Charm City

The following is a continuation of a preview of my upcoming memoir, Ready, Fire, Aim! A Survivor’s Tales of Entrepreneurial Terror. (The manuscript is currently in the capable hands of my agent, Maryann Karinch, who is presenting it to publishers). This is a portion of Chapter 4, titled “Charm City:”

“Holy Christ! What have we done?” I cried out after pulling over to the curb on a long, wide, endless street, lined on both sides with hundreds of little two-story houses which seemed to extend out to the horizon. The structures were identical, with only a few color variations distinguishing one from the other and three marble steps connecting each of them to the filthy street below. After nearly three years of living in paradise, we entered a place which could have been called “Hell,” rather than “Baltimore.” There were no palm trees, no movie-star mansions, no gaily-colored buildings, no cheerful flowers or shrubbery. Even on this warm, sunny, June day, the predominant color was gray.

“Let’s keep going until we get to the water,” Sue suggested after minutes of silence, as she perused the map we had examined back on the west coast, one with lots of water—just like Southern California. “I’m sure things will look a lot better.”

We found Pratt Street, parked the car, and set out in search of that blue stuff on the map. We spotted it, surrounded by ugly brown warehouses. Like the rest of the city, the water was gray, except for the multicolored flotsam bobbing up and down near the seawall: papers, rotten fruit, old tires, and dead fish with their white bellies exposed to the stinking air. When we caught sight of a rat balancing itself on a dock line while attempting to board a ship tied up alongside one of the warehouses, we ran like hell from the scene.

Our next task was to check out the elementary school at which Sue had accepted a teaching job for the fall, sight unseen from our perch in sunny California. When we pulled up in front of the two-story brick building in a blighted area called Westport, Sue gasped.

            “God!” she whispered as she stared at the broken windows and the filthy words sprayed on the walls.

            “You’re not going to teach here,” I said without hesitation.

  “Thank you,” she replied and kissed me lightly on the cheek. I could feel her tears on my skin. I stepped on the accelerator in order to get out of the area as quickly as possible.

            The following day, it was time to check out my new place of work. We got on the newly-opened Baltimore Beltway and headed southeast. After driving through the Harbor Tunnel, we exited the freeway and entered Dundalk. The blue-collar town within a city was nothing like Westport, but it was not Santa Monica, either. “Charming” was not the adjective that popped into my mind. We passed the Lever Brothers soap factory and drove by a large General Motors truck manufacturing plant. Following the disappointment of our first day at the Baltimore waterfront, I did not expect sandy beaches and volleyball courts where we had seen blue water on our map. Nevertheless, I was overwhelmed by what we did see.

As we turned right onto Broening Highway, there, spread out in front of us, was the biggest factory I had ever seen. Beyond the large building with a “Western Electric” sign, what seemed like hundreds of smaller buildings were scattered in every direction. Someplace in there would be the Bell Labs field laboratory and my future office. Through a fence topped by barbed wire, I could see huge coils of cable stacked among the structures. Workers were scurrying around on bicycles and on foot, dodging fork-lift trucks, each seeming to be going in a different direction. Across the street, a huge parking lot filled to capacity seemed to spread toward infinity. It, too, was surrounded by a fence more suited to a federal penitentiary. I noticed that the two electrically-controlled gates were locked in the middle of the workday, as if to keep the prisoner-workers from escaping. From the car window, I imagined a scene inside the factory walls reminiscent of those about which I had read in books about pre-Industrial Revolution sweatshops.

            “So, this is why I earned two engineering degrees and am about to start work on my third one,” I said to Sue. “To work in a goddamn prison!”

I was trapped. Unlike Sue and her school, I could not say “No, thanks” to Bell Labs and go find another job. Mother Bell, as parent company AT&T was known, had paid our moving expenses and I had signed a letter agreeing to take the job. The company had also prepaid my tuition at the University of Maryland for the fall semester. As I had done so many times in my life, I remembered my father’s edict to suck it up.

            The Bell Labs field laboratory was devoted solely to the design and operation of the transatlantic telephone cable, manufactured by Western Electric. To my surprise, the work I was assigned proved challenging at first. I performed the structural design of the cable connections to repeaters, analyzed stresses in the complex multi-material structure of the cable, and assisted in the design of the ship-mounted cable-laying equipment. While not as glamorous, the actual engineering and mathematics associated with the ocean cable was nearly as complicated as that of missiles and spacecraft.

            In September 1962, I started course-work toward my Ph.D. at the University of Maryland in College Park, located in the Washington suburbs. With Bell Labs allowing me up to three afternoons per week, I had to fit my classes into those afternoons and evenings. When I had selected Maryland from three thousand miles away, I had not realized that it, unlike most urban universities, failed to cater to part-time students like me and that it would be extremely difficult to design class schedules to dovetail with my work.

            After completing my second semester at the University of Maryland in May 1963, I was able to sit back and contemplate my life and our future. Sue was teaching second grade at Woodlawn Elementary School near our home, we had made new friends, and we were happy with our social life. I enjoyed the benefits that came with working at Bell Labs—getting time off to attend school and playing basketball and softball in industrial leagues—but I no longer enjoyed my work. After the first few months, it had become monotonous and boring. After being a player, albeit a small one, in America’s glamorous space program, I found it difficult to get excited about designing the inner conductor of the transoceanic telephone cable. I had a sense of guilt because I was not doing anything creative. Perhaps I was arrogant, and thought more of myself than I should have, but I thought that I had been put on this earth to make an impact—and making sure that a cable would not break on the bottom of the ocean did not meet that standard. Most of all, I had come to the conclusion that being a tiny pawn in any large company was not what I wanted to do with my life. There had to be a better way!

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