Elliott is working at home this evening.. He's in his study fiddling with the plans for an Army barracks renovation. Every couple of minutes his youngest daughter will sneak up behind him and throw her stubby arms around his neck nearly choking him.
"Daddy Daddy. Play with me."
"I can't right now, Suzie. Daddy has to work."
"Aw but Daddy. It'll be fun. You'll see. Let's play."
"No, maybe in a little while, darling"
"No, I wanna play now."
"All right. All right," Elliott surrenders. "Let's play."
"Oh boy. Oh, boy. Yippee!"
Elliott puts down his pen and chases Suzie into the living room. Jean, Elliot’s wife, is in the kitchen, merrily singing to herself. Their other two kids are upstairs doing their homework. Elliott and Suzie will play hide and seek. Elliott always has to hide first. Given his bulk, it won't be an even match-up. He crams himself into the hall closet. He can barely pull the door shut. He waits in the darkness for Suzie to count to twenty and come looking for him. It won't take her long. How many places can a two hundred, forty-six pound man hide?
As he waits her out, Elliott thinks to himself about the inane project he's working on for the Army Corps of Engineers. He's thankful Suzie interrupted him. The work was beginning to make his poor head ache.
The Corps had come to Elliott with a fairly simple idea. They wanted to convert an old base warehouse into barracks for a battalion of two hundred seventy-five soldiers. The warehouse was soundly constructed by workmen of the WPA, roughly eighty years ago. It is a one-story structure with a stout concrete floor slab, two foot thick, masonry bearing walls and heavy timber wood trusses, clear-spanning its fifty-eight foot width.
It is a very long building with an exterior platform and an abandoned railroad siding running its entire length. When it was operational, rail cars would pull along side this platform and offload their cargo directly through the wide overhead door openings that penetrated the structure's perimeter wall every thirty feet.
Elliott's strategy for renovation would be a simple one. The interior would be subdivided into a series of large rooms: two billets, two heads, an equipment room, a small mess, a training room and a rec lounge. Each of the rooms would be internally connected but their primary access would be from the exterior platform, through the original warehouse's overhead door openings, now glazed and made weather-tight.
Conceptually, it is an obvious and very straight-forward design proposal, just the sort of initiative Elliott is sure the military would appreciate. He's pleased he'd come up with the idea so quickly. He prepared a neatly rendered drawing of the plan, tucked it under his arm and drove up to Richmond to show the Corps.
Elliott arrives at the base and is escorted into a large conference room. He's fifteen minutes early for his appointment, something that had almost never happens. His clients; a colonel, a lieutenant and a civilian administrator would be forty-five minutes late. Elliott bids his time patiently. He unrolls his plan on the conference table, reviews his notes and hums to himself absentmindedly.
The lieutenant walks in first. He is a trim, wiry man, about thirty-five years old, dressed in regulation khaki pants, dress shirt and tie. He's wearing a pair of aviator sunglasses that he'll not remove at any time during the meeting. He curtly shakes Elliott's hand, pivots crisply and plunks himself down in a chair on the opposite end of the table. He doesn't say diddily about his lateness. Apologies are for mess sergeants and junior members of the officer corps.
The administrator waddles in next. She's probably fifty years old, worrisomely overweight and unforgivably frumpy. She's lugging a fat, bound manual under her arm. When she slaps it down on the table, the whole room shudders.
The woman wears a constant scowl. Her name is Doris. She doesn't say anything either.
Ten minutes later, Colonel James strides in. He's in a great dither like he's got a hundred important things he ought to doing and this particular one is way down on his list. He hastily shakes Elliott's hand and sits down.
"Well, let's see it Ware. Let's see it," Colonel James barks, as though he was the one who had been kept waiting for the last forty-five minutes.
Elliott begins. He confidently describes the barracks proposal, pointing out its various features and amenities, its essential economy and ease of construction. His three reviewers inspect it all intently. They ask few, if any questions. Elliott takes this to be a gesture of concurrence with the merits of the scheme. He concludes by summarizing the building's square foot area and his estimate of probable construction cost. Happy that things have gone so well, Elliott returns to his chair, folds his hands before him and smiles.
The colonel looks over to his lieutenant. The lieutenant looks back at his colonel through the top rim of his sunglasses. They both solemnly shake their heads at one another. The Colonel turns to Elliott.
"Mr. Ware. I'm afraid we have a problem here," says a grim-faced Colonel James.
"We do?" responds Elliott.
"Yes we do, sir. Doris?"
"Read it to us, will ya hun."
Doris slowly thumbs through the pages of the massive document lying before her, sliding her plump fingers past one page and then the next, headed in the general direction of the manual's middle third. Elliott recognizes this document. He has a similar copy weighing down the edge of his desk back home. It is the Corps' building program for the proposed barracks. It is at least nine hundred pages in length. It spells out thousands of minute requirements and regulations governing the precise design and execution of the project. It details absolutely everything required for the work with the possible exception of the proper manner in which "i"s should be dotted and "t"s should be crossed, although this information could be in an appendix Elliott hasn't yet read.
"Here it is, Colonel," Doris states after several minutes search.
"Would you read it aloud, please?"
"Tab Eleven, Subscript Forty-Seven, Article Three Point Six Point Two. The Maximum Allowable Area of Barracks Provisions for the Second Division, Fifty-Fourth Battalion of the United States Army. Quote: The maximum allowable area of barracks shall be no greater than 10,800 square feet or 1,100 square meters and/or the lesser of these two values should they differ, as computed in accordance with the Army Corps of Engineers' Standard Area Accounting and Tabulation Method, Regulation Two Seven Zero Seven Point Eleven."
"Thank you Doris," the colonel smugly responds. "You see Mr. Ware. We have a problem with your proposal."
"I'm not sure I understand Colonel?"
"Well. Mr. Ware. You have stated that the area of the proposed project is 10,850 square feet. As Doris has indicated, by regulation the building may be no larger than 10,800 square feet. Your proposal is not in compliance with regs by an excess amount of fifty square feet."
"But Colonel," Elliott gently protests. "that's how big the building is." He's still not quite understanding where all this is going. "It's an existing building. I mean, it's your building and that's how big it is. I didn't make it that big. I just put the things you asked for into it. Right?"
"I'm afraid you really don't understand, Mr. Ware. The building cannot be any larger than 10,800 square feet. Anything larger will be in violation of the requirements of Article Three Point Six Point Two. We have no discretion in matters of this sort."
"But that's crazy," Elliott inadvertently blurts out. "Can't you just change the regulation?"
"Change the regulation? Why no. That would require an act of Congress."
"No sir, I'm not kidding."
"So what would you have me do? Tear a foot off the building?"
"Well no, Mr. Ware. That would be too much...."
"Well, of course it would..."
".... Instead, we'd like you to remove ten and three eighths inches of length from the structure..."
"...and then it will be exactly 10,800 square feet in area. You do see how much better that would be, don't you?"
Elliott assumes a well-practiced expression of dumbfoundedness.
"You mean you want me to tear down a perfectly sound, two foot thick masonry wall and then reconstruct it ten and a half inches from where its been standing for the last eighty years?"
"Something like that, give or take an eighth of an inch."
"It's a congressional mandate."
"Like I said, that's nuts."
"Well, Mr. Ware I'm certain the other architects we interviewed for this project wouldn't think it is, as you say, "nuts." I'm sure they would consider it perfectly in keeping with the Corps' customary standard of practice. Would you like us to call one of them and ask?"
"No," Elliott quickly back-peddles. "No, no. I'm just going to have to adjust myself to all this, you know?"
"That would be a prudent strategy Mr. Ware, because you should appreciate, that's how we do things here at the Corps. By the book, " the colonel smartly snaps. "By the book."
After a week, Elliott resolves the problem with the building's area. He calls up Colonel James and claims to have recalculated all the numbers and miraculously discovered the original building's area to be precisely 10,798 square feet, not 10.850.
"Isn't that just dandy, Mr. Ware," responds Colonel James. "Isn't that just perfectly dandy. Glad to have you on our team, Ware. Damn glad."
Elliott rightly surmised that no one, not the colonel nor the lieutenant nor dim-bulb Doris would ever calculate the true area of the building for themselves. That would require them to actually do some real work. He was pretty sure this wasn't going to happen. So instead, he just told them what they wanted to hear. And that suited them all just fine.
Elliott really didn't like misleading his clients. It wasn't anything he had ever done before in his professional career, but his was beginning to see the utility of the practice.
This is pretty much the way the entire project had gone ever since. Elliott would make some perfectly reasonable suggestion about how to best reconstruct the building. Doris would dutifully cite the regulation that explained why the government would never permit such a practical thing to happen and then Elliott would spend the next several weeks thinking of a way around her bureaucratic roadblock. The design of the barracks became, not an exercise in architectural inquiry, but one of finding ever more inspired ways to end run Doris's regs.
Elliott couldn't see it, but the project could easily stand as a metaphor for all of western civilization. He did know that it was all beginning to wear him out.
And so this evening, instead of laboring over another of Doris's perfectly adle-brained regulatory conundrums, Elliott decides to play hide and seek with his youngest daughter.
"Daddy! I found you," Suzie gleefully shouts. "You're it."
It is a very good decision.