The Millennium Prize (part one) ©
There are few time-based mega moments in recent world history, especially those universally monitored. The bridge between the first and second millenniums was about as big as it gets.
However, it also meant wide-ranging degrees of trepidation. With versions of personal and work computers now woven into people’s lives, how well would these systems around the planet, with data coding based on the first two digits for a year defaulting to ‘19’, cope with the tidal wave of transfer to ‘20’? Planning and dry run scenarios increasingly consumed governments and institutions in the days leading up.
The popular acronym for the time of transition was Y2K. Everyone had a stake, most notably those with voluminous or sensitive data, including personal records ranging from health histories to investments, especially intangible assets. The breadth of a negative cascade could affect the values of almost everything, including the tangible.
As it is always want to do, the time clock kept ticking.
In the last week of 1999, the limbo between Christmas Day and New Year’s Day would still see the annual celebration of the Hamleton ATAS club.
Membership, inclusion based on the ownership of an impressive, which is to say valuable, collection of ‘alternative’ or ‘atypical’ assets, a.k.a. ATAS, was currently sitting at ten for the local chapter. Such holdings cover categories other than stocks or bonds or guaranteed deposits per se. Almost de rigueur with groups of almost any size, whenever there was a non-compulsory gathering, it would not be fully attended. This year, eight members of the loose-knit club committed to the two-day affair.
At the previous spring meeting, led by secretary Connor Blackburn, a 56 year-old real estate agent, the club approved the location for the year-end summit. It was set for December 29th and 30th at the Cotaluna Lodge, on Lake Simcoe, near Barrie, Ontario.
Wednesday, the 29th, was a typically cool, overcast early winter day in the Canadian province.
As Blackburn arrived at the Lodge, he was welcomed by its director, Corban Ryder.
Ryder, an energetic 37 year old of predictably gracious demeanor, met the luxury car on arrival, greeting with “Good to see you again, Mr. Blackburn!”
“Good to see you as well, Mr. Ryder. Cecily and I had a wonderful time here last year.”
“Please pass on my best always to her. You had a safe trip I trust.”
Simultaneous with an inviting wave toward the entrance, the director gestured to Kirby, one of the two full-time, guest service staff, to bring in the arrival’s suitcases. “Let’s get you registered, and check over the conference room as soon as you like.”
“Thank you, Corban. We’re looking forward to a stimulating experience here.” Blackburn paused before the entrance, soaked in a view of the woods leading to the lake. “This could be a nice place to ride out Y2K, if there’s really a need to. The scenery, a variety of plant life to intrigue a botanist, the peacefulness.” The director smiled indulgently.
As they were finishing the registration process, Ryder offered him a restricted master key for the main rooms they were using, but Blackburn chuckled that was O.K. because a couple of members could concoct skeletons. With thanks, a key to his own room in hand, he went upstairs to reconnoitre and get prepared for welcoming his colleagues.
Located on the eastern shore of Lake Simcoe, Cotaluna Lodge was a refurbished take on a rustic escape, twenty bedrooms on the upper floor, with a main floor conference room overlooking the lake. The light-filled room was complete with leather backed chairs and a large mahogany table. Wood grains enhanced with gold veneer predominated. Ping pong and billiards tables stood in a wing off one end, a pair of desktop computers at private stations on the other. In the spirit of the surroundings, numerous sized plant holders exhibited diverse species, mostly gathered in an adjacent sun room. Martina, the other full-time service staffer, ministered to the varieties of lilies, azaleas, and daffodils, along with the more exotic nightshade and wolf’s bane. There were, in addition, smaller conference rooms on the floor, as the lodge was a popular getaway place for meetings.
Of the other twelve rooms available at the lodge, six were booked at this time, with those guests mingling separately. But the lodge was expected to be filled for Friday night, especially given the once-in-a-lifetime New Year’s Eve to the millennium.
Within the next hour the other seven members arrived.
Four o’clock witnessed the first official gathering, wine flowing and the cheeses enticing. Blackburn sought their attention, declaring, “Fellow members of ATAS, let us toast another successful year with our investments – and look forward, hopefully, to a smooth transition to the year 2000!”
‘Hear, hear’ made the rounds, with a couple takes on ‘Let’s damn well hope so!’
As members broke into conversational groups, Tyrone Stanley, book specialist and oldest member present, pulled aside Mitchell Banks, a music conductor in his late 40s, who was providing a prized wine for the treasure hunt at the end of Thursday’s meeting. “Hey, Mitch, how about giving a hint of what tasty delight awaits someone’s cellar, or maybe table, tomorrow?” Stanley’s eyes seemed to be transfixed with anticipation.
Banks tried to exude non-committal. “Maybe you’d like to offer me one of your Les Paul custom guitars, as a way to get a head start.”
Stanley demurred. “Since mine are worth at least ten thousand each, I think not. Tell you what, let’s try another tune”. He looked around, lowered his voice. “Perhaps I can talk with you privately for a couple of minutes.”
Nearer a lake-side window, Katy Heath, owner of an impressive collection of Canadian and U.S. coins, passed a glass to Melanie Quinn, a hypnotherapist, possessor of what she self-amusedly called a ‘timeless’ collection of watches. Although Katy was a few years older, having recently turned 42, her more dedicated skin regimen made them appear the same age. Melanie casually looked past her, then commented, almost to herself, “Actually, I’ve here before. Two or three years ago, once in spring and once in fall. Beautifully quiet walks in the woods. Quite a variety of plant life, some marvellous birds. Relaxing weekends by myself…beer in hand…the outside bar, featuring their own brand, by the way, ‘Pine Needle’.” She looked at Katy. “Don’t you think beer tastes better in the fall?”
Ms. Heath felt her habitual tenseness ease. “That’s a funny question, I don’t know. I’m more of a wine person, and that tastes good all year.” She paused. When Ms. Quinn tipped her head back, she followed suit. “Some of my flights coming back from out west descend over this area, probably at about 15,000 feet. Anyway, I’m glad I made it here. It’s certainly down to earth.” She smiled at her own attempt at irony.
David Broughton, a software developer, somewhat brash about being youngest member of the club, approached the women. He popped in with “Hey, ladies. Nice location, especially if you like to listen to loons at night. Sadly, sometimes I do. You see their computers here, practically outdated. Glad I brought my laptop.”
Ms. Heath sighed as she gave him a once-over. “I trust you also brought one or two of those so impressive sports’ hero cards, so the jock types around can drool over them.” At Broughton’s defensive look, she added, “But, of course, I’m sure you’ll have them protected in those cozy display cases.” Broughton frowned and shook his head.
As this conversation drifted off, they looked around the room to gauge the general mood. Stanley was now in a seemingly heated exchange with Banks. Standing almost between them, like a tennis net, was antique dealer Torin Currie, the second oldest member attending. All three ware intently viewing a notebook, Banks particularly anxious. Cameron Sanders, a 42 year old craft beer maker and collector of rare whiskies, apparently had been part of the group and was walking away, head held high. The other members paid attention, but stayed on the sidelines.
As the cocktail hour wound down, members were gradually strolling into the dining room for dinner, splitting off to their two tables, set in a cozy alcove. Ms. Quinn engaged in a sotto voce conversation with Sanders, until Blackburn joined them with typical boisterousness. At the other table Ms. Heath and Broughton renewed their verbal thrust and parry, which broke into laughter at the intercession of Currie.
Both lodge director Ryder and Alina Munroe, his multi-tasking assistant, helped the ATAS members ensure a sumptuous four-course meal was enjoyed by all. Alina was just younger than her boss, also in good physical condition, in her case enhanced by excursions as a survivalist. Her appealing looks probably didn’t hurt her getting opportunities to engage in conversations with some of the male participants.
In the spirit of his treasure hunt offering, coming one day before the end of 1999 and the foggy bank of Y2K, Mitchell Banks dubbed it ‘The Wine 20K’ event, in tribute to his contribution: a bottle of 1978 Dom Pérignon Rosé, most recently appraised at almost $20 thousand CDN. Banks made an elaborate, dramatic toast, with a few grains of resignation, to open the dinner. “Nicely put,’” declared Blackburn, “and thanks for the opportunity to win the most valuable treasure we’ve ever had to hunt.” ‘Just make sure the rest is safe’, Stanley muttered under his breath, then looking around the room, said, “I believe we all truly appreciate this, Mitchell.” Some applause ensued. With a nod to this elevated attention, Banks said, “Thank you all, I hope you find it a tough, but not unfair, challenge when you get the clue.”
He stepped down from the lectern and paused, as he saw the others were watching him. He gulped hard. “I know most of you are not worried like me. I’m apprehensive about the day after tomorrow. Y2K could be bad! A harsh, new reality. And what am I looking at? Higher storage costs, higher insurance, maybe the markets tanking… a lot to worry about.”
Response was mute. Currie spoke up, “I know my hardwood antiques will still have a market next year. Folks, our portfolios are strong and diversified, we’ll be O.K. Mitch, all of us, let’s not rock the boat, dreaming up worst case scenarios!”
Blackburn, his big arms draped around Stanley and Sanders, ventured his glass half-full perspective. “Look, many large institutions around the world, and certainly here, have run tests and simulations, and believe they’re well prepared with contingency plans. Right, guys?” Stanley and Sanders summoned their best supportive grins. Meanwhile, Ms. Quinn stared at her watch, a Cartier from her collection. Broughton and Currie looked at the trio reflectively. Ms. Heath spoke up, “After all, commerce is still going on as planned. Many of my colleagues are still working overnight on Friday and on Saturday.” To eyebrows raised at her, she added, “Not me, I almost always have New Year’s Day off.”
Fortuitously timed to dilute some of the edge, Sanders had arranged for numerous sample cases of his company’s products to be delivered to the lodge, to be served as long as into New Year’s Eve as supplies lasted. In fact, these included not only a few cartons of praised lagers and pale ales, but also one or two small-run test beers, featuring exotic fruit or flora additives. At the suggestion of Ms. Quinn, he had offered to gift the leftover stock to the lodge, and director Ryder was surprised and appreciative. Meanwhile, Banks provided a quality red/white wine package for Ryder and his staff, however, got the club to pay for it.
Increased consumption of alcohol coincided with increased camaraderie.
Always an inevitable, yet somehow spontaneous, event, the volunteer talent show featured a few twists. Katy Heath, caching her often testy manner, demonstrated that her knowledge of coins coincided with adeptness, including them in magic illusions along with a couple of card tricks, one of which involved finding a missing card in a locked box. There was a moment of levity – except for one obvious member – when she feigned that one of Broughton’s valuable baseball cards was also in the box, its corners apparently nicked. Then there was Tyrone Stanley’s ability to give the Latin version of any variety of fauna or flora the others could call out. He was chided for indulging in too much explicit detail, especially about potentially toxic plants, which a few found unsettling. In a much different vein, Connor Blackburn showed how well he knew and could handle beer, being able to identify diverse ingredients with his eyes and nose covered, and without any regurgitating. His capacity to remain sensate while wrapping up the evening festivities was impressive.
Thursday morning highlighted an outside speaker dispensing tips about making tax minimizing strategies routine, such as in deducting expenses for professional development, and an update about capital gains. Torin Currie observed, as though a mantra, “Tax planning for investments is time well invested”.
When asked for his opinion about the threat of Y2K, the speaker begged off, except for an oblique remark about it hopefully turning out to be ‘just another number’.
The afternoon session continued the serious tone. First, each member spoke about conditions affecting their asset classes, trying not to get sucked into Y2K tangents. Then, a round table discussion, focused more on trends, good and bad, again trying to avoid tangents. When someone broached that it was now less than thirty-six hours to the end of 1999, conversation circled to the elephant in the room.
As the most pessimistic of those present, Banks ventured, “The near future looks like a dust storm. I don’t want to be caught in it”. To no one in particular, “Do you?”
“Ah”, intoned Currie as if doing an ethereal voice-over, “let us appreciate, the owls are not what they seem”.
“Is that some obscure cultural reference?” chirped Ms. Heath. Currie mouthed, ‘think early 90s cult classic TV’. Broughton and Ms. Quinn stared at him, then at each other, but neither spoke.
Blackburn chirped in. “In this case the owls fly on circuits.” Twirling his Mont Blanc pen, he continued, “We’ve compared notes about properties based on markets we understand. As Mitch has alluded to…well, rather directly…seems to me, now we should assess how vulnerable our collections are to system vulnerabilities. For example, what about major power failures affecting air-controlled environments we absolutely need? Like I do for my older roadsters and coupes. A show of hands, who here besides me keeps spare generators at their homes and storage facilities?”
Acknowledgements came from a few.
“As long as it’s not a big deal I’ll be O.K.”, suggested Broughton, “but I’m still leaning toward optimistic. Yeah, my stuff isn’t that hard to take care of.”
“Same with mine.” piped in Ms. Heath. “Better than a coin toss.”
“So, some of you really are not concerned?” pursued Banks. “Good for you,” he ventured, with sarcasm. “Am I going to benefit from tighter supplies because some wine supplier inventories may go bad? Or is going to hurt me because of the market disruption, plus the extra expenses to protect my inventory? Or even something else.”
“Well”, suggested Ms. Quinn, “at least one very expensive bottle less after today.”
“That assumes one of you finds it in time”, he retorted, not warmly.
After further pendulum shifts between anxiety and optimism, there was general agreement that at least all should agree to keep in touch over the next couple of days, especially if anything dire might be happening with their beloved holdings.
His watch showing three o’clock imminent, Blackburn spoke up to get the others’ attention. “O.K., ladies and gentlemen! It’s time to search for this year’s hidden prize. Our contributor, Mitchell Banks, will describe what we’re looking for, and give us what he assures is a legitimate clue as to where we might find it. Keep in mind, we have the whole eastern section of the first floor set aside for us. That means the conference room and its connections, plus the other four rooms, to the marked off entry to the lobby. So there’s time to check out the whole area. If you’re quick enough. Remember though, successful or not, we’re all to be back here by 4:45. If no one finds the bottle, Mr. Banks will tell us, proudly I’m sure, where it is, and he keeps it. We hope to wrap things up a little after 5:00. Any questions? O.K., Mitch, the stage is yours.”
“Merci, monsieur Blackburn.” Banks raised a full scale size photo of a bottle, but of a later vintage of Dom Pérignon. “The one you’ll be looking for is quite similar to this one. But if you want to see exactly what the real one looks like…”, he looked around, challenging, “you know what you have to do.”
Indulgent looks was the response.
“As far as the clue is concerned, here it is…
(End of part one)