Dave Barry

Lost in space

(This classic Dave Barry column was originally published May 17, 1998.)

I think I might know where the missile launcher is.

I'm referring here to the $1 million missile launcher that our armed forces apparently misplaced, according to a recent audit of the U.S. government (motto: ''We Do Have a Motto, But We Don't Know Where It Is''). You might have missed the news stories about this audit, which didn't get a whole lot of media attention.

Way back in 1994, Congress decided that there should be a complete audit of the entire federal government. This seemed like a good idea, since the U.S. government -- which is the fourth-largest financial entity in the world behind Bill Gates and your electrician -- had not been audited for (this is the truth) more than 200 years. The reason Congress did not get around to ordering an audit any sooner is that it has been extremely busy with its primary functions, which are 1) spending money; 2) declaring National Cottage Cheese Appreciation Week; and 3) authorizing the IRS to hammer taxpayers for inadequate record-keeping.

As you can imagine, the federal audit was a huge job. The auditors spent thousands and thousands of hours at the U.S. Government Records Facility, which is a 1,400-foot-long shoebox containing an estimated 139 billion receipts and what are believed to be George Washington's original teeth. When the auditors were finally finished, they released a report that contained a number of alarming findings, including these:

--It turns out that both ''Lewis'' and ''Clark'' were actually the same person, and he never got farther west than New Jersey.

--Although, according to the U.S. Constitution, there are supposed to be nine members of the Supreme Court, a detailed search of the premises, including under all the desks, turned up only five.

--In one three-month period, the Task Force on Reinventing the Government spent, without any formal authorization or supporting documentation, $141 million on party hats.

--North Dakota is missing. ''We think Canada took it,'' stated the auditors, ''but every time we called up there to ask about it, they just laughed and hung up the phone.''

Now I have some good news and some bad news. The good news is, I made up the preceding audit findings. The bad news is, the real audit findings are worse. I am NOT referring to the finding that the government has no idea what happened to billions and billions of dollars.

That is totally understandable. When you're sucking in and spewing out money as fast as the federal government, you have to expect that here and there a billion dollars is going to fall between the cracks. I bet if federal employees took just a few minutes out of their work schedules to look around, they would quickly find a lot of this so-called ''lost'' money.

FIRST FEDERAL EMPLOYEE: OK, I'll just check behind the cushions of this federal employee's lounge sofa here and ... Hey, here's some! Looks like a total of, let me see, two ... three ... four ... Wow! It's $17 million!

SECOND FEDERAL EMPLOYEE: So THAT'S what happened to it!

So I'm confident that the money is around somewhere. What has me concerned is the auditors' finding that the federal government apparently also has lost track of some fairly large items, including -- and I am not making these missing items up -- a $1 million Army missile launcher, two $4 million Navy engines for fighter aircraft, two large Navy tugboats costing $875,000 each and a $460,000 floating crane.

Now, in any organization you're going to have people stealing pens, paper clips, etc. But security has to be pretty darned lax for somebody to walk off with a tugboat.

GUARD: Hey, what's that gigantic bulge under your overcoat with a smokestack sticking out?

THIEF: This? Nothing.

GUARD: OK, then.

What concerns me is, what if we have a defense emergency, and we need these missing items? Are we going to scare the enemy if our fighter pilots have to sit on the runway in engineless planes and make fighter-plane noises with their mouths? Also, if the government doesn't know where its crane is, what ELSE doesn't it know? For example, I was in Washington, D.C., recently, and I walked past a huge building that said ''Department of the Interior''; then a short while later, I walked past ANOTHER huge building that said ''Department of the Interior.'' This has to be a mistake. Why would we need TWO Departments of the Interior? We only have one Interior! Unless we've lost THAT, too.

So I think the government should stop whatever else it's doing until it finds all this missing property. I think a good place to start looking would be my garage. There's a LOT of stuff in there, and I have no idea what most of it is; it would not surprise me one bit if there was a missile launcher in there somewhere. So I say to the government: Come and get it! And while you're here, please take these Supreme Court justices, because they're starting to smell.