Archive for July, 2019


TRW Inc. was an American corporation involved in a variety of businesses, mainly aerospace, automotive, and credit reporting.  It was a pioneer in multiple fields including electronic components, integrated circuits, computers, software and systems engineering. TRW built many spacecraft, including Pioneer 1, Pioneer 10, and several space-based observatories.

                       The company was founded in 1901 and it lasted for more than a century until being acquired by Northrop Grumman in 2002. It spawned a variety of corporations, including Pacific Semiconductors, the Aerospace Corporation, Bunker-Ramo, Experian, and TRW Automotive, which is now part of ZF Friedrichshafen. TRW veterans were instrumental in the founding of corporations like SpaceX.

                       In 1953, the company was recruited to lead the development of the United States’ first ICBM.  Starting with the initial design by Convair, the multi-corporate team launched Atlas in 1957. It flew its full range in 1958 and was then adapted to fly the Mercury astronauts into orbit. TRW also led development of the Titan missile, which was later adapted to fly the Gemini missions. (Wikipedia)

“Am I smart?” I mused—a question more floated balloon-like onto the air than asked.  Jack Cherne, our grand old man, chief engineer of the NBCRS (Nuclear, Biological, Chemical Reconaissance System) was the object of my question.  TRW (Thompson Ramo Wooldridge) had just successfully completed the DOD (Department of Defense) top secret program and we were heady with success.  He gave me a smirk, leaned back, hands cradling the nape of his neck, crossed his ankles, and proceeded to pontificate.

“Not bull-dozer intelligent—but clever.  I’ll grant you that.  A clever girl you are.” 

It was the kind of sexist, ageist, grandfatherly benevolent expression I should have expected, but given all that had so recently occurred I hoped for more.  Jack had seen it all, knew it all, and helped us get through it all.  If I could get a straight answer from anybody, it would be from him.  I was forty-seven, hardly a girl, and more of me had adhered to the NBCRS sampler concept than any other program participant.  But I was a long way from being sure of myself. 

NBCRS for me, a very small fish in this ocean, started with announcement of the program, to be proposed as a bid package to TACOM (Tank and Automotive Command) of the US Army.  When Bill King our department manager announced the proposal, everyone was jazzed.  He framed it as a design contest.  Any and all of us were welcome to submit ideas.  The task was to gut and refurbish an M-113 APC (Armored Personnel Carrier) so as to render it capable of entering a contaminated environment, collect samples, test them, and mark safe routes through the suspected death zone.

A well-connected whiz-bang design engineer, Colin Hartwell, had been posted to our team, with the assumption he would control the concept phase of the work.  But even so, King assured us that our input was solicited and would be given the credence it deserved.  Our group, always responsible for hardware design, caught the cresting wave of his excitement.  All of us departed the meeting deep in thought.  The next few weeks went by with several preliminary layouts rising to a level of interest but eventually set aside.  I thought a lot about the problem, spending many hours digesting the customer specification from TACOM that weighed nearly four pounds on the mail-room scale.  With all those requirements and parameters swimming in my head, any possibility that fit seemed too complicated.  I played with the problem but scribed not a single line.  Some guys drew up a storm but were disqualified because they hadn’t internalized the spec.

Colin jumped right onto a computer terminal and began his layout, making the most of our CADAM (Computer Augmented Design and Manufacturing) system.  His layout took shape, looked impressive, and eventually usurped a table in the design bay as a full scale prototype.  I watched him assemble what seemed to be coming together as a Rube Goldberg joke, with way too many parts, that relied way too much on what produced falling apples.  This machine was to traverse a battlefield environment.  Gravity was not assured to be ever on our side in a conflict.  Finally a simpler better solution began to swim into my clever girl consciousness.

On the day of our PDR (Preliminary Design Review), I woke up early, buzzing with an idea that seemed like it could do the job and would leave nothing to the vagaries of falling fruit.  It was not yet committed to paper, but I was full to bursting with “possible.”  The breakfast meeting started on time.  I lucked out with a seat next to the old man.  Getting the ear of such a power broker was something that didn’t happen to me—to people like me—a woman.  Maybe I gave that luck an assist, grabbing that chair before somebody else could.  I don’t even remember.  But there I was; there all of us were.  The meeting played itself out.  We ate our eggs and Canadian bacon, drank a good many cups of Hyatt coffee, and commenced listening to a litany of tech-speak.  Even so, my eyes did not glaze over.  During the entire presentation, I was hard at work.

My breakfast napkin, flattened and smoothed, served as a platen for a coalescing concept.  A Hyatt logo pen sketched this graphic:  Two gear-rotated garage door style springs, protruding from the back of the M-113, drag through a dirty battlefield and trail two flexible smooth silicone rubber ropes that protrude from inside the springs and acquire contaminants as they slide along the terrain.  When one spring is up, presenting the sample to the on-board spectrophotometer for analysis, the other spring is down, trailing along possibly contaminated ground.  The cycle assures that one spring or the other is always down, assuring that no opportunity to sample contamination is missed.  The rubber rope is fed from two pre-wound cassettes, unrolling from their pockets recessed in the floor of the vehicle, played out continuously through the two reciprocating-arc spring arms.  After each sample is processed, an automatic cutoff severs each length of rope and jettisons it.  The entire cycle is automated under on-board command and control.

I tapped Mr. Cherne on the shoulder and pointed to my inked napkin.  He looked, raised his eyebrows, leaned in, and began puzzling it out, thoughtfully scratching his beard.  He took the napkin and spread it flat between our eggy plates.  Nobody seemed to notice our whispered conversation.  Then he pocketed the napkin and went back to following the blow by blow of the PDR.

I sat, mentally castigating myself for being so late to the table of bright ideas.  Colin was all set to present his layout, and I was literally nowhere.  After several more managers had their say, it was Jack’s turn.  He rose, bounded up to the speaker’s platform, his gait belying any assumption he might be past his prime.  He pulled my napkin out of his pocket and announced what was going to happen next.  His eyes sparkling, he waved the napkin and told his story of a girl with a winner of an idea.  He described the concept we had just hashed out over bacon, eggs, and hash browns. 

The Bird Colonel, who was the planned recipient of all this information, seemed to enjoy the nerdy irony of it all, and approved the change in plan.  Poor Colin never even got to mount the stage.  His klunker disappeared and was never heard from again.  I was left to suffer with my guilt for having disadvantaged a good engineer who just happened to have a bad day.  Then I had to deal with the hypocrisy of “suffering” a turn of events about which I was secretly ecstatic.  Why can’t things just be simple?

The entire program was similarly and delightfully fraught.  It was concept development of the sort inventors dream about.  Every problem encountered was but an opportunity for another wild ride.  One of many examples was handling flag emplacement from within the sealed interior environment while dressed in Mop IV Gear (ie. sort of like a space suit.)  My gadget presented a single flag staff directly into the gloved hand of the operator so he could then poke that staff into a cleverly constituted base that when deployed would hopefully self-right onto rough terrain.  The flag shaft slid through the phallus-shaped shaft of my clever flag-pole presentation device and was the source of much ribald humor.

It’s interesting how often sexual ideation enters production of creative hardware design.  Male and female screw threads have ever been the subject of lascivious palaver.  I don’t know if this is a universal.  I can only attest to my own odd proclivity to see the connection and suffer attendant embarrassment.  My introduction to such inappropriate invention started in an organic chemistry class at the University of Dallas.  The professor insisted on investing every atom with a male or female gender identity depending on its plus or minus charge status.  He then would describe in excruciatingly prurient detail just what happened during the subject exchange.  That was one over-sexed professor.  Perhaps he needed a date.  Who knows?

The NBCRS Surface Sampler was detailed precisely from my coffee-stained napkin sketch, which I quickly turned into a complete CADAM scale layout.   It was an education for me, a designer who was used to managing development of my inventions all by myself.  Working in support of production always offers opportunities for building bright ideas into hardware while shepherding the entire project into completion and implementation.  NBCRS was my first time stepping into design of actual product, not just tooling, for the military industrial complex.

It was a different world.  Every item no matter how inconsequential had to be documented, specified, enumerated, sequenced, and controlled, as part of the system of military specification.  I had no idea how complex this was.  When my Dad and I had worked an idea, we just drew it, built it, tested it, and let it fly.  This was something else entirely.

Every system, every assembly, every component, no matter how small, had its own drawing and number that defined and controlled it, positioning it in the overarching tree of military/industrial graphics.  Such stringent detail wasn’t my cup of tea.  They knew it; I knew it.  I didn’t complain when they gave me a quiet corner for dreaming up new ideas, more exciting stuff to prototype.  I was happy.  Some days I didn’t lay a single line—just stared down a blinking screen.  They didn’t mind, as long as those wildebeest kept stampeding across my river.  Bill King let me change my schedule, coming in at six am while the city slept, and I made the trip from Orange County to Space Park in a mere thirty-seven minutes.  The security guard got to know me as the lady who couldn’t tell night from day.  Was I the first person to arrive every morning in that massive high-rise?  I don’t know.  I should have asked him.

I soon understood the drill.  I was to produce scale layouts of concepts.  The detail drafting got swiftly assigned to drawing experts who had been generating military specs since they hired on as career drafters.  They were amazing!  They grabbed my sampler machine layout and ran with it.  I, on the other hand, accepted the obvious: TRW was willing to let me do what I do.  I began managing the sampling piece of the NBCRS program.  Being involved at that level opened the way to a panoply of afterthoughts.  CADAM and I drew them up, and they were soon prototypes. I was having more fun than a human being should be allowed to have.  At 2:30 every afternoon I got to leave for the day.  Life was good.

It was too good to last forever.  We turned NBCRS over to the Army.  I would never know how it fared in the world of war.  Just because the sampler was my baby doesn’t mean I should be allowed to monitor its career.  My Top Secret clearance wasn’t enough.  “Need to Know” was also a requirement.  I had absolutely no need to keep up with its exploits on the modern battlefront.  I dutifully filled out the Invention Disclosure form, relinquishing forever whatever perceived interest I may have had in the machine, and that was that.

Other programs came and went.  For a while I had to figure out why the doors fell off the Peacekeeper missile every time it was fired.  It involved digging deep into controlling documents, analyzing the hardware they described, and proving how parts were failing to properly interact.  The U S of A cannot have the doors falling off their missile deployments.  I ended up with a box of drawings and an answer.  A letter to my department manager finalized the assignment, and I was on to the next thing.

Proposals were the best.  Assignment to a proposal was opening a door to creative possibility.  It was new and undefined.  That was understood.  A customer specification controlled, but it said what it must do, not how.  That was up to us.  We hashed that out among ourselves.  Each team member was expected to bring a certain area of expertise to the endeavor, but that didn’t confer any power.  The strength of any idea was inherent.  I hung my concepts on the wall, in the spot designated for my part of the effort.  Once every day, the entire cohort “walked the walls.”  Anyone could ask questions.  Anyone could answer them.  Anyone could suggest changes or explain why something could be a problem.  I, a mere BS, could take to task a PhD or any level of manager if I could marshal my facts.

I will never forget the specter of a proposal manager consoling a BSEE (Bachelor of Science Electrical Engineering) as she sobbed and rubbed her eyes following a walking of the walls.  She was protesting that I shouldn’t have prevailed in my concept for an electrical network.  I had no right, certainly no electrical creds, but my concept was better.  I won.  It made me feel bad that this work was so often a zero-sum-game, identifying a winner and a loser.  There ought to be a way to define it as just progress.  Even though I complain, we should celebrate such an argument between two assertive educated women on such a once forbidden platform.

What goes up must come down.  A concept well accepted in aerospace.  Politics change.  Money disappears.  RFP’s (Requests for Proposal) dry up, and people like Bill King must spend their days conjuring make-work to keep their people busy.  Erstwhile program managers are spied pushing brooms down hallways.  I was given stacks of drawings to be itemized as alpha-numeric lists on computers also being kept mercifully busy.  It’s hard to be patient with make-work.  Even harder to be grateful, since it was a sign they wanted to retain—not lay off.  Weeks might go by while I drew my regular salary but did essentially nothing to earn it.  And I wasn’t learning anything.

If I had been smart, I would have hung in there, been patient, where they liked my work and were willing to let me be just a little bit eccentric.  But, like Jack Cherne maintained, I wasn’t smart, just clever.  After only five years at TRW, I decided to throw it all up and buy a book store—another adventure entirely.

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How Are You?

“Fine.  Just fine.”  That’s all anybody really wants to hear.  They don’t want an assessment of what’s actually going on in your complex physiognomy.  If you lined up your medicaments and explained how each one played its special role in keeping you upright and ambulatory, sensing and communicating, digesting and excreting, people would only roll their eyes.  They don’t want to hear it.

You could bore them to tears with the o-so-unfortunate story of your Glaucoma and Macular Degeneration.  The twin disasters are sure to get you in the end.  The little blue and orange topped bottles of Latanaprost and Dorzolamide can only stave off blindness for so long, and then it’s the dark.  Our constant love affair with screens has initiated a brand new sickness as their high frequency blue light attacks our rods and cones.  Now we must belly up to the prescriptive bar and demand Preservision to get the necessary Lutein and Zeaxanthin to protect them.  What’s next?  Something to deal with the blepharitis caused by the dry eye attendant to the ageing of us all.  Restasis has taken its rightful place as the go-to treatment but is perhaps prohibitively expensive.  Since one of the side effects of its oral formulation is listed as lymphoma, it remains to be seen what the Restasis future might be.

What do you do when your Thyroid gives up?  You supplement.  But first you test, and test, and test.  Every few months you re-test to verify required dosage.  And you pop those pills, Levothyroxine, one a day, every day, forever.  Thyroid is too important to forget.  It controls your body’s furnace, and it balances other endocrine functions that, like every dog, must have their day.  Last time I had an actual exam, the specialist counted nine little goiters on one side of me.  Years and years of keeping them turned off and compliant has caused the opposite side of the gland to dissolve, absorbed into my body’s own mystery.  It’s gone—all gone.  Unless somebody invents a way to grow me a new one, it’s I and the little pink pills for the foreseeable future.  An interesting aside: The Levo part of the name concerns this molecule’s ability to rotate light in a counterclockwise direction, ie. to the left.  There is surely a mirror image chemical called Dextrothyroxine that rotates it to the right, but that one won’t work for us humans.  We see the same quandary with Dextrose, a complex sugar we use to sweeten tea.  Levulose exists but doesn’t float our boat or spin our light in the correct direction.

Omeprazole, the generic term for Prilosec, a protein pump inhibitor, is great for holding off GERD (Gastro-Esophageal-Reflux-Disease).  I believe I prefer the acronym.  There was a time when one-a-day did the trick.  Now for me it’s two-or-misery.  One coterie of doctors asserts that such treatment turns off digestion of all protein.  The opposition counters that the stomach’s hydrochloric acid is strong, too strong to be inhibited by a silly little pill.  What do I know?  Even they can’t decide or agree.  It’s complicated.

Metoprolol Succinate, a time-release generic version of the popular Lopressor, is my go-to beta-blocker to handle my over-the-top blood pressure.  I use it daily along with a diuretic, hydrochlorothiazide, to fight the good fight.  We do what we must.

At one point, after spinal stenosis led to two spinal fusions and the pain was unspeakable, my doctor prescribed Oxycontin, guaranteed it to be healthier than Tylenol/codeine, and less deleterious to my dear, dear liver.  That worked until it didn’t.  Then our culture declared it to be a problem, so I decided to stop taking pain medicine altogether.  Sure, it hurt, but it was just pain.  “Self,” I instructed, “get over it.”  I did.  Now I rely on water-walking at the J (Mayerson Jewish Community Center) and Yoga (before getting out of bed in the morning) to stay nimble and supple and somewhat pain free.

A sore bottom is misery, pure and simple.  A lifetime of poor diet and straining at stool will tear up the most dedicated of rectums.  Its lining begins to break down.  Blood pools in the loose tissue, and you are the dubious owner of your own case of hemorrhoids.  They burn, itch, bleed and make you the very personification of misery.  Mine are presently held at bay by Preparation H, an old but useful over the counter remedy.  Evaluation of your sitting problem is a simple in-office assessment.  Putting it off only promises you more pain.  Embarrassment is inevitable, but doctors have a very poor memory for bottoms.  A week later yours will have been forgotten.

Women deserve our own corner of this conundrum.  Ever since a creative research tech collected urine from a pregnant mare, separated out the female hormone and convinced a menopausal woman to add it to her tea, the age of hormonal replacement was underway.  Equine estrogen as Premarin was introduced 75 years ago and was an instant success, even though it only partly relieved hot flushes, etc. because the horse estrogen molecule isn’t precisely identical with the human form, estradiol, and the female human body doesn’t recognize it as the real thing.  Research has isolated and reproduced several forms of precisely human estrogen, and women seem to need them in varying combinations.  They have been for many years prescription available and offer to extend every woman’s zippity-do-da.  However, the kind of replacement estrogen most often prescribed is still the horse variety called Premarin.  Time marches on, as should progress.  Doctors need to keep up with the research.  Pharma technicians have better things to do than run about, buckets in hand, chasing after big-bellied mares.  Have you ever seen a horse roll its eyes?  Clinical studies have shown that estrogen replacement reduces cardio-vascular disease by 50%.  It works to prevent Alzheimer’s, sagging breasts, flapping underarms and reluctant vaginas.  Yes, it even makes sex feel good again.  Don’t waste another day of your life on horse tinkle. 

Some chemicals are too simple for big Pharma to make a killing on, such as magnesium carbonate.  If I take it every night, I don’t wake up in the wee hours with leg cramps and throw myself out of bed with a shriek and a run around the Serta howling, all to break the  convulsive restriction of my leg muscles.  Electrolytes seem to affect the operation of muscle tissue and need to be delicately balanced, with Magnesium playing a prominent role.  Staying alive and functional is indeed a lot of work as well as way too much cerebration, cogitation and rumination.

All this is so fascinating to ourselves, but is such a tremendous bore to others, especially the young.  The safest thing to do of course is to smile and say,

 “Fine!  Just fine!  Never felt better!  And how are you?”

Of course you hope they’ll have the wisdom to not tell you.  The one exception is a person who happens to share similar afflictions.  Then you can compare horror stories with a willing co-conspirator.  Similar to pre-kindergarten sex, “You show me yours; I’ll show you mine” is often a productive negotiation.

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Mono Lake is a saline soda lake in Mono County, California, formed at least 760,000 years ago as a terminal lake in an endorheic basin. The lack of an outlet causes high levels of salts to accumulate in the lake. These salts also make the lake water alkaline. This desert lake has an unusually productive ecosystem based on brine shrimp that thrive in its waters, and provides critical habitat for two million annual migratory birds that feed on the shrimp and alkali flies.  The most unusual feature of Mono Lake are its dramatic tufa towers emerging from the surface. These rock towers form when underwater springs rich in calcium mix with the waters of the lake, which are rich in carbonates.   (Wikipedia)

When my husband Jeffrey and I blew into Mono County, California in the spring of 1977, we were in a position only to punt.  It seemed to be our sole option since his father had changed his mind about inviting us to build a home on the lakefront property Jeffrey and his brother Sisal would someday inherit.  We didn’t, however, give up on Lee Vining and its fantastic environs.  It was that unique location that had called to us with such clarity.

The family-owned property was a chunk of the Mono Lake shoreline bristling with tufa towers and underlayed with salt flats that offered an endless source of the mineral crystals that could be harvested and marketed to remunerative effect.  The Brandt clan bottled and sold the salt for many years and enjoyed its health enhancing benefits as well as consistent profits.  It routinely performed miraculous feats of physical healing.  I have found nothing so soothing to my irritated nasal tissue.  One of our best friends claimed that after he was told to report to the hospital for amputation of his gangrenous right foot, he instead spent an entire summer ritually soaking it in Mono Lake, 2 ½ times saltier than the ocean.  It completely healed.  Long a professional skier and tour guide, he was able to return to his important and necessary career.  The US FDA would surely look askance at Mono Lake salt.  Since it is apparently innocuous, nobody is likely to sue anybody, but since there is no big money to be made, nobody is likely to investigate the science behind its ameliorative affect.

The entire lake and surround has since been reclassified under eminent domain and gleefully ingested by governmental organizations, but in 1977 it was still very much a private entity.  Jeffrey’s old man, Otto Brandt, had for many summers parked his camper-enhanced pickup truck on the property and enjoyed the clear briny sea air, at 6785’ of elevation, on the shore of California’s prettiest salt lake.

The location morphed everything it encountered.  Even the local Indian tribes, offshoots of the Paiute band, that came to define that indigenous human habitat, became themselves an oddity.  They camped at agreed upon times of the year along the lakeshore, chowing down on the larvae of the flies that populated the salty flats, and gathered the nuts of the many pinion pines that grew heartily throughout the area.  There wasn’t much else to eat except an occasional rabbit, chipmunk, or pronghorn antelope, slow enough to get caught.  Maybe it was the limited and peaceful diet that urged the Natives toward a quiet settled attitude of acceptance.

By the time we arrived, most of the fly eaters had been absorbed into the dominant population, working for LA Department of Water and Power (DWP), Bureau of Land Management (BLM), or just squatting extra-legally in tents on BLM property.  Interactions were colorful.  Our favorite example was Cecil.  He got around by limping along the highway, feigning incapacity.  As soon as we would pull over to ask where he was headed, he would shove his Army issue metal crutches under his arm, punctuate the moment with an exuberant war whoop, and sprint for our Land Cruiser.  We didn’t mind.  It was a charming prevarication.  His opportunities were limited.  We appreciated how hard it is to control out-of-control circumstances.  He was always good for a yarn or two, knew most of the local history, and gladly shared it.  I was sad to hear years later that after one hitchhike into Lee Vining to get liquored up, he succumbed to sleep underneath a parked car and froze to death.

Even as the location had dictated the evolution of local indigenes, so it worked its will on Jeffrey and Dorothy Brandt.  He took his new BS degree in Industrial Arts from North Texas State University to the local building department, was pressed into service as a Mono County Building Inspector, and began to earn a decent income.  I was bored and confused about what to do without an engineering job, and not wanting to stagnate into a resentful domesticity.  So, when a knock on the door announced the wife of a local architect, I agreed to see if they could do what they promised: teach me how to design houses. 

With our three sons, Dale (19), Lane (14), and Kurt (3), Jeffrey and I settled into a colorful old house just around the shoreline from the Brandt enclave and decided to give it a try.  The house, built by a local eccentric named Pat Kelly, nestled among the tufa formations, and was bereft of electricity.  A gasoline generator provided direct current for whatever was artfully wired to run when it was chugging along, punctuated by occasional backfires.  Otherwise the site was powerless and mercifully quiet.  We approved the independent lifestyle the home stood for.  A propane refrigerator kept things cold; a wood stove kept things warm—at least warm enough.

Pat Kelly had found a hollow tufa tower and set up a tiny wood stove in it where on the occasion of pleasant weather he camped out.  It was the only tufa with a stovepipe.  Lane, a confirmed romantic, moved his bedroom furniture right in and set up housekeeping.  All went well until he awoke nose to nose with a creature he wasn’t able to certify as a friendly.  He moved back into the house.  In Lee Vining proper, he took Mono High School by storm, became a star running back on the football team and later moved to starting Quarterback and Team Captain.  He won lead in the school play his junior year, but in spite of all that, followed Dale back to West Virginia to matriculate.

Dale got a job with June Mountain Ski Resort where he groomed the slopes with Thiokol Snow Cats.  Later he signed on with Cal Trans (California Department of Transportation), driving their monster snow movers.  They let him take the high-country-snow-specific driving test even though he was blind in one eye, so as not to fault themselves for discrimination.  The test consisted of negotiating an oversized truck through an orange cone array under the critical eye of Cal Trans certified experts.  They were sure he would fail it, since depth perception requires two good eyes.  But he aced the test, outscoring all the other applicants, overturned not a single cone, and was hired for the job forthwith, but after a while he missed West Virginia too much and headed back to country roads and mountain mommas.

Kurt, supremely confident, loved his preschool teacher, but became the first kid in Lee Vining ever to flunk kindergarten.  He, with a great deal of patient forbearance, explained to his teacher that he intended to be a race car driver, and as it follows, would not be needing all that adding and subtracting stuff, much less those a’s, b’s, nor c’s.  I was confident the future would sort this all out.  It did.

We loved our scenic views of the lake and respected its changing weather patterns.  One time we were horrified to witness emergency crews recovering four unfortunate people who had ventured out on the lake during questionable weather.  The rescue equipment paraded slowly and respectfully past our house, bearing the bodies to their stricken relatives.  The victims’ boat had capsized, and there was nothing left to do but grieve.  “Careful” became our operative code—our watchword.

I began commuting to Bridgeport, Mono’s county seat to work for the architect, who had arranged for three professional drawing tables to outfit his upstairs home office.  Since I already knew how to draw, thanks to technical drawing classes at Carnegie Mellon, and could do axonometric and perspective construction spreads, we were set to do some serious work.  Mono County was a down-to-basics kind of place, and certified though he was, Rufus Hale didn’t do the whole architectural package.  There was little market for it.  Local building contractors wanted only a good plan set and any necessary calculations to win project approved from the Building Department up in Bridgeport.  We gave them what they wanted.  He was a Registered Professional Architect, so his stamp was all that was needed for the Department to certify his plans.  It was a good place to learn how to make a living by the pencil, one sheet at a time.

The Hales held my hand as I learned, one careful vellum after the next, to turn out a well-executed plan set.  Making like a sponge, I learned what I needed to, interviewing the customers and serving their individual needs.  As soon as I could fly, the Hales let me.  I enjoyed the work, the creative outlet, and the beautiful scenery to be appreciated on the daily commute from Lee Vining to Bridgeport.  That took me across Conway summit at 8143 feet, the highest point on US Route 395.  It is truly God’s country.  The Indians called it the place where the Great Spirit dwells.  The beauty was all the religion I needed.  Every trip was a prayer.

It could have gone on that way forever, but Mrs. Hale began repeatedly showing up with bruises, an occasional black eye that she tried to cover with makeup, and odd changes to her gait.  I asked her if she needed help, and she broke into tears.  Rufus, it turned out, in spite of the “his and hers” underwear blessed by the local certified Mormon official, that was supposed to purify their thoughts, was venting his existential frustration on the body of his beloved spouse.  It was a remote location, where I was enclosed eight hours every day with a big man who had a problem with his temper, and his wife whom he was beating.  I was frightened for her, and also for myself, having never subjected myself to testicular violence.  Both my husbands could yell, but never raised a hand against me.  They knew that wouldn’t play.  When I explained my fears to Mrs. Hale and apologized to her for having to move on, she pleaded with tears running down her face, “Please don’t leave me alone with him.”  What could I say?  I urged her to consider that it was high time for her also to depart, and I was out of there.

Jeffrey supported my decision and made himself useful as only a nine-to-five official building inspector, fairly compensated, gaining expertise on the job, and transferring that facility to my growing need to learn about construction in the Mono Basin.  We owned one drafting table, and set it up in Kelly’s old attic, centered in a shed dormer that overlooked the back yard.  The leveled enclosure out back was gigantic, so we made a serious garden.  Setting a garden is a significant opportunity to appreciate what a grown man can do with a shovel.  I fetched water, bought seeds, located and set seedling plants.  After all those years eating from a West Virginia kitchen garden, I knew how to make the most of California’s fertile topsoil, but couldn’t do it with woman-power alone.  It was a time to celebrate man muscle.  Having made it through our first sierra winter, we settled in to enjoy our first rolling harvest at its bountiful best.  After watching the sun rise, I would draw in the dormer until eleven o’clock, then go out and find whatever looked good to eat and was ripe for the picking.  Bringing it in, I would peel and prep it for pot or wok.  The result was epic.  I had never experienced such freshness, such vibrancy of taste sensation. 

Each evening brought another opportunity, often to accompany meat scored from Lee Vining Market where, having certified to provable income, I could say, “Put it on my account.”  It was good to be financially viable again, now states away from engineering jobs that had paid so reliably.  After dinner, Jeffrey and I would climb the stairs to the drawing dormer, and scratch away at our single drafting table.  I drew on the front; he drew on the back.  We each announced intent to erase, so the other could lift pen or pencil before the board commenced shuddering.  With a shared sense of humor, we managed.

I had not anticipated continuing to draw after departing the architect, but several of his clients, having liked my inventive approach, followed me to Lee Vining, and I was in business.  I charged only a bit less for plans than area architects since I had to hire a local Registered Professional Engineer at my expense to provide a stamp whenever required by law.  Jeffrey was great at doing engineering calcs, but wasn’t certified to sign them.  Any residential span over 25 feet needed a PE signature and stamp, as did any commercial building.  Jeffrey’s calcs were good as gold given his aerospace engineering background, familiarity with local codes, and experience interpreting the Unified Building Code (UBC) that covered anything we might dare to undertake.  But he couldn’t sign, and he had no stamp.  I could and did do structural calcs, but found little creative joy in them.  Jeffrey was more consistently accurate. 

Bear Engineering—really a black-bearded bear of a man who had a magnificent and friendly Black Labrador named “Bear” and an engineering stamp that read  “State of California Registered Professional Engineer “—was just what we needed.  We hired him; we hired his certification.  Whenever our designs exceeded 25’ free span, or waxed a bit too unusual, Bear (the man) would verify all calculations and impress his big round stamp onto the drawing set.  He earned a fee; we were verified as competent—if not registered.  Liabilities were covered all around.  Clients could afford buildings and residences without the steep fees of a Registered Architect doing the whole gamut of the work, much of it essentially beneath his spectacular pay grade.  We got to pet the dog for free.

Much of what an architect would have provided was of course not included.  Clients had to choose their own fixtures, interior materials, finishes, and sources.  With clients who were mostly Licensed Building Contractors, we did only what was needed to get the building built.  We served a need.  In an area destined to be ever a frontier, we made construction almost affordable.  I would specify carpet; client would specify type, brand, source, and estimated cost.  I would position a toilet; client would indicate brand, color, etc.  We didn’t offer scale models, architectural renderings, luxury offices, or wining and dining of clients.  We had no liability insurance, whether due to ignorance or poverty, it was a tossup.  We could never have afforded it given the modest level of our fees.  We must have done a credible job since we were never sued.  At that point in my career, I didn’t know about liability insurance.  I suppose we were what lawyers call “judgment proof.”  We had nothing but each other and love.  Why bother to sue us?  Its effect would be only punitive, netting nothing to the aggrieved.

We called ourselves “High Country Drafting.”  If we had advertised “Engineering” we would have been shut down before week’s end.  We could have named ourselves “High Country Design.”  That would have been legal, but we didn’t want to have to go to court and defend the name, just because people couldn’t agree what “design” means.  As long as we advertised only “Drafting,” we were perfectly legitimate.  What we did wasn’t as important as what we advertised.  Hmmm… in-ter-est-ing.

After we satisfied several contracts, and saw them translated into viable structures, we could finally afford to rent an office.  We moved into town, into the building now occupied by the Mono Lake Committee, the guardian of all things Mono Lake.  We fixed it up so spiffily, that it was fun every morning to come to the office and open the front door.  We paneled one wall with Peg-Board, and effected a three-dimensional jig-sawed mural, whereupon mountains rose to the heights and snowflakes made of mini-marshmallows fell (glued) onto a clear blue sky.  It was pure whimsy.  Then we hung all our drawing implements onto the peg-board, close to hand, ready for use.  Clients loved the display as much as we did, chuckling at the blatant creative play it portrayed.  Kurt came to work with us after he finished his kindergarten mornings.  His favorite spot for his afternoon nap was on the floor under my drafting table, snuggled into his best buddy blanket.

We began designing some interesting houses for Lee Vining, June Lake, and Mammoth Lakes, along with the occasional commercial structure.  We even completed a passive solar shopping center for a Carson City contractor.  Bear played a strong hand on that one, having acquired a Nevada certification.  As soon as I departed the twitchy fisted architect, I had more work than I could handle.  We eventually had to reassign Jeffrey from his job at the Building Department to work beside me at High Country Drafting.

Soon we bought two professional drawing tables equipped with V-Tech Drawing Machines and Bruning electric erasers.  We bit the bullet and invested in a Blue-Ray Blueprint machine and set about providing our own Blueline copies to clients ready to apply for a permit or to break ground, for which we could bill handsomely.  I could never shake the feeling of having just way too much happiness.  I had learned from my Dad that work ought to be play.  Any task that Daddy despised, he redefined.  He turned boring into fun, and any way a job could be structured to achieve that goal was worth any amount of up-front creative sweat effort.  “Most things aren’t impossible,” he insisted, “only lacking imagination, an ingredient which is always in generous supply.” 

It was an exciting time to be knocking about in the building design business.  The magazine “Architectural Design” featured a now-famous article on double-envelope passive solar design just as we really got rolling.  The concept coupled the house interior with the earth’s stable 55 degree core temperature, hung lots of south-facing glass, provided serious insulation, and allowed natural convection to pump air throughout the construct.  Given that formula, any added energy must work against the 55 degrees, not so much against the below-zero-degrees blowing around outside.  We signed up a local pastor, Roger Landon, to provide him and his wife Cindy with a double-envelope solar house plan, to be stick built from scratch.  The residence stands even now in June Lake Meadows, outside look blending with the local flavor of things.  The first winter, the entire four bedroom home made it through to spring on less than a single cord of firewood.  We stuck slavishly to the construction described in the magazine.  It worked!  For several years, designers of many stripes skirmished pro vs con about the relative merits of double-envelope.  Many people claimed it couldn’t work.  Others insisted it was the livin’end—the final best solution.  But it cost more than ordinary construction and never really caught on.  I just smile.  I know it works, but in that initial iteration, it wasn’t conducive to mass production.  If I could ever build a custom home for myself, there is only one approach I would take: Double-envelope passive solar!

One idea that I played with but never brought to completion was a double-envelope tiny house that would be mass produced to replace the trailer houses we all love to hate.  I still have my preliminary drawings stored in Kurt’s basement studio.  I called it “Sun Spot.”  Several years after I had to bury it in storage, I heard that a similar tiny house had been introduced in Denmark as government subsidized mass manufactured housing.  I hope that in some parallel universe I will get to tinker with that concept yet again.

Eventually a local Mammoth Lakes developer, Reef Siler, decided to try High Country Drafting on a short string of projects.  Jeffrey did one, a good-looking straight-forward cabin design that proved to be easy to build and was super cost-effective.  I did another featuring a corner faceted facade (before New York’s Trump Tower was even dreamed of) that won a local newspaper’s “Building Design of the Year Award.”  Mr. Siler set Jeffrey to work on more of his profit intensive multiple construction designs.  I, he set to work designing his own personal dream home in the fashionable heart of Mammoth Lakes Village.  I thought I had died and gone to heaven.

He went nuts on his list of requirements.  He had to have five bedrooms, a massive living area to display his taxidermified marlin, an underground garage that would accommodate work and family vehicles plus an RV pulling boat and trailer.  The whole residence was to have a glass-walled elevator from the bottom level garage to the top level widow’s-walk.  The building lot he selected required a massive engineered retaining wall that stratosphered the cost.  I don’t know what he paid before he got his occupancy permit, but it must have been a whale of a number.  I was glad our invoice had already been honored for a job well done.  Bear, too, had been to the bank with his High Country Drafting paycheck and returned smiling.  I heard, years later, that Reef Siler had filed for Federal Bankruptcy protection.  I hope it wasn’t the monster house that did him in.  It’s pretty, sitting there with all that south-facing glass, and the glazed elevator screaming “Money!”  I even specified a bronze eagle poised for a landing on the dramatic apex of the structure, but don’t remember if he ever carried out that bit of whimsy.

Once at a local gathering, a Mammoth Lakes architect came barreling up to Jeffrey, grabbing his hand and pumping it.  “I’m so glad to meet you,” he growled, lowering the register of his voice to signal a man to man encounter.  “I was highly impressed by that faceted facade you did for Siler.  You know—the one that won the “Design of the Year Award.”

I smiled, pressed closer, and waited for Jeffrey to give me my share of the glory.

“Why thank you,” he acknowledged, preening his pleasure.  “I’m so glad you liked it.”

As the guy walked away, something inside me died.  I couldn’t bring myself to ask Jeffrey why he took credit for my concept.  Weeks later, on a quiet Sunday afternoon, I dug out my pastels and began sketching feelings.  By evening, I had portrayed a severed scrotum, painstakingly detailed with blood vessels, cilia, and gathering contusions, nailed to a wall and dripping several varieties of effluvium, all in living color.  I named it “Balls to the Wall” and stored it in the bottom drawer of the flat file.  I don’t know what ever happened to it. 

We rattled around in Mono County, completing a surprising number of projects for several years, until interest rates went up and most everybody had to cancel construction contracts.  That brought building to a stop.  There was nothing for it but to go south to LA and get engineering jobs.  Jeffrey went first.  Since he had been away for several years and was concerned that he must surely be out of touch, he decided to seek only a technician position.  It paid poorly, and he wasn’t able to cover our expenses, so I had to sell the lovely Lee Vining house we had bought and join him trekking the LA head-hunter circuit.  When I went job-hunting, I took stock of all I had learned and the executive experience I had gained as co-owner, designer, and project manager for High Country Drafting.  I applied for a position as senior engineer/project manager and got to choose between two competing offers.  Even though I didn’t rub it in, the chain of events was a killer for Jeffrey.  He never got over that final outcome.  He deserved much, much more.  Later as an entrepreneur with his own building design outfit based in Washington State, he more than made up for that one miss-step.

I tried to tell this story to a new friend who had graduated from Harvard’s School of Architectural Engineering, but she seems to be only an arm’s length friend.  She didn’t appear to understand how it was possible to do what we did and not be padded-cell certified.  It was a different world back then—forty years ago.  I’m deeply thankful I had the chance to give it a go, though it’s hard to translate it into present day understandings of what’s possible—and legal.

One of the dearest people I met in Lee Vining was an old accountant who had a near-death experience.  Having been dead, experienced an afterlife, and then suddenly awakened to a living body, he wanted only to help people who really needed and deserved what he could do for them.  After interest rates went up, and all our business income evaporated, we were facing a frightening turn in our road.  He analyzed our financial position, sorted out our taxes, and helped us stay afloat for several months until our LA jobs could save us.  He wanted no pay—just a bottle of Jim Beam and the satisfaction of helping a couple of “poets” get over a rough spot.  I don’t know why he called us that—something to do with our being too idealistic maybe.  It’s possible he was really an angel, certified by a seraphed Michael.  I’m amazed that he thought we were worth the saving, since we weren’t credentialed to do anything certificated at all.  Even so, it’s crazy-wonderful how much fun you can have just doing it anyway.

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