Spacer Shear

Johnson & Johnson in Sherman, Texas was a great place to work, and I would have dug in for the long haul except for their take on women in engineering.  It was still a time when women were tolerated but belittled at every opportunity.  Shiny tokens like I was, stuck out in every meeting, every task, every conversation.  Management as an elevated concept was supportive, but the male engineers rallied around to tell sexually explicit jokes, voiced and projected for maximum affront, a vociferous dissemination of this brand of problem politics.  Within the hearing of any presumptuous female cohort, a group would coalesce, and garden-variety harassment would begin.  There was rage—sneering, compelling, anxiety-engendering rage.  Fear filled men must needs express their vile, and I must take it—take it or leave.


In spite of some worthy achievements, I did take it, but two years at that job were enough.  I went down the street to Texas Instruments-Static Power Division, also at Sherman.  My Texas career had started at Richardson’s TI in 1964 Dallas—showing up and demanding a job, any job.  With two boys, 7 and 3, I had to get a life.  Enough with an-idealized-West-Virginia-mountain-mama-home.  My babies needed food and underpants.  Leaving Carnegie Mellon still owing for second-semester-tuition-room-and-board was an embarrassment, but I had assumed the debt, letting my dad off the hook in order to take final exams.  Now I must earn real money to repay those fines and fees.


With only one year of engineering school and no proof of grades, A’s in calculus and analytic geometry were going to do nothing for me.  Texas Instruments hired me as “Assistant Assembler B” making pennies per hour.  Right out of the chute I had to prove myself.  An improved process for dispatching my assembly station was a good start.  An after-hours built wiring board and fixture design that provided for group measuring, cutting, stripping, and soldering the wires got instant attention, a raise and a promotion.  At six weeks I was making twenty-five cents more an hour than grunt start pay.  TI was responsive.  They didn’t sneer at good ideas.  Promotion to tool designer came next, and soon.  While there, carrying Badge Number 15695, I designed all the assembly tooling on the F-111 TFX program.  That was fun!  It was exciting since the TFX (terrain following radar) was the program’s claim to fame.  We were in the storm’s eye.


Years passed.  I finished my degree working at a small Dallas company that put up with flexible hours and night school.  Opportunity as a rehire at TI’s Sherman facility and as full engineer didn’t disappoint.  My first day found a big problem that needed solving.  In those days, printed circuit boards were the thing.  They were tight-packed with most diodes mounted vertically.  That led to electrical shorts occurring between diode bodies and copper plated circuits.  Solution?  A custom injection-molded polypropylene washer spaced the diode up off the board to stop that pesky arcing.  The approach was the tried-and-true: after injection molding, the washers in their billions were automatically sliced from their sprues and stored in large trash bags waiting to be united with their designated diodes.


My first day at the Sherman facility found me stepping over bags, bags on top of bags, and bags of spacers spilling onto the floor, swept up by tricky breezes to dance away and hide or make of walkways slip-and-trip hazards. Of course the assembly line was stopped, dead and quiet.  The tried-and-true method had turned out to be a bust.  Billions of plastic one-eighth inch diameter spacers stored in plastic bags were static discharge waiting to happen.  Every attempt to recapture the spacers and present them for automatic assembly with their target diodes had failed—miserably.  The charged spacers had minds of their own and resisted handling as they took flight willy-nilly, inspired by their own electromagnetic imperatives.  My reputation as a wise-ass preceded me, and my first assignment was to fix-this-mess.


It seemed so obvious.  The spacers, hot from the injection molding machine, already had the perfect holding fixture, needing only the foresight to use it.  The sprue itself (the solidified runner of now excess material that had formed the channel to each individual washer) was every spacer’s perfect holder.  The invention invented itself.  I had only to design a tool that clamped the sprue with its twenty-four precisely located still-attached spacers while a worker inserted twenty-four diodes into the waiting washer holes, and only then pressed a button to automatically separate the twenty-four diode/spacer assemblies from the now superfluous sprue.  It worked.  The work-area was so tight that a single bar blade couldn’t access the washer/sprue attachment points, but twenty-four pointy X-acto Knife Blades, cunningly mounted, did the trick.  A solenoid provided the requisite actuation.  An inclined plane allowed the blades to rise up and slice at just the right angle.  Electrical switches with solenoids controlled “clamp” and “cut.”  Making the switches dual-actuated kept fingers safely out-of-the-way.


I was in and on my way.  Of course, they took it away from me.  They always did.  It became its own project as the little machines were fabricated, assembled, and distributed to every TI manufacturing facility.  It got to be too big for its britches.  The worst part of invention is losing control when success runs away with itself, and you get left behind saying, “Duh! What happened?”


Crouched beyond the ragged rim of dawn, tomorrow waits

And mornings yet to be envisioned

Silently assemble.

Aeons dimly convene in that sweet silent place,

Listening, waiting, gathering purpose,

Wanting to make of future days

Some greatness, some goodness,

Even some poetry of action.


Will that dawn break glorious

Or will it slip-slide-slither in?

Will its herald be tittering bird-calls or

Fission blasts assaulting ears and minds?

Predawn is a time for questions:

What will become of this new day?

Will it distinguish its gathering self

As some great time that men will wonder at

Or will it slog into being an obscure

Past not worth remembering?


It’s all there waiting, assembling

Promising, even planning

A great and noble time

When level heads prevail,

When fisticuffs hesitate,

Think twice,

Decide to wait and see.

And hope.

It’s all there crouched as incipient possibility.


Will it explode as in the noble hymn:

Break forth O beauteous heavenly light

And usher in the morning?


Or not.


Perhaps it listens

Wondering what might come

If it takes that first grand step

Into a day of majesty.


Will it?


It must.


Advent Blessing

Life breaks me open.

The I am must be known.

Too quiet is this solitude.

Thoughts yearn to speak,

but image meaning

in my world alone,

where all in quiet waits,

clear as star straked sky,

all questing answered

in compassionate reply,

snowflakes of forgiveness

to slake the coals of rage.


Know me God.  I live.

Conserve what truth is me.

Enfold me. Hold me.

Let anguish steal away,

with blessing part,

for sorrow, my old friend

cannot but be missed.

What will keep me then,

when heartache slips away?

Grief has been my constant,

my anchor, and my stay.


And yet…


Is there an Advent halo

circling my heart?

Breath of baby Jesus?

Blessings from a byre?

Caress of maiden mother

touching silken brow?

All reach across the aching years

and bid me also laugh and live.


It must be bells of Christmas ringing,

tolling out my name,

mythos cast from melt of years,

happiness distilled from tears.

Mother Love

While my twenty-six baby chicks are peaceably assembled in the bathroom, my sweet Collie-dog Maggie is coming unglued.  She harbors a deep-felt certainty that she is meant to nursemaid any and all infant creatures.  She had mothered my cat Espresso, for example, to the extent that he thought he was a dog.


That cat was an essay in perversion.  It’s not all my fault.  I had help raising him.  It was Maggie who had nursed and nurtured him in everything maternal but milk.  Maggie and I share a tendency toward bountiful hair.  She, born and coated to romp the icy plain of Prince Edward Island, rolling in the many names of snow that define that bleak coastal expanse, and I, who thanks to some wooly gene, grow hair fast as a naughty weed, are both hirsute critters.  She and her siblings brought life to that frozen Canadian shore as sure as she brought it to me, a good bit farther south.


When she arrived in her air transport crate at the relatively tropical latitude of Roanoke, Virginia, her undercoat was so thick it couldn’t be parted to reveal skin.  She looked like the promise of some arctic sled puppy waiting to grow into her harness and take off for Nome.  Soon the intelligence of her physiology arranged a molt, and she dropped an amazing excess of that glorious load.  Even in the most challenging of Roanoke Valley winters, she never regained her puppy coat grandeur.  But it was more than enough to satisfy the psychic longings of the five week old rescue kitten I acquired one spring, having spent a long dark winter needing someone, something, some-living-anything soft and cuddly to love.


I named him Espresso after his rich black glossy full-bodied coat and his whole-bodied, whole-psyche willingness to give himself up to his yearnings.  Maggie sniffed and goosed his little round exit sphincter with her cold intelligent nose and straightaway recognized a baby in need of mothering, while Espresso, recognizing a good thing when he found it, dug in and began a long frustrating search for milk and Mom.  Finding instead a delicious warmth amid a lush jungle of dog hair, he accepted a warm full belly, compliments of a standard cat bowl, and settled for the care of a Collie-dog nanny.


Of course with all that canine mothering he thought he was a dog.  He went for walks with the family, the two humans, the Collie and the Bichon Frizé.  We presented a strange assortment of Animalia to the natural fauna of the Roanoke valley countryside.  Maggie, ever mother, stood patiently while Espresso wound in and out about her legs, spinning a happy abstraction of good will.


In the course of things, Maggie goes away, her absence mourned by cat and human alike.  Espresso and I, truly an odd couple, grow ever closer, making of an old friendship a newly awakened need, a raging mutual desire for comfort and solace.  Dog gone, now it is the cat that usurps that “doggone” cold place in the bed, making of it a warm island of happiness, small but mighty.


Snuggling the feline body against the frozen isolation of cold winter nights, clever mechanical thermostat adjusted down to stretch resources in favor of eggs and peanut butter, milk and bread, gasoline and medicine, a new feeling makes a Sandburg entrance on little cat feet.  A living creature pressed against tautness of breast and body speaks to givingness as need.  Memory of milk, long dry, lets down as virtual hormonal angst, wanting—wanting to be given.  Glands activate.  Oxytocin pours into streams of coursing blood.  Brain tastes and translates primal need.  Memory wakens, recalling nights of hard young bodies twined in silent satisfaction, floating islands of fulfillment on an ocean of animal intent.  Now I know why spinsters and old ladies keep cats.


All this is unremarkable until Espresso equates my thick messy head of hair with his kitten memories of Maggie.  He buries his happy nose into the graying blonde tangle and kneads bread lustily while his thoughts drift back to being a babe at Maggie’s hairy teat.  He becomes relentless in his expression of adoration and need.  It demonstrates how strange and wonderful is this world of living loving creatures.  My cat is most assuredly a pervert, but he loves me.  What can I say?


Back to the bathroom door—from Maggie’s perspective, anything little and sweet is a love-object.  She self-identifies as its guardian.  Hearing little cheeps, she stands at the bathroom door and fairly shakes, her teeth rattling with the vibratory energy of her drive to mother.  When she sees me coming she begins to prance demonstrating the urgency of her need.


Of course I can’t let her in.  How would that play?  When she tumbles to what the little cheepers actually are, she would surely break into being a real dog and initiate a catch and kill scenario.  That would be ugly.


But she proves me wrong.  One day the door not fully secured, she slips in and makes her own inspection of the nursery.  A heat lamp hangs suspended from the ceiling, the chicks crowded beneath its golden rays.  Yesterday’s newsprint lines the floor with chicks applying their own abstract decor to its pages.  Maggie sniffs the babies, tastes their head fluff, twitches her nose and shake-rattles her head.  Yes, these are babies.  Well, all right then.  She settles onto the paper, curls about the little flock, and waits.


By the time I discover them, the chicks have written off the lamp and are gathered in aggregate about Maggie’s hairy belly.  Each chick has found a spot to inhabit and has nestled into it with a surety and gratitude for a love so freely given.  Nobody is seeking a warm teat, but everybody is happily at home.  Maggie, too, has drifted off to a heavenly peace.

Religion used to be our cultural carrier, but now it’s become Hollywood.  We can bemoan the situation or roll it into the biblical canon.  A useful exercise is to choose ten of your own favorite movies, arrange them in a meaningful order, and stand back.  What you see is a portrait of your own distinct personality.


For me, the result of this research is arranged below.  This little list must be part of any meaningful memoir left for the edification of my progeny.  I urge them to enjoy getting to know their ma and grandma and to begin accumulating their own playbills for ages yet to roll.


~ ~ ~ ~ ~


Sound of Music: Maria Von Trapp, finding love in all the right places, is every bit Dorothy Jeanette Martin.  Orphan, tom-boy, wanna-be-religious, not sure about all those children, but finally delighting in them, dreaming of and winning her own true loves, matrimonial then maternal.  Julie Andrews only acted the part.  I lived it, pirouetting on a West Virginia hilltop, singing my heart out to the wind and the birds who shared it with me.  Bluebirds and skylarks took flight— swooping again and again across swales of verdant green and flower tops.  They rode that ocean of floral fecundity.  Life bloomed!  I was part of it!  Julie could only playact and sing; I made real babies and figured out how they worked, or tried to.  I didn’t always do it right, but I did it with fervor.


Contact: Eleonore Ann Arroway, determined to be brilliant, scaring up her own adventure that braids science, spirit, and faith in a lustrous plait of meaning, stands in for Dorothy at this intersection of work and fulfillment.  I once promised to invent anti-gravity—a silly thought, but how was I to know where brave plans and delusions of questionable grandeur forked in the road?  Assured that such things were possible, I determined to set about doing them.  When I announced to my father that I would wed, he came to my remove in West Virginia, picked me up, and set out on a road trip to Redstone Arsenal, Alabama, where the rocket program was getting its start.  He had me wait in the car while he entered and chatted-up an old friend, remembered from Manhattan Project and Experimental Aircraft Association days.  He returned, sat in the car and asked that I give up my plan to make a family where none existed in my as yet untethered life.  It was a done deal.  I had only to enter the facility, accept the position he had secured for me, finish my degree program at night school, and all would be well.  I demurred.  It would have been a hollow victory to win the good fight based on my father’s history.  I had to make my own.  It was, as it turns out, the perfect decision.  The best part of the memory was that Daddy loved me enough to try to save me.  Nothing is ever simple.


Book Thief: Word is meaning, now as it was, even in the beginning.  Everyone has a place where the Nazi atrocity plays itself out in personal thinking.  For me it is this meaning dense terrain where Lisl Menninger meets a new adoptive family and sets out to put together what is real and important while trying to make a meaning filled life out of a world gone mad.  She crosses paths with a Jewish man, helps her family hide and care for him, and learns the joy of reading and writing from his well-deep understanding of Jewish wisdom.  Hitler’s war kills her family but saves her assurance of her life as a woman of honor and integrity.  She steals books, borrows them that is, but is not in any sense a thief.  It is an interesting irony that such a life-filled story is spun out in the hollow voice of Death.  Maybe her real larceny was her own life, stolen from Death, a pyrrhic victory snatched from the not-always-inevitable jaws of defeat.  As I prepare myself for the long sleep, I refer often back to the Book Thief for reality-checks and simple satisfactions.


The Education of Little Tree: A beauty filled understanding of nature as determinator of what is real and right, and what works, in a world too complex to know itself as fully human.


The Help: Race is not a useful discriminator even in a cesspool state like Mississippi.  People of goodwill can overcome our history if they care to and try.  In 2012 Cincinnati, I locked horns with an activist who insisted that I was a racist just because I have blonde hair and hazel eyes.  I bristled—insisted that I had been loved and cared for by one Lillie-Mae Choice, a black woman who was coincidentally housekeeper and maid of my aunt, Jewel Josephine MacNeil.  Lillie-Mae was my second mother, and I loved her.  It follows: I cannot be a racist.  I pointed to The Help as being one of my all-time-favorite movies.  The activist laughed and postulated that I was only enjoying the feeling of privilege accruing to my stature as a daughter of the South.  I walked out of the meeting and never returned.  She is, I suppose, still spewing such division.  I did not handle that well and wish I could find her, give her a hug, and sit down for a good talk and an even better listen.


Priest: Love trumps religion, even in the oligarchy of Catholicism.  This film was (and I assume still is) condemned by the Vatican, assuring its wide and popular dissemination.  A conservative and closeted gay priest is assigned to a Northern Ireland parish where he works with a liberal straight priest who is enjoying the sociable foot-warming of the parish housekeeper.  When true evil rears its ugly head, all such peccadilloes pale in the face of an authentic Satan.


Ghost: Good vs evil is an either/or spiritual choice.  It isn’t enough to leave it to others.  We must do it anew every day, a quotidian decision, daily to be made and lived into.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil: Gender is a shape-shifter.  Beauty is generously found in the garden and must be understood and befriended.  Goodness can hide in dark and quiet places, even as evil goes blithely on parade.  It is always necessary to discriminate and value a creative balance.


Dead Poet’s Society: Says as much about educating the next generation as it does about the abstraction of verse.  In a perfect world I would have been born as Robin Williams.  Wouldn’t that have been fun to play out?


Claire of the Moon: Love whom you love, for heaven’s sake—and for earth’s as well.


~ ~ ~ ~ ~


I invite you to summon your own set of Hollywood essays.  If you love a movie, it has already slipped into your psyche and recognized you as a friendly.  You will find yourself in their light and color, advancing film by film, frame by frame, set about your own shining sky of mind, an always honest mosaic of all that it means to be “The You.”


My father Kelsey and his sister Margaret, older by five years, walked to public school every day to the town of Azle, where they were proud of their perfect attendance.  It wasn’t an onerous journey, only a little over two miles, but they liked to take the short cut through the woods that put them on the Jacksboro Highway where they, often as not, could pick up a ride into town.  Their path through the scrub oak, briars, and prickly pears was hard won, requiring some dedicated work with a machete and often scaring up opossums, jackrabbits or armadillos.  It was Margaret who did most of the hacking, while Kelsey carried his father’s coping saw, severing the bushes down low to keep the stumps short.  Their path widened over years of use, finally becoming Greg Avenue, a euphemism for the double-rutted wagon track through the scrub that dead-ended at the Martin-Reynold’s home place.  The road, now dedicated to the county of Parker, is a two-lane asphalt not-quite-scenic by-way.


Margaret was a good enough student especially at arithmetic where she outshone all the girls.  But it was Kelsey who was the scholar.  He made straight A’s from the beginning, with Margaret playing little teacher to his precocious child.  They both received a lot of attention for their school work from their father, Harry Allen Densmore Martin, who was proud of his secondary school diploma and wanted his son, and daughter too, to enjoy the same benefits.  He worked the farm, not out of love for farming, but to make a life and a living; he played with ideas of what a grander vista might be like somewhere else, somewhere west like Oregon or California.  He was a tall, broad shouldered man, strong and capable at just about anything he put his hand to.  Most everybody knew how to slap together boards in those days, but he took some genuine enjoyment in the geometry of construction.  Over many years he became known as a finish carpenter and was always willing to take on jobs around Azle and environs just west of Ft. Worth.


In those days near every man worked a homestead but also needed to find a way to come up with spending money.  Harry had his carpentry which paid well but tended to be seasonal.  A blue norther could blow in with absolutely no warning and change all his best laid plans to finish a job, so most of the work got scheduled for the heat of the year.  He wasn’t all that fond of chickens, but they were a good way to bring in some money in between the farm work and the carpentry.  He built a galvanized tin commercial building to house a hundred or so layers and began making a weekly egg run into Ft. Worth.  His wife Minnie Mae Reynolds-Martin always kept an assortment of chickens and a rooster to provide an endless source of fixin’s for Sunday dinners.


On any given Sunday, the designated hen would be cornered and caught amid a great cacophony of cackling until death restored silence.  Minnie used an axe for chicken whacking, but Harry with his burly right arm would swing the bird round and round like a sling, and then snap the neck with a twist of his wrist.  Harry’s way was better, avoiding the bloody mess of the chicken running round and round with its head cut off until it fell to the ground and even then kept running until it forgot what running was about.  Where was it going anyway?  It is a puzzle why a snapped-neck-chicken would hang peaceably awaiting death, while an axed one made such a fuss.  Maybe getting swung in a circle beforehand made it dizzy.  It’s a mystery.


Something was always getting killed on that farmstead.  That’s probably true of most rural dwellings.  Where there’s lots of life, death follows not far behind.  Field mice migrated in from the garden and pastures.  Snakes joined them, usually just garter, but all too often copperheads, a poisonous variety that often sent Grandma Minnie Mae running for her hoe.  She was a consummate snake chopper and never once got bit.  There were rattlesnakes too, but I never tangled with one of them except once on the far side of the milk barn.  It coiled up, commenced rattling, and set me on a ground covering run.  That old snake scared the bejesus out of me, but I managed to evade its fangs.  Black-snakes were common and liked to curl up in the hen nests hoping for a nice warm chicken egg to bite and suck.  They were five or six feet long, scary as hell, but not poisonous.  In any case, it was a good idea to look into a nest before reaching in for an egg.  No need to scare yourself to death.


The autumn of every year was hog killing time.  Grandpa stuck and drained his own pig but hauled it to the commercial locker for dressing and packaging.  For a fee he could rent a freezer-locker and store the meat for as long as it lasted.  Grandpa’s sausage recipe was the best I ever tasted.  He was partial to sage, and was that sausage ever loaded!  A freezer locker represented a big advance from earlier times.  The old method for preserving pork was to smoke the hams and shoulders and to keep the sausage by frying and then preserving it submerged in its own grease, balled and arranged in crockery pots.  That was primitive but tasty.  Grease was an effective preservative for meats as was sugar for keeping fruit.  It was a relatively newfangled approach to canning food to seal it in glass Ball jars.  As I visited summer after summer, I was able to see the march of progress in their kitchen and larder.


My earliest memories of being on the Martin farm were trips into town to deliver farm-fresh eggs, a stop at the drug store for a chocolate soda at the authentic fountain where he showed me off to his old friends and a swing by the frozen food locker for a package of sausage for tomorrow’s breakfast.  He loved to mention that I was his best grand-child, an odd statement since I was his only one.  When I asked about the incongruity, he only chuckled.  Once we stopped at the town library to talk to old Eula Nation, years ago a teacher at the school when my Dad was a student.  Mrs. Nation had in retirement decided to start a public library.  In those days, you could just do things like that.  Grandpa liked to parade me around as Kelsey’s daughter, from whom great things were expected.  That always made me start quivering in my boots.  I recalled how Grandpa had always called young and pretty Minnie Mae “the best.”  She too was “the only.”  Maybe that was his little joke on the women in his life.  I didn’t laugh.


It’s distinctly odd that the more I ruminate about this place, the more I sound like a Texan.  The words lose their self-conscious studied edge.  A drawl creeps in.  It’s the same with the chickens.  Years later when in turn of the twenty-first century Virginia, I had a flock of hens, I wrote about their escapades in the same odd picturesque Texan lilt and flow.  It’s a mystery.  Which voice is the right one?  Is there a right one?


The ragged caravan of velocipedes moved down Erie Avenue headed for MEAC (Madisonville Education and Assistance Center) loaded with 195 boxes of great-bird fixin’s.  It was a unique experience showing up right-on-the-dot at the advertised 9:30 AM to join that lively crew of 17.  They were already locked and loaded, ready to go.  I was the first to volunteer and the last to show up—not late, not early, exactly on time— my signature approach to getting there.  But these Episcopalians were already grooving.  There were only a pathetic few cardboard containers left to fill my Highlander.  They were promptly stowed, and after a prayerful blessing we were off in a cloud of love-thy-neighbor dust.


I didn’t know where I was going, a common problem for me, new to the state, but I’ve learned that in Ohio you are just supposed to know these things.  I took off, roughly toward where I thought MEAC must surely be.  It worked.  In no time at all what had been a rough aggregate of disparate vehicles converged on the center of Madisonville, a merry clot of good will.


Everybody grabbed a stack of loaded cardboard from any vehicle and filed into the quiet grey building.  In no time at all, vans were empty and an impressive stack of heaving containers strained a long row of sturdy tables, creaking, sagging, wanting just to give of their bounty.  And give they did.  The first donation was to the assorted Redeemer parishioners who volunteered for this project, asked by a frantic Liz Coley to lend a hand and a vehicle to the annual event.  I had hesitated to offer my car with its peeling clear-coat to a group of surely better ones.  But—why not?  The rest is history, or moving in that direction.  Getting to show up and be a part of this loving roundup is the best Thanksgiving gift a person could receive.  What fun to imagine the grateful happy faces soon to be arrayed about our stack of plain unwrapped boxes.


I’ll never forget this, my first experience of benevolent Episcopalians in action.  They came—they gave—they conquered.  And they didn’t have a whole lot to say about it.  They just made it happen.  The lady representing our Presbyterian counterparts rounded us up for a photo-op, and everybody agreed on a group grin.  There wasn’t even a flash as her iPhone swallowed the cheerful scene.  Everybody waved and headed out to wherever.  Our job was done—this time.


But, there’ll be a next time.  Next time I’ll know that it’s a good thing to offer, even what is not much.  I couldn’t even think of lifting those boxes with my old tricky shoulders, but others could.  I can do some small part of what is needed, so I’ll be there.  The rest is up to God.