Saturday, September 27, 2008

The Numbers Game


I was one of only four girls in my debate circuit. There were 150 guys. In the early 70’s women had a hard time fitting into debate. Maybe that’s what I enjoyed the most. And I did so love the sport. It taught me more about life than just about anything else I ever tried. That’s where I learned the truth about the numbers game.
People give numbers an almost mystical place in our society. The average person thinks you can argue about anything from politics to religion but when it comes to numbers, people scratch their head, shrug their shoulders and walk away. You can’t argue a fact and most people believe a number is a fact.
But being a debater is kind of like being a magician’s assistant, you get to learn the trick behind the magic. Remember the shell game, if you watch one shell long enough, you just become positive you can spot that nut. Funniest damn thing, the nut is in the magician’s pocket all along. It’s the same thing with a number, or a statistic, as we like to call our numbers.
Let me give you an example. In our fair city, the unemployment rate is said to be below 6%. The people who work for the state of Texas and quote that figure believe it, no slight of hand there. The media who print the number believes it, nothing up their sleeve. But the magician’s assistant knows the truth. The number means absolutely nothing.
Didn’t you ever wonder where that mystical number came from? Just who decided about that 5.03%? Has anyone stopped you on the street lately and asked you if you were looking for a job? No one has asked me. No one has asked my son, who’s looking as we speak. I’m pretty sure no one has ventured into the homeless shelters and asked them either.
In Texas, you get counted if you’re receiving unemployment insurance. That means you have to have been laid off and can prove that lay-off had nothing to do with you personally. Then you have to hope the business that dumped you won’t take exception to your claim. You could get counted if you use the state of Texas' official on-line job search system, kind of like on-line dating, you could get lucky! You get the drift. They call the people who don’t get counted, “discouraged”. There really is no good way to capture that number; people are “discouraged” for a reason.
But there are numbers that are real; black and white, no shades of gray. Our state has a lay-off report that our community takes seriously. One unmovable object stands guard to accuracy and recognition for people who have been laid off in Tarrant County. When he speaks to elected officials, his voice resonates like James Earl Jones. Mr. Walker is the voice of the shell-shocked, recently unemployed citizens across the county. He’s often the first friendly face these employees see after they’ve been notified of their lay-off. He’s there to make sure each person understands the benefits they are entitled to receive and he’s there to smooth over the rough spots in this scary process. I hear that angels walk the earth. This earthly angel is no rosy cheeked cherub but instead stands like Michael the Archangel and can quiet a room in seconds. While others “spin” whatever numbers don’t appear to their liking, Mr. Walker draws attention to them and then goes on to explain exactly what they mean.
At one point in my career, my job was to assist in a “transition” from public employment to privatization. I agreed to do it because I believed we owed the staff who had been loyal state employees the courtesy of a dignified transition. I knew soon I would have to join their ranks as well. As I sat across from one person after another, that reality was never far from my mind. At the end of the transition, I would be a statistic. Maybe that’s the moral of our numbers story. No one really cares about a statistic until they become one. But God provides rainbows in thunderstorms and Archangels walk the streets.


I went to high school in a military town in the sixties. The guys who flew those Huey helicopters in Vietnam trained for action at that base. We moved there when my father got assigned the job of taking care of the phones at the missile base at Fort Walters. I didn’t pay too much attention to my surroundings in those days if boys weren’t involved. I had been most distressed about the move until my Daddy told me that there were 20 boys for every girl in the city limits. Those were my kind of numbers.
I got a job as a lifeguard at the base pool. Actually a guy I dated was the head lifeguard and you can get the picture from there. My primary job function was to get a tan and not mess up my long straight hair. I met a lot of cute guys while I worked on that tan. I got to know a bunch of them by name. I remember a certain sadness every time the bus pulled out carrying them to their destination. I don’t remember being really aware of where that destination might be for the longest time.
Coming home from a long day at the pool during my sixteenth year usually found my parents sitting at the dinner table doing what most families did during 1969, eating and watching the news. I still have no idea why.
My brother was in Vietnam at that time but I refused to think about it. In my mind, he was on R&R in Saigon drinking and partying year round. My parents, on the other hand, seemed to understand the connection between the pictures on the screen and their 20-year-old son.
I remember one particular dinnertime conversation. It would be my first lesson in the numbers game, even though I wouldn’t recall it until many years later. As I wolfed down a fat hamburger dripping with grease and mustard, we watched the latest pictures from that Conflict, boys dragging other boys across an open field, gunfire spitting all around them. It reminded me of a scene from one of the many war movies my Daddy dragged us to growing up. To me at the time, it was just that, a movie, not real kids, not real guns. Looking back, I’m sure it was all too real to my parents.
Then came the famous “body counts.” It was a part of the evening show. How many of our guys wounded, how many of our guys killed, how many of their guys wounded, how many of their guys killed. Kinda like keeping score. That night, I guess Daddy had had enough. He got up and walked across the room and turned off the television set. That was an act of treason in our house. Nobody turned off the TV until after the Texas News at 10:15 but now it wasn’t even dark outside.
I remember holding my breath, thinking he must have found out that I had sneaked out my bedroom window the night before or worse yet, about the six pack of beer I had consumed afterward. (Did I mention I was a tad self-centered)
You can imagine my relief when he came out with a joke. He said, “Those are damn good scores. Seven of our guys wounded, five of our guys killed. 150 of their guys wounded, 200 of their guys killed. At this rate, they’ll be having to import guys from other countries to fight that battle cause we’ll have killed ever damn kid over 12 in that whole damn country.”
Mother sat very still, not making a sound. That in itself was reason for terror. I didn’t know whether to laugh or follow her lead. I decided to excuse myself from the table.
Later that summer something happened that changed my life. Another one of those “ah-ha” moments. (Remember, I never claimed to be swift on the uptake.) Being a lifeguard at the pool got me many special base privileges, one of which was a free pass into the Officers Club. On rare occasions, I would dress up with one of my friends and go for dinner and flirt with the single Officers at the club. As we walked into the reception area I would scan the bulletin board for notices of upcoming parties I might have overlooked.
On one hot August evening, I strolled into the club dressed to the nines, hoping to turn a few heads. I noticed a list of names posted on that bulletin board. I figured there must’ve been some contest I’d missed or some social function to which I hadn’t been invited. So, I prissed myself over and scanned the names and noticed several that looked familiar, a couple of names I knew well. Now, I was royally pissed. Someone had done something and I had missed out on the fun.
I asked a young guy standing around looking at my legs what the heck that list was all about. The smile left his face and he cocked his head to one side, I guess trying to see if I was for real. I suppose he decided that sadly enough, I was. “That’s the list of guys who trained here that were reported missing or dead this week.”
I remember standing perfectly still, just knowing he was joking with me. I kept waiting for the punch line but it never came. “But I know some of these guys. I dated one of them.”
“You an army brat?” He asked me.
“Of course not.”
“Welcome to our world.” He said. Then he walked away.A list of twenty-five names. Then I remembered the numbers on the TV. The “body count.” Now, some of the numbers had a name and my life was turned upside down.

1 comment:

tillie said...

right is never easy...keep up the great work!