvious, my brain spurred into action by the snap code. There were no numbers higher than 26 on the card. Of course the numbers must represent letters. I pulled the card back out and wrote down the corresponding letter of the alphabet next to the numbers in the margin. R S T E F D E A L S T C G I B So much for my theory. This sequence made no more sense than the numbers. I put the key back into my pocket. We stopped for lunch out near the airport. We decided against Bill's Barbeque because it would take us north of the city, and people were anxious to get back to Durham to ease back into the routine of eat, sleep and study which was college life. We took second best, the Country Barbeque on the outskirts. It was an unwritten rule that when travelling in the Carolinas and Virginia, national chains like McDonald's were to be avoided in favor of the local cuisine. The weekend's postmortem had begun, and people began ribbing Stokely about the cow, the Whaler, and the fire. Already the weekend had passed from the category of recent experience to that of myth, and exaggerated versions of each story were already hastily being prepared. The lunch was kind of a nice punctuation mark to a wonderful weekend. An exclamation point, or so we thought. We got back into the Green Monster to head back to I-95 South and then home. Stokely insisted on driving. After the woods episode, this idea met with some resistance, but we gave in. As we rolled by the city, we started singing. Dewey had a mouth organ, and he began to play Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. Everyone was in good spirits. Then out of the corner of my eye, when I was not even concentrating, two things caught my attention as we approached the skyline of Richmond. I now maintain that like the planets aligning at the exact moment of your birth to influence the rest of your life, two things aligned themselves within my field of vision to change my destiny. The first was an Exit sign which said DEAL STREET 500 yards. Right above this sign in the distance was the tallest building in Richmond, and clearly visible at the top of this building was the logo of the bank which owned it: Richmond Savings and Trust...RST. "Stokely! Get off here!" I suddenly said. "Whaa?" "Quick! Turn off here! We've got to stop." "What for?" The exit was almost upon us. "Now!" I practically screamed. He swung the Green Monster off the interstate and down the exit ramp. He pulled it over to the side of the road and stopped. "What's the bug up your ass?" I think all the others in the car were shocked by my insistence. It was out of character for me ever to yell. "The key." I announced. "It's a safety deposit key. I'm sure of it." I pulled the key from my pocket. "I thought it was all numbers or all letters, and I couldn't make any sense of it, but now I think it's half numbers and half letters." I was met by blank stares. Most of them were unaware I even had a key. I looked down at the numbers, and over the E F and the C G I B I wrote 56 and 3792. "RST. Richmond Savings and Trust. 56 Deal Street. 3792....It's the number of a safety deposit box belonging to Helmut or somebody. That's why it was hidden in the box so nobody could find it." Stokely never could stand not being the first one to figure something out. "Let me see that thing." He grabbed the card, and looked across the road at the street sign, which said Deal Street and underneath it 200-250. There was also a little arrow pointing to the left towards the tall building. The numbers were descending in that direction. "Who's for checking it out?" It was the same question asked of the group at the Old Woods, but this time it was me who said it. The enthusiasm was underwhelming. "Well?" I pressed on. "It'll only take a few minutes. What's an extra couple of minutes here instead of the library?" Put that way, there was a reluctant nodding of heads. For once, it was me who was leading instead of Stokely. "Come on, Stoke. Hang a louie. 56 Deal Street is that way." 56 Deal Street was a boarded up building two blocks north of the new skyscraper. Barely visible on the top floor were the words Richmond Savings and Trust Depository. We were in the right church, but the wrong pew. "Let's go ask at the main bank. We can't all go in. Why don't Stokely, Tess and I go in and the rest of you go have dessert at that coffee shop?" The others were willing to indulge me. We parked the car and the three of us, two members of Helmut's clan and an interloper, walked into the main headquarters of Richmond's largest bank. We went up to the information desk. "Could you please tell me where your safety deposit boxes are located?" I asked the guard. "In the basement, sir," he replied politely. He indicated to some marble stairs. We trooped down the stairs, which were U-shaped and very grand. For a modern building, they had splashed out on a wide marble bannister, which Stokely could not resist sliding down. In many ways, he had never quite made it out of the seventh grade. We went up to another desk. Since I had the key, I took the lead in speaking. An officious looking woman sat behind the desk, looking down a pair of half moon glasses. "May I help you?" she said unconvincingly. "We think we have found our great grandfather's safe deposit key and we would like to know if we could take a look at the box." I figured the truth would be the best course. Of course, I was wrong. A bit of what Stokely called verity massaging would have been infinitely preferable, especially with the prissy woman in front of us. Before she could reply with what almost certainly would have been a negative response, Stokely stepped forward. A professional took over. "Hello. My name is Stokely Haynes. I am the nephew of Lillian and Mary Hoeflinger of Matthews Virginia. They have instructed us to come and clear some papers which belonged to my great-grandfather--their father. This is my sister, Tess Haynes, and this is Evan." The blank after my name stayed in the air like a bad smell and effectively eliminated me from the rest of the conversation. Stokely pressed on. "They have obviously not been down here in quite some while, because they told me that the safe deposit boxes were at 56 Deal Street." Overwhelmed by the jetwash of his strong character, the woman relented. "Yes...well they were moved here about....about ten years ago now. They're just about to tear down the old depository to make another building to house our operations and maybe move us back there. I guess it's proof of the circle theory." She smiled the grimace of the genuinely insincere. Stokely was rarely in the mood for idle chit chat. "Here is the key and the number of the account. My great grandfather's name was Helmut Hoeflinger, and I am the son of his granddaughter Laura Hoeflinger who married Jeb Haynes. I am afraid we are in a bit of a hurry. We are on our way back to Duke, you see." In a brief paragraph Stokely had managed to slip in all the references necessary. Helmut, well known but perhaps a bit too old for this woman; Jeb Haynes, a southern patrician name if ever there was one; and Duke. The woman was convinced. "I'll see what I can do." She took the key and the entered the name and number in the computer. After a few minutes and some tapping at the keys, she nodded. "As I thought. All those accounts were converted over when we moved into this building. But there has never been a request to see this least not as long as we've been keeping records." Stokely looked over at me. His eyes nodded without the rest of his face moving. "Do you have some identification?" asked the woman. She was determined to keep the upper hand. "Certainly," we all said simultaneously, and deposited a variety of driver's licences and Duke IDs. She looked at Stokely's and Tess's and passed on to mine. When she saw my name was different than theirs, she crinkled up her nose but said nothing. My little ill-fated diversion at the beginning had made no lasting damage, but only just. "Follow me, please," she declared finally. We went down into the vault with her, and she ushered us into a tiny room. "Please wait here," she said, and disappeared down the hallway to where the safety deposit boxes lined the walls. "This is exciting," said Tess finally. "Maybe we'll discover something about ourselves." Never have truer words been spoken, but not in the way that any of us could have possibly imagined.

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