Autobiography of a Worker
Growing up, I did not acquire a good work ethic. What I did well at I did more of, but I never learned to work through a problem to gain a skill. I quit practicing the piano as soon as my younger brother eclipsed me. We competed by being successful at different activities in school. I did not work for money until I was legally of age. At my first summer job (in a hospital laboratory), I was more of a pain than a help. I liked sterilizing labware – which is to say that my best skill was washing dishes. Then, I read Atlas Shrugged. Twice.
Atlas Shrugged is too easily mischaracterized as a glorification of the rich. It is truly an anthem to all workers. Growing up in Cleveland, I knew the Rearden Steel mills (Republic and Jones & Laughlin), the Taggart Terminal (the Terminal Tower), and Patrick Henry University (Western Reserve University).
After two years at the College of Charleston (1967-1969), I came home to work at the Are-Jay Game Company making wooden games and puzzles. I ran drill presses and sanders. Mostly, I sprayed lacquer. I also learned to box shipments and fill out a UPS book and bills of lading. Between stints at Are-Jay, I worked for an employment agency. There, I attended a sales training series and practiced Approach-Benefit-Close making 60 phone calls a day.
After we got married, Coletta and I moved to Lansing. I worked a lot of spot labor jobs, mostly through Manpower. (Fifteen years later, I interviewed the franchise owner for a four-part series on “Quality” published by the Greater Lansing Business Monthly.) Finally, after about a year of that, Coletta said, “Mick, you need a real job.” So, I got on the phone, and a few pitches later I had an interview at Montgomery Ward. I worked there for two years as a stock boy, unloading trucks and distributing goods to the floor.
About a year into that, passing through Lansing Community College to see else I could learn, I picked up a brochure for a certificate in transportation and traffic management. It was a two-year course in government regulations of common carriers. It was painful. But I finished. And I went to work as a dispatcher for a regional truck line. That was 1976.
Toward the end of the course sequence, one of my classmates from General Motors said, “You know, Mike, these computers are going to be everywhere some day and you should find out how they work so the people from data processing can’t hand you a bunch of baloney.” So, I did. I had a semester of Business Programming in Fortran IV and got a C+, having no idea what I was supposed to have learned for the grade. But it was compelling. While working for the trucking company during the day, at night I learned to hack free time at the LCC and MSU computer labs. I took Fortran again (for an A); and then learned Basic in the LCC arts and science division. The class was experimental and resisted by the data processing curriculum of the business division. I met my present wife because we had the same instructor for physics and Basic, Claude Watson. (Man and the Computer by John G. Kemeny reviewed on NecessaryFacts here.)
Laurel and I moved to Las Cruces, New Mexico. I worked as mover’s helper for Bekins Van Lines until I got hired by the NMSU’s Physical Science Laboratory and was assigned to White Sands Missile Range as a computer programmer in Basic on Hewlett Packard desktop micros. Eighteen months later, we moved back to Lansing. Our daughter was born (1979).