BITS and PIECES # 27

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April 27, 2013 by palamow

BITS and PIECES # 27

Hello again from Luquillo,

Like most ‘geezers’, my recollections of past events are often varnished with recurrent coats of nostalgia that threaten to lessen credibility with each re-telling. Oddly, I find that if I scoop a humorous incident from the depths of my ‘memory bucket’, I’m tempted to magnify the storyline and thus risk tampering with its ultimate faithfulness to detail. So, I typically do my best to rigorously ‘pare-away’ any such seductive amplifications with the same caution that I employ when checking style, grammar or searching for typing errors…

As I’ve stated before, closing-in on eight decades on this planet has freed me to write creative non-fiction pieces for no other good reason than that it pleases me to do so — however, when I’m satisfied that what I have written meets my rigorous personal standards, I’m willing to hazard sharing the results with the brave few who regularly return to read my stuff — a process that I hope works as well for you as it (generally) does for me…

To mollify any suppressed altruistic urges, I donate all royalties from my natural history titles (an entirely different and more exacting writing milieu) to the El Yunque National Forest, where I gained a keen and fervent appreciation for tropical flora and fauna over a 14 year apprenticeship as a volunteer trail guide, essayist and journalist…

So, there you have it — a brief ‘snapshot’ of what drives this septuagenarian scribbler to persist in scribbling…

If, by chance, the following tale tickles your memory, evoking an analogous event in your own life — my strategy has succeeded — I urge you to extract it from your memory bucket — before it sinks to the bottom again — write it down promptly, ere it fades away (and always remember to give your story the ‘truth test’ before sharing it with the world) — someday your children will surely thank you for preserving a piece of priceless family folklore…

A WASHING MACHINE

We had been married for just over two years as,1960 began — with ‘One on the ramp and one in the hangar’ to use aviator jargon popular at the time, my harried wife was coping valiantly with the pre-delivery twinges, rumbles and backaches that gave undeniable physical proof that our daughter Lisa’s birth was imminent. Meanwhile, our infant son Michael,  who had ‘popped-in’ the previous year, malodorously filled an endless torrent of soiled cloth diapers that required emptying, washing and folding (disposables were a rare and costly luxury fifty-some years ago)…

We were renting a small apartment, snuggled-in behind a barber shop and a hardware store on Barrington Street in west Los Angeles — a two-story affair — it featured a tiny bedroom and a poky bathroom above a living room/kitchen combo of equally cramped dimensions. Our furniture was a hodge-podge assortment typical of a fledgling couple with a small child, existing on a modest salary — an eclectic collection of hand-me-downs and do-it-yourself pieces. I can still recall devising a makeshift coffee table — screwing wobbly legs to the corners of an un-finished plywood door and fabricating book shelves out of hastily varnished boards supported by raw, cinder-block bricks I found discarded at a nearby building site…

Our ‘entertainment center’, which occupied the top shelf of the aforementioned bookcase comprised a scruffy, black & white portable TV, sheathed in a cracked, yellowed plastic case, a Heathkit combination FM radio receiver and ‘Hi-Fi’ amplifier (monaural, of course — stereo was only just happening, and as a result was prohibitively expensive), connected to a single speaker mounted in a heavy-duty cardboard box that I had re-cycled from the dumpster behind the hardware store…

Looking back, I sense that we were the Ralph and Alice Cramdens of West Los Angeles -, but we were far too busy and excited by life’s continuing surprises to notice…

Our gallant, but weary washing machine was an obsolescent Maytag front-loader — I spent many an evening and some Saturday afternoons, delving into my toolbox for the screwdrivers and socket wrenches required to dismantle its chipped enamel sides in order to reveal the source of yet another catastrophic mechanical event – burned-out drive motors, leaking seals, recalcitrant gears and timers were removed and replaced in a never ending Sisyphean process meant to prevent its eventual self-induced euthanasia. Despite my best efforts, the exhausted old appliance seldom made it through wash and rinse cycles, inevitably hiccupping noisily and springing another disastrous leak…

In 1958, while the ink was still drying on the parchment proclaiming that I had successfully endured the four years required to earn a bachelor degree in electrical engineering, I was a ‘greenhorn’, recently employed as a junior computer systems engineer at the System Development Corporation a few short miles distant in Santa Monica. I had been assigned to support the test-launching of a BOMARC-B Surface to Air (SAM) anti-aircraft missile to be unleashed against a drone target from Santa Rosa Island, off the coast of Florida. It was the first such launch to be fully controlled by the Air Force’s recently developed and deployed SAGE (Semi-Automatic Ground Environment) digital computer-based national air defense system, designed and perfected at RAND-SDD’s Santa Monica, California facility.

I had spent the first week of March in the operations center at Eglin Air Force Base south of the town of Valparaiso on Florida’s eastern panhandle, helping to ‘de-bug’ the system as we rapidly approached the first-ever SAGE/BOMARC launch.

On the ‘big day’, things were tense in operations as the clock counted down and launch time approached – attention was riveted on digital status and radar displays…

Unfortunately, our washing machine in Los Angeles picked that precise moment to breathe its last, spewing gallons of still-dirty soapy water onto the kitchen floor. The resulting laundry tsunami swiftly engulfed the living room, soiling the carpet and splashing our few pieces of furniture, before retreating back to the kitchen…

My wife contemplated the disaster with disbelief, and, bursting into tears of frustration, picked up the telephone and dialed the number I had left for her to use to contact me in case of extreme emergency – the switchboard at the operations center…

She quickly got through, gasping to the operator that she had a ‘grave emergency’ and needed desperately to speak to her husband – the sympathetic switchboard operator dutifully transferred the call – to the operation center’s PA system!

At that moment, the entire operations center staff, including Major General John B. Henry of the North American Air Defense command (NORAD) staff, who was monitoring the operation from a control room above the operations center, heard my wife’s teary voice declaim over the loudspeaker ‘Honey, the wash machine has broken-down again and this time it has dumped dirty water all through our apartment – what should I do? 

There was a ‘pregnant’ pause in the frenzied activity of the operations center, followed almost immediately by General Henry’s gruff baritone voice declaring ‘Mr. Mowbray, tell your wife to hang-up the telephone and go out and buy a new washing machine – and then, can we please all get back to the business of launching this damned missile?’

I did, she did, and we did…

A year or so later, when I had been re-assigned, and had moved my growing family to Hawaii in support of yet another vital Air Force project, Eileen and I were invited to attend a function at the Hickam Air Force Base officers club – a ‘Hail and Farewell’ ceremony honoring both the departing Pacific Air Forces Chief of Staff/Operations while welcoming-in his replacement, none other than the aforementioned General John B. Henry…

When Eileen and I reached the head of the reception line to greet General Henry and his wife, I introduced her to them both – General Henry looked momentarily perplexed, and then smiled wryly – ‘Oh yes, of course, you’re the lady with that wash machine — How’s your laundry coming along nowadays?”

“Fine thank you, General”, she replied softly, turning scarlet with embarrassment – Mrs. Henry saved the day by elbowing her husband gently in the ribs, while smilingly putting her arm around Eileen’s shoulder, and saying “Don’t mind John, dear, he has an odd sense of humor sometimes”…

Providentially, although we moved frequently to different assignments over the ensuing years, our new washing machine behaved itself perfectly, never inundating another carpet, or threatening the delay of a missile launch…

© 2013 – Alan Mowbray, Jr.

   

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