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Fertility

I’ve spent the last sixty years complaining about getting kicked out of Carnegie Mellon.  It was the end of everything.  When my Dad’s business went bankrupt, and he couldn’t pay second semester tuition and fees, it was all over for me.  I convinced the Dean of Students to let me sign on personally to the debt in return for permission to take final exams.  I sat for them, then packed my bags and took off for parts unknown.

In retrospect, losing my place in that very conservative engineering diploma mill may have been the best thing ever to happen to me.  After recovering my stance as a viable though modest bread-winner, it was time to get back to school.  Opportunities were limited.  The only four-year possibility within Greyhound commuting distance was Salem, a West Virginia teacher’s college tucked into the Appalachian foothills, between Parkersburg and Clarksburg.  Engineering Physics wasn’t even offered.  The closest thing to my one-time dream was Divisional Science, available to secondary level teachers of Biology, Chemistry and Physics.  I signed on and didn’t look back. 

Salem was a liberal arts college.  That meant, I later discovered, that I would be exposed to a whole gamut of ideas, not just technical facts.  There were many courses in a lively continuum of scientific subjects, but also with my minor in English, I enjoyed all the richness of our language spread out as a table of linguistic delights.  For fun, there were spiritual electives, wherein I broadened my appreciation of what can be believed, how, and why.  French and Art fell by the wayside.  I was sad to see them go, but you can’t learn everything.  As I look back over the way that crazy-quilt of education overlaid the world of work, I see that Salem curriculum as key to becoming an inventor in a way that fulfilled my dream as well as my prayer.  The dream was that I become an engineer my father could be proud of; the prayer was that he might love me even though I was only a girl.  One thing led to another, and I packed up with just one semester remaining, returning to Texas—and home.

At Texas Instruments, Apparatus Division, I had plenty of opportunity to see things uniquely vantaged.  Hired on as a lowly Assistant Assembler, I soon reached back to the technical drawing learned at Carnegie and proposed a device to improve my workstation performance.  Promoted, I got to write assembly instructions until, repeatedly proposing work saving jigs and fixtures, I was promoted yet again to Tool Designer.  All that was fun, but I had hit the ceiling.  Even though I was assigned to teach every new-hire engineering school graduate how it was that I did what I did, no more money was possible without a college degree, and I was still one semester short of that achievement.

I quit and went across the street to TI’s Corporate Research and Engineering Division.  It was a wonky place where they understood my frustration and let me work while earning a bit more money, even without the sheepskin.  I worked for Dr. Linda Creigh who was doing research on 2-chloro-2-nitroso-butane, a photo reactive chemical, to demonstrate its use in working with a ruby laser as a research tool.  This was chemical research—not physical.  My job was to mix the required reagents to produce our compound, set up a distillation apparatus, and heat the slurry until it began boiling.  As temperature elevated, different fractions evaporated, were condensed and caught.  Each fraction was subjected to a spectrophotometer to precisely measure its purity.  The 2-chloro-2-nitroso-butane we were after was a comely royal blue fluid that when very pure could be exposed to laser light demonstrating a wide variety of amazements.  But it wasn’t all that easy.  No matter how much care I took in isolating a fraction, there always remained enough impurity to spoil its use in the little glass photo cube that waited.  The laser lurked alone and lonely.

I have been often amazed to find that the most innovative breakthroughs happen at the interstices of things.  This was a chemical problem, but the solution I found was a physical one.  We had been successful in producing very pure fractions of our chemical, but the impurities always seemed to be extremely volatile, evaporating at a very low temperature, and carried over into fractions where they didn’t belong.  Remembering Halloweens spent over boiling kettles while wearing witches hats and croaking, ‘When shall we three meet again?’ I picked up a hunk of dry ice at the local ice house and brought it to work.  I proposed my idea to Dr. Creigh, who listened with interest.  I put a nearly pure fraction into a beaker and dropped into it a small lump of the dry ice—frozen carbon dioxide.  I counted on the dry ice not reacting to our compound, and the doctor agreed.  No chemical interaction.  I was using the CO2 as an inert physical broom to brush away all those volatile impurities.  It worked!  The beaker frothed with CO2 being sublimed into the fluid—going direct from solid to gas and making a big froth—as the gas escaped, dragging volatile impurities up into the air and away.  The project was saved, and when it was written up for publication, I had earned a footnote mention for my invention of “a method for removing volatile impurities from a fluid.”  This was actually unremarkable, except for being one of many instances where innovation reached across demarcations between specialties and fertilized the process of invention.

This kind of approach served me well in a variety of situations.  A typical example was working for Varo Inc. where I migrated since that outfit allowed technicians to work flexible hours in order to accommodate illusive degree programs.  I was a technician by day and attended advanced biochemistry classes at night.  I was amazed at how many drums of flux remover that Varo bought and used, and at what great expense.  So, I took some to school and analyzed it in the chem lab.  It was mostly dry cleaning fluid, with a dollop of amyl acetate (an ester that smells like banana).  Varo started making its own flux remover and saving a bundle.  This wasn’t a healthy or environmentally friendly idea since perchloroethylene  isn’t something that should be continuously inhaled any more than Kester flux remover should.  But it was a mile post on my march.  It was also another shoulder rub from physical to chemical that earned me an ataboy—girl.

Yet another reach across as engineer after I had acquired that elusive degree, was at Varo Static Power Division.  It was a Sherman Texas facility devoted entirely to manufacture of night vision power supplies.  Powering a night vision unit required a high voltage multiplier.  It was a string of diodes cleverly arrayed to step up to the extremely high voltages needed to see in very low light.  It was necessary to stabilize the component connections to prevent disastrous internal arcing.  An obscenely expensive potting compound was used to achieve this electrical isolation.  I replaced the compound with cheerfully cheap high tech beeswax.  It worked just as well and saved Varo a ton of bucks.

Later at TRW while working on military aerospace proposals, it was often when experts in different specialties met and argued that the creative work got done.  My most satisfying personal contributions to those efforts seemed often rooted in that Salem College ambrosia of science as art.  It was then that I decided getting booted out of Carnegie Tech was not all that bad.  I’m told that this is one of the blessed truths of Kabballah: It’s where the wounds of life open you up that the light gets in and creates your beauty.

Reincarnate

Ever since I was able to string words together, I was certain that something was very, very wrong.  People thought I was a child.  I knew, with certain integrity, that I was an adult caught in a child’s body.  While this smacks of a fixed delusion, it could also be compared to a common problem accruing to reincarnation gone awry.  My mother exacerbated this defugalty by taking me to every old lady’s clabber-klatch she attended, including me in any and all palaver, and using me as her confidant and running buddy.

One of my first memories is of visiting an out-of-town church service where I was parked in a baby nursery while the adults departed for the sanctuary.  They put me in a play pen.  Can you believe it?  I was put into a cage with “babies.”  It was the first time I remember being genuinely enraged.  I didn’t cry—just lay there and stewed in my frenzy.  One of the babies was dressed in only a diaper.  I was sure he—or maybe it was a she— might wet the nappie and rub the stink off onto me.  My memory doesn’t extend to being picked up and restored to my rightful place as a person, but it must eventually have happened, because weeks later I can remember the ceiling in my sick-room going all funny.  I began screaming for help.  Adults paid me no attention.  I screamed to absolutely no avail until finally the ceiling collapsed pouring water all over everything, even my bed.  I warned them.  They ignored me, insisting I was just a child.  Serves them right!

I didn’t like to converse with children.  They didn’t understand things.  I remember a restaurant luncheon with my mother and her friend who had a daughter near my age.  It did not go well.  The daughter was intent on deriding my B17’s.  I used them as patriotic decoration fastened onto my braids.  Sure, other girls used ribbons, but my daddy was overseas during the conflict.  I wanted to celebrate his work and telegraph my pride in our country’s war effort.  After I took her blather from her long enough, I turned to her mother.  “Your daughter is a mighty big girl to have such a small mind,” I sniffed, fists on hips, with a nod toward the silly girl.  The mother didn’t choose to respond.  She was busy chattering with my mother about my odd behavior.  Nobody took me seriously.  They just ignored me and jabbered among themselves about how eccentric I was.

As a five-year-old. I worked hard to help my parents feel good about themselves.  One night my dad came home with a grocery bag that rattled suspiciously.  It was surely a puppy brought home to surprise me.  That put me in mind of the baby duck he brought me the Easter I was two.  Daddy sure did love me.  I pretended that I didn’t notice and waited to see what transpired.  The next day was my birthday, and I was careful to evidence proper amazement when presented with a new Cocker Spaniel pup.  I named him Ginger and enjoyed riding with him on Mommy’s bike—him in the basket—me on the back fender, until he and I got too big for Mommy to make it up hills with all three of us.

Daddy and I had a man-to-man understanding.  One particularly contentious flap with Mommy culminated in a creative resolution that reverberates as an almost Akedah event.  Daddy and I were to be shut together in the bathroom so he could do the spanking for that day.  Mommy was tired of administering the hairbrush.  I was prepared for the worst, but Daddy sat on the lidded commode and told me to start crying.  Whaaat?  I protested, but then Daddy began applying the hairbrush to his own flanks, making lots of noise.

“Go on,” he stage whispered.  “Yell!”

So I yelled—loud and long.  We did a great job of mimicking a sound whipping to a naughty fanny.  And Ginger yapped his canine accompaniment, punctuating every blow.  I did love my Daddy!

It was when I started to school that I learned more than letters and numbers.  I was ready for something wonderful.  Mommy had been to Jordan Marsh and brought home five dresses in exactly my size.  She could not have known that before the year was out the boys would be singing, “I see London; I see France; I see Dotty’s underpants!”  This was the beginning of some serious growing.  Never again have I enjoyed five new dresses. The other girls started with dresses way too big so they had room to grow. We all had things to learn.

It was in the classroom that I had to face the enormity of my reincarnation error.  Every day we learned a new number.  I was OK with that, but Miss Chater did her best to string it out forever.  How many ways are there to draw a one?  Two was more interesting, but by the time we got to three I was disappointed in the whole affair.  I drew my three and then rummaged up some crayons to illuminate it. The two loops suggested special areas for coloration.  The color lighted it up and made it something worth feeling some pride over.  But then Miss Chater spied the miscreant!  “What is this?” she barked.  “I told you to write a three, not color it!”  She ripped the paper off my desk and held it up for all to see.  “This is not the way to do what you’re told!”

I may have been an adult in a child’s body, but mature confidence wasn’t part of the deal.  I was terrified.  Cringing seemed to be the most appropriate response.  I tried to shrink beneath the desk, but Miss Chater wasn’t having any of that.  The next day I rendered a proper four without embellishment, and continued in like manner for the remainder of the school year.  I did a lot of questioning of my motives.  I guess it could have been a problem if everybody began waxing artistic.  Miss Chater would have had to control too much at the same time.  If I cut across the lawn it doesn’t make a difference, but if everybody does it, the lawn would die.  I taught my creative self to ask my caring self that question.  What if everybody did it?

But Miss Chater wasn’t finished with me.  I was a speedy reader.  That earned me a spot in the fast reader’s group.  I would read aloud my paragraph and then continue silently through the story while the others recited their read-alouds.  When my turn came around again, I was into the next chapter and didn’t know where the group was.  This must have been a certified abomination, because Miss Chater proceeded to stage a foot-stomping conniption.  “You can’t do that!” she screamed.  “You have to stay with the group!”  Different Drummer be damned.  For her, there was one pace—the group’s.  She grabbed my arm and dragged me to the back of the room where the very slow readers kept their table.  She pulled up a chair and threw me into it.  “See if you like that!” she croaked.  Of course Mommy was notified that I had been demoted from the fastest-of-the-fast to slowest-of-the-slow.

Things got worse.  At recess a boy approached me and told a ridiculous tale about trains that ran underneath the schoolyard.  We ran around listening under various shrubs for the prevaricated underground trains.  He must have been lying.  Trains don’t run under ground.  Sure, I was new to Massachusetts.  In Texas I was very sure that trains ran above ground on tracks.  You can’t trust anybody!  I asked Mommy, but she didn’t know about tracks and trains.

Newtonville, Mass had more surprises for me.  It snowed.  It kept snowing until it formed huge drifts.  Another trip to Jordan Marsh netted a snowsuit for my small but insistently growing  child body.  As I walked to school one morning, I encountered a big noisy orange monster.  It was huge, and it even blew smelly smoke into the air from out of a pipe.  I didn’t dare go past it.  It was moving the snow into big piles and clearing the way for cars to move down the street like they were normally wont to do.  Fearing that it might scoop me into one of the piles, I considered returning home, but that was impossible.  Mommy would be more than mad.  I turned down a side street and floundered through the drifts to somewhere I hoped was safer.  Memory doesn’t always serve us well.  The next thing I recall was being handed over, wet and cold, to Miss Chater at the schoolhouse door, by a big helpful policeman.  Of course Mommy heard all about my “stunt” and was mad anyway.  I might as well have returned home and faced the music.

I was almost grateful to be safe in the classroom away from gargantuan snow movers, but not for long.  It was time for morning break.  We all gathered around the giant earthenware crock that stored our crackers as they got soggier by the day.  It was so big it got to sit on the floor.  As I waited, eager for a cracker to go with my milk, the weird girl—that’s what everybody called her— crept up to us.  She scared me.  She had thick glasses that made her eyes look funny, and she walked around with her mouth open.  As she came up to the crock she just stood there and wet herself.  The pee ran down her legs onto the floor and around the base of the cracker crock.  We—every one of us—ran back to our seats.  If I tarried anywhere near her, people would think I was like her.  I wasn’t the only one who understood that basic premise.  I had finally learned the benefits of functioning as a self-confirming group.

Lest I assume that insight had transformed me into a groupie, the next year after Mommy bought me a size seven snowsuit, one of the boys brought white shoe polish to school and during recess he poured the whole bottle all over my outfit.  It was a lovely navy and green plaid wool and sported whimsical buttons that were curled up on two sides to look like little Stetsons.  I was proud of the suit but didn’t say so.  He must have read my mind and punished me for my prideful attitude.  The bible says pride goeth before a fall.  Even God was mad at me.  I had to keep my adult status a secret or no telling what might happen.

While in bed with chickenpox, I several times dreamed of being an Indian brave and recalled many intrepid battles with other feathered leather-clad adversaries.  When I recovered, the dreams ceased.  I forgot about the Indian connection until years later a psychic advisor announced that I had had a recent lifetime as an American Indian male.  That made sense.  I was always good at running around and hollering.  When I grew up and finally brought some adult confidence to the mix, it didn’t feel so awkward expressing a warrior brave from within a robust female body.  Finally I had “A Fighting Chance.”  Elizabeth Warren would have been proud!  She got her autobiography published.  I’m praying that mine makes it too.  I hope her Injun tale doesn’t cost her the presidency and that mine doesn’t net me worse than a few jeers and chuckles.

Obligation

What I must do puts me inside

a bubble of obligation.

The orb contains me, constrains me.

It intimidates me with its fixity of shape,

its featureless opacity. 

I can’t see beyond the seamless spherical capsule

that wraps my arc of thought

into a hoop of requirement,

a snake metaphorically munching its tail.

I touch the wall.  It is firm, not supple.

There is no give, no happy pop

like collapse of iridescent soap bubble

delighting eye and mind.

I can’t fly in here.

It is the sphere, not I, that defines what is real.

As I sit, my familiar weight anchoring the base

of this pure system of concept,

there is nowhere to proceed, no direction but out.

Knees to chest, heels to butt, I wait,

for what I can’t imagine. 

I twist my hair, rub my nose,

wipe my eyes, scratch my bum. 

Nothing changes.  I think about sucking my thumb,

but that’s ridiculous.

No.  This is a task for a grown up.

This is a real bubble.  It has measurable size.

It is knowable and definable.  That’s a plus.

I jiggle, bounce, rock.  The sphere reacts. 

It moves when I move and in correct proportion.

I roll back; the bubble tips back.

I lean forward; the bubble rolls away from me. 

I reach straight above my head; nothing happens.

There are rules for this engagement,

the physics of gravity a comforting familiar. 

OK!  There is something I can do even inside. 

I reach out,

place my hands against

the up-curving wall before me

and lean forward.  The ball tips.

Rising, I respond,

feet following the ball’s redefinition of base.

My hands walk up the wall to catch my falling-forward self. 

Before I realize what is happening, I’m walking. 

The ball is just the right size

for my outstretched hands

to follow its falling forward arch

that precedes me as I move. 

This is the ultimate cool.

But how do we stop? 

Of course!  I plop down and become pure weight. 

The ball stops. 

I do have a modicum of control,

even bubble-bound.

Cross-legged, manifesting the beginning point

of an infinitude of arcs of possibility, I think. 

What is it that I want?

Wanting is power.

I want to redefine this abstraction of obligation

into a joyful rite of determination.

As I breathe the air of purpose into the orb,

it grows and expands.

It creaks and shudders, and finally it shatters! 

The world outside is still there,

just like it always was,

but I am changed, charged, and challenged.

I embody meaning—purpose—action.


During my years in aerospace engineering, I routinely accepted design assignments.  The requirements were predetermined.  The specifications were what they were.  There was no opportunity to breach the barrier thwarting creative will given military as customer.  On the average it took me two or three days to relate to each task entrepreneurially.  As I sat and read the specs, mulled the possibilities, and toyed with what might be acceptable to the real world of design reviews, I was stymied by the sheer inertia of the system.  Then out of the proverbial blue, an idea would trickle into thought.  From then on the dream would create itself.  The idea had a life of its own.  I could only hang on for the ride through untold hours of nose to screen, hand to mouse, bum to chair.  Finally the grand payoff: it worked!  Of course, the final comeuppance was handing it over to manufacturing.  Those guys were short on imagination but long on doing.  Would my high-flying idea be broken on the back of actuality?  Sometimes.  Sometimes not.  Sometimes I got to see it work, hold it in my hands, feel its smooth hard metal cold in my grasp.  It was then that I loved those hard-headed, be-muscled brutes, who could bring my dream to life.  Bless them!  We do not create alone.  I owe them.  My primary obligation is to my own integrity, but after that, these induced obligations spring up on every hand like eager dandelions, weaving a lovely tapestry of trust and purpose.

I see this same process playing out even in retirement.  At church I was given the task of transporting a nonagenarian Emeritus Professor of Geographical Science, to Sunday services.  There I was, in the bubble again.  I refused to just drudge-like alter my route so as to shift physical location of the frail body and cane from his front steps to the church building and back, once in every seven days passing.  Such plodding routine is soul numbing.  I mulled the situation for several days, pondered the dreary possibility of being harnessed to that quotidian task, trips taken out of requirement, of obligation, of organizational expectation.  It is death to merely embody others’ expectations.  Energy is generated by defining our own expectation, visioning our own expedition, becoming our own true North, and—heading out! 

Then suddenly it occurred to me that I might really like to know the old man.  He undoubtedly had and still has a life.  He wasn’t always a stooped and limping codger.  Then there were the inevitable “what if’s.”  What if he didn’t want to be known?  What if we couldn’t think of anything to say?  What if he were actually losing it, as younger people tend so readily to aver?  What if I were actually losing it, dashing off on some wild-assed adventure of “love thy neighbor?”  What would people say?  But then, what do I care what people say?  What people will say foments a cumulonimbus cloud, a complex aggregation of permutations and combinations over which I have no control.  Listening to that play in my head will only steal my happiness and shove it retching and reverberating down a rat hole.  What’s needed is to call up and harness will.  A plan of action is always a recipe for generating energy, so yesterday I “vvvroooomed” over to his house, banged “shave and a hair-cut six bits” on his door, and hollered, “Would you like to go for a ride?”  He grabbed his hat, snagged his cane, and we were off in a cloud of geezer dust. 

We spent the afternoon in animated discourse, hatching plans to make sure he gets involved in church doings on a meaningful, not perfunctory, basis.  He would love to present a forum on the fascinating world of Geography as it affects absolutely everything, and to share his fascinating collection of English words appropriated from the Arabic.  Then I whipped up my signature miso soup, augmented with garden greens, shiitake mushrooms, wakame, tofu, and Basmati rice.  Dessert was monster strawberries on the stem.  It was a small delight to watch him bite into their flesh, drawing life from each berry, appropriating their Force as his own.  What more eloquent metaphor for, even at ninety, still being alive in the world?  The payoff for me is that on Sunday mornings I am not encapsulated by an obligation; I am anticipating another getting-to-know-you wild ride to church with my neighbor strapped in riding shotgun.  He is creaky, sometimes crochety, but alive and lively, and I am determined to help him stay that way.

Applying this concept to the knotty problem of church stewardship, I despise those little envelopes that slither into my mailbox, right into the sacred refuge of my domicile, reminding me of my Obligation.  Judaism makes “servicing” the wife on the eve of Shabbat into a sacred duty.  Only religion could so nimbly change a garden of earthly delights into a grinding requirement.  No wonder there’s money to be made selling Viagra.  Such interchanges spiral out, demonstrating how obligation weaves throughout a connected culture.  If we are to be part of humanity, obligation is the substrate.  We may resent it and delight in ways to circumvent it, but it is real.  Take marriage, for instance, the most basic of contentious commitments.  In an ideal world, no one would marry.  I would awake snug in a warm bed, sheets tangled and moist from last night’s passion, and ask myself, “Do I want to be with this man yet another night?  I would reply, “Of course!  I love him, and he loves me.”  But life is not perfect.  It’s complicated.  On mornings when I awake with resentment for what he did yesterday and just might do the day after tomorrow, I ask myself, “Do I want to be with this man—next year?”  Marriage serves up the requisite obligation.  It is the reliable substrate supporting things when they aren’t perfect, until another morning dawns bright with the assurance of things too wonderful to throw away in a fit of pique.  Like good arguments and shiny coins, this one has two sides.  With this insight and certainty, I programmed my bank account to send a check to my church every month no matter what.  Obligation is annoying but it just might be a dear and necessary evil.

Homeless

When it becomes dangerous to live in your own home it is time to leave, and leave I did, taking with me my cat, my Collie dog, and my Sig Sauer P239.  Yes, I had a permit to carry, so I was legal in case it might have become an issue.  It was early October in Roanoke, Virginia.  The weather was seasonably delightful, and my green tent blended well with the autumn color at the local campground nestled in the foliage alongside the Blue Ridge Parkway.

I should have left years before, but had nowhere else to go.  I had no savings since my retirement income always got sucked up into the expense of running house and horse farm.  The bruises got worse.  I was fed up with being slammed against walls.  That hurts. 

My ’89 Acura Legend had a capacious trunk with a small seat-back door that folded down to allow access to the main interior.  It was designed to provide for carrying 2×4’s home from Lowe’s,  but I used it as a cat door for Espresso, my black Domestic Shorthair, so he could visit his litter box in the trunk.  He loved to ride shotgun with his front paws on the dashboard so he could see with those lovely golden eyes where we were going.  Maggie, his canine counterpart, preferred lounging in the back seat on top of all the pillows, blankets, clothing, camping gear, food, and water.  She had a twelve hour bladder, so I only needed to walk her morning and evening.  We managed.

My YMCA membership provided exercise, a hot shower every day, and a place to change clothes,  which I kept clean at a Franklin Road laundromat.  It should have been doable, but things kept happening.  First somebody stole my tent while I was on my daily rounds.  At least I had the foresight to empty it every day, stowing sleeping bag and other gear in the car.  That theft forced me to sleep in the car, not nearly so comfortable but doable, tucked into my sleeping bag, a hefty Slumberjack.  My ex-husband and I had always enjoyed winter camping (no tourists,  no bugs) so my sleeping bag was certified down to zero degrees Fahrenheit.

October gave way to November, then December.  The campground closed for the winter, and I was on my own to find a place to park every night for shuteye.  First there was the requisite stop at Mill Mountain Coffee to slip in through the back door and fill my hot water bottle, preventive for icy feet syndrome.

My State Farm Insurance agent had a back-of-the-office covered carport; I began appropriating it nightly, especially on stormy ones.  One bitter cold evening, after pulling into my spot, I ran across the street to a Seven/Eleven to pick up breakfast makings.  I left the car running to keep it extra warm to start the night off right.   Of course Maggie had to protest.  She wanted to go, too.  Barking and pawing at the window, she managed to step on the back door lock, which on the Acura automatically locked all four doors.  Now I had a car parked and running with a cat and a dog inside.  What to do?  Again I ran across the street, this time to ask for help. 

There are times when I suspect God is watching out for me.  The local emergency squad team had also stopped there to coffee-up, and they came to assist.  One of the team was a young very thin woman who was able to slip an arm through the narrow opening I had left to provide fresh air for Maggie and Espresso.   She reached in,  pulled up the slick knobless locking mechanism, and all was saved.  What luck!

I managed to live through a bout of food poisoning and was feeling pretty puny, having also run out of vitamins.  Christmas was the loneliest ever, and in January the jet stream conspired to send sub-zero weather.  One bitter night, as I lay trying to fall asleep, the Slumberjack bag failed me.  I began to shake, and my teeth commenced chattering.   It was then that my sweet dog Maggie, rose from her accustomed place in the back seat and carefully climbed to the passenger seat where I had been spending my nights with the seat-back fully reclined.  She placed her paws carefully as she crawled forward, careful not to hurt me.  When she was satisfied she had just the right spot, she covered me with her hairy body and remained there the entire night, while slowly I warmed and slept. 

Another January morning I awoke locked in the deposit of an ice storm.  We were frozen in all day waiting for the parking lot, where I had parked for the night, to be cleared.  There comes a time to admit when you are beaten.  It was time to go home.  Some beatings are worse than others.  Knowing the difference leans toward wisdom.

In retrospect I realize that was only one of many periods of homelessness.  No wonder it felt like something that could be challenged and overcome.  When in 1949 my Dad departed, family home foreclosed, mother carted off to asylum, that was homelessness of the nth degree.  Being sent away to boarding school where nuns stood in for otherwise occupied mothers and fathers, being sent on countless airplane rides between Dallas and Boston that attempted settlement with a mother who wanted to, tried o-so-hard to, but just couldn’t make a home for a misplaced and misappropriated daughter.  Choosing an ill-advised marriage that created a home where all else had disintegrated, with the predictable sad ending, all presaged that so predictable leave-taking through the Virginia countryside.  Giving up on the possibility of home is the bleakest homelessness of all.

Perhaps it is a blessing that as such days are lived into, there is no way to give attention to what is sure to come.  How then could we manage to place one foot before the other to grace an uncertain future?  But then, isn’t future by definition the very kernel of uncertainty?  That’s what makes the adventure so exciting—the possibility—the hope so satisfying.  Hope is the antidote to homelessness of heart, even through long hard winters of grumbling discontent.  Home must be where the heart is, homeless a non-sequitur.

1.This is a true and accurate rendering of this sinner’s faith in God the Universal Intelligence, in my understanding of Christ the Incarnate, and in the faithful Spirit of the Holy, the third triune arm of Merciful Reality that never abandoned me, ever, through a lifetime adrift, awash, afloat.  Blessed tides of Assurance kept company with me, like swaths of sentient seaweed sharing my journey through Living Water.

2. Of parents we all have two.  My mother, Mary Opal, was the daughter of an itinerate hellfire preacher, Baptist by affiliation; my father Kelsey, a clear eyed youth who found himself at that magic intersection of technology and humanities, where renaissance personalities are made.  He was a poet, instrumentalist, singer, inventor, mathematician and scholar.  He discovered religion and found a wife the way most sociable young people did those days at the frontier’s rough edge; he went to church.

3. Ash Creek Church, a few miles west of Ft. Worth, Texas started out Baptist and spun off daughter churches that competed and cooperated inter-denomenationally like mushrooms dotting the fertile prairie.  They swapped members back and forth as the wild frontier civilized itself into cities, towns, and suburbs.  Methodists made a reputation for themselves as “Baptists with a high school diploma.”  It was the Methodist sect that attracted my dad, and he determined to become a preacher/orator.  It was in Weatherford at the Methodist church while attending college that he met my mother, Mary Opal Tyson, another poet, singer and church pianist.  They married and produced a daughter, Dorothy Jeanette.  That paired excess of artistic sensibility combined to make a lively and complex child of the female persuasion.  She was and is me. 

4. I can thank my mother, Mary Opal, for teaching me to love music.  She demonstrated for me the possibility of spirit as vehicle of expression.  I saw her as a living goddess of music, of beauty, of art, of everything filled with light and lust for life.  When I was still a toddler, she constituted and began directing a community chorus called the Glad Girls Glee Club. 

5. It was a gaggle of neighborhood urchins who agreed to come to our house, learn to sing as a harmonious group, and perform at public venues throughout the Ft. Worth area.  The girls experienced the excitement of performance art, doing the hard work of learning, practicing, and disciplining their little-girl selves into a veritable choir. 

6. They learned the fun of authentic formal dress-up; wearing “little ladies” white gloves and pearls to set off their long gowns.  The whole endeavor was a celebration of spirit, and Mary’s personality breathed it into fire.  It was an authentic example of 1940’s post-depression glee.  At that time, I had passed birthday number two and was full of myself as I headed for number three.  Mother installed me as official mascot for the group.  I was handed from lap to lap, soaking up more than my fair share of the happiness.  Every group photo shows me in matching dress and hair-ribbons, situated in one of the many singers’ arms.  That was the start of my career as amateur musician.  It continued in the Baptist Church, Southern Baptist Convention style.  My early memories are of pulpit-shaking sermons, emotional responses, altar-calls where hands were laid-on, and where prayers were long and formulaic.  Tent-revivals were a big draw, well-attended as Barnum’s traveling circus and almost as exciting.  I cried along with everybody else, but sensed from the beginning a frisson of incredulity.

7. In most things intellectual and spiritual I leaned toward my father.  He had abandoned his call to ministry in favor of electrical engineering, and was eventually lured into the defense industry as Raytheon’s part of the Manhattan Project.  He invented the actuation mechanism (radar  altimeter) for the Hiroshima bomb that assured it would explode at the precise elevation for maximum kill, but he refused to discuss it no matter who was doing the asking.  His marriage to my mother, Mary, was part of a religious and romantic world view that faded after his involvement in the war effort.  Mary, sensing his emotional withdrawal, and forced to accept his very physical desertion, shattered into pieces of herself.  Kelsey, ever non-confrontational, quietly departed, abandoning me, his own little daughter, to her care.   When our paths again converged many years later, he called himself a non-believer, while my mother held fast to her early fundamentalism.  Left to integrate the two radically opposed views, I was bereft of direction, a boat afloat without a compass.  Visualization of this concept sees me a single drop of purest water beaded on an impossibly green leaf, its edges curled prettily and floating, safely floating on the Living Water.

8. My mother had lost her way when left with a child to rear and no skills beyond poetry and piano playing.  Her sister, my Aunt Judy, rescued me as Guardian ad litem.  Suddenly I was again living in safety and luxury.  Daddy’s Packard had been swapped for Judy’s Cadillac.  Judy’s colored maid, Lilly-Mae, became my nanny, and I felt doubly cherished, carrying my love for her into a lifetime of general affection for black people.  Judy had returned from a singing career in early Hollywood and was settling down to make some serious money.  She had managed to twice choose abusive husbands, the first causing her to miscarry and become barren, the second pillow-smothering her to death at fifty-five during an event of emphysema.  She had never demonstrated any interest in religion but she loved me, perhaps as the child she had lost and now found; I was on my own to attend church, or not, as I chose.  The music kept me spiritually engaged, and I attended whatever protestant church offered convenience.  Judy trained my voice and paid for piano lessons.  Singing kept me in church choirs during that desert of religious affiliation.  Her husband didn’t want a child in their household, (His favorite salvo blasted “You think you’re so special, Little Miss Priss; nobody thinks you’re worth anything but your crazy mother!) so several times I was sent to live somehow with my mother in her Watertown, Massachusetts rooming house.  Each attempt failed and I was loaded onto an American Airlines turbo-prop with a note pinned to my chest and returned to Judy and her aggressively unfriendly husband.

9. Judy’s failing health and the onset of my puberty prompted her to send me away to Catholic boarding school in Sherman, Texas.  There I learned to appreciate the beauty and power of Catholic ritual.  The nuns amazed me with their quiet, rational concern and encouragement of their newest marginally-civilized pupil.  After a year I determined to convert to Catholicism.  Aunt Judy’s response to that announcement was to jerk me out of school and send me to live with my father’s parents in the farm country west of Ft. Worth.  In no time at all it seemed, my father was located, and I went north to live with him and his new family on Long Island. The Martin family of East-Northport was sterilely non-religious; it was up to me to ride the lively tides of music that kept me on track with affiliations religious.  Wherever we lived there was a church with a choir; I joined it.

 10. This love of music hearkens back to my early relationship with my happy, healthy, mother before she was abandoned to the vagaries of Texas’ early mental health system.  She must have been used as a guinea pig for whatever treatment was in vogue at any given time.  By the time I was old enough to sign her out of the Texas State Asylum at Terrell, she had undergone psychoanalysis, insulin shock treatments, electroshock therapy, and had been virtually poisoned with Big Pharma’s first wonder-drug Thorazine for year after miserable year.   By that time I had found a happy home at SMU’s Highland Park Methodist Church where I sought assistance from the pastor in rehabilitating my mother.  We found a doctor who helped her through Thorazine withdrawal, arranged for nurses-aid training, and found a job for her in a home for the elderly.  We prayed for, searched for, and found her very own apartment.  My mom was again a viable human being.

11. She had lost her fundamentalist zeal and was content to stay home on Sunday mornings watching television preachers.  I couldn’t bear to witness those charlatans work their wiles begging for prayer offerings to keep themselves in luxury conveyances.  Early television did much to create the cynicism that has grown up around all of religion.  Sadly, most people now declare themselves “spiritual but not religious.”  Being spiritual is part of being a human animal; it is a Darwinian gift to our species.  Religion embraces that spirituality and gives it a structure, grounding it to rationality, morality, and ethical behavior.  This is a “baby and bathwater” quandary.

12. As a young adult, helping my mother marked a turning for me as a practicing Methodist, giving muscle to my meaning.  I was then myself a single mother, working to survive, but learning that paucity of means need not dictate scarcity of spirit.  Since I was single but definitely not “swinging,” I joined the Singles Sunday School class at Highland Park Methodist.  This huge congregation supported equally sizeable “small” groups; my class alone numbered over 200.  Soon I was acting out my new-launched confidence in leadership.  Elected as Social Chairman, I planned wildly creative monthly events that swelled our number to unwieldy proportions.  We soon were pulling in the unchurched with zeal and were accused of too much success, i.e.  fomenting a “meat-market.” Soon we earned a new sponsor whose quiet agenda was to quell the spirit in the interest of propriety.

13. I had been completing my education that had suffered a hiatus while I was a freshman at Carnegie Institute of Technology and my father’s divorce and bankruptcy had again thrown me onto the generosity of relatives.  I did what women did in those days: I married and started my own family, hoping to do better than my parents.  We joined the Methodist church in Pennsboro, West Virginia and fit right in, being the young family so prized by religious organizations of any and all stripes.  The new pastor, a blind but brilliant scholar, was determined to make grand changes.  He passed out written exams to the entire congregation to decide how best to utilize individual strengths.  I was only 24, but earned the congregation’s highest score.  Pastor assigned me to teach the adult women’s class.  It was awkward, but we all ended up enjoying it.  I was at that time finishing up my degree program in science at a local teacher’s college where I chose several electives in religious subjects.  That scholarly approach to religion spilled over into our class and made for some excitement all around.

14. On the marriage front, I proved to be no better than my parents.  Under pressure I had chosen hastily, and as it turns out, unwisely.  Separation became imperative.  Suddenly a single mother, a student, living on alimony and child support, I earned my BS degree, but not without cost.  My husband and I had joined Trinity Methodist Church with one son and one daughter.  While a member, I delivered another son and soon thereafter lost my only daughter to a tragic auto incident.  It was from the Methodist church that I buried my daughter, Melanie.  It was then that I returned to Texas, home, where Highland Park Methodist became so much a solid rock.

I went to work for Texas Instruments in Dallas, the logistics making the Highland Park affiliation possible.  Time passed, and climbing the industrial-aerospace career ladder led to multiple physical relocations.  I remarried, a good man and talented engineer I had met while working for Varo Engineering.  Our two careers hop-scotched each other to Sherman, Texas, where we looked diligently for a church home.  Larry was a life-long Missouri-Synod Lutheran, while I was a mongrel mix of Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, and wannabe Catholic.  We finally lit at a Congregational Church on the North Texas State campus and bought an old house next door to the Dean of Students.  We joined the choir and performed soprano/tenor duets.  Life was good. 

15. But then, a new pastor arrived.  The sermons became boring and simplistic.  We stayed home for a while, and I stewed on religion as “problem.”  My inner cosmology could visualize God, but Jesus seemed a stretch as “true” God.  I had long been irritated with the Baptists’ penchant for claiming, index fingers aloft, that they were the “One Way.”  Maybe the Jews, His own people, were the answer.  1970 Sherman was too small for individual temples.  All they had was a single Jewish Community Center.  I visited there and instantly resonated with the people.  These were the People of the Book.  It’s as if they worshiped the God of the Torah, who had led them, not only through the desert, but in developing their intellectual selves.  I, who had all my life adored books, was a perfect match.  I was beginning to understand the interplay of myth, metaphor and meaning in religion.  I brought my Missouri Synod Lutheran husband and our three-year-old son, Kurt, to Friday night services, and we embarked on the road to Judaic conversion.  After many months of supervised study and attendance, the good Jews of Sherman, (Orthodox, Conservative, and Reformed) cooperatively imported a Rabbi from Dallas to perform the service, and we became a Jewish family.  Kurt was very cute in his little yarmulke, while I was called to read from scripture, not the Torah, but probably the Talmud.  It was no Bat-Mitsva, but I felt loved and very much accepted. 

16.We were Texas Jews for a year until career moves led us to California, where we sought out a Reformed Temple.  We appeared, nicely dressed, the attractive, young, affluent family, and applied for membership.  Mostly we were ignored, but finally one of the women explained that conversion to Judaism for philosophical reasons just wasn’t done.  “If you had married a Jew,” she sniffed, “then it would have been appropriate for you to convert as a requirement of the marriage.”  In one haughty sentence she had discarded all those hours of dedication and study.  Mortified, Larry and I crept away and gave up on being Jewish.  I still have my certificate of conversion.  I guess I am a Jew, but it means nothing without acceptance from the People of the Book.  I swallowed the rebuff with some bitterness, but to this very day I enjoy Jewish people, their savvy edge, lively intelligence, and commitment to learning.  Larry, on the contrary, began having panic attacks.  They stopped after he gave up trying to be an observant Jew.  Months later, after we had split, he claimed an appearance of Jesus in his bedroom one night, which led him to join a very noisy fundamentalist mega-sect called Melodyland.

17. I remarried, this time a biochemistry professor/researcher and Dean at UC Irvine Medical School, Kenneth H. Ibsen, PhD.  We constituted a family, Kurt then a bumptious eight-year-old, and we wanted a church family to raise him in.  I was ecstatically happy, having finally found the perfect husband.  Ken, 100% Dane, had fond memories of Danish Reformed Lutheranism, a very practical, sane branch of the Lutheran tradition.  Serendipity provided just such a church mere blocks from our lovely town-home on Irvine’s Woodbridge Lake.  We joined, and Kurt was put to the task of learning to become a Lutheran in the spirit of his biological father.  It didn’t take.  Kurt, it seemed, had inherited my right brain way of seeing the world as integrations of visions, not disambiguated progressions of abstractions.  He flunked Lutheran prep classes, and we allowed him to withdraw from a left-brain stressor that clearly had no meaning for him.  I, personally, was relieved to leave a group of otherwise good people who were obsessed with correctness of belief as deterrence from eternal damnation.  What kind of church fails a child in Communion-Prep?  Harrumph.

18. There was a long period of no religion, a pity since it might have helped carry a good marriage through a tortuous time.  I studied the varieties of Eastern religions, and teased from each of them useful understandings but could not see myself as a Tibetan meditating on a Himalayan hilltop.  I admired Buddhism, but it wasn’t for me.  I can’t wait for enlightenment; I’ve got to track it down and capture it.  My only contiguity of spirit was my music, singing in community choruses and civic-light-opera, but circumventing church choirs.  I didn’t get involved again with the world of religion until a major career move to Ohio where a friend agreed to mentor me through my childhood wish to join the Mother Church.  At OU’s Newman Center, I attended RCIA and fulfilled that long-ago dream to ally myself with Peter’s rock.  I had for many years admired gravitas as the most attractive of personal attributes.  The relationship took me to Roanoke where, as a legitimate practicing Catholic, I sang in St. Andrew’s Chancel Choir.  I joined the Roanoke Choral Society as well as the Roanoke Symphony Chorus, where I sang like one of Heaven’s angels for nine wonderful years.  Then in 2005 a cervical fusion, accessed from the front, stopped the music.

19. Coincidentally retired from that last post-retirement career, I undertook a journey of exploration, the goal to determine where best to settle down and get old, and on some future day to hang it up.  My eldest son is still in West Virginia, married, and now a grandpa and a competitive bass-fisher; Cincinnati is home to son number two, post marriage and with two sons newly fledged; Richmond is home to my youngest, delighting in marriage and fatherhood, with a girl nine and a boy twelve.  It’s a new experience having a front row seat watching them become.

20. I considered West Virginia, but had learned many years ago that I wanted more, both culturally and intellectually.  It’s great for a visit, since that society excels in friendliness.  There is never a need for an invitation; it’s always assumed, and the door is perpetually open.  I spent two years in Cincy, where I might have renewed my Catholicism, but the years spent allied with the Papacy had been an education in organizational misogyny, priestly child abuse, and encouragement of abject murder in support of Pro-Life activism.  I wallowed in my disappointment.  It was a good time to check out the Unitarians; they’ll let anybody in.

21. Unitarian Universalists were a delightful mix of over-educated progressives, politically active, and happy to welcome newcomers and put them to work.  There were several churches to choose from, and I let music make the choice.  The music director at St. John’s Unitarian was a choral personality of world renown who had energy left over for singing groups in local prisons and running Muse, a local woman’s choir dedicated to tolerance.  One woman was blind, one had MS; all ages and sexual proclivities were represented.  I would have auditioned, but my problematical vocal apparatus would have disqualified me.  I did join Muse’s auxiliary, a coup that earned me free tickets for helping out.  Singing in the church choir helped to somewhat rehabilitate my crippled voice.

22. I could have been a good Unitarian, except that I really do believe in God.  I cringed at scrambling beautiful lyrics to avoid singing the word “God.”  Enough said.  They are good people, and I do love them.  But the sun is hanging low in my sky; it’s getting late, the long journey of exploration complete. Cincy is a good place, where a lifetime of longing and learning has led me.  I am impatient with retirement and need a new career.  Maybe someone will put me to work.  Some people say that on the way to my dotage I have become a writer.

23. One thing I have done continuously, no matter what, has been to read…widely and deeply.  My favorite subjects have forever been spirituality and science.  Small wonder that I should have followed those two rabbit holes to where they join in the lovely burrow of quantum physics.  Of course there is a God; how could there not be?  The Kingdom of Heaven is most assuredly at hand, and in each of us, and popping into and out of existence along with Schrodinger’s Cat.  Why should it be a stretch for Lazarus to be dead and not-dead?  Jesus’ sleight of body could be similarly construed.

24. All the physics and cognitive games are fun and exciting when applied metaphorically to Biblical texts, but the core issue is that we love one another as God has loved us, and to take that love to practical “help thy neighbor” proportions.  Faith without works is indeed dead.  My Highlander All Wheeler runs great; who needs a ride to church?  I’m a trained and experienced hospice volunteer; you needn’t die alone.  Occasionally a serendipitous string of events happens, so statistically improbable that it could only be God giving me a kick in the pants.  There’s surely more to life than mind can understand.  Trading gnosis for faith, maybe there’s a place for me to be me after all.  Maybe it’s at Cincinnati’s Redeemer Episcopal Church.  The sermons are the best.  The choir is a delight, and they let me sing.  They seem to like my writing.  Hope springs eternal.

25.  All I had, all those years, was faith and an abundance of hope.  Giving myself to a serial progression of religious affiliations was educational but didn’t find me a home.  I was looking for a place where my own brand of fractured could be accepted as normative.  Everything about me was wrong.  The southern upbringing, the broken home, too many school dislocations, three misconceived marriages resolved in divorce court, a child killed and mourned as eternal remorse. 

26.  Any community I could admire would be peopled with smarter better members who would have skirted such pits of despond.  Of course none of my relocations led me to people who could mirror my expression of the Christ.  They had lived different lives.  I, too, was a good person.  I would surely fit somewhere.  So predictably and repeatedly, I left—sure that God would lead me somewhere that I meshed. That was the error that Rev. DeVaul asked me to correct.  “Don’t leave,” he urged.  “You have to stay to make a home.”  Nobody ever suggested that to me before.  I stayed, and I wrote about staying, in spite of not fitting in, not being good enough.  Writing as my prayer and singing in the choir were my best medicine.

27.  I admired Redeemer and the beautiful hearts of the people I learned to sit beside, stand and pray with, share bread and wine next to.  I stayed long enough to accept the quiet solace of being part of a beloved community.  I don’t fit, but maybe nobody does.  We just love each other anyway.

It’s all about posture—and about communication.  Your body and your mind are in a nonstop palaver about what’s happening, what used to happen long ago, and what is sure to happen who knows how far down the road.  And how does that affect how I hold my head?  Or swing my hips?  Or pace my gait?  Everything!

This monumentous discovery cracked the light of day during the year I turned eighty.  That was the year I finally admitted to the possibility of mortality.  Until then I was operating under the fixed delusion that I could never grow old—never die.  That year was a cosmic comeuppance.  I have been dying, slowly, imperceptibly, ever since I cleared the womb.  Telomeres were losing tails.  Sunlight has long been jousting with molecules that lost the good fight, rearranging to form new and different ways to live in the biome.

That discovery suggested a better way to analyze the situation.  Reducing everything to constituents made it more accessible—friendlier—so to speak.  Of course analysis strips even the most formidable problem down to size.  Reductionism works!

When I found myself scuffing around in my apartment like some old person, I demanded a re-take.  What had gone wrong?  I began watching.  Every step was fodder for the reductionist mill.  Gait was circumspect all day—every day.  Time of day was surely a factor.  Level of fatigue played a part.  Setting was all-important.  What was going on at the time inserted itself.  Yesterday’s activity might induce residual soreness.  Diet must surely be a factor.  We are, of course, what we eat.  How about costume?  What to wear has always influenced how we are seen and even how we see ourselves, as perception becomes part of the equation.  What we have been up to this hour matters more than any of us might have suspected.  Who informs our self-definition—past and present?  Other people stir the soup.  Complicate it.  Make it fun or doom it to despair.  Just like my Mother said, “It matters what other people think!”

Just watching all this play out increased sensitivity to what’s happening.  I recall Bugs Bunny’s repeated question, “Eh-eh-eh-eh.  What’s up doc?”  Was that a commentary on the happenstance of my inquisition?  Methinks we are on to something.

Notice that I didn’t mention age or physical debilitation as a contributing factor.  Everybody jumps to those assumptions and gives up.  Don’t!  How can I lose my keys when I hang them every time from the helpful front doorknob?  I am in control of every moment as it plays itself out.  The inevitable loss of memory need not incite panic.  Who needs memory when we have an endless supply of clever devices to extrapolate our humanity?  Maps?  Forget them!  I have Siri.  She’s a constant companion.  In 2011, I thought it was soon to be over, but then I bought an IPhone.  The rest is a history I share with a planet full of cohorts.  We will die, but we’ll have a helluva wild ride getting there!

Acronymania

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 someone 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.  He took the napkin and spread it flat between our egg 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 the 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-staff 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 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.