Tuesday, April 2, 2013


April 2, 2013:

          You do some crazy things when you're young. I once tried to climb up a scree slope on a steep mountainside, made about one foot of elevation for every two feet I slid backward, and that was not a winning tactic. But I did make it to the trail somehow without falling to my death. Another time I boot-skied down Mt. Rainier. I've never skied in my life, but I was in a hurry, I was with somebody who taught me how to do it, and voila! I got down that mountain much faster than made any sense. Then there was the time two girls in a convertible cut me off on Rte. 101, driving north toward San Francisco from Big Sur. The road was crowded, they were weaving in and out of traffic, and they pissed me off. So I resolved to do the same thing to them, drove like a maniac, caught up to them, and then raced them up the highway. Stupid. It took me about ten minutes to figure out I could die doing this, and for what? a minor irritation? I slowed down. I'm still alive.

          And then the jobs. One of my summer jobs when I was young and in college was working in a small factory that made molded industrial rubber parts. I worked the "evening" shift, which started at three p.m. and ended at two a.m. The rubber came roughly shaped to the size of what you were molding and you had to put it in a press and pull a lever. It was sort of like working a slot machine. But in a furnace. When I walked in at three every day it was usually about 120 degrees in the place, tapering off to about 95 as the night wore on. We molded rubber to cafeteria trays, made automobile parts out of rubber, and God knows what else. A country music station went all the time. That's where I learned the words to a song about taters: "Taters never did taste good with chicken on the plate, But I had to eat 'em just the same. That's why I always look so poor and have these puny ways. 'Cause taters never did taste good with chicken on the plate." I can still sing it, and with just the right twang to it, too.

          I went from that job to a Johnson & Johnson factory where my job was to test the foam content of baby shampoo. You did that by pulling bottles at random off the line, pouring them into a glass container, and measuring the level of foam they produced. I wanted to go on the TV show "What's My Line?" for that one, but they weren't interested. The next summer I went to a DuPont factory in Linden, N. J., where I worked rotating shifts in a plant that produced an industrial cleanser called sulfamic acid in powder form out of crystallized urea and sulfuric acid. It wasn't exactly an ecological paradise. The powder would get into your pants pockets and eat through them. I still have scars on my thighs from that. It ate up shoes in a month, or less. I made a lot of money, half of which I used to buy my girlfriend at the time, later my wife, a diamond engagement ring. And that was worth it. Two children who are wonderful human beings. Two grandchildren, the same. Anyway, the night shift was the hardest. I would go to the roof of the factory and watch the sun come up over Staten Island, then have to drive home, totally exhausted, staying awake only by sticking my head out the window as I drove. A learning experience, no doubt about it. How many people, after all, know what sulfamic acid is, or what it cleans? Or that it comes in 400-lb. barrels? I also learned how to operate a forklift truck, which was great fun. I believe I could still do it.

          But the oddest job of all was the last salaried job I've ever had. In grad school, running out of money, with no financial aid available, I took a job as an aviation pioneer's personal historian. I thought at the time it was probably the only job of its kind in the country, but probably not--there must have been one or two others. Anyway, my job was to collect documents out of his past, organize them, create an archive, interview everybody I could find who had been involved in his past, and write a book. His name was Sherman Fairchild, he was known as the father of aerial photography, having invented the first practical aerial camera, he had been involved in all kinds of early developments in aviation, he was a personal friend of Howard Hughes, had known Lindbergh and been at Roosevelt Field when he took off for Paris; he had posed with Gloria Swanson in front of the first airplane his company made; he had been on the cover of Time, been featured in Fortune, and had hired Robert Noyce, who later founded Intel, away from Bell Labs and thereby turned Fairchild Camera & Instrument into the leading maker of transistors in the country.

          What did I know about aerial cameras? About airplanes and how they work? About computer technology, about a hundred other things he was involved in? You guessed it. Zilch. Nada. But I had to learn. And did I care about any of this stuff? No, I was studying sixteenth-century English literature: Shakespeare, Sir Thomas Wyatt, Edmund Spenser, Christopher Marlowe, when I was hired. But I had to care, even though this was definitely not the future I had in mind.

          To my amazement, what I learned was--wow, it was all interesting. Really, really interesting. I was beginning to understand that the world was a deeply fascinating place, that everything about it was interesting if you kept your mind open to it. Even the way a between-the-lens shutter on a camera operates proved interesting, once you understood the serious problems involved in making one that was both very large, three inches across, and very fast. I won't go into it here, but that was the problem Fairchild solved, and that began the process that now allows Google Earth to take pictures from hundreds of miles in space capable of showing you tending your steak on the Weber grill on your back deck.

          Not only that, but Fairchild was chairman of two companies bearing his name on the Fortune 500 list employing a total of 30,000 people, his father had been the principal founder of IBM, he was that company's largest individual stockholder, and because I worked for him individually, not for one of his companies, I got to see how the world works from the top down. I interviewed Bobby Lehman in his office, the walls lined with Italian primitives (now hanging on the walls of the Metropolitan Museum of Art), met Robert Kennedy, met engineers, rich businessmen, financiers, socialites. A retired Admiral on one of the Fairchild boards took me to lunch and explained how things looked from his perch. A retired general did the same at the Cosmos Club in Washington. In Sewickley Heights, PA, I sat with a man on his terrace looking over a beautiful valley drinking mint juleps and when I remarked, "Nice view," he told me he owned it. Really, the whole thing was incredible, from beginning to end. When Fairchild died he left all his personal employees, and I was one, various years of salary--I got seven years--depending on how long they had worked for him. The book was canceled when he died, but the archive went into the Library of Congress, where it's the largest aviation archive they have. I used the money to launch my career as a writer.

          Now I sit back in wonder--did all that really happen to me? The weird jobs, the sulfamic acid eating away my shoes, Fairchild and the bonanza of the totally unexpected inheritance? I didn't plan any of it, didn't wish for it, couldn't possibly have imagined it. It was a gift. It opened my mind, all of it, from the dirty laboring jobs to the interviews--I did seventy, eighty of them, traveled all over the country to do them--the work with archives, with technological history, with aviation history--it opened doors everywhere inside my head, let me see the world and the way it works, its incomprehensible complexity, its unfairness; it taught me how power structures function; it showed me what money buys and how it affects people, it revealed the world's richness, its mystery; and it taught me how to write. How did I get to be so lucky?

          That's not a question you can ever answer. But I come away from it with this thought: so much of our life just happens to us; things are not in our control. Good or bad, life comes your way and you have to deal with it. But if you let it--if you don't make premature judgments, don't curse your fate, don't fight fights you have no hope of winning, then--well, quite often things take care of themselves. You may not get what you want, but you get what you need. And you can learn from it, no matter what happens. Because that's what the earth really is. It's a school. And as in any school, to do well in it requires an open mind.