The Woomera Australia Installation
In the early 1970’s, Brion (in charge of everything-nobody-else-knew-how-to-do) and I (Manager of Algorithm and Softwear (sic) Development) traveled to Woomera, South Australia to install a new release of the DSP (Defense Support Program) at the operational Air Force site.
The Colonel in charge of the site told us that the software was working to his satisfaction and that the new release better work or we could stick it somewhere and leave.
In those days, disk space was very expensive and the IBM 360/75 had only enough DASD to store one copy of the operational software! With the Colonel’s warning in mind, we scheduled some down time for the site, and I sent Brion off to do the usual backup / install process.
The system came up and ran, but a flurry of bugs soon appeared and Brion, Kevin (our genius at the site), and I ended up for the next week in meetings answering the question, “How long will it take to fix problem ‘n’?” with the answer “As soon as we can figure out what it is, we’ll tell you.” After a week of this ordeal, Brion and Kevin had fixed the bugs and the Colonel (everyone) was happy.
On the way home Brion and I were discussing the trip. I told him I’d almost given up a couple of times and asked him to restore the old system. I couldn’t have kept going without knowing there was a backup. “What backup?” said Brion. “You knew we had to go forward with the new release, so I never made one!”
Returning from one of our trips to Australia, Ed (shotgun), Brion and I (back seat) were riding in a taxi. In the 70’s Australia was very much against Asians and Ted Hirota (Japanese American) had a hard time getting a visa. (I don’t know if Brion had a similar problem. If so, he never mentioned it.)
Not long after leaving the curb, the driver turned to me and said, “How’s your China boy?” Not knowing if the guy was joking or not, I answered, “Fine.” Then Brion spoke up. “Massa Bob be very good to me. He take me everywhere he go and buy me good food and nice clothes.” The driver was silent for the remainder of the trip, while Ed and I had a hard time not soiling ourselves.
A Compliment - Brion Style
Long after leaving Aerojet and going to IBM Brion would join us for brunch at some deli Ed picked near the Marina. At one such brunch with Ed, and probably Kevin, Brion (now respected as an excellent manager) said he had learned an important management lesson from me. I’d never thought of myself as a good manager and I was feeling proud that I could have taught him anything about management.
I bit, “What?” He answered, “The time you tried to get me killed.” He explained when he’d receive another notice from the draft board that he was 1A (a good indicator that you were on your way to Vietnam), he wondered what had happened to his deferment for working on the DSP project. So, he came into my office and examined the top and bottom dates of the 3 or 4 inches of memos, letters, and hamburger wrappers in my in basket. Doing a rapid linear interpolation, he was able to find the required deferments form and ask me to sign it.
Feeling quite a bit less proud, I asked what lesson he had learned. He said that “You could ignore anything that came to your in basket. If it was important enough sooner or later somebody would come and point it out to you.”
Respect for Authority
Aerojet was a secure facility with armed guards and barbed wire fences. The guards were not known to have a sense of humor and to be very fond of their guns.
For reasons that I can’t remember, my car was on this occasion, parked inside the fence. This meant Brion and I had to go through security to get out to his car in the normal parking lot. It was well after midnight when we approached the gate. Peering from their booth into the car lit by spotlights, one of the guards used the squeak box and asked, “What do you want?” Thinking it was pretty obvious what we wanted was an opportunity for Brion. He said, “Two Jack colas and a large order of fries.” Without a word, the armed guards opened the gate and let us through.
One of the group leaders was in very good shape and so Larry Durham became “Bull Durham.” Egged on by his coworkers Bull demonstrated a set of perfect push ups. When he finished, Brion dropped to the floor and repeated the feat with one arm!
By the way, Larry was so loved and respected by his in-laws even after he and their daughter were divorced, they put him in charge of their school bus business. In the LA area you can still see school busses with Durham painted on their sides. The company operates in 32 states with 15,500 buses.
Cross Pens and Sharing
Brion was the only person I’ve ever known with Cross pens engraved with his name. They were either silver or gold, but in either case, they were expensive.
One of our coworkers, a meteorologist, was very bright but physically extremely slow. In the old days before everyone had their own terminal and could submit their own jobs, we’d have to fill out a form and drop the card deck off at the Job Submission Window to get our one turnaround a day.
Brion had just dropped off his submission (with newly card punched JCL – he never used JCL more than once!) when we encountered our slow friend. The meteorologist had come with his card deck and was looking for a pen to fill out the job submittal form. He turned to Brion and asked, “May … I … borrow… your …pen?” Brion thinking of the eternity we’d have to wait to get back his non-disposable Cross pen, yelled “No” and ran out of the room.
Our friend had the last laugh when we played ping pong in Woomera. He had grown up in some middle-eastern country where ping pong was a very serious sport. When we played against him, he very slowly served balls with so much spin we rarely returned them. If we did, he ended the volley shortly with an unreturnable return.
One of our aggravations at Aerojet was the Systems Engineering department. It started with their manager who was not really interested in our project because he earned his living by buying homes from desperate real estate loan holders at a discount price with a quick claim deed. He then showed up at the bank holding the loan and persuaded them to let him take over the payments rather than foreclose. He was finally brought down because he made his engineers leave their time cards blank so he could fill in the accounts he wanted charged, independent of what they were working on! (We saw a parallel to Al Capone being arrested for tax evasion.)
Brion’s best characterization of System Engineering was a modification of the progression of homo sapiens illustration:
Because many of the DSP calculations used trigonometric functions of small angles, the System Engineers came up with their own version of Sine and Cosine to supplement the IBM math library. Brion tested their contribution (apparently they hadn’t) and found it just terrible. It was so terrible in fact, he showed that a more accurate replacement would have been
We stuck with the IBM functions!