A Step Up

Flash went on vacation and I got the chance to show what I had learned from days sweating on the “ironwork crew.” I had learned all there was to learn about attaching equipment frames to one another, attaching grounding, putting on cable rack, and bolting frames to the floor. That was my whole job at this point — putting things together but, for what purpose?

These equipment frames I was so diligently, and repetitively, putting together were being placed inside concrete swimming pools. Well, not really pools, more like tubs, but that kind of gives an idea of what they were. They containers (really) were the concrete bottom halves of controlled environment vaults or, CEV’s for short. CEV came in two pieces with the bottom half being delivered by flatbed truck trailersto our warehouse to have equipment installed. Then they would ship out again on flatbeds to their final resting site and lowered into the ground. Their top half, which had all the environmental controls, would be lowered onto them, the two halves would be sealed together, and then the whole thing would be buried with only the entrance left above ground. These hatches are fairly nondescript and most people never notice them.

So my job for the first four months of my career was to put the equipment frames together, as prefabricated rows or “line ups”, that would then be lifted by forklift up and over the side of the CEV bottom and set down. Why a forklift? Well, for one thing, the line ups could be anywhere from six to many frames tied together. The sides of the CEV bottom were roughly five feet high (equipment frames are seven foot tall) and the entire bottom itself was resting on wooden blocks about sixteen inches high. This made the top of the side of a CEV about six and a half feet from the floor. We had special metal ladders that hooked onto the lip of the CEV that we would have to put in place in order to even get into the thing. There was another ladder on the inside of the vault that would be part of the ladder embedded in the top half that allowed access to the CEV.

So anyway, imagine a concrete container with sides six inches thick, the bottom a foot thick and can be anywhere from six to sixteen feet wide and sixteen to twenty-four feet long. It was a concrete swimming pool. And how they got into the warehouse and put on those wooden blocks is another story.

So my job with Flash was to have the equipment frames lowered into the CEV and then we make sure they were straight and level and then bolt them to the floor. We would add cable rack (ladder rack, whatever you want to call it) to the tops of the lineups and cross-aisle pieces where needed to tie the lineups together. That was it.

That was my whole job.

And leave it to Flash, we did one CEV a week. Just one. Because slow is job security. So we did it slow. At least, until Flash went on vacation.

Four months, four long months, after I hired on Flash announced he was taking a week’s vacation. He told Lush, he told Zoom, he told our supervisor, he told everybody. And he told me. He told me not to work too hard.

The Monday Flash started his vacation we had five CEV come in. By Flash-time that would have been five weeks worth of work. But. But our supervisor, a hard but fair man, came to me and said he needed them done quickly.

Hmm, what does this mean in the bigger scheme of things?

I knew how Flash liked to work. I also knew Lush and Zoom by this point and how they preferred to work. I also knew I didn’t like any of it. So I pushed. I pushed them, gently, but persistently and worked at what I thought would have been a pace for a normal human being. After four months of simple nut and bolt work, I knew what I was doing. It really was the simplest job at Morrow. A trained monkey could have done it.

Seriously.

So at the end of the week, five CEV’s had their line ups installed and were ready for the next phase. I had completed one vault a day. Not just the one Flash expected me to do while he was gone but all of them. I actually felt good about it. I felt a touch of pride.

That Friday afternoon, my supervisor told me to be in his office Monday morning.

Oh.

So how slow is ‘slow’?

So let me tell you what ‘slow’ meant back in the day.

First thing you have to understand is the working environment and who I was dealing with on a daily basis.  I worked in a large, assembly-type installation in a couple of warehouses.  It was a nondescript, out of the way, building that thousands of people drove past every day and never noticed.  We called it “Morrow” after the town it was based in.  Everybody in the company that worked in our state knew of the place, and nobody ever wanted to work there.  Nobody.

Except for one four month period, I spent my first four years with the company at Morrow.  I hired on there, worked diligently, learned a great deal and once I was out I never, ever wanted to go back.  The place was… weird.

Not bad weird, just weird.

Morrow was a retirement home.  In theory anyways.  Many of the oldest of old-timers worked there, and once they were moved to Morrow they never left until they retired.  So you had a bunch of old guys in there representing the greatest collection of idiosyncrasies the company had to offer.  They were the creme de la creme of crazy, and they knew it.

They also knew all the tricks of the trade, the jargon, the lingo, the ins and outs of the company, how to play the union and most importantly, how to break a supervisor’s will to live.  So like I said, there was a lot to learn here.  I learned about gravy trains, cash cows and gold plated anything.  Also learned how to look busy when nothing was going on with the job.

Sometimes work was slow.  And applying Flash’s principle of not working yourself out of job, I sat and watched the man, my mentor, take all day to put a screw in a piece of equipment.  I’m serious.  He would pick up his screwdriver, turn the screw a quarter turn, put the screwdriver back down, and then start reading the newspaper..  He would read a few pages and then turn the screw a quarter turn again and go back to the paper.

This went on all day. ALL DAY. That day very nearly broke my will to continue with the company. The work to that point had been slow, hot and miserable, tedious, and repetitive – which it would be for some time to come. Except in winter; in winter it would be cold and miserable but, for those first few months it was slow. Painfully slow.

At one point in that time I swept the same floor for five days at 8 hours a day. The supervisor would walk by, see me sweeping, and keep on going. I got singled out for that but, not in a bad way. At the end of the week our supervisor had a job huddle to discuss things and pointed out that while things were slow for everyone only one of us was actually doing something to look busy. The guy with the broom.

This wouldn’t last though. I eventually got a break, and Flash went on vacation.

You call this high tech?

Bell Labs. AT&T. High tech, right? Computers, communications, fiber optic transmission, this is high tech for ’88, right? I’m talking Bell Labs. Bell Labs! People, this place made magic, it made history. When I stepped into the job I thought two things, one, I had a job with a place I could eventually retire from, a job for life. And two, I was going to be at the cutting edge of new technology.

Okay, maybe not so much.

I should have known at the outset that high tech companies don’t hire people at 5 bucks an hour. Yes, it was higher than minimum wage at the time, but I had been making more working at a lumber yard. Oh yes, I had no skill, no prior knowledge, no clue what the job was all about at the time. And still I took the pay cut to get the job. Why?

Because I was seduced by the thought of benefits and long-term employment. You can’t argue with that. After all these years, I still can’t argue with that decision. Other decisions, well…

So what was my introduction in the high tech world of AT&T? Iron. Actually, steel but it was referred to as iron or ironwork. There would be a great deal of ironwork throughout the years to follow; I was just starting to learn what ironwork meant. It meant sweating your ass off in a warehouse without air conditioning where every electric fan was jealously guarded and woe be unto you if altered the direction that fan was turned. And there were never enough fans to go around.

I cut steel unistrut to predetermined lengths.

That was my start in a high tech industry; cutting steel supports according to measurements that Flash had written down on a scrap piece of cardboard. Taped to the wall of course. These support pieces would strengthen equipment frames that were connected together by Zoom. Lush would add cable racking to the top of the frames and a grounding cable as well. After that, the second phase would begin.

My intro to high tech was cutting steel, and the occasional cable rack, to length, filing the sharp edges to a dull edge, and then painting the edge with gray paint to protect against corrosion. Cut, file, paint. Cut. File. Paint. CUT. FILE. PAINT. And sweat. And the whole time Flash is telling me to go slower.

“What?”

“Slower.”

“How slow?”

Slower.

“Why?!?”

“You don’t want to work yourself out of a job.”

High tech innovation meet low tech job security.

Nasty, brutish, and of varying heights

About these Western Electric guys, yeah, they’re different. There really is no other way to put it. They are different in a way that sets them apart, and when I say apart, I meant from the rest of humanity. There is no denying a Western guy. The attitude, the posture, the sartorial choices, they define a Western Electric installer as surely as wearing a uniform identifies a cop. You recognize them at the bar, in the airport, at the gas pump, the parking lot, the hotel/motel. Once you know who they are you can spot them anywhere, and once you join them, well, it’s an infectious thing.

When I joined AT&T Network Systems, I unwittingly became part of the Western Electric legacy. At the time all I knew was these guys are weird. And somewhat older. 20 years older. There was a gap between hiring phases at the company of twenty years and the youngest of the Western guys was still 20 years older than the oldest new kid. “New kid.” That’s what they called us. And we would always be new kids until the last of the Western guys retired (or died on the job). Of course, by the time our own careers would come to an end, we were Western too; if not in name then in spirit.

So here I was, the new kid, and I’m not very tall, looking at three bored-looking, older guys. The inveterate chain smoker, Zoom, who appeared to be at death’s door. Lush, the robust man who liked to drink and sing. And sang a lot on the job. Flash, whose very name was an oxymoron, was the slowest moving individual I’ve ever met. His philosophy was that if you never finished the job, you were never out of work. Flash would be my first mentor on the long journey ahead, and he wanted to know if I was Jewish.

So, first day on the job and how do you answer a question like that? Ideally, it’s a yes or no question but, why? I mean, seriously, can you even ask that on the job? Does it matter? For a moment I was thrown for a loop; I meet my co-workers for the first time and the first thing want to know is, am I Jewish? What the hell?

Captain Zoom had walked away back to his cage (another story) and Flash had made sure he was gone before asking that question. He followed it up before I could answer with, “I only ask cause Zoom is a Nazi.” Neo, that is, Zoom wasn’t old enough to be an original Nazi. Well of course that made perfect sense, so I answered the only I could.

“Uh, no.”

Which was fine with Flash, and he said to follow him, he would show me what we were going to work on. And that was the start of my first day on the job. Working with a Nazi, a human sloth, and a lounge singer. Okay then.

Let me ask you a question

1988 and AT&T was a different world. Not just for me, but for itself as well.  This was only a few years after divestiture, the great breaking up of Ma Bell’s tyranny. Big Ma Bell finally had her downfall after years of litigation. And that poor sap, Judge Green, who made the final decision never had decent telephone service again; he eventually had the phone removed from his private residence; every telemarketer in the country had unfettered access to his home phone. It is said that on his death bed his final words were, “I’m sorry, Ma. Ma Bell, I’m sorry.”

Just as the world had to adjust to the new AT&T, so did Ma Bell have to adjust to her new standing in the world. Her children, the baby Bells, were scattered to the wind and trying to fend for themselves. Ma Bell had only her long distance lines, Bell Labs, and her red-headed stepchild, Western Electric, to comfort her. Eventually, she would pull herself back together again (driven by the need for vengeance; the telephone company neither forgives nor forgets) but in 1988 it was a whole new world. AT&T’s first bold step was to get a new logo. It looked like a blue version of the Death Star (to which we could only refer to in secret lest we be fired).

It was then that I became on the red-headed stepchildren. I hired on with that entity formerly known as Western Electric. Only by this time it was known as AT&T Network Systems. It sounds fancy and technical and all that, but you have no idea. Western Electric is an ancient and venerable arm of Ma Bell that had been around since Alexander Graham Bell. They were the backbone of the organization, the muscle, the guys that made things work. Western Electric built the network so others could have something to run. They were the brutes.

Little did I know.

I thought I was joining a business of technology and science and discovery, but not at five dollars an hour you’re not. I reported to a warehouse in a business park south of Atlanta. It had neither heating or cooling; electric fans were scattered everywhere it being June. And while it had the logo for AT&T Network Systems on the side of the building, when you stepped inside you entered the world of Western Electric. An old world, full of old brutes.

I was escorted around on my first day, along with three other new hires, by the man who would be my initial supervisor. One by one, he dropped off the others at their work locations until it was just the two of us. He told me he was impressed with my application and work history. I thanked him, and then he turned me over to my first crew – Lush, Flash, and Captain Zoom. I looked at them, they looked at me.

Lush went back to work, Zoom walked away, and Flash said, “Let me ask you a question. Are you Jewish?”

 

 

1988: Men’s pants had pleats in the front

But it could have been worse. 1988 the Hubble telescope began operation in space, and it still works today. The first transatlantic fiber optic cable is laid; it can carry 40,000 telephone calls simultaneously. Is that still important today? Seriously, are phone calls today any more important than texting? Or Internet traffic? Does anybody talk on the phone anymore, other than when they’re driving? I don’t know, but in 1988 a transatlantic fiber optic cable was new to telecommunications, and so was I.

1988 had transoceanic fiber optic cable and me. We were both new to AT&T and the only thing we had in common is neither of us could swim; we both would drop to the bottom of the ocean by design. Lucky for me, I would work on dry land. When I came on board the big, blue Death Star (for that is what we called it back in the day; a company memo would be released later that said any referrals to that moniker would result in termination) I had no idea what would come of it.

I joined on a hot tip that jobs were available with AT&T and I jumped at it. Who wouldn’t? At the time AT&T was the largest employer in the United States; a job with Ma Bell meant security, longevity, and a deserved retirement. Or so I thought, and in many ways, it was true. But things do change when you least expect it.