I have learned there is poetry to a man's life.
Encouraged by teachers and successes, impeded by elements and enemies, we move from moment to moment, tracing a curve that defines us, leaving a wake across our world. History is an inescapable feature of existence. It lengthens proportionally with time, so that by death there trails a ripple behind each of us with a shadow many times the size of a man.
In my own life, I have been fortunate to have experienced men who have brought to me the music of the spheres. The poetry of physical principle. The rhythm of mathematics. The delicate dance of boot on iron, the statics of load, the swan's grace of long arcing bridges, girders balanced on slender steel cable and welded into place in blueprinted mid-air to make ten lanes of highway crossing ancient rivers. The meter of a dab of blue on a red barn, aqua paint in a yellow cornfield on canvas, because the cloudless sky touches everything. The solitude of a writer on a rock, feeling the life of earth pulse through the ancient sunlit warmth. The red spot in a miniscule image of night time Jupiter. A horse's clouded breath billowing into the sharp Central Park air on a Christmas midnight.
I have been fortunate--indeed blessed to have met men who brought me into the halo of the grace they built from their lives. These things were not done haphazardly, but with the penurious philanthropy with which all men share what is hard learned. Before those blessed moments of epiphany, I wallowed in the ignorance and hyperbole.
Because I had learned, indeed witnessed, that there was no art in my chosen profession. Electronics was inhabited by a sub-human race of men with no necks, who walked across the world as if on ice, who buried themselves under layers of shirts and buttons, wore red and gray plaid clip on bowties, slick, pen-bearing plastic protectors sporting the names of industrial suppliers, myopic eyeballs framed in black phenolic plastic held together by gaffer's tape, beady pupils peering through hardly transparent lenses, flabby limbs hanging as if extruded from bodies whose last measure of physical activity was lifting a burger or a beer.
When I graduated, I thought I was one of them.
September, 1980. My first day of work at Radio Corporation of America. RCA Founded by Gugliermo Marconi and General David Sarnoff. Satellites. Television. Radio. The world of electronics. The world that captures the near-life, the almost-life that sparks and dazzles like waves of thought across the synapses of space, the genie that arcs and glows plasmified blue above thousand watt amplifiers, the fee' azure, the spirit the Japanese call genke, inseparable from the brightness of human life, illumination in the darkness of man, illumination for the mind, the force harnessed by Tesla and launched across the planet, power from nothing, death rays and lasers, ideas vibrating invisibly at the speed of light, the oscillations of the earth, geek as Frankenstein animating the inanimatable with the breath of the storm, man as God.
I am become Zeus. Electrical engineer. Owner of the lightning.
I remember the sign on Gordon's office door.
"It used to be I cudn't spell injuneer, and now I are one."
Gordon wore a knee length lab coat and glasses that had seen the light of the first television. He was six foot eleven, a basketball center of a geek with hands so big he couldn't use a pencil that had been sharpened more than once. He kept his windowless office dark, a cyclops cave. Brilliantly cleaned surfaces glistened in the artificial twilight. The room was filled with devices and tomes, each aligned along parallel or perpendicular angles so that even a tired missionary from the wilds of the Amazon would recognize that everything had a place. Track mounted spotlights illuminated his work area with well-directed beams of yellow-white light like the glow of captured stars so that tamed, light itself existed exactly where he'd put it.
Like the man, the furniture in his office was gargantuan, hand picked, custom built to accept his titanic frame.
He worked standing up. And so when he called me to his drawing table, I felt like a child standing beside my father at kindergarten graduation.
"This is the SCMOS one-thousand series cell ten," he said. He unrolled a sheet of mylar that covered the table, and a pattern of colored polygons and lines exploded in the track-cast starlight. "Watch your tie. This ink smears."
In those days we were governed by codes of dress. I spent my work day with a tie strung loosely about my neck. The uniform of the technowizards.
I tucked my tie between two shirt buttons as Gordon explained the analog power supply that would bring life to this circuit. The current mirrors and overload protection. The electron crowding effects. Sheet-rho and high-gain amps. Saturated field effect devices that tripped according to the logic tables the guys devised from the back room.
I understood every word he said--one by one. Six years of college had indoctrinated me to the terminology. But I didn't have a goddamned idea what he was talking about. I felt like the surface of the earth had suddenly liquified and I was in danger of plummeting to the earth's core to be immolated in molten iron.
He stopped talking when I stopped asking questions. Peered through glasses so scratched they looked like frosted shower doors, pursed his lips, made a slight growling sound, and then turned away. He walked into the darkness, into a corner and pulled a book off a shelf. When he came back I craned my neck to read the title on the binding, but he quickly flipped it open to a dog-eared page and pointed.
"You remember this from school," he said, demanding instead of asking.
I said the only feasible thing. "Yes." It was a lie. I had never seen the graph on the page he pointed to.
He chewed the inside of his mouth. Sniffed. Furrowed his brow until it seemed there was a caterpillar across the carapace of his forehead. I was not passing whatever test he was devising.
"They don't teach you anymore in school, do they?" he said, abruptly. There wasn't a vicious note to his voice, but any word from him would become my gospel. I was being condenmed to the city of lost souls. I was being turned to salt. I wanted to melt and dribble through the cracks in the linoleum floor.
He quickly corrected himself, "I didn't mean that the way it sounded. I'm sure you went to a fine school. What I'm saying is, they teach you to make money these days. They don't teach you guys to think."
He tore a piece of graph paper from a notebook in the darkness. He brought it into the light and pulled a pen out of his lab coat pocket. Flicked it with his thumb, exposing the point. "We can fix this," he said, drawing two lines and an arc, "But it will take time."
"That's a transistor saturation curve," I said, quickly as I could, eager to be right at something.
He smirked, then sighed. "That's what you'd think. I want you to take this up to Rudy." He looked away, closed and put aside the book, brushed off the mylar and set to making marks on the drawings.
"What should I ask him for?" I said, clueless.
He ignored that question. He did not ignore my asking where Rudy was.
"If you were the man who invented phased array radar, where would you sit? Now get outta here. Some of us are busy." He flicked the back of his hand toward me as if I was an insect. I left in disgrace.
As I walked toward the lobby to ask the guard where I might find this guy "Rudy" I passed pictures of the company's accomplishments. Men were handed Emmy awards. Lyndon Johnson shook the hand of a lab director who held some sort of plaque. Philo T. Farnsworth's machine changed the rasterized world from black and white to color. Satellites linked continents, man set foot on the moon.
And I wasn't part of it. Years of schooling and I trudged down the halls built by those people, incapable of comprehending even the most simple of their gadgetry. And would I ever?
Rudolf Ivanoff and Alan Medwick had shared a lab in the "old" building for nearly thirty years, the "old" building so named because it had been built in the 20's and been changed little since. It smelled of phenol, mildew, and ammonia. The color scheme was dull gray and green, and light shone from behind frosted glass windows upon which was painted in gold and black lettering the names of the occupants.
I knocked before I went in and the men looked toward me from amid a nest of wires and devices like characters from a World War II movie who'd forgotten to set their clocks to the 80's. They were perfect complements to each other. Rudy was a fat, spherical human being and Al was tall and gaunt. They both wore the requisite white shirt and dark slacks, but Al's had a bow tie around his neck, while a straight tie hung below a single windsor on Rudy's. Hair had long since ceased to be an option for either of them. Their scalps reflected the overhead fluroescents like bubbles on the surface of bath water.
I handed Rudy the graph Gordon had given me, explained the situation of my ineptitude, and stared at the myriad of oscilloscopes and function generators, none of which appeared to be connected to anything, all of which appeared to be on. Bright green spots crossed circular screens over and over, tracing linear time-based nothingness. When I looked back toward them, I realized they were both staring at me.
"You're Gordon's new charge. We heard about you. Top of your class, we heard."
"Third, actually," I corrected them. No sense setting their expectations too high.
They looked at each other and smiled as if speaking telepathically. They did it after every sentence I uttered.
"Mister number three, they call you, then?" Al said.
Rudy spoke before I could say a word. "Better than being called Mr. Number Two."
Al said, "Oh God, yes. Being called a number two would be bad in our day. Does it mean the same thing now?"
"I think so," I said.
After staring at each other for a second, Rudy said, "So does it mean 'shit' or not? Do you know or not?"
I stumbled over my words. "Yes. Sure. It means 'shit'."
"See how things never change?" Al said. "Some things, they're just always the same. Number one is piss. Number two is shit. Just about any language. Now number three--what the hell could that be?"
"Puke maybe." Rudy answered. "Vomit. Or maybe sweat."
"Sweat. Good. Yes. Here's Mr. Sweat. Ok Sweat. Sweat this one out."
He tore a piece of graph paper from his notebook and laid it on his desk next to the curve Gordon had drawn. Then he drew a circuit schematic diagram.
"What's this do? You know?" he asked.
At that point, I was so afraid of being wrong again, I didn't want to speak. But I couldn't stop myself. "Looks like some kind of mixer."
"We got ourselves a fucking genius here, Al," Rudy said.
"Regular Feynmann," Al said. He drew some more circuitry and turned it toward me. "And if I was to add that, what would you say it did?"
I answered by reflex, "Some sort of radio?"
"Some sort," Al said. "Regular Einstein. Which sort, Albert?"
Rudy started tapping the table. I couldn't think. "I don't know. I've never seen it before," I said.
The smirked at each other. I was embarrassed and angry. I ran through quitting in my mind. I'd chuck my badge on the table and walk out. It would be simple. "Never seen it before," Al said, without hiding his disgust.
Rudy said, "We tortured him enough." He picked up the paper, came around to my side of Al's desk, and put his arm around my shoulders. He led me to a wall of shelves and equipment boxes. Pulled out a white electronics breadboard, and handed it to me. "Ok, kiddo. Today you build that circuit for us. You can sit at that bench over there. You need any parts you don't see here, you call us. You're free to use anything in the lab."
I really wanted to leave. I weighed my options. Surely, I wouldn't be the first guy who quit in the morning of his first day. Or would I?
"There's some problem?" Rudy said. And I told him there wasn't. I took the drawing, gathered the parts from the drawer, and set to building the circuit.
I wasn't sure how long I was there. What took Al seconds to draw, was taking me hours to build. Every now and then one of them would come over, sniff at the air, picking up the fumes from an op amp I'd just fried or a capacitor from which a stream of electrolyte had pooled into the breadboard. They'd reach over and yank a part from the board as I was going to apply power. Moved a wire I was certain belonged in one place to another. Tweaked the knobs on the oscilloscope to bring into focus a pattern I'd no idea how to image.
Finally, the curve on Gordon's page appeared on my scope and hovered in phosporescent green like the archangel come to cast me out of paradise.
"Now, what are we seeing?" Rudy asked, and I jumped because I hadn't realized he was behind me.
I explained what I thought. "Sure," he said, "That's one explanation. But what if I do this--" and he yanked a part from the breadboard I'd just explained was integral to the process, and the curve didn't budge. "Or this--" and he pulled out another. "Or this--" and finally there was only one component left on the breadboard and the spot on the oscilloscope traced Gordon's curve in brilliant green. It was as if it wanted to exist no matter what I did. I was not its creator. I could only observe it.
"Why does that happen?"
"You tell me. You graduated third," Rudy said. "Me--don't ask where I graduated."
I concocted story after electrical story, but Rudy smirked at each one and came up with rebuttals. I simply could not be right.
"If I was to tell you to put your tongue on that wire, what would you say?" Rudy said.
"I dunno--" I answered, confused. And he told me to do it. I tasted the sour, then felt the zap through my jaw.
"Dummy," he said. "There's nearly a hundred volts on that. How about this one?"
"No way," I said, now smarter, though when Rudy popped the copper end under his tongue and smiled, I realized I was not made of the same DNA that constructed these men. They controlled the lightning that traveled these wires. They conducted it as if it was their orchestra. They'd grown up with it. It belonged to them the way a child belongs to a parent.
"So, what's going on here?" Rudy asked.
"Maybe it's something in the way the part is made?" I tried not to sound inept. It wasn't working.
"Hand of God, more like it," Rudy said. "Fundamental force of nature. I'm gonna get some coffee. I come back, you'll have the answer."
I stared at the part in the breadboard.
I heard him say from the doorway, "By the way, those chairs, they spin," and then I went back to looking at the wires that lay inert, plucked out of their slots. The scope tracing a curve that explained the way something was working, but what? Could that one little part be causing the effect? I sat back in the tall lab chair and spun around once. Wiped my face with a sweaty palm. What would I tell Rudy? Obviously, I had no idea what was going on.
I spun again. Got off the chair and paced. Stared at the rows of drawers. Got back on and spun like a grade school kid at a Jersey diner.
Racks of wires and measurement devices surround me. Meters. Remembered when I was a kid, building the shortwave radio kit my parent's had got me for my birthday. Taking apart the dead television my father was going to take out to scrap. I loved knowing how things worked. Seeing the guts of nearly living electronic things. Taking my first volt ohm meter and touching the probes to everything I could. My uncle showing me my first crystal radio. Touching a needle to a piece of iron pyrite and hearing the BBC from across the ocean like magic.
And then I knew what it was. Just like that. The curves from the scope matched the curves in my mind. I could feel the electricity jumping from place to place like the lightning of thought. It's not a transistor curve. It's magic. It hovered in front of me like Tinkerbell in the world of disney. The bastards. Where was the source?
Behind Al's desk, a function generator swept out the same curve. Attached to a coil and a capacitor, a strip of wire. They built a transmitter. Somehow, while they were talking to me, like magicians, they constructed a transmitter without me knowing. I was picking up the signal on a faulty component that was acting like a diode and turned the whole circuit into a tiny crystal radio.
Goddamn it. Why hadn't I seen it?
I don't even know when Rudy and Al came back into the room. They'd seen me pacing back and forth, tweaking the generator behind the desk. I was going to try to get it to trace something clever so that when they came back, I could show them a different curve on the screen and claim it had just happened. Hand of God.
They knew I'd figured it out and pretended it never happened. Al switched off the function generator and Rudy crumpled the papers on his desk and threw them away.
He said, "I was sitting right where you just were--"
"Nineteen sixty, I think," Al said. "Only seen the man cry twice. Once when he discovered that flaw in the eight-six twenty four. It's what stopped us from getting the NASA contract for the command module comms system. Goddamn Grumman. Of course, the other time was when he watched Neil Armstrong touch down on the moon."
"Always wanted to go to the moon," Rudy said, staring at the ceiling. "How about you?"
"Always," I said.
"Good. Maybe you'll amount to something. Now clean up your mess," he said, and motioned me toward the bench. "And then get the hell out of here. Doesn't Gordon have some work for you, or does he expect us to entertain you all day?"
I cleaned up, but I didn't want to leave. Over the years I spent at RCA, I learned that no engineer ever wanted to leave the lab. It was heaven for inspiration. The giant erector set of our electronic dreams. They fashioned electric creatures out of wire and plastic parts wielding little more than bamboo slide rules and gray matter, their hands moving over the buzzing landscape like gods of the electric era. They lived among the giant transformers and capacitors. Vacuum tubes that glowed orange and blue. They turned imagination into reality and I looked for any excuse I could find to go up to them. They helped me fix my broken televisions. Design radio antennas for my ham gear. Decide which speakers were the best for my home stereo.
Time went by. RCA relaxed the dress code, but the old timers wore the same clothes every day, still flowing in the inertia of the 40's and 50's. When the rest of us got computer terminals for our desks, they declined the installation because they needed the space for their measurement equipment, and besides, they'd never needed more than a sliderule to calculate anything meaningful. I thought they were being obstinant when they declined to work on the new generation of microprocessor we were designing so they could keep working on the now archaic power distribution systems they'd designed twenty years prior.
Occasionally on a Friday afternoon you could hear bits of Benny Goodman's orchestra leaking from under the gray green doorway to their lab.
One day the shareholders sold RCA to General Electric. A year later, the electronics division that employed us was dismantled and all of us were laid off.
I went to work for Intel to help them build the 486. As hard as I looked, there wasn't a lightning man among us.
I don't know what happened to the guys who invented electronics. While I was busy designing microscopic things you couldn't taste, they disappeared.
It's a different world now.
The chairs still spin, though.