Several years ago, I wrote three short plays, aka comedy sketches, that were performed by a comedy troupe in Astoria, Oregon, in celebration of the achievements of Lewis & Clark. My talented playwright friend, John Donnelly, also had plays performed during the festival. I wrote three pieces, one set before the great Lewis & Clark expedition, another during, and a third one set long after they had returned. In honor of Presidents’ Day, I will be posting my short sketches in my blog. “Minor Adjustments” is the first of the three sketches.
Three Cheers for Lewis & Clark
Three Comic Vignettes Celebrating What Might Have Happened Before, During, and After The Great Expedition
SKIT 1: MINOR ADJUSTMENTS
SETTING: A government office in Washington D.C.. A desk with a comfortable chair. In front of the desk are two comfortable, upholstered arm chairs.
TIME: Daytime, circa 1803.
AT RISE: BUREAUCRAT sits behind his desk, reviewing paperwork. He shakes his head, makes notes in a ledger. Shakes his head again. There’s a KNOCK on the door.
MRS. SNYDER, his executive secretary, steps in.
MRS. SNYDER: They’re here.
BUREAUCRAT: Very well. Send them in.
MERIWETHER LEWIS and WILLIAM CLARK, dressed in their explorer outfits, complete with “Davey Crockett” coonskin hats, strut in.
Bureaucrat stands, smiles broadly, walks out from behind his desk and greets the two men.
BUREAUCRAT: What a great honor it is to meet you both at last. Please sit.
Lewis and Clark nod, then sit. Bureaucrat returns to his chair behind the desk.
NOTE: Throughout the exchanges, Lewis and Clark take turns standing or pacing. The official sits erect in his chair, unmoved by their comments.
BUREAUCRAT: I have just returned from a joint session of Congress and on behalf of all members, both in the Senate and the House, I wish to congratulate you on your upcoming scientific exploration.
LEWIS: We are humbled in the service of our president and our country.
CLARK: What’s best for America will remain upmost in our minds throughout this adventure whose outcome only God can know. I assure you, we shall neither cross a single river nor climb a sole mountain without first thinking of our new country and those who have so graciously given so much toward the success of our mission.
LEWIS (Bows to his friend): Well said, Captain Clark.
CLARK (Bows to his friend): Thank you, Captain Lewis.
BUREAUCRAT: I am very glad to hear those words. Very glad. That’s the kind of Can Do spirit that forged our great nation. I especially like your words about what’s “best for America.” And would hope you would keep those words in mind when you listen to what I am about to say.
Lewis and Clark sit.
LEWIS: Am I to assume you have bad news?
BUREAUCRAT: Let’s just say I have both good news and bad news. It’s about your budget.
LEWIS: I was under the impression the budget had been approved. We stopped by today to merely tie-up loose ends, sign some paperwork and pick up the requisition for our supplies. We start for the Pacific at dawn tomorrow.
BUREAUCRAT: There’s been a slight hitch.
LEWIS: Slight —
CLARK: — Hitch?
BUREAUCRAT: You are correct, Captain Lewis. The preliminary budget had been approved. But the final budget is what we must live by and that budget must ultimately be approved by both chambers. Changes were made, as Congress is wont to do. I assure you, these are minor changes, adjustments mostly.
CLARK: Mostly —
LEWIS: — Adjustments?
BUREAUCRAT: Compromises were reached. It is, after all, what politicians do best.
LEWIS/CLARK (in unison): Compromises?
BUREAUCRAT: As you might already know, the Louisiana Purchase, although quite possibly a wise investment, was not an approved budget item.
LEWIS: We bought it for four cents an acre!
BUREAUCRAT: Yes. To the non-accountant that might seem like a sound financial investment, and it probably is over the long run. However, that’s still four cents an acre that we had not budgeted. Factor in the more than eight hundred thousand acres purchased, do the math, and you’re looking at a cost of fifteen million dollars. I think you can appreciate our situation.
LEWIS: Situation? What situation?
BUREAUCRAT: Yes. Well. Again, there’s good news and bad news and I’d like to review a few line items in your proposed budget, if you will indulge me. I think once we do that, you’ll have a better appreciation for the situation.
LEWIS: We can defend every nickel in our proposal. Every nickel.
BUREAUCRAT: I am glad to hear you say that because a nickel is a good starting point. You see, your per diem has been re-established at a nickel a day.
LEWIS: There must be some confusion. I was told it was to be a dollar a day.
BUREAUCRAT: Congress felt a reduction in your per diem could be made without jeopardizing the overall success of your mission.
CLARK: A nickel a day for each man, then?
BUREAUCRAT: Sorry, I wasn’t exactly clear. It’s a nickel for the lot of you.
Both Lewis and Clark stand.
BUREAUCRAT: Congress feels that since you will be dining out, so to speak, most of the time, living off the fat of the land, so to speak, that a nickel would suffice.
LEWIS: Split thirty ways?!?
BUREAUCRAT: I’m glad you mention the number thirty because it leads me to our next topic. Since staffing is typically our largest single expense, we thought it best to make our major changes there. We think your original request exceeded reasonable expectations even under the best of circumstances. Instead, we’d like you to limit it to five.
CLARK: Excluding the two of us, of course.
BUREAUCRAT: Including you both. But that still gives you enough for a good game of mumblety-peg around the campfire, eh?
LEWIS: And our request for watercraft?
BUREAUCRAT: The president donated his summer raft.
CLARK: Our horses?
BUREAUCRAT: Sorry. But we are issuing you a new mobile contraption that the President is particularly excited about. I believe it is called a “buy-cycle.”
LEWIS: What about our provisions? Surely our basic provisions were approved?
BUREAUCRAT: Good news and bad news there too, I’m afraid.
LEWIS: The bad news?
BUREAUCRAT: You will not be provided with provisions, as such. It is felt that since you will be living off the land, which, as the honorable Senate Majority Leader reminds us, “builds character,” you will not need to burden yourselves with provisions. It is felt that by not carrying provisions you would be more efficient and could cut as much as three days off your journey.
CLARK: No provisions? What’s the good news?
BUREAUCRAT: Congress agreed to double your allotment of dogs. As sort of a contingency back up.
CLARK: Back up?
BUREAUCRAT: I’ve been told in some cultures they’re quite the delicacy.
LEWIS: No provisions. No watercraft. No horses. But the expedition is still on?
BUREAUCRAT: Yes. By all means. Of course. But with one other additional, albeit minor, adjustment?
LEWIS: Minor —
CLARK: — Adjustment?
BUREAUCRAT: Instead of traveling west, Congress would like you to explore the mollusks along Chesapeake Bay.
CLARK: Mollusks are soft-bodied invertebrate, such as clams, snails, and sea slugs.
LEWIS: I perfectly well know what a mollusk is, Captain Clark, thank you just the same. My confusion rises at the very concept.
BUREAUCRAT: What with all the other adjustments Congress requested, it was considered only fair to lower the Country’s expectations of what you could reasonably accomplish.
LEWIS: Am I to understand that our great mission to discover an overland route to the Pacific ocean and, along the way, to record all manner of species, fauna and flora, has been reduced to a clam dig along the coast of Maryland!?!
BUREAUCRAT: In a word, yes.
Lewis and Clark pace, throwing their fists in the air as they walk.
LEWIS: This is outrageous.
LEWIS/CLARK (in unison): Treasonous!
BUREAUCRAT: Please sit. Both of you.
Lewis and Clark sit, as told, but continue to fidget.
BUREAUCRAT: Simply put, there’s not enough money in the budget for your excursion, as originally planned and noble that it might be.
Pause. The words sink in.
LEWIS: If it is strictly a financial matter, as you say, then if we can somehow find the money, will we be permitted to carry out the expedition as planned?
BUREAUCRAT: I’m glad you brought that up. There’s good news —
LEWIS: — And bad. We know, we know. What’s the bad news? (Turns to Clark) It can’t get any worse.
Bureaucrat rings a bell on his desk. Mrs. Snyder enters.
MRS. SNYDER: Yes, sir?
BUREAUCRAT: Please bring in the package.
Mrs. Snyder leaves, then returns almost immediately with a box. She walks over to the explorers and sets down the box.
BUREAUCRAT: The bad news is, the expedition, although still on and slightly modified, has been postponed. You will not be leaving at dawn tomorrow.
CLARK: The good news?
While her boss talks, Mrs. Snyder opens the box and withdraws two baker’s aprons and two floppy baker’s hats.
BUREAUCRAT: Well, the good news is — first, will you gentlemen be so kind as to stand, please?
Lewis and Clark stand but their eyes remain focused on the Bureaucrat.
Mrs. Snyder removes their hats. She puts the apron and baker’s hats on them.
BUREAUCRAT: Thank you. The good news is, Congress has agreed to change its mind and help fund the original mission to the Pacific providing the Administration is able to raise at least half of the funds separately. Put another way, Congress will match whatever funds are raised. President Jefferson has personally given his support to the effort and will assist in any way possible. (Beat) There’s one more bit of news, I’m afraid.
LEWIS: More bad news?
BUREAUCRAT: It could be good news.
LEWIS/CLARK (In unison): Yes?
BUREAUCRAT: You’re holding a bake sale tomorrow on the Capitol steps to help raise the necessary funds. Mrs. Snyder will escort you to the White House kitchen. Good day, Gentlemen.
Mrs. Snyder leads the stunned explorers off stage, now dressed in their baker’s outfits.
Bureaucrat walks over to the chairs and picks up one of the explorer’s hats. He puts it on.
BUREAUCRAT: Explorers. Ya gotta love ‘em.
(END OF PLAY)