Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Drinking Muddy Water

When I was 12, I did a spectacularly foolish thing. Now at that age there is ‘the dumb thing’ like getting your pants caught in the chain of your bike because you forgot to roll them up, resulting in a grease mark on your pants that hardly anyone but your long suffering mother notices. Then there is the ‘really stupid thing’, like trying to sneak out of a class and getting caught by the vice principal, resulting in a couple of whacks from ‘the enforcer’. Next comes the ‘amazingly really stupid thing’, like the time I went to the church dinner after recovering from a stomach flu, and, having eaten very little the past few days, stuffed myself which resulted in blowing chunks there in front of God and everyone. Finally, there is the ‘spectacularly foolish thing’. This is the thing that either kills you, or gives you a really good story to tell. For me, this was one of those, because I drank muddy water. It wasn’t really the drinking of the muddy water that makes this fall into the spectacularly stupid category. No it’s how and the why that brought me there.

It was one of those wonderful summer weeks in Memphis. The weather was stifling hot, but we were too young to notice. Our days were spent riding our bikes, planning adventures, and mostly staying out of our parent’s hair so as not to make a mess and thus be tasked with a ‘make work’ summer task like weeding the garden or mowing the lawn. My then current best friend at that time was a kid that was one year younger than me and lived a few doors down the street in one the ‘new’ duplexes. I remember when they built those duplexes. Up until that time, the field where they were built was pretty much an overrun lot where we played baseball and flew our tethered model planes. We were really against the idea of the houses to the point where we would sneak out and pull up the surveyor stakes at night when no one was looking. This did not have too much an effect as we merely pulled them up but were not larcenous enough to actually steal or move them.

Anyway Scott was the older brother of the (in)famous McManus pair. They were the sons of a single mother, which meant that more often than not, they were casually supervised. This meant that they had the reputation for getting in trouble and fighting a great deal, both with themselves and with others. That summer Scott was my best friend and we did pretty much everything together, while striving to exclude his younger sibling (Nolan) from whatever we were about. We did all the usual kid stuff, but by the end of the summer, we were looking for more. Thus, the idea for our ‘grand adventure’ was born.

There is a state park just north of Memphis called Meeman-Shelby Forest State Park. It consists of about 30 square miles of marsh and heavily wooded land adjacent to the Mississippi river with a couple of lakes, and the rest of the park given over to hunting (at that time). I had spent some time there with my siblings and father, hunting or fishing. I was well acquainted with the route there, even though the trip from our house on the outskirts of Bartlett to the park was probably almost an hour by car at that time down various back roads.  On the other hand, Scott had not been to the park at all. By our thinking, it was a simple plan. Ride our bikes to the park, see the river, eat a packed lunch, and then ride back. What was missing in the equation? An objective measurement of the distances involved (25 miles one way), the temperature in Memphis on a hot summer day (90's with 90% humidity), and the colossally bad judgment of a pair of 11 & 12 year olds (incalculable).

Being the geniuses of planning that we were, we assumed that a couple of candy bars would be sufficient to power us through the short trip to the park. We completely discarded any need for water as I recalled there were ample water fountains in the park.  Thus, more than adequately fortified, we informed the responsible adults in our life (my mother and his sitter), that we were ‘going for a bike ride’ and set off. We passed our school and familiar haunts, and then we were in areas only glimpsed through the open windows of the car passing at high speeds. Before too long, we were at the rural airport where my father occasionally flew, then past the heavy industrial area with its odd rust burning and overripe wheat smells. Peddling away, we took a four lane road to nowhere, then, following my visual memory, various country roads until miraculously, we arrived at the park headquarters. That was where we started making bad decisions.

The goal of the trip was to see the Mississippi river. Inexplicitly, I had no visual memory of how to get there from the park entrance, as my family had only had the occasion to go to that part of the park on a few rare occasions. Thus, we had to rely on the questionable ability of a couple of 12 year olds to read and conceptualize the map of the park clearly displayed at the park entrance. We studiously committed the map to memory and, after a few sips of water from the outside fountain, were ready to proceed to the river, which was a mere 5 miles away. Note, that it did not occur to either one of us at that time that we were about to add 10 more miles to our trek.

As we made our way around the edge of the park, we had to peddle up and down some steeper hills than we had encountered on our trip. This was due to the natural rise of the land leading up to the river. Once we reached the northern edge of the park, the land began to fall away, and the ride down the road to the river was all downhill. Once we reached the river, we were elated. Our goal was reached! We celebrated by eating our candy bars. It was at that point that we also realized we were getting just a bit tired. Looking across the parking lot, I spied an opening into the woods. The germ of an idea began to form. ‘Why not take this shortcut back to the park entrance?’

The previous fall I had accompanied my brother to this very spot on his very own ‘amazingly really stupid thing’. We were ostensibly there to hunt squirrels. Squirrels having the common sense to be sleeping in the middle of the cold day, we left the hunting area just south of the northernmost road of the park, and proceeded to the river and more interesting pursuits. The map indicated there was an ‘unimproved road’ that ran along side of the river that joined another ‘unimproved’ road to an adjacent hunting area. Thus, his 17 year old logic told him that this sandy, vine covered track would be no problem for our sturdy VW van. It only took several hours of first pushing and shoving the van out of one sandy hole to another, to convince himself that this was not going to work. With no place to turn around, we then proceeded to push, shove, and scrape the van backwards down the track back to return to the entrance. Of course the only thing my 11 year old brain retained from that experience was the wholly inaccurate idea that there was a shortcut from the river parking area to the park entrance.

So with the prospect of a quick way back to the park entrance, we set off down the (still) vine covered track. We almost immediately ran into the same problem the van had encountered. The sandy soil made it impossible for the bikes to gain traction forcing  us to walk. When a trail that looked less sandy branched off to the east, we decided to take that. Our decision making got worse and worse, as we were further forced to make turns to unknown directions. We weren’t necessarily lost as we knew the way back to the river, but it was a long way and getting longer. We made our one wise decision to stash our bikes, and walk back to the river and get a ride home from there. When we reached the river, we were really, really thirsty. There in front of us, in its rolling glory, was all the water in the world. So that’s how I came to drink muddy water, fresh from the Mississippi.

Our extraction from the situation from there was uneventful. We made it to the parking area, where we managed to get a ride from a stranger who, oddly enough did not try to kill us and gave us a ride home. After arriving home, my parents took us back to find the bikes, which were located less than a 100 feet from a road near the entrance to the park. We had apparently made every turn in that trail system except the ones that would have led to a successful exit. I did not hang out with Scott much after that. I suspect I was viewed as a bad influence, why I can’t say.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Tales of a Cold Warrior - Entering the Dragon

(To get the full story, you may want to go back and start from the beginning)

I can't say I remember much about getting on the bus in Memphis, nor the bus ride from there to St.  Louis. The bus ride from St. Louis to Ft. Leonard Wood was memorable only at the end. In fact, I don't remember getting on the bus to Ft. Leonard Wood. The Army's goal for that ride was simple, probably honed over many years of dealing with volunteer troops bound for their introduction to the Army family.

We must have been purposefully directed to the busses by gender, as I don't recall any females on the bus, even though my training company had a female platoon. In fact, I do not recall the drills even getting on the bus with us. However, they were there for the ride, talking and laughing, and purposefully being human. As we pulled into the reception area, the head drill on our bus told us that he and his fellow drills were human, and were about to be true assholes, that it was part of the process and not to take it personally. That this was the last time until after we graduated we would see the human part, but to remember that it was there. Or words to that effect...

Then the doors to the bus opened and everything changed. From what seemed like all directions we were assaulted by a barrage of angry yelling men. "Go here", "Move faster", "What the hell are you doing?", and the inevitable "drop and give me 10". We were herded into lines, a ragtag group of civilians adrift among a wolf pack of drill sergeants. There was a speech then by the head sergeant. He talked about what a privilege it was for us to be in the Army and how it was his job to prepare us. He also said that graduating basic was going to be the hardest thing we had ever done. He then directed our attention to the now empty buses idling behind us. He told us that if we wanted to drop out now was the time, we just had to tell one of the drills and they would put us back on the bus. What he didn't want was someone trying to sneak away, as all manner of bad things would befall you in that case. I do remember a few guys getting back on the bus.

From there we were herded into a chow hall for a very unmemorable meal, and then segmented into the reception barracks for a night sleep. At that time, the reception barracks at Ft. Leonard Wood were vintage WW2 barracks which consisted of a double row of cots in an open bay.  I don’t think I got a lot of sleep that first night. There was too much going on, both inside my head and around me. Somehow, we made it through that and got shuffled off to ‘processing’ where our hair got cut by a group of old Filipino men. We were issued our uniforms, boots, underwear, and web gear by a group of fairly bored looking quartermaster corporals, which we carried to a group of old Filipino women to sew the various patches, name tags, and for those of us who had our PFC stripes (due to ROTC participation) our rank. How all those Filipinos came to be in the middle of Missouri cutting hair, sewing, and as I was to find out later, cooking and dating drill sergeants is a mystery.

Eventually we were sent to our training company. Given that training, even basic training, must occur on a schedule, and the number of training companies in existence at any given time are dictated by personnel availability and ultimately budget, in the fall of 1980 there was probably a new training company starting every month. I assume that my training company was not too different from others and consisted of three male platoons and one female platoon. Each platoon consisted of four squads of 7 to 8 men (or women – but at that time never mixed gender). Squad leaders were assigned by rank. The only people that had rank upon entry into basic were kids that had ROTC in high school or prior service individuals re-entering the service after being out for a while. We really didn’t see the prior service guys after reception as they were regulated to staff support positions. This seems right to me as there really was no need to put them through the mental rigors of basic, but probably required a different acclimation process. In any case, it was probably easier for the drills to instill the proper attitude without someone who had been through it all already mucking it up.  Oddly enough, I think I was the only one in my platoon that had been in ROTC. I suspect that reflects that nature of the military then. Most of us were there not necessarily out of a sense of duty, though that was true on some level or we would not have signed up, but also we sort of just fell into the service without planning.

So I was made squad leader by virtue of my ROTC experience. At the time, I thought that it was due to my ability to walk in a straight line and knowing how to salute. I suspect it as a little more than that, as throughout basic other squad leaders were brought up and down, but I remained. I think I was just lucky in that regard as somehow my squad managed to avoid the screw-ups of the other squads.

Next: Meet The Sergeant

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Big Dumb Science - Or How I Spent the Summer of '91 (Part 2)

The System

You can find the other parts of this here : Part 1 and Part 3

So that’s how I came to be working out of a guy’s basement in Vienna, VA. The EE who designed the board for the system was as inexperienced as I was, but was also fearless. Olga was an enigma. A heavyset hispanic lady (we were all too young back then) who looked more like a cleaning lady than the excellent engineer she was. She did know her craft and the motherboard she designed was almost perfect.  She was cheerful, upbeat, and never let Edwards or the job get her down. I have no idea what happened to her after Edwards shut down his company.

I say almost as any board fabrication is sure to have some glitches. The problem on this board took some sleuthing to figure out. I was attempting to get the serial port to work without much success. The data lines from the processor to serial driver chip were correct, but no serial activity could be seen on the output pins. I checked each line and it appeared to be correct.  I then looked at connector on the board more carefully and discovered that Olga had flipped the mask for the driver chip, reversing all the pins. The solution was easy: bend all the pins on the chip in the opposite direction and plug it in backwards. Score!

The code itself was all written in ‘C’, which was compiled using the TI toolset. It consisted of a few standard control features required by the chip and a ‘big loop’ style main loop. There was no real need for interrupt handling as there were no real time requirements. The sample phase would call the weather service, download the current indicators and place them in a table. It then would trigger and collect the value of the electrical charge for the ground sensor and place that in a table. The weather factors and the ground values would then be weighed and a ‘threat value’ would be obtained. The threat value drove the priming of the laser, which had various stages that had to be initiated before firing – such as starting the water cooling, turning on various stages, then culminating with firing.

The ground sensor was the one part of the system I couldn’t really test. In Virginia, electrical storms were relatively rare. Edwards house location was in a spot where the ground sensor could not be buried in such a way that good reading could be obtained. Thus, I was stuck with coding for an event that I would never see until we integrated the system at Ft. Huachuca.

As for the other parts of the system, those we were able to test. Firing the laser was done at office in Sterling that Edwards did a short term lease in. This was required as the three phase power required was not available in Edwards residential setting.  Per OSHA rules back then, there were administrative hurdles to firing the laser also. Each of us had to get an eye exam so that after the project finished, they could compare our eyes to assess if they had been damaged. Due to the events that unfolded, I never got that exam, but except for one case, I was never on any danger of an eye strike.

In that one event, I was debugging the startup sequencing and Edwards was testing the one part of the system that he alone designed – the fiber connection that would carry the laser out to a pit that would be constructed to receive the lightning blast. I had activated the laser and was reaching to put my protective glasses in place when Edwards turned around, fiber in hand, the beam bouncing off of every reflective surface in the room. Olga and I did some rather comical dodging and diving to avoid the very real chance of being burned or blinded by the beam. After all the dramatic representation of lasers in Star Wars and the movie ‘Weird Science’ I was amazed that the diameter of the focused beam was so small, yet also so potentially destructive.

So, system build ready, we packed it up flew with it to Arizona. I say we, when actually it was just Olga and I, as Edwards was still waiting on parts for his optical coupling design.

Next: Ft Huachuca

Monday, November 12, 2012

Yard Sailing

I woke up early Saturday morning. Much more so than what I was used to for a weekend. I am not sure if it was the lifting of the stress of the week, the crisp cool air of the season, or the dog greeting the deer in the yard by barking out a hearty chorus of 'Get the Hell Out of My Yard'. Whatever the reason, I was awake and began looking for a task worthy of such a nice day. 

There were of course the leaves occupying the front yard. They had been laying there since Sandy blew through, mocking me. I know I will eventually get to them, but I am trying to not be too compulsive about it. Then there is the roof on the shed which has gaping holes in it. It only leaks a little, (i.e. only all the water that falls on the shed roof) but the effect of the leak is starting to take its toll and it has to be fixed soon.

With all these woes, there was really only one option – road trip: but where? My sister had invited us to visit her place out in the mountains. As tempting an offer that was, what with all the firearm shooting, ATV riding, and bonfire marshmallow roasting, it would be a blatant abandonment of my leaf / roof responsibilities. While such obligations can be dodged during the week, what with all the working, commuting, and cursing, dodging these obligations on the weekend takes just a little more finesse. I then hit on an excellent solution – yard sailing.

Yard sailing, like other forms of sailing, takes careful planning, navigation, adapting to changing conditions, and, probably most importantly, knowing when to bring the vessel back into safe harbor. Saturday was no exception. The first step was planning. A quick assessment of the yard sales in my area listed on Craigslist revealed twelve possibilities. I plotted their locations in Google Maps to determine if a route to hit them all could exist without violating space time continuum constraints. After analyzing this route, I threw out the outliers which would cause reality warping time discontinuities, then combed ad contents to throw out sales which were oriented toward ‘baby clothes’. The resulting route was 1.5 hours long with six destinations. Taking into account actual traffic, Saturday drivers, and stoppage time, this translated into the perfect morning’s entertainment.

I should mention here that there are several rules to yard sailing which should be taken into account. These are common sense rules which sound simple, but are increasingly hard to follow once in the field. The first rule is to never buy something that you already have. That seems simple right? Well, depending on the depths of your hoarding stupor, this can be quite difficult. To ensure this rule is not broken, I find it advisable to take a quick tour of the various storage facilities secreted throughout the house to get a reminder of the ‘stuff I have’.  This of course brings up the next rule of yard sailing which is obviously universally ignored – don’t buy stuff you don’t need. The evidence of this rule’s universal violation is yard sales which, in their purest form, owe their very existence on the need of people to divest themselves of items which were impulse purchased by themselves (or by well meaning friends and relatives as gifts) to fulfill a need that does not exist. The items that are therefore found at yard sales are by definition unneeded surplus but not quite wretched refuse.

This leads to the third rule of yard sailing which is all prices are not final and must always be negotiated. Haggling over a prices is not in the comfort zone of most modern suburbanites. In most of our day to day purchases prices are fixed and we like it that way. The supply chain is such that the goods are obtained at a given price from the supplier and delivered to the end user in an amazingly efficient manner. Negotiation is by and large not needed as the system makes such efforts unnecessary. Yard sales have no such supply chain and therefore the efficiency of the system does not play a role. There is only the seller, who had gone to no small effort to try to divest themselves of their junk, and the buyer who is attempting to obtain junk which paradoxically they will end up selling to make room for the junk they are buying. Yes – it does all seem a bit silly, but less so than other noxious hobbies like raising alpacas, stamp collecting, or dentistry.

The first stop was disappointing. In early November yard sales are rare. Due to this, the fake yard sales are inevitable. A fake yard sale is a retailer who sets up shop in their garage, then pretends to be an impromptu yard sale. While I respect these retailers right to make money, and they usually have an intriguing theme of goods, they are, after all is said and done, retailers. They therefore usually violate the third rule being ill disposed to negotiation. Such was the case with my first stop. This guy had an amazing NASCAR collection that he was selling. He even noted incongruously that he had his liver removed the day that Dale Earnhardt bought it. His true ‘yard sale’ items were out front. I noted a fetching crosscut saw and asked him how much he wanted for it. He said $10. I countered with $5, and, true to form, would not move from the initial $10. Sadly we left without buying anything – though I now know where to get some good quality NASCAR memorabilia.

The second stop is really not worth mentioning, as the guy there had not started setting up his sale. He sheepishly noted that his wife had said that she would put the noted start time at 9AM rather than the 8AM that was actually in the listing. I think he was lying and had slept in (sloth!). We told him we would be back in a bit after he had a chance to set up. Of course we were lying too – there is no way I was going to violate God’s laws of space and time to return to a yard sale where the guy was too lazy to get up in time to set up!

The third stop was a rather disappointing ‘multi-family’ yard sale which consisted of a yard full of baby and toddler toys and clothes, followed by a lady with two tables set up with knick knacks, followed by a lady with five small cardboard boxes of clothes. Since we were there, we perused the kid stuff yard. Not only was there nothing interesting there, but there was a child seated in an overpriced chair that creepily kept repeating ‘welcome to our yard sale’. I was kinda glad he wasn't saying ‘redrum’. The little old ladies tables and boxes were a similar disappointment. I almost got the feeling they were just being nice to the first neighbor by setting up so they could list it as a multi-family sale. Perhaps they were under the impression the first family was selling the creepy child? Or, most probable, the sale was a neighborhood tradition that was no longer appropriate as most of the families that used to participate had moved away, and those that stayed had long since divested of their junk. Yes, it was a little sad, but that is the kind of thing you have to be ready to face when you go yard sailing.

The fourth stop was a true yard sale. Initially my vision was impared by the sheer volume of outdated clothes. I then poked through the brick-a-brac and items that were well past their re-gifting expiration dates. As I was turning to go I saw an odd shaped orange box poking out from underneath a table. Opening it I found a Stihl chainsaw. At last – I had found an item that I could purchase! Pulling the starter cord experimentally, I assessed that it was not frozen up and appeared to have compression.  Now to negotiate.

Me: “How much do you want for this”
Her: “I don’t know. It’s been sitting for a few years. I just want it out of here, make me an offer”
<examining it some more>
Me: “I just don’t know – give me a ballpark on what you are expecting”
Her: “$20 – and they go for $300 new”
Me: “I can’t really go more than $15 with it not starting”
Her: “I’ll take that”

That my friends, is how negotiation is done! Thrill of the hunt!

The remainder of our day was uneventful. We saw a house where a guy was selling off the possessions of his mother-in-law who had to go into a home due to Alzheimer’s. She had a great deal of interesting stuff, to include fencing foils, cans of R-12, a paper from when JFK died, and a complete WW2 Army Air Corp uniform. The estate sale had been going on for a while, so it was really a ‘retail’ operation where the item prices were relatively set and more than what I could spend. We only managed to walk out of there with a four rolls of new Christmas wrapping paper (for $2 - Score!). Again, a sad situation, but I liked seeing the old stuff and am honored I got a chance. I think the lady who used to live there would approve – I know I would.

We finished off our yard sailing with some sandwiches at Potbelly. After arriving home, I felt sufficiently sated that, with the help of one of my #1 son, I got about of third of the remaining leaves raked and hauled. We also got a semi-repair done on the shed roof which should be water tight. If not, I can schedule a yard sale in the spring. There's a a lot of junk in there!

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Tales of a Cold Warrior – Lifting My Hand and Swearing

(To get the full story, you may want to go back and start from the beginning)

For those that don’t know, there is a line when you join the Army that demarks a point of no return. That is the point where you sign your enlistment papers, then lift your hand and take the oath. The oath itself is the same as everyone who serves, from the lowest private to the commander in chief (in a similar form). Even after all these years, I remember the first bit, though I did have to Google to get the second half:

I, _____, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.
I don’t remember much about the ceremony. I remember a crowded room with a bunch of guys in it. While some people had their parents with them, I was alone except for the recruiter as I was already 18 and did not need parental approval. I do remember that the signing and swearing were all done at the same time. After the ceremony, I returned home. A few days later I got my orders and bus ticket to Ft. Leonard Wood, MO for my basic training.

That summer between swearing in, graduation from high school, and leaving for basic training was uneventful. I did carry quite a bit of anxiety for how I would fare in basic training. I had after all led a fairly protected life. I was about to go away from home in the most dramatic way possible, probably never to return in any permanent way. While I wasn’t in bad shape, I also had concerns about how I would fare physically in basic.

As a partial compensation for these feeling, I decided that then was a good time to take some karate classes. At that time, there weren’t really any dojos near where I lived in the outskirts of Memphis. I didn’t really know anyone who could advise me for a good dojo, and, I hadn’t really researched martial arts beyond knowing that the difference between judo and karate. I did have a friend that I grew up who lived down the street that had taken judo lessons. He related how he had spent most of the three months he took lessons learning how to fall down. This didn’t really seem like what I was looking for, so I had ruled out Judo.

The dojo I ended up picking out of the phone book was a little place off of Summer Ave. run by Master Kang Rhee. Master Rhee was a little guy, but one tough little Korean. Technically, what he taught was not karate, but a blend of karate, Kung Fu, and TaeKwonDo called PaSaRyu (Way of Honor). I was blissfully unaware his association with Elvis until I earned my yellow belt and he wrote 'TCB' on my sparring gear and belt, and the symbol for a Lion. For those not versed in Elvis lore, 'TCB' means 'Taking Care of Business'. It is amusing to see Elvis do karate moves in his concert videos and recognize pieces of the katas I was learning. I did a search to see if the dojo was still in business, and amazingly, it is - though not in the same location. Master Rhee must be in his 80s, but is still listed as an instructor. I do remember his second, Ernest Caruthers (who is probably over 60 now) as a great weapons instructor, something I didn't really get into much as that instruction cost extra.

I attended classes daily, sometimes twice a day. At the time I didn’t have any transportation, so I either rode my bike or the bus to the classes. In retrospect, it was not so much about the karate as it was about self confidence. I built up my strength and stamina, as well as improved my push up skills (something that would be extremely valuable once I entered Basic). By the end of the summer, I was ready to take my green belt test and more importantly, ready to take whatever the world could throw at me. To this day I can still remember almost all of the first kata - something dramatically called 'the 17 deadly moves'.

It’s funny how odd moments mark the transition points in your life. For me it wasn’t signing the paper or getting on the bus but a more subtle moment. Toward the end of the summer, I had gone to a park in Bartlett to jog and work on my kata, alternating jogging and form work. I noticed a couple watching me. When I jogged near them, I recognized them as a couple of people I had gone to high school with. They asked what I was doing, and I explained that I was practicing a kata. They gave me that ‘poor guy, he’s gone off the deep end’ look. As they walked away, I realized that they were to go to Memphis State and probably get married, like most of my other friends, and I was really going into the Army. Right there, I realized I was following a very different path than my peers. I didn't feel bad about, it was just different.

Next – Enter the Dragon

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Big Dumb Science - Or How I Spent The Summer of '91 (Part 1)

You can find the other parts of this here : Part 1 and Part 3.
After the 'real' job I was working at the beginning of 1991 went away when the company I was working for failed rather spectacularly, I was desperate and out of work for a whole two weeks. I will probably write about that company in a future post, but there are aspects to that particular job that I should probably give some thought to before putting it down in the blog. In any case, I called the people I had worked with before and set up interviews, as well as sending my resume to the company’s advertised in the Sunday want ad supplement.

Job hunting back then was a very different thing then it is now. When looking for work I would scan the weekly want ads. For tech jobs, I basically had to wait until Sunday when the Washington Post would do it's technical want ad supplement.  While there were probably as many 'head hunter' outfits back then as now, most companies preferred to list their jobs in the Sunday supplement. I would mail or fax my resume to the company and hope for the best. Since there really wasn't an internet or e-mail, that was the way things were done. Yes - it does seem awkward. Ironically many of the engineers hired in that era invented the infrastructure that created the internet.

Being especially anxious, I resorted to looking for engineering companies in the phone book, and cold calling them to check for openings. At that point in my career, I had committed to being an embedded systems programmer, so I had little or no interest in the plethora of COBOL and DBASE jobs that were the primary programming hires at the that time in the Washington area. There were a great many government 'toy shops' in the area that did specialized devices, many of which were developed in custom hardware and required someone familiar with embedded or device level programming. On one of these calls, the gentleman told me he did indeed need a programmer and would I stop by his business for an interview.

When I arrived at the address he had given me I was immediately confused. This was a residential address. I knocked at the door and was greeted by a Indian man in his early 40s and cloying waft of curry. He invited me in and we did the usual interview thing there on his living room couch. He explained that he was a PhD that had been awarded a SBIR contract to construct a lightning detection, quick disconnect, and deflection device. The work would be performed in his basement and I would be working with a tech and an electrical engineer. He offered me a lower initial salary than I wanted, with the understanding that he would automatically increase my pay on a weekly basis up to a higher than expected salary. Being in need of a paying job, I took his offer.

I was familiar with the SBIR contracting process as I had been exposed to it at my previous job where one of the engineers I worked with had secured for the company a lucrative SBIR contract for a innovative spacecraft power supply. This gentleman's idea was a unique solution to solve a problem for the US Army at Fort Huachuca, AZ. It seems that they had a wooden tower there that they used to suspend tanks and other military hardware so they could do radar studies. The tower itself could not contain any metal, so it was an expensive asset to construct and maintain. Ft. Huachuca was unfortunately subject to violent storms which produced some amazing lightning. A lightning strike on the tower or the adjacent radar equipment could cost significant money for repair. 

Edwards solution was threefold. First, the system would sample the environment via ground sensors and automated weather reporting to determine a threat level. The increasing threat level would activate the other parts of the system. One part of the system would arm a quick disconnect relay that would detect a beginning of a surge and isolate equipment before the surge could travel to key equipment. Yes, this is equivalent to surge suppressors found in every power strip today. The other element of the system was more interesting. If an immediate threat was detected, the system would activate a water cooled laser to fire, ionizing a column of air much taller than the tower, and leading the impending lightning strike safely away from the tower. There were two critical elements to the laser. First it had to be at the proper wave length to ionize air. Secondly, it had to be of sufficient strength. In this case, that called for a water cooled 10 watt monster with a collimated beam not visible to the human eye.

The processor chosen for the system was an odd TI part. Specifically it was a TMS370, normally used in automotive applications. However, it had all the elements that we needed. It had A/D pins which we could use for the ground sensors, and a serial port that could be used to dial up a weather reporting service. Again, there was no internet there, so and Ethernet connection was not a real high priority. There was no operating system as the microprocessor was a simple design and code space was limited. Being a TI part, there was sufficient (free – important as cost containment was too important to my boss, as I will illustrate later) tools and sample code for the serial and A/D functions. The ground sensor was basically a long rod pounded into the ground, with an exposed wire at the top and bottom of the rod, opto-isolated from the system (in case of the inevitable lightening strike). The concept was that before a lightning strike, there is a buildup of electrical charge in the ground. Once the lightning releases, the charge dissipates. This charge / discharge pattern can be measured from some distance away. Or at least was the theory that I was presented with.

What followed that summer was probably some of the most challenging technical work I had done up to that point in my career, and ending in perhaps the most disappointing way.

Next: The System