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Richest Man on the Planet, Part 3

 

Chapter 30

 

It was midnight in a smoky bar. He didn't smoke, he barely drank, he never went to bars and he never went to bed after 10:30. A nondescript man walked in and sat next to him. "Club soda". It was the beginning and he knew that man next to him was a somebody.

It was Tallahassee, Florida, a nothing town but in a big state. It happened maybe twice a year, tops. Never with a flip, never with a double flip. Count 'em, 170. In one hundred and eighty days the biggest unclaimed Lotto jackpot would go back to the state, $27 million, and he was just a little man.

It wasn't money, he had convinced himself of that. It was the unfairness, the sense of nonsense, the absurdity of it all. Here was a man he never knew, but a man who would be the biggest somebody who ever lived. Don't ask him the words, he doesn't remember them all. He remembers the beginning: "It's day sixty and you're talking to someday's richest man on the planet. Give it to me or walk away, your choice. Hang up the phone or hang onto the phone, your choice. Remember it happened, one hundred twenty days to go, maybe it's now or never."

Johnnie was a little guy, in a lot of ways. Small size, small job, small penis. He wasn't dumb but he wasn't a genius. He had never been much in life because he had never spoken up and he never took chances. He was about to commit a crime. From all those yesterdays, the girls he never asked out, the things he never dared, the opportunities he watched them take and win, he took this one. He never dreamed how right that could be.

"You can do it. I'll be by your home after work."

The first call came on day 60, the second on day 90, the third on day 120, then every ten days. At first a dream, second a possibility, then more and more a happening. $1,000,000 to start, but that wasn't the hook. The dream, the palace, marble, elsewhere, Paradise. It wasn't a dream and the man on the other end of the phone wasn't a con artist. He was a prison superintendent; Johnnie checked by calling and asking. The voice was the same. Johnnie knew the coding, the bar coding on the ticket. He knew the serial number. He had made up the ticket two months ago but he was still a little scared. He asked himself why and Johnnie's inside voice answered with a strength he never knew he had. "Because."

A lawyer walked there on day 180, the smart ass kind with the Italian silk suit. He laid it on the counter, with a legal document. "Trustee". There wasn't a clerk in the place that thought he bought it, but possession is ten-tenths of the law in Lotto.

Now there's a little guy with a small shirt size in a small country fondling the largest breasts of the most outrageous woman he could imagine. He lives in a marble palace; they don't have those in Tallahassee, Florida. He left behind a trailer (they called it a mobile home) with 318 payments to go. All he does is dream, he's allowed to do that. Somewhere there is a God, but Johnnie Winston doesn't care, he's found the one that counts to him. Johnnie was step one on day one and it had been several years. He had committed a crime and the result was to make someone else the richest man on the planet. But he was safe on that island and in that palace, no extradition allowed. He had gone along for the ride and never realized how crazy a ride could be. Johnnie told me that part.

Cry when they quit, and cry more when they never try. Don't cry for Johnnie, he went to the Paradise on earth he never dreamed about. When dignitaries come, and there's a request, the tour always includes a stop at his apartment in the palace, a polite knock on the door and his being introduced as the man who made it all happen, and they are invited to shake his hand. He's shaken the hand of forty admiring heads of state. He has Belinda who adores him and the respect of everyone in the palace. But that's Johnnie's fate and there's the story of a more important man, the one who built the palace.

There's only one man who can tell a man's story, but those of us around him got bits and pieces, and we might understand them better than he could himself. History is the happenings, some emotion, evaluation, mostly fact.

I was born Mohandas Nehru Vladiphur on January 3rd, 1950 in a suburb of New Dehli. My parents would have been called middle class at that place and time by them, by those around, maybe still poor by the middle class in America and Western Europe. My father had the equivalent of an Associate of Arts degree and a position with the government, a clerk of some sort.

India had been "freed" in 1947, and there was first one great hero, Mohandas Gandhi, sometimes given the honorific title of Mahatma. Later there was Jawalphur Nehru, prime minister. My father was confident my name would give me an entree into a certain level of Indian society. Perhaps it did and I am indeed grateful that my parents would have cared enough to think of my future from the very start. They're dead now, may the gods let their souls endure less pain on their journey.

My mother gave birth to me as the first of six children, three sisters and three brothers, but separated by more than a decade. One duty I learned early on was the responsibility I had to those younger siblings. Our house was small but my mother kept it spotlessly clean and my father kept it painted. One of my earliest remembered emotions is the pride I felt when some neighbors came for tea and looked approvingly. I remember I strutted and later bore the pain of a spanking for my open pride. I was about four at the time.

I knew my parents loved me very much and they told me I'd have to learn custom and consideration, like my namesake progenitor of non-violence. Of course they didn't use those words but they took the time to explain, at least a little, and I bore the pain with stolidity.

In a poorer country like India, things can take longer. It took me until age 37 to obtain a university degree in computer science. I didn't rest in the meantime and I always excelled in my studies. But it took ten years of practical experience before I got the full four years of university education. Sometimes it feels better when you have to wait for the rewards. I worked harder after college. Several years later, I got an E-mail employment offer from a 22-year-old in Champaign, Illinois, home of perhaps the most prestigious university in computer science in the world.

He was writing in behalf of a man named Sergei Grundlich, whom he called Sarge and remarked was very friendly. I had been married by then, but my wife died, leaving me no children. My parents also were gone by then, victims of an epidemic traced to bacteria in the water. My siblings were making their way in the world. I was an uncle by three of them. I had the freedom to go anywhere to make my way in the world. My name had been given to this young scientist because of my freedom as much as my scientific abilities. Apparently my age was also a plus factor.

He told me there was a special computer project and there was a place for me. He asked me how long it would take to get a passport and I told him I didn't know. He said about eight of us, including Sarge, would build the most advanced Internet Browser in the world, the brain that would open the door to knowledge, easily and with no worry of distraction or intervening pornography, a door to markets with absolute credit card security. He used the terms Safety'Net and SafeSell.

I admitted to needing about $US175 dollars for the passport. He told me to go to a CitiBank office on a certain street in the morning. It was very late at night in my time. I had been chatting with him for six hours, not continuously of course.

I was about to ask him about the salary or the working conditions, but something struck me to ask another question. I asked him how long he had known this Sarge and where would we work. I thought perhaps the United States.

He answered in a very matter-of-fact way, not with innocence, just with the kind of irony that would never escape me the rest of my life. "I can't answer the second question. Sarge just told me it wasn't a job, an adventure, and security prevented him from saying until the IB team is fully formed. He expects it to last about two years. It won't be in North America. As for the first question, I've known him for slightly over twenty-three hours."

That last answer really struck me. "Less than a day and you're willing to follow him? Permit me to ask a question: Have you other job offers?"

"All I want, and I could name the price. I was number two when I first graduated and tops in the M. S. C. S. program now."

I never dreamed he would say what I wanted so much to hear. "Call me Mo. I look forward to it. I accept."

When I got to the bank, they asked for identification and then handed me an envelope. $US1000 and a plane ticket dated three days away, to Germany, with a note bearing four words: "Not the final destination." It was an enormous sum, more than three month' wages for other computer scientists. The ticket had the cost on it, $US2350.

It never occurred to me to look back. I took the ticket and the money to the ministry and my passport was available at the Air India plane counter when I walked up with a small shabby piece of luggage. I boarded that plane. I spent the finest two years of my life on that project, but not in Germany. I became a very rich man.

Today I am Prime Minister of India. The gods have smiled. It happens in every village, every town and city. They call them born leaders. They are the tallest, the strongest, the swiftest, the most lovely. They are picked for the sports teams, the representatives in the modeling contests, the leader of the school student council. They are often flowers. They bloom and die.

A very, very few become professionals in sports events or models for the magazines. Most become farmers and fishermen; they go into business, the clergy, the police force, politics or the military. Their leaders are selected. Naturally, family money and influence play a part, as well as luck.

Relatively speaking, that's not important. Most work their way, and most are very smart, sometimes brilliant, if they reach the top. They are the survivors, the ones with the accolades, the ones that make things happen.

Perhaps the toughest job is that of the military commander. Imagine a fifty-three year-old lieutenant colonel. He never fought a battle before, never commanded troops except in practice exercises. Reserves are called up, men he never knew. He knows they have to trust him with their lives. The battle comes, and the troops are in place, well fed, well trained, well prepared. The colonel knows the enemy, its troop strength, placement and tactics.

They rout the enemy. It's news and it's more. A perspicacious reporter asks the essential question. "How?" He gets the answer. "It was easy. I've been practicing all my life."

That was the long and the short of it. It might seem fantastical, but it happened because he had spent a lifetime preparing.

On day 120 he called Johnnie.

"$US1,000,000 plus."

"Plus what?"

"A part of my dream. I want your dreams. I want to know your every fantasy, but here's what I need and I know you can make it happen. . . ."

Johnnie didn't slam down the phone.

On day 130, another call.

Johnnie: "How did you get my phone number? It's unlisted." Answer: "Because. I'll send you a picture."

On day 140, the envelope arrives. It has a picture of a shabby trailer in a shabby part of a city called by some Native American name.

The call: "Ready to trade? I've got something better."

Day 150, three words. "Something much better."

Day 160, the call that made it happen.

Johnnie was never sure why he went into the smoky bar. He knew that he was dealing with a man. Life would never be the same. He knew he could do it and he could never do it. He had heard it from the preacher. It was called a leap of faith. It had been confusing, especially at first. Terms he never understood, ideas that he couldn't fully understand, words he never used.

Johnnie was just a white-boy redneck, native of Tallahassee, afraid of getting in over his head. He was in deep water, and it was well over his head, but he needn't have been afraid.

Johnnie had one of those simple jobs given to simple people, but Johnnie wasn't all that dumb. He ran a copier at the Lotto headquarters, punching buttons. He asked questions. What? How? When?

He never asked why. He knew the answers weren't there, or were wrong, or were only part of the answer. Never mind how, he just knew.

Johnnie answered the best way he knew how. He told me those words from long ago and far away. "I want a wife, one with the big tits I see in Playboy. I want money, all I need. I want people who want me, even if I'm not a relative." That was a big thought for him. "I want respect for who I am and what I am. And I want love. Maybe from the gal, my wife, and maybe from the rest of my relatives. Maybe from the neighbors and maybe from my friends. I want to walk out in the road and pick up a newspaper and have other people look up and say hello." It was the set of grandest words I ever heard from Johnnie. I knew he had been listening to Sarge. Johnnie could never have imagined his tomorrows, but Sarge did.

Sarge told me about those ten days. I don't think he confided in others. Day 170 through day 180. It affected two billion lifetimes, and more.