Spearfish Lake Tales
Contemporary Mainstream Books and Serials Online
“She sure is a nice lady,” Bree said as they rode back toward home with two bikes in the bed of the pickup truck and a credit card slip in Mark’s shirt pocket.
Time for an object lesson, Mark thought. “She sure is,” he smiled. “She’s not afraid to try new things and learn them. A few years ago she’d never even seen a dogsled, except maybe on TV. Now she’s one of four people in this town who’s driven one of them clear across Alaska, and she’s done it twice. She found that not only did she like it, she was good at it.”
“I don’t know,” Bree said reluctantly. “I don’t think I’d like it. I don’t like dogs.”
“Have you ever had a dog, or even had a chance to be friendly with one?”
“Well, no,” she admitted.
“Did you ever have a cat, or a chance to be friendly with one?”
“No. At least not until I met Perky.”
“But you like Perky, don’t you?”
“I sure do,” she nodded. “He’s so friendly and cuddly. I love the way he purrs when he gets on my lap.”
“And I’ll bet you thought you wouldn’t like cats, either.” Mark could have said more, but realized he didn’t need to. He could see he’d gotten the lesson across. It was going to take her a while to learn how to ride a bike confidently and safely, but Candice had at least gotten her started and had promised to work with her more tomorrow after school. I owe Candice a big one for that, he thought. Maybe it was just the natural instinct of a good mom, but maybe she’d opened up a door to Bree a little bit.
The rest of the week went pretty smoothly. Bree spent several evenings after school that week down at Spearfish Lake Outfitters, and one afternoon Mark was pleased to see her ride her bike up to the front of Marlin Computer, if a little wobbly, stop, get off, and come in. “You know, that’s kind of fun,” she reported. “I wish I’d learned to ride a bike earlier.”
“Lots of things are like that, Bree,” he told her. “You’re just going to have to try some other things, too, and I’ll try to help. Who knows, you might find something you like better than airplanes.”
“I don’t think that’s going to happen,” she smiled. “Uncle Mark, when can we go flying again? We didn’t get to go last weekend, and it’s been too long.”
“We probably ought to try to get out this evening,” he said after thinking about it for a moment. “We’ve got a busy weekend coming, with several things we have to do.”
“Great!” she said. “I love flying!”
Becca’s softball team ate up a lot of her after-school time in practices, and in games on Tuesday and Thursday. They won one going away, and lost one in a squeaker, but as far as Mark was concerned, it wasn’t all that important. Becca was having fun with her softball, and seemed to be making new friends. With her outgoing personality, it seemed like she was off to a good start in Spearfish Lake. He wished things were as easy with Bree, and when he suggested that she look into getting on a beginner’s level softball team, she was still less than excited about the possibility. Mark thought it might be because she didn’t want to be measured against her older sister, and he figured he could understand that. After all, many years before he’d tried to avoid following in Larry’s footsteps when he could, too.
On Friday morning Mark was sitting in his office at Marlin Computer, feeling a little bit bored. There were things he could have been doing, but some of them were for Marlin.com, and they were things that would be undone in a little more than a month when the new owners took over, so he didn’t see any point in even starting them. The system is working now, he thought, and it would most likely still be working on July 1, when he wouldn’t have to worry about it anymore. So, there didn’t seem to be any point in worrying about it.
He was shuffling papers around in an attempt to look busy for Kenny and Roger, but mostly he was trying to get his mind around the realization that in a few more weeks he wouldn’t have much to do around Marlin Computer. Kenny and Roger managed to handle all the routine stuff, mostly leaving him with paperwork to deal with, and that was less than satisfactory in his mind. There has to be something else for me to do, he thought.
While they’d been riding in Gil’s motor home the previous weekend, the subject of a boat had come up between Mike and him once again. It was just talk, something to help the miles pass, but the idea of getting one and learning how to operate it seemed like something new to learn, if nothing else. Somewhere along in the discussion the idea had come up of getting a cheap older one that needed some work, partly to save money but partly to learn how to do the work and maintenance, too. And, restoring a boat might increase its value, so it wouldn’t be a total waste of money, although Mark could see that the time going into it wouldn’t draw much of a rate of return.
In odd periods over the past week Mark had spent a little time on various web sites, looking for a possible cheap boat that didn’t look like too big a project to rebuild. He’d seen a few likely prospects, boats that were big enough to offer some challenge and eat up some time, but had to admit he didn’t know enough about boats to make an intelligent decision on anything he saw. He realized he was going to have to find someone to get him started, much like Candice had gotten Bree started with riding a bike – but who that person would be, he had no idea.
He knew Vern Mingstrom a little, and he might be a possibility, he thought. Vern ran the Spearfish Lake Marina, and Mark had fixed his computer system now and then over the years. The problem with Vern was that he would probably want to sell Mark something, rather than just passing along information that would help him make up his mind about what he was looking for in the first place. Mark wasn’t sure what he wanted at the moment and didn’t want to get subjected to a sales job, so he wasn’t quite ready to go to Vern just yet.
Mark was still kicking the idea of rebuilding a boat around in his mind and getting nowhere when he heard a voice at the door. “Hey, Mark,” he heard Ryan Clark say, “You doing anything useful?”
“Not really,” Mark replied, glad to see an old friend. Clark was one of the Vietnam veterans who had gone to Vietnam to look for Henry Toivo years before. He was definitely one of the good guys, and his contributions to the expedition had been a key to its success. What was more, Ryan had been president and chairman of the board of Clark Plywood, Spearfish Lake’s largest industry and biggest employer, for something like twenty-five years. He had a reputation for taking care of his workers and taking care of the community. He probably wasn’t the wealthiest person in Spearfish Lake, but he wasn’t hurting, either.
Mark wasn’t quite as close with Ryan as he was with, say, Gil, but they were friends and had been friends since clear back in grade school. “In fact, it’s a little dull around here right now,” Mark continued.
“Boy, I wish I could say the same thing,” Ryan shook his head. “You going to the ceremony on Monday?”
“Wouldn’t miss it,” Mark said. Every year for fifteen years, the veterans of the Toivo expedition gathered at Henry’s grave for a quiet moment of remembrance. It was nothing special, just a quiet admission that they had an absent friend who was still missed, but one they’d done their best to honor as the years went by.
“Me, either,” Ryan agreed. “Boy, the time sure passes, doesn’t it?”
“It does indeed,” Mark replied. “It sure doesn’t seem like fifteen years.”
“Can’t be, but I guess it is, at least if the calendar isn’t lying to me. So how are things going with those two new girls of yours?”
“Still getting our feet under us, and that means all of us. The girls losing their mother was pretty traumatic for them, and we’re all still working it out. However, we seem to be making progress. They seem to be pretty good kids, and they ought to keep life interesting for a while.”
“Kids will do that to you,” Ryan agreed. “Now that I’ve got grandkids in town, they do it to me, too.”
Realizing that it was very unlikely that a man as busy as Ryan Clark had just dropped by to shoot the shit, Mark asked, “So, what can I do for you today?”
“Gil tells me you’re selling Marlin.com, and are looking for something else to do.”
“I am, on both counts,” Mark told him without reluctance. It wasn’t as if it was a big secret, even though Mike hadn’t put anything into the Record-Herald about it yet. “I got an offer that was just too good to pass up, but it’s too early for me to think about retiring. I’d go nuts sitting around on my dead ass.”
“I think I would, too,” Ryan said, sliding over to one of Mark’s office chairs and sitting down. “Fortunately it’s still up the road a piece for me, too, and I don’t have anything else I really want to do, except maybe to do a little more traveling. Anyway, what Gil said got me to thinking. I’ve got a problem out at the plant, and the thought crossed my mind that you might be the one to solve it.”
“Computer issue?” Mark said. “We already have a contract to do your computer maintenance, and I know you don’t have enough of a network to make it an issue. In fact, you probably could stand a little healthier network, but I don’t know enough about your procedures to know what to recommend for you.”
“Well, the network is part of the issue, but it’s not the one that’s bugging me,” Ryan said. “This one is out in the warehouse. You know much about it?”
“I’ve been out there once or twice,” Mark said. “Boy, I don’t know how you keep track of all that stuff out there.”
“That’s the problem,” Ryan shook his head. “For years, the way we kept track of everything was Art Lewis. I swear he knew where every damn skid of product was located, what it was, and who it had to go to. It’s the only way we ever kept track of everything for years and years. The only problem is that Art retired here a while back.”
“And now everything is a mess,” Mark nodded understandingly. Inventory control could occasionally be a problem around Marlin Computer, and they didn’t have anything like the number of items Clark Plywood must have kicking around.
“Boy, have you got it,” Ryan shook his head. “I’ve got a guy out there now who’s worked there for years, and he knows his stuff, but he doesn’t have that memory for everything Art did. Let me tell you, it is irritating as goddamn hell to have an order for some special product being loaded on a rail car come up two skids short of the order and have no idea where in hell to look for them. Every once in a while a skid wasn’t where Art thought it should be, but he knew who had to have moved it, and they caught hell over it too. Now, some shit like that comes up eight or ten times a week, and it’s driving everybody nuts. Me, too; when they need some extra hands to look for a skid of this or that, somehow it seems to wind up in my office, and I’m out there looking myself, which is a total waste of time.”
“Well, it’s pretty easily solved,” Mark told him. “There’s all kinds of inventory control and warehousing software out there. Some of it is pretty good, some is so-so, but there should be something there that would serve your needs.”
“I’ve taken a look at it,” Ryan said. “The hell of it is, it doesn’t seem to go far enough. You know how when you go through the checkout line at the Super Market, there’s a bar code on everything? All you have to do is run it over the scanner, and you’ve got the price, discounts, and other stuff like that?”
“Sure. If anything, it’s old technology. It’s been around for years.”
“Right. Well, I got to thinking about it and it seems to me it ought to be possible to pop a bar code sticker on every damn skid as soon as the banding goes on. The bar code could tell us what the product is, who it’s for, what its specs are, what machine and line it came off of, things like that.”
“Sure, that’s no problem,” Mark replied. “It’d have to be a little different than a grocery store, but there’s plenty of stuff available off the shelf that could do the job, and just take a little programming to make work. Cookbook stuff, and probably very little adaptation needed.”
“Right again,” Ryan said. “Then it came to me. What happens if somehow, there would be some kind of system that could keep track of where in hell in the warehouse that skid is? You have to bear in mind that a fork truck driver can move a stack of one product to get to another one, and not bother to tell anyone he’d moved the first stack. Two moves later it’s lost and we have to send out a search party. That kind of shit is what’s causing all the problems in the first place.”
“Mmmm,” Mark thought out loud. “That’s a little tougher. The problem is that you need a tag for the skid that costs almost nothing, something like a few cents apiece, since they’re probably going to go out the door with the skid. It could be done with GPS, but that might not be accurate enough. There might be something like a radio frequency chip, like some people put in pet’s ears to identify them if they’re lost. I don’t know what they cost, though, but you might be able to set up a net of detectors that would at least give you a general location of where each skid is. There’s probably a better way, this is just off the top of my head.”
“There about has to be something commercial like that out there,” Ryan shook his head. “I mean, we can’t be that unique in industry. This kind of problem has got to be common enough that some new tech company had to have hopped on it years ago.”
“I’m sure there must be,” Mark agreed, thinking back over articles he’d read on various new developments here and there. “I’ve read about those kinds of things in general, but I’ve never needed to look into the specifics.”
“That’s what I’d like you to do for me,” Ryan said. “The only thing I know about systems like that is that they’re bound to be expensive up front, and they’re even more expensive if you have to invent something to make it work at all. I haven’t got the time or the technical skills to do it, and I’m sure that if I brought in some salesman from some company with a system that seemed to be able to do the job, I’d get a load of technical bullshit that I couldn’t understand. I wouldn’t be able to tell if the thing would work at all. You at least have some idea of where to look, and know enough about the technical end to be able to wade through a salesman’s bullshit and tell if the system is going to work for us or not.”
“Yeah, I can see how that could be a problem,” Mark nodded. “What’s more, you haven’t even defined the requirements of what you’re going to need. Without even thinking about it too much, you’re going to want some kind of a system that can stand up to the environmental stresses, be reliable, and capable of having very unskilled people able to understand, well, not how it’s run, but how to use the info it puts out. I’m probably missing quite a bit in that statement, but that’s just off the top of my head.”
“Right again,” Ryan agreed. “To begin with, while you’re researching what’s available, you’d have to develop the specs for the system, get recommendations, and oversee installation, getting it up and going, then make sure it keeps going, especially while people are learning how to use it. This isn’t something that needs to be done next week, but it needs to be done soon, and within a budget we can handle. Like I said, I can’t do it. I don’t have the time, don’t know enough about the systems or what’s available, and I don’t know enough to detect when a salesman is talking the talk but can’t walk the walk. I think you can, and you’re going to have time enough to learn what you need to know, both in the plant and with the system manufacturers. You interested?”
“Pretty interested,” Mark admitted. “It sounds like a knotty problem that could take a few months to sort out, and you’d still probably have to have someone to monitor the system just to make sure it’s working right and deal with problems. Actually, I was just thinking about the same sort of knowledge problem, but in a different area. Sure, I’ll help you out with it. It doesn’t solve my real problem, which is finding something to do for the next ten years, but this ought to solve four to six months of it.”
“Don’t be so damn sure about that. Now that this problem has gotten me thinking about how some kind of information system could help to solve the ongoing warehouse problem, I think I’m seeing other places where some production control computerization could solve some other problems. For example, there could be some places we could use some more automation to do a better job of assuring the quality of the product. Have you ever been in the wood pellet plant?”
“No, I’ve been by it a couple times, but that’s it.”
“It’s a lot more complicated and involved than most people think. There the problem is process monitoring for quality control. It’s been an issue from the first, but it’s becoming more of one as time goes along. I haven’t even started to get a handle on that one yet, since it’s not quite as pressing as this problem with the warehouse. Again, I need someone who can spend the time in the plant to understand the problem, understand the system that’s going to be needed, develop the specs, and then cut through the sales crap to be sure we can get the system we need at a price we can afford. To tell the truth, it wouldn’t surprise me if this is a more-or-less ongoing thing, because by the time we get to the far end we’ll probably have to start over again on the near end.”
“I hate to say this, because it sounds interesting, but maybe you need a specialist in these sorts of things.”
“Yeah, maybe so,” Ryan agreed. “But I’d rather have someone I know and trust who is willing to take the time to learn about the problem and search for the right solution. Again, we run into the problem of my not being able to understand the bullshit that’s being shoveled at me, especially from someone I don’t know well enough to trust. That’s why when I heard about the fact that you were going to have some time on your hands that I pretty well knew I had my answer. I think it’ll take less time for you to learn what you need to know than it would take for an outsider to come in and have to teach him what a fork truck and a skid of composition board is. And, like I said, I know I can trust you.”
“About all I can say is that I’ll take a swing at it, and see if I can help. If I feel like I’m in over my head and can’t figure it out, I’ll tell you. To be honest, that’s about all I can promise.”
“That’s about all I can ask for,” Clark smiled. “If we don’t get any further than settling this warehouse problem, then that’ll still be a big headache taken care of.”
“Sounds good to me,” Mark agreed. “The one thing I think we have to work out is to figure how you’re going to pay me. I mean, am I going to be an employee, or a consultant, or are we going to do this through Marlin Computer?”
“My guess is there’ll be times you have to put in a lot of hours, but there’ll be times there won’t be much going on for you to do,” Clark scratched his head. “To be honest, I hadn’t even thought about that situation. It strikes me that with the varying time, it might be better if you were hourly as a consultant. I’m sure we can work out a reasonable rate based on the consultant work Marlin Computer has done for us in the past. Whether you want to do it as an independent or as Marlin Computer, you’re the one that’s going to have to decide that.”
“I’ll think about it,” Mark promised. “Marlin.com has always been separate from Marlin Computer, at least as far as the bookkeeper and the IRS are concerned. It might be a good idea to continue like that, or it might be a better idea to set up a separate entity, because there are some other considerations involved. Either way, I’ll probably still be working out of this office.”
“Well, it might be worthwhile for you to have a small office out at the plant. It might make it more convenient for you, since there will be times you’ll spend a lot of time out there.”
“You might be right at that. You have some office space available, I take it?”
“Yeah, no problem. It won’t be a big office, but you’ll be able to work in it.”
“Just have to see how it works out, I guess,” Mark replied. “It’s probably not worthwhile to get started today, since the day is half shot already and I need to take off early since I have company coming. Monday is Memorial Day, but I guess I could get started Tuesday.”
“Good enough,” Ryan told him. “In fact, it’s going to push me to figure out how to get you started. I figure the first thing you need to do is to get a better idea of the warehousing problem, and the conditions in the plant. Once you get a handle on that, you can start developing specs, although I’d guess you could start preliminary research on available systems pretty soon.”
“Yeah, we’ll have to work out a plan of how to approach this, too,” Mark agreed. “Like I said, this is going to take care of one problem. More than one problem.”
“No, trying to figure out whether to rebuild a boat this summer. I wasn’t sure I wanted to do it anyway, but now I won’t have to. I’ve got something else that’s new to interest me instead.”