Copyright 2001-2008, James J. Belcher.  All rights reserved.

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Copyright 1998-2001 James J. Belcher. All rights reserved.

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Richest Man on the Planet, Part 2

 

Chapter 6

 

Great men are never just born. They create themselves. We all start out as little guys.

Don't ever pick on the little guy. A loaded Smith & Wesson beats four aces. Nine times out of ten you could walk away a supposed winner, and nine times out of ten that's the end of that. But there's a little Jew or a Filipino that you'll go after some day. You can beat him up, take his lunch money or steal his homework and he looks pretty bad at school the next day, and you beat him up again, and maybe again. He'll learn not to sling a wild punch and he doesn't talk. He's better than you, and somewhere in the back of your mind, you knew it before you ever touched him the first time.

He uses his mind and two other things, time and opportunity. Someday, he'll do the punching and the crowd will side with him. He can hit you after you're down or below the belt and the crowd will cheer for him. If he kills you, they'll walk away and they won't look back. He won't be mad, but he'll get even. And then some. Don't ever pick on the little guy.

Sometimes the odds are awful. Sometimes there aren't odds. Consider an unadopted runaway from an orphanage versus the FBI, IRS and prosecutors at the Department of Justice combined. That's not one to try to bet. They couldn't give odds, but crowds would someday cheer. He didn't know his own name, much less his birthday. He had never visited his mother and he didn't know her name. He would be sixty years old before he got what most everybody takes for granted, a real name and the name of his mother. In the meantime, he was Robert Algren, the name from the orphanage, and twenty years later he had gone from runaway to respectable.

The Feds entered his life then, and even took that away, or anything it ever meant. He changed, another one of many names, into Dick Holbrook. He started over. It would be more than another twenty years later, but he had a plan. Time and opportunity. And brains and guts. Don't ever pick on a little guy.

This is the story of the little guy becoming himself during forty years of picking himself off the ground, getting knocked down and doing it all over again, picking himself up, ending up higher than any of the rest of them.

In baseball, it's technically three strikes for everyone, but some people start out in life two and a half behind before they get up to the plate. The really great batters know the pitcher, the catcher and the umpire, and they all have to be reckoned with. With some, if it's close, it'll be a ball, with others a strike. If you know what to expect, you can move the bat a fraction of a second earlier. If you move the bat a smidgeon earlier, there's more speed at the end of the bat, and the ball will go back and up or down a lot faster than it comes at the batter. If you're only up there for half a strike, you'd better make it good.

If you're young, poor and alone, like Bobby Algren was, he only had half a strike. He had taught himself to read, with little help, from the Sunday comics, at age three and a half. He knew enough to read everything he could get his hands on, and he kept himself unadopted. He didn't want foster parents. He wanted to have the luxury of the orphanage, and by the time he got to high school, he found his real love.

About the time he learned to read, he saw the puzzles next to the comics. He quickly learned the game of Connect-the-Dots; by nine he advanced to the crossword puzzles. He was good at math and excelled at reading. His grades were virtually straight-A's. In high school, he found algebra and he loved word problems the most. It was the mid 1950's, Ohio. He realized that there was a special world combining Connect-the-Dots and the word problems and the rest of algebra.

As soon as it was declassified, he read the information, all that was available. They had called them Electro-Mechanical Calculating Engines and then ENIAC, UNIVAC, an IBM308 and a jumble of other names. Today they're called computers, and he would eventually become the greatest logician of computer programming the world has ever known.

In simple terms, he would forever be the real brains behind the supposed brains that were nothing to him but simple and less simple circuitry. He was always pious, had become an altar boy, joined the Roman Catholic Church, not knowing his parents or their religion, and forever prayed and thanked God for the blessings bestowed on him, particularly the brain and its imaginings.

Prejudice is the umpire ready to call you another strikeout victim before you get to the plate. In his case, in a world before the introduction of the SAT as a general equalizer, good grades from a school that supposedly important people didn't know about didn't count. He knew enough to know he needed college, more for credentials than real knowledge. He knew he would eventually need visibility in an elitist world. He knew he only had half a strike, so he'd better make it count.

He found that invisibility is sometimes the best way to move fast, in order to get from point "A" to "B", a necessary step before "C", "D", up to "Z". He couldn't allow someone to call a ball or a strike before he knew everything possible about the pitcher, catcher and umpire. Visibility would be forbidden until he could take his best shot. That was perhaps his greatest skill, planning in a world where the dots were not always visible and he had to figure out the connections, because he couldn't let someone else ever number them before he did.

He lived most of his life as a fugitive, with a different alias in different towns. If he couldn't move fast enough, and someone connected certain dots before him, it would have been too late, and he wouldn't have dreamed of going up to the plate, because he quietly didn't have the heart to strike out, not even once.

Fear was his initial motivator and computers his first love. Early on, he knew precisely what he wanted to do. He wanted to join IBM, the great and growing maker of general-purpose digital computers, those giant mainframes that would run the banks, the airlines and the Department of Defense. He wanted to be in the forefront of software development, to make computers flexible, to take their hardware components of tubes and wires and strengthen them. After the development of the transistor, there were even greater possibilities and he dreamed he could be a part of it all.

He needed to be able to step in the door. He looked ahead at the daunting odds of an orphan from nowhere getting a degree in mathematics, not just from any college, from a powerhouse academic institution. He realized those schools were all out of state. He was, as a matter-of-fact, a kid with no job, no connections with anyone, financial abilities limited. He needed to get that sheepskin, and he made a decision.

He ran away, changed his name, used a forged high school transcript with that new name, established residency in a neighboring state and qualified for in-state tuition, the only amount of money he could ever hope to afford.

He intended to violate rules, lie, cheat and indirectly steal. It hurt him and he confessed to a priest, but only after the crimes were committed. His personal penance was high, and he was secretly loved and hated by the priest involved. No matter how good the motives, there were sins involved. Sin was sin.

But that would come later.

He was focused on the immediate. He knew the odds. He knew they had all tried to run away, damned near every kid in that institution. Most didn't make it past the gates, the rest, except for a couple, were handed over by the deputies to the sheriff and sent back to Buckfield County Orphanage in a day or two. One was found dead in Chicago and the police report was not reading matter for dinner table conversation. That left one, fate unknown.

They knew he was different, just not how different. He had never seemed interested in certain subjects, and his guidance counselor tried to talk him out of a course in civics when there was an experimental course in pre-calculus available. Based on his grades, they were ready to let him in, as a sophomore, even though everyone else in the class would be a senior. Civics was not considered a particularly challenging subject, mostly memorization, and Bobby Algren always took on the toughest.

They forgot one thing. The special class trip. It was the one thing Bobby counted on. The kids with the top four grades in civics got to visit the state legislature while in session. The teacher drove them in her station wagon. It was nearly three hundred miles away and an overnight trip. Bobby got the best grades in civics and he qualified for the trip.

He cried when he learned of one condition. He needed twenty dollars in expense money and he had less than seven to his name. He asked the superintendent at the orphanage, but was turned down. Since Bobby had turned down chances at foster parents and discouraged adoption, Mr. Lundgren was not sympathetic.

He told Mrs. Robbins, and he cried. She felt sorry and told him "she'd see what she could do". He went back to the orphanage, but didn't eat anything that night or sleep that much.

The next day was a triumph, a monumental event in his young life. Mrs. Robbins told it in class. Since Bobby had scored a perfect 100 on his mid-term exam, the school would pay his expenses for the trip as a special prize. Afterwards, when all of the classmates were gone, she told him the real news. The prize wasn't in the school budget, she was doing it herself. She knew how hard he had worked. She handed him two twenty-dollar bills. "It's a lot of money, ma'am. Can you afford it?" "Yes, for you. Don't let me down." His fortune was $47.00 and it was enough for him to connect a dot. He would frighten Mrs. Robbins, temporarily shock her, but he wouldn't let her down, at least in the long run.

It was a substantial car drive for Mrs. Robbins, a woman getting up in years, as she would have said. Sunday evening, they stopped at a burger stand and her foursome, two boys and two girls, wolfed down burgers, fries, malts and Cokes with abandon. They were going to enjoy their trip, she would see to that. That night, to save money, they stayed at an inexpensive but clean motel outside Columbus, a place she'd been before. Rooms were $8 a night. It was 1955. The two boys had a room, the two girls got a room, and Mrs. Robbins had her own room.

Everyone but Bobby had a suitcase. He brought his few meager things in a brown grocery bag. He didn't have pajamas, he would sleep in his underwear. She felt sorry for that boy, he might have been the brightest student she ever had in 32 years of teaching.

The next morning, they went to a local diner for breakfast. Bobby didn't eat, saying he had a stomach ache, and Fred confirmed that Bobby had spent a lot of time in the bathroom that previous evening. Bless his heart, Bobby had on an obviously new shirt, and a tie.

It was a rather dark blue shirt, and too big, but, after all, Bobby didn't have a mother to help him. It was a dress shirt, long-sleeved, and he looked like a sharp young man. His khaki pants looked new also and there was a sharp crease in the trousers. They too looked a little big, but, all in all, Bobby was the best dressed in the foursome, even if he still wore the same tennis shoes she had seen all semester. She had seen also the same faded jeans and white T-shirt all year long, clean but worn. He had bought new clothes to go to see the State Capitol; she was so pleased with what he had done with the money.

Bobby looked especially excited as they set out, obviously his first visit out of town. Mrs. Robbins was tickled pink that she could do these trips; civics classes could be boring to some of her students, but the dynamics of politics and politicians inspired some. One of her former students was a councilman and one once ran for mayor, even if he did lose by 147 votes.

She drove them to the Capitol, and they were seated in the gallery, up on the third floor. The session opening began, and appropriately enough, with debate on the annual school budget. She listened carefully to the Senate President, but a couple of minutes later, Bobby tapped her on the shoulder, saying he needed to go to the bathroom. She put a finger to her lips and motioned for him to walk upstairs. The last Mrs. Robbins ever saw of him was Bobby asking the sergeant-at-arms for directions to the bathroom.

Bobby walked down and around the corridor towards the men's room, with a little pace, the poor kid obviously was in a hurry to get there. When he turned that corner, he went down corridor 3A2, Bobby knew it from the layout he had studied and re-studied, plans of the Capitol in his high school library.

Then he skipped down the stairs from corridor 3A2, down to ground level, walked a block and a half (run would probably be closer) to the Capitol cab stand, and hopped in. The layout showed the whole Capitol complex, including the cab stand.

"Sutter Building."

The driver hesitated. The kid was downright arrogant, the way all the rich kids were. "Sutter Building, 1425 East 12th, and hurry. My dad's Senator Sutter. Haven't you heard of us?"

"Yeah, kid. I know where it is." The taxi drove off, the driver knowing the Sutters were a big name in town, an 80-year-old four story building with the name in granite over the door. Spoiled brat, wearing a dress shirt and tie, probably got special permission to skip school whenever he wanted, and if the truant officer complained, the principal got a call. It was only a little over eight minutes, $2.15 and a quarter tip. The kid was insistent on change.

The Sutter Building, the Sutter name, Senator Sutter, he had learned them all from the Columbus newspapers, courtesy of the public library.

It was a lousy section of town, since things had deteriorated in eighty years. Today, a fifteen-year-old boy with a dress shirt and tie would be chopped liver in a place like that, but not in 1955. Right around the corner was a pawn shop, and they sold jewelry, firearms, musical instruments and luggage.

"What can I do for you, kid?" Bobby said it confidently, "I want a suitcase, cheapest you got, and I'm not dumb, so don't jack up the price." The mangy suitcase carried a tag of four fifty and Bobby countered with two dollars. "Three and a quarter." Bobby: "I'm down to $1.75. Care to waste more of my time?" He walked out with an empty two-dollar suitcase. Transaction time: two minutes. He was in a hurry.

Four doors down, a Salvation Army thrift store, a Purdue sweatshirt, $1.50. He took off his dress shirt and tie. He changed behind the rack while the clerk turned her back. Underneath the dress shirt, a red and blue checked shirt, bought eight months ago. Underneath the khaki pants, his faded blue jeans. The nice outfit went into the suitcase and the Purdue sweatshirt over the checked shirt. It was March, and the weather wasn't the greatest. He made sure the collar of the shirt stuck out prominently over the sweatshirt.

Virtually every public library has out-of-town telephone directories, including Yellow Pages, and maps. Bobby had spent a lot of time in the library over the past year. He had never worn the checked shirt before, it cost him twelve weeks of the twenty-five-cent-per-week allowance at the orphanage. No records, dates, movies, candy or anything else for Bobby. He saved every cent for his plan.

Jeb was sort of a dumbass at the orphanage. Blind as a bat, thick black-rimmed glasses with lenses so thick you knew he groped in the dark even when it was light, always leaving and losing them. Bobby never caused trouble and no one at Buckfield County would ever have suspected him. He had never tried to run away, never sassed Mr. Lundgren, a docile kid, too nice for his own good. He had stolen Jeb's glasses four months ago, and he put them on when he entered the station.

The Greyhound Bus station was two blocks down. He had learned the bus schedule and bought a one-way ticket to western Indiana. He was young and alone, but very pleasant to the station master, explaining his grandmother was real sick, maybe dying, and he had to go there. His mother had driven last night, to help out. The man at the ticket counter eyed him carefully, or so that older man thought, then smiled and wished the kid luck, his grandma would need it. Thirteen dollars for the ticket.

Bobby made sure he sat next to the best-looking woman on the bus. She was over twice his age, wearing nice clothing, bleached blond hair, Marilyn Monroe style. When they were almost there, Bobby started getting sick, coughing and gagging. He looked like he was going to throw up on that lady's sweater. She tried to push him away and they both ordered the driver to stop. Bobby managed to say his aunt lived "up the road". The driver did stop, the bus drove away, Bobby retrieving his one piece of luggage. It was in the distance, but they saw him leaning over, either throwing up or about to.

When the bus was out of sight, Bobby backtracked one mile to the junction of two state highways. He always trusted a good map, but he had learned to keep it all in his head.

Illinois, he would make it. He had been going west and south and he hitchhiked north and slightly west. He was hot, and he took off the sweatshirt and the checked shirt, leaving him in the white plain T-shirt, faded jeans, tennis shoes and socks, the same as Mrs. Robbins had known him. He was off to Chicago, or thereabouts.

He was free.