There never was and there never will be another century like the twentieth. In the twentieth century things were invented more quickly than ever before. Millennia of stagnation and then all of a sudden in the twentieth century every decade was totally unlike the one before it. Hundreds of generations of subsistence farmers and then out of nowhere someone's kid builds a rocket that lands on the moon.
Yay another rant about economics!!
I appreciate your enthusiasm Dorktown.
In just a hundred years we figured out more stuff than we had figured out in the entire hundred thousand years that preceded it. Sure there was fire and the wheel. Agriculture and domestication. Spoken language and written language and the printing press. But that ain't much to figure out in a hundred thousand years.
Here's a list of some stuff that was either invented or widely adopted in the twentieth century. Indoor plumbing. Electricity and the light bulb. Antibiotics. Vaccines. Anesthetics. Surgery. Birth control. Air conditioning and refrigeration. Washing machines. Telephones. Photography. Transistors. Radio and rock music. Movies. Television. Computers. Cars. Airplanes and jet engines. Rockets and space travel. Nuclear power. And Norman Borlaug's miracle strains of wheat. You forgot about that one didn't you.
The twentieth century?? I wasn't even born yet!!
Were you even listening?
Norman Borlaug saved a billion lives.
That's my girl.
Most of the stuff I mentioned was invented in the USA. Why did so many Americans invent so many great things? What was it that the USA got right?
If we asked Karl Marx he would have said it was capitalism that led to all that progress but then he would have gone on to tell us that capitalism was doomed and destined to be replaced. He was right. People did replace it. They replaced it with anarchy. Anarchy is just like capitalism except every now and then some communist comes along and seizes your means of production.
What's your point??
The point is we're not just going to Norwood to build cars. We're going to Norwood to pick up where the twentieth century left off.
Me and Dorktown took turns driving. Yeah I let her drive. How could I save the world without a good night's sleep?
Our last petrol stop was in Indianapolis. We found a servo run by a sheila named Dignity. The walls of the servo were covered with impressionist paintings for sale.
One of the paintings was of a plain brick building but it looked familiar.
"What's that one?" I asked.
"The General Motors plant in Sin City. Norwood Assembly."
"I'll take it" I said. "That's where we're headed."
Dignity got the painting down for me. "My dad worked there" she said. "He lived for that job. He died for that job. What's left of him is still in there. They called him Snuffy. During the Big Bang they hit the place with neutron bombs. They killed everyone but left the buildings intact."
"We're gonna reopen the place" I said. "We're gonna build cars there again."
Her face lit up. "You're Firebird! I've heard about you. Everyone has. I always thought it would be a great idea to reopen the factory."
"Why didn't you?" I asked.
"There's a thousand ways to lose all your money and die. Last thing I need is one more."
"But you're already an entrepreneur."
"Not because I wanna be. Because I have to be."
"You could come work for me. I'm gonna need someone in the paint department."
"You came all the way from California to reopen the plant" she said.
"You're serious about it."
"Why wouldn't I be?"
"Lots of people say they're gonna do something. Or someone should do something. Not a lot of people actually do it."
Dignity gave us directions. It wouldn't be hard to find. Northeast on Route 22. Look for the General Motors signs.
Norwood was part of Sin City. If you're a prewar like me you might remember Sin City from back when it was called Cincinnati. It had WKRP and a nice zoo. Yeah I know WKRP wasn't a real radio station but it was a great TV show.
As we pulled off the Sin City exit we were listening to Manfred Mann's Earth Band playing Blinded By The Light on Burt Sugarman's Midnight Special in 1977. Blinded By The Light was written and originally performed by Bruce Springsteen. I know that sounds like an exciting musical discovery but if you're planning on checking out his version be prepared to be disappointed. Bruce used a rhyming dictionary to throw the song together. Manfred Mann's Earth Band cut out half the lyrics and doubled the length of the song. Their version is more about the emotional buildup. The lines they left in were the good ones.
Is he saying "douche"??
No Dorktown. He's singing about going out for a cruise in a deuce coupe on a Friday night with his mates.
I'm pretty sure he's saying "douche."
Anyway it's a cover that's far better than the original.
Sin City was a surprisingly unpopulated town unless you counted the skeletons. The factory was in a lot better shape than the one in Van Nuys. Aside from some intrusive vegetation it looked like it had been abandoned yesterday. We parked the Frankenbird right out front.
I got goosebumps from my head to my toes for I was standing on hallowed ground. Norwood Assembly. Birthplace of the Camaro and the Firebird. In operation from 1923 all the way up until the Big Bang put GM and the rest of the world out of business in 1981.
The buildings were made of brick and glass. The facility took up sixty acres. Through the years the place had grown quite a bit so there were older and newer sections. The main building was three stories tall and held thirteen miles of conveyors.
We walked right in the front door. The skeleton receptionist said "Hello Mr. Firebird." And while we're imagining things let's pretend I asked her for my messages. "Ah yes. A Mr. Chumdumpster called. He says he forgives you for killing his dad and he's turning around and going home."
We stepped onto the main factory floor. The place was dusty and had no power but the line itself was completely intact. Before us were hundreds of partially assembled cars!
The cars in the factory were Firebirds but they were like no Firebirds the world had ever seen. Sleek and low and aerodynamic like something from the future. They were the third generation cars. New for 1982.
Bodies came from Fisher Body across the street. Engines came in on trains from Flint Michigan. Radiators came from Buffalo. Windscreens came from Toledo. Roofs came from Kalamazoo. The plant employed thousands of people and turned out hundreds of cars a day.
Dorktown shouted to me from one of the offices. "Bloody rippa! Come here!"
I ran to her. There was a skeleton sitting at a desk. Dorktown pointed to a piece of paper. I picked it up. It was a letter in a child's handwriting dated November 1981.
"Dear Norm Inouye and John Schinella and Bill Davis and all the people who help make Firebirds. Thank you for making Firebirds. Firebirds are my favorite car. The bird on the hood is the most beautiful thing I've ever seen. When I grow up I want to work at the Firebird factory. How are Firebirds made? Love John Binns."
Yeah that's my name. Yeah I wrote that letter. One month before the world blew up.
Then Dorktown handed me a package. It was addressed to me at my parents' house in New Jersey. The bombs must have hit before they got a chance to pick up the mail. I opened the package. It contained a Firebird t-shirt and a letter.
"Dear John. Thank you for your letter. I'm the one in charge here at the Firebird factory in Norwood Ohio. You asked how Firebirds are made. I don't know. Nobody knows. There's no way anyone could plan all of this and if even if they could plan it all today they'd have to start all over again with a new plan tomorrow. Thousands of people from all over the world play their part but they don't even know what part they're playing. Most of the people who produce the steel and plastic and rubber and vinyl have no idea that they're helping to make Firebirds. They're just out to make an honest buck. Everyone is interconnected in unknowable ways. Even you. If you do well in school I'll have a job here waiting for you. Yours truly. Snuffy."
"John Binns reporting for duty" I said.
I went out to the car and got the boombox. I set it down on a bench and pressed play. Earth Wind & Fire's Let's Groove live in Oakland 1981. I remember hearing this song for the first time in fourth grade. I was walking up to the bus stop. The high school kids were playing the song and breakdancing. When I heard the opening vocal I freaked out. Robots singing! It was the coolest thing I'd ever heard. The future had arrived.
Me and Dorktown found the last car on the line and went to work. The body was hanging from the overheard conveyor and the drivetrain was resting on the floor conveyor. It was a black 1982 Trans Am with a V8 and a manual 4-speed. Its VIN started with 1G2AW87H0C. Then there was the N for Norwood. Then 000001. Serial number one. The first of the new V8s.
The drivetrain was supposed to be raised up into the body but we didn't have any way to power the lifts and conveyors. So we rigged some straps and pulleys and managed to bring the body down onto the drivetrain instead. We mounted the suspension components and wheels. Then we moved the car onto floor jacks and jack stands. We bolted on the exhaust and steering components and brakes. We scavenged up a working battery and got the fluids topped off. But something still wasn't right.
There were no big bonnet bird decals anywhere in the place. They'd been discontinued in favor of smaller decals or no decals at all. But screw that history. We were gonna make our own history. And make our own future.
I punched holes in some barrels of paint and did some mixing and stirring. I grabbed a couple of brushes and asked Dorktown to close her eyes.
I still knew how to draw that bird by heart. I must have drawn it a thousand times back in elementary school. Under the bird I wrote "Firebird Phoenix Year 39." It wasn't quite Year 39 yet but that's how they used to market cars. It was like you were buying something from the future.
I told Dorktown to open her eyes.
"A black Trans Am with a pink bird on the bonnet!" she cried. "Just like I wanted!"
She hugged me and then she hugged the car. Then she noticed the writing on the hood.
"Firebird Phoenix. You named it after Tex. Like you named the Firebuddy after Laura's husband."
"Buddy was a brave man" I said.
"In your book you said you forgot his name."
"I didn't forget."
"I know. Laura told me. That's why she forgave you. You showed her your computer with Buddy's name on it."
Dorktown got in to the Firebird Phoenix and I got in next to her. I reached into my pocket and pulled out her pop's Bugs Bunny doll and placed it on the dashboard. I won't say what happened next. All you need to know about Dorktown is that she is one tough cookie. She's a psycho. You do not wanna mess with her.
I was a bloody sook.
She means she was crying.
Sangfroid only gets you so far.
You and your Aussie slang.
It's French. It means "cold blood."
Dorktown put the bunny in her pocket. She turned the Phoenix's key but it wouldn't start. We realized we forgot the petrol. So I brought the Frankenbird in and siphoned the juice out of it.
This time the Phoenix started right up. Dorktown drove us out the back door and started spinning donuts in the back lot. We had huge smiles on our faces. Then we brought the Phoenix back into the building.
We got out and looked at the next car on the line. "Each car has 4500 different parts from 450 different vendors" I said. "We're gonna have to reverse engineer every step of the build process and resurrect the supply chains. Once we get some power in the place it will make everything easier. Tomorrow we'll...."
Dorktown interrupted me. "This place isn't gonna be here tomorrow."
"What do you mean?"
"The Helly and Gilly armies are gonna do the same thing to this place that they did to your other factory."
"I thought the Gillies were dead."
Dorktown laughed. "Like twelve of them maybe. There are thousands of soldiers in the Gilly army. When Chumdumpster gets here he'll have the local Gilly militia with him. The Hellies have militias too with helicopters ready to go. They're gonna come here and they're gonna kill us both."
"I thought the Hellies were your friends."
"They used to be."
"Bubury showed me his willy."
"What did you do?"
"I laughed at it and stole one of his helicopters."
"I thought you said you borrowed it."
"I never said I had permission."
And wouldn't you know it was at this very moment we heard helicopters approaching. We went outside to get some idea of what new unpleasantness was about to unfold.
Easy Money was back. Just like last time there were several other helicopters as well. But this time the smaller helicopters had Ohio state flags painted on them alongside the words "Sin City Helly Militia."
Easy Money landed in front of the factory and the rest of the choppers came down around it.
"They're just here for me" Dorktown said. "Keep out of sight."
"Stuff that" I said. "You're my mission partner."
We walked up to Easy Money as Bubury and Jocko climbed out.
Jocko had two sets of handcuffs with him. I figured we were about to die so I reached into my pocket and handed Dorktown my last piece of Bubble Yum. She put it in her mouth and started chewing.
"Wanna go for a ride?" Bubury said.
"I'm so excited" I said. "This is my first time in a helicopter."
"And your last" Jocko said.
Jocko sat us down in some canvas seats mounted in the cargo hold and cuffed our hands to the seat frames. Then he joined Bubury up front and we took off.
I pondered my existence and its inevitable end as we gained altitude. "I feel like I should say some last words or something. How about this. Even when being alive sucked it was way better than being a rock or something."
Dorktown started blowing her first bubble.
"Nah that's no good. Ok how about.... Attachment leads to suffering."
Dorktown's bubble grew bigger.
"Too dark. How about...."
Jocko sauntered back to the cargo hold and lowered the loading ramp.
Dorktown's bubble popped.
Now remember those handcuffs I put on Dorktown back in Van Nuys? Well it turned out she still had the key in her pocket and she'd used it to escape.
While Jocko's back was turned Dorktown stood up and gave him one good hard kick. He lost his balance and fell out of the helicopter.
"Create value" she said.
She was quoting my book. She took off my handcuffs.
"Thank you.... Torkdown."
"That's not my name anymore. Now I go by Dorktown."
We went up to the cockpit. Dorktown hopped into the copilot's seat still chomping away on her gum. I started pushing random buttons.
"What's this one do?" I shouted.
Bubury drew his 1911. When he took his hands off the controls Dorktown took over flying the massive dual rotor armored helicopter.
At this point the flight became much more interesting. I don't know if Dorktown was bad at flying the thing or if she didn't care whether we lived or died.
Little bit of both.
I grabbed Bubury's hands and made sure that no matter where that gun was pointed it wasn't pointed at us. I managed to drag him out of his seat and knock the gun out of his hands. The chopper tipped upward and the gun slid out the back of the open cargo hold. That part went ok.
The next problem was that me and Bubury were sliding toward the back of the helicopter too. We grabbed on to anything we could. We kept trying to fight each other with our feet but that was hard to do. Then Easy Money started tipping sideways and Bubury landed on top of me. Then we tipped sideways the other way and I landed on top of him. We kept grappling and kicking and punching and wrestling but the flight hurt more than the fight. Then we tipped forward. We slid all the way back up to cockpit. I popped my head in to check on Dorktown. I looked out the front window. All I could see was ground coming toward us.
"How are we doing?" I shouted.
Dorktown gnawed on her gum and shrugged. She pulled the Chinook out of its nosedive but then we started flying straight up instead.
Me and Bubury slid to the back of the cargo hold again. This time we ended up most of the way out of the open cargo bay door. I grabbed on to the frame of the chopper and Bubury grabbed on to my foot.
I hoped that any second now Dorktown would regain control of the helicopter and we'd level out. But we just kept climbing and climbing. The edge of the stamped steel frame was digging into my fingers. Bubury's feet were dangling in the air. The engines were screaming and the wind was smacking us in the face. Bubury had a firm hold on my shoe.
But ever since Chumdumpster had dragged me behind his motorbike that shoe had only been held on to my foot by a twist-tie. And so that shoe slipped off. Bubury exited the chopper and tried to learn how to fly. He failed to do so.
Dorktown got Easy Money leveled out and started to bring us down while I acquainted myself with the many guns and rockets and grenade launchers that we had available to us. I started pointing those guns and rockets and grenade launchers at the helicopters on the ground and pulling the triggers. The Hellies went running in various directions while I destroyed their aircraft.
Dorktown brought Easy Money down safely.
We found Bubury's gelatinous remains and I took my shoe back. The Helly problem was solved but now we had a new problem.
Chumdumpster was approaching in the Zombiebeetle. He was still on fire. I doubt it was the same fire from the helicopter crash. It was probably some gimmick he came up with and added to his outfit. I wonder if he stays on fire while he sleeps? Anyway it was pretty scary.
He was accompanied by dozens of blonde soldiers in dozens of vehicles painted up in livery that read "Buckeye Gillies." I found it a matter of great concern and great surprise that one of those vehicles was an M1 Abrams tank. And of course they'd made sure to bring along that stupid guillotine.
"They're just here for me" I said. "Take the Firebird Phoenix and get out of here."
"This ain't one body's tell" Dorktown replied. "It's the tell of us all."
"This isn't just your story. It's our story."
"Our story" I said. "Ok then. We'll both take the Firebird Phoenix and get out of here."
We ran back into the factory. I grabbed a bow from the Frankenbird and jumped into the passenger seat of the Phoenix. Dorktown got into the driver's seat and we burned rubber out of there.
It was too late. They cut us off at every turn. They had the place surrounded.
But Dorktown wasn't gonna give up that easily. She started doing laps around the factory at top speed.
Chumdumpster was furious. He sent the three fastest cars from the Buckeye Gillies after us. But there was no way those half-century-old clunkers were gonna catch the Phoenix. The race ended when Dorktown tried to lap them and they all blocked her.
The Gillies had rounded up all the escaping Hellies. When we got out of the car all the Helly prisoners started cheering. Not because they liked us but because they thought our car was cool and they thought it was funny that we'd thrashed the Gillies.
I'm pretty sure I caught a few of the Gillies cheering for us as well. We'd brought the future to their doorsteps. They'd never seen anything like this sleek and shiny ghoul of a vehicle that had just bested their best.
Chumdumpster pulled up in the Zombiebeetle and stepped out just a few meters away from us. We got out of the Phoenix. I grabbed my bow and nocked an arrow.
Now as you may recall I'd shot an arrow at him once before and it had just bounced off his suit. This time I had a better idea.
I aimed for one of his red Adidas sneakers. I got him right in the Achilles tendon and he went down. The Hellies all broke into laughter.
A mob of blonde lackeys rushed to his aid but he pushed them away. "Just cut off their damned heads already!" he snarled.
The Gillies took my bow away and prepared the guillotine. They lined us up. Me first. Then Dorktown. Then the Hellies.
One of the Gillies who was lining us up stopped to say something to one of the Hellies.
"It's good to see you again" he said. "It's been a long time. I wish it could be under better circumstances."
"So do I" the Helly replied. "But do what you have to do. We're all just doing the best we can."
The Gilly shook the Helly's hand and that was the end of that.
The last time we almost died which was like ten minutes ago Dorktown quoted my book. She said "Create value." If you didn't read my last book I don't blame you. It was really just an advertisement for Firebuddies. Then again I guess this book is really just an advertisement for Firebirds.
But the fact is I might be going away soon. If I'm gonna go through all this trouble to write something down before I die and you're gonna go through all this trouble to read what I wrote before you die then I'm gonna make darn sure that I say at least one thing that's at least a little bit useful to you so here it goes.
You'd be surprised how long I had to run around on this earth screwing up before I figured out the significance of those two words. It would have been nice if someone else had figured it out sometime in the hundred thousand years before I was born and passed the lesson on to me when I was a kid but that's not how things worked out. I'm the one who figured it out. So now I'm passing the lesson on to you. Pay attention.
Create value. Create value for yourself. That's happiness. Create value for people who pay you. That's work. Create value for people who don't pay you. That's kindness. Create value for people you like. That's friendship. Create value for people you don't like. That's self-preservation.
You make relationships sound so transactional.
An employee's relationship with their boss is transactional right?
Yeah some relationships are transactional. But relationships shouldn't have to be.
They don't have to be. But they usually are.
And we're supposed to be ok with that??
I never meant to imply that this is how things ought to be. But I am saying that this is how things are and always will be.
But aren't people's lives inherently valuable??
Any time someone speaks of "value" you should always ask "Value to whom?" A "price" is just a number on a tag. The "cost" is always more than the price. It includes the price but it also includes everything else you have to give up in order to get something. But "value" is something different. Value is subjective. To value a thing means to choose it over another thing.
I value my life more than anything else in this universe. But I don't expect you to. I do truly wish from the bottom of my heart that all of my fellow humans would give me everything I want without me having to offer anything in return. But I bet most of you out there are reading this because you think I've got something interesting to say and not because you think I'm an inherently valuable human being.
There are a lot of boring people out there with nothing to say. They write books too. Should I tell you to go read those books instead?
Why did those people write? Mostly because they wanted to be seen and heard. Why do you think I write? Yeah it's nice to be seen and heard. But it's more than that. I'm trying to create some value for the world. Do I expect something from you in return? Yes. I want you to become the best person you can be.
I figure if I create some value for the world maybe some value will come back to me. I ain't talking about karma cuz there ain't no magical guarantee this strategy is gonna work. You gotta put your value out there. You gotta try till you die. Whether it pays off or not.
So there's your meaning of life. You've spent your whole life looking for it and I bet you didn't think you were gonna find it today. But trust me you just did.
Have fun. Be nice. Leave the world a better place than you found it.
Yeah but did we die??
Did we get our heads cut off or what??
Oh right. Wouldn't it be funny if I just ended the book now? Like Two-Lane Blacktop. Did you see that movie?
I've never seen a movie.
If we live we'll watch it together.
The Abrams tank pulled up next to the guillotine. The hatch opened and three blokes got out. The last one out of the tank was the executioner. He wore a dirty canvas hood with holes cut out for his eyes.
The weird part is he winked at me through one of those eyeholes.
The executioner put me in the stock or whatever you call that thing that holds you in. I dunno I'm not a guillotinologist. He tried to pull the little lever thingy and kill me but it was stuck or something. While he messed with it I got to live for a few more seconds.
Dignity emerged from the crowd wearing a blonde wig. She approached the guillotine. My head was still stuck in the thing but I was kind of able to squirm around and look up at her.
"Oh hey Dignity" I said. "I didn't know you were a Gilly."
"I'm not" she said. "I stole a wig."
"Well you look great. What can I do for you?"
"I wanna build those cars. Just like my dad did. I'm here for the job."
"We're about to have an opening for a CEO."
"I was hoping for something more entry-level" she said.
"I was too" I said. "But none of us is anything more or less than what we pretend to be. I met your father by the way. He offered me a job 38 years ago. It turns out I wrote him a letter when I was a kid."
Her mouth dropped. "You're... John Binns?"
"I thought you said your name was Firebird?!"
You might be wondering where this unlikely conversation was going. We both thought it was going exactly nowhere. But it was at this moment that the conversation started going somewhere because one of the Gillies overheard it.
"Firebird?" the Gilly asked. "Wait. That's Firebird?"
"I heard about him on the CB!" another Gilly shouted. "He's the one that's gonna reopen the factory!"
"My mother used to work here" one of the Hellies said.
"Mine too!" a Gilly replied. "What was her name?"
Chumdumpster interrupted but it was kind of hard to hear him over the noise the crowd was making. "Cut his fucking head off!" he cried. "Cut his fucking head off!"
A heap of Gillies gathered around the Firebird Phoenix. "This is the car! This is the new Firebird! He built it just like he said he would!"
The executioner started acting weird again. "Get in the tank" he muttered. He said it just loud enough that only I could hear him.
I looked at him.
"Get in the tank" he repeated. He lifted up his hood for a second. It was the bloke who built the Frankenbird. Superturbo!
"Dorktown! Easy Money!" I shouted.
Superturbo set me free and we climbed into the tank. Dorktown grabbed Dignity's hand and they ran to the chopper.
Superturbo pointed to a crawlspace in the front of the tank. "If you crawl into that hole you'll find the controls. Ever play Battlezone?"
Did I ever play Battlezone? What kind of a question was that? I guess he never checked the high score at the boardwalk arcade in Wildwood New Jersey summer 1981.
I crawled into that hole he pointed to and sat down. I grabbed the joysticks and charged ahead.
Superturbo manned the Abrams' machine gun and Dignity womanned Easy Money's machine gun. Easy Money took to the sky and I started running over cars. The cars I couldn't catch got holes in them instead.
The Gillies and the Hellies scattered. All except the one who couldn't scatter. Chumdumpster.
I headed right for him. He saw the tank coming and started crawling toward the Zombiebeetle.
Did you hesitate??
I did not hesitate.
You frigging hesitated.
Chumdumpster is very totally 100% dead. I squashed him flat. I killed him in sangfroid. How do you pronounce that word anyway?
There's no way that's how you pronounce it.
You're changing the subject.NEXT: Chapter 7: Denouement