I have completed the manuscript of Ready, Fire, Aim! A Survivor’s Tales of Entrepreneurial Terror. It is now in the capable hands of my agent, Maryann Karinch of The Rudy Agency. With this blog, I am beginning a preview of a few portions of the book. I hope it will give you a taste of what’s coming, and that you will enjoy the book once it goes on the market. Here’s a portion of Chapter 1 (additional vignettes will follow in upcoming weeks):
“We’re here to see the president!” I heard someone bark at the receptionist of our fledgling company, CADCOM.
It was precisely eleven o’clock on a cold, overcast day in December 1969. Moments later, two men walked into my office and flashed their FBI identification cards at me. I motioned them to guest chairs in front of my desk, and they sat down. Their severe facial expressions told me that this was not a friendly visit.
“Do you wish to have your lawyer present?” asked the one named Cobb.
“No. Why would I want a lawyer?” I asked. “I’ve done nothing wrong.”
“That’s entirely your choice,” Cobb replied as he opened a notebook and extracted a pen from his pocket.
“What is your full name?” he asked. Since I had heard his partner address him as Ty, and since the real Ty Cobb had been a Hall-of-Fame baseball player, I was tempted to reply, “Babe Ruth.” But I thought better of it, perhaps because the real Ty Cobb had been a son-of-a-bitch and his G-man namesake appeared to be cut from the same cloth.
Following preliminary questions about my background, the G-men seemed particularly interested in the six years I had spent as a faculty member at the U. S. Naval Academy, located just a few blocks from CADCOM’s offices. Of particular significance appeared to be my application of computers to my research and teaching. After an hour or so devoted to this subject, they focused on our company—its mission, its intended customers and market, the computer-aided design software which would be our primary product, our financing, and the backgrounds of my six co-founders. Throughout the two-hour interrogation, I searched for clues as to the purpose of the questioning. Finally, when the session seemed to be coming to a close, I could no longer contain myself.
“Gentlemen,” I asked. “Can you tell me why you’re here?”
“You’ll find out in due time,” said Cobb. He stood up, his sidekick followed suit, and they walked out without another word.
Those bastards! I mumbled to myself as I attempted to make sense of what had just taken place. How can they just walk in here like that, try to intimidate me, and leave without an explanation? Isn’t this America?!
After I composed myself, I consulted with my five partners and discovered that all had been accosted in much the same manner, and all at precisely eleven o’clock. No doubt, this was done so that we could not communicate with one another. It turned out that there had been three other agents in our CADCOM offices while I was being questioned by Cobb and his sidekick. They interrogated Fred Klappenberger, Jack Cusack, and Ed Grant, separately. John Gebhardt, who was staying on at the Naval Academy for a year before joining us full-time, had been grabbed while crossing the street between classes. Two Academy professors, Al Adams and Dave Rogers, who would remain involved with us only on a part-time basis, were ambushed in their USNA offices. As I digested this information, I began to realize that we must be in trouble, although I still failed to understand why. Better late than never, I contacted our attorney, John Ebersberger, who called the local FBI office. Not only could he not get any information, but the office even refused to acknowledge that the visits had taken place.
We had been waiting for the issuance of our first revenue-generating projects: two government contracts, one from the Office of Naval Research and another from the U.S. Maritime Administration. They were vital to our ability to get the company off the ground and to bring in desperately needed cash. In the days that followed, whenever we checked on their status, we were informed by both agencies that “someone higher up” had ordered them to hold up issuance of the contracts. We were in limbo. We were considered guilty of something, but we had no idea what, so there was no way to defend or exonerate ourselves.
After a month of misery during which we ran out of money, our lawyer finally managed to get a piece of information: apparently, an unnamed Naval Academy faculty member had accused us of defrauding the federal government. Besides being told that the maximum penalty for this offense was a $250,000 fine and twenty-five years in jail for each principal of the company, we knew nothing more. By now, we had stopped functioning as a corporation. One morning in early January as I was leaving for work, Ann Cusack, the wife of Jack, our Senior Vice President, called my wife Sue to say that she was afraid that Jack was so depressed and frightened that he might commit suicide. I spoke with Jack and calmed him down, although my own anxiety was at its peak. I was not suicidal, but I felt paralyzed. Every day in the office proved to be an impossible chore. With the threat of prison terms for the principals and a potential shutdown of our young company hanging like a dark cloud over our heads, it was impossible to carry on. If we could only find out what charges were being made against us! How in the world had we defrauded the government? We were just a bunch of technology guys, trying to start a company.
In mid-January 1970, our attorney was able to pull a few bits of information out of the FBI and, finally, we began to piece together the problem. John Gebhardt was teaching a naval architecture course at the Naval Academy. At CADCOM, he had developed a ship-design computer program which we were attempting to sell to shipbuilders and naval architects. At the start of the fall semester, John had asked me if he could use the program that we had named “CADSHIP,” and which he had written for the company, in his USNA naval architecture class. That seemed like a nice thing to do for the institution at which I had taught for the past six years, so I told him that I had no problem with it.
Our program was running on a large mainframe computer based in Princeton, owned by a time-sharing company from whom both CADCOM and the Naval Academy were buying time. John simply copied our program onto the USNA account and then he and his students accessed it from the classroom. The first lines of code identified the program as one belonging to “CADCOM, Inc., Annapolis, Maryland.” No problem, one would think. But strange things happen when dishonest people weave their devious schemes. At a much later date, Al Adams, a CADCOM co-founder and Naval Academy professor, would uncover the fact that a fellow faculty member had been under suspicion for some unscrupulous acts; he sought to deflect attention from himself by telling the Bureau that we had stolen government-owned software and used it as a backbone of our business offerings. As proof, he pointed to the fact that the first line of a program stored on USNA’s slice of the computer’s memory contained CADCOM’s name. He picked up the phone to report to the FBI that we had used terminals owned by the U.S. Government to develop software for our business purposes, on a Navy account and on Navy property and time. No wonder we were being investigated!
Once we knew what the charges were, it was easy to submit a report in which we explained what had actually taken place. We expected to be exonerated shortly. But, apparently, this was insufficient proof to satisfy the Bureau’s “guilty until proven innocent” philosophy. We continued to wait, our customers still held back our contracts, and we were dead broke and close to a decision to liquidate the company.
In early March, as a last-gasp measure, I drove to Washington in an attempt to convince the Office of Naval Research to sign our contract and release our advance payment. Our customer, Ben Friedman, was sympathetic, but powerless until given the go-ahead from “higher up.”
I pounded the steering wheel in anger as I drove through a snow storm up Independence Avenue on my way back to Annapolis. Washington-area drivers are notorious for their inability to drive in snow. They were crawling uphill, only to stomp on their brakes and slide in and out of my lane whenever they panicked. The traffic mess only added to my frustration. Suddenly, a faint outline of the Capitol Building appeared on my left through the curtain of snow. My fury reached its peak as I stared at this symbol of freedom.
I survived the Nazis and escaped from the Communists so that I would be subjected to this kind of shit in America? I screamed at the Capitol.
I was out of control when I stopped for a red light near the House Office Building. I regained my composure abruptly, as an idea came to me.
I’m going to see my Congressman, I said to myself. What do I have to lose at this point?
A few minutes later, I walked into the office of Congressman Rogers C.B. Morton, who represented our first congressional district of Maryland. I was ushered into the office of the Congressman’s Administrative Aide, William O. Mills. Bill listened to my story and, when I vented my frustration at being treated in a way that reminded me of the Gestapo, he inquired about my family’s history. I gave him a condensed version, including my father’s service with the Allies during the war.
“Your father fought with Patton?” he asked. “So did I. That makes your dad and me brothers. Don’t worry. We’ll help you.”
I sat there, my mouth open, as he stormed out the door. He returned a few minutes later and instructed me to follow him. We walked into the office of Congressman Morton, one of Washington’s major power brokers, who also happened to be head of the Republican National Committee. After a brief introduction, Mills asked me to tell Morton about my company’s problem. The Congressman listened attentively and asked a few questions. Finally, he buzzed his secretary.
“Get me the head Navy JAG guy,” he ordered. In less than two minutes, the Judge Advocate General was on the phone. Congressman Morton told him my story.
“I have the CEO of the company in my office right now,” he said at the end. “I’m going to tell him that this thing will be resolved no later than tomorrow. Thank you.” He hung up, looked at me, and smiled.
“Go home and get a good-night’s sleep,” he said. “I’ll be in touch tomorrow.”
When I walked out of the building, I had the urge to lie down on the white sidewalk and make snow angels—I was so happy. Yet, as I drove home, skepticism began to creep into my mind. This situation had been going on for so long, and we had been treated so shabbily by our government, could I really believe that it would be solved with one phone call?
The following morning, I walked into my office and found a pink phone message slip from my secretary in the middle of my desk. It read: “Bill Mills called and said you can pick up your Navy contract this afternoon.”