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Archive for June, 2019

Purity of Heart

I learned the hardest way possible that it is a poor idea to get caught up in somebody else’s doings.  It was at Texas Instruments (TI), the Sherman, TX facility where I was hired yet again, but this time as design support to the Inductive Devices Division.  Tom Bradley, Line Supervisor beyond compare, was overseeing the manufacture of the close-wound coil that enhanced many TI inductive products.

Close-wound coil at TI is formed like a garage door spring, but made of copper rather than steel.  For this application spring tension is immaterial; it is the unique shape and composition of the copper, an excellent electrical conductor, which is of import.  It is flexible like a slithery snake and easy to shape to suit whatever application without breaking or deforming. 

Mr. Bradley (I called him Tom) had settled on an approach to winding that spun the wire onto a rotating spindle to form an endless coil.  It was an efficacious concept, though still too labor intensive.  My assignment was to take Tom’s approach and automate it.

This was a task where big dreams could fly.  Money was not a problem.  We’re talking military spending here.  Copper wire was fed automatically onto a motorized rotating spindle where it coiled round and round sliding off the pin as a continuous wrap formed.  From there, a rotating array of 8 troughs accepted 18” long coils, one at a time, and deposited each one neatly into a receptacle for storage.  The troughs were milled into the entire length of a 20” long, 4” diameter, Delrin (polyoxymethylene) rod.  Don’t ask me what that massive hunk of engineering grade plastic cost.  I did the design, not the accounting.

A photocell monitored the coil as it in turn advanced down the length of each trough.  When the coil attained the required length, the photocell actuated a solenoid circuit that rotated a cutting blade.  Whap!  That provided for discrete pre-measured lengths of precision coiled wire.  The Delrin rod with eight milled troughs at 45 degree intervals around its periphery was a designer’s wet dream.  A 45 degree stepper motor, eg. precisely rotating an eighth turn with every actuation, presented the troughs at precisely the right time and place to accept the next coil as it slid into the next track.

So if it all went together so nicely, what was the problem?

There was no problem.  The machine worked like a dream.  I had taken Tom’s little motor and spindle and morphed it into a whiz-bang gadget for the ages.  Not only did it work beautifully, but it was beautiful.  My husband, Larry, a man I admired—actually adored—for his engineering savvy, had taught me how to achieve a shadowbox effect with metal enclosures.  Such subtleties made the Worm Winder look like a piece of professional industrial equipment, not some mechanical monster kluged together in a greasy machine shop.

The ends of the enclosure were 12” squares of 3/4” thick solid 6061-T6 aluminum plate with ½” R corners and painted flat black.  1/8” thick 2024-T3 aluminum sheet formed the entire front, back, top, and bottom.  The top and bottom were shaped with 1” R edges that provided stiffness and the effect of professional looking design.  The top lid attached to the back along the entire length with a 3 ft. long piano hinge, with two rows of blind rivets hiding the attachment points.  All the sheet metal was painted flat industrial beige, which contrasted nicely with the black end plates.

The “little machine that could” would sit and spin out close-wound pre-cut coils, 120 an hour, ‘til the cows came home.  But in this case, the cows did come home.  Tom didn’t like it.  Worm Winder would run for entire shifts in the design lab, but as soon as it hit the manufacturing floor, everything went awry.  It was never clear what, exactly, had gone wrong.  But by shift end, Tom’s prototype motor and spindle were again operating in rescue mode, two employees attending to its quirky maintenance.  A design lab tech would go out and re-start the Worm Winder.  All would be humming happily, but the problem would repeat itself again, and again, and yet again.

Finally management had to acquiesce.  The Worm Winder was certified as officially a failure.  Tom Bradley, after all, didn’t like it.  Management had to decide: replace the machine or replace the man.  It was a classic decision; the machine must go.  My failure was in not engaging the man as artfully as I did the design task.  It was doomed from inception. 

My last memory of my beautiful Worm Winder was visiting it at shift-end, standing in a quiet assembly bay, one hand caressing each square end plate, as I watched the tears of my body fall onto the lovely sweep of the piano-hinged lid.  It was my baby.  I loved it.  The prettiest machine I ever built was a failure, not because of any technical defect, but because I didn’t have the basic understanding of how to play well with others in order to build something wonderful—together.

I did enjoy the lovely task of preparing the usual Patent Disclosure, wherein I got to praise the WW to the skies and describe in drawings and descriptions all the wonders of the little beast. It made me feel better, and who knows, given that complete definition it may someday be reconstituted at a time and in a place where Tom Bradley doesn’t know it has been hatched yet again. Jurassic Park perhaps? Then it may fly!

Our time at TI Sherman was complicated.  It was there that at thirty-four I decided to have yet another baby, working until only a week before onset of labor.  Another case of divided loyalty!  I wanted to be Super-engineer; I also wanted to be Super-mom.  Having lost my daughter to a half-blind superannuated driver, I wanted to do something to repair the deficit.

Once the baby arrived, we needed a caregiver.  My husband’s Engineering Group Leader’s wife, Izzy, agreed to baby-sit.  Once baby Kurt was happily ensconced in their household’s porta-crib, the question of religious affiliation arose.  Larry’s boss Connor and Izzy suggested that we should make a visit to their church.

 “What kind of church,” I asked.

“Pentecostal,” he replied without skipping a beat.

I gulped and cast about for a reply.  “Maybe, someday.”

“Someday soon?”

“Well, just as soon as I get life sorted out at home.”

Weeks went by.  Every time I encountered Connor, he asked, “When are you going to come and visit our church?”

Putting him off worked for only so long.  Larry cautioned me that Connor was an assertive proselytizer and would not be deterred.  We decided that a visit would be a small price to pay for Larry’s job security, perhaps even for mine.  We considered in retrospect the foolishness of taking jobs in the same cost center.  Larry’s boss and mine, though different people, worked for the same Department Manager.  We were vulnerable indeed.

The worship service handled no snakes, but featured every other wild and wooly item we had heard and read about connected with the sect.  On cue every person but Larry and I began speaking in tongues along with some who rolled on the floor in carefully chosen spots that offered adequate space for frenzied gesticulations.  Another cue from the pastor, and everybody instantly came to their senses, returned to their pews, and readjusted their composure.  We were aghast.  When asked after the service to consider joining the congregation, we demurred, too terrified to make political excuses as we fumbled with the door locks of our car. 

We high-tailed it home, hired another babysitter, and kept on doing our level best.  The very next month, in spite of two excellent performance reviews, both Larry and I were caught in the same RIF (reduction in force).  I guess we had been pulled in too many directions.  My heart was definitely not pure.

~~~~~~~~

Soren Kierkegaard, the 19th century Danish theologian and philosopher, suggests that a mind divided is a mind unable to be at peace with itself.  When we desire contradictory ends there is no chance for the mind to find harmony; always there is inner strife, conflict, and confusion.  When the mind pulls in two directions at once we inevitably suffer; we are forever restless, dissatisfied, and second-guessing ourselves.
(Wild Mind Meditation)

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Female Engineer

Most of the companies that hired me for engineering jobs during the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s, were willing to give me a chance to work for half pay while they reaped the benefit.  Texas Electric Service Company (TESCO) was consistent with that behavior, but in other ways was an outlier.  I signed up with them during a lull when engineering jobs were hard to find, and the country was flirting with economic recession.  Its corporate culture was decidedly Neanderthal, supervision applied with a sneering cynicism, co-worker camaraderie a thing only good-old-boys aspired to.

I knew I was in for a rough stretch when my first day, on the job and ready to work, the plant secretary introduced me around as “our new female engineer.”  I found out soon enough that I was to have no work assignments.  My job was to sit and draw pay.  A visit with plant manager, Ralph McCullough, clarified the situation.

“Why are you complaining?” he asked.  “That other woman we hired, the electrical engineer—she doesn’t do anything but knit in the ladies room.  That’s all I want her to do.  Get it?”

 “I can’t do that!”  I retorted, my face getting redder by the second.  “I’ve got to do something useful.  Something where I can learn about the operation.  I can’t just waste my time here.”

Mr. McCullough leaned back in his big executive chair.  He stretched, flexed his arms, and locked his hands behind his head.  He gave me a fish eye and bared a toothy rictus.

“How about you spend six weeks in every department?” he postulated. “When you get through with that, maybe you’ll know a little something about what we do here.”

I readily agreed and got out of there in a hurry.  The next six months, I spent climbing all over the rigs.  It was an education.  TESCO operates generating stations throughout the state, and the Fort Worth site was just completing construction on its third gas-fired turbine generator.  It was an interesting time to be given free access to a complex and busy site.  I climbed everywhere.  Up and down ladders.  Into tanks, storage lockers, and control rooms.  Through maintenance facilities.  This was before the advent of office cubicles for each person.  Except for top management, all technical staff occupied one open bay, lined up in rows of benches.  Twenty-two people shared one phone.

Primitive office accommodations didn’t bother me.  I spent all my time checking out the facility, learning how it made electricity and how it transferred that energy to run a vibrant metroplex economy.  I made sketches, charts, and drawings of lessons learned, hoping they might help other newbies someday suffering in my same situation.

Mostly I stayed out of everybody’s way.  Hardly anybody questioned my activity.  I seemed to know what I was about, so they left me alone.  I managed to convince one group manager to let me learn to calibrate meters—a major victory.

When #3’s new turbine was ready to come on line, a festive occasion was planned and executed.  The mayor was duly invited.  On the designated day, a whole group of city officials showed up for a tour of the facility and the ceremonial throwing of the switch that would connect Plant #3 with city power.  As a member of the technical staff, I was included in the festivity.  I watched, listened, and learned.  Having accepted that at TESCO women were best seen but not heard, I kept the quiet peace.

The culmination of the ceremony was gathering the entire visiting retinue in the open sided shelter in front of the plant, speaking certain ritualized statements, and then moving the big main power switch to the “on” position.  The atmosphere was festive.  Visitors chattered and asked questions.  Mr. McCullough was in his element.  It was his time to be the man.

The group gathered under the roof shelter that protected the main plant power switching array.  Explanations followed.  Accolades were intoned.  Credits were acknowledged.  Persons of import were praised.  Then the lead power supervisor stepped forward.  He positioned himself right before the switches and placed his hand on one of the massive lever arms.  McCullough gave the official word.  Everybody held their breath.

That’s when I yelled, “Stop!  Don’t touch that switch!”

Manager McCullough turned eggplant purple.  “What are you talking about?” he growled.

“Look,” I pointed, “That’s the wrong switch.  You’re getting ready to turn off #2.”

McCullough spun around, did a double-take, and ordered the required change.  The power supervisor wiped his brow and moved his hand to the correct switch.  He pulled hard, moved it to the “on” position, and we could hear TESCO Turbine #3 lumber into service.  Later, the supervisor contrite but thankful explained that I had saved all our lives.  If he had actuated the wrong switch, effectively opening the circuit on an operating power plant, there would have been a massive explosion.  Many would have been killed.

Having completed my six months of visiting departments, I returned to the plant manager’s office.  I suggested advancing the company’s position by offering to initiate sensitivity training to help integrate all the women who were being hired by TESCO statewide, but then paid to do nothing.

His response was simple and decisive.  He fired me on the spot.

As I packed up my personals, the power supervisor came by to shake my hand.  He bent over and whispered, “He had to get rid of you, you know, because you saved his sorry ass.  No good deed goes unpunished.  Sensitivity training was just an excuse.  You’ll do ok on the outside.”

“Yea, I know,” I agreed.  Most other companies were greedy.  Some were insensitive.  But I never met another one that so perfected the art of being both mean and perverse.

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Humility

On Sunday June 2, 2019, the Right Rev. Thomas Breidenthal visited the Church of the Redeemer in Hyde Park where he preached and celebrated baptism, confirmation, and membership with a goodly crowd making those significant commitments.  The group was considerable since it joined congregations from West Chester and Indian Hill as well as Hyde Park.

It had been exactly a year since I had made my own decisions of confirmation and membership at the same altar, blessed by the same cleric.  As I listened to the words repeated again and again, I zoned out, sifting past remembrances.  Last year each confirmand knelt on the floor at the seated bishop’s feet; this year they stood.

My eyes closed, trying to obliterate the memory.  At seventy-nine I had been dreading the knees-to-floor posture but was sure I could handle it.  All those years of yoga and gymnastics were surely good for something.  It was, after all, just a graceful folding to the floor and then a little hop back up.  I tried it at home with decent results.

During the service all went well.  The bishop’s hands were duly laid.  The words were said.  I was officially a confirmed Episcopalian.  Then all Hell broke loose.  As I executed my little hop, my feet didn’t quite clear the floor as they sought their rightful purchase.  The result was a lunge that propelled me right into the bishop’s lap.  With my face planted firmly in his crotch, I prayed for the earth to open and swallow me.  But God wasn’t answering.  I was on my own.  Hands were necessary.  I groped for something to provide leverage to my situation.  All I could find was knees—his.  I daintily grasped both ecclesiastical knee knobs, hoping to appear apologetic, and withdrew from my dastardly face-plant.  During the ensuing months, I had dreaded meeting my Bishop yet again.  He would never ever forget me—nor I him. 

Given that painful memory, I thought the vestry might import a prie-dieu to provide more graceful kneeling for the ceremony, but none was employed.  Standing, indeed, worked well enough.

Playing through the year old memory, it occurred to me that it wasn’t completely my fault.  I had a strong role model when it came to not being physically age appropriate.  When at fifteen I went to live with my father and his new wife, we were all trying to get to know each other as a family.  I was heavily into school gymnastics.  I loved to turn flips, do back bends, and hand stands.  Once when I was showing off my latest flip, my Dad announced that he, too, could do that.  He, a sedentary thirty-nine, planted his hands on the ground and swung into a decent hand-stand.  Then he fell over and broke his leg.  Six weeks in a cast reminded him that it might be a good thing to act his age.

The bishop’s sermon was excellent.  His after service talk-back session was even better.  I sat behind a very tall man counting on using him for cover.  I had some questions but dared not ask them.  In this lifetime I will not be asking any questions of this bishop.  I learned my lesson all too well.  I could have asked for help getting to my feet, but no.  I was sure I could do it all by myself.  My grandmother’s most insistent question of me was all too often, “How can a girl as smart as you be so God damn dumb?”

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