Read an Excerpt
The small city of Masterville is located in extreme northern Arkansas, near the border of Missouri in the heart of the Ozark mountain range. It sits at the bottom of a valley which is surrounded by rather large foothills. The hills grow even larger in the distance, rising finally to heights of several thousand feet before turning into rounded mountains, worn down by time. The valley, and the city it enclosed, might never have been noticed, or at least come into public awareness, had it not been for an obscure government clerk who worked as a statistical analyst for the Census Bureau. He was a career civil servant and conscientious to a fault. His name was Harry Beales and he had spent most of twenty years in the same office, sifting data from census figures as if the fate of the nation depended on what he wrought from his tables and graphs and rows of numbers appended to obscure facts. However, the fate of the nation paid Harry no mind until after the census of the year 2010, when the Census Bureau computers became sophisticated enough to sift out some anomalies, which Harry then noticed.
Other, more modern computers might have picked up on the figures earlier but Harry had no access to them, and he was the only person in the bureau whose job description specifically directed him to search for unexplainable blips. Even after the new computers were installed, it was several years after the census had been completed before the amoeba-like distribution of data was completed and found its way to Harry's desk. He could then begin the plodding search for unusual facts and figures from the last census that he was responsible for finding.
Give Harry hisdue. He recognized the first little oddity buried in the wealth of newly updated files and he followed up on it relentlessly. What he saw first was that in the small little city of Masterville, high up in the Ozarks, the national divorce rate didn't seem to apply. There were very few divorces in Masterville. Not only that, as his curiosity was piqued and he looked further, he saw that there weren't that many marriages, either. Both facts were anomalies and Harry was very good at anomalies. That was his job, after all. He searched some more.
Harry thought that the low divorce and marriage rate would indicate a greater percentage of people with different last names living together and that turned out to be the case. He knew from previous census data that as a rule, those households where couples lived together without benefit of marriage should have fewer children in residence, regardless of which parent they belonged to, or whether the offspring belonged to both. That turned out not to be the case; there were more, not less. Apparently the citizens of Masterville cared little for marriage but lots for children. About this time, he noticed that it was near five o'clock, and stolid bureaucrat that he was, he called it a day. The next morning he plodded back to his figures.
During the course of that day, Harry discovered several other disconcerting facts. Following up on family statistics, he keyed into Department of Human Resources files and found that, contrary to his expectations, very few of the unwed mothers in Masterville were on Welfare or Medicaid, or ever had been; in fact, most of them lived with the father of their children. This led him back to educational levels, an indication of income. These women had an average of three years of college and an average income even higher than that bit of data should indicate. He thought then that the racial balance in Masterville would be skewed toward a lower percentage of minority groups than average, but again the facts were contrary; the racial classification was about average for that area of the country. By this time Harry began developing a personal rather than a professional interest in the cluster of statistical aberrations. His curiosity was highly aroused, even though he was only doing what he was paid to do. It was simply that his work had finally become interesting rather than routine. He became so involved in his study that he actually put in more than two hours of overtime that day before remembering he was working for nothing. Overtime wasn't authorized in his department. He hastily shut off his computer terminal and locked his little cubbyhole of an office and went home to his statistically normal wife and two children, a boy and a girl.
Usually, being a considerate husband and father, Harry tried to spend some time after work with Bertha, his wife, and John and Mary, their two children. After that, he watched TV, scanning over the several hundred channels his receiver would accept while looking for an interesting program.
This evening though, Harry was distracted. Right after dinner he zapped into a bland, uninteresting movie and left the channel selector alone while his mind wandered. Later, in bed, he found that he couldn't sleep; the problem from work kept intruding. In all his years as a statistical analyst, rising slowly but surely from GS-6 to GS-13, he had never seen anything like the data he had pulled from the computer files over the last two days, and he really didn't know what to do with it. The figures kept turning over in his mind like a school of fish slowly breaking the surface of a tranquil lake, rising and falling back into the depths, leaving only ripples behind. He finally slept, but badly.
The next day being Saturday, Harry was off work, of course. He rose, red-eyed and irritable at his inability to sleep during the night. He showered, shaved, had his usual breakfast of bacon and eggs and toast then went out into his garage and began tuning up the lawnmower. Winter was over and tufts of St. Augustine grass were beginning to send out green tendrils in the front yard.
The mower wouldn't start, perhaps because Harry wasn't paying much attention to what he was doing and didn't tighten the sparkplug securely enough after replacing it. A little later he came back into the house, washed up and informed Bertha that he was going back to the office to catch up on a little work. Bertha stared at him. Harry had never gone to work on a Saturday as long as she had known him.
"Harry, dear, is anything wrong?" She asked.
"No, honey," Harry said. "Just a little problem at work. I'll be back soon."
Before Bertha could question him further, Harry departed in their new Suburban, purchased after his last promotion. Once on the way, he drove faster than normal, anxious to get to work for the first time he could remember, notwithstanding that it was his day off and that he certainly couldn't expect to get paid for his time. Nevertheless, he entered his little office and booted up his computer terminal with all the enthusiasm of a four year old turning on Saturday morning cartoons.
Harry did not return home soon. Once ensconced at his desk he forgot all about what time it was. Following up on the facts he had already gathered, he flung his net wider and discovered that his data applied not only to Masterville, but to surrounding towns and villages, spilling out into the broad valley for miles around before beginning to taper off to more normal findings.
Once he had the anomalous area pretty well mapped, Harry began a search for other statistical aberrations within the plat. They were not hard to find, once he began looking, and knew what he was looking for. Crime seemed to be almost nonexistent in the valley and the surrounding area. Masterville had never accepted any government grants for parks or sewer systems, no government money to maintain or develop historical sights or any of the other programs congressmen were so fond of grabbing for their districts to help them get reelected. Federal and state Welfare programs were being utilized hardly at all. Masterville College, a private school, had never accepted a government grant. Both of the Masterville hospitals, and its single nursing home, operated entirely without government funds, not even Medicare reimbursement. Indeed, neither would have been reimbursed by the government because they had never applied for Medicare nor Joint Commission accreditation, a prerequisite for government help. Harry checked and found that both hospital and nursing home were inspected by the state, but that was all, as if the directors did only the minimum required by law.
This fact led Harry to check on the public schools. None of them were registered with the federal nutrition program or for school lunch funding or any other federal or state program other than those specifically prescribed by law. This induced Harry to search out income distribution for the whole population, not just the plethora of unwed mothers. He found that income followed a normal bell-shaped curve, but the curve itself was shifted somewhat to the right when compared with national figures. Valley residents earned more, on average, than would be expected for that area of the country and its industries. Home ownership also turned out to be much higher than in other parts of the nation, though he was hard put to find much financing by Freddie Mac, Freddie Mae, the VA and other government programs. The local banks appeared to hold most of the mortgages on homes in the valley. These facts made him wonder whether he had misread the minority population statistics. He went back to them.
No, they were about normal for that area of the country, but the minorities in Masterville seemed to get along unusually well in life, as if no one there cared about their color or origin or religion. That didn't seem right, given the contrariness of human nature, but when he delved into other files he was accumulating at an astounding rate, he could find very few instances of discrimination suits or racial unrest, not as far back as he could check. In fact, he could find very few lawsuits of any kind when he decided to check into that area of Masterville's business and sent out electronic feelers for the data. Stranger and stranger, he said to himself, as intrigued as a small boy who has just discovered tadpoles or garden snakes.
The next thing Harry delved into was religious affiliation, and there he soon found another glaring blip. The most common religious preference of the inhabitants appeared to be "none," although that was implied data rather than hard figures, determined by the fact that there was a dearth of churches in Masterville. There were far fewer than usual for a city squarely in the middle of the "Bible Belt" of America, an area stretching from the Appalachian Mountains to the Midwest, where religion played a great role in most communities and the lives of their citizens.
By the time Harry had pulled all these bits from the files he had gathered, he was becoming excited. There seemed to be no end to the phenomena. At this point, impelled to action by all the statistical abnormalities, Harry did something which was specifically forbidden to government employees: he began delving into political affiliations. In order to get into this area, he had to use a few techniques which were generally known but never publicized by the computer operators of the department. Ordinarily, he wouldn't have thought of doing such a thing, but by this time he was far gone in his research. He hooked into the voting rolls of Masterville County and discovered that a very high percentage of registered voters listed themselves as independent rather than giving a party affiliation. Feeling guilty, he began checking local, state and national election results from Masterville. He found that most of them, and most especially the local elections, had all been very one-sided, almost as if the citizens had agreed beforehand on what the results should be or whom they should vote for.
Harry worked most of the day. He turned up other peculiarities, none of which would have caused alarm taken alone, but added to all the other oddities about the valley, were disconcerting to a degree. Average life span was several years longer than in the rest of the state or nation. Illegal drug use was very low. Enlistment in the armed services was high, though there appeared to be few military retirees from Masterville on government rolls. Interracial marriages, where there were marriages, were high. Most residents had been born in the valley, and apparently intended to die there. It took a while to ferret out the data from obscure sources, but Harry found that Masterville apparently did not cater to the tourist trade. There were few motels or hotels in the area, unusual for being so near other highly rated vacation spots.
This last datum made Harry wonder how the residents of Masterville supported themselves. It took a while but eventually he discovered that the little city supported many cottage industries specializing in products which were usually imported from overseas. Masterville charged higher prices but produced such quality goods and niche items that they found a ready market. He smiled to himself when he found that one little factory employing a dozen or so persons was making a good profit by hand sewing shirts in the old sizes of neck and arm length rather than the three standards from overseas, small, medium and large. Harry remembered gritching to Bertha about how he could never find a shirt that fit right anymore. He happily book marked that data for his personal use later. Someone in Masterville was making a good living supplying that want, it seemed, and he intended to add his business to their list of customers.
There were more book stores per capita in Masterville than would be expected, and fewer Movie theaters and game rooms. The city supported a publishing house which specialized in books of fiction and nonfiction which didn't quite fit the mold of the big New York Houses, and checking their web site, Harry saw that they were making no attempt to imitate the giants; they simply looked for good literature to publish, and were doing so at a profit, though few best sellers had come from their presses. There were also a couple of ebook publishers with hundreds of titles in each of their catalogs.
It went on and on, but finally Harry had to call a halt. He had skipped lunch entirely and it was already past time for dinner. Reluctantly, he shut down his computer then locked up and went home.
Bertha insisted that Harry stay home and attend church with her Sunday morning and mow the lawn that afternoon. Harry would much rather have been in his office sitting at his work station, but he did as she asked. Besides, he needed time to think about what to do with his findings, and the monotonous rounds of the mower (which he had fixed) gave him leeway to consider the problem. Masterville and the valley in which it sat was a strange place indeed if his data was accurate, and he had no reason to doubt that it wasn't. By the time the yard was mowed level and Harry came in for dinner he thought he could sum up his thoughts in one short sentence: Masterville was just too good to be true. There must be something wrong there, though for the life of him, he couldn't figure out what it might be. He just knew that such serene, peaceful prosperity as the valley seemed to typify was as out of place in present day America as an oil derrick on the white house lawn. He made up his mind to see someone about it, which he did on Monday morning.
* * *
Harry Beales should have had a place in the history books, or at least a footnote for being the first to uncover the gentle mantle of peace and prosperity hovering over Masterville Valley, but he was after all only a GS-13 clerk and his role in the subsequent investigation was soon forgotten by those higher in the hierarchy of government service. Perhaps Harry would have wanted it that way. Once he turned his findings over to others, he went back to working his normal hours and channel surfing from his easy chair and mowing the lawn on Saturday mornings. Eventually he put the whole episode out of his mind and didn't think of it again until it became national news. Others did no such thing.
Copyright © 2004 by Darrell Bain