The Day the Computers Got Waldon Ashenfelter

The chroniclers of the life and times of Mary Backstayge, Noble Wife, of Steve Bosco the sportscaster, of the Piels brothers, and other almost fictional characters here prove that they can be as telling in print as on the air or the TV screen. Ashenfelter thought the computers would help him trap Y. Claude Garfunkel, but he was tripped up by his own shoe size.

Bob Elliott and Ray Goulding

A PRESIDENTIAL commission has recommended approval of plans for establishing a computerized data center where all personal information on individual Americans compiled by some twenty scattered agencies would be assembled in one place and made available to the federal government as a whole.

Backers of the proposal contend that it would lead to greater efficiency, and insist that the cradle-to-grave dossiers on the nation’s citizens would be used only in a generalized way to help deal with broad issues. Opponents argue that the ready availability of so much confidential data at the push of a computer button could pose a dangerous threat to the privacy of the individual by enabling the federal bureaucracy to become a monstrous, snooping Big Brother.

Obviously, the plan elicits reactions that are emotional, and cooler heads are needed to envision the aura of quiet, uneventful routine certain to pervade the Central Data Bank once it becomes accepted as just another minor government agency.

Fade in:

InteriorBasement GHQ of the Central Data BankNight. (At stage right,950 sophisticated third-generation computers may be seen stretching off into the distance. At stage left,the CDB graveyard-shift charge d’affairés, Nimrod Gippard,is seated behind a desk. He is thirtyfive-ish and attired in socks that don’t match. At the open,Gippard is efficiently stuffing mimeographed extortion letters to Omaha’s 3277 suspected sex deviates into envelopes. He glances up as Waldon Ashenfelter,an indoor sy type of questionable ancestry,enters.)

GIPPARD: Yes, sir?

ASHENFELTER (flashing ID card): Ashenfelter. Bureau of Indian Affairs. Like to have you run a check on a key figure named Y. Claude Garfunkel.

GIPPARD (reaching for pad and pencil): Sure thing. What’s his Social Security number?


GIPPARD: Hmmm. How about his zip code? Or maybe a cross-reference to some banks where he may have been turned down for a loan. Just any clue at all to his identity.

ASHENFELTER: Well, as I say, his name is Y. Claude Garfunkel.

GIPPARD (after a weary sigh): It’s not much to go on, but I’ll see what I can do.

(Gippard rises and crosses to the master data-recall panel. Ashenfelter strolls to a nearby computer and casually begins checking the confidential reports on his four small children to learn how many are known extremists.)

ASHENFELTER: You’re new here, aren’t you?

GIPPARD: NO. Just my first week on the night shift. Everybody got moved around after we lost McElhenny.

ASHENFELTER: Wasn’t he that heavy-set fellow with beady eyes who drove the Hudson?

GIPPARD: Yeah. Terrible thing. Pulled his own dossier one night when things were quiet and found out he was a swish. Kind of made him go all to pieces.

ASHENFELTER: That’s a shame. And now I suppose he’s gone into analysis and gotten himself cross-filed as a loony,

GIPPARD: NO. He blew his brains out right away. But having a suicide on your record can make things tough, too.

ASHENFELTER: Yeah. Shows a strong trend toward instability.

(The computer informs Ashenfelter that his oldest boy was detained by police in 1963 for roller-skating on municipal property,and that the five-year-old probably founded the Farmer-Labor Party in Minnesota.)

ASHENFELTER (cont.) (mutters in despair): Where did I fail them as a father?

GIPPARD: Didn’t you tell me you’re with Indian Affairs?


GIPPARD: I think I’m onto something hot. Is that like India Indians or whoop-it-up Indians?

ASHENFELTER: I guess you’d say whoop-it-up.

GIPPARD: Well, either way, no Indian named Garfunkel has ever complied with the Alien Registration Law.

ASHENFELTER: I never said he was an Indian. He’s Jewish, and I think he’s playing around with my wife.

GIPPARD: Gee, that’s too bad.

ASHENFELTER (dramatically): Oh, I blame myself really. I guess I’d started taking LaVerne for granted and —

GIPPARD: No. I mean it’s too bad he’s only Jewish. The computers aren’t programmed to feed back home-wreckers by religious affiliation.


GIPPARD: Can you think of anything kinky that’s traditional with Jews? You know. Like draft dodging . . . smoking pot . . . something a computer could really hang its hat on.

ASHENFELTER: No. They just seem to feed each other a lot of chicken soup, And they do something around Christmastime with candles. But I’m not sure any of it’s illegal.

GIPPARD: We’ll soon see. If the curve on known poultry processors correlates geographically with a year-end upswing in tallow rendering — Well, you can appreciate what that kind of data would mean to the bird dogs at the ICC and the FDA They’d be able to pinpoint exactly where it was all happening and when.

ASHENFELTER: Uh-huh — Where and when what?

GIPPARD: That’s exactly what I intend to find out.

(Gippard turns back to the panel and resumes work with a sense of destiny. Ashenfelter, whistling softly to himself, absently begins plunking the basic melody of “MexicaliRose” on the keyboard of a nearby computer. The machine responds by furnishing him with Howard Hughes’s 1965 income tax return and the unlisted phone numbers of eight members of a New Orleans wife-swapping club who may have known Lee Harvey Oswald. As Ashenfelter pockets the information, Major General Courtney (“Old Napalm and Guts”) Nimshaw enters. He has a riding crop but no mustache.)

NIMSHAW: Yoohoo! Anybody home?

GIPPARD: Back here at the main console.

(Nimshaw moves to join Gippard, then sees Ashenfelter for the first time and freezes. The two stand eyeing each other suspiciously as Gippard re-enters the scene.)

GIPPARD: Oh, forgive me. General Nimshaw, I’d like for you to meet Ashenfelter from Indian Affairs.

(Nimshaw and Ashenfelter ad-lib warm greetings as they shake hands. Then each rushes off to pull the dossier of the other. Ashenfelter learns that Nimshaw was a notorious bed wetter during his days at West Point and that his heavy drinking later caused an entire airborne division to be parachuted into Ireland on D-Day. Nimshaw learns that Ashenfelter owns 200 shares of stock in a Canadian steel mill that trades with Communist China and that he has been considered a bad credit risk since 1949, when he refused to pay a Cincinnati dance studio for $5500 worth of tango lessons. Apparently satisfied, both men return to join Gippard, who has been checking out a possible similarity in the patterns of poultry-buying by key Jewish housewives and reported sightings of Soviet fishing trawlers off the Alaskan coast.)

ASHENFELTER: Working late tonight, eh, General?

NIMSHAW (nervously): Well, I just stumbled across a little military hardware transport thing. We seem to have mislaid an eighty-six-car trainload of munitions between here and the West Coast. Can’t very well write it off as normal pilferage. So I thought maybe Gippard could run a check for me on the engineer and brakeman. You know. Where they hang out in their spare time. Whether they might take a freight train with them. What do you think, Gipp?

GIPPARD: Sure. Just have a few more things to run through for Ashenfelter first. He’s seeking a final solution to the Jewish problem.

ASHENFELTER (blanching): Well, not exactly the whole —

NIMSHAW: Oh, has all that come up again?

(Two janitors carrying lunch pails enter and cross directly to the computer programmed for medical case histories of nymphomaniacs. They pull several dossiers at random and then cross directly to afar corner, unwrapping bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwiches as they go. They spread a picnic cloth on the floor and begin reading the dossiers as they eat. They emit occasional guffaws, but the others pay no attention to them.)

GIPPARD (as he compares graph curves): No doubt about it. Whatever those Russian trawlers are up to, it’s good for the delicatessen business. This could be the break we’ve been hoping for.

NIMSHAW: Hating Jews been a big thing with you for quite a while, Ashenfelter?

ASHENFELTER (coldly): About as long as you’ve been losing government property by the trainload, I imagine.

(Nimshaw and Ashenfelter eye each other uneasily for a moment. Then they quickly exchange hush money in the form of drafts drawn against secret Swiss bank accounts as Gippard’s assistant, Llewelyn Fordyce, enters. Fordyce is a typical brilliant young career civil servant who has been lost for several hours trying to find his way back from the men’s room. He appears haggard, but is in satisfactory condition otherwise.)

FORDYCE: Are you gentlemen being taken care of?

(Ashenfelter and Nimshaw nod affirmatively. Fordyce hurriedly roots through the desk drawers, pausing only to take a quick, compulsive inventory of paper clips and map pins as he does so.)

FORDYCE (cont.) (shouts): Hey, Gipp! I can’t find the registry cards for these two idiots out here.

GIPPARD (faintly, from a distance): I’ve been too busy to sign ‘em in yet. Take care of it, will you?

(Fordyce gives a curt, efficient nod, inefficiently failing to realize that Gippard is too far away to see him nodding. Fordyce then brings forth two large pink cards and hands them to Nimshaw and Ashenfelter.)

FORDYCE: If you’d just fill these out please. We’re trying to accumulate data on everybody who uses the data bank so we can eventually tie it all in with something or other.

(Nimshaw studies the section of his card dealing with maximum fines and imprisonment for giving false information, while Ashenfelter skips over the hard part and goes directly to the multiple-choice questions.)

FORDYCE (cont.): And try to be as specific as you can about religious beliefs and your affiliation with subversive groups. We’re beginning to think there’s more to this business of Quakers denying they belong to the Minutemen than meets the eye.

(Nimshaw and Ashenfelter squirm uneasily as they sense the implication. Ashenfelter hurriedly changes his answer regarding prayer in public schools from “undecidedto “not necessarilyas Nimshaw perjures himself by listing the principal activity at the Forest Hills Tennis Club as tennis. Meantime, Gippard has rejoined the group, carrying four rolls of computer tape carefully stacked in no particular sequence.)

GIPPARD: I know I’m onto something here, Fordyce, but I’m not sure what to make of it. Surveillance reports on kosher poultry dealers indicate that most of them don’t even show up for work on Saturday. And that timing correlates with an unexplained increase in activity at golf courses near key military installations. But the big thing is that drunken drivers tend to get nabbed most often on Saturday night, and that’s exactly when organized groups are endangering national security by deliberately staying up late with their lights turned on to overload public power plants.

FORDYCE (whistles softly in amazement): We’re really going to catch a covey of them in this net. How’d you happen to stumble across it all?

GIPPARD: Well, it seemed pretty innocent at first. This clown from Indian Affairs just asked me to digup what I could so he’d have some excuse for exterminating the Jews.

(Ashenfelter emits a burbling throat noise as an apparent prelude to something more coherent, but he is quickly shushed.)

GIPPARD (cont.): But you know how one correlation always leads to another. Now we’ve got a grizzly by the tail, Fordyce, and I can see “organized conspiracy” written all over it.

FORDYCE: Beyond question. And somewhere among those 192 million dossiers is the ID number of the Mister Big we’re after. Do the machines compute a cause-and-effect relationship that might help narrow things down?

GIPPARD: Well, frankly, the computers have gotten into a pretty nasty argument among themselves over that. Most of them see how golf could lead to drunken driving. But the one that’s programmed to chart moral decay and leisure time fun is pretty sure that drunken driving causes golf.

(Nimshaw glances up from the job of filling out his registry card.)

NIMSHAW: That’s the most ridiculous thing I ever heard in my life.

FORDYCE (with forced restraint): General, would you please stick to whatever people like you are supposed to know about and leave computerfinding interpretation to analysts who are trained for the job?

(Nimshaw starts to reply, but then recalls the fate of a fellow officer who was broken to corporal for insubordi-nation. He meekly resumes pondering question No. 153, unable to decide whether admitting or denying the purchase of Girl Scout cookies will weigh most heavily against him in years to come.)

FORDYCE (cont.): Any other cause-and-effect computations that we ought to consider in depth, Gipp?

GIPPARD: Not really. Of course, Number 327’s been out of step with the others ever since it had that circuitry trouble. It just keeps saying, “Malcolm W. Biggs causes kosher poultry.” Types out the same damned thing over and over: “Malcolm W. Biggs causes kosher poultry.”

FORDYCE: Who’s Malcolm W. Biggs?

GIPPARD: I think he was a juror at one of the Jimmy Hoffa trials. Number 327 was running a check on him when the circuits blew, and it’s had kind of an obsession about him ever since.

FORDYCE: Mmmm. Well, personally, I’ve never paid much attention to the opinions of paranoids. They can get your thinking as screwed up as theirs is.

(Fordyce notices Ashenfelter making an erasure on his card to change the data regarding his shoe size from 9½ C to something less likely to pinch across the instep.)

FORDYCE (cont.) (shrieks at Ashenfelter): What do you think you’re doing there? You’re trying to hide something from me. I’ve met your kind before.

(Ashenfelter wearily goes back to a 9½ C, even though they make his feet, hurt, and Fordyce reacts with a look of smug satisfaction.)

GIPPARD: Maybe if I fed this junk back into the machine, it could name some people who fit the pattern.

FORDYCE: Why don’t you just reprocess the computations in an effort to gain individualized data that correlates?

(Gippard stares thoughtfully at Fordyce for a long moment and then exits to nail the ringleaders through incriminating association with the key words “drunk,” “poultry,” “golf,”and “kilowatt.”)

NIMSHAW: I think maybe I’d better come back sometime when you’re not so busy.

(He slips his registry card into his pocket and starts toward the door, but Fordyce grabs him firmly by the wrist.)

FORDYCE: Just a minute. You can’t take that card out of here with you. It may contain classified information you shouldn’t even have access to.

NIMSHAW: But it’s about me. I’m the one who just filled it out.

FORDYCE: Don’t try to muddy up the issue. Nobody walks out of this department with government property. Let’s have it.

(Nimshaw reluctantly surrenders the card. Fordyce glances at it and reacts with a look of horror.)

FORDYCE (cont.): You’ve filled this whole thing out in longhand! The instructions clearly state, “Type or print legibly.” You’ll have to do it over again.

(Fordyce tears up the card and hands Nimshaw a new one. Nimshaw, suddenly aware that a display of bad conduct could cost him his good conduct medal, goes back to work, sobbing quietly to himself.)

GIPPARD (faintly, from a distance): Eureka! Hot damn!

FORDYCE (happily): He’s hit paydirt. I know old Gippard, and he hasn’t cut loose like that since he linked Ralph Nader with the trouble at Berkeley.

(Gippard enters on the dead run, unmindful of the computer tape streaming out behind him.)

GIPPARD: It all correlates beautifully (ticks off points on his fingers). A chicken plucker. Three arrests for common drunk. FBI’s observed him playing golf with a known Cuban. Psychiatric report shows he sleeps with all the lights on.

FORDYCE: All wrapped up in one neat bundle. Who is he?

GIPPARD: A virtual unknown. Never been tagged as anything worse than possibly disloyal until I found him. He uses the name Y. Claude Garfunkel. ASHENFELTER: Y. Claude Garfunkel! FORDYCE (menacingly): Touch a raw nerve, Ashenfelter?

(The two janitors, who are really undercover sophomores majoring in forestry at Kansas State on CIA scholarships, rise and slowly converge on Ashenfelter.)

GIPPARD: Want to tell us about it, Ashenfelter? We have our own methods of computing the truth out of you anyway, you know.

FORDYCE: No point in stalling. What’s the connection? The two of you conspired to give false opinions to the Harris Poll, didn’t you?

ASHENFELTER (pitifully): No! Nothing like that. I swear.

GIPPARD: Then what, man? What? Have you tried to sabotage the Data Bank by forging each other’s Social Security numbers?

ASHENFELTER (a barely audible whisper): No. Please don’t build a treason case against me. I’ll tell. A neighbor saw him with my wife at a luau in Baltimore.

(The CIA men posing as college students posing as janitors react intuitively to jab Ashenfelter with a sodiumpentathol injection. Gippard rushes to a computer, where he begins cross-checking Garfunkel and Ashenfelter in the Urban Affairs file on “Polynesian poweradvocates in Baltimore’s Hawaiian ghetto and Interstate Commerce Commission reports on suspected participants in interstate hanky-panky. Fordyce grabs the red “hot line" telephone on his desk and reacts with annoyance as he gets a busy signal. General Nimshaw, sensing himself caught up in a tide of events which he can neither turn back nor understand, hastily erases the computer tape containing his own dossier and then slashes his wrists under an assumed name.)

Fade Out.