With Bird at The Center of The Universe

In some government jobs, you inherit people and a raft of problems that goes with them. I had a temporary assignment at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, with a battalion that had just come back off “the float.” This was a part of a Marine Expeditionary Brigade that keeps a sizable strike force near distant trouble spots. “The float” was also a lot of very young men to keep cooped up at sea for a year with a few raucous stops in some various dubious port cities. In a day or so they had to store up all the girls and drinks and drugs and general trouble that would ordinarily come at a slower pace.

Most of the young men came back as older men who could say they “saw the world.” However, occasionally the world saw them first. At best, there would be casualties: broken arms and fingers from fights, and some diseases that have yet to be classified, and at worst, very occasionally, a truly broken spirit like that of Private Bird. Bird had fallen in with the most curious men who visited the darkest dens and swallowed the most potent of hallucinogens they could find. A very few died in some alley, stripped of money and clothing, but most stayed together and watched out for each other in this very different kind of combat. Most made it back to the ship, though often not without consequence.

When I checked in to my new communications shop, I learned about Private Bird. They had confined him to quarters with his wrists wrapped in gauze after two suicide attempts. No one knew what to do with him. Eventually they could give him a section 8 dishonorable discharge, but I thought we should look into it more, and maybe get him some help. I was that first line of help.

A number of these Marines knew a Vietnam tour of duty (, often a second one) would soon materialize. Many – especially but not exclusively the draftees — were not pleased with this. Some who could were running for the exits, and one of the only ways to keep someone who knew how to do a critical job was to promote them. They even offered me the Major rank, shortly after they’d dropped Captain on me. In the old days, it took 10 or 15 years to make Captain. I was anointed in three, but there was a rub: You can’t hide the rank once you’ve got it. You just have to learn to play that role. There was no one else to do it.

Bird, by his description, was “fighting for his soul at the center of the universe.” He told me things, and I listened. His father had beaten him a lot and berated him even more, but was pleased when his son chose to be a Marine. They put the smart ones in communications, and though he was only a wireman, he made lance corporal before the “float.” However, then he began wallowing shipboard in the drugs and depression. He lost his lance corporal rank when he returned to the States. Largely Bird stayed in bed, staring up at the upper bunk springs, at first missing several musters and finally unsuccessful at suicide.

I thought it would be best to check Bird in to the mental ward at the base hospital, but that was not as easy as it looked at first. It would require the signature of the commanding officer, Lt. Col. Thibodaux, to effect that requested temporary transfer. To talk to the commanding officer you had to go through the executive officer, Major Marlind. Turns out Marlind had his mind made up about Bird before I came. He had turned down similar requests before they could even get to Lt. Col Thibodaux. Major Marlind felt Bird embarrassed the Marine Corps and wanted to give him a dishonorable discharge as quickly as he could push it through.

I counseled with Major Jack Mendez, the operations officer, outside the battalion offices, as to whether I could walk right past Marlind’s adjoining office and knock directly on Thibodaux’s door, a stark breach of etiquette. (Not too much later, in Vietnam, Mendez had been given a tank company, and in my stopover in DaNang he would offer me the communications job. It was tempting, but tanks sounded at worst like a creeping kind of claustrophobia, so I declined.) To my surprise, Mendez said Thibodaux probably knew of the situation, and would kick my ass if I didn’t do it. So I marched right past Marlind’s open door and knocked on Lt. Col Thibodaux’s. He said to come in and I related the situation and my recommendation. He was a kindly Southern gentleman who had been through Korea and affectionately called men in his command “peckerwoods.” I could feel Marlind’s ear on the adjoining door between their offices as I laid out my case for Bird. All that time when Thibodaux was listening to, and agreeing to, my recommendation, I knew I would never make it nonchalantly back past Marlind’s door. I did not.

Upon leaving Thibodaux, I started to edge past Marlind’s open hallway door.  He was waiting. He spoke out to me. “Hon,” he said, “You’ll need to come in here and close the door.” I did, and he chewed me out for 10 minutes straight, and all I said was “Yes, sir” and “No, sir” He immediately rose from his desk to where I was standing at attention, and he began a cool but vicious rage — his face inches from mine with bad, bad breath. For 10 long minutes Marlind seemed to need no explanation from me for my many character flaws and what seemed to him a flagrant betrayal of the chain of command. He knew he could not penalize me in any way, but he made it abundantly clear with colorful – and somewhat devastating – language that I was on his eternal shit list. Now that I am older I wonder if old Thibodaux’s ear was pressed to the other side the adjoining door, and smiling away at this education of a young officer.

So I was allowed to transfer Bird out of his confinement to quarters and in to the hospital. I took him and his gear in my car, and detoured out to my fisherman’s cottage on the stream that led to the beaches. My girlfriend was there, and made him lunch. Giving him that short respite was a mistake. I was in more of a spotlight than I knew for my defense of Bird, and I suspect now that it would have hurt him later.

I visited Bird in the hospital after about 10 days. He said it was OK here, but there were a lot of weird people and one, named Kohler, was a supremely intelligent patient who had been there some time, and he continually “worked on people’s minds.” Bird said Kohler convinced people of their low worth, and suggested that suicide in many cases to be the only solution. If there was any redemptive value to the psychiatric ward, Kohler was its evil antithesis, the devil within who unsettled those who came for refuge, and further confused those who came already lost in themselves. He showed me Kohler when he passed by, and even in his mannerisms I could see the almost psychopathic intensity Bird told me about.

I brought Bird a book I liked, The Plague by Albert Camus, which was sickening in its descriptions of the Black Death taking over a Middle Eastern port city, but finally redemptive of the human condition in a way I thought would help Bird. He kept it and returned it before I was shipped out to Vietnam. I left the book with some other possessions to be picked up when, and if, I returned. About six months later, in Vietnam, I dived into a deep ditch outside An Hoa to avoid what seemed to be a full afternoon of incoming rockets from near Cambodia. I recognized a gunnery sergeant from that “float” battalion, who was now with another infantry unit.

“You know your buddy Bird?” he said, opening a Snickers bar that had somehow escaped the penetrating Vietnam heat.

“Right…” I said, feeling remiss that I’d never checked back. I was now keenly interested. “Did he get back to the battalion?”

“Naw, did himself in. Was with some of the crazies who got to work in the garden, and cut his wrists with a rusty hoe. Bled out in some flower bed.” There was an air of righteousness to this sergeant, as if Bird had put the sergeant’s universe straight once again. It shook me until the next rocket, which hit very close and left curled bits of shrapnel in a post above our heads.

Vietnam informed me of other things of course, and sometimes messages came from other odd places. My peacenik girlfriend who gingerly chastised the war had run off with a soldier. (Go figure.) Also, back in 1967 at Quantico, I had demonstrated an experimental method of riot-busting — playing music favorites of the crowd so loudly in the streets that they could not communicate and organize — a win-win kind of protest-quelling not at all unlike a rock festival. Flushed with its success and dreaming of a kinder world, I had written the demonstration up and sent through channels to the top communications folks in the Pentagon. I learned from someone, who was  later transferred to Vietnam from that office, that my work had been very favorably received, but with some slight modifications they would use. Turned out they all thought it was a great idea to blow out protesters eardrums…Not quite my intention.

Waiting to go back in Camp Hanson, Okinawa, I was given a company for a few weeks as they transferred troops fresh from the States to postings with units in Vietnam. Basically I watched over where they slept and ate. I had no idea where they came from or where they were going, but I had a small staff to keep track of their orders and get them to where they needed to go every day. And then I saw Kohler – the evil spirit in Bird’s mental ward – there in my squad bay…and he saw me at the same time. He tried to turn away, but I got the duty sergeant and we went over to him. Kohler did not have orders with him to show he was attached to anywhere. He had somehow made it into the mainstream of troops headed toward Vietnam, and then in Camp Hansen managed to disappear from the group he was with, and totally unfortuitously nested in my facilities. Bad mistake, Kohler.

“Looks like AWOL to me, sir” said the duty sergeant. Kohler had that cool evil look as if he was sure of his next move. “Please take your weapon, Sergeant. This man may be dangerous.” I went and got a couple of MPs quickly, and sent Kohler to the Marine Brig on Okinawa for safekeeping. I was shipped home a few days later myself. I never heard what happened to Kohler. I’m sure he was partly responsible for Bird’s suicide at the Lejeune Hospital back in North Carolina, but what I did was official duty. It was not revenge. At least I tell myself that.

I boxed up my stuff when I got back to the States and they mustered me out within a few months. Some months later, after some adventures in a sailboat (including falling in love), I came back to L.A. and moved in with my friend Dale a block off Venice beach. I was trying to grow longer hair as quickly as possible to match the crowd in Hollywood and the Venice beaches. I went down weekly to stand in the most entertaining unemployment line in the world. Dale gave me a high row on his bookshelf for my books, which I had boxed before I left for Vietnam and never taken out until now. One of the books was Camus’ The Plague, which was returned to me before I left for Vietnam.

As I reached up high to put the book in place, something fell from between its pages. Something metal. It clanked on the floor. I picked it up. It was a military “dog tag.” In the dim light as I picked it up, I could read the word “Bird” impressed into the face of it. What that was saying to me I cannot quite understand to this day, but Bird was there, and he was saying something. Maybe “thanks” or maybe “didn’t finish this.” I guess some profound secrets of the universe must remain always just out of reach, even when they fall right into your hand.

Copyright 2018 David Hon – All rights reserved

My Dear Aunt Sally Meets RPN

Training is usually the poorest stepchild of any corporate activity. However, at a certain point in the development of 1970’s consumer electronics, the public had yet to really comprehend the brilliance of what the techies had produced. The techies themselves, all young, and hardworking and excitable did not help much: many crashed computer programs displayed the sign: Tough Luck Turkey! , the screen message from computer geeks who made the program. This kind of error message appeared so that ordinary users — who could not understand how to use their new portable computers – might at least understand that they were considered a lower order of being. Marketing-through-derisiveness probably slowed down the computer revolution by ten years. This and other nerdish posturing, throughout all computers, unfortunately resulted in the The Digital Divide, an us-versus-them elitism that stalls everyone’s progress even to this day.

From a background in making smaller electronics for trucks going across the Southwestern plains looking for oil, Texas Instruments had become a world leader in solid-state electronics. They had produced a series of transistor-based products a competing with Silicon Valley companies such as Fairchild to instill the semiconductor phenomenon in cars and planes and the new personal computers. T.I. also created the first transistor radios, but Japanese companies and marketers left them out of the picture for 10 years. Later the worm turned slightly when T.I. patent representatives started making the rounds of companies like Sony and Pioneer in Japan, and laid a hefty patent license bill on them. But the Transistor Radio had already been lost to them: the horde of 1950’s teenagers were already listening to Elvis and Bill Haley on their picnic blankets. (You could never pry these portable radios from their cold dead ears.) Texas Instruments never received public credit for its transistor radio, and it hurt, hurt clear until they had their next big chance at a consumer market.

When Texas Instruments introduced the first four-function calculator, they had no idea how to approach a consumer market. They knew it could be hot, but their salespeople were from technical sales and had no feel for the general consumer nor the retailers who sold the calculators to them. The salespeople were near violating federal Sherman Act and Clayton Act guidelines, and the Texas Instruments lawyers had management worried with the possible liabilities. The retail market was a vicious jungle to the technical types at T.I., who considered themselves first as electrical engineers and scientists rather than consumer salespeople. Yet, this small Texas company was determined not to let this next opportunity slip away.

I was in no way academically qualified even to enter into this discussion. I was a news writer turned English major and then Communications MA, two majors of even less repute to electrical engineers than newswriting. However, I had been a communication/electronics officer in the military and was not immediately terrified of these intricate new worlds (– though I should have been). Meanwhile, I had evolved from a tech writer to a training program manager. Various persons had seen my video dramatizations and easy-to-understand technical descriptions, and asked me to be on the team training these crucial salespeople.

The four-function calculators caught on quickly, and the competition was stiff and cutthroat, but T.I.’s ability to mass produce and keep prices low kept it in the race at the lower end. I was asked to do legal tapes where salesmen found themselves in compromising (sales) situations, and were shown the severe implications of their actions and then given better practices to use instead. Anyone familiar with consumer marketing knows that salesmen can offer a mix of product, and also cooperative (half funding) local advertising and other tactics. Some were legal, some were borderline unfair practices. It was a wild and woolly world because no one had ever sold highly technical products to the mass public over the counter.

Even though T.I. still sold its semiconductors (transistor) products to the defense department and all manner of electronics businesses, the handheld calculator for the common man gave them not only a new public identity, but delivery problems that went clear back through the manufacturing structure. Mechanical engineers became important in this electronics company because you couldn’t allow the keys on the calculator to stick – not a small problem with the amount of coffee and diet Coke at many desks. At the beginning of the process, however, were the Wizards, the chemical engineers. Line workers who assembled T.I. printed circuit boards and put them into T.I. calculators depended upon the supply of “chips.” These “chips” came from wafers thinly sliced with laser saws across wide “rods” of gallium arsenide and other silicon mixtures. The mixtures of the chemical Wizards, though hardly exact at the first, produced the necessary conductive impurities that had allowed old vacuum tubes to be replaced the tiny transistor components. Some said that what took a roomful of the first computers was now in the palm of our hands.

So not only the mechanical engineer (, and not only the playwright,) but the chemical engineer was critical to making the new calculators on schedule. Not all chips worked. They had to be tested before they went into calculators, and the unpredictable yields of earlier days would not suffice. The chemical engineers stirred up the material that would go into the rods, and then into the tiny chips. Even then, no one knew exactly how it would turn out. In that manufacturing environment, it was still hit-and-miss.

Many days, the coffee areas were filled and the line workers were sitting outside their work areas, many smoking, some even knitting. At the time almost all of these line workers were women, as it was believed that women on the whole had finer attention to detail and smaller hands to place these transistors into the circuit boards and calculators. Because of T.I.s innovative profit sharing plan, many of these common line workers retired with handsome pensions for a career of repeated actions and tiny drudgeries. But right then, the company had essentially shut down. I asked a co-worker why that was.

“The Wizards had a bad batch.”

So these chemical engineers in an electronics company had the major responsibility in what was a somewhat random process. Only later did they learn to optimize the production of chips, but the ugly secret of those days was that the process was a little mystical and far from a perfect manufacturing situation.

When I was brought into the actual sales messaging, the engineers had created T.I.s first scientific calculator, the SR-50. What they really wanted was to educate business professionals to use complex business formulas, and with the SR-52 their first programmable calculators, with a “chewing gum stick” to hold the simple program. Because they really wanted to sell to this business community, they decided to build their scientific calculators around an Algebraic Entry. Without trying to make readers into mathematicians, math teachers could tell you that the way you construct a complex problem can affect its accuracy.

Hewlett-Packard already had a handheld calculator for scientists and engineers, and they all loved the fact that these calculators were based on RPN, or Reverse Polish Notation. RPN dictated that every subset of caculations within a larger calculation be “nested” within successive parentheses. Texas Instruments, because it was aiming at the larger consumer and business markets, decided to build their scientific calculator around Algebraic Entry, which meant you entered the elements of the problem as you would read them. That meant one kind of calculation was automatically prioritized instead of being placed in a succession of nested parentheses. Teachers used to say that decided the priority of calculations should follow the mnemonic My Dear Aunt Sally – Multiplication then Division then Addition and finally Subtraction. That is as far as I will go. If you understand it all, good. If you understand that there were major ideological considerations here – and that it was a critical business decision — well, that’s enough for here.

Because my training videos largely made sense to the common business user, I also became involved in competitive advertising strategies. Print materials would line up the HP calculators facets with the comparable Texas Instruments facets. When the HP advertisers put in their entry system, it was always RPN. I wondered why. Well of course, if you knew very little about mathematical theory, would you buy a calculator based on “Reverse Polish Notation”? Oh my God! The cruel ethic joke everyone knew was that Polish clocks were right twice a day. And then, calling it Reverse Polish. To me this looked like an immense marketing gift from Hewlett-Packard. I lobbied, and won, the ability to spell out RPN to Reverse Polish Notation on every comparison sheet in magazines and handout literature. The early T.I. Scientific calculators were never the hit product that the four-function calculators were, but we kept trying. 20 years later, from a distance, I saw the TI Business calculators — programmable and based on Algebraic Entry — become the most popular briefcase calculators for business people. It was a long haul.

The first step in that long haul was for salespersons in department stores to demonstrate the T.I. Calculators to the shopping public. At first, the salespeople they  used were selling programmable scientific calculators just like other business products, like desk lamps and planning calendars.  However, these ordinary salepersons were so afraid of trying to show the T.I. scientific calculators that they usually hid them. When our people went out to stores as mystery shoppers, the salespeople could not find the T.I. Scientific calculators and blamed their misplacement on earlier work shifts. In my sales training roles, I made tapes, but also small programs, so that salespersons could show how to easily do amortized loans and other common business tortures. When they began to look good with these examples to the customer, they began to hide the T.I. scientific calculators just a little less.

Along the way I did the first simple – and I mean simple – book on “How to Program.” With a good cartoonist, I showed the program as a conveyor belt with buckets moving along, and the variables were being dumped into the buckets by funnels above the belt, with users pouring various variables into the buckets and sometimes stopping the conveyor belt to rearranged buckets. Frankly, every other explanation since that has appeared confusing to me. But what do I know? Also, I had the idea for a book with each key of the scientific calculator explained simply on one page. I was never even listed on the credits, but the idea for T.I.s classic The Great International Math on Keys was mine. I had fought for it until the logic was clear, and as a reward it was (, as so often happened,) given to another more-qualified group to develop.

In the old West, a motley assortment of gunfighters worked for cattlemen to run off sheep men and settle water disputes with their guns, with few considerations of logical right and wrong, and they all accepted that they “Rode for the Brand.” I guess that was I was doing, riding for the T.I. brand. Although when you are riding for a brand you are largely anonymous to the outside, with technology companies you often enter new and fantastic problems in areas critical to the success of humankind. I learned a lot “riding for the brand,” and I hope I helped Texas Instruments find their way into providing breakthrough products to the general market.

That was certainly true when T.I. next came out with their first digital watches, Japanese watch companies like Seiko and Casio and Hamilton (which made the Pulsar) were making electronic watches, and a Texas Instruments watch seemed a very odd fit. The consumer public in unison scratched its many heads and said: What is Texas Instruments Doing in the Watch Business? From my ignominious perch in sales training, I provided the answer to that question, much disputed but finally triumphant. In my first training tape for salesmen, I showed a live scanning electron microscope with date flowing through its tracks and gates and I put forth the slogan “Texas Instruments has been in the business of time for a long time”. Well, the T.I. scientists at first came unglued in their resistance to this layman’s near-lying puffery, but eventually I won the argument. My slogan eventually became the core of a Clio-winning television commercial. My Clio, I always say. That will be another saga to relate before I forget: 1975 and T.I. Digital watches.

Copyright 2018 David Hon – All rights reserved

Apologies to Ayn Rand

Most of you know that Ayn Rand was a novelist of economic fiction, with such impact from her book Atlas Shrugged that some 50-year-old politicians today are still under her spell. She came from a capitalist family which escaped Soviet Russia. Her heroes make the world happen and are only burdened by governments and have total disdain for the assorted hangers on — who turn out to be most of us. Rand Paul, a Kentucky Senator was named so by his Ayn-Rand-devotee father and congressman, Ron. Paul Ryan, Speaker of the House, claims to have most of his moral direction in politics from Ayn Rand. The Tea Party phenomenon, which tried to diminish government at every turn, had many Randians.

It is better to run smack into Ayn Rand when you have almost nothing, because if you have some money, or some measure of success, she will convince you that you deserve it. If you have next-to-nothing, then eventually, even if you get something, you will probably realize it did not all come from you, and that you were lucky to scrape a few crumbs off the general common wealth and — try all your life to grab a few more crumbs off that wagon. I had worked as a carpenter for two summers in high school, and I thought I was a model for Ayn Rand, a maker, a paragon of personal responsibility, and a disdainer of all takers.

I wandered into the University of Washington a few years after Sputnik, and Universities were tightening up on their admissions. With the great public push to beat the Russians came the realization that we needed to generate more educated people…fast. On Orientation day, the speaker said to look to the right and left, and two of these students, perhaps you, would not receive a degree. I said goodbye to those on my right and left, and they did not take it well. I was sure that was what Ayn Rand would do.

The death of my father in WWII should have given me some room-and-board money under the GI Bill. However, I had just read Ayn Rand’s  Atlas Shrugged and I would be damned if I would go to school on blood money. My mother was beside herself. My adopted family could not pay for my education, but she thought the government ought to, and my naïve but cold-eyed refusal made her go through all the possible arguments. My father was not here to put me through school, but he would have used this GI Bill, so now they offered it to me. Nevertheless my distraught mother was not as convincing as Ayn Rand. I would be cool and make it myself with no help. While some of the money I’d made carpentering was still around, I studied and got a 3.5 and lived in the student dorm. Then the money ran out next semester. I got jobs dishwashing, and being a houseboy in a sorority, and being an afternoon counselor for YMCA kids. These jobs each made a pittance, and the time for study – let alone any fun – tightened up a lot. I got an old bicycle to go between classes and jobs, but before long, the bicycle broke.

I started to play soccer for little other reason than it was played by people my size, which was average. The local industrial league teams could always use a fresh body and sometimes I played two 90-minute games in an afternoon at the pitch (the surface of which was partly made of broken Coke bottles) near Green Lake. The next year the U. of Washington started a team, but I was not remotely good enough alongside the Europeans there who were off season from ski scholarships – truly fine athletes. They did allow me to turn out with them and that was exceptional training, keeping up with those who had played the game at a high level, sometimes semi-pro level, all their lives. Gradually I learned to control the ball, trapping it from the air with a soft foot and then snapping a relevant pass to someone. By my junior year, I did make the University of Washington team, for one reason: I was an American who could keep up.

The University decided that the soccer talent from overseas was far above what they could find in Americans from Seattle, so they made a rule that two players on the team had to be American citizens. Actually, that made it pretty competitive, to be one of the two players. When I made the team in my Junior year, a tuition scholarship came with it. Ayn Rand would probably approve of that, but my grades were dragging and I was living down behind some old lady’s furnace for $10 a month, and showering within a curtain hung over the laundry room drain. I had started in Journalism and found I could get away with more as an English major, so I learned to read Ford Maddox Ford fast between jobs. All this being poor and pleasing Ayn Rand was starting to annoy me, and no one I knew could understand the connection anyway, so that helped me rethink the whole proposition and take the GI Bill money in my Junior year.

Did I feel I had failed Ayn Rand? No way. Instead I felt liberated, free to take the money granted me for an education from my father who, after all, died for his country. Turns out the money kept coming. Before I turned 21, I’d had also  rejected the money from my mother on my father’s $10,000 life military life insurance money, and now it reverted to my possession. I had not accepted it – until now. Now they were handing me $10,000 (probably worth $100,000 now) to spend on what I wanted. Well, first of all was a Porsche. An old Porsche (granted) but a 1953 Porsche shipped from Germany by a servicemen who now needed the money. I rode a cold train cross country and got it for $5000 in Bayonne, New Jersey.

What a deal. Me, 21 years old with a Porsche. I also got a Guild guitar, which makes fine music to this day. What a day that was! To put everything you ever wanted – granted a low bar – into one package, and buy it!  I drove the Porsche cross country and it took curves like it was on a rail and for some reason in Montana the engine caught fire, but it was air-cooled and somehow cured itself enough for me to make it to Seattle. This was such a formative moment that I have never lusted for those things I cannot buy.( I could even take girls on a dates that weren’t Dutch.) At least once in my life I could have all of the tangible objects of my desire – because my list then was so short.

Parallel to all this, the military had ever been marching in the background. The first year I was in ROTC like every student in land grant colleges in 1960. The idiot student leaders in charge at 7:00 am marched us through muddy grass and into the sides of buildings. The prize was to be an Air Force officer. The ROTC building burned down that year, very probably by accident, and I turned in my Cadet Uniform thinking all records had been destroyed. Home free…but not. They came back when I was a junior and said they had found the records and I would not graduate unless I completed the loathsome ROTC. I fixed them, however. I had a plan: The war could not last much longer and I could drop out and be in the Reserves. I went into the Marine Platoon Leader’s course that summer, which shielded me from everything…except the Drill Instructors.

These Marine Drill Instructors hated college boys. Many of them had studied civilian subjects while in the Marines and some even had Master’s degrees as well as karate black belts, but they all hated college boys. Their sole purpose was to cause as many college boys to drop out of the Platoon Leaders program as humanly possible. Their dropout record at the time was likely comparable to the SEALS, about 60% for Marine Officers. But their soft side was that they admired physical prowess. Not my long suit, but….

Luckily, during the previous Spring Semester I was given the opportunity to pedal pedicabs at the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair. Members of the soccer team were given jobs peddling pedicabs all over the World’s Fair Grounds, as tours and also as taxis. We were the real workers. The members of the UW football team were given menial jobs like measuring the length of the grass on the walkways. Pansies.

However, the pedicabs were not made for heavy duty usage. Most of them broke down, and we did not complain, because the company was paying us $2 an hour, just to sit with the broken down machine until some mechanic could come around and haul it back to the main garage. $2 for baby sitting was not bad at the time. But it could not – and did not – last. They took the pedicabs out of operation and we were without a job. They gave me a position running electric cars with 8 people in them, because I knew the grounds, etc. I actually knew the grounds so well, that I would give some preference in my tour spiel to food vendors who would give me a free meal when I got off. This angered the vendors I had not included, who got to my boss, who seemed glad to fire me as an example to the rest.

“Say,” I asked, as I was dismissed. “What are you doing with the pedicabs?”

“Nothing,” he said. “We’re not going to start the operation up again, if that’s what you mean.”

“Not exactly,” said, with this germ of entrepreneurship exploding behind my eyes. “I thought if I rented one some day, for about $10, I’d see what I could make off it. Better than no income at all for you.”

He chewed on that a minute, and then nodded. “But no advertising…That’s trouble for you.”

So the next day I got the best-maintained pedicab of many in the garage and took it out for a whirl. 10 feet onto the grounds someone stopped me and asked if I gave tours. I said yes, $10 a person for a 20 minute tour of the grounds. $20 and twenty minutes later I had a thriving business going. I was the only pedicab on the World’s Fair grounds! People with tired legs were ready to jump in the seat, when I let the last load out. I worked 16 hours that day and made over $400 with the tips the late night drunks gave me just to get them to an entrance with a cab.

In just a few days of this, I had expenses for the school year. Kodak had me hold a camera while sitting on the pedicab seat and the photo became a national print ad which was actually up in New York’ Grand Central Station for a while. A friend there called me to say he had seen it. This was success! There were only two problems: how to keep my earnings a secret, and how to keep my legs from knotting up. Since I was renting the cabs for $10 a day, it was no one’s business how much I made, so I lied with abandon. “How’s it going,” the pedicab supervisor said when he saw me re-infusing my cells with a milkshake. “Not great” I said. “Some days it’s going to be tough even to make the ten dollars, but I hope some weekend days will work.”

“You’re not thinking of quitting are you?” He was worried about losing this income, but also wondering if he could put other drivers on.

“I’ll see how it works for a few more days. Sure isn’t as good as the $2 a hour I could depend on.”

“Well that’s business.” He said. Such a ruse… and it lasted me about 3 weeks. I moaned what a mistake this was to everyone I knew there. I groaned when I passed the supervisor, as if I was getting a hernia. I really made a lot of money those days.

The other problem, legs cramping, definitely impacted how much income I could produce in a $10 day. Luckily there was a “club” on the grounds with a masseur. In midafternoon, for $5 he would massage my legs for about half an hour, and I was good to go until closing at midnight.

This windfall could have lasted longer but some poor soul the supervisor wanted to befriend with a temporary assignment, paid the $10 and started making $50 a day almost doing nothing. He rushed back to the supervisor before I could intercept him and thanked him profusely for such a great deal. My days were obviously numbered.

Luckily, I had made a bundle by then and I had to report to the Marines for 6 weeks anyway. They were as vicious as advertised. People who giggled in ranks the first night were lifted two feet in the air by the drill instructors boot, and thereafter did not even smirk in the darkness. But then there was the fitness. Ordinarily fit college boys, some who had played sport, were ground into the dirt of the Quantico hills by endless running, much of it in heat conditions considered dangerous. I saw a few thrown in an ice bath to get their temperature down. These were the weaklings. The rest of us kept running. And climbing. And learning to use the toilets for all functions in the one minute they gave us. (Some of us started smoking as a rapid laxative. A little-known medicinal value rarely touted in cigarette ads.)

I was not great at the drilling, often turning the wrong directions. And I was not great at the tactics we were supposed to study at night after running all day. My book scores were a compendium of guesses, and barely passing at that. There was every reason they should drop me out of the program, except for two: (1) They wanted people to drop out as their own decision, that they could not take this kind of life any more. (2) After all my peddling and grunting and pulling on the handlebars getting 700 lbs of passengers up the hills at the World’s Fair, I scored number 2 in the whole physical testing in that class, behind some guy who they said might make the Olympics in the Decathlon. So, unlike anyone before or since, the Marines liked me for my body.

There is more to this Marine story, which I thought would end when the Vietnam war ended. Except it didn’t end, not quite soon enough for me, nor for several others exponentially more unlucky than I was.

Copyright 2018 David Hon – All rights reserved