Guest Opinion: Once Upon A Time

By Nils Dahl

Date: September 28, 2001

Summers in the pre-school years - spent lying in bed, gasping for breath. Asthma and allergies that forbid eating anything from those major food groups - chocolate, nuts, corn, and peanut butter (yes, a legume).

Learning at age 2 that poking a paperclip into an electrical socket is a Really Bad Idea.
Roaming through fields with the radio flyer wagon, finding quartz and mica rocks to take home.

Sliding down the dead end street all winter - no plows during WW II.

My first glasses, age 4, when I can't see dad's car waiting outside the summer school where we just made fern prints on blueprint paper.

My first cat, Daisy, traveling home in the carpet bag as we ride on the bus - and then hiding behind the stove. Or Daisy, taking offense at a neighbor's german shepherd, 'taking a ride' on that dog's back as he flees in terror. Feisty, very feisty.

Reading National Geographics donated by a neighbor while the other kids study Spot's running habits. See Spot Run.

My first radio kit - a genuine Heathkit super-regenerative one tube deal - that doesn't quite work. Asking my dad how to fix it as he lies in a special hospital bed, recovering from a broken neck suffered in a car accident. Resoldering all the connections and hearing it work. Still sits in my closet, alongside the genuine Boy Scout crystal radio.

Going to the famous Gray manufacturing company in Hartford to buy their state-of-the-art turntable and viscous damped tone arm factory irect, then building the units into a plywood base.

The joys of my first real camera, a Voightlander Vito B 35 mm, and the closeup studies of plants done by dropping a piece of ground glass in where the film normally sits - to properly focus with closeup lenses in place. Developing the film and making prints in my basement darkroom area.

My first ham radio contact as a Radio Amateur, novice class - on the Heathkit AT-1 transmitter I built.

The chem lab experiment that gets me banned from such things - just a swamp gas display using chlorine gas in a tank with calcium carbide generating acetylene that ignites as it bubbles to the surface.

Sitting in senior English class and learning that I scored 799 on the College Board English exam - but two girls beat me with 800. I should have revised more.

And then the grand adventure - off to an all boys college called Union College in Schenectady, New York to study mathematics for 4 years. Spending 6 hours a day washing dishes for meals. Spending 8 hours a week working a/v in the language department for spending money. memorizing Die Marmorshale Rund as my poem for a German class - to write out as a test. Didn't quite finish it. The professors treated me like an associate. College - study and work and occasional periods of sleep. And grasping the meaning of infinity.

Getting back home and learning that my name was on the draft list. Enlisting for 3 years.

Right in the middle of basic training at Fort Dix, the day's activities canceled - Kennedy shot and dead.

Studying to be an audio specialist at Fort Monmount. Getting the big news that little old me was going to the Army's official motion picture studio, The Army Pictorial Center - in Queens, a short subway ride from Times Square. Seeing this former Paramount Studios
location the first time. Returning to base from a weekend at home, only to find a note on my bed that says 'pack you bag. We leave for Turkey at 8 am'. Off on my first ever airplane ride - to Paris, Rome and Istanbul via PanAm - and then to locations I am never to speak of. Turkish coffee in a plaza in Ankara.

That sergeant - the crusty old veteran who asks me my opinion of the famous Wall BNC 35 mm movie camera. I give an honest appraisal. Ooops. We are going to a really neat vacation spot to prove me wrong - and its a tropical paradise called Saigon. And there's a bit of disturbance taking place here and there. My second airplane flight - half way around the world again. Setting up the famous Wall BNC and listening to numerous radio broadcasts from the Air Force equipment. Packing up the famous Wall BNC and fervently thanking the John M. Wall Tractor Company of Syracuse, New York for ancient technologies - only to discover that we are 'on loan' for 6 months. My first monsoon rain. Two months without running water due to a pump failure - don't even think of asking what 95 degree heat and 100% humidity does. The long daily walks through Saigon - seeing the boat people, the famous fish sauce yards where giant crocks of sardines are fragrantly fermenting in the open air, the people - just the same as us - trying to lead normal lives and avoid starving to death. That awful day when I am handed a Graflex rangefinder 70 mm camera and told to go take pictures of a car bomb scene. And other things that should never be spoken of.

Back to the U.S.A. just in time for Christmas - I think. More lugging exposed film to the lab next door. And then another vacation - this time to famous Mercury, Nevada - where things go boom and the earth moves on occasion. Only a few hours drive west of Las Vegas. We make that drive once - and stop to watch the Thunderbirds practicing low level maneuvers at an abandoned air strip. Crossing the road - the only road for 60 miles in any direction - a speeding car stops dead to wait for us to walk. A courtesy so rare.

And back to good old NYC, only to go on another trip - around part of the USA this time, on a long location shooting job at strange Army bases here and there.

Why not another vacation trip - this time with professional camera and sound equipment. Rent the Arriflex 16 mm self-blimped camera and the Naagra reel-to-reel studio portable. We are going to do a real film job. South Vietnam again. But this time we visit General William Westmoreland in his windowless office in MACV compound to film his Thanksgiving Day Address to the folks at home and then we go location - to meet our star. John Wayne in person. Like the biggest name in the whole film industry. Doing a PR film for the Army and scouting out possible location shooting situations for his Green Berets film. The big guy - who turns out to be the nicest person I have ever worked with - and me a lousy
specialist 4. And then other places. The 101st Airborne base, where men live each day knowing that half of them die on every mission. The lone marine outpost on a hilltop, where the guys haggle with me over a trade - how many rolls of olive drab duct tape for a Thompson with stick magazine. No deal. And the cast party at the end of the mission -getting the only autograph that exists from John in South Vietnam, a treasure to
last a lifetime.

Stopping at Honolulu for a week and meeting wonderful people, riding the city bus up to the rain forest line, feeling the joy of that first step back on earth as we arrive home - intact.

It felt like a lifetime by the end of just 3 years. September 1963 to September 1966. of course there was much more - little details like the Navy dentist clearly telling me of his recent graduation from school just before he pulled my wisdom teeth - using a local anaesthetic. Great kidder. Good strong hands. Or meeting my favorite officer of all, Major Reginald C. Greer, who scored an A on his calculus final thanks to my tutoring. And who also got back from his vacation in one piece. Some friends did not. One went insane. Never forget.

Age 25 - I buy my first car, get my first real job, and enter the world of a corporation - the 6th largest insurance company in the world. And I learn things. To get a job as an officer, you might find it handy to summer with Catherine Hepburn at the family place in Old Saybrook. No need to know anything about computers, insurance, programming, or work. So I sort punched cards, learn 1401 assembler language, patch some code in machine language, and make friends with the mainframe guys. Meet Ragnar E. Anderson, director of SPAN - the first mainframe computer center in Connecticut. He and his team even designed the building, laid the first raised floor (using bowling alley flooring), and kept the 705 tube system cooking. I see IBM's first 360/65 mainframe cpu stuffed in one corner of the room - tape drive along side for loading the TOS code. Prototype. Later, I participate in the new facility planning and see one of the first 'complete' 360/65 systems in action - what a monster. And I learn all about Selector Channels, Multiplexor Channels, the new 2314 hard drive arrays, printers, 2301 drums, and that Data Cell Drive. don't ask. We get Selector subchannels added to the Multiplexor, expand the mainframe to a whole 1 megabyte of memory, and swap devices around to improve performance - meanwhile testing out each new operating system as IBM moves slowly towards OS/MVT - an os equivalent to Windows 95 - but without graphic displays.

Now this place has a policy. Every 6 months the overseers get to move the slaves around. its called re-organization. The boss who has the most power gets his pick of the best slaves. Yeah, right. negative internal continuity. Total destruction of long term planning
programs. Quite annoying actually. I move on.

Hell hath no fury like a commercial bank's departments facing a loss of power to new guys. I am now specifying new corporate computer equipment changes and doing preparations. Except that the os guys are under orders never to speak to me. And my own boss makes Dilbert's boss look like a flaming genius by comparison. For 18 months I drag the state's
largest commercial bank into the present - screaming and kicking all the way. I learn what an honor it is to even speak to officers in person. I make plans to move on.

Around about 1972 and I see no future in the computer world locally. Time to leave the eternal frustrations of inbred society members chosen to manage by their ability to match drinking habits with the boss at lunch. The real adventure begins.

The rest is a long series of work experiences that have no relationship to the world of computers - unless you count the small business where I set up an Epson Equity Plus CP/M machine and built their accounting system with Peachtree software. Heck, on my first day - in the morning - the owner looked right at me and told me that I wouldn't be there after 90 days. Real charmer. A sort of Tony Soprano associate. Lower level though.

Oh the adventures - that ranged from dissertations on laser survey units to fellow survey crew members - to adventures in the world's only fuel cell manufacturing plant. Yes, the place were all those NASA fuel cells for the space program were made. Government contracts. DC-to-AC inverters that filled up large rooms. Going to graduate school to study
genetics and plant breeding - discovering that the teachers didn't know much, couldn't teach, and didn't care anyway. A foolish idea.

The years have passed. The learning continues - and will continue as long as possible. I am semi-retired at present, devoting my time to rebuilding a life that was sorely in need of improvement. The years spent reading BYTE and 80 Micro magazine, studying every book I could find, and asking why have been most enjoyable. It only gets better with the Internet
information sources - although things were a bit tricky in 1995 when I started on that path.

We all have vastly different foundations of experiences and different attitudes toward dealing with and learning from the real world. I have many neighbors who don't know each others' names or walk outside their own properties. The world of my youth is only memories - of swamps, farms, fields, and a simpler lifestyle. I fix things that others just throw away. I watch movies that show life in Sweden in the 1930s - and imagine how my grandparents lived before they came to the USA. You can too. Just find copies of The Children of Noisy Village and More About the Children of Noisy Village.

But what are you really like? I don't know. Ask somebody else. Each time I think that I am close to understanding, something reminds me that the world is far more complicated than I ever imagined. I ask questions. I read, typically 10 books a week. I learn things every day.
So try some reading. If you dare. You want a sampling of life in a sort of real world, a place where the good guys look like monsters and the monsters look normal? Try the Anita Blake series by Laurell K. Hamilton, beginning with Guilty Pleasures. So what if it is an alternate
earth where vampires and werewolves are next door neighbors. It may be unbelieveable just because it is so much like life in our real world - and your neighborhood is untouched by real world situations.

Or, if you like, try to fathom the depths of meaning in Terry Pratchett's Discworld stories - the world's greatest philosophical satires on human weaknesses and other things. Terry is a tough read because he builds in casual references to his vast store of movie and music
experiences. Soul Music perhaps. Get to meet Susan sto Heilit, orphan girl whose dear old gramps is much different from anyone else's. And her few friends in school. And a boy who dreams of being the greatest musician of all - and makes a wish.

My favorite movie? A simple children's story made in Japan. Kiki's Delivery Service - perhaps the greatest work of the world's greatest animated film maker - Hayao Miyazaki. yes, far greater than Disney. Try the Disney release section anyway - the Buena Vista dubbed release has a great voice and music translation. Or maybe My Neighbor Totoro. Same director, same Buena Vista releasing company. Far from just a kid's story - if you watch closely. It's a breezing sunny day in the village. Kiki is lying on the bank of the lake, watching clouds. A bee is bussing around her. She's at that old age of 13 and about to leave home along - to find a new city and spend a year working on her own. Well, Gigi
is coming along but he's just a black cat who complains a lot. Time to fly.

The usual biography tells nothing about the individual. We are all sums of our own personal life experiences. We grow according to our willingness to participate in life and embrace its lessons. And we are all, quite obviously, different from each other in many ways. That's life.


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