In 1971 life was diverging onto two paths: excitement and success on a professional level and confusion and despair on a personal level.
Grumman was an exciting place at which to work. It was in the thick of developing Navy aviation and NASA space exploration projects. There was more computing work than the MIS departments could handle and they were willing to invest in new data processing technologies that could speed up development times.
At home, my wife Annie and I were flailing at a disintegrating marriage. This was especially disheartening to us both because little Chris was caught in the middle.
We were both our late 20s and relatively well educated adults, but it seemed that we were clueless as to what was causing the problems and how to solve them.
I was driving the 1964 VW Beetle to work and Annie had the 1967 OHC-6 Tempest. My route to work took me onto a relatively new road called the Seaford-Oyster Bay expressway, NY State Route 135. Its speed limit was 65 mph. That was a tad more than I could get out of my seven year old 40 horsepower Beetle. But even more worrisome was the way the bug reacted to crosswinds and wet road conditions on that stretch of my commute; scary was the word that came to mind.
But that ended when a not very friendly co-worker slammed a copy of Newsday onto my desk as I was head down trying to decode a hexadecimal dump and said “I’ll bet this guy was saving a lot of gas just before he died”.
Newsday was the most popular newspaper on Long Island and I delivered it as a kid on my big heavy one speed coaster braked bike back in the mid 1950’s. This particular edition had a gruesome traffic accident on its cover. A VW Beetle had collided head on with a standard American car. The VW driver was dead; the bug itself was a tangle of twisted metal to the rear of the doors. The driver of the larger car was not seriously injured and that vehicle looked like it could be repaired and put back on the road.
I looked at the cover a long time.
What an awful mess.
Our home had a single garage at the end of a one lane driveway and I was usually the first-out in the morning and the last-in at night, so when Annie, Chris, and I went out anywhere we usually took the bug. Chris loved to ride in the cubby spot behind the rear seat and just over the transmission.
What a bloody mess.
If Annie or Chris died or were hurt as a result of riding in the VW, well that thought made me ill. It would be my fault, even if I were gone too. I needed to make sure that would not happen. After all, I was a father and a husband; that job had responsibilities that went above being a provider, mowing the lawn, and fixing up the house.
What to do.
Grumman had assigned two staff members to be on my new Mark IV development team. Chuck, an old time Grumman employee and Cobol guru who like new challenges had seen the Grumman Data System notice looking for Mark IV trainees. Chuck drove a yellow 1960 Chrysler 4 door that we called the yellow bird. Chuck was a good man to have on your side and his huge old yellow Chrysler would play a role in a future COAL story.
The second guy on the team was a new MBA graduate who looked like he had not yet started to shave named Steve. Steve read IEEE proceedings for fun. He was a true geek. I may have looked like a geek, but Steve had the smarts to be a real geek.
Steve liked to sit sideways at his desk and nurse a constant chain of cigarettes as he read and thought and read some more. On the wall behind him he had taped his favorite quote. It was a picture of a big bruiser football player. The quote beneath the picture read “If I was smart I would have been a doctor, but I’m not, so I hit people”.
Steve and I were to get long just fine. Indeed, a few years later, Steve, two other individuals, and I would form our own software service company. That is also in a future COAL.
Steve had just bought a 1971 Plymouth Valiant slant six with automatic. “Consumer Reports recommended it.” he told me. He gave me a copy of that issue. CR also said the Plymouth Duster was similar to the Valiant and while the Duster had not been tested, it would most likely get the same high marks.
I like the six cylinder 225 cu. in. Duster better than the four cylinder 140 cu. in. Vega.
Also, the Vega had an aluminum block. Didn’t GM have reliability issues with aluminum blocks and heads in their 215 cu. in. V8s back in 1961-63-ish?
Besides, there was a Chrysler-Plymouth dealer just a short ride from Grumman.
And, a not unimportant consideration, Annie said she liked the Duster.
I went to the Bethpage Federal Credit Union which was in a trailer along side Grumman’s main 6,700 foot runway and took out a loan, went to the local Plymouth Chrysler dealer and ordered a base level 1971 Duster with three on the floor, the big 225 cu. in. six, and full wheel covers. And a radio. No stripper for me.
Now I had four outstanding loans: my college loan, the first mortgage we took over on the house, the second loan on the house, and now this. It made me uncomfortable, but the thought of that smashed VW on the front page of Newsday made me even more uncomfortable.
At one point in a bit of a temper, Annie destroyed all of the photos I had from my youth up to the then current time and threw the pieces into the shower where I was at that time. One photo of the Duster (above) was still in my camera and that turned out to be the earliest picture of my COALs that survived.
I took this picture because Chris’ cat was sitting on top of the left front tire. But when it was developed we didn’t see the cat.
I liked the sleek wheel covers.
The Duster had a nice shape, a green and yellow plaid interior, and a solid feeling floor shifter (no synchromesh in first). Despite having just a six cylinder engine, Annie could lay a single strip of rubber with it and I do not think she had the gas pedal all the way down.
I tried it myself when no one was looking. Yup, not even floored; that was one strong engine from a stop. Or too little weight at the rear, or a numerically high rear axle. Or all of the above.
Going from a four speed floor shift to a three speed floor shift has one important caveat. Do mindful shifting. Because where the VW’s first gear was, the Duster’s reverse is. This is very important at a stoplight with traffic behind you. Mindful shifting; I made a point to keep that in mind.
The 225 slant 6 block, which came out in late 1959 to replace the last of Chrysler’s flat head sixes in the lower tier models, was slanted (no surprise) 30 degrees to the right (passenger side) and was relatively powerful for its size. It fit under the hood of the smaller Chrysler models, gave them a lower center of gravity, and had unusually long and efficient manifolds, which curved out to and from each of the six cylinders in graceful large radii intake and exhaust tubes.
These intake and exhaust tubes were almost equal in length and this helped inhale the fuel and air mixture and exhale the exhaust gases somewhat equitably between the six cylinders.
If that wasn’t good enough, these engine had a reputation for being sturdy and reliable.
As you can see, it was easy to reach the plugs, points, and oil filter. The above view also shows the graceful curves of the intake manifold.
The Duster’s 225 slant six developed 145 horsepower at 4,000 rpm and 215 lb.-ft. of torque at 2,400 rpm. Max torque at 2,400 rpm, no wonder it felt so quick.
The smaller 198 slant six was no slouch either. It developed 125 horsepower at 4,400 rpm and 180 lb.-ft of torque at just 2,000 rpm.
This engine certainly got around, Dusters, trucks, and muscle (looking) cars; and many other applications.
My drives to and from Grumman on NYS Route 135 became less worrisome and more secure. Except for those darn pasty faced VW Beetle drivers blocking traffic at 5 to 10 below the posted speed limit.
Back at work, Chuck, Steve and I started implementing some of the smaller engineering tracking projects in Mark IV. This impressed our boss Pete so much he started bragging to his boss Greg that his three man Mark IV team could out code those Cobol Neanderthals in one third of the time and get it right the first time.
So when Pete and Greg walked over to our area of the steel desk bullpen we put down our pencils and looked up. Greg said that he understood we could beat any Cobol estimate by 60% or more. Chuck and I stared silently at him; Steve said “absolutely – maybe even better than that”.
“Good” said Greg, “because Pete and I just came back from a meeting with Chet in Property Management and we have an agreement”. Chet was Mr. Grumman inventory, the most cantankerous and hard to please customer possible. All the Cobol guys were hoping Chet would retire soon because his inventory was the holy grail of yet-to-be-automated applications at Grumman. However, Chet was refusing to fund a Cobol estimate to get his inventory off of unit record equipment (basically a semi-manual card based system) because he deemed the Cobol estimates to be too high and their schedule too long.
Chet may have been a crusty curmudgeon, but he was right.
Greg and Pete had talked Chet into letting us automate a small part of his inventory (office equipment) and if it went well, he’d fund automation of the entire corporate inventory. Greg would fund this trial effort. Chet would only have to pay for it if he liked it.
“Piece of cake “ Steve said. “Let’s get started.”
Hey I thought, I’m the team leader; I need to be the one to speak.
“Piece of cake” I said. “We got to finish up the E2C Hawkeye documentation but…”
“Tomorrow, you start tomorrow” Greg said, and walked away.
Pete looked as proud as a new father. He knew we were miracle workers. Indeed, two weeks earlier he had broken down in his barely running 1964 Mustang 170 cu. in. six on the Long Island Expressway and had a passing Grumman employee tell us where he was. Chuck, Steve, and I grabbed some tools and rode to the rescue. Pete’s carburetor float had sunk and we performed open carb surgery right there on the center median of the LIE, using chewing gum (Steve chewed the gum) to make a temporary repair of the leaking float, and got Pete and his car back to the Bethpage office in a matter of minutes.
We told him he had to get a new float and gasket kit and that we’d install it if he wanted. I’m not sure if he ever got that new float; I know he never asked us to install it. Not sure how chewing gum reacts with gasoline.
We had spent the rest of the day smelling of gasoline and feeling really proud of ourselves.
Because Chet’s trial inventory already existed on 80 character punch cards, we knew these cards could be used as input transactions to build the initial database. Coding the application went very quickly and Chet was very detailed and competent in how he wanted to manage the database. This was quite easy in Mark IV. In less than two weeks we had it up and running in test mode.
One Friday morning as we were looking at the test runs, Steve and Chuck and I admitted that as a training exercise, we now knew so much more about how to code Mark IV that we almost wished we could redo the whole thing from scratch. It would be much cleaner code, easier to maintain, and run a bit faster.
Silence. Steve sat in his chair turned 45 degrees to the left, leaned against the partition, and smoked his cigarette; Chuck rubbed his chin; I cleaned my glasses.
We all agreed. Tomorrow is Saturday; we can probably do all of the coding by Saturday night. We can then run tests by sitting in Plant 30 (where the computers were) and test the code with great turn-around. We might only need a day or two next week to polish it up.
We were done testing by Sunday early afternoon. It was beautiful code, like a work of art, just beautiful.
Later the following week Chet gave us the actual unit record inventory cards for the trial run. We had reserved Plant 30 computer time for an immediate run and the system generated about three or four inches of green line 14 × 11 inches 132 column pages. You know, that old computer paper with the printer tractor holes on each side.
There were subtotals throughout the document, and a final page with a summary of all the subtotals and a final total.
“What’s the final number?” Chet asked.
We read it off..
Chet reached into the chest pocket of his short sleeve white shirt and removed a well worn piece of paper, looked at it, then us, then smiled, and said “close enough for government work”.
We were dead on. Our four inch thick report grand total matched Chet’s scrap of paper. None of us were surprised; we had used Chet’s own punch cards to load the database, so as long as his number on that scrap of paper was accurate, we would match it.
We were then charged with automating Grumman’s entire inventory, project by project, Bethpage and Calverton, government and non-government. Everything was put into the new Grumman Mark IV Property Management System. It was called The Grumman PMS.
This was the early 1970s. I do not think the acronym PMS was yet in the common vernacular as is it now.
We won the battle.
But we lost the war.
Management of the Cobol Cabal complained to the corporate suits that the upstart Mark IV group in Engineering DP threatened the investment Grumman had made in building its huge cadre of Cobol experts. They referred to my team as a bunch of “Eggbeaters”; we were stirring things up for our own benefit.
We got Chet’s full inventory system up and running, but we would be on a short leash from that point on. The Cobol cabal had pulled their corporate strings and they had won.
Oh yes, Consumer’s Reports rave review of the Valiant/Duster. I almost forgot.
One rainy day I was driving to work in the Duster and went through a not very deep puddle. The result was no brakes at all. Not like my 57 Oldsmobile where the pedal sank to the floor. The Duster had good pedal, just had no brakes. Like someone had sprayed all of the drums and shoes with WD40.
A few weeks later CR retracted their Valiant recommendation unless the car had the optional front disk “super-stopper” brakes (see above options list). It appears CR discovered – a tad late for me – that the Valiant/Duster front drum brakes tended to be ineffective when wet. With drum brakes, my car was “Not Recommended”.
No s**t Sherlock, what was your first clue? You only run car tests on dry roads and sunny days?
Steve’s Valiant had the front disks option. He was OK.
Back on the home front, Annie had a temper and when it exploded things were thrown, dishes and jewelry boxes broken, and fears aroused.
Many of the arguments were about money. Annie wanted to travel, take vacations, get new carpeting, buy a color TV. I was waiting for the color TVs to be perfected; besides what’s wrong with B&W TV?
One Sunday night in the summer of 1972, after a difficult day at home and an argument about – what – I do not even recall, I was sitting in the den we had just paneled with my trusty Samsonite briefcase open on my lap going over some Grumman work. Annie came into the room holding a pot of boiling rice and, without saying a word, threw the pot and the rice and the boiling water onto me.
I didn’t feel the boiling water right then. I was in shock. This was crazy. Some of it hit me in the chest, some went into the briefcase, and some splashed on my face, and some went onto the couch.
I couldn’t stop shaking. Chris was upstairs and may not have even heard the commotion.
For a while I just sat there. Shaking. I was not accustomed to physical violence.
I got my car keys, went to the Duster that was in its last-in first-out position, and after trying more than once to get the key into the steering column ignition, got the car started and lurched out of the driveway and then lurched forward. My legs were shaking so much on the clutch I was surprised I got it going.
In my mind I knew she would never hurt Chris, but she just might hurt me. Better to leave, and let the heat of the anger dissipate.
I drove to my sister Pat’s home a few miles away. Pat had a daughter one year older than Chris and a son one year younger. The three of them were always together, especially when Annie was at school and I was at Grumman. Maybe I’d stay there a bit, wait it out, and then go home.
I pulled into Pat’s driveway. He 1967 Buick sport wagon was gone; her husband’s 69 Cadillac was in the garage, but no one was home. I did not have a key to their house.
As I pondered what to do next, I saw to my right the Tempest come around the corner. Annie drove past the driveway, from my right to my left, and I walked away from the back of the Duster to try to say something to diffuse the moment. Annie then turned the wheel hard left and gunned the engine. The Tempest swung left, jumped the curb, and headed straight for me. I pack pedaled as fast as I could, no time to turn around, and bumped into the back of the Duster’s trunk just a bit right of center.
The Tempest hit the Duster’s right rear corner with the right portion its front grill. I was maybe 9 or 10 inches from the point of impact. It was loud; I could “feel” vibrations from both cars and engine heat coming from the Pontiac. Both cars rose up a bit at impact, the Pontiac more so as the Duster was solidly in gear and had the parking brake on. The Tempest fell away and rolled backwards, the engine had stalled. Chris, who was un-belted in the back seat was thrown into the front seat. I heard Annie cranking the engine for a restart.
I ran to the open window of the Tempest. The ignition key of the Tempest was on the dashboard just to the right of the steering column. I reached way in and took the key out.
What a damn mess.