Does Time fly?
In some sense it does.
It hovers in circles,
A bird of prey,
This chapter requires its own preface. However, the preface must follow the chapter proper. Isn’t that what friendships are like, the explanatory bit always following the existential bit? And that is how this biography is to proceed, because it presents my impressions of Luc Dubois. It is in that sense, like all biographies, an autobiography within a biography. Bear with me. Like other raptors, I must hover before I fall upon my prey.
Europa Dada, a subsidiary of El Severe [sic] and the company that drafted Luc and myself up its chimney, recalls that famous last scene of Plato’s “Republic”. You know it, the rider guiding the dark horse of Passion and the light horse of Spirit. We had three animals working our rig as well, except rather than the dark horse of Passion, the white horse of Spirit, and the mediating rider of Reason, we had Surly (an English fellow with an oral cavity that would embarrass a London East End pie-and-mash-house server hooked on chocolates), Loki, (a fellow about whom one of our colleagues once remarked seemed to have no native language), and Horney, Heer Director, a man with perhaps the most extended adolescence in the entire evolution of the human species.
Anyhow, this bumbling triumvirate – this lame, stumbling troika – had brought us, Luc and I and the rest of us, into a surreal situation. We were the crew onboard a plague ship. Many of us have witnessed the irrationalities of that cul-de-sac known as “a failing company”: the connivers, the bullies, the bullied, the whiners, the plodders, the plotters, the wimps, the folks who go mad and run amok, the folks who just get on with things as folks should do.
You know? Office life.
But then, there are those who transcend. And one of those was Luc Henri Dubois.
One of the abovementioned “plotters” was a fellow name of Toon Akermanns, the head of the Information Technology Department when Luc arrived at the company and, hence, Luc’s boss. He was a graduate of Leyden, the Harvard/Oxbridge of The Netherlands. He held a degree (a dokteronders) in pharmacy. What this pharmacist was doing managing an IT department was a mystery to many of us. In retropect, it makes sense. After all, it was a sick company. Unfortunately, the pharmacist was dispensing poison.
Well, Akermanns had explained to the IT department staff that those folks over in the Editorial Department were just sort of hanging around doing nothing of interest to the company and, so, the IT folks had a leery, sometimes seemingly suspicious, view of us. I was “one of the Americans” in the Editorial Department, so I was particularly suspect. We across department lines didn’t so much speak as circle one another like cats facing off in the territory between their territories. This demilitarized zone was “the coffee room”. We’d stir our expresso and look at one another suspicously and smile at one another disingenously.
The company had purchased a French hardware/software system from a company known as Honeywell Bull (later Machine Bull). The software was known as “Symphony”, a howling misnomer. This was done under the misdirection of Akermanns, who presumably received a blow job (read “‘n pijpje”, Dutch folks) from Bull. I was told at some point by a Dutch colleague in the Editorial Department that the other systems available were never seriously reviewed. All the charts, tables, and graphs were duly presented – every single one the same, always the same. All other systems were to receive lower scores than the Bull system.
Much later, Luc described the Bull system to me. He said something like this: “It’s a fine system for what it is supposed to do: composition [i.e., composition for printing purposes]. If you want to set up a newspaper and throw the data out the next day, it’s fine. You know, ‘CANARY FOR SALE. It’s a good pet. Excellent condition. Here’s my phone number: XXXXX’. Then, well, it’s fine for that, but if you want to establish a database, well then, forget it.”
We wanted to establish a database. That was the purpose of the company. That is why the Limburg Regional Development Fund and El Severe chipped in to fund the company. The system was a disaster. As one of my French colleagues once remarked, “‘Symphony’? They should call it ‘Catastrophe’.” And it was indeed the latter. After her comment, I began thinking of the system as “Cacophony”. The system crashed continously for various reasons. My favorite error message was “Sousbase Plein”. I’d look at my frozen, crashed screen and think, like a reluctant father marrried to a conniving woman who wanted to hang onto him at any cost, “The database! She’s pregnant? Again!”
Naturally, tempers flared.
During this early period, I was asked to a meeting which Luc chaired. It was the first time I was exposed to his presence for any length of time. I was a Saturday morning. The French Bull folks had come up from Paris. There was a German guy there who worked in a separate Editorial Department of sorts. There were the members of the Dutch staff of the IT Department. And there I was as well, in a seriously foul mood. Everybody was bitching about the system. After a while – knowing that the system was hopeless and that the French guy was just bullshitting us around – I ceased paying attention to the content and began attending only to the form or, I should write, “the forum”. This was truly a symphony. And Dubois was the director. He spoke to each of us, in turn, in the listener’s native language. French to the Frenchmen, Dutch to the IT staff, German to the German fellow, and English to me. I, the monoglot American, was awe-struck. At one point, he turned to me and began speaking in French. I reponded, “No. No. No. I’m the American guy.”
I left the meeting feeling humbled, but also encouraged that this Dubois fellow had a position of power in the IT Department. Because I realized that this dude could not only SPEAK all these languages, but also seemed to be able to THINK in them. Many can speak many languages, but few can think in any of them.
The IT system went from bad to worse. It simply was not up to the job. Akermanns continued to tell the IT Department staff that the Editorial Department was no more than a nuisance, bagatelle.
The Editorial Department was working on a marketing prototype for its sole publication, which was to go out early in 1985. We delivered the data to them in December. Luc was asked by Akermanns to join him in Paris to help out. Akermanns was not interested in the work done by the Editorial Department. He had another job in mind, for a company called Mistral. It was a printing composition job for which Europa Dada was actually receiving payments, as opposed to the Editorial Department job, which was a work-in-progress. It seems Akermanns felt he could bushwack the Editorial Department by claiming that the data we provided him was filled with errors, hence, could not be processed by the system. He reported this to me. I immediately got on the line with my boss, Joan Sherry, the head of the Editorial Department, and she – not a young woman at the time – climbed into her car and headed down to Paris to stand on Akermanns’ head and make certain that our job got done.
We all came to admire Joan, Luc not less than any of us. She possessed a certain force of character that, though it occasionally made me wary, demanded attention. That night, after arriving in Paris to force Akermanns to do his job, Joan slept in her car covered by her dog’s blanket. The girl’s got guts.
And, so then, what transpired in Paris?
Well, Akermanns panicks. He’s trying to run the Mistral job and his ruse with the Editorial Department has failed. He’s has Joan breathing the heat from the hell he had created down his neck. He has to get the job done.
Here’s Luc, more or less unaware of the situation, as were we all in one way or another. After all, he has gone to Paris to run the Mistral job. Suddenly, he’s told to work on this other job. He sets about it and, all credit to him, gets it done. I can’t imagine what a bit of jackleg, patch-up seat-of-the-pants work that must have involved. But I can see him sitting there with a bemused, perhaps somewhat sly, look running across his face, after a long dinner and a bit too much wine at a restaurant with Akermanns (who fancied himself a gourmet), getting down to the job.
Well, Dubois did his job, but here’s the interesting part. The job had to be composed for the printer. To get this done Akermanns had to halt the processing of the Mistral job abruptly. At that date, this involved getting the Mistral film out of the composer. At one point in the evening, Luc goes back to see what is happening in the dark room where the film is being processed. Akermanns had halted the processing of the Mistral job and was spooling the half-done film around a reel he had slid onto a broomstick. The film developing chemicals are spilling over the floor.
Imagine Luc’s impression of the goings on. Imagine it.
I can see his weirdly calm Flemish smile spread out before the hopeless comedy of the human race, that expression that indicates that “I do my job and you idiots do whatever it is you do.” Like any good farmer’s son, he knew he had to plow, herd cattle, and shovel manure and, at the same time, tend to his fences.
Good fences make good neighbors.
– “Mending Wall” (Robert Frost)
He plowed, he herded and he tended to his fences. As always.
More anon about plowing, herding and tending to fences.
So then, to the preface. Did you ever wonder what goes on in the mind of a man like Luc? It seems simple. You ask him. He tells you. The problem comes here: nobody works like that. People don’t work like that. You ask them something and they tell you something. Then, as William Faulkner once noted, though he was addressing different matters, “You have to get the facts out of the way to get at the truth.” It seems, so far, that the facts and the truth are disturbingly close in the case of Dubois.
There will be far more facts to come. Stay tuned.
END CHAPTER THREE.