The Windfall

The Windfall    

It began with an excited phone call from Su Lin in New York to her Uncle Jimmy Wong, her father’s surviving brother, the youngest, retired from the East Coast to San Diego.  

    “Uncle Jimmy, guess what?  When they were cleaning up father’s house in preparation for sale, they found an old file cabinet in the attic and in it were some stock certificates that he must have bought in the 1920’s and 1930’s!”

    “Don’t get your hopes up too high, Su Lin.  Have you or anyone else looked at them closely?  Many of the companies may have gone bankrupt in the Great Depression and the certificates would be worthless now.”

    “Uncle!  Yes, I got to look at them and among the certificates were shares of Coca-Cola and IBM!  There were others that I didn’t recognize of course.”

    Sun Lin kept Uncle Jimmy informed of the progress in appraising the find.  When all was said and done, the total value of all the still negotiable stock came to a little over 1.7 million USD.

    “That’s great news, Su Lin, and quite a windfall for you and your half-brothers Nathan and Paul, to share.”

    “Uncle, I don’t think they get to share this.”

    “I know your father died 15 years ago and his will was read then, but it was quite specific about giving equal shares of the remaining estate to the three of you once your father’s second wife, Er Mei passed on.  Although his affairs were considered settled then, I think that the terms of the will would still apply to any additional parts of his estate that were uncovered later like this.”

    “Uncle, you know I thought that the will was very unfair at the time.  I was his only child by my mother who was his first wife, his Number One wife.  As such I should have received more.  At the very least, one half.  And besides, Er Mei got to live in the house with those two kids of hers till they left home and until she died last year.”

    “Your father spoke with me about the details of his will several times, Su Lin.  He wanted me to fully understand why he set it up as he did.  Since your mother had died first, and you were already through college and university and married, he felt that Er Mei with two younger children would need help and, as Nathan and Paul grew, would need money for schooling.  And he was very clear about his intent.”

    “They are done with their schooling and are both into their careers, so needing extra money no longer is a reason.”

    “Su Lin, I know you never liked Er Mei or Paul and Nathan, but Er Mei was your father’s legal second wife and Paul and Nathan are his children.”

    “It was so unfair and wrong to Mom when he took a second wife and then had kids by her.”

    “It was a different time and place.  He married Er Mei in Chungjing in 1944, during the war while you and your mother were in Beijing under Japanese occupation.  He didn’t know if you were still alive.  It was a legal second marriage in China.  Er Mei was his wife and not his concubine.”

    “Uncle Jimmy, she was 29 years younger than father!  She’s only 10 years older than me!  It wasn’t right.  She tempted him into marrying her.”

Uncle Jimmy sighed.  “Su Lin, I know how you have always felt.  Your father was a strong man; he wouldn’t have been tempted into anything that he didn’t want.  Er Mei always honored your mother as your father’s first wife.  Your mother was always clearly the first wife and Er Mei the second.  In Beijing after the war and before the family had to flee the Revolution and come to America, Hong Kong or Taiwan, the servants always treated your mother as your father’s Number One wife.”

“Then why didn’t father treat me as his Number One wife’s child?  If I were a son, he wouldn’t have treated me the way that he did.”

“My brother, your father, was very western in his thinking.  Maybe ahead of his time.  I doubt that it would have made a difference if you had been a son.  He loved all three of you and wanted to provide equally for you.  And I realize it may be hard for you to believe, but your father cared for both your mother and Er Mei.”

“Some way to show love for my mother, to take a second wife.”

“Oh Su Lin, it was another culture.  In China multiple wives were legal and accepted.  You can’t apply the norms of this country to those of China in your father’s and my generation.”

“So why didn’t you ever take a second wife?”

“Su Lin, I’m much younger than your father.  Different times; customs and expectations change.  Besides, Auntie Ruth is quite enough for me.”

After finally hanging up, Jimmy spoke to Ruth.  “I’m sorry that Su Lin can’t let go of her anger with my brother’s second family.  Su Lin’s mother Zhu Li actually appreciated the help that Er Mei provided,  both domestically and maritally, especially after they came to America and there were no more servants.  I think the wives had a good understanding and relationship.  But Su Lin can’t see that.”

“Jimmy, I don’t think you can change Su Lin’s mind,” said Ruth.  “Best you stay out of it.”

“I know.  It’s just that my brother tried so hard to take care of his children equally, and Su Lin can only feel that she was treated unfairly.”

“Well, she’s a big girl.  In her sixties.  You can listen to her ventilate, but she will think and do as she pleases as she always has, and you can’t do anything about it.”

“I just hope that she doesn’t do anything rash.”

But of course, she did.    

Su Lin called again from New York, “I just wanted you to know, Uncle Jimmy, that I am going to challenge my father’s will with respect to this find.  The stock was bought before he was married to his second wife, and so I feel it should be outside of the terms of his will and therefore rightfully mine since Mama is no longer here.  Besides, bigamy is illegal in this country.”

“Your father would be very disappointed in what you are doing, Su Lin.”

“And you, Uncle Jimmy?   Are you?”

Uncle Jimmy said, after a long pause, “Yes, and me.”

“I am doing what I think is right.  To rectify what must have been the result of Er Mei’s undue influence on my father in drawing up his will.”

“Influence?  She was his wife!  So he certainly may have discussed it with her.  No matter what you think, Er Mei was no Svengali.  After your mother died, she took very good care of your father.  You may not want to hear this, but your father really loved her, and she loved and respected him, age difference or not.”

“Well, she clearly won you over too.  And I know you see Nathan from time to time since he also lives in San Diego.  Just don’t get yourself involved in this, Uncle, whether you approve of my actions or not.”  And she hung up.

Jimmy turned to Ruth who had put down her reading to listen in.  “You were right, Ruth.  Su  Lin is going to challenge my brother’s will over this stock find.  She is just still so angry.  The legal fees will eat up whatever is there and no one will win except the lawyers.”

“She will never change, Jimmy.  Don’t get your blood pressure up over something you can’t do anything about.”

“You know, if my brother wasn’t so westernized, all the estate would have gone to his first-born son who was Nathan.  That was the way it was in China.  And it would not have mattered whether that son was from a first or second wife.  In fact trying to have a son was often the reason for taking a second wife when there was no son by a first wife.  And Su Lin, though first born from my brother’s first wife Zhu Li, would have had nothing.”

“Well good luck telling that to Su Lin and convincing her that she’s been lucky,” said Ruth.

Jimmy heard nothing more for a week, until he got a call from Nathan.  “Have you heard, Uncle Jimmy, that Su Lin has retained a lawyer to contest our father’s will in the case of the newly discovered stock certificates?”

“She told me that was her intent, but I didn’t know that she had actually done it.”

“Paul and I have been forced to consult a lawyer too.  It’s a shame that it’s come to this.  That we couldn’t have just divided it three ways as my father planned for his estate.”

“True, but I guess Su Lin feels very strongly about this, whether or not I agree with her thinking.”

“Paul and I don’t want to drag you into this if it can be resolved without you.  But our lawyer thinks that you may be asked to tell the court about Chinese law at the time our parents were married, and explain the cultural differences.  And also what you remember about our father’s intent when he wrote his will.”

“Nathan, if asked, I will tell the truth as I know and remember it.”

“Even if it—ah—impacts your relationship with Su Lin?”

“I can only speak the truth.  How others react to it is up to them.”

“Thank you, Uncle Jimmy.  That’s all we can ask, but I hope that it will not necessary to involve you.”

Su Lin next called four months later.  “My case is going to be heard before a judge here in New York.  I just wanted to let you know.”

“No, I didn’t know that it was coming up.  It will be without a jury?”

“Yes.  The judge will determine the outcome.  I hope that you will stay out of it.”

“Su Lin, you know how I feel about what you are doing.  But I will not involve myself unless I am required to do so.”

But of course, he was.

He called Su Lin.  “I just wanted to let you know that I’ve been subpoenaed to testify in your case.  It’s not something that I am anxious to do, but your brothers’ lawyer felt that I could help to clarify situation of the family in China.  I did not want to get involved, but now I must.”

“Uncle, then I will see you in court.”  And she hung up.

“Jimmy,” said Ruth after he told her about Su Lin’s reaction to his call.  “If she loses, I’m afraid that she is going to resent your part in this.  Su Lin is not a very forgiving person and she has a long memory for slights.”

“You are right.  Although I am being compelled to testify, that wouldn’t matter to her.  Well, I guess I’d better arrange for my ticket.  Do you want to come along?”

“No, you go.  I’ll stay home and take care of the dog.  But if you see any of our friends while you are there, say hello for me.”

Two weeks later, Uncle Jimmy found himself in Judge James Black’s courtroom.

“Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?”

“I do.”

“You are James C.T. Wong?” asked Judge Black.

“Yes, your honor.”

“And you are the brother of C.L. Wong, the father of Su Lin Wong Chu and Nathan Wong and Paul Wong.”

“Yes, your honor.”

“Could you please explain to me the legal status of multiple wives in China?  Specifically as regards C.L. Wong’s second wife, the mother of Nathan and Paul.”

“When my brother, C.L. married his second wife in 1944, it was during the war.  His first wife, Su Lin’s mother, was in Beijing with Su Lin at the time and there had been no communication with them.”

“Was that because it was not possible or because he chose not to communicate?” asked Judge Black.

“Because of the war, it was not possible.  He did not know if she was still alive.”

“That’s interesting, but peripheral to this case.  Was his marriage to his second wife considered to be a legal marriage in China at that time?”

Jimmy could see Su Lin staring at him before he replied.  “At that time, Chinese law permitted and recognized multiple marriages.  Of course the law has since been changed and they are no longer allowed.”

“When second marriages were legal, how were the children of the second marriages considered?”

“Although first wives were in most cases regarded as the primary wife in terms of status, the children of second wives had the same legal rights as the children of first wives, your Honor.”

“And this applied to property rights and inheritance?”

“I am not a lawyer so I cannot give you an unequivocal answer, but yes, as far as I know.”

“And how do you know that, Mr. Wong?”

He could see Su Lin’s face become grim as he answered, “I know of a number of families where that was the case.”

“Thank you for helping to clarify the situation, Mr. Wong,” said Judge Black.  “I must admit this case is a first for me.  You may be excused.”

“The court is now adjourned until tomorrow while I review all that has been presented.”

The following day’s session was brief.  Judge Black found Su Lin’s complaint to be baseless.  She huddled briefly with her lawyer before gathering her papers and, without a glance at her family members, walked towards the courtroom door.  Nathan and Paul came to Uncle Jimmy to thank him for testifying.    Nathan said, “I’ll give you a call back in San Diego.”   Then Jimmy too left  the courtroom.    

As Jimmy walked down the steps of the courthouse, he saw Su Lin walking ahead of him towards the subway entrance.  “Su Lin,” he called out.

She did not turn but quickened her pace and disappeared down the subway stairs.




February Short

Although the recent Hawaii missile warning fiasco is now old news, I remembered a real missile crisis that occurred in 1962.  So I’m including this among the short stories, even though it is not fiction.

A Missile Crisis

The summer and fall of 1961, and for the next few years, silos to house the then-new Minuteman ICBMs were being dug deep into the wheat fields around Malmstrom AFB and Great Falls, Montana as quickly as possible.  During my two years there, the first squadron of fifty missiles came on line.  There would eventually be three squadrons with a total of one hundred and fifty missiles dispersed very widely.  (At first each missile had just one warhead–i.e. an H-bomb–but within a few years, each missile carried multiple warheads, each targeting a different site.)  It was a sobering thought, whenever we stopped to think about it, that surrounding us was potential doom for fifty Soviet cities and /or military bases and untold millions, of people.

But then came fall of 1962; I was entering my second year in the Air Force, and we were looking forward to the bird-hunting season.  With one season under our belts, we felt that we now knew our way around the waterfowl and the pheasant areas surrounding the base.  The first season had been fairly productive, but this second year was going to be great if the birds cooperated by flying into our birdshot patterns.

A week before the season opened, we got orders that all personnel were confined to base, all leaves cancelled.  It was the start of what came to be known as the Cuban Missile Crisis.  We didn’t know much more about what was happening than what was on the radio and TV news.  That there were missile sites being prepared in Cuba and that Russian ships were on their way with weapons to equip those sites.  We were a SAC base and home to a new missile technology that posed a huge threat to the Soviets.  If a shooting war began, there was an excellent chance that we, along with a sister base at Minot, N.D., would be a prime target of Soviet missiles or bombers carrying H-bombs.

The US defense posture is rated in DEFCON units (defense readiness condition) from the  lowest–DEFCON 5, to DEFCON 1–war.  We became really worried when word came from SAC headquarters that conditions had deteriorated to a DEFCON 2.  (The only time it has ever gotten that far.  Even after 9/11, the nation was at DEFCON 3.)  There was that constant icy ball in the pit of the stomach feeling as we went about our work, expecting word at any moment that we were at DEFCON 1.  Those basement fallout shelters we had all prepared were not going to be of any use.  My only hope was that if the missiles struck or the bombs came, I might be home at night with my family rather that on duty and we would be vaporized together.

As we all know, it never came to that.  President Kennedy stood firm and, with a little concession to Khrushchev about our medium range missiles in Turkey, the Russian ships returned to Russia and the sites in Cuba were dismantled.

There wasn’t much left to the hunting season by the time we were allowed to leave base but we had lucked out! 

And that should have been the end of the story.

Except that in 2001 I was browsing a book entitled Inviting Disaster: Lessons From the Edge of Technology, when the name Malmstrom AFB jumped off the page.

During the Missile Crisis, our wing commander, Colonel A. and his staff, had ingeniously found a way to bypass the safeguards that prevented a missile launch without presidential authorization.  Thus they could have sent off the fifty Minute Men that were already operational in their silos, to their programmed targets in the USSR by their local command.  They thought that they were being resourceful, so that if the Soviets destroyed Washington or SAC headquarters in Omaha by a sneak attack before a launch order were sent, Colonel A. could retaliate.  Wow!  Remember the movie Dr. Strangelove?

Colonel A. was a tall, impressive, handsome 40ish man, who was actually married to a Punahou graduate.  He must have been one of General Curtis LeMay’s (chief of SAC) bright young officers, hand-picked to implement and command this important new missile wing. And indeed, he did demonstrate that he was bright and thought outside the box.  Too much so.  Shortly after the crisis was over, he was transferred to a desk job at the Pentagon, and a new wing commander arrived.  I never knew why, until 2001.

And now I knew the rest of the story.

February Shorts

                                         The Rest of The Story

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;

All mimsy were the borogoves,

And the mome raths outgrabe.

                       —- Jabberwocky, Lewis Carroll


It was brillig as it always is when Jaba, the big white sun, is overhead and Simi, the small red one, has set.  And the slity toves responded as they always do when this happens by gyre and gimbling so there’s no need to point that out.  No news there.  So why report it?  But that’s humans for you.  Always pointing out the obvious.  I guess I should cut Lewis Carroll some slack though; after all he had just arrived here and so everything seemed new to him, even though the human hive has been here for over six hundred circuits of Jaba.

Anyway, on that day I was not all that alert, having just absorbed a large borogove and feeling sleepy.  Of course the rest of the borogoves were mimsy.  They always get like that after one of their gaggle is taken by either me or a Bandersnatch.  Now that Carroll got right.  I mean about the Bandersnatchs.  From the humans’ viewpoint, they are definitely to be avoided since they are even more manxome then me, and when they get frumious even I shun them.  All brawn and no brains and no self-control.  But a lot of brawn!   And the Jubjub birds?  Just your standard microraptor with 30 foot wingspans.

So there I was, burbling from my meal, minding my own business and looking for a place to rest and digest in the tulgey wood, when that young snot of a human leaped out from where he’d been hiding behind a Tumtum tree, brandishing his gleaming vorpal sword.  Like I said, I was not on my guard and before I could either attack him or defend my self, he snickered me across one claw with that damn vorpal blade.  It was just a flesh wound but still it hurt. 

I jumped high and back out of range and whiffled quickly away into the wood, faster than he could run.  And that was all that happened!  He did not cut off my head like Carroll reported.  After all, how could I be telling you this if I’d lost my head?  Fake news and exaggeration!  That’s humans for you, always pumping things up if not out right making things up to make themselves look good.  Maybe Carroll ate some of the magic mushroom that his friend Alice found down in that rabbit hole before he wrote this. 

But the fake story of my death was highly embarrassing to me.  Even the slithy toves were giving me a hard time about it.  Cackling and crowing from high in the Tumtum trees, but carefully staying out of my reach, “Hey Jabberwock.  Keep your head screwed on tighter the next time you see that kid.  You’re getting too old and slow, Jabberwock, even one of the human kids took you.”

“Come down a little lower and say that,” I snarled but they just went up a little higher in the trees, cackling in their annoying way.  “That’s right, go up higher so a Jubjub bird can get you,” I said, and that quieted them.   

One of the Bandersnatchs saw me as my claw was healing, and it just shook its head in a pitying way.  It’s really the pits when you get pitied by a Bandersnatch.

So I had to do something to get my self-respect back.  Not to speak of regaining the respect and fear of the others instead of being a joke.  But how?  That vorpal sword gleams like it’s made from the light of Jaba and it is sharp!

I figured that the human brat would be coming out after me again since he got so much attention when he winged me the first time we met.  He was a hero to the hive, and all because that Carroll made up such a fantastic story.  Losing my head—Gad!!

I planned to lure him deeper into the tulgey wood than he was used to going.  The humans mostly stick to the edges of the wood and really don’t like the dark, deep woods back where the mome raths grow unless they go in a mob.  The mome raths outgrabe in the bright light of Jaba but when Simi rises and shines its red light on us, their limbs begin to move.  I figured that their slow constant movement would be distracting to that would-be Jabberwock killer and also I see better in the red light.  So I planned my route ahead of time to lure him from the edge of the woods near the human hive, among the Tumtum trees, circling back into the deep woods, curving so he wouldn’t notice he was getting in deeper and deeper.  And my flaming eyes would be the beacon that he would see and follow eagerly.  (Of course my eyes aren’t really on fire; they just glow brightly with bioluminescence. (I like that word—bioluminescence—six syllables, you know.)

And then I waited.  And waited.  On the days he came out hunting when Jaba was in the sky, I just quietly whiffled back into the woods and he never saw me since I kept my flaming eyes half lidded.   Finally the day came when Simi was high in the sky and he came out of the hive with his vorpal sword to look for me.  From the shadows of the Tumtum trees, I winked my flaming eyes at him and then whiffled back along the route I had planned, and sure enough he took off after me.  It was easy to stay just far enough ahead so that he would follow me and yet not catch up. 

Deeper and deeper into the woods.  He was so intent on catching up to me he never noticed how far he had come until he was startled to see the moving, clutching limbs of the mome raths all around him.  He stopped, unsure about continuing, but I burble to lure him on and he came on after me.  Right into the thickest part of the wood where the mome raths crowd right up to the path.  I hooded my eyes and he stopped, looking for the glow of my eyes.  The mome raths’ limbs clutched at him; distracted, he tried to knock them away with his vorpal sword, and that’s when I sprocked him.  It was over in a flash.  Who needs a sword?  I bit his head clean off and spit it out.  The slithy toves had followed me and they now changed their tune and begged for his body.  “He’s yours,” I said generously, willing to let bygones be bygones, and I whiffled away. 

It was a frabjous day!!

And now you know the rest of the story.