Thursday, March 3, 2016

'The System Approach' -- a short story

Author Harry M. Zubkoff
A setting in the following story brought me back some 55 years to the North Parking lot at the Pentagon. I remember going to work with my dad, and walking, and walking, and walking from his space in the lot, far from the building entrance. (By the time I grew up, he parked in the VIP lot close to the entrance.) I’ll bet most of you will relate to a timeless problem in Harry’s story – how to approach someone for a date. You’ll also pick up on vintage details, like a secretary taking shorthand and bringing coffee, which, of course, help us define when he wrote it. I suspect he based the military-related scenarios on historical truth as well.

“I wish I’d spent more time chasing girls when I was younger,” Terry reflected ruefully. “Then maybe I’d have some ideas on how to approach her.”

“Listen to the old man,” Andy chuckled. “Why don’t you just ask her for a date?”

“I can’t do that,” Terry objected. “She’d probably call a cop.”

“Are you kidding?” Any snorted. “Why, the prettiest music to a girl’s ears is hearing some good-looking young bachelor like you ask her for a date.”

“Flattery will get you nowhere,” Terry muttered automatically, his eyes riveted on the row of doors. “Now shut-up, here she comes.”

They focused their attention as she came through the door on the left, closest to the bench on which they were sitting. Terry made a move to stand, but Andy’s hand on his arm held him back. “Down boy,” he murmured in Terry’s ear. “I got to admit,” he added, “she’s a real doll.” As she walked down the ramp, not only the two men, but a hundred other pairs of eyes in the area followed her every move. Terry’s eyes were fixed on hers as she approached to within arm’s length. They were a deep blue-green, and he felt as though he could drown in them. She seemed to be looking through him, lost in thought, but at the last moment they met his squarely for a fleeting instant and the faintest hint of a smile appeared on her perfectly shaped lips. Then she passed by, and their heads swiveled to follow appreciatively the movement of her retreating hips as she walked gracefully up the ramp and out of the building.

“I repeat, kid,” Andy said, “why don’t you just ask her for a date?”

“No,” Terry declared firmly. “She’s got too much class for so crude an approach. I have to figure out something original. Now come on, let’s go.”

“A genius,” Andy muttered as they rose to walk to the parking lot, “he’s a genius, and geniuses can never do anything the simple way. They have to complicate everything.”

Terry squirmed, remembering the article in the newspaper two weeks ago which had described him as the “young genius” who had just been hired to do an analysis of strategic weapons requirements for the Pentagon. Genius my foot, he fumed inwardly, I’m already stuck on an insoluble problem. In fact, two of them, he thought – one for the office and one for myself – her!

“Do you know her name?” asked Andy on the way out to the Pentagon’s huge North Parking lot.

“No,” said Terry. “All I know is that she comes out this way every night about five o’clock.”

Suddenly Andy stopped. “Terry, my boy,” he laid a hand on Terry’s shoulder, “I am about to arrange for you to meet your lady love and to put her in your debt, all at the same time.”

“What?” Terry looked at him, and past him, and saw her at the same time. She was standing in front of the car next to Andy’s, looking helplessly down at the most beautiful flat tire Terry had ever seen.

Andy walked up to her, unabashed. “Excuse me, Miss,” he touched his hat brim in a curiously old-fashioned gesture, “you seem to be having some trouble.”

Her eyes took him in, glanced at Terry, and came back to him, twinkling. “Yes,” she said, “I seem to have a flat tire.”

“Not only seems flat,” said Andy peering at the tire, “I believe it actually is flat. But fear not, fair lady, I happen to have with me the best portable tire-changing machine in circulation.” He grabbed Terry’s arm and pulled him forward. “This,” he added brightly, “is known as a Dr. Terrence Laughlin. It is, you will note, about six feet of pure brawn, manufactured specifically for the purpose of changing tires, and I will be happy to lend it to you. For a little while, that is. By the way,” he went on blithely, “my name is Andrews.”

“So nice to meet you,” she replied gravely. “My name is Dolores Oliver, and yes, I would welcome the loan of a Dr. Laughlin for a few minutes. How do you make it work?”

“Well,” Andy laughed, “you just …”

“Never mind,” Terry shrugged his arm loose, “Let me have the key to your trunk, Miss Oliver.

“See what I mean?” said Andy. “A regular tire-changing machine!”

But Terry was lost in the radiance of her smile and did not hear a word they said as he put the spare on. When he had finished, she turned from an animated conversation with Andy and regarded him thoughtfully.

“Thank you very much, Dr. Laughlin,” she said.

“That’s all right,” he could think of nothing to say. “You’d better have that tire looked at. I couldn’t see what caused the flat – it may have a slow leak.”

“Yes, I’ll do that. I wish I could repay you some way.”

“No need for that,” said Andy magnanimously. “Glad to do it, anytime.”

“Just the same, you were very nice to do it for me.” She calmly came up to Terry, stretched up on her toes and kissed his cheek. He felt his face burning and put an exploratory hand up to feel the spot her lips had touched.

“You’d better wipe the lipstick off,” she admonished, “before your wife sees it.”

“But I’m not married,” he replied promptly.

She said nothing more as she got into her car, but the dazzling smile she gave him was enough.

* * * * *

Dr. Frank Riordan, former professor of mathematics at MIT and a widely acclaimed authority in cybernetics and computer technology, was the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Systems Definition, a post especially created to utilize his unique talents. He was robust, though not tall, with a bulging forehead which housed an over-sized brain, and he had assembled a small group of highly talented men to help him reduce the uncertainties inherent in the military decision-making processes. Now he sat behind his paper strewn desk and regarded Dr. Terence Laughlin, the most recent, and most prized, addition to his staff.

“Terry,” he sighed, noting the tall, rugged good looks of the man standing before him. “Maybe you should have become a professional football player. You’ve certainly got the build for it. Now why on earth can’t you do a simple analysis on our strategic aircraft and missile requirements over the next five years? We’ve given you the ground rules, you have a finite range of possibilities and clearly defined limitations for your frame of reference. So what’s bugging you?”

“What’s bugging me,” said Terry moodily, “is the validity of your basic assumptions. What’s bugging me is the artificial restraints you’ve imposed on me. Hell, Chief, do you want me to think, or do you just want someone to add up a column of figures?” He walked over to the window and stared unseeing at the Washington skyline. “I can’t work at something that doesn’t feel right,” he added earnestly. “If you want me to do a job, then give me the freedom to start from scratch, to reexamine the whole program, to … to …” he searched for the right words, “to do a genuine analysis and to come up with a defensible conclusion.” He did not see the smile of satisfaction on Dr. Riordan’s face behind him, but there was no smile in the voice.

“All right,” the voice sounded irritable. “If that’s what you want, go ahead. But it means you’ll have to go out and talk to a lot of people, from the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Secretary of Defense on down. And it means you’ll be working twenty hours a day or more, if you expect to get it done on time.” He consulted the calendar on his desk. “You have exactly sixteen days,” he added, “so get moving.”

When Terry had left, he swiveled his chair around, reached for the squawk box on the table behind him and pushed the button marked Chairman, JCS.

“Hello, Bob,” he said when the voice answered, “I think he’ll be coming to see you one of these days. And listen, Bob, that boy’s got a mind like a razor. I wasn’t kidding when I said he’s a genius. The problem is to give him enough freedom to work things out for himself.”

He listened to the other’s voice for moment. Then he interrupted. “Bob,” he said, “I don’t know what answers he’ll arrive at, but this is only the beginning of his education. By the time you and I are through with him, he’ll be telling us what we need.”

* * * * *

Her voice was cool and impersonal on the phone, but it sounded like music in his ear.

“Dr. Laughlin,” she said. “I’m calling in regard to your request for an appointment with General Roberts. The Chairman can see you at 10:30 this morning.”

“Did you tell him I’d like to take about an hour of his time?” he asked.

“The Chairman can give you a half hour,” she replied firmly. Then, softening, “He has a meeting at 11:00,” she added, “so you’d better have all your questions ready.”

“Well, okay, I guess,” he was reluctant to hang up. “I’ll see you later, then.”

She opened the door to the general’s office and stuck her head in.

“Dr. Laughlin will be here at 10:30,” she said, “for a half hour. You have a luncheon meeting at the White House, scheduled to start at 11:30. You’ll be leaving here at 11:00.”

“Where’s that biography you dug up on him?” the general asked, rummaging among the papers in his in-basket. “Riordan thinks he’s the answer to our prayers. But judging by all the geniuses I’ve seen around the Pentagon, I’ve got my doubts.”

She came all the way in, the door closing silently behind her, and gently took the in-basket away from the general.

“He has a very impressive background,” she said. “Graduated from MIT at 19, Master’s Degree from Yale at 21, PhD from Tuck School of Business Administration at Dartmouth at 23. Then he was drafted, spent a year in Vietnam and a year setting up a computerized intelligence system at the National Intelligence Agency. After he got out of the Army, he went back to MIT and designed a new computer system that got national attention. Twenty-six years old,” she mused, “and he has a national – in fact, an international – reputation as one of America’s authentic young geniuses.”

The general looked at her quizzically. “Always the perfect secretary,” he said. “Have you met him?”

“Yes,” her eyes looked inward, remembering.

“What’s he like?”

“He’s beautiful,” she said simply.

“I see,” the general said dryly. “Beautiful.” Then, seeing the color rise to her cheeks, he spoke more gently. “Dolly,” he said, “don’t tell me you’ve finally found a …”

“No,” she interrupted. “That is …” she hesitated, “he doesn’t even know I exist.”

“Are you kidding?” the general snorted. “What kind of a genius is he?”

“I guess he’s just too occupied with his work,” she shrugged her shoulders resignedly.

“Hmmm,” the general looked at her appraisingly. “We’ll have to see what we can do about that.”

* * * * *

He came in, dressed casually in sport coat and slacks and looking so handsome that her breath caught in her throat. But, despite the pounding of her heart when his incredibly gray eyes met hers, her voice was cool and reserved.

“The Chairman’s expecting you,” she said. “Go right in.”

He looked at her, wordless, for another moment before he strode in to the inner office. The general rose to shake hands, then waved him to a chair.

“Do you want to take notes?” He asked.

“No, sir,” said Terry.

“Do you mean to say that you’ll remember everything we say?”

“Yes, sir,” he was uncomfortably aware of the general’s penetrating gaze.

“Well,” the general remarked after a pause, “my memory is not that good. I’d like my secretary to sit in and take notes.” He pressed the buzzer and she came in immediately, shorthand book in hand, and took a seat beside the general’s desk.

“Dr. Laughlin, this is my secretary, Miss Oliver,” the general introduced them. “Everybody calls her Dolly,” he added.

“We’ve met,” they both spoke at the same time, then laughed self-consciously.

“Okay,” the general smiled, “fire away.”

* * * * *

Throughout the interview, while part of his mind wrestled with the general’s views on strategic requirements, he was wondering how to ask her for a date. Afterwards, sitting in his office and thinking, the inspiration struck him. At a quarter to five, just before the rush-hour exodus, he went out to the parking lot, found her car, and, feeling almost like a criminal, let the air out of her left, front tire. Then he got into his own car, just two spaces removed from hers, and waited.

She got there about five-fifteen, and he saw the look of consternation on her face when she caught her first glimpse of the flat. He got out of his car and walked over.

“Hello,” he said brightly, “I see you have a flat tire.”

“Yes,” she smiled, and his heart contracted.

“May I help you?” he asked.

“Yes.” She put the trunk key in his outstretched hand and he silently proceeded to put on the spare. All the time he was working, he was mentally rehearsing how to ask her, but when the words came out of his mouth they surprised him.

“Look,” he blurted, “would you have dinner with me?” She hesitated and he rushed on, “I mean, after all, we both have to eat, don’t we?”

“Yes,” she said.

“And why shouldn’t we eat together?”

“Yes,” she repeated.

“You mean, you will?”

“Yes,” she said once more.

“Good,” he said. “We’ll take my car, and then come back for yours after we eat. Okay?”

“Yes,” she said.

It was a dream dinner. By the time they got to the dessert, neither of them could remember the entree. They even forgot that her car was still in the Pentagon parking lot. He drove her home, a twenty-minute ride in which he drove with one hand and held her hand with the other. It was not until she opened the door of her apartment that they both remembered, and then they laughed delightedly.

“The heck with it,” she said airily. “I’ll take the bus tomorrow and pick up the car in the evening.”

Then he remembered the bulging briefcase in the back seat of his car. “I have to go do some homework,” he said sadly as they stood in her doorway.

“Oh, no,” she was stricken. “Why don’t you bring it in and do it here? I’ll make some coffee and I promise I won’t bother you. I’ll just sit and watch TV.”

“I was hoping you’d ask!” Then, suddenly, he was kissing her. It was a most satisfactory kiss, and afterwards she gently led him inside, took his coat and seated him in the easy chair which dominated one corner of the living room. He concentrated on the reports, occasionally sipping from a cup of coffee, which she kept constantly replenished, while she curled up on a corner of the couch and watched TV. For almost three hours they exchanged not a half dozen words, though every now and then they glanced up to meet each others eyes. It was almost midnight when he put down the last report.

“You know,” he said, standing up, “you’re beautiful.”

“That’s funny,” she beamed at him, “I was just going to say the same thing about you. In fact,” she added, “I told the general this morning that …” she almost bit her tongue.

“That what?” he prompted.

“Tell me,” she said changing the subject adroitly. “How fast do you read? I was watching you for a while and you were turning those pages awfully fast.”

“I don’t know,” he shrugged, “it depends on what I’m reading. Some things, easy things, maybe 2,800 to 3,000 words a minute. These things,” he waved a hand at the pile of reports on the floor, “are a little tougher, maybe 1,800 to 2,000 words a minute.”

“Holy mackerel,” she gasped. “You really are a genius, aren’t you?”

He grinned down at her, then kneeled before her on the couch. “Genius enough,” he said seriously, taking her hand, “to know that you’re suddenly very important to me, and that I … well, I … want to see you again; I want to keep on seeing you.”

She leaned forward and kissed him tenderly on the lips, and then on the cheek. “I know,” she murmured in his ear, “me, too.” She moved back and looked deep into his eyes. “You’d better go now,” she said, her voice suddenly husky, “it’s getting late and you’ve got some hard days ahead.”

“Yes.”  He rose slowly to his feet. “See you tomorrow.” It was half statement, half question.

“Yes,” she said softly.

* * * * *

For the next two weeks he was as busy as Dr. Riordan had predicted. He arrived early each day and stayed late each night, and though he saw Dolly every day, they were unable to spend another evening together. Both understood, however, that when the project was over, they had some unfinished business between them. When the deadline for his final report arrived, he was almost exhausted. But he was ready.

There were just the three of them, Dr. Riordan, General Roberts and himself, in the Chairman’s office.

“You’ve got the floor, Terry,” said Dr. Riordan.

“Gentlemen,” Terry began, “I was asked to come here and take a fresh, unbiased look at our strategic requirements, unimpeded by previous positions or commitments, and then to draw up a new definition of our requirements. In order to do that, I have had to study the historic development of requirements to date, to examine the past decisions, and to establish the validity of our present positions. I am sorry to say,” he licked his lips, his mouth suddenly dry, “that you are living in a dream world,” he went on quickly, “that you are bound to a series of bad decisions and that your presently stated requirements are completely unrealistic.”

He paused, trying to gauge their reaction but unable to discern anything from the blank faces and hooded eyes. Then he plunged ahead.

“The military,” he looked at General Roberts, “have been less than honest in stating their requirements, scaling them down to what they probably thought they would be able to get. As a result, they have requested less than half the absolute minimum number of weapons this nation requires. The Secretary,” he glanced at Dr. Riordan, “has been even less honest, scaling down the military requests to about one third the absolute minimum, for reasons which I’ll talk about later. If you want to attain the necessary minimum, you will have to triple, and in some cases quadruple, your annual requests for each of the next five years. At the end of that time, you will still only be marginally secure, depending, of course, on what the potential enemies do in the interim. Now, here are the figures.”

He recited the figures, all in his head, without referring to notes, outlining his reasoning as he went along. When he had finished, he came back to his one unfinished point.

“Let’s talk about the reasons for previous decisions,” he said. “I realize that they’re political decisions, in reality made by the President and the Congress, not by you. But I was asked to make my study in a purely military context, without regard to outside factors. My point is that you should be presenting your requirements in that same context. If there are going to be political considerations, let them be imposed from without, not from within. The military should be asking for what it needs, not for what it thinks it can get.”

There was absolute silence in the room when he finished speaking. He did not resume his seat, but walked to the door and left.

* * * * *

He was waiting there when Dr. Riordan came bustling into his office, humming absently to himself, and stopped short at the sight of him.

“What the hell are you doing here?”

“Waiting for you,” said Terry.

“Well, what do you want?”

“I don’t know. Sympathy maybe. I guess I blew it, didn’t I?”

“You did what I asked you to do. That’s all.” He was decidedly not sympathetic.

“Well, that’s it then,” Terry said abruptly. “I guess I better start looking for another job.”

“Terry,” Dr. Riordan sat down behind his desk, “a guy like you doesn’t have to look for a job. All you have to do is whisper that you’re available and the offers will start pouring in. Hell,” he snapped his fingers, “you could get a dozen offers just like that for four or five times as much as you get here. And you probably will.”

“Then I’m through here, right?”

“Well, I didn’t hire you on a long-term contract, you know. It was just for a specific job.”

“Well,” said Terry, “I guess I better go and start whispering.”

“By the way,” Riordan said, “the Chairman wants to see you.”

“Me? What for?”

“How the hell would I know what for? Maybe he wants to punch you in the nose.”

“Okay, okay. I’ll go see him now.”

When he had left, Dr. Riordan punched the Chairman’s button on the squawk box.

“Hello, Bob,” he said, “he’s on the way. And you better treat him right.”

* * * * *

She noted the fatigue lines around his eyes and the despondency of his mood, and her heart went out to him. “The Chairman’s waiting for you,” she said.

“Okay, I’ll see you later,” he went on in.

The general greeted him with a handshake and called to Dolly to bring in some coffee.

“That was quite a presentation you gave.”

“I’m sorry, General,” Terry replied, “I didn’t really mean to be so critical.”

“Oh, that’s all right. We need to be shaken up once in a while. What I want to know is how sure are you that your figures on strategic requirements are right?”

“Sure? Well, I’m sure about the figures. That’s the only thing I’m sure about.”

Dolly came in with two cups of coffee and silently left.

“You mean you’re not sure about the validity of political decisions?” the general asked, smiling slightly.

Terry grinned in return. “I don’t know, General,” he said. “I guess I got a lot to learn.”

“Hmmm,” the general sipped from his cup. “What are you going to do now?”

“Look for another job, I guess,” Terry shrugged.

“Would you consider working for me?”

“For you?” Terry was incredulous. “Doing what?”

“The same sort of thing. We still have to study our tactical requirements, our mobility requirements, our logistics requirements, and so on. You see,” he was warming up to the subject, “we’re in the same box in all these other areas as we are in the strategic area. And we have to come up with some new definitions of our requirements, arrived at in a purely military context, of course.” He chuckled. “There’s no guarantee that we’ll get what we need or even what we ask for, but at least we have to know what we need, and that’s what you did for us in the strategic area. You told us what we need, but you didn’t tell us enough because you don’t know enough.”

Terry looked at him, wonderingly.

“There’s still a bigger problem,” the general went on, “and this one’s not easy to explain. You see, we used to look upon each weapon as a complete system. An airplane, for example, with its crew and its maintenance team and its armament and its spare parts, and so forth, was all a system. Then we expanded our view to regard a whole category of weapons as a complete system. Strategic weapons, for example, including aircraft, missiles, submarines, air bases, and all the personnel involved, all together comprise one strategic system. The next step is take all the systems – strategic, tactical, logistics, and so forth – put them together and treat them as one complete defense system. When you do that,” he continued, scarcely pausing for breath, “you can adjust and juggle the various individual pieces of the system without impairing the performance of the whole. But it takes men of vision and men of absolute intellectual honesty, to be able to take such a broad view. I think you could do it.”

Terry’s mind was opening up to look at the possibilities. Of course, he thought, treat the whole works as one complete defense system. Bring all the component parts – air, sea, ground – into one coherent system with fully defined interrelationships. Beautiful.

“If you can tie it all up in one package,” the general was still talking, “you may find that you can substitute tactical for strategic capabilities in some cases, or vice-versa, and that you can meet your commitments even though you reduce your requirement in one area or another. You may even be able to get some appreciation for the political aspects of decision making – whether you agree with them or not,” he added wryly. “In any event,” he concluded, “the object is to formulate a complete defense system approach. What do you say; are you interested?”

“Interested? Yes, sir, I’m interested.”

“Good,” the general stood up. “It won’t be easy,” he warned. “Your work will be cut out for you. But it’ll at least keep you busy for a year or two. So starting right now, you’re on my payroll. Now,” he waved his hand in dismissal, “take the rest of the day off. And take Dolly with you; she’s no good to me moping around here.”

* * * * *

All the way to her apartment he was absorbed in his thoughts, his mind already ranging ahead to the problems and the possibilities he would encounter in setting up a model defense system. The idea intrigued him, stimulated him. The complete system approach, he though, takes in everything.

“Hey,” she said when they got there, “remember me? I’m the girl you came with.”

He sat down on the couch with her, still deep in thought. The complete system approach, he reflected, and suddenly the idea took on new meaning for him. Of course, he thought, the flat tire was what you might call the tactical approach, a simple maneuver, really. The dinner, now that was the strategic objective, but it really didn’t mean too much unless you had the really long-range objective in mind. And what was that? The answer was simple and natural. The ultimate and complete system approach, which rendered all other things meaningless by themselves, and meaningful when put together.

But the system approach calls for complete honesty, he told himself.

“Honey,” he said, savoring the word.

“Yes?” softly.

“Honey,” he repeated, “I have a confession to make.”

“Yes?” still softly.

“You remember that flat tire?” he said, “the second one?”


“Well, I’m afraid I did it. That is, I let the air out of it. I couldn’t think of any other way to get you in a situation where I could ask you to go out with me.”

She stirred in his arms, then turned her lips up to him and kissed him.

“That’s all right, dear,” she said, “I’m glad you did it.”



“Will you marry me?”

She pulled away from him gently and looked deep into his eyes.

“I love you, you know,” he added quietly.

“Yes,” she said. “And I love you, Terry, and I want to marry you.”

They kissed again.

“Honey,” she said.


“I have a confession to make, too.”


“Remember that flat tire, the first one, I mean?”


“Well, I did it. I let the air out of it.”

He looked at her, astonished.

“Well, I couldn’t think of any other way to meet you,” she said.

He laughed and took her in his arms again. “I love you,” he said, and kissed her once more till she was breathless. This is it, he thought, the complete system, in which everything makes sense.


Copyright 2016
Elaine Blackman 

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