In the world of journalism, there are niches in which reporters without overwhelming ability can survive, provided that they possess a few specialized assets. Miss Elaine Kittredge, who covered the White House for the Chicago Tribune, had once been a beauty who could interview well enough, and write well enough, to take partial advantage of some unparalleled opportunities.
FDR had liked her. So had Harry Truman. However, President Eisenhower had shown no signs of having noticed her. Not as many men did these days. Elaine was ever blonder, wore ever higher heels, and struggled into ever tighter girdles. But, while anyone would have said that she remained attractive, no special doors were thrown open for her.
There was, nonetheless, a silver lining. Miss Kittredge had always been a man's woman, but, now, other women were beginning to trust her. The more she felt out-classed in the press, the more certain prominent but out-classed ladies tended to think that Elaine was the lone exception, the reporter who could be trusted not to make them appear ridiculous in print. The most important such lady was Mamie Eisenhower.
The Eisenhower marriage must not have seemed unusual at the time. There was the muscular young West Point graduate, more known for his athletic ability than for his studies, and the fairly attractive young woman. She came from a more affluent family than his, and she had always had her own personal maid. But that did no harm. The social graces were important in military life, and Mamie was equipped to make the right impression on the colonel's wife while Ike impressed the colonel himself. She must have seemed pretty much what a young officer needed. The only trouble was that Ike was smarter than people realized, but Mamie wasn't.
During the first promotions, Mamie kept up, albeit with some whining. She never learned to cook, but it was easy to hire cooks in the Phillipines and such places. In 1938, when they left the Phillipines, Ike was a lieutenant colonel expecting to be retired within a year. Mamie still seemed appropriate. She might complain a lot, but so would the wives of the other retired lieutenant colonels.
It was just then that General Marshall discovered Ike. The rest may have been history, but Mamie was left hopelessly astern. Ike had at least the semblence of an affair with a young Englishwoman assigned to him as his driver during the war. Mamie began to drink seriously.
Mamie was still drinking seriously in 1957, and, even at her best, she was far from being able to handle the press. At certain stages of inebriation, she was likely to say almost anything. There was an agreement in the press corps not to take advantage of her, and it was part of that agreement that only one reporter, Elaine Kittredge, would interview Mrs. Eisenhower. Whatever Mamie said, Elaine would know what to write. It was, everyone said, a perfect match.
On this occasion, Mamie was tearful. She had been badly frightened by something, but it was hard to tell what. Elaine probed gently. There seemed to be nothing wrong with the family. Elaine was pretty sure that President Eisenhower didn't now have a mistress. Besides, Mamie wouldn't have known if he had. So it probably wasn't a humiliation of that sort.
They had some little sandwiches, and they had a drink. Mamie was still frightened. This time, Elaine discovered the cause. The president was angry. But things didn't come easily out of Mamie. She might cry and break down, but she wasn't very verbal, and the thoughts behind the emotions were sometimes carefully hidden. Elaine wouldn't have dreamed of divulging these thoughts in print, but she wanted to know just the same.
At one point, Elaine asked Mrs. Eisenhower directly whether her husband was angry with her. As far as Elaine could see, the president didn't expect much of his wife, but he might be angry with her for drinking. That didn't seem to be it. Mamie didn't actually give a negative answer, but she didn't react as Elaine thought she would have if she had actually incurred her husband's anger.
It was quite possible that Mamie didn't even know the cause of her husband's anger, and Elaine gave up trying to discover it. She then invented out of whole cloth for her little article, which was entirely appropriate in both tone and content. When it appeared, it would be regarded as a "nothing" piece, the product of a "nothing" reporter.
That thought made Elaine herself angry. She had no intellectual pretensions, but she knew she wasn't stupid. Moreover, the high-powered journalists who treated her with contempt were themselves blind. They thought feelings and gossip didn't matter. They didn't realize that no organization, military or civilian, could function effectively unless its members could manage their feelings toward one another.
Gossip was the surface indicator of actual or potential trouble on the level of management of feeling, and it could be of critical importance. There might come a time when a war would be predicted, not by the diplomatic correspondent of a paper, but by the political gossip columnist.
Tom Williams was Elaine Kittredge's complement in the mathematical definition of that term. Every ability and tendency that she had he lacked. And vice versa. Where she had virtually no philosophy, no expertise with computers, and no tendency to engage violently in sport, even on a tennis court, Tom had no understanding of the milieu in which Elaine lived and operated. Mamie Eisenhower, for example, would have baffled him completely.
The only woman Tom really knew was his mother, but she combined self-confidence with freedom from almost all ordinary pressures to such a degree that lessons learned from her and about her had almost no application anywhere else. In Washington, and most especially at DRI, he was finding himself in a environment in which hyper-adult men and women struggled with an alarming intensity. It was a world which was entirely alien to the fun and games atmosphere of graduate school which Tom so enjoyed. His education began in earnest when Jacky Jordan called out from his office,
"Tom, come on in and have coffee with us on government time."
Ted Blitz, Anna Entner, and Pete Helton were all crammed into Jacky's little office, but space was made for Tom. He had noticed before that those people seemed to form a little group within the larger group, and that Jacky was their leader.
Jordan was a Czech refugee who had somehow, no one knew quite how, become a computer expert. He was a striking- looking man in his late thirties with a great shock of silver-gray hair and a face like a fox. His most striking trait was his adaptiveness. Despite a slight accent, he seemed so thoroughly American that even the accent sounded more as if it came from an ethnic district of New York than from a foreign country.
Whatever his background might have been, Jordan could document having been a programmer for seven years, which was a long time. Despite all that experience, he was really no more than a good average programmer, nothing like Complab's best.
When something went wrong on the computer, Jacky wouldn't even consider that it was his program which was at fault. Instead, he would claim a machine error and close down while the technicians did their testing. The errors were, in fact, always in his programs. But he could often convince people otherwise. That very day, Tom had heard Anna, the operator now seated next to him, say,
"Jackie's one of very few who can actually find malfunctions in the machine."
She was really more tuned in to people than to machines, and, as she was sympathetic to Jacky, he could sometimes over-ride what she saw on the panel in front of her.
Whatever else might have been said about Jacky, he was a dramatic person. He was exciting in the way that leaders are supposed to be exciting. His eyes were those of a religious fanatic, and, if his speech and mannerisms were sometimes those of a gangster, the combination made people feel strongly about him in one way or another.
The first thing Jacky said to Tom was,
"How'd you like our little alert the other day?"
Tom replied jokingly,
"I kept looking for the air-raid shelter, but there didn't seem to be one."
Only Anna laughed. There were actually air-raid shelters strewn all over Washington, but Tom supposed that no one at DRI would have the slightest faith in such things. It was just dawning on him that the others had taken him seriously when Anna said,
"This group is very literal-minded, Tom. You'll have to forgive them."
It was all a little awkward, but Ted said,
"If we get the other sons-of-bitches before they get us, we won't need no shelters."
Pete Helton soon responded in a similar way, and Tom realized that the culture of this little group was entirely at odds with the liberal academic one of DRI as a whole. Having realized that, he adjusted fairly easily as he drank his coffee.
After a while, Ted said,
"Gimme another cup. I've got to go out and work for Matthews in a half hour. He'll probably have his program all screwed up again."
Matthews was a black mathematician who was a relatively inexperienced programmer, but was actually learning quite quickly. Ted made no overtly racist remark, but rolled his eyes in a way that was significant. Pete Helton laughed loudly and said,
"I bet he turns up with eights and nines in his data again."
On Matthews' last outing on the machine, he had forgotten to convert some of his data from decimal to octal. It was the sort of mistake anyone could have made, but it would never be forgotten in his case, at least in this group. As Pete went on laughing like a person of subnormal intelligence who has finally succeeded in understanding a joke, it seemed to Tom that Pete was almost as inexplicable a hire as Maurice Munson.
Goldstein, oddly, would say nothing at all about Pete. He only laughed when his name was mentioned, sometimes doing a brief imitation of a monkey at the zoo. In any case, Pete attached himself to Jacky much as a stray dog might have picked out of a crowd the person least likely to kick him. And he was right. Jacky did tolerate him in many ways that the others didn't.
It was Anna who sprang to Matthews' defence and said,
"He's a nice person, a real gentleman. And he'll become a good programmer if you guys give him a chance."
The others tolerated this from Anna, probably because she was a woman and supposed to be full of sweetness and light. She was the third operator, behind Ted and Sid, and was much less competent. On the other hand, she was entirely different from Pete, who lacked sophistication in all directions.
Anna, a divorcee of about forty five, was the ex-wife of a senator who had opted for something younger. She had a large settlement, a good deal of inherited money of her own, and, in addition, half a lifetime's worth of connections in Washington. If she had wanted to work in government, or as a lobbyist, many places would have been found for her, but she had preferred to strike out on her own. The really surprising thing was that she had managed to become a computer operator at all. No one took her to task for her mistakes, but Goldstein made sure that he got Ted or Sid.
It was an interesting fact about the class system at DRI that Anna ended up in what was clearly the non-elite group even though, in terms of such things as money, birth, and influence, she probably out-ranked everyone in the organization. On the other hand, she had been defeated in a way that struck right at her soul when the senator humiliated her. Bruce Hammond had said to Tom,
"It's tragic, really. Someone who knows her told me she aged ten years overnight. She's making a sort of comeback with a new life and new acquaintances, but she'll never be more than marginally competent as an operator. Watch her closely when you get her."
Tom had this comment in mind as Anna handed him his coffee, some strands of her gray hair falling across her forehead. And then he saw why she was in Jacky's group. Jacky treated her as a lady in a continental way, the only thing about him that wasn't American. It wasn't that he exuded gallantry, he just had a way of making her feel sexually desirable. It was catching, too! Tom found himself looking at Anna in a different way. He wondered if, in case nothing else turned up, some sort of approach might possibly be made.
The conversation soon turned to Eileen, another member of Complab. She was about Anna's age, but held a senior position, the most important held by any woman in the group. She did a good deal of programming, and both Jacky and Ted had had run-ins with her. It did sound as if she were rather imperious, and not very understanding of mistakes on the part of others. It was then, suddenly, that Jacky said,
"Eileen needs to be gang-banged!"
It was as if the air pressure had dropped suddenly by ten per cent. Pete and Ted nodded in agreement, and Tom found himself mentally adrift from his moorings. In that instant, he wondered whether a gang bang could, in fact, improve a woman's disposition. He was just deciding that it probably wasn't a good idea when Anna objected,
"Oh Jacky, there's nothing wrong with Eileen. She's just had to make it in a man's world, and she's had to be tough to do it. She's quite pleasant when she's not being challenged."
Even Anna didn't dispute the proposition that some women needed to be gang banged. She just claimed that Eileen wasn't such a woman.
The next day, Tom had a date for lunch with Goldstein. He was prepared for the usual battle of wits with the other people who surrounded Goldstein, but it was Sid who dropped by a half hour before noon and said,
"Hi there, Tom, are you ready for lunch with Goldstein?"
She smiled in an odd way as she said it, and she also pronounced Goldstein's name in an unusual and peculiar way. It didn't seem an anti-Semitic pronounciation, but apparently indicated something else. Tom knew that something was up, but could hardly guess what. Sid was standing right in front of his desk, her tight blond curls lit by the sunlight from the window, when she next said,
"Janet's coming with us, so you'll make up the fourth."
Sid then giggled. Tom had only recently discovered that she wasn't twenty five or so, as he had supposed, but thirty five. It was hard to believe it at times like this. He missed whatever it was that amused her, but locked his various secret documents in the safe and followed her down the corridor.
Janet was a physicist in her early thirties who did her work quietly. Indeed, she seemed to go out of her way to avoid calling any attention to it. If she had chosen to compete directly with the men, she could have given them a run for their money, and then some. But she was too placid of temperament for that, and was actually less given to sharp remarks than Sid. Where Sid was often satirical, particularly about men, it seemed that Janet never had any complaint about anything.
The others refused to tell Tom where they were going to lunch, but everyone piled into Goldstein's car. The day was cool for once, and he put the top down. The result was a rather festive trip through downtown Bethesda. Tom enjoyed being paired with Sid in the back seat, particularly since they had to contort themselves to find room for their legs and her skirt ended up well above her knees.
The destination turned out to be the National Institutes of Health. Goldstein said to Tom,
"They discovered some abnormalities in your private parts during your physical exam and asked us to bring you over without alarming you."
It took Tom at least a second to remember that he hadn't had a physical exam at DRI. But he'd always been a perfect foil for jokes of all kinds, and Goldstein had evidently come to realize it. Then, instead of entering the building, he opened up the trunk of his car and took out some white coats and stethoscopes. Janet explained,
"There's a good cafeteria here, but it's only for the doctors and nurses who work at NIH. So we have to have disguises."
Sid, putting the coat over her dress, said,
"When Goldstein asked us to play doctor with him, we thought he might want us to undress. But it involves putting on a layer instead of taking one off."
She then said to Goldstein,
"If you don't get these coats cleaned pretty soon, we're going to start looking more like dishwashers than doctors."
Goldstein reassured them,
"People see what they want and expect to see. It would take a great deal to make it even occur to them that we might be imposters."
It looked as if the jackets weren't likely to get washed soon. Indeed, it was hard to imagine Goldstein making arrangements of that sort.
Another part of the charade consisted in pinning the DRI photo identity cards to the coats. As Goldstein said,
"Again, they'll assume that they're NIH badges. Or, if someone should notice, it'd be assumed that we're properly invited visiting firemen."
He turned out to be right. No one said anything as they went through the cafeteria line and selected a table. Once they were seated, Goldstein said,
"Tom can pass quite easily. There are a lot of very young doctors here who aren't very different from graduate students. Some probably are graduate students."
Goldstein was himself quite plausible as a doctor, the sort of hard-nosed surgeon who routinely rips open abdomens while shunning any other contact with his patients or their families. It was also agreed that Janet could be a doctor. She had exactly the look of serious competence that would probably have admitted her without a white coat or stethoscope. It was when Sid was considered that everyone burst out laughing. As Goldstein said,
"She's too elegant to be a nurse, but not dispassionate enough to be a doctor."
It was true. When Sid moved around Complab in her lovely sinuous way, everyone stopped briefly to look. It did no harm there, but it would surely have disrupted an operating room.
The food really was quite good, enough so that the group could claim that it didn't go there just for the fun of infiltration. Somewhere between soup and entree, Sid looked at Tom and whispered,
"Tom, stop that!"
He had idly put the stethoscope in his ears and slipped the sensor between the buttons of his shirt. The sounds were rather interesting, and even alarming, but he stopped and asked,
"Why shouldn't I check my breathing?"
"I'm sure no doctor would do that. You'll get us thrown out."
It seemed to Tom that a doctor might reasonably turn his instrument on himself, but he nonetheless desisted. Goldstein smiled abruptly at him and said,
"Tom, you haven't yet told me what your salary is. Wouldn't you like to get it off your chest?"
From the reaction of the others, it seemed that this was standard practice with Goldstein. Tom was rather proud of his princely salary of four hundred and twenty five dollars a month, and announced it with no misgivings. Goldstein replied,
"Not bad for a young man your age. It's fifty more than Janet gets."
That was shocking. When Janet confirmed it pleasantly, Tom said,
"There must be some mistake."
Goldstein replied cheerfully,
"There's no mistake. Janet's husband has a good job and DRI thinks that she doesn't need the money."
Sid was making grumbling noises, but Janet said,
"I don't mind, really. We do have enough to be comfortable even without my salary, and, this way, people don't resent me as much as they might otherwise."
Janet smiled a little, as if she had some particular people in mind. Tom asked,
"People like Jacky?"
"And others, too."
Sid then said to Janet,
"You're too good-natured. People won't even thank you for being nice. They'll just take it for granted."
Sid still spoke with her lilt, but she was obviously quite serious. Janet replied,
"People have always told me that. My older sister even told me I'd have to be a little bit bitchy if I wanted to be sexy."
"That's a northern thing. We're just sweet all the way through in Virginia. But what about you, Tom? Are you looking for a girl who's a little bitchy?"
"I'm looking for any kind of girl at all."
"I'm sure there's a girl for you. I might even be able to find one. How have you gone about it in the past?"
"Well, my room-mate, Hal, and I used to go to these mixers at Radcliffe, but it was discouraging because there were so many more boys than girls, and you couldn't dance with a girl for more than a minute or two before someone cut in."
"We also had those at Columbia and Barnard. It was great for the girls."
"Hal's pretty thoughtful and systematic about things like that, and he decided that we needed a method that would choose for just the right kind of girl in the minimum amount of time, ninety seconds or so. We soon came up with a method for me."
Sid smiled and asked,
"What kind of girl did you decide you needed?"
"I'd just decided that I wasn't religious, so I wanted one that wasn't either. I also thought an unreligious one might be more willing about sex."
"That was probably a mistake. Did you introduce yourself and ask them if they had any religion, all in one breath?"
The truth was somewhat more elaborate. Tom had been reading about a Scottish philosopher named McTaggart who flourished at Cambridge around the turn of the century. He had been a militant atheist who had particularly hated Christianity. When he met a minister or other religious person, he would lead the conversation around to Christ, and then say,
"I don't much like him, but I admire the pluck he displayed on the cross."
Tom had adapted the technique to the Radcliffe mixers, which were called 'Jolly-Ups,' with indifferent results. Sid said,
"I was thinking of introducing you to my young cousin, but I just can't imagine what she'd think if you said that to her."
"Did you imagine that a girl would say that she felt the same way, and that you'd go out into the moonlight together?"
"I guess that was what I did think. In practice, I never got any very clear replies or any dates."
Goldstein summed up,
"You're a lot like the other philosophers I've known. They always proceeded in a highly rational way, but also one that had adverse practical consequences."
"What about your room-mate? Did he have a strategy like that?"
"He usually told the girl that he had a tooth-ache, and that the dentist had only made it worse."
"That's a pretty good opening. At least, it starts a conversation instead of stopping it before it can get started."
"He did meet a couple of girls with it."
"Was there also a theory behind his opening?"
"Yeah, he wanted to see how much natural sympathy a girl had."
"That doesn't sound too good. He might want a wife with a great potential for sympathy because he intends, perhaps unconsciously, to take advantage of it and her. I think I would've urged him to rush off and find another dentist."
"Anyhow, he still doesn't have a girl friend. He's in Philadelphia now, and he's coming down to visit tomorrow. We'll have to work out some new approaches."
The others said that they could hardly wait to hear about those new
approaches, and wished Tom luck. By the time that they returned, Sid hadn't
renewed her offer to find a girl for him.