Saturday, March 7, 2015

Higher Education

Princeton Pickering Prep (PPP) was not in Princeton, NJ. It wasn’t even in Mercer County. There was nothing unusual in this. Numerous businesses and real estate projects in neighboring Monmouth and Middlesex Counties, some of them distant enough to raise eyebrows, long had co-opted “Princeton” into their names in order to borrow some swank from the reputation of the Ivy League university. Nor was the founder of the school named Pickering. Rather than use his own name, which contained more consonants and fewer vowels than native English-speakers found easy to pronounce, he borrowed the name of an 18th century farmer who once had owned the parcel of land which became the school campus. Neither as large, as historic, as famous, as well-endowed, nor as expensive as Lawrenceville, which wasn’t much further away than Princeton proper, Princeton Pickering Prep nonetheless successfully had attracted offspring of well-to-do parents since 1934 in numbers sufficient to be economically viable with the help of alumni donations. Students tended to call the place “Peeps” or “P-cubed.” The student population, grades 7-12, peaked at 200 in the 1950s and had hovered slightly below that number ever since. Though founded as a school for boys, PPP became co-ed in 1972.

Paige had little interest in the history of the school she attended. She presently was distracted by Basil, who blocked her way on the steps to the library building. He had attended the school as long as she, but her interactions with him always had been minimal. She preferred it thus. Several of Paige’s classmates were nerdy or eccentric, but Basil was simply weird. She didn’t like the way he was looking at her now. It wasn’t libidinous in the poorly disguised manner one expects of socially awkward teenage boys; her understated comeliness attracted a lot of that. Instead he looked directly into her eyes with a self-satisfied smirk on his face. He had little about which to be self-satisfied in her opinion. He was a better than average student but otherwise he barely registered on campus at all.

“Move,” she said.

“We need to talk,” said Basil.

“I can’t imagine about what,” said Paige trying to bypass Basil in the steps. He moved to block her. “Do you have a death wish?” she asked.

“Interesting phrasing. No, Paige, but you really should talk with me. More precisely, you should listen.”

“I doubt it. Well, make it quick.”

“Not here. Someplace private.”

“I don’t think so. I have to get to class.”

“No you don’t. That’s why you are here. You have trig in Monmouth Hall and then a free period.  You usually spend it in the Library because of the wifi.”

“You know my schedule? How creepy is that?”

“Paige, there are only 28 students in the Senior class. It’s April. By now I know everybody’s schedule. I share 80% of your schedule with you.”

Basil allowed two Junior girls to pass them on the steps. The girls glanced at Paige being bothered by the weirdo and giggled.

“OK, briefly. Over on the bench there,” she said, pointing to a bench by the tennis court between Monmouth and Bailey Halls. The court was used only for practice and presently was unoccupied. Formal matches were held at the courts by the Gym. “This had better be good.” She turned and walked toward the bench without looking back at Basil. The paved path to the tennis court led through a stand of apple trees.

 “You like Wednesdays, don’t you?” Basil said as he followed her.

“Why do you say that?”

“You like the way the school uniform looks on you.”

PPP had a peculiar dress code that varied by the day of the week.  Paige assumed there was some kind of rationale behind it, but never tried to discover what it was. On Wednesdays the school blazer was required attire.

“I don’t think you’re privy to my likes.”

“Some of them are obvious. The blazer brings out the hint of red in your hair. Those boots aren’t regulation though. I’m surprised you get away with wearing them. What did they cost? $1000 maybe?”

“$2500,” she said as she sat down on the bench. “Unless fashion is really what you want to talk about, get to the point.”

“I shall,” he said far enough away from her on the bench not to impinge on her personal space. “First of all, though, I’m flattered you are willing to be seen with me out in the open like this where everyone can see us.”

“Don’t be. Why should I care? Only social climbers care about things like that.”

“Whereas you’re already on top,” he said while nodding. “So you can pass this off as noblesse oblige.”

“Your words, not mine. Besides, at worst everyone will just think you’re my gay friend.”

“I’m not gay.”

“Of course you are. If you don’t know, it’s time someone told you. Weren’t you just fawning over my hair and boots?”

“I’m not gay – or straight. I don’t like labels. They’re tools of social control used by manipulators to segregate people into categories: divide and conquer.”

“Whatever. I really don’t care. Get it on with whomever you want. Enjoy carnal knowledge of English sheepdogs. I don’t care. Wait a minute, you’re not asking me for a date are you?”

“Would it be so strange if I were?”

“Yes. Aside from you being gay, you’re too young, too poor, too unfit, and too short. No offense. Are we done now?”

“No. I want to tell you a story my grandfather told me.”

“Look…” Paige hesitated as though groping to remember his name. “…Basil, I don’t want to hear about your grandfather. We’re finished now.”

“No, not yet. You’ll want to hear this. You see, he was a gunner on a PBY reconnaissance aircraft in World War 2 – you know, one of the flying boats. Near the end of the war he was on patrol over the Philippines with two other aircraft. All three developed engine trouble. Two went down in the jungle. Only my grandfather’s aircraft survived because they managed to get out over water before the engines quit completely.”

“What is wrong with you? Are you aware that I lost my father last month in a plane crash?” she said.

“Very much aware. And it was more of a splash, much like my grandfather’s. Your father’s Cessna wasn’t a seaplane, so…”

“What kind of sick bastard are you?”

“As I said, I don’t care for labels. You’ll find this part interesting: it’s about you. Something about your father’s accident brought an amusing thought to mind. At first I looked into it just out of whimsy, but then one datum led to another and I became intrigued. You see, my research reveals that your biological mother divorced your father before he made his pile on Wall Street, so she didn’t benefit much in the settlement. She didn’t even ask for custody of you. Why was that? Well, no matter; it is off topic. Then daddy hit it big, so it was your first stepmother who walked off with millions. By then you already were accustomed to being a spoiled little princess, but everything was OK because daddy was still earning the big bucks after the second divorce.”

“You’ve been investigating my family and our finances? Why? You are jealous of me, aren’t you?” she said. “You would like to be me.”

“You or Toby,” he answered honestly.

“Toby is a moron.”

“Well yes, but I thought we were referring to physical attributes and social status. Between the ears I’d like to remain me either way. But let me continue. Despite his weakness for expensive younger women, your father rebuilt the family fortune and sent you here. All was well until last year when his investments turned sour. Then there was that investor lawsuit over the wind farm that went bankrupt. The legal fees were crushing. Money became tight – maybe not by the standards of average people but by the standards to which you were accustomed. If you weren’t in your final year at P-cubed he’d probably have pulled you out of here and sent you to public school. What is worse, you were facing the entirely unexpected prospect of having to earning your own living at some point in the future. There remained the chance he might earn back a fortune a third time, of course, and set you up comfortably, but then he got engaged to that ‘model’ you ever so sweetly call The Bimbo. Any third fortune likely will go to her. As far as I can tell, he didn’t even get a prenup.”

“My lawyer will attend to your illegal invasion of my privacy later. Say goodbye to your college fund. Where are you going with this?” said Paige.

“There is nothing illegal about it. Very little of our lives is not a matter of public record anymore, and I broke no laws finding all this out. Besides, I don’t have a college fund. Anyway, your father and his bride – excuse me, The Bimbo – flew off in daddy’s Cessna to the Bahamas for their honeymoon. They never made it: two more victims of the Bermuda triangle. You know, just the other day I drove out to look at the small private field where he kept his plane. Do you know what is interesting about it? The total lack of security. As in many small general aviation fields, you can just drive on and off as you like, especially if you are a familiar face. No one is likely to challenge you or even remember exactly when you were there.”

“Once again, what is your point?”

“I need to note one more item, which may at first seem unrelated. There was a life insurance policy with you as sole beneficiary. It was nominally in the amount of 2.5 million dollars, but had a double indemnity clause in case of death by accident, so in this case it paid off 5 million. This is a modest amount for a young woman of your proclivities but it is better than nothing. It’s a shame about the accident, of course, but, if it had to happen, the timing was fortuitous since it was very likely daddy would have cashed in that policy at some point in order to meet his current expenses. Also, since you turned 18 a couple of months ago, you don’t have to worry about any trusts or guardians for the estate.”

“What makes you think you know anything about my insurance?” she asked.

“Toby’s mom is on the board of the bank where you deposited the check.”

“Right, and you say you’re not gay.”

“I don’t like labels.

“You still haven’t made a point.”

“I’ll tie it all together now. The reason my grandfather’s plane went down was a mishandled procedure for flushing the fuel tanks with sea water prior to certain types of routine maintenance. The workers messed up: the tanks weren’t drained properly before the planes were refueled and sent on their mission, so they were still half water. The planes flew just fine for a while because…” Basil accessed a website on his cell phone, “…because gasoline and sea water separate… ah, here we are…" He displayed the page describing the characteristics of aviation fuel and sea water. "So the plane can fly until it burns up the gas. Other liquids exist that might be better yet, of course, but sea water is hard to detect. If grandfather’s plane had sunk no one ever would have figured it out, even if they had fished out the wreck. After all, sea water in a damaged plane under the sea is not a surprise.”

“What are you suggesting?” she asked.

“I’m suggesting that all of these separate bits of information are best not brought to the attention of your insurance company. Besides, I’m sure I misspoke when I said there was a total lack of security at the airfield. I’m willing to bet there at least are cameras there. There are cameras everywhere these days. What could be on them? Any records of surprise midnight visits by…oh, say, you?”

“Are you blackmailing me?”


“What do you want?”

“Relax, I don’t want money… not directly anyway. That would leave a record and implicate me as an accessory after the fact in the unlikely event you get caught. I don’t have rich parents, you see. My grandfather was a former student here when it was cheap in relative terms, and he left me a scholarship to go to this school. This was much to the annoyance of my parents who would have preferred money without strings. And, of course, he left me the legacy of his war stories. Toby’s mom is on a scholarship committee so I probably can get her to swing me money for college, but I need what you have, too.”


“Connections with all your dad’s Wall Street buddies: a job, an internship, or maybe just a foot in the door. Use your investment capital as bait to get them to do favors for a friend. For me, that is. With the right breaks I can make my own fortune.”

“No one gave my dad that kind of help. He did it on his own,” she said.

“He did it his way, you did it yours, and I’ll do it mine. We can talk over more of the details at the prom.”

“You expect me to be your date for the prom? Won’t Toby object?”

“Not if my date is a girl. He confines himself with labels, you see, but he accepts that I don’t.”