The Great Potlatch Riots

by Allen Kim Lang

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: Oh, leave it to the bureaucrats and they'll figure out new ways to make you buy more and more.... But there was only one way the poor consumer could rise up in his wrath.

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

“I’ve sweated for months over the plans for this campaign,” Captain Wesley Winfree told the Major. “Just nod, sir; that’s all I ask; and I’ll throw my forces into the field.”

“I admire your audacity, Winfree,” Major Stanley Dampfer said, “but don’t you think we’d be wise to consolidate our current positions before launching a fresh offensive?”

Captain Winfree, straight in his scarlet-trimmed winter greens, tapped the toe of one boot with his swagger-stick. “With all respect, sir,” he said, “I feel that if we do no more than hold the line, we’re lending moral comfort to the foes of prosperity. Attack! That’s my battle-plan, sir. Attack! And attack again!”

Major Dampfer, seated behind Winfree’s desk, stretched out his legs and sighed. “You younger officers, men who’ve never in your lives tasted defeat, are an inspiration and a trial to us old field-graders,” he said. “Captain, a project that failed could set your District back fifteen years.”

“I realize that, sir,” Winfree said. “I’m placing my career in the balance. If I attempt this, and goof, ship me to the sticks, Major. I’d rather spend the rest of my BSG years as a corporal, a simple Potlatch Observer in a downstate village, than never to have embarked on this campaign.”

“Young Napoleon must have been very like you, Winfree,” Major Dampfer mused. “Very well, lad. Brief me.”

“Yes, sir!” Captain Winfree marched over to the giant calendar that covered one wall of his office and tapped his stick against the three dates circled in red. “We’ve established this triangle of strong-points,” he said. “We control the second Sunday in May and the third Sunday in June in addition to our first and most vital holding, the twenty-fifth of December. I regard these three victories, sir, as only beachheads, only the softening-up phases of a still greater campaign. We must press on toward Total Prosperity.”

“How, Winfree?” Major Dampfer asked.

“By adding three hundred and sixty-two days a year to our laurels, sir,” Winfree said, sweeping his swagger-stick across the face of the calendar. “My plan is to make every consumer’s birthday a Gratuity Day for each of his Nearest-and-Dearest.”

Major Dampfer sat up straight. “Captain,” he said softly, “this is Thinking Big. This could lend billions a year to the Gross National Product. It could mean a major break-through on the Prosperity front. Are you really proposing that each consumer be required to give birthday presents to the same people, and on the same scale, as he now gives Xmas Gratuities?”

“Precisely, sir,” Captain Winfree said. “My staff has in the files the birthdate of every consumer in the District. Enforcement of the new quotas I propose will be no more difficult than the old: the same scale of fines for non-compliance, the same terms of imprisonment for repeated offenses will be imposed. The dates-of-destruction to be marked on Birthday Gratuities will be set as the next Potlatch Day, plus one year. Merchandise will be marked with the year-date precisely as is now done for Xmas, Dad’s Day, and Mom’s Day gifts. Birthday-cards will be addressed and sent from this office, just like Xmas cards.”


Major Dampfer stood and drew on his uniform gauntlets. “May I assume that you’ve covered the field public-relations-wise?” he asked.

“Yes, sir,” Captain Winfree said. “I’ve composed a slogan for this year’s drive in my District: ‘Make the Magi Come the Year ‘Round--Birthday Gratuities for All!’”

“It sings, Winfree,” Major Dampfer said. “I like it. Captain, you have my nod. Carry on with this program. If you win the battle for this District, I’ll get you a desk in Washington and Divisional Command; you’ll help us tailor your plan to fit the entire nation.”

“Thank you, sir,” Winfree said, grinning. “I won’t disappoint you.”

“You’d best not,” the Major said. He paused by the office door. “Captain Winfree, the word is on the grapevine that you’re planning to marry one of the corporals in your office. That right?”

“Yes, sir,” Winfree said. “Peggy and I have set the wedding for twenty-three December, the day before Potlatch. We’d be delighted should your duties allow you to attend, Major.”

“I’ll be there,” Major Dampfer promised. “And as a little gift from the Bureau of Seasonal Gratuities, Winfree, I order you to move out on your new campaign that same day: twenty-three December.” He raised a gauntleted hand. “No, Captain! Don’t protest that you’ll be needed here. Your work is strategy, not tactics. Your plans can be implemented by your staff while you’re off on your honeymoon.”

“Whatever you say, sir,” Winfree said.

“I’d be further gratified,” the Major continued, “if you’d hold the ceremony right here in your Headquarters Building. We of the BSG must establish some traditions, Winfree; the other Services have a century-and-a-half’s lead on us in that field. So, if the lovely corporal approves, we’ll make yours a proper military wedding.”

“All this is very good of you, sir,” Captain Winfree said. “I’m certain Peggy will be pleased.”

“Good!” Major Dampfer said. “I’ll handle all the details. Winfree, you’ve got the quality we used to know as Old-Fashioned Intestinal Fortitude, back in the day when a spade was called a spade and no apologies about it. We need more men like you in the Bureau.” He snapped a salute. “Carry on, Captain; and Happy Potlatch!”

“A Very Happy Potlatch to you, sir!” Winfree said, tossing back the salute. “And a Merry Xmas!”

Captain Winfree walked to the big window in the outer office to watch Major Dampfer driven off in his sergeant-chauffeured, scarlet-and-green BSG Rolls limousine. Then he about-faced without warning to glare at his little command, the eight non-coms, the twenty-seven Other Ranks, the four young lieutenants. They all sat silent, watching him as though waiting for confirmation of an unpleasant rumor. Not a file-cabinet stood open, not a typewriter was moving. “Listen, you people,” Winfree growled, pointing his swagger-stick like a weapon, not sparing even Corporal Peggy MacHenery his anger; “We’ve got a Potlatch Day coming up, the biggest ever. Now get on the ball, dammit! I don’t want to see one of you stopping for breath again till Xmas Day.” The lieutenants and sergeants flushed; the girl privates jumped their fingers onto typewriter keys. “Corporal MacHenery,” Winfree said, “bring your notepad to my office.”


Peggy MacHenery, Corporal, Bureau of Seasonal Gratuities, followed her commanding officer and husband-designate into his office. “Close the door, Corporal,” Winfree said. Peggy did so, and took her chair next to his desk, the pad open on her knee and her fountain pen at the ready. “No dictation,” Captain Winfree said. “Please forgive me for taking valuable official time for a personal matter, Corporal; especially after that little display of tyranny I just put on out there. Peggy, Major Dampfer has ordered us to hold our wedding here at District Headquarters. He’ll bring in a transport loaded with BSG brass, fly in a band to give us a send-off with pibrochs and marches and double-flams; and he’ll probably set up an arch of sabers for us to parade through. Do you mind all this very much, Peggy?”


She snapped her notepad shut. “Daddy will be furious,” she said.

“Your dad is already so worked up about your marrying me, a BSG-man, that a little extra anger won’t even show,” Winfree said. “I’m convinced that he’s teaching me fencing only in hopes I’ll have a fatal accident.”

“Nonsense!” Peggy said. She tossed her notebook on the desk and stood to take Winfree’s hand. “Don’t make Daddy out a monster, Wes. About the other thing, the military wedding, I don’t care. I’d marry you in a beer-barrel, if you wanted it that way.”

Captain Winfree took the girl’s free hand. “Peggy,” he said, “you’re the greatest! Now the good news. Major Dampfer has approved my plans for instituting Birthday Gratuity Quotas in this District. Aren’t you glad for me?”

“Glad?” Peggy demanded, pulling away. “Wes, do you think the consumers of this District will put up with another invasion of their pocketbooks, let alone their private sentiments?”

“Peggy, if you’re going to gripe every time the Bureau raises the quotas a notch,” Winfree said, “you don’t belong in that uniform you’re wearing.”

“Want me to take it off?” Peggy challenged, reaching for the top button of her blouse.

“No, dammit!” Winfree said. “But if you’re going to discuss the propriety of every decision I make, please have the grace to wait till we’re outside District Headquarters to do it.”

“Yes, sir; thank you, sir,” Peggy said. She saluted. “Is there anything more you want to chew me out about, sir?”

Winfree saluted back, then growled at himself for the reflex. “Woman,” he said, “once we’re married I want to see your request for discharge lying here on my desk. How the devil can an officer run an organization when one of the enlisted personnel, the corporal he’s in love with, persists in subordination?”

“I can’t quit,” Peggy said. “We’ll need my salary, Wes, if only to pay off our BSG quotas. What with buying Xmas presents, gifts for Mom’s Day and Pop’s Day, and sending Birthday Gratuities to every name on our combined Nearest-and-Dearest lists, we’ll be living on rice and soybeans till you make Light Colonel. Quit? Wes, if you expect to eat regular after we’re married, you’d best put me in for sergeant’s stripes.”

“Please, Peggy,” Winfree asked. “We’ll discuss this all tonight, off duty, if I survive your father’s swordplay. For now, please let letters out to all District wholesalers, telling them of the Birthday Quotas and the new dating procedures. Have one of the lieutenants open the secret files for you--it’s all under ‘Operation Nativity.’ You can get at it right away.”

“Very well, Captain, sir,” Peggy said. “Happy Potlatch, sir.” She about-faced and marched out, banging the office door behind her.

“Happy Potlatch be damned!” Captain Winfree said, flinging his swagger-stick toward the calendar.


The MacHenery home was all gables and pinnacles and spooled porch-pillars, very like an enormous wedding-cake, every horizontal surface now frosted with a thin layer of snow. Captain Winfree tugged off his gauntlets, rang the bell, and stood straighter than usual to withstand the hostile inspection of Kevin MacHenery, Peggy’s father.

Mr. MacHenery opened the door. Captain Winfree, although retaining his smile of greeting, groaned inwardly. MacHenery was wearing his canvas fencing outfit, flat-soled shoes, and carried a foil in one hand. “My you are a gorgeous sight, all Kelly-green and scarlet piping, like a tropical bird that’s somehow strayed into the snowfields,” MacHenery said. “Do come in, Captain, and warm your feathers.”

“Thank you, sir,” Winfree said, brushing the snow from his cap. He peeled off his overcoat and hung it on the hall tree, sticking his swagger-stick in one of its pockets. “Peggy busy?” he asked, hoping that her appearance would preclude his being given another unsolicited fencing-lesson.

“After having spent two hours in the bathroom with a curry-comb and a bottle of wave-set,” MacHenery said, “my daughter has finally got down to work in the kitchen. We have time for an engagement at steel in the parlor, if you’d care to refine your style, Captain.”

“Just as you say, sir,” Winfree said.

“Your politeness offends me, Wes,” Kevin MacHenery complained, handing him a foil and a wire-mesh mask. “Slip off your shoes. It’s a terrible burden you are laying on the shoulders of an aging man, being so well-spoken when he likes nothing more than an argument. Now assume the on guard position, Wesley.”

Winfree obediently placed his feet at right angles, raised his foil, and “sat down,” assuming the bent-leg position and feeling his leg-muscles, still sore from his last session with MacHenery, begin to complain. “You’re holding your foil like a flyswatter,” MacHenery said. “Here, like this!”

“None of that, Daddy,” Peggy said, appearing from the kitchen. “I’ll not have you two sitting down to eat all sweaty and out of breath, like last time Wes was over here.”

“She treats me like a backward child,” MacHenery said. He took a bottle from a shelf and poured generous dollops of Scotch into two glasses, one of which he handed to Winfree. “Inasmuch as I disapprove of the coming season,” he said, “I’ll offer you no toast, Captain.”

“You don’t care even for Xmas?” Winfree asked in a tone of mild reproach.

“Ex-mas?” MacHenery demanded. “What the devil is this nor-fish-nor-fowl thing you call Ex-mas? Some new festival, perhaps, celebrated by carillons of cash-register chimes?”

Christmas, if you prefer, sir,” Winfree said. “We in the Bureau of Seasonal Gratuities get used to using the other name. We use the word so much in writing that cutting it from nine letters to four saves some thirty thousand dollars annually, in this District alone.”

“That’s grand,” MacHenery said. He sat down with his whiskey. “Simply grand.”

“We could drink to a Happy Potlatch,” Captain Winfree suggested.

“I’d sooner toast my imminent death by tetanus,” MacHenery said.

“I’d like to taste this stuff,” Winfree said. “Let’s compromise. Can we drink to Peggy?”

“Accepted,” MacHenery said, raising his glass. “To my Peggy--our Peggy.” He gave the whiskey the concentration it deserved. Then, “You know, Wesley,” he said, “if you weren’t in the BSG I could like you real well. I’d rejoice at your becoming my son-in-law. Too bad that you wear the enemy uniform.”


“The BSG is hardly an enemy,” Winfree said. “It’s been an American institution for a long time. This is excellent whiskey.”

“We’ll test a second sample, to see whether its quality stands up through the bottle,” MacHenery suggested. “For all we know, they may be putting the best on top.” He poured them each another. “Yes, Wesley, the Bureau of Seasonal Gratuities has been with the American consumer quite a while. Twenty years it’ll be, come next Potlatch Day. You were brought up in the foul tradition, Wes. You don’t know what our country was like in the good old days, when Christmas was spelled with a C instead of an X.”

“I know that a paltry twenty billion dollars a year were spent on Xmas--sorry, sir--on Christmas Gratuities, back before my Bureau came on the scene to triple that figure, to bring us all greater prosperity.”

“Your Bureau brought us the stink of burning,” MacHenery said. “It brought us the Potlatch Pyres.”

“Yes, Potlatch!” Captain Winfree said. “Potlatch Pyres and Potlatch Day--childhood’s brightest memory. Ah, those smells from the fire! The incense of seared varnish; the piny smoke from building-blocks tossed into the flames; the thick wool stinks of dated shirts and cowboy-suits, gasoline-soaked and tossed into the Potlatch Pyre. My little brother, padded fat in his snowsuit, toddling up to the fire to toss in his dated sled, then scampering back from the sparks while Mom and Dad smiled at him from the porch, cuddling hot cups of holiday ponchero in their hands.”

“Seduction of the innocents,” MacHenery said. “Training the babes to be wastrels.”

“We loved it,” Winfree insisted. “True, the little girls might cry as they handed a dated doll to the BSG-man; while he prepared it for suttee with a wash of gasoline and set it into the fire; but little girls, as I suppose you know, relish occasions for weeping. They cheered up mighty quick, believe me, when the thermite grenades were set off, filling the night air with the electric smell of molten metal, burning dated clocks and desk-lamps, radios and humidors, shoes and ships and carving-sets; burning them down to smoke and golden-glowing puddles under the ashes of the Potlatch Pyre. Then the fireworks, Mr. MacHenery. The fireworks! The BSG-man touching a flaming torch to the fuses of the mortars; a sizzle and a burst; the Japanese star-shells splitting the sky, splashing across the night’s ceiling, scattering from their pods, blossoming into Queen Anne’s Lace in a dozen colors of fire.”

“Fire and destruction,” MacHenery said. “There’s your holiday for children--fire and destruction!”

“You missed it, sir,” Winfree said. “You don’t understand. Potlatch is a wonderful day for children, a glorious introduction to the science of economics. The boys light Roman candles, shooting crimson and orchid and brass-flamed astonishers into the clouds. A soft fog of snow makes fuzzy smears of the pinwheels, of the children racing, sparklers in both hands, across the frozen lawn. Dad lights the strings of cannon-crackers--at our house they used to dangle from a wire strung across the porch, like clusters of giant phlox--and they convulse into life, jumping and banging and scattering their red skins onto the snow, filling the air with the spice of gunpowder.


“The high-school kids come home from their Potlatch Parties...”

“Wreckage and mayhem,” MacHenery grunted. “We used to throw the same kind of parties when I was a tad, but they were against the law, back then. We called ‘em chicken-runs.”

“But nowadays, sir, those Potlatch Parties contribute to the general prosperity,” Winfree explained. “Used-car lots used to border all the downtown streets, anchors on progress. Now those dated cars are smashed, and used for scrap. The high-school drivers work off their aggressions ramming them together. And there’s no mayhem, Mr. MacHenery; the BSG-man assigned to Potlatch Parties strap the kids in safe and make sure their crash-helmets fit tight. It’s all clean fun.”

“Morally,” MacHenery said, “Potlatch Parties are still chicken-runs.”


Peggy came back, as sleek and crisp as though cooking were an expensive sort of beauty treatment. “Supper will be ready in five minutes,” she said. “If you tigers will wash up...”

“We’ll drink up, first,” her father said. “This man of yours has been feeding me BSG propaganda. I’m not sure I have any appetite left.”

“What started you hating the Bureau of Seasonal Gratuities, Mr. MacHenery?” Winfree said.

MacHenery poured them each a drink. “You ever read Suetonius, Wes?” he asked.

“No, sir.”

“Yours is a generation of monoglots,” MacHenery sighed. “It figures, though. There’s no profit in having today’s youth read the clinical record of another civilization that died of self-indulgence, that went roistering to its doom in a carnival of bloat.”

“Doom?” Winfree asked.

“Doom richly deserved,” MacHenery said. “Old Suetonius describes, for example, an instrument that accompanied dinner-parties during the reigns of the last few Caesars. It was a device that accomplished, two thousand years ago, the function of our proud Bureau of Seasonal Gratuities. A feather, my boy. A simple goose-quill.”

“I don’t understand,” Winfree said.

“I’d be hurt if you did, Captain,” MacHenery said. “I’ve set my mind on explaining the point. Now you see, Wes, the late Caesars were pretty good consumers of everything but petroleum, we having that edge on them. They spread a mighty fine table. A gourmet would bring to Rome caviar from the Caucasus, peaches from Majorca, and, for all I know, kippers from Britain. Picture it, Wesley: cherries served in golden bowls, heaped on the snow trotted down from mountain-tops by marathons of slaves. A dish called The Shield of Minerva was one of their greatest delights; this being an Irish stew compounded of lamprey-milt, pike-livers, flamingo-tongues, and the tiny, tasty brains of pheasants and peacocks; eaten while viewing the floor-show of strip-teasing Circassian girls or--Galba’s invention, this--elephants walking tight-rope. Grand, Wes. No meals like that at the supermarket; no shows like that even on the television.”

“But the feather?” Winfree prompted.

“Ah, yes,” MacHenery said. “The moment our noble Roman had eaten his fill he’d pick up the feather next to his plate and, excusing himself, adjourn to the adjoining vomitorium. A few tickles of the palate, and his first meal would be only a lovely memory. He’d saunter back to his bench by the table again, ready to set to with another helping of Minerva’s Shield.”

“Disgusting,” Winfree said.

“Yes, indeed,” MacHenery agreed, smiling and fitting his fingertips together. “Now attend my simile, Captain. Unlike those feathered Romans of the Decadence, we moderns settle for one meal at a sitting, and let it digest in peace. We have instead our more sophisticated greeds, whetted by subtle persuasions and an assurance that it’s really quite moral to ransom our future for today’s gimmicks.”

“Prosperity requires the cooperation of every citizen,” Captain Winfree said, quoting an early slogan of the BSG.

“Your artificial prosperity requires us, the moment we’re sated with chrome chariots and miracle-fiber dressing-gowns and electronic magics, the minute our children have toys enough to last them through the age of franchise, to take in hand the feather forced upon us by regulation of the Bureau of Seasonal Gratuities and visit the parish Potlatch Pyre, our modern vomitorium, to spew up last year’s dainties to make belly-room for a new lot,” MacHenery said.

“Daddy!” Peggy MacHenery protested from the living-room doorway. “What sort of table-talk is that?”

“Truth is the sweetest sauce, Peggy,” MacHenery said, getting up from his chair. “What delights have you cooked up for us, child?”

“Your favorite dish, Daddy,” Peggy said, grinning at him. “Peacock brains on toast.”


The next two weeks were too busy for Captain Winfree to partner Kevin MacHenery on the fencing-mat. He was double-busy, in fact; planning the biggest Potlatch Day in twenty years at the same time he started the wheels of his project to make birthdays Gratuity Days for every consumer in his District.

The girls, assisted by two of the male sergeants, had decorated the District Headquarters till it glittered like a child’s dream of the North Pole. Against one wall they’d placed the Xmas tree, its branches bearing dozens of dancing elves, Japanese swordsmen, marching squads of BSG-recruits, prancing circus-ponies; all watch-work figures busy with movement, flashing with microscopic lights, humming little melodies that matched their motions. A giant replica of the Bureau’s cap-emblem--the Federal eagle clutching between his talons a banderole bearing the motto, ‘Tis More Blessed to Give Than Receive--had been mounted on the center wall, the place of honor. Beneath the eagle stood a bandstand draped in bunting, ready to accommodate the Bureau of Seasonal Gratuities Brass-Band-and-Glee-Club, the members of which were to fly in from Washington to grace the bridal day with epithalamiums and martial song.

The big work, the eight-hours-a-day and after-supper-overtime work, was the preparation for Potlatch Day, the festival that meant to the BSG what April Fifteenth means to the Internal Revenue Service. Cases of fireworks piled up in the brick warehouse next door to Headquarters. Sawdust-packed thermite grenades were stacked right up to the perforated pipes of the sprinkler system. No Smoking sign blossomed a hundred yards on every side. The blacklists, naming consumers who’d withheld dated gifts from the Potlatch Pyres of earlier years, were brought up to date and distributed to the Reserve BSG Officers in each township of Winfree’s District. These holdouts, it was safe to assume, would be under surveillance on Potlatch Day. Cold-eyed sergeants and lieutenants would make note of the material each of them consigned to the flames, and would cross-check their notes with Nearest-and-Dearest lists to make sure that all post-dated Mom’s Day and Dad’s Day gratuities, all of last Xmas’s gifts, had been destroyed as required by BSG ordinance.

Meanwhile letters piled into Captain Winfree’s office, thousands of them each time the Post Office truck stopped outside Headquarters. Several of these were penned in a brownish stuff purported to be their authors’ lifeblood; and all voiced indignation against Schedule 121B, Table 12, which set minimum levels of cost for the birthday gratuities they’d have to give each of the fifteen persons on their Nearest-and-Dearest lists. Hundreds of protests were printed in the vox populi columns of District newspapers, recommending every printable form of violence against agents of the Bureau. BSG practice was to regard with benign eye public outcry of this sort. No consumer in Winfree’s District, immersed as he was in the debate over Birthday Gratuity Minima, could possibly plead ignorance should he be apprehended in violation of these new regulations.


Finally, it was two days before Xmas, Potlatch Day Minus One. Phone-calls had rippled out from District Headquarters, calling all BSG Reservists to the colors, assigning them to Potlatch Duty in the townships or patrol in the city; telling each officer and non-com where and when to submit his requisition for pyrotechnical devices, gasoline, thermite bombs, and pads of BSG Form No. 217-C, “Incident of Consumer Non-Compliance.” And the day was even more than this. It was the day Captain Wesley Winfree was to wed Corporal Margaret MacHenery in the sight of God, man, and the glitteringest crowd of BSG brass ever assembled outside Washington.

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