(1997) - short story by A.R.Yngve
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This long short story originally appeared in the American magazine THE #12 GAUGE REVIEW in 1997. It is still available in my short-story collection THE FACE IN THE DOOR and Other Stories.
Has this satire aged well? You be the judge...
I was late for work again, partly because my lawyer hadn't showed up yet.
I was sitting in my tiny car, waiting for Ron Elkby of the Walters, Schwartz, Sorrell, Kessler, Stein & Elkby law firm to arrive. The California sun was already baking the car's interior; my brand-new Chinese polyester shirt was just starting to get soaked.
So I stepped out onto the cracked concrete of my one-car driveway to catch some breeze. The morning sky above was buzzing with circling helicopters, each loaded with prowling lawyers. (Two years since I last heard birds sing in the morning. Two years...) The main herd of choppers were tracking the rush-hour traffic, eager to catch an accident and offer their services.
With a mixture of resignation, amusement and anger I recalled the multiple heli-crash last month. Stromberg & Stromberg had raced Kolka, Marks & Spencer for the rights to sue a driver who had just run over a pedestrian's foot. In the collision, the pedestrian got his head lopped off by a rotorblade.
I didn't see the crash, but according to the TV news, it all ended happily: the late pedestrian's lawyer sued the late helicopter pilots' families. Stromberg & Stromberg and Kolka, Marks & Spencer (suddenly just Kolka & Spencer) made an on-the spot merger. The D.A.'s wife, when asked to comment, said in a newsbite: "I was moved. Really, it was such a romantic incident..." Romance in the 21st century. Right.
Suddenly I heard my lawyer, huffing and puffing, as he bicycled around the corner and waved at me. He dropped the bicycle against my garage wall and hurried over to the shotgun seat.
"Sorry I am... late, Mr. Chang!" (He had a yelling, dramatic tone to his hoarse voice, a habit from his youthful days in court.) "I will explain on the way to town..."
"Okay, Elkby," I sighed. "Get in, I'm late enough as it is."
After a brief struggle with his own feet, Elkby managed to sit down next to me. He was beginning to put on a perverse amount of weight lately perverse, because it made Elkby look a richer lawyer than he was. Why wouldn't he take diet pills like us other poor slobs?
Before I started the engine, I asked him: "Shouldn't you bring the bike with you? This is getting to be a rough 'hood lately."
Ron gave me a fat, derisive grin: "Really, Mr. Chang. Would anyone steal... a law firm's bike?"
I cast a second glance at the bicycle, propped against my garage wall. Next to the printed barcode on the saddle was written:
PROPERTY OF WALTERS, SCHWARTZ, SORRELL, KESSLER, STEIN & ELKBY
Of course. I started up the car and drove.
To save face, I said: "I just remembered all the gang kids have their nursing lawyers with them in the street now. The poorer families can't afford legal protection to their kids, so they keep'em locked up indoors. Your law firm bike is safe here."
Elkby grunted with satisfaction.
While he peered out at the dense morning traffic, he explained his lateness: "I got stuck in a phone meeting with my associates, just as I was about to hit the pedals. It is just too risky to use the phone while you're riding a bicycle..."
(Especially for bicycling elephants, asshole, I thought to myself.) "Of course," I mumbled.
Elkby produced an electric shaver from a pocket and started to shave his two chins, still keeping a habitual eye on the traffic. "Could you try and catch me at my door tomorrow?"
It struck me that this situation was beginning to resemble my marriage no mutual love, no shared home, no sex which prompted me to ask him: "Elkby... any word from my wife about... you know, the usual stuff?"
Ron's voice buzzed monotonously as he spoke, because his shaver was moving up and down his throat. "I-spoke-to-your-spouse's-lawyer-yesterday-I forgot-sorry."
He tucked away the shaver, voice returning to its normal semi-yell. "I feel we made some
progress! We booked a meeting with your wife, and I would advise you to attend..."
"When?" I asked urgently.
"Six months," said Elkby. "They have a very tight schedule, what with her art exhibitionism tour. Anyhow, we will have a whole hour to negotiate the custody of the child."
I swallowed involuntarily. "Did you get to talk to my son... I mean, my wife?"
Elkby didn't smile at my lapse; he had his own children to negotiate for, and that was his sole weak spot.
He said: "Not the wife, no. And you know it would be illegal for me to help you get in touch with the child outside the custody contract."
I sighed and stepped a little harder on the gas pedal. Then, as to mock me, the electronic signtable above the road flashed a new message:
LANE 1, 2, 3 BLOCKED
USE LANE 4, 5
"Shit!" I would be much too late today.
"Should I get in touch with your supervisor's lawyer?" Elkby asked casually. He had his hand on the phone as he spoke, the number to my office already punched in.
"Yes, please. Thanks."
My lawyer merely gestured for silence, and dropped something into my lap. I picked it up a small paper note, folded into a miniscule knot. Holding it over the steeringwheel, I unfolded the note with a guilty glance into the rearview mirror. Elkby was too busy talking into his phone to look back. The unfolded note contained a scrawled message, illustrated with a drawing of a smiling stick-figure:
LOVE YOU DADDY!
I read it four times, before I hid it in my jacket. My son hadn't forgotten me yet. I wanted to shed a tear it seemed like the right thing to do but I couldn't. Maybe I should've asked Elkby if it was proper to cry.
Exactly one hour late I walked into the office lobby followed by Elkby, who now looked more orderly but less neat than the receptionst's lawyer, sitting next to her.
The receptionist's lawyer was an anorectic woman in her mid-twenties, free from the too-expensive implants of the bosses' lawyers. She said hello and waved at us or, as I realized, at Elkby, who mumbled a reply. Yep, our lawyers were good friends. Assured by this fact, I smiled at the receptionist, opened my mouth and...
Elkby saved me with a quick tap in the back.
"Don't call her 'sweetie' again! They're plotting a harrassment lawsuit," he whispered in my ear.
I stiffened, took a deep breath, avoided the receptionist's eyes, and addressed her formally: "Good morning, Miss Ecklehart. Are there any messages for me?"
Miss Ecklehart's lawyer suddenly not cheerful at all whispered something in her ear, and the receptionist answered me: "Yes, Mr. Chang. The personnel chief's legal staff has requested an interview you could you please be on standby till lunch."
I thanked her (the bitch!) and followed Elkby into the offices, trying not to notice the odd stares from my colleagues. This was, without doubt, going to be the mother of all Mondays.
A half hour later, I left what had been my office for the last four years. The company's legal team had totally annihilated my lawyer's poor defense. I had not only been fired, but also lost two EMP credibility-points. Not even MacDonald's would touch my resume now. I wanted to punch someone and screw the family honor! Among the many thoughts that rushed through my head, was a dim memory of when my dad took me to see the premiere of John Woo's A Better Tomorrow in old Hong Kong. A quick daydream: I would rush into the supervisor's office, guns blazing, and shoot some holes in their "defense"...
Elkby, who was now walking two steps farther away from me, cleared his throat in the silence.
"Mr. Chang, you shouldn't blame yourself too hard for..."
Something snapped in my mind; I turned and stared at his fat, sweaty face.
"You always kept me waiting, every morning! You weren't even prepared, but you must've known this was coming!"
My lawyer seemed taken aback, and stopped in his tracks. We were near the entrance; Miss Ecklehart and her lawyer stood gloating at us from a corner of the hall.
"Please don't make a scene, Mr. Chang. I am yet your lawyer, and I will do everything in my power to help you "
"I was always late because of you! Now I understand why you've been 'too busy' the last few months! You've always been taking on too many other clients!"
Elkby's face whitened with shock and anger. I had committed the gravest breach of conduct questioning a lawyer's personal ethics in public. I felt the pulse beating behind my ears, and thought: Screw it all.
"Yeah, that's right," I added in a more brazen, openly bitter tone, pointing my finger at him. "You're a fat parasite who doesn't drive his own car because he's always drunk! You're a boozing pig, a... a... " I wanted to call Elkby something worse than "lawyer", but the mind staggers at such challenges of the imagination. It didn't matter. I was done for.
Elkby straightened himself, looked at me like I was an insect, and said: "We will deliver a subpoena tomorrow. Goodbye."
He turned and left the office; I stood trembling on the carpet for a minute, before I walked out alone, without legal protection. It might have been my imagination, but I think I saw a streak of admiration in Miss Ecklehart's face when she stared after me.
I almost panicked in the street outside, and rushed to my car before people would notice that I was unprotected. Unclean! Unclean! I drove home very cautiously, deathly afraid of making the merest dent in another car.
Elkby's firm was going to sue me. No lawyer worth his salt would lift a finger to take my case, unless I paid a fortune. My wife would make sure I never saw my son again. My relatives would be dishonored. Maybe I could jump in front of a train, get my legs run over, then sue the train company and get the money to raise my own dream team against Elkby and his friends.
I laughed at myself. Of course I didn't have the guts to do that. Filled with gloom, I decided to take the opportunity to visit my old man not to beg him for money, 'cause he didn't have any. But listening to him lamenting over the raw deal life gave him, might make my life seem less miserable.
His trailer home lay just three hours off east, next to the airplane graveyard in the Arizona desert.
Besides, he used to complain I didn't come over and visit him more often.
"Why don't you come over and visit me more often?" Dad asked in his Cantonese-sounding English.
We sat on the rickety porch of his trailer, overlooking the glittering forest of metal that was the airplane graveyard. He popped us two Buds, handed me one. I took a swig, then another.
"And you shouldn't drink that beer so fast," he added when I had a fit of coughing so painful, my eyes started to run. The old bastard stored his Buds at two degrees above freezing-point.
"Dad..." I wheezed, "I lost my job today."
He scowled at me, silent, parched face and eyes a pair of black slits under the Stetson hat. That scowl burned worse than the sun. "It's that damn Elkby's fault," I countered. "And then he promised to sue me for libel. I'll never afford a real defense against a law firm. I'm finished. My life is ruined."
Dad scowled some more, while the bad news were sinking in he was over sixty and a getting a bit slow then he raised his thin frame from his chair, and went indoors.
"Let's watch TV," he said over his shoulder.
I didn't object; I could need a few laughs. We settled in front of his antiquated VCR, beer in our hands, and Dad shoved in a worn tape into the slot. A familiar, melancholy tune filled the trailer: Suicide is painless...
M*A*S*H. Oh, I love that series. Hawkeye wisecracking over the operating table. Little Radar running around the camp, keeping the Colonel on track. Klinger serving his country in drag. Hot Lips fuming at Hawkeye's lewd jokes, at the same time she was running into the arms of any higher-ranking officer.
Of course, you can't see M*A*S*H in the U.S. anymore, except on bootleg tapes or downloaded from pirate sites in Mexico. In a country where 40% of the working population are lawyers, who dares to make jokes about drinking doctors, sick people, transvestites, or women? The main trend in sitcoms ever since '96 has been stupid extraterrestrials and reruns of My Favorite Martian, because extraterrestrials don't file discrimination lawsuits yet.
Before long, Dad and I were laughing heartily at the old jokes. He found a special relief in military humor, because he had once served in Vietnam. He rarely mentioned details about it, only how rotten the war generally had been; how the State had generally betrayed him.
Dad was born a British citizen in Hong Kong 1950, then married in 1969 with an Asian-American girl, then enlisting in the U.S. Air Force. I was born last of their children, in 1974. Then Mom died, and Dad moved with us back to Hong Kong. Then we moved permanently to California in '97, when the Communists took over Hong Kong. Guess it made us a rootless clan, all siblings spreading across the world, not keeping contact.
But it was in me, the lastborn, who Dad instilled an age-old sense of family, that I carried the family name, that my ancestors would one day judge me for past failures. I could imagine them now, scowling at me in their medieval garb, pulling at their stripy beards, turning their backs at me. The canned beer tasted bitter in my mouth, the canned laughter sounded hollow.
"Dad, I swear I will make things right again."
He stared before him, eyes softened up by laughter. "It is too bad none of your siblings became lawyers. I taught them to only respect honest work. My goof. Now you're being punished for my mistake."
I grabbed his arm, made him look at me. "Dad, don't talk like that, please. There must be a way out."
"There's always the border."
"No. I will not dishonor our family name. I will stand up in court and defend myself alone, if I have to."
His eyes went moist. So did mine. "Son, you're a better man than your brothers," he croaked, voice breaking. "But the world isn't fit for our kind anymore. If your mother had been alive, she would've been proud..."
We hugged each other for a moment. Then we watched an old Saturday Night Live tape, the banned episode with Ray Charles joking about being blind.
The sun was setting into the airplane graveyard when I said goodbye to Dad.
"You could stay here a few days if you like," he suggested.
I smiled sadly, and shrugged my head. "Thanks, but I have to face this. It's easier now, having talked with you."
He raised a fist to emphasize his words. "Don't let those bastards put you down, okay? I never had a lawyer to nurse me through the hard years."
We must have had the same thought; Dad and I grinned simultaneously at each other, as if by telepathy.
"A lawyer for each soldier!" he chuckled. "Bombing the V.C. with subpoenas!"
"Yeah! 'Your honor, Ho Chi Minh caused my client a deep trauma!'"
We were, for a few gleeful seconds, the wisecracking doctors of M*A*S*H, vanquishing fear and madness with our mordant wit. When we stopped laughing, I got into the car and drove off, before any seriousness could come between our good mood.
On my way home, something was taking shape in my head. It wasn't quite clear by the time my headlights struck the garage door. I lay sleepless in bed, twisting and turning as my brain tried to give birth to a finished idea.
In the morning, I had it. The family name could be saved after all.
Just as Elkby had promised, the subpoena was delivered that morning. At seven o'clock, they knocked on my door. (The doorbell was broken.) When I opened the door, fully dressed and wide awake, I faced two sleepy men: Cornell Walters, head of Walters, Schwartz, Sorrell, Kessler, Stein, & Elkby, and a yawning, uninterested police officer. Perhaps Elkby had convinced Walters that I was dangerous; perhaps he just wanted to intimidate me. The cop wasn't necessary, but I was almost happy to see another witness.
"Mr. Joseph Chang?" asked Walters gravely.
"Call me Joe," I said.
Walters merely sneered. He handed me a thin file of documents, declaring that the receiving of the subpoena was a legally binding act etcetera etcetera the cop yawned, and so did I. After a while, I noticed the demanding stare from Mr. Walters. He seemed disappointed that I wasn't squirming.
"Are you finished?" I asked him.
He looked at the officer, who cleared his throat and said without the slightest attention to his own words: "Mr. Chang, you must be present at the described courthouse, or you may be sentenced to 30 days of community service or jail. Have you understood this?"
"Yes. I'll be there."
"Do you wish any legal advice from the police, or help to find a lawyer?"
"Thanks, but I'll defend myself."
The cop gave us both a questioning look, then nodded and walked back to his car. Walters followed, and let his chauffeur excuse me, the police officer drive him away. Elkby and associates weren't rich, but they would be better off after gutting me. Or so they thought.
I ignored reading the subpoena, and returned indoors to finish breakfast. With two weeks to prepare my case the court schedule being packed as usual I had all the time in the world. I took my laptop computer, logged onto a history site, and began studying the Vietnam War of 1950-1975. Soon I was engrossed in a tragic period of history, where our family had just played minor parts, and America was just one major player among many. Here, I thought, was an adversary to match the strength and numbers of my foes.
Later that evening, I lighted some candles at the family altar, asking my ancestors to forgive me if my plan would offend them.
The California State Courthouse, two weeks later.
The state court judge patiently listened through the prosecution's speeches. It took more than four hours, minus the breaks. Elkby was represented by no less than five lawyers from three different firms (not his own firm, of course, that would have been biased!). The star of his team was Ada Hynkel, famous for winning the TV-broadcast Corleone Vs. the State case.
A whole nation had cried when Mrs. Hynkel held up Mr. Corleone's plaster-casted arm, and declared with a quavering voice: "Members of the jury. This arm was never raised in anger... and the boots of the police stepped on it until it broke!"
(That same arm had been holding a gun at the occasion, but everyone seemed to have forgotten that.) So it was Ada Hynkel who made the final statement of the prosecution. I barely heard it, because I was trying to remember the rules for how many people were allowed in the prosecuting team. Hadn't the rules been changed some years ago, putting the upper limit at thirty? And who the hell could afford thirty lawyers? Never mind.
"...and that is why I cannot contain my feelings, Your Honor," Hynkel finished, "...when I ask for justice. Our demand for ten million dollars in reparations is fair, when you consider the..." (quaver, quaver) "...personal disaster and mental scars caused by the accused!"
A spontaneous applause filled the courtroom; Elkby was so moved, he hugged Mrs. Hynkel. Even I clapped my hands a little hey, the speech wasn't that good. But then she wouldn't make more than half a mille on this anyway too many colleagues to split the loot with.
The judge took a swig from his Losec bottle, moved in his seat, and addressed me. "Mr. Chang, you have just heard the prosecution make its case. I ask you one last time... will you let a lawyer speak for you?"
I stood up, sensing the eyes of three hundred breathless people on me. Many had come to watch this obscure case, the first state case in years when a man had dared to refuse legal aid. I had broken the rule that had been conditioned into every American's brain since he started watching TV:
You have the right to remain silent... You have the right to an attorney...
And I had chosen not to remain silent, not to have a lawyer. It was a challenge to the system, and everyone knew it. I winked at the TV cameras, (Hi, Dad.) and looked the judge in the eye.
"No thanks, Your Honor. The nature of my defense makes it impossible to use a lawyer."
There was a brief gasp in the audience; the judge nodded.
"Continue," he said, like a man sending another head of cattle to the slaughter. Sure, I was trembling. But I was ready.
"Your Honor, I accept the charges against me." A new, greater gasp from everyone. Even the judge seemed phased. "But you see, the scars suffered by Mr. Elkby was caused by a much larger scar a scar in the collective psyche of America."
(A final hesitation almost stopped me there was this right? Would I make a complete fool of myself and my family? No, it was all the way or nothing.)
"My father served in the Vietnam War on the American side, and my mother was killed in the last months of the conflict. Like so many other patriotic Americans, we came to live with the lasting trauma of the war. The state did nothing to help us through, but we didn't ask for any favors. My family is now shattered, my relatives spread across the world, strangers to each other, unable to see each other because it reminds us of our common loss."
I had the complete attention of the jury now, but it was mystified. They couldn't possibly guess my bearings.
"Did my father, or my siblings, get the recognition and support we deserved for our patriotism, for our ultimate sacrifice?" (Dramatic pause.) "No! Like so many other veterans, my father received only contempt and embarrassed silence when he came to bury our mother on American soil." (I admit Dad's national loyalties had always been murky, him being an American citizen through marriage and all that but hey, artistic license! I was on a roll. And the grief in my voice, I soon realized, was real. I had just been hiding it all my life, never sure if it was justified.)
"After the incident with my lawyer... with Mr. Elkby, I visited my father. He lives in a rundown trailer home in the desert, like a poor outcast." (Truth is, Dad loves the open spaces. He refused to move into my sister's house.) "Once more, I listened to him grieve over the loss of my mother in the war. Once more the old wounds were opened, the wounds that had shattered our family. And then, at long last it surfaced on me why I had publicly insulted Mr. Elkby. It was a breakdown caused by the lifelong trauma of Vietnam!"
I paused, glancing up at the white ceiling. What a fool I was the roof doesn't leak in California!
The moistness on my face was tears, real tears. The courthouse was dead silent, and an unknown mass of TV viewers were witnessing my crying. God, it was so embarrassing. Hope Dad wasn't watching.
"So the only reparation that is possible for us, the only compensation that would help me pay Mr. Elkby for his suffering, would be this.
"I urge every man and woman who share our fate, to sue the responsible men and women who fought on the North Vietnamese side!"
The courthouse exploded with noise and motion. Elkby's pasty head turned to all sides, utterly confused, seeking advice from his equally confused dream team. After a few seconds, the dazed judge came to life and rapped frantically with his club.
"Order in court!!" he roared. When the initial hubbub had settled, he looked at me again. "Mr. Chang, I'm very tempted to hold you in contempt of court. Do you think you can start a new case out of thin air like that?"
I lowered my head a little, but retained my dignity by not wiping my face. "I'm sorry, sir. But this is my defense. This case was caused by the trauma which I share with millions of Americans in fact, with all of America. Was your family also touched by the war?"
The judge seemed to be in his early thirties, which was pretty high for California. In some parts of Los Angeles the shortage was so severe, that circuit judges were taken from college crash-courses and installed at the age of twenty-one. He couldn't possibly remember the Nam. That's why he blushed.
"You watch it, Mr. Chang! This case has noting to do with me. Your demand for compensation has no legal validity yet, and until that time, I will not..."
"Excuse me, Your Honor!" It was Eve Kessler, head of of Elkby's own firm, who had dashed up to the bench. She quickly demanded a break for negotiations, which the judge gratefully approved.
Then, to my surprise, she asked me to take on my new case. I glanced around the large room. Elkby was busy arguing with the judge, who was well into his second Losec bottle. The twelve jury members were in an uproar, some wrestling with each other, others grouping themselves in camps for and against me. The TV crews were nudging closer, held back only by the squad of cops who were storming the court.
"What did you say?!" I shouted at Kessler, over the noise.
"I said, do you know how many people could sue the Vietnamese!?"
I had calculated the number long before, but I played dumb. "No!"
"Counting relatives, survivors of the dead, and surviving veterans, more than twenty million traumatees!!"
My own estimate lay between thirty and fifty million Americans in supposed "trauma" equal to the present population of Vietnam. Unfortunately for the Vienamese, their lawyer-to-worker ratio was infinitely smaller than America's 40%
...the lucky bastards.
The case of Chang Vs. Elkby was settled out of court fifteen minutes later, and everyone was happy: Elkby mobilized his own law firm to advise me, because that was the only way he was going to get the 700,000 I owed him in damages now.
Of course it didn't take long before Elkby and associates started looking for other "traumatees". There was a veritable smorgasbord of victims to choose from: crippled, bearded veterans in their seventies; neurotic, grown-up children of dead soldiers; former hippies and anti-war protesters, now retired, who never got over Kent State; and all the grandchildren who had lost their grandfathers.
Early the next morning, still not recovered from the late contract negotiations with Mrs. Kessler, I was awakened by a clamor from outside. When I saw what caused it, I didn't dare to open. My tiny houslet was completely surrounded by lawyers and TV crews. I climbed up onto the roof the sky was thick with helicopters. There was a crash, and two tangled helicopters came floating down into the crowd. A minor bloodbath ensued.
Just then my wrist phone buzzed; it was Dad, and he was upset.
"Son, I don't know what you're up to, but all hell broke loose yesterday. I couldn't get through to you until now. Had to switch off the phone to get some sleep I was flooded with calls from lawyers who wanted to 'help' me get compensation.
"This just isn't like you. Why did you bring up our family history on court TV? Do you want to turn our personal pain into a public farce?"
He had given me this chance to explain myself, and I was grateful. "Dad, I won't make any claims for legal compensation. They've tried to make me, sure. But I'm just stalling the negotiations for as long as I can. Now if only my siblings can resist the offers, our name will be clean. Trust me. Soon, pretty soon, our problems could be over."
Our conversation had to end shortly thereafter. A military chopper was descending on the street, and some authoritative-looking officers were jumping out of it as the vehicle touched down. I climbed down to greet them; armed soldiers kept the lawyer mob at bay.
I said hello to General Calvin Thundell, press secretary to the Pentagon, who had brought his staff with him. To put it briefly top brass are truly dull people he declared in front of me and the TV cameras, that my compensation claim was a private matter. The President would make a public statement later, but the Pentagon wanted no part of any lawsuits against Vietnamese citizens. The President, he added, had already contacted the Vietnamese Prime Minister and promised that the two governments had no quarrels whatsoever with each other.
But he didn't mention the lawyers, and nobody tried to tell them to keep their dirty hands off Vietnam. 40 million lawyers was a powerful voting block. Having finished his statement, the general immediately boarded his chopper and left me there. I was quick enough to withdraw to my house in time, before the hysterical mob could trample me. Then I turned off the beeping phone, turned on the TV, and waited.
Within an hour, the mob began to disperse, first one by one, then like a mindless herd, driven by a single impulse. The TV news explained the cause of their hurry:
"Since the dramatic statement of Joseph Chang in the California State Court yesterday, the lawyers of America have been on the warpath. The country's phone network and Internet have been completely clogged. Millions of citizens have been besieged by lawyers and drowned by calling-cards. An early estimate from the Legal Bar Association says that three million Vietnam traumatees have so far filed lawsuits through the Federal Computer Court Register."
The camera cut to a scene in the L.A. harbor.
"And starting today, a mass exodus of lawyers has begun. The first wave of lawyers to have enlisted clients for compensation lawsuits, are leaving the country for Vietnam. All airports were bogged down last night, when 10 million flights to Hanoi were booked simultaneously. The only other way out is by sea.
"Several lawyers were pushed into the water and drowned this morning, when hysterical crowds tried to storm an oiltanker headed for Da Nang..."
The TV showed briefcases and white papers floating poetically on the oily waters of the bay. But this was just the beginning...
My own life remained hectic during the following weeks.
Mrs. Kessler and her associates took me to several expensive lunches and dinners, trying to make me accept their offers. I made sure they paid the fancy meals, and carefully avoided signing anything. This only served to increase their eagerness, and my embarrassment was growing unbearable. I can't stand seeing grownups act like greedy children especially when they give vent to fantasies of 1 billion-dollar lawsuits! What had happened to their sense of reality? How could so many men and women have become so blind? Did they think the world was their playground?
My only explanation for their behavior is that our culture had entered some kind of vicious circle in the late last century. With more and more lawyers, their power and status had escalated exponentially, which had produced more and increasingly younger lawyers with less and less life experience outside law school, which had increased the number of high-profile cases, which in turn had given law students more cases to study, which had narrowed their knowledge of the world even more and so on...
The real miracle was that our society was still functioning though the breaking point had clearly been reached. The mass exodus changed all that. As the first waves of lawyers landed in Vietnam's airports and later, their harbors, Americans grew aware of a sudden, subtle change. The phone and Web networks weren't clogged so often. Traffic was running smoother again. You could get a seat on a lunch restaurant even if you weren't a lawyer, something that just hadn't been possible for the last few years.
A veil of paralysis and fear was gradually lifting from the collective psyche. All those voices were gone, the prodding, pleasing voices that droned: "You are a victim. It's not your fault. I want to help. Here's my card. You'll be rich. I feel your pain. Let me take care of everything. You are not responsible. I'm your only chance."
Let me give you an example. One week after my statement, I was walking the streets of L.A., disguised behind sunglasses and a false beard. Suddenly, a busy hardhat worker stumbled into a woman carrying a bag of groceries. She screamed as she dropped the contents of the bag onto the street, and the working man seemed stricken with fear. But no lawyer showed up, no prowler in a dark suit dashed out of a passing car and offered his calling-card. Instead the man came to his senses, excused himself to the woman, and helped her pick up the spilled contents. She was so surprised by this act of genuine courtesy, that she smiled and asked his name.
The last I saw of them was both walking away together, him carrying her bag. People were beginning to gain self-confidence again.
Meanwhile on the other side of the globe, the Vietnamese population was entering the lower circles of hell. God knows I didn't think they deserved this, but my father's war stories made me trust their judgement to deal with the problem themselves. The first week, 70,000 American lawyers had entered Vietnam. The next week, upwards of 100,000 more. And the following two weeks, shipload upon shipload of irritable, sore, tired, hungry, and lawsuit-thirsty lawyers landed on the long coast of Vietnam. A staggering 20 million lawyers invaded the country, immediately seeking out their victims.
To understand how this could happen so fast, you must consider the recent automation of the justice system. Subpoenas could now be arranged in a matter of seconds, and most lawsuits were settled via the Internet, long before they reached the courthouse and even so, the court schedules were packed. The Legal Bar Association had a far-reaching complex of supercomputers, which had instantly been requested to search through the Vietnamese and American war records.
It was of course impossible to pinpoint whose soldier's bullet had pierced which soldier's heart, but the positions of both sides' forces was accurately recorded for each week of the war between 1960 and 1975. These files had recently been made public. In practice, this led to many harrowing scenes none of them more heart-rending than what happened to the retired Viet Cong Corporal Laung Tsun.
Mr. Laung Tsun was living in a retirement home at the outskirts of Saigon, when the first wave of lawsuits hit the city. In the afternoon, while he was feeding the carp in his little dam, Laung Tsun was suddenly approached by an out-of-breath individual in a crumpled dark suit. The stranger addressed him in English, which he understood fairly well, and handed him a card and a subpoena. First, Mr. Laung thought it was a joke. He laughed, winked at the stranger, shook his head knowingly and said: "Ahaa... Candid Camera! America's Funniest Home Videos!"
After some forced explanations, the stranger managed to convince Mr. Laung that it wasn't a joke. He was being sued for physical and mental injuries inflicted by his infantry company in 1971, when he had taken part in an attack on American ground troops. The stranger explained that he represented the suffering relatives of the killed Americans, who were now rightfully claiming a compensation of 20,000,000 U.S. dollars. Mr. Laung stared incredulously at the grave-faced visitor.
He began to notice more strangers in the vicinity, harrassing his friends, frantically waving documents after fleeing old ladies.
Mr. Laung remembered the war again. And then he began to cry.
"You dare to ask me... for money?" he shouted at the lawyer. "You took my brother, my father, my house, my animals, my friends... and you ask me for compensation!? You have no shame foreign devil!"
Mr. Laung grabbed the stunned lawyer's sleeve, shouting Vietnamese curses then, in his excitement, the old man suffered a fatal stroke. This caused an outrage in the retirement home, and the guilty lawyer was nearly lynched by angry senior citizens. Countless similar incidents occurred, adding up to a collective embarrassment unparallelled in human history.
The Vietnamese government had been completely overwhelmed by the invasion. Already preoccupied with skirmishes in neighboring Cambodia, it was powerless to throw out the millions of dark-suited terrorists. Worse still, both the Vietnamese and the American governments were too terrified to take action. The Pentagon repeated their mantra of the last 30 years to the media: "We won't have another Vietnam... we won't have another Vietnam... we won't have another Vietnam..."
So after three weeks of terror and no letting up, the Vietnamese people knew what to do. Hidden Kalashnikovs, grenades and machetes were dug out from old caches. Wrinkled ladies who hadn't hurt a fly in thirty years ordered their grandchildren to dig trenches. Jungle-traps were rigged in the pastel-colored shopping-malls of Saigon. Japanese tourists and foreign non-lawyers were discreetly warned to stay indoors for the next few days.
Of course we all followed the war on TV, but there wasn't much information leaking out. It was a swift, bloody and brutal battle millions of lawyers armed with paper versus a determined nation armed with antique weapons. I'd rather not go into any of the nasty details, but it turned out that Ron Elkby was one of the casualties; he was later found on a rooftop in Hue evidently choked to death by a subpoena that was stuffed down his throat. Japanese fishermen caught dead lawyers in their nets for months afterward; luckily, it was all a private affair.
The remaining 20 million lawyers in America, who until then had been preparing to follow the lemming migration overseas, were shocked into a long silence. It dawned on the brightest law firm members, that their peers might have been aiming too high this time. I visited Dad again. He greeted me welcome, but he was serious-minded and didn't make jokes.
"You really fooled me for a while," he said. "Now I understand why you acted so weird. But what will happen now? There are still a lot of lawyers around, and they want your head for this."
"Maybe. But they are a much weaker group now, and people don't hold them in any great respect anymore. Let's watch TV."
We went inside, popped a few Buds, and watched the Supreme Court make a historical declaration: to bring up the Vietnam Lawyer Massacre in any court of law would be impossible as well as diplomatically sensitive, and there were extenuating circumstances on behalf of the Vietnamese people; they had suffered enough as it was.
Likewise the initial war compensation claim against the Vietnamese, if ever set in court, would have reached around 10 trillion dollars which "the Supreme Court felt would be ethically unsound". Dad taped that quote, so that we could laugh at it again and again. Thus started the push for the Supreme Court decision of 2005, where a new Amendment was added to the Constitution:
To ensure the workings of the justice system, the number of lawyers must never exceed one fourth of the working population.
Which solved a lot of problems. I never heard from Mrs. Kessler again, and no lawyer ever offered our family their help. An unexpected bonus also occurred: my wife's lawyer quit working for her, and she was eventually forced to talk to me in person. When those legal barriers between us were broken, the old feelings returned. And I could see my son again.
So everything is fine, then? Well... sometimes, when I see a guy in a dark suit, I feel a pang of guilt. Did all those lawyers have to perish? Could there have been a way to save them? And what about their orphaned children what will they grow up to be? There's a risk, however slight, that a whole generation will make martyrs out of the men and women who died in a foreign land to preserve America's freedom of irresponsibility.
I of all people should know that every war produces the excuses to start a new war. And no clever joke is going to change that.
I rest my case.
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