BY DOUG HAWLEY
Copyright is held by the author.
JACKIE HELMS was doing her periodic review of the employee groups’ health data for her employer Healthion Insurance, when one set of numbers jumped out at her. The claims rate for Dark Hill Brewers was 45% of normal for similar size employers. She immediately questioned the results, because the next best results were 80% of normal for Jackson’s Department Stores. After rechecking, she came up with the same numbers. Next, she looked at previous results for Dark Hill and found out that the previous year Dark Hill was at 105%. She ran some tests to see if the results were credible for the sample size and found out that they were to plus or minus 5%.
Jackie was completely convinced the results were legitimate, but had no idea about how they could be explained. The approved corporate procedure was to pass the oddity along to her supervisor Jane Goodway, but Jane was known to take all the credit for any good work. To get some credit for her discovery, Jackie emailed chief underwriter Stan Henson. In turn, Stan invited her to lunch to talk about Dark Hill.
Stan said “I just happen to know their head of personnel. Let’s go talk to him.”
Jackie responded “Don’t you mean human resources?”
“One of the things that I like about the Dark Hill execs is that they are dinosaurs like me. No ‘human resources’, ‘people of colour’, ‘issues’ or ‘Baker City’ for us. We think that the language that we used 20 years ago worked just fine. Somebody dying of cancer doesn’t have ‘health issues’ for god’s sake, he has a health problem. If the town is Hood River in Hood River County, why can’t Baker City in Baker County still be Baker?”
Jackie tended to agree with Stan, but she kept quiet because Stan’s rants could go on for half an hour if encouraged.
Stan seemed to catch Jackie’s attitude and moved on. “The two of us will have lunch with their guy Will James next Friday and see if he has any ideas. I’ll clear it with Jane.”
They met in the Dark Hill cafeteria. Will greeted them with “What a good looking couple of white people. How are you today and who is this beauty you brought with you?” Jackie was a little surprised to see a black man in a largely white industry in largely white Bend.
“We are good Will. Jackie is one of our ace statisticians and you are definitely a good looking example of your race.”
The guys laughed a lot, but Jackie couldn’t help feeling a little uncomfortable. Later she understood that it was their silly guy stuff.
“Here’s the deal Will. Jackie applied her advanced mathematics skills to find out that your health claims record is way better than average the last year, but couldn’t find any explanation. She tried similar employee groups and groups for your region. We matched demographics. In every case Dark Hill aced everyone else by a large margin. So, we are here to find out what you are doing right.”
“That is a puzzler. Personally, I’m very healthy as you no doubt know, because I clean your clock every time that we go one on one on the basketball court. Not only that, but the girls always want me to be skins. I hadn’t thought about it before, but I do think that we are trending down on sick days. Right now, I can’t think of anything that’s changed in the last year that would change our claims stats, but I’ll give it a little more thought. Maybe I’ll need to let you know in person. How is the fishing around Wilsonville?”
“I’ll need to find out before you visit.”
“I might show up sooner if all of the statisticians at Healthion look like Jackie.”
“We are getting on troubling grounds, as somebody in human resources, I mean personnel should know. It could be actionable harassment if I told you that Jackie is by far our best looking statistician.”
Jackie worked at keeping a straight face.
On the way back to Wilsonville Jackie asked, “How do you know Will so well?”
“We were fraternity brothers at U of O and both of us were a couple of give a shit jokers, so we naturally bonded together against the tight-asses. Plus, we both liked our dads’ music — Little Richard, Everly Brothers, Ray Charlesand like that and were crazy about the Trail Blazers. He’s married, so I can’t fix him you up with him, but I can set you up with one of his unmarried brothers.”
“Don’t like black guys or do you prefer girls?”
“None of your damned business, but I usually date guys and I’ve dated guys from every recognized ethnic group and some others that only I know about.”
“Sorry about my insensitivity, but I’ve got a mental disability — I’m a guy. How about broken hearts?”
“So far theirs seven and mine five, so I’m up two on the scoreboard. Right now I’m in play.”
It occurred to both of them that it had gotten a little too personal and they didn’t say anything for the next half hour and pretended to watch Smith Rocks north of Bend and then the trees on US26 east of Mt. Hood.
Stan broke the ice with “So aren’t you too bright for your position at Healthion? Not that I’m suggesting you leave.”
“Short answer, yes I am too bright for my position at Healthion. Longer answer, it requires so little of my mind that I can work on my poetry and math games in my head while I’m at work.”
Stan just gawped in response to her revelation. He hoped he didn’t look as stupid as he felt.
“My turn. Since we are getting personal, how long ago were you and Will at the U of O.”
“About mumble years ago.”
“You really just said mumble in place of a number?”
“Yeah, you would never believe the actual number because I look sooo much younger.”
Jackie snorted and some snot came out of her nose, and then they were both guffawing out of control. Rather than being grossed out, Stan was enchanted.
At that point in the trip, they felt so comfortable with each other that they started to run scenarios internally. Jackie thought he’s got to be married or gay and Stan thought there has to be some rule about dating a fellow employee.
They were both wrong.
Three weeks after the trip to Dark Hill, Will called up to ask about the fishing around Wilsonville. Stan said “No idea, but why don’t you come up here and I’ll take you to Wankers Corner which has good beer and all the free peanuts that you can eat. Is this just personal, or do you have an answer about your health claims?”
“Before I answer your question, I have one. Does wanker mean the same thing in Wilsonville that it does in Britain?”
“I’ve wondered that for years. I suspect it means something different in Wilsonville. Probably named after Franklin Wanker, or something like that.”
“OK, I’ll answer your question. I have an idea why our claims are so low, but you probably won’t believe it. Anyway, I want you to take me to dinner and hang out. You know Wilsonville isn’t that far from Bend, buddy.”
“Damn straight, we don’t see enough of each other, brother from a different mother.”
“Stan, please cut out the cheese.”
“OK, that was overboard.”
The next day Will got into Wilsonville and stored some overnight stuff at Stan’s place. Will refused to answer questions about business until they got to Wankers Corner, started on their first beer and shelled some peanuts.
“OK, spill. Now.”
“I see they don’t serve any Dark Hill Stout here. The customers are in line for a lot of health problems.”
“OK, be as skeptical as you want. After racking my brain and asking around the brewery, I was reminded that we started to send a monthly case of beer home with all the employees a year and a half ago. It was cheaper than raises, and it made for happy workers, sometimes too happy. That is the only thing that changed at the time our loss ratio improved. You need to start charging us less for health coverage.”
Without commenting on cheaper health coverage, Stan said “So beer drinkers are healthier? I have a hard time believing that.”
“First, it’s not just any beer, its dark beer. More specifically, it is the Dark Hill Stout, the one that we send home with them.”
“Well, yeah I’m skeptical until we can do more research.”
“I’m good with that. Let’s have another round of this unhealthy beer.”
After they started their second, Will asked “Are you still hanging out with those bimbos since Joyce left?”
“Listen, you do know that they are seeing you for your stash. Worse, they could give you the gift that keeps discharging.”
“Hey, I’m a big boy now, I know about condoms.”
“Here’s what I find troubling. You are working with a beautiful and bright woman. I’m talking about Jackie. Anything going on there? Oh, so you can still blush.”
“It must be my Irish. I have to use SPF 1000 outdoors. Look, she’s a co-worker, there are ethical considerations.”
“Just in case you don’t remember, I’m head of personnel at Dark Hill. There is probably no problem if you are not in the same chain of command.”
Stan considered that and answered. “No, we are parallel in the organization. Not that I’m considering a romance.”
“Sure, you’re not.”
“I don’t know how you can use my explanation for the good health at Dark Hill, but I’m going to put our chemists on it and see if they can find out if our beer is different somehow. I see another Nobel prize in it for me.”
“Another Nobel prize?”
“I got my first one when I disconnected my door bell.”
“Arghh — more drink, less talk.”
Meanwhile Stan didn’t know that Jackie had already checked around and found out that Stan was divorced and very heterosexual, but she didn’t want to make the first move.
Just to be sure, Stan checked with his personnel department and found out that strictly hypothetically he could date Jackie. Given the possibility of a healthy relationship, he realized how miserable that he had been since Joyce left him “to find herself.” A part of “finding herself” involved a poetry professor at Portland State. Under his tutelage, she is trying to get her self-involved poetic treasures published.
With the decks cleared, they approached each other cautiously like two porcupines. It started with lunches together at work, progressed to hikes and picnics and went to weekends at either his or her place. Without any formal announcement, they became recognized as a couple.
After some phone conversations Will and Stan realized that even though they had been best friends in college, it had been a year between their last visit and Stan’s business trip to Bend. For years after college they had been close, but they had gone their own ways for some time. Will assumed, correctly, that some of their estrangement had been caused by Stan’s turmoil with Joyce. Stan had felt so betrayed and guilty about Joyce’s racism, that he felt awkward around Will even after Joyce left him. Joyce would give unsubtle hints like “Can’t you find better friends?”
Stan insisted “It’s about 150 miles; we got to trade visits at least once a month.”
“OK, you come to my place first.”
“OK if I bring Jackie?”
“Listen, I am so happy that you have started making some good decisions, even though it is late in your life.”
“Are you still claiming that we were friends in college when you were there ten years ago, and I was there 20 years ago even though the math doesn’t work?”
“How wrong can I be when everyone believes me?”
“So how about I show up Friday evening in a couple of weeks? Maybe you’ll be able to explain your miracle elixir by then.”
“It’s a plan. Jody will barbeque and you will be expected to entertain the kids.”
At Will’s place, Jackie joyfully took over entertaining the kids; leading Stan to wonder why Jackie hadn’t already married and started a family. Before dismissing the thought as presumptuous, he thought “Better for me.”
Left to talk business and drink beer, Will led with “It’s the terroir.”
Before Will could say anything else, Stan said “That’s wine talk, isn’t it?”
“I can see that you are in for an education. Dark beers are bitter because they are very ‘hoppy’ and hops depend on the climate and soil in which they are grown. Our research staff has found out that the fields around Hubbard where our hops are grown have unique properties that may not be found anywhere else. It has unusual proportions of selenium, copper and other trace elements, probably from volcanic eruptions. It also contains some organic compounds that we have not identified yet. The unique soil produces unique hops. We can’t explain the health benefits yet, but the staff swears that our hops are the reason for them. It is possible that other dark beers may also convey some health benefits.”
Stan and Will went about their business, exchanging visits over the next several months. Stan and Jackie became as much a couple as Will and Jody. At one of the visits Will was all smiles “We presented all the stats that we have along with the analysis of the hops and now all of those government alphabets — FDA and so on, will allow us to make legitimate health claims for Dark Hill Stout. Our analysis of competitive dark beers indicates that they have some of the healthy ingredients that we have, but not all. Of course, we won’t tell them that, they’ll have to find out for themselves. In the meantime, we will boost our production of our stout as much as possible while continuing to be a craft brewery. We have quietly bought up some land with similar makeup to our original supplier, so we can get a lot more hops.”
“Are you sure that the public will go for it?”
“I’ve been talking to newspaper and TV medical columnists. They are buying in. Believe me, this will be huge. But wait there is more — I’ve been checking our employee records and the divorce rate is way below expected. I think that our stout makes people happier as well as healthier.”
“Couldn’t it be that any beer makes people happier?”
“Stan, you know better than that. Heavy drinkers have much higher rates of depression and divorce. For whatever reason, we think that our stout drinkers quit after drinking just enough to elevate their mood, but not enough to be roaring drunk.”
Back in Wilsonville, a very nervous Stan said to Jackie “Listen, I don’t want to spend any more of my life being single. You are the one, please marry me. I want to start a family now.”
Jackie, who had wondered if Stan would ever get around to asking, wasted no time saying yes.
Will was the best man at the wedding and Jackie’s sisters and Jody were bridesmaids. They kept it small, because Jackie had no interest in spectacles and Stan remembered the aftermath of the huge, expensive wedding to Joyce.
A month later Jackie was expecting and she and Stan were overjoyed.
Dark Hill had found a way to make a hop supplement, which didn’t taste too good, but had most of the health and happiness effects of the beer. Now teetotallers and those that didn’t want to stay buzzed continuously could reap the benefits of Dark Hill Stout.
Dark Hill was rolling in money and the employees’ profit sharing plan made them rich. Tourists flocked to Bend to visit the brewery and many stayed. The introduction of Dart Hill Stout by an industrial brewer in New Jersey, with a label which was almost the same as Dark Hill Stout was a small wrinkle, but the Dark Hill lawyers handled that quickly.
Jackie gave birth to a healthy Andy and eleven months later to an equally healthy Sandra.
Will called Stan a couple of years after the discovery of the wonders of Dark Hill Stout. “One thing that we didn’t study earlier is that the stout doubles fertility. As with all the other properties, we know what happens, but not why.”
Two years after Jackie originally noticed the superb claims ratio at Dark Hill, syndicated columnist Jason Atkins wrote a column “The ‘Dark Ages’ Are A New Golden Age” in response to the improved mental and physical health of the US caused by Dark Hill Stout and Dark Hill Pills.
After five years of peace and prosperity the Federal Office Of Budget and Management announced that the standard of living in the United States would be cut in half in fifteen years due to the burgeoning costs of educating the increasing number of students and social security for seniors who were living 10 years longer.