Board Feet in Española

Shortly after I came aboard, Vice, one of the regional foresters, and I drove north in a “company car,” a plush Detroit sedan, to tour, largely for my benefit, the mill in Española. Before arriving at the mill, we stopped for lunch at an Española restaurant, where I beheld my first fajita, originally a Tex-Mex mélange of thinly sliced beef flank, peppers, onions, tomatoes, and spices delivered to a table sizzling, sputtering, and smoking on a metal platter, and then loaded by the diner into the fold of a flour tortilla. In my many years of sampling Denver’s Mexican restaurants I’d never encountered the fajita. On this occasion, fajitas was Vice’s selection; I went with my usual cheese enchiladas, the forester, the same. As I commenced to eating, I watched Vice fork a generous helping of the savory mixture into a tortilla and then deftly clasp the package as he delivered it to his mouth. The load, however, was a bit too generous: upon Vice’s initial bite at one end of the cradling tortilla, a large dollop of the mixture blossomed out of the other―the forester and I looking on with discreet alarm―threatening to plummet to a plate and spatter Vice’s dress shirt and tie. However, seasoned fajitaista that he no doubt was, Vice quickly and cleanly snapped up the wayward dollop with his mouth, consuming it before the possibility of any indignity, and continued his discussion of the cost/benefit of recycled sawdust.  

The Española mill, the company’s largest, stood on a barren, arroyo-slashed plateau at the base of the snow-capped Jemez Mountains, nearly hidden from Highway 84 and just south of the settlement of Hernandez, the moonlit subject of a famous 1941 Ansel Adams photograph. The mill was a classic picture of American industry, albeit on a modest scale: large sheds; horizontal pipes briefly challenging the skyline before tapering down into huge metal bins and funnels; mountains of neatly-stacked logs; elegant temples of sawdust; neat, tight bundles of freshly-milled lumber; idling logging trucks and eighteen-wheeled flatbed trucks; scurrying forklifts.

Escorted through the mill by its manager, a fellow whose extroversion bordered on the annoying, I was once again the goggled-eyed kid my proud father, a layout designer for a medical industry magazine, led on a tour of the magazine’s printing plant in Rutherford, New Jersey. As with the printing plant, the mill’s automation fascinated me. I watched a huge ponderosa pine log “de-bark” as it passed through a giant, slowly-revolving, toothed ring. In a shed where the initial milling occurred, I watched a “sawyer” (now no longer just a character in a Twain novel) seated behind a plexiglass window, bundled against the chill, and busily at work. His hands―and, for all I knew, his feet―on a mess of levers, he flipped and sliced, with the ease of a seasoned backyard chef grilling franks, one raw log after another, preparing them for their final expression as lumber. Elsewhere, I watched the completely milled lumber, now requiring only drying, roll steadily past an employee who, after eyeballing each piece, stamped a grade on it in ink. Much of this was obviously monotonous work, but work that likely paid a good wage for largely impoverished northern New Mexico. (That said, I was certain no union represented any workers at the mill.)

From the grading station, I was escorted to the mill office, where I met the office manager―the only female I saw at the mill―and the lone IBM 38 computer terminal and keyboard, which communicated by a modem and telephone line with the computer in Albuquerque. On the terminal display, in the familiar glowing green letters and numbers, I saw the inventory application that was now solely under my care. At 37, I was no longer doing “manly” work like that of the sawyer and the work I had done in the tire factory and mine; still, my work now was as specialized and skilled as that of the sawyer, and of that, I was proud.


3-24-20: Meet My Lumber Company

Weekday mornings, I wended my way northwest in Little Red to the lumber company, often driving past the Clover Club potato chip factory with the broad stack belching steam; a lover of potato chips since childhood, the sight made my mouth water even at the breakfast hour.

The lumber company’s headquarters was considerably less glamorous than those of the two previous companies for which I had processed data. The building was located on a broad, windswept, and dusty side street that contained no sidewalks. The street’s asphalt ran right up to the company’s doorstep, and parking spaces were indicated merely by a few concrete chocks arranged diagonally.

The front of the old, boxy, two-story building consisted of white brick with patches of wood paneling; it had a single, unsheltered glass door. The bottom floor of the headquarters contained a reception area―small and, due to the floor’s split-level architecture, totally isolated―the offices of the president, the vice-president of finance, and the vice-president of sales; and a large, wood-paneled room with cubicles for the company’s several salespersons.

An angled staircase with a small landing led to the second floor, except for the glassed-in computer room containing the System 38―my third―a largely open area where inventory, accounting, and computer programming occurred. The floor’s large windows overlooked the lumber and shipping yards. The floor had worn carpeting in some places and cracked linoleum in others. The men’s restroom was cold, bleak, functional. Yet, after the swank of the Denver companies, I rather liked all this grittiness; given the nature of the business, it seemed as appropriate as the rugged mountains and mesas framed in the headquarters’s second-story windows.

I worked with seven others on the second floor, a nearly even mixture of Latinos and Anglos. Christine, the person in charge of computer operations was a young and easygoing Latina. She and her husband, an auto mechanic, were originally from the northern New Mexico hamlet of Questa.

Next door to my cubicle sat Jolene, the accounts receivable clerk. She was middle-aged and lived on what she called a “hobby farm” in the sleepy village of Corrales, just northwest of Albuquerque. Ordinarily quiet and focused on her work, when prompted she loved to discuss her farm, particularly her beloved goats. Proud of her pastoral life-style, she could hold forth about the tastiness of horse meat.

Sharing her cubicle was a fellow named Steve, also middle-aged, who daily updated the company’s inventory. He always addressed me as “Mr. Davis,” although with the warmest informality. Whether by necessity or choice, he was always the first to arrive at the second floor, at seven a.m., an hour before my appearance. So, his natural warmth notwithstanding, I always associated him with the mauve skies and chill of the New Mexico dawn. He was nearly always in good humor. At lunchtime, I’d poke fun at some mysterious glop he’d just nuked in the second-floor microwave and was enjoying at his desk. “You were expecting ‘The Galloping Gourmet’?” he’d respond. His home was the Shalako Apartments complex on east Central Avenue. The name was perhaps some marketing director’s idea of attracting tenants by invoking the hallowed winter ceremonies of western New Mexico’s Zuni Indians. Apparently unimpressed with this ploy, the inventory clerk always referred to his residence as “The Shacko.”

Nearly every day other employees paid visits to the second floor for one purpose or another. The vice-president of finance, a middle-aged Latino who hired me and whom I’ll refer to as “Vice,” wandered into every area. Although he was not a programmer, I got the impression he was responsible for the purchase of the 38 and was most invested in its successful day-to-day functioning; thus, he visited the computer room regularly. He was relaxed, often with his tie loosened and collar unbuttoned, but businesslike, rarely in the mood for levity. Early on in my employment, observing my frustration with one of the company’s software applications, he offered, “The challenge is not the mountain, Phil, it’s the pebble in the boot.” At this point in his life, he did not look like a mountain climber, rather like someone who would be content to surround himself with his extended family, enjoying their respect, at a picnic at a National Forest campground at the base of a central New Mexico mountain. In any event, as a hiker, I liked the ring of this homily: it struck me somehow as uniquely Hispanic, uniquely New Mexican.

One of the company’s shipping clerks, Ray―a young, slim, and handsome Latino―appeared with his coffee mug first thing every morning to get java from the second-floor coffeemaker and jaw in a relaxed and soft-spoken manner. Like many Albuquerque Latinos, he had a beautifully constructed pompadour; yet how he managed to maintain its shape apparently without so much as a dab of styling mousse, I couldn’t figure.

Other visitors to the second floor throughout the day might include the Albuquerque mill manager and the company’s several area foresters, two of whom lived in Albuquerque and one who lived in the northern New Mexico town of Española. I envied the foresters, pumped them for impressions of their latest sylvan rambles, for I knew they spent much of their workdays in the mountains up north, either in their trucks or on foot, among majestic ponderosa pines, the most coveted of the company’s raw material.


From Bean Counter to Programmer – Part 3

Some fifteen months after I began my studies, I managed to land a part-time job in something called “computer operations” at a Denver food manufacturer, and quit the cab company. Four days a week, from four in the afternoon until ten at night, I worked, except for a small janitorial crew of Vietnamese refugees newly arrived in Colorado, alone in the large facility. I worked in a large, hermetically-sealed, “climate-controlled” (in other words, cold), and spotless room with a false floor to accommodate a mess of wires and cables; a self-locking door with a push-button key; bright florescent lighting; and several potted plants, presumably there to lend the sterile place some semblance of life. Dominating the room were a number of milk-white IBM products: a System 38 “mini computer”―the manufacturer’s current success story, the machine I was determined to saddle and bust―consisting of a central processing unit and several disk storage drives; a computer-tape drive; and two printers. This various equipment recalled, to my inexperienced eyes, freezers, washing machines, and credenzas, albeit immaculate ones. What little character the central processing unit possessed was expressed in its vents, keyboard, and raised glass display; what little warmth, the glow of the green letters and numbers on the display. (The “soul of the new machine”?) In addition, there was a desk upon which sat a terminal, about the size of milk crate, with a display of more green numbers and letters, and another keyboard. My job every shift was to run programs off of a “menu” on the terminal display; print documents generated by the programs; and back up on magnetic tape all of the company’s evolving and ongoing electronic data.

The only programming in the company’s computer operations department, applications entirely different from those of accounting, was undertaken by the operations manager, a bald, out-of-shape, forty-something man who spoke little, lumbered around in black wing-tips that appeared to weigh six pounds apiece, chain-smoked at a terminal in a sealed, glass-fronted office within the operations room, and drove a Cadillac.

The computer operators did no programming; they merely pushed the buttons that set programs in motion. However, I quickly learned that the operators could transition to and train in the company’s applications-programming department, which created the programs―written not in COBOL, but rather RPG, an IBM programming language designed specifically for the 38―that performed the basic accounting functions, provided the operator sufficiently impressed the operations manager with his or her dedication, knowledge, and data processing intuition.

I made what I thought was progress at the company: I was thorough, responsible, had an impeccable attendance record. Eventually, I accepted a full-time job in day-shift computer operations, confident that this would better position me for a transition to applications programming, which was also undertaken during the day shift. It did not. One day, some two and half years into my employment, the operations manager recommended to the company’s Vice President of Information Systems another operator working the evening shift, a fellow student of mine that I myself had recommended to the company, to join the applications programming department―a “judgement call,” the operations manager merely explained, to my barely-suppressed mortification. Did the operations manager, through his stench of tobacco smoke, once or twice get a whiff of my marijuana smoke? I wondered. I immediately began looking for work elsewhere.

This disappointment notwithstanding, my experience, as reflected in my resume at the time, was apparently paying off. Within two months, I was working in the computer operations department of a Denver oil company and, convinced I could climb the data processing ladder by simply learning on the job, no longer attending college. The company was owned by a corpulent Denver billionaire―at a time when American billionaires were still relatively rare―who also owned the Beverly Hills Hotel and had recently bought and sold 20th Century Fox. His name was also Davis, and he was known as “Mr. Wildcatter” for the thousands of holes he had punched into the planet in search of his black gold. The company’s head of data processing was young, driven, and rarely given to humor, but he had hired me, and that was all that mattered.

Once again, I worked the swing shift, although now five nights a week. The computer room, which housed my second IBM System 38, was another chilly, coldly-lit, windowed, and secured enclosure. I worked alone several stories above Denver’s downtown on a floor entirely devoted to the company’s accounting procedures in a building of polished steel, marble, and glass, However, “Mr. Wildcatter,” whom I never once saw, was well on his way to pulling out of the oil business and investing his riches in Colorado and California real estate. As a result, the floor on which I worked consisted of empty offices and just a handful of accounting personnel. Nonetheless, for two years, in addition to handling computer operations, I was permitted to write some simple application programs. So, when I applied for work in Albuquerque, I had, in addition to my resume, a printout of the software of which I was most proud. I was on my way in the data processing field, a journey that led to the Albuquerque lumber company.


From Bean Counter to Programmer – Part 2

After some basic research, I identified the two pillars of computing: “hardware” and “software.” I learned that hardware was primarily about electrical engineering. Having witnessed two people, one a dear friend and the other my brother-in-law, grapple with the study of “double-e,” and having an interest in electricity only insofar as it powered my refrigerator and stereo and was responsible for spectacular lightning shows over the Rockies, I knew that electrical engineering wasn’t for me. Which left that mysterious, apparel-sounding phenomenon known as software. (What, I wondered in my abject ignorance, was “soft” about a metal computer?)

I read that software was essentially electrified instructions that could read electrified numbers and letters and electrically command simple or complex electrified arithmetic operations. (All of which was a considerable part of the soul of that little Texas Instrument calculator I used for my year at the instrument repair company, although I was unaware of this at the time.) I read that writing software was known as “programming,” and that programming was extremely detailed, precise and orderly, and commonly used in accounting and bookkeeping applications―in other words, I concluded, tailored for me.

From a programmer acquaintance, I borrowed a book on “flowcharting”: the routing of those electrified numbers―“data”―toward a desired goal. As I read the book, the detailed-oriented part of me became increasingly optimistic, and the English-major part of me imaginative. I imagined that each individual “datum” was a sleek automobile, its headlights aglow as it coursed over the perfectly gridded streets of, say, Manhattan at night, bound for its proper destination; turning north, south, east or west; stopping and starting at perfectly calibrated traffic lights; respecting my junctions, intersections and dead ends; experiencing no unnecessary pauses, no time wasted, no flat tires―all under my flawless command, the traffic engineer at his desk upon which sat a coffee cup in its proper place. Billions of cars, billions of lights, constant movement, not a single accident. Oh, such an awesome and beautiful rationality to all of it! Yes, I could see myself as a successful programmer.

So I decided to return to college, this one in downtown Denver, to pursue a major formally called by the college Computer Science and Accounting. Meanwhile, I hired on as a driver at a Denver cab company, a job that, I was certain, would allow me to support myself while I pursued my studies. Excited by my new career goal and satisfied with my new job now in its third week, I phoned my father and mother with the news. My father applauded my latest academic pursuit, although not the new job. “Only idiots drive cabs!” he spat, while no doubt recalling the thousands of dollars he spent toward my bachelor’s degree. Swallowing, I tried to reassure him, albeit with scant evidence, that demand for data processing professionals in Denver’s exploding economy was so great that I would have a job in the field long before I was awarded my second college diploma, and this seemed to placate him. Meanwhile, lacking a car, I took a bus, or bicycled, or walked, or even ran―in running shoes and sweats―to the cab company in northwest Denver. (I could have taken a cab, but I considered it too costly given my meager living as a cab driver.)

Beyond my academic studies of FIFO, LIFO, central processing units, stocks, bonds, and “machine language,” I tried to engage with anything and everything in the day-to-day world that dealt with computers, meanwhile occasionally wondering if I was doing all this in order to maintain an interest in something I feared was losing its original luster. I read Megatrends. I read Time magazine’s 1982 cover story on the computer, the magazine’s unprecedented “Machine of the Year.” One afternoon I sat with rapt attention through a speech by a guest of the college, the distinguished Grace Hopper, a United States Navy Rear Admiral, computer programmer since the 1940s, and pioneer in the development of COBOL, the first common programming language for business that I was at that very moment studying. I slogged through Tracy Kidder’s Soul of the New Machine, a National Book Award winner about computer engineering. At the same time, I sought work, any kind of work, in the data processing field.


From Bean Counter to Programmer – Part 1

Either I passed my drug test―and for that I would have owed a debt of gratitude to comedian, political activist and fasting advocate Dick “Cookin’ with Mother Nature” Gregory―or the head honchos at the lumber company felt that, despite evidence of marijuana use, a well-groomed and relatively articulate guy was worth a chance, so I began working as the only computer programmer in a company of 75 employees. 

My career in data processing arguably began when I was 25, shortly after I left the mine.  The Colorado state employment division referred me to a tiny Denver company that sold thermocouples and calibrated electrical and mechanical equipment.  The company was looking for a “full-charge bookkeeper.”  As usual, I was willing to take nearly any job offered to me. 

However, I never filled out an employment application at the company, and no one at the company, which employed just five people, ever said in so many words, “You’re hired.”  I simply showed up at the company’s doorstep one day with a referral from the state.  The company then commenced to training me and told me to come in the following day.  The following day, the company resumed training me and told me to come in the day after that.  After a week of this somewhat peculiar routine, I presumed I was hired. 

My trainer was my predecessor at the company, a fellow named Lawrence, who appeared to be about 75 and was retiring after decades at the business.  Bald and rotund, he reminded me of my hospital-accountant grandfather.  During my training, Lawrence hovered over me at my desk, a burning cigarette held effeminately between his first two fingers, his eyes squinting against the smoke.  A retired Army colonel, he all but forbade me to do a procedure unless each thing on my desk―pen, Texas Instruments calculator, coffee cup, Burroughs mechanical adding machine, pack of cigarettes, ashtray―was in a place he deemed appropriate. 

Long before Sarah Palin, Lawrence introduced me to the expression, which seemed to me particularly Western, “Youuuuuu betcha.”  And one rainy day he introduced me to a thing he called a “bumbershoot.”  He had beautifully flowing handwriting, graceful as the curves of drifted snow, with his numerals being exceptionally elegant, and my penmanship markedly improved under his tutelage. 

Lawrence trained me for a month.  Soon, I was well-versed in balance sheets, general ledgers, financial statements, work orders, payroll taxes, 3% 10/Net 30’s, and imprests.  Before long, I wouldn’t relax until I’d reconciled the company’s monthly checking account statement to the penny, even if it meant toiling alone at the office on a Friday evening.  (My monthly bank statement receives the same attention today; I regard the mental exercise of reconciling it as a defense against dementia.)  Indeed, if nothing else, my job seemed to reveal I had a knack for detailed work. 

Now, many another young man would have enthusiastically looked upon this job as the first step up that proverbial ladder of success in the world of business administration, accounting, or sales.  I didn’t.  The business utterly bored me.  Our thermocouple specialist had a radio above his workbench, so every lunch hour meant suffering the annoying staccato of right-wing newscaster Paul Harvey as he hawked automobiles―American-made, of course―and “porkburgers”; drooled over his wife, “Angel”; told maudlin stories; delivered cutesy sign-offs; and jabbed at communism.  The dreariness of the sales and servicing of thermocouples, pressure gauges, and Hewlett-Packard oscillators overshadowed any satisfaction and pride I got from keeping the accounting end of this whole uninteresting enterprise humming.  My ennui particularly tested the tolerance of my gentle boss, Joe.  For instance, it was also my job to answer all phone calls to the company with, of course, the expectation that I would do so in a spirited and professional manner―very difficult to do, given my attitude.  Therefore, Joe would have to wearily remind me, “Phil, please don’t say ‘yeah’ when speaking to a customer; say ‘yes’.”  In addition to me, poor Joe had to deal with a lifelong bum leg that he dragged behind him whenever he moved about the office.

Still, I couldn’t bring myself to quit, goldbrick for a couple months (and fritter away my meager savings), and return to the drudgery of job-hunting.  

Meanwhile, the company, while not failing, was not exactly increasing its market share.  A year after my hiring, as various malfunctioning gauges and oscillators deep in the company’s back room―repair orders years old and somehow forgotten without consequence―gathered dust and the company barely made payroll, the aging owner of the business, now retired, sold the company to a toothy, back-slapping, 40-something guy with a hard-on for the Denver business world.  I disliked him immediately: his ambitious ideas for the company threatened to disrupt my torpor.  Shortly after taking over, and to my great indignation, he accused me (correctly) of being a “clock-watcher,” and I therefore had no alternative but to be affronted and terminate my employment.

As I’ve written, I drifted from one job after another after that.  Then one day I decided that if I wanted a car; an apartment larger than a storage locker; furnishings beyond a table, chair, mattress, and a few pieces of United States Marine Corp dinnerware; and an attractive girlfriend who expected a boyfriend with a modicum of financial stability, I’d have to consider my career options with an iron practicality.  I’d have to get into what was all the rage in the early eighties.  I’d have to get into computers!


First Exploration Beyond Albuquerque – Part 2

Then, amid all these natural curiosities, my eyes suddenly fastened upon a man-made one several miles to the southwest: a long, dark freight train underscoring the emptiness as it headed west.  I could have continued in the same direction on I-40, in hopes of getting closer to the progressing freight, but I was also approaching an exit marked “Los Lunas” that connected to a road that seemed to head due south and directly toward the railroad, so I took the latter.  

After a couple miles the two-lane highway, Route 6, curved sharply east at a derelict and apparently out-of-business structure called the Wild Horse Mesa Bar.  Before I knew it, the deserted highway was paralleling two railroad tracks, and a thundering eastbound freight train was overtaking me.  I identified the railroad immediately, not that it was difficult: the train’s four locomotives were blue and gold and each bore the huge gold letters that spelled “Santa Fe.”  My memory of this design dated to the 1960s, when, in our New Jersey basement, I lost myself in my American Flyer model railroad.  While my toy locomotives bore the Texas and Pacific Railroad colors and logo, the Santa Fe locomotives appeared in the form of photographs on the cover of a Santa Fe Railroad Annual Report I had lovingly nailed to the basement’s wooden stairway beside my toy setup.  My father had received the report in the mail as a result of purchasing─for my benefit, he said─some shares of stock in the railroad.  At that age, I knew little about stocks, but enough to know that I had a tiny stake in that far-away, colorful railroad.  (I never knew what became of those shares.) 

Accelerating to sixty miles per hour, five miles above the posted speed limit, I approached and kept pace with the train’s locomotives churning and faintly smoking on their gradual descent to the Rio Puerco basin.  Peering into my rearview mirror, I tried to make out the tail end of the train, but failed; the train must have been a mile long or more. 

I watch railroads the way many people watch rivers.  A passing freight is as mesmerizing to me as a flowing watercourse.  Hopping a freight train, I imagined, is like floating on a steel river.  Even an empty track holds my attention as I imagine the simple yet sublime engineering feat of flanged wheel clinging to steel rail.  I’m awed by the power of locomotives.  I like their smoke: mixed with plenty of fresh air and vast spaces, diesel smoke is perfume.  Most of all, I love a procession of freight cars.  I know most of them are destined for grimy sidings in crowded cities, where their steel walls are subject to the tags and frivolous “artwork” of punks with spray paint, but between the cities they often pass through some of America’s least inhabited country, and they carry the scent of that country─in Frank Waters’s words, “always so redolent of the far off, romantic and unreal.”  Freight cars have a brute and indifferent nature that is strangely wild, and an untended nature that is welcoming; they seem to beg a man to climb aboard and wait.  Paused or in motion, a long freight train is a wilderness of steel. 

Meanwhile, the landscape through which we both advanced was unrelentingly desolate, and lovely.  A long reef of rock stood to the south.  To the north, two mesas, one black, one golden, cradled a shallow canyon at the bottom of which wandered a primitive dirt road.  I knew immediately I’d be out here again, and probably often.

After some ten miles, the Santa Fe freight and I, running shoulder to shoulder, reached the Rio Puerco, crossing our respective bridges.  Here the Puerco was no more of a river than it was fifteen miles to the northeast as it intersected I-40.  Several miles later, the tracks carrying the train curved sharply southeast, and the freight was slowly consumed by a crack in the land, the last I saw of it that morning.