Cheese and Crude

Some fifteen months after I began my studies, I managed to land a part-time job in something called “computer operations” at a large, successful Denver cheese manufacturer, and quit the cab company.  Four days a week, from 4:00 in the afternoon until 10:00 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, chilly), and spotless room.  It had a false floor to accommodate a mess of wires and cables; a self-locking door with a push-button key; bright florescent lighting; and a host of potted plants, presumably to lend the sterile place some semblance of organic life. 

Dominating the room were a number of pallid IBM products: a System 38 “mini computer”―IBM’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.  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.  Against one wall was a cluster of non-IBM instruments that comprised a modem to deliver data to and from the company’s satellite plants around the country.  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, software entirely different from that of accounting, was undertaken by the operations manager, a bald, out-of-shape, 40-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.  He reminded me of a corrupt libertine in a Pasolini movie.

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 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, and 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-a-half years into my employment, the operations manager recommended to the company’s Vice President of Information Systems an operator working the evening shift to join the applications programming department.  That operator was a fellow student of mine I had encouraged to apply to the company.  I bore him no ill will upon his promotion; he was indeed sharp.  But I was mortified with the operations manager, who merely explained that the recommendation was a “judgement call.”

Hmmm. Did the operations manager, through his stench of tobacco smoke, get a whiff of my marijuana smoke?  Furious, I updated my resumé and began looking for employment elsewhere while continuing to work at the mozzarella factory.

My experience apparently paid 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 somewhat rare―who also owned the Beverly Hills Hotel and had recently bought and sold 20th Century Fox.  His name, too, was Davis, although no relation.  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 I didn’t care.  “You’ll love it,” he said, referring to the job, the day he hired me.  

And I did.

I worked alone in a building of polished steel, marble, and glass several stories above Denver’s downtown on a floor devoted to the company’s accounting procedures.  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, fluorescent-lit, and secured enclosure. 

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.  Thus, 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. 

And I had my first love.  I was on my way in the data processing field, a journey that led to the Albuquerque lumber company.

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