Sunday, January 17, 2010

DBTL 54: A Man, a Plan, a Canal

This is the latest installment in the Drowned Baby Timeline, an alternate history where Adolf Hitler drowned at birth and where World War II never took place. The Danzig War of 1936 - 37 saw an aggressive German regime under Ernst Röhm defeated by the combined forces of Great Britain, France, and Poland, and the three nations are now the dominant powers of Europe. In the wake of the war, prosperity has returned to the continent, and a growing number of Americans find themselves being drawn there . . .

Brussels, Belgium
9 May 1944

Looking back, Robert Moses admitted to himself that he shouldn’t have pushed so hard for the Brooklyn Battery Bridge. Not that there was anything wrong with the bridge itself; Moses would go to his grave convinced that the bridge made more sense than a tunnel would have. However, he had made too many enemies in the course of pushing it through, and in the end it cost him his chairmanship of the Triborough Bridge Authority.

A builder needed to build, and if the people of New York City failed to appreciate his abilities, Moses meant to go out and find something else to build. He had been considering his options, his mind not made up, and a map of the world had caught his eye while he was reminiscing about his work building hydroelectric plants on the Niagara River.

And so he found himself here in Belgium, getting ready to convince yet another government official to approve yet another major project. If it weren’t for the fact that the conversation would be conducted in French, it would have been just like being back in Manhattan or Albany.

The cab ride in from the airport at Haren had been stimulating, to say the least. He had peered out the window at the passing landscape, picturing which buildings ought to be torn down to make way for six-lane highways, and plotting the locations of potential municipal swimming pools. But all that was just daydreaming; he had more concrete plans in mind.

At last he was shown into the office of the Prime Minister. Paul-Henri Spaak was a balding, bespectacled man about ten years his junior. Moses knew that he was a member of a distinguished Belgian political family, and that he had been serving in various governments for the last nine years. Moses had been brushing up on his schoolboy French in anticipation of this meeting, and had no difficulty understanding Spaak when he greeted him with the words, “Come in, Monsieur Moses, and welcome to Brussels. I hope you found your journey pleasant.” Spaak shook his hand and gestured him to a seat.

“Many thanks, Monsieur Prime Minister. Yes, I found the journey from the airport most enjoyable. I also wish to thank you for agreeing to see me.”

“I must admit to some curiosity concerning the reason for your visit. Your reputation precedes you, and I must tell you that Belgium already has all the bridges it needs.”

Moses could have disputed that point, but let it pass. He had bigger fish to fry. “It is not of Belgium that I wish to speak, Monsieur Prime Minister, but of the Belgian Congo.”

“Ah,” said Spaak. “There, I must admit, there is considerable scope for a man of your talents. What is it in particular about our African colony that interests you?”

“The Congo River. It should be the gateway to central Africa, but it is not.”

“Because of the rapids,” said Spaak. “Livingstone Falls, as Monsieur Stanley named it.”

“Just so,” said Moses. He never would have said “just so” if he was speaking English, but in French the phrase seemed to insist on being used. “The Congo River drops 270 meters over the course of 350 kilometers, and in places the course of the river is no more than 300 meters wide. It is practically impassible. What is needed is a series of canals or locks to allow oceangoing ships to travel into the Congo basin.

“In addition, the weight of so much water falling so far so fast simply cries out for the construction of hydroelectric power plants. The Congo River could generate vast amounts of power, enough to make the Congo basin the world’s foundry.”

“You are not the first to propose this, Monsieur Moses,” said Spaak. “The Syneba consortium has been studying the problem for fifteen years, and is no closer to a solution now than it was in the beginning.”

“Monsieur Prime Minister,” said Moses, “you say that my reputation precedes me, so you must know that I am not a man to be daunted by any project, whatever the size. I have made a career out of getting things done. Believe me when I tell you that I can tame the Congo River.”

“Monsieur Moses, let us be logical,” said Spaak. “Even granting your abilities, which are admittedly formidable, there is also the question of cost. Such a project would require the resources of a small nation, and the resources of our own small nation are already spoken for. How could we afford it?”

“There is plenty of capital available in the United States,” Moses responded. “More than we know what to do with, truth be told. The Great Depression has made us a cautious nation; too cautious, in my opinion. With my contacts back home, I believe I can put together a group of investors with the resources to make this project happen. It would allow us to put our money to work, while at the same time allowing you to put your colony to work. Both our nations would benefit.”

“Fascinating,” said Spaak. “You are very persuasive, Monsieur Moses. Very well. If you can put together a formal proposal, I will allow you to present it to my cabinet. How soon can you be ready?”

Moses felt his heart leap. It was only one step forward, but he began to feel the old excitement begin to stir him. This was the way it always felt when he sensed a big project in the offing. “Monsieur Prime Minister, I can have a presentation ready for your cabinet within a month’s time.”

“Very good, monsieur. My office will contact you when we have settled upon a date for your presentation.” Spaak rose and extended his hand again.

“Thank you for your time, Monsieur Prime Minister,” said Moses as he shook hands with the other man. “I’ll see you then.”

As he stepped out onto the Rue de la Loi, Robert Moses felt like a young man again. When he set out to do something, it was as good as done, and he knew that developing the Belgian Congo was going to be the greatest triumph of his life.

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