A war story
Or perhaps a war-avoidance story
The first job I had was with a defense contractor called Airborne Instrument Laboratory. They paid me money and kept me out of Vietnam, which I had heard was no fun. AIL had a contract with the Air Force to build airborne instruments (natch) that collected data from Soviet radars. It was called ELINT or ELectronic INTelligence. I was part of the team that wrote the software to process the data that came back.
We used cutting-edge technology: a Seymour Cray-designed CDC 1604 computer that boasted 32K(!!) of magnetic core memory with a cycle time of a blazingly fast 6.4 microseconds. The words were 48 bits wide. Talk about compute power! You kids know nothing!
And that's not all. We got to program in FORTRAN II, not the crappy old FORTRAN I had learned at MIT. FORTRAN II was way better. I don't remember what the improvements were, but they must have been awesome. All I can remember is that we had overlays and named and unnamed common. There’s probably a Wikipedia article somewhere. Look it up if you want.
The compiler was really, really fast, too. I don't quite remember how many cards per minute it could compile, but I remember it was impressive! And it didn’t have too many bugs. Fortunately, we had the source code and could fix it.
I was the youngest guy on the team. The rest were ten to twenty years older than me and had learned their bad habits on the job by trial and error. I was a nerd, still living at home, and had no life. I put in 40 hours of overtime a week, so I got the equivalent of three years of work experience for every calendar year. I read all the manuals cover-to-cover because that’s what nerds did. After a couple of the guys ran into problems that they couldn’t solve, and I solved them, I ended up being the go-to debug guy, team hero, and mascot.
When the time came to deliver, we all flew out to Offutt AFB near Omaha, Nebraska, in the middle of the winter. We had to work the night shift because this was a million-dollar computer, in high demand, and not available during the day.
Once the software had passed its first tests, they needed someone for field support. The other guys were married, and I didn't even have a girlfriend--actually, I’m not even sure I had any friends--so I stayed behind. The benefits were pretty sweet for 22-year-old me. I got a hot new blue Mustang rental kinda like this:
Way, way, much, much nicer than the clunker I drove at home.
I got my own room in an upscale motel, much nicer than my bedroom at home. I got a generous government per-diem that let me eat steaks in Omaha's best restaurants and still have some money left over. Or I could eat at cheaper places and have a lot left over. Uncle Sam didn’t care.
I was full of myself. I’d go to work around sundown, work all night, drive back around dawn, have eggs hollandaise at the motel restaurant, put on my bathing suit, go out to the pool and go to sleep. When I got up, I’d hang around downtown (at bookstores, the library, the museum, you know, the kind of places a young nerd would be likely to hang out) grab dinner at one of Omaha’s finest, or at the International House of Pancakes where I’d sit in the section served by the beautiful blue-eyed girl who went to Berkeley and was part of the Free Speech Movement, and I was way too shy to move on. Then back to work.
As a guest in the motel, I was treated with deference by all of the staff. Riding around in my Mustang, I thought I was as cool as a guy could be.
At work, I’d stumbled into what I would now describe as a cool marketing trick. I discovered that when I behaved in unconventional ways, the people I worked with had to explain me to other people. The easy explanation was: “he's a genius.” Because you know, geniuses are weird. I was pretty smart, but the stranger I behaved, the more of a genius I had to be and the more respect I got.
So a year later, I drive into the Air Force Base in my Mustang. The Air Force guys are in uniform. The civilian contractor guys are in a different kind of uniform. And I'm in my own unique, weird uniform. I’ve got longish hair. I'm wearing shades--indoors and out. I've got on blue jeans, engineer boots with inch-high heels, a blue work shirt, and a Levi jacket. I could not say “I march to a different drum than the rest of you” or perhaps "fuck you all" much louder.
Rules were for proles, I thought. I always broke the rules. Fuck rules. But this was the Air Force. Spies might be anywhere. Security was a big deal.
So all our papers were supposed to be put in locked filing cabinets in the locked office in the locked building guarded by guys with guns in the Air Force bases surrounded by chain-linked fences with barbed wire on top and guarded by more guys with guns and patrolled by attack dogs. But I left mine out and got dinged.
Our card decks were supposed to be in the locked card trays in the locked computer room in the secure building in the secure Air Force base because, you know, spies.
Finally, one of the officers, major Duggan, had had enough of me. He took the card drawer I had left out and hid. I guess I was to perform some act of obeisance and contrition before he’d tell me. I don't know if I was supposed to apologize, bow down, or give him a blow job, and I wasn’t about to do any of that. I called my boss and told him what had happened and that I had decided this would be a good time for some of my unpaid overtime hours as vacation. I’d continued working 40 hours a week overtime while I was in Omaha because what else was I going to do in Omaha? So I had roughly a million hours in the bank. Plus, I never took vacation, so I had a bunch of accrued vacation. I told him I would be back when either (a) the situation was resolved, or (b) I ran out of overtime hours and accrued vacation, and hell froze over, whichever came first.
I was needed on site, and I knew it. So my boss called his boss, who called his boss, who called his boss, who called his counterpart at SAC, and eventually they negotiated a deal. Major Duggan did not have to abase himself by telling me where the cards were without an apology or a blow job. I didn’t have to blow him or apologize. My boss told me what he’d been told by his boss, who had been told by his boss, who had been told by his boss, who had been told by his counterpart at SAC who had been told by his subordinate in the chain of command, recursively leading to Major Duggan who had no problem telling his superior officer where he’d hidden my card deck and no talk about blow jobs.
So I flew back to Omaha and checked out another Mustang, and that evening, I drove to the base and went through the usual layers of security to the computer room to look for my card tray. I made a show of it. I climbed on chairs so I could look on top of the tape drive cabinets. I opened the doors to all the bays that housed the circuit boards for the computers. This was in the days of discrete components, not even ICs, so there were lots of bays to house the electronics for such a shitty little computer.
Finally, I said, “Gee, I wonder if it could be under the flooring?” The computer was in a climate-controlled room with a raised floor under which ran the fat power cables and only slightly less fat data cables to the peripherals. It took some serious juice to run that machine and its peripherals and serious cables between them, none of this dinky USB crap.
Well, sure enough, I found it. I’d been told which of the floor panels my card deck was beneath, but I kept up these show. I’d pull up a panel, drop down and look in the space beneath. “Not here!” I’d sing out. “Maybe it’s under that one!”
Right under the 16th floor panel I pulled, which happened to be the floor panel under which I’d been told I would find my card tray was—my card tray.
I’d started that year at Offut as a shy nerd with no life. I'd been given responsibility. An expense account. A blue Mustang. I’d changed.
Instead of being a shy nerd with no life, I had become an arrogant dick with no life.
I did eventually end up getting a life, and it turned out pretty good. And I got over being an arrogant dick. Now I'm a sophisticated dick.
And I turned this into one of the #warstories.
H/T (or blame) to JonathanL and SteveO and SteveG for inspiration. Typos (some fixed) are all my doing.