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After two weeks of vacation, it’s easy to forget the little things. Chad left his ID badge at home. That’s inconvenient in any office, but when you work at a US Naval Base, they take security more seriously. Without his ID badge, the door wasn’t supposed to open.

Chad was a Marine veteran who had become a civilian IT contractor. The enlisted men had a name for this sort of security: “Private Proof ”. A Marine Private might be stymied, but anyone with two brain cells to rub together could bypass it. Chad and his co-workers kept a large “year-planning” calendar on the insecure side. Chad pulled it down off the wall and slid it beneath the door. Waving the calendar around triggered the motion-sensor on the secure side, opening the door.

Three steps in, Chad sensed something was wrong. He walked past cubes, and people snickered. Some nodded or gave him a thumbs-up. Every eye traced his path through the office. One guy, a new-guy Chad didn’t recognize grabbed his hand and shoock it. “You’re a legend. It’s an honor working with you.”

By the time Chad hit the coffee machine and settled in at his desk, he collected a few more congratulations. When he swung past his boss’s office, Merle was mysteriously missing. This had to be some kind of practical joke; someone had spread a rumor that he had married a stranger, gotten a tattoo in an unspeakable place, or something. Chad would check his email and have a good laugh about it.

There were more, “Rock on!” messages, but when he scrolled past those, he found some very, very angry messages from Merle. “I can’t believe you did this to me!”, “You meant for this to happen!”, “I can’t wait until you get back from vacation!”

Chad stretched his memory back past vacation, before the gallons of beer and tequila and lazy days on the beach. He tried to remember the last thing he said to Merle.

This was easier said than done; every interaction with Merle was the same. Government contractors tended to breed a hardy strain of pointy-haired-boss, and Merle was a particularly outstanding example. Merle ran the IT team, but his background was in accounting. He understood Excel, but the finer points of mice eluded him. He once wasted a day because he couldn’t find a cable for his new wireless mouse. He told Chad to stop buying more RAM, because too much force would damage the computers. “Don’t ram it, just gently move it into place.”

Before Chad left on vacation, Merle wanted an update on the new servers Chad was building. The hardware was assembled and installed, but they needed to be imaged and burned-in. That couldn’t be done before Chad left for vacation, and there was no way Chad could explain that to Merle and be understood. Chad lied. “We’ve got them installed, but it turns out the flux capacitors are defective. I’ve already contacted the vendor- we should have a fresh batch by the time I get back from Cancun.”

Merle nodded, scribbled some notes, and toddled off to manage someone else into submission.

Chad didn’t know that these servers were Merle’s pet project. This was to be Merle’s achievement for the year. For months, he had been promoting himself on Chad’s successes, and this was to be his gold star.

While Chad was on vacation, Merle delivered another one of his quarterly status updates. It was a high-level meeting, in a room filled by starred collars and people who answered to senators. Merle spent half the meeting detailing their problems with their vendors, and the challenge of securing a new batch of flux capacitors. “We have our best man working with the vendor,” Merle had said.

Everyone in the room had less IT experience than Merle, but most of them had seen Back to the Future. The senatorial staffers were the first to lose it, but before long the room full of major generals was laughing at him.

Eventually, the room calmed down and someone explained Merle’s error. This was government contracting, nobody was getting fired. Merle couldn’t fire Chad if he wanted to, and the base officers could do little more than complain to the contracting firm. A few nasty notes ended up in personnel files, and Merle and Chad spent the remainder of the contract carefully avoiding each other. Eventually, they moved on to different jobs at different bases. Rarely, their paths would still cross. Each time Chad bumped into Merle, he could think only one thing: “Great Scott!

Calendar By Nevit Dilmen [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons