The Liaison Officer
[Reminder: Some of my posts, including this one, are memoirs of my abusive childhood. In this post I'm relating events that happened in January 1958, in Taiwan, when I was 8 and a half. The links to the right can be used to follow backward through the memoirs, or to restrict viewing to other kinds of posts.]
My Father took me further into the quonset hut. His office was at one end. There was a window looking out at the base airfield. My Father's desk was next to the window. When we walked in there was another man sitting at a separate desk. He didn't look particularly Chinese to me but he was introduced to me as my Dad's ROC liaison officer. I don't remember his name so I'll call him Captain Li. The two of them shared the office.
After that introduction my Father left me in the office to check out preparations for the show. There was an awkward silence for at most a minute as I sat next to my Father's desk, looking across at Capt. Li, which ended when I caught sight of his abaci. He had two Chinese abaci lined up on his desk in front of him. Seeing me staring at them Mr. Li grinned widely and said, "So, you're interested in these. Do you like numbers?" I said I did. He said, "How high can you count?" I told him that I could count as high as nine hundred ninety-nine trillion, nine hundred ninety-nine billion, nine hundred ninety-nine million, nine hundred ninety-nine thousand, nine hundred ninety-nine. He swept his right hand across the abaci, in a fraction of a second, setting that number up. Then he said, "How much is one more than that?" I said I didn't know what it was called. He swept his hand back across the abaci, clearing beads and setting one, and pointed, "There it is, it's one quadrillion."
[Below: Capt. Li's abaci were Chinese-style suanpan with rounded beads, two above and five below the horizontal bar, like the one shown here on top. The other kind pictured beneath, with the diamond shaped beads, is the Japanese-style soroban.]
Then he said, "What's the largest number I could show you on these abaci?" The man knew I didn't know how to say it. He read it off. It was something in the septillion range. Then he said he could count higher than that, stating, "I could count to nine hundred ninety-nine dectillion, nine hundred ninety-nine noventillion, nine hundred ninety-nine octillion, nine hundred ninety-nine septillion, nine hundred ninety-nine sextillion, nine hundred ninety-nine quintillion, nine hundred ninety-nine quadrillion, nine hundred ninety-nine trillion, nine hundred ninety-nine billion, nine hundred ninety-nine million, nine hundred ninety-nine thousand, nine hundred ninety-nine, if I had time enough. Of course, I'm too busy, working here!"
He pried into my grades. I admitted they weren't that good. He said, "But in arithmetic you're good?" I told him that lately arithmetic was my best subject, followed by reading. He said he wasn't surprised, since I was the son of the Major. He then told me that my Father was in charge of the entire mountain base around us. Then he asked me, "And what do you think we do here?" I admitted I had no idea.
Just then a one-propeller plane was visible through the window. Its engine was being fired up. Capt. Li told me to watch. As I watched, the plane slowly lumbered down the runway toward us, and turned, and the engine raced, and the plane took off in the opposite direction. It looked like a fat swan trying to take off. Capt. Li said, did you notice anything unusual about that plane?
I said, "It was too heavy."
"Yes!" he said, "and why is it too heavy?"
I had no clue until he asked. His speaking the question out loud made me see the answer at once, and I blurted it out, "It's loaded with equipment... it's going to spy on the Mainland!"
He giggled. He said, "Yes, yes! You are so smart! You ARE your Father's son! Electronics! And who is spying on whom? Can you tell me that?"
I said, "Well, my Father is spying on the Communists, right?"
"Oh yes," he laughed, "he is spying on the Communists, certainly, and who else?"
"Yes, yes! And we spy on the Communists, too, and also on your Father!"
We both laughed at that. I loved that captain. We had a great time.