I hired in at GE Nuclear in San Jose, California on the first workday after the Fourth of July, 1966. I was making $800 a month, and how on earth could I spend that much money that fast?
I was so excited.
I was about to host my very first party. I had bought my first television - a black and white, 17" General Electric set, on a rollaround stand. I had also bought my dream - a new Martin D18 guitar.
And now I was living in my very first apartment, after starting work for GE. I lived in western East Palo Alto, California, and worked about a thirty-minute drive south, in San Jose. I car-pooled with several others, including Bill Petrick, whom I had met and become great friends with, while at Stanford. Bill now lived at "The Californian" - a famous party apartment complex in Mountain View, on California Street. It was a little south of Palo Alto, and a little closer to San Jose. Later, I moved there too, so I wouldn't miss anything.
Bill and his roommate, Sid Everett met lots of girls - secretaries, stewardesses and teachers. We had a penny poker party about every Friday night. Or was it Saturday? Anyway, that's what we'd do on those two nights - play poker one night and have a party the other night. The stewardesses who were in town would play, as would the teachers - a group of girls who had come out together from Boston. I dated one of the stewardesses, Joanne Hudson, for a couple of years or so - off and on, but that was two years later, after I moved to the Californian.
My new Palo Alto apartment was a one bedroom, two-story unit with a sliding-glass front door. When you walked out the door, you passed through a tiny patio area, then you were at poolside. You had to walk around the pool to get to the carport areas, where I parked my '63 VW bug, with the ragtop sunroof. It was also here that I met my future roommate, Jim St. Laurent. He worked for a research branch of Allstate Insurance, in Menlo Park. That was just one city north of Palo Alto. Jim and I soon became roommates, but I'm getting a little ahead of the story.
I invited Jim, Bill, Sid, and everybody we knew from the Californian, plus some other kids. By that time Jim's girlfriend, Joanie, had moved out from Chicago, where they had dated just before he moved to California. I invited her too, of course. And her too roommates - Judy and Gail.
At a birthday party for me, Judy and Gail once gave me a clear, empty-looking bottle with a homemade label on it - "The Judy and Gail Natural Gas Company," it said. That was because I had told them an unbelievable story that I said happened when I was at Missouri University. I saw some guys light farts (sorry) with a match. They would lie back on a bunk bed, lift their feet up in the air, stick a lighter down by their butt (pants on), and pass the gas. It went "Whoosh!" When I first told the story, they hooted and hollered and swore I made it up. But I didn't.
I also invited the two girls who lived in the apartment between Jim and me. Sally was from Coeur d'Lene, Idaho, and Katie was a younger sister of John Brodie, the quarterback for the San Francisco Forty-niners. They introduced me to a few of the 49ers. Katie and Sally and I used to yell "Good night" to each other through the seemingly paper-thin walls of the townhouses. Other times, I'd hear different noises (like "Go big boy" and "Yes, yes, yes") through the walls, but I didn't yell anything back then (like "Go get 'em Sally" or "You can do it, Katie" or even "Would you guys hurry up so I can go to sleep?").
I bought some beer and mixers and sodas, but the beverage of the evening was Jim St. Laurent's Demolition Punch. Here's the recipe:
Three parts Gin, 1 part Rum, 1.5 parts Mai Tai Mix, 1 part Pineapple-Grapefruit Juice, 0.5 part Hawaiian Punch, 2 parts Seven-up. Jim claims he got the recipe off the back of a grocery store receipt, and then tested various modifications until he was happy with this recipe.
We mixed it and tested it, and I loved it because you could hardly taste any alcohol at all. And to tell you the truth, my favorite drinks are sweet tropical drinks, where you can't taste the alcohol. "Foo-foo" drinks, a comedian called them in a night club in Richland, Washington once, when Bill Petrick and I were sitting in the front row - me with my Chi-chi and its toothpick umbrella.
I had borrowed a tape recorder/player from my boss at GE, to play music. Because I'm the person I am (naive), I told our landlady that I was going to have a little party and I was really excited about it. "I don't think you should have a party. We don't allow noise around here," she said. "I invited the people on both sides of me, so that should be OK," I offered. "You can't make ANY noise," she said. "Well, it's my apartment and I feel like I should be able to have a party," I told her, hopefully. She shook her head and went back to her apartment, "No noise," she said over her shoulder.
You couldn't believe the noise.
Everybody was having a fabulous time. There were competing requirements: A) I kept shutting the sliding glass door to keep the noise from drifting to the apartment of my landlady, and 2) everybody kept opening the door wide because it was so hot in the small apartment, from the dancing.
Joanie's roommate, Gail, was pretty high and decided to go outside for some fresh air. The problem was that she had just come in through the open door, then, while she wasn't looking, I had closed it. So she walked right into the glass, smacked her head and nose, and fell straight backwards onto the floor. Her girlfriends all gathered around her, to make sure she was OK. She was as OK as she was gonna get till the next morning.
Then the police came.
Sid was our diplomat, so he went down to talk to them. They told us to keep the noise down, and he promised that we would. My landlady had called them. We closed the door, and it got really hot, so we decided to move the party down to the Californian. I got home about 3 AM. At 7:30, the landlady knocked on my door, and let herself in. "Bob," she yelled upstairs, or was it "Mr. Lutman?" I don't remember. "You'll have to move out," she said. "OK," I told her - real talkative. Jim and I had already been discussing it - had added the rent we were paying for our two apartments together, and correctly calculated that we could get a fantastic two-bedroom place for much less than we were paying together individually. So we moved to Parkview West, in Mountain View, where we lived for a year or so, because then we were closer to the parties. Later, we found an even cheaper place in Menlo Park.
At the west end of Mountain View, across Highway 280, lies a wonderful junior college, situated in the foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains. In fact, it's called Foothill College. I took an evening photography class there, and learned the rules of taking good photographs. To condense it down, the most important rules are 1) get as close to your subject as possible, 2) don't shoot into the sun, and 3) remove clutter when you compose the shot. There is nothing as unattractive as overhead cables in photographs, the sun shining into the lens, or micro-people standing in scenery. And where did I get the inspiration for photography. I figure it was from Oscar White, Versailles, Missouri photographer extraordinaire.
Oscar White - or O.E. White, as it said in hand-painted letters on the side of his old yellow van - was a wedding photographer and gun-trading friend of Dad's in Versailles, Missouri, where I grew up. I saw him work several weddings. While the wedding party would be in their suits and nice dresses, Oscar came in his forest green work pants and matching shirt. He wore brown suspenders, old shoes, and because it was a wedding, he wore a bright yellow tie with dark red designs on it. Oscar looked out of place at the wedding, and the tie looked out of place on Oscar. But he was a great photographer, and everybody used him for their weddings.
And as a matter of fact, in principle, I dress just like he does. I think Sharon would agree with me. "What's the most comfortable thing I can get away with wearing?" is pretty much my standard question.
He lived way out in the country, on the west side of Versailles, with his wife, and if you'da seen his place, you'd have thought it was the original home of the Beverly Hillbillies. There were animals running loose, and junk and old cars all over the place ... .
Some said Oscar was cheap, but I'll let you be the judge of that. He had to make a trip to Sedalia to pick up a piece of furniture, but it was heavy and he would need help to lift it. He asked an acquaintance in town to come along and help him, and he would buy him lunch. They made the 45-minute trip in the morning, and loaded the furniture piece into his van. Then Oscar drove to a nearby grocery store. He came back out with a large can of peaches, which he started to open with his pocketknife. "What's that?" said his friend. "Our lunch," said Oscar, "We'll split it." Oscar's buddy would have no part of the peaches, of course, and made Oscar buy him a hamburger.
It was a February Friday night - the evening I looked forward to all week at GE. Somebody at the Californian Apartments would be having a party, and all my friends would be there. Dependable as clockwork. I called around and found out where it was going to be, then I went over at my usual half-hour before scheduled start time. Just like when I was a little kid listening to the grown-ups talking after I was sent to bed, I didn't want to miss out on anything. Even at the beginning.
The party got started. An hour later, there were lots of people still missing. "Where's Sid and Wee Don (as opposed to Big Don, who WAS there) and everybody?" I asked. "They went skiing," was the answer. I had to think about that a while. "Water skiing?" I asked, as I didn't know of any snow within a hundred miles. "No, dummy, snow skiing at Tahoe."
"Holy cow," I said to myself, "that's over two hundred miles away - at least a four hour drive. Who in their right mind would go snow skiing?" Ah, I was so naive. I found Bill Petrick, "What's this about snow skiing? I heard Sid and Wee Don went to Lake Tahoe."
He said, "We should go up sometime. It'd be fun," and so we hatched our plan. Bill and I would ride up with Steve Olmsted, in the back seat of his pale yellow, two-door Ford Mustang. And Jim Hustler would go with us. We'd share the gas costs. The next Friday evening came, we hooked up with Steve, and left for the snow. The problem is that we left after 6 PM, and it was cold and already pouring down rain. And snowing like crazy already at pretty low elevations.
It was slow and bumper-to-bumper. A normal trip to Tahoe in clear weather takes four hours. With a little delay, it's four and a half. If you have to install chains, and drive the last bit, it takes about five.
It took us over seven.
We pulled into our rental cabin about 2 AM, and hit the sack. Saturday we got up, it was gray and overcast, and the wind was blowing about 50 miles per hour. The experienced skiers knew that the chair lifts would be shut down because of the wind. "Let's go into Reno," said Hustler. "Hey, OK," we said, thankful we weren't going to have to be out in that wind.
We drove into Reno and went to Harrah's. I had about $3 to blow, and it went fast. In the mid-sixties, you could do a complete weekend at Tahoe, if you shared living quarters with lots of people, for about $30. So I had brought $33. Today the lift ticket alone is over $60, and that's for one day.
I was walking around and happened to see a lady hit a jackpot on a slot machine - I think it was for about $300. The bell started dinging as an advertisement to everybody that Harrah's produces winners. A Harrah's attendant came up and said, "Congratulations. Pull the handle again and I'll pay you." Now this may sound odd, but that's the way it's done. I guess in the past people have been paid, pocketed the big bucks, then began yelling that they hadn't been paid yet. So this was so the player couldn't do that.
She pulled the handle, and the three aligned "Harrah's" signs disappeared to random positions around their respective wheels. "OK," the attendant said, "here's your $25." Huh? I went over closer to them. The lady said, "No, no, it was $300." "No ma'am, it was $25," he said. I said, "I saw it and it was $300." The lady showed relief as she looked at me and said, "Did you see it? Will you stay here with this man while I get my husband right around the corner?" "Sure," I said.
"Didn't you see the three Harrah's signs?" I said to the attendant, while the lady went off in a panic. "You obviously thought it was something else," I said, trying to give him a polite way out of his cheating lie. He was noncommittal. The lady appeared with her husband. "How come you're trying to cheat us out of our jackpot?" her husband said loudly. "I'm sorry, it was a mistake," the attendant said, and quickly paid them fifteen twenty-dollar bills. He took off.
"Thank you so much," the lady gushed, and the man shook my hand. "Here, take ten dollars," the lady said. "No, no, you had every right to that money. I just wanted to make sure you got it." She insisted so much that I began to get embarrassed. "OK," I finally said, and took the ten. "Good luck," she said.
Bill Petrick was around, and I said, "Well, this money isn't really mine, so I'm just gonna blow it. I'll make a 'field' bet at the crap table." So I put it on the field. This is a one-roll bet. If the dice come up 2, 3, 4, 9, 10, 11 or 12, you win. Otherwise you lose. The roller tossed a four. The payout man stuck a ten dollar chip on top of my ten dollar bet. "Unbelievable," I said, "I'll just leave it, then we can go. It's not really my money." The shooter rolled a ten. Now two more ten dollar chips were stacked on top of the twenty bucks already there. "Wait a minute," I thought, "that's enough to pay for the whole weekend," and I pocketed the $40. It WAS my money now. And we left.
That night there was a huge - and I mean huge snowstorm. When we got up, every car was totally covered with snow. But the sky was crystal clear -- it was beautiful. It took about a half-hour to finally dig out. We climbed into the Mustang and drove to our destination - Soda Springs. It so happens that when there is a big snowstorm at Tahoe, Soda Springs and Sugar Bowl are in the area that gets the most snow dumped. People were wading around in snow, locating the top of a car antenna, and digging down to find out what COLOR this car was. If the color was right, then they dug further, to see if it was theirs.
We got to the slope about noon, and they had the area plowed and packed down. "This is not like water skiing, where you lean back," everybody told me, "you lean forward in the snow, down the hill." They showed me how to "snow plow." See, just lean to the right to turn left, and lean to the left to turn right. It's easy. I had had so much trouble getting up on water skis, that I expected similar problems with snow skiing.
I started at the rope tow of the beginner's area - a gently sloping hill. This area was very flat at the top of the hill, but gradually steepened as it went down towards the lodge, then leveled off down there. So my assignment was to lean left and right, thereby slowing my descent in nice, controlled turns. And snow plow if I wanted to go straight.
When I let go of the rope tow at the top, took my poles in hand, and pushed myself along to where gravity kept me moving, I was shocked. I stayed up. I was skiing! And the first time too! I was so ecstatic, looking around for somebody to see me, that I forgot what I was doing and within seconds I was flying straight down the hill. "Let's see, lean to the left to turn right." I leaned hard to the left, but kept going straight down the hill. Twenty mph. "Hmm." I leaned to the right - still straight down the hill. Thirty mph. "Hmmm," I then recalled the instructions on how to slow down: "Really dig your uphill edges in on your snowplow." I dug my edges in the best I knew how, and mentally felt myself pass forty. I was headed right for some trees.
By this time, some of my friends had spotted me, "Look at Robin, he's skiing!" they shouted, using the name they knew me by.
My instincts took over. I knew the only way out was to take a dive, so I lifted my skis up, and hit the packed powder with my shoulder. I somehow instinctively knew that I had to keep my ski tips out of the snow when I fell, to prevent a torsion leg bone break.
Both skis had popped off, but were prevented from becoming missiles by the safety straps fastened to my ankles. I had cratered! And I was in absolute heaven. I laughed and laughed - my world had changed again. And I could see all my future ski trips to the snow.
For about a year, my friends would take breaks to watch me ski, because they knew I made great snow explosions when I fell. And nobody enjoyed it more than I did.
But one day, after I had mastered the art of all possible ways to fall down skiing, I stopped falling. My friends stopped following me around with their cameras. I didn't fall for years, and when I did, it was only because I had to take a dive to avoid an out-of-control skier, who would come crashing out of nowhere.
Don't you just hate those guys?
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It was fall. My friend Bill Petrick and I were in our first year as nuclear engineers at General Electric, and a new crop of students had enrolled at Stanford. Bill had met a girl named Sharon Farrell, from Portland, Oregon. She was working on a Master's Degree at Stanford, in Speech Pathology. He and his old MIT pal, Sid Everett, were roommates at the Californian Apartments in Mountain View. Sharon and her roommate, Patti, had moved in there too, and that's how Bill and Sharon met. We loved Sharon because she was completely outspoken, had a great sense of humor, and was game for anything fun. She and Bill had been dating a little while.
I was into playing blackjack ('21') at Lake Tahoe and wanted someone to go up with me. I had read a book by Edward O. Thorpe, called "Beat the Dealer," in which you mentally keep track of the cards already dealt. Then you make decisions accordingly (regarding how MUCH to bet, and WHETHER to take a card if you have between 12 and 16 points), depending on whether the deck is ten-rich or not. I had the system down pretty good, except for two things: 1) I couldn't keep up with the card-count very well, and 2) I couldn't remember what to do when I DID remember the card-count. It was exciting, with the odds tilted so heavily in my favor.
One of Sharon's classmates at Stanford was a friendly, attractive girl named Donna, from Louisiana, who had a classic southern drawl. And they had a cute girlfriend named Lee, who I kind of liked, but who was engaged to a guy up in Berkeley.
Later, I learned that she was a little paranoid, and kept a loaded pistol by her bedside. Moral: just because a girl is good-looking doesn't necessarily mean you want to spend more time with her. First, ask her if she's got a gun.
Lee's fiance apparently had other plans for the weekend (another girlfriend, unknown to Lee, it turned out), so she was looking for something to do.
It was Sharon's idea that she and her two girlfriends would invite Bill and me to go to Tahoe for the weekend. Sharon liked blackjack as much as I did. She used to go up a lot when she was an undergraduate student at the University of the Pacific, in Stockton, California.
But Bill had some other plans and declined. So it was all up to me.
Did you ever think about the use of 'up' and 'down' with respect to travel? I say "going up" when traveling north or higher in elevation. And "going down" for the opposite. But some people I know say that they "drive up to L.A," from San Francisco. What's up with that?
Anyway, we planned to drive up on Saturday morning, stay Saturday night, and come back Sunday afternoon.
We decided that Sharon and I would check into the Tally-Ho Motel at South Lake Tahoe, California. The other two girls would hide in the back seat of my VW bug, down on the floor, so we wouldn't have to pay extra for them. Then the three girls and I'd share the room and each of the four of us would pay a quarter of the total cost. I didn't have the heart to tell the other two girls that four people cost the same as two, because they were having so much fun hiding.
Finally, there were the sleeping arrangements to be decided, regarding the two double beds in our room. Since Lee was "engaged," she opted out. Dang. Too bad she didn't know the truth about her boyfriend. So Donna and Sharon flipped a coin, and Sharon "won" the spot next to me. She says I lost, because I didn't get to sleep with Donna. But it was a no-lose proposition for me, any way you look at it.
Next, I checked the manual, and there is a special rule for me-and-three-girls in a motel room. Namely, either there is no hanky-panky, or the world is going to end tomorrow.
We dropped our stuff off in the room, and drove the quarter-mile or so to Harrah's, just across the Nevada border. We went in, found a $2 blackjack table, and began to polish off the free drinks they bring you while you are gambling. There is a drink I loved at the time, called a Vodka Collins. It is vodka, collins mix, ice and a cherry.
I always tried to talk the other people into ordering them so I could then have their cherry. Sharon and I remember this episode differently. I recall that her drink was basically empty, sitting on the blackjack table, with the cherry underneath the leftover ice. Sharon claims that the drink was almost full. Anyway, she said "Sure, you can have that cherry, but I don't know how you're going to get it out."
Having a few drinks under my belt enabled me to see the solution to that. I picked the glass up, put my hand over it, and turned it upside down. Most of the ice fell into my hand, but I'll admit that A LITTLE may have spilled onto the floor.
So there I was, holding the ice in my hand, with the cherry right on top. I retrieved it with my mouth, put the ice back in the glass, and replaced the drinkless glass on the blackjack table. "There," I said. "No problem," and tied the cherry stem into a knot with my tongue, which is where the expression "tongue-tied" comes from.
Bill and Sharon got married in Portland, Oregon, some time later, and we have been best friends our whole lives. I went to their wedding, to make sure they weren't just running away for the weekend. They used to get into the loudest arguments. I always assumed that a divorce was inevitable, but it was apparently just their way of offering constructive criticism. They're happily married after more than thirty years, though it's not nearly as exciting as it used to be at their house. They don't yell at each other any more. Now, they just yell at their Internet Service Provider.
My favorite thing about them is that they like me just the way I am. Hey, wait, they changed my name to Robin.
During my first couple of years at GE, I notice that almost all of my stories were from extracurricular activities. After a while, I began to accumulate some GE stories, and so now here are a few of them.
In the early days at GE - between about 1967 and 1977, we played bridge every day at lunch. There would be several games going on. I looked forward to these games, as I had looked forward to playing in the band every day after lunch, in high school.
For me, bridge is what I imagine fishing is to a true fisherman. Every time he casts out, he believes there is a good chance of catching a fish - he never loses hope. And in bridge, every time I'm dealt a new hand, I can't wait to pick up the cards and see what the possibilities are. Will I get an eight-card suit? All the aces?
My office was next to that of Rick Woods, and we were in a week-long rubber band war. The deal was that when you thought the guy across the room divider was seriously working, then you shot a rubber band up over the divider, hoping to disturb him.
This day my partner was Vijay Kumar (VEE-jay KOO-mar). One of our opponents was Marv Sager (SAY-gurr), on my right. I don't remember who his partner was. Marv won the bid and I was about to lead, when something wet and cold suddenly smacked me in my right ear. I KNEW it was Rick, and I shot a look over at the room divider - expecting to see his grinning face, maybe standing up on his desk or a chair. But no Rick.
Time out from the bridge story to tell you an even better story about Marv Sager. In the days when you were little (well, some of you, anyway), there was no need for security at airports, because the first airplane hijacking had not taken place. No one had thought of it yet.
Then came the first one, followed by all the copycats. Metal detectors had not been installed at the time of this story - it happened that long ago.
GE did lots of business in Chicago with Commonwealth Edison - Chicago's electric utility, and Marv had to make a trip there. He boarded the United Airlines flight, found his seat near the back, slid over to the window, and began a nap. He woke up after a while, thinking about the coming meal. But as his eyes opened, he realized that he was looking at a man with a pistol in his hand, and the man was looking right at Marv.
Marv didn't panic, he just slowly closed his eyes, as someone might do if they almost wake up, but aren't quite ready to. Marv pretended to sleep while his mind raced through possible scenarios. He had to tell the stewardess or somebody. He kept his eyes closed for another five or ten minutes, then slowly opened them. This time he didn't look at the gunman. He yawned, and acted like he hadn't seen anything. He got up and edged out into the aisle, again without looking at the other man, and began walking forward nonchalantly.
Suddenly he heard a loud noise and felt something hit the side of his face. It knocked him down. He couldn't figure out what it was, but then he heard another loud noise - like the first one.
The man had intended to hijack the plane, when Marv's glance over put him into a panic. When Marv got up, the guy thought that Marv had seen him and was going up front to report the gun. So the man shot Marv - the bullet passing through one jaw and exiting out the opposite cheek. Then the man killed himself.
Marv recovered fine - the only residual problem was that he couldn't open his mouth very wide.
(Back to the bridge story, where I was trying to find out the source of the wet blast to my ear).
Then I looked at Marv. He had a medium sized tomato up to his mouth. He had just taken a bite out of it, and there was a big hole in the tomato - pointed right at me. Marv had these big, unbelieving eyes, as he stared at the tomato seeds in my ear. "Sorry," he muffled. Maybe it was because he couldn't get his mouth open very wide any more.
It was after Grandma Lutman had died and I had experienced a few, that Mom told me Grandma had three kids and two kidney stones, so she had a method of comparison. "One kidney stone is worth two kids," Grandma Lutman told people. So if that's true, I've had some 26 kids, not counting Tara and Shandra. Sometimes someone will ask me a question that, well, it makes me almost faint. That question is, "Do kidney stones REALLY hurt?" After I had gone through the complete experience a few times, and knew I wasn't going to die from them, they got a little easier mentally. But the first time was, "What IS this?" The second time I knew WHAT it was, but the question became, "How long is THIS one going to last?"
I guess the median time was about 14 hours, but my longest one was a year and a half. During this long period, each time the stone moved a little, I would have another attack of pain. This would be about every three or four weeks. I stayed up many nights during that time period, watching bowling, all night movies, and moaning in a sort of a mantra to take my mind off the pain. Just ask Sharon.
No, don't remind her. She'd have to tell you how I would pick different swear words (sorry) and chant them over and over. It would put me into a kind of trance and take my mind away from the pain.
The good news for me when they took out my colon, was that the combination of my Crohn's Disease and HAVING a colon caused these stones. So when my colon came out, I stopped FORMING stones. I still had three lodged on the kidneys, so of course, I had three more good whacks coming. There's something kind of humbling about having had all that pain, and I feel a lot stronger because of it. And I really get tickled when people describe their so-called pains to me. Hey, I'm starting to sound like Uncle Bert.
As a program engineer (read that, "can't make his mind what he wants to do") at General Electric, my second assignment was in Chemical Engineering Development, and they needed a representative to go to a meeting in Idaho Falls. No one else was available, and since I was agreeable, they volunteered me. It was my first trip in a jet passenger plane. It was United Airlines, and I was a little concerned, since I had terrible motion sick tendencies. "Jet planes are much smoother than little private planes. You won't get sick," I was told by my fellow passengers when I expressed slight feelings of nausea as we took off.
Fast forward two minutes as I'm making full use of the barf bag in front of me. I made it to Idaho Falls, and the next evening, walking along the highway, parallel to the Snake River, I saw this little red car go past me on the highway with two little propellers under the rear bumper. "Huh?" I thought in my "let's-keep-Ricky-Joe-awake" tone. Then during dinner at the riverside Holiday Inn, I saw the same car - now a boat - cruise past the restaurant window, on the river.
I had been playing my Martin D18 six-string guitar for a couple of years. I had a harmonica holder, which hung around my neck. I also stuck my kazoo in the holder. That's a kind of a buzzy-sounding musical instrument, in case you thought otherwise.
When I was sent for a two-week training on the GE reactor simulator, south of Chicago, I took my guitar and harmonica gear along, to practice and kill time in the off-hours. During the week, one of the trainers who lived around there told me about a country and western club which featured open microphone on Sunday evenings. Hey, just like "The Blues Brothers!"
I screwed up my courage, got my gear and my music, got directions to the bar, and drove to the gig in my rental car. The leader of the country and western band there told me that they played till six, then they had open mike till eight, then they played again. The great news was that they continued playing backup for amateur soloists.
I had a coke and waited for six o'clock. A couple of guys played, who were pretty good, and they got a nice round of applause. Then the leader returned to the mike. "We've got a singer who comes to us all the way from San Francisco, California." Light applause. "Please welcome - Robin Lutman" (It seemed fun to give him my professional stage name). More light applause.
The announcer, who was also the band leader, whispered to me, "What are you going to do?" "San Francisco Bay Blues," I said. "What key?" "C," I said. "OK, any time you're ready," he said.
I put my harmonica holder around my neck, clamped in the harmonica and the kazoo, and stepped into the spotlight in front of the mike. It was too late to turn back. "San Francisco Bay Blues," I said. One loud whistle from the crowd, which was a lot bigger than I had expected (the crowd).
In this song, which I love, I use metal finger picks to pick the strings of my guitar. I pick one verse on the guitar, sing a verse, play a verse on the harmonica, sing two verses, play a verse on the kazoo, then sing a final verse. I was concentrating on my finger positions when I began.
"What is that great sound?" I thought, as soon as I started playing, and for the first time in my life, experienced the sound of a band supporting me. "THIS IS FANTASTIC," I thought. That whole thought lasted about one second, because I was interrupted by loud applause from the audience.
The applause quickly faded while they listened to the words of the first verse. I could not BELIEVE how good I sounded with this band backing me up. I started the harmonica verse with my eyes closed because the light was bright and I wanted to get the notes right. I was almost blown off the small stage by the whistling, thundering, footstomping crowd. It was like they never heard a harmonica. They cheered through the entire harmonica verse. I sang the next verse, and things got back to normal. Given what you've heard so far, you can guess what happened when I started playing my kazoo for the next to last verse. Pandemonium broke loose. I started looking for the flying beer bottles, but they never came. They quieted down to a steady roar, and I finished the tune. You'd have thought they won the lottery.
I played two more songs, which were anticlimactic. "Let's hear it again for Robin Lutman, from San Francisco," the announcer said. Screams, whistles, applause, boot stomping, mug banging - just another day at the club. "Can you stay and play another set for us later?" the bandleader said. "I've got a date in Chicago," I told him. "Boo, boo," the crowd booed. Then they applauded again, laughing. "Well come back any time," he said, and introduced the next amateur.
I packed up my stuff, and headed for Chicago to meet Joanne, a Pan Am stewardess I was dating at the time. She lived in Mountain View at the Californian apartments, where I had met her, but was visiting her dad and stepmother in Chicago for Christmas.
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Rick Woods and I were down in the open reactor pressure vessel at Oyster Creek. Fuel loading was finished, but the reactor hadn't been critical long enough to cause many residual fission products, so there wasn't any radiation at the top of the water. Our assignment was the last one to be done before installing the steam separator, the dryer, buttoning up the vessel and the containment, and putting the concrete shielding in place. We had to install some vibration measurement equipment for the vibration guys. It wasn't going well.
"Can you reach over there and hold onto that clamp while I fasten it?" Rick asked. "I can't reach around you," I said. "Move to your right a little." He moved but I couldn't get any leverage. I stuck my foot against our suspension ladder and used the rubber overshoes as a grip. "OK, I think I got it," I told him.
Suddenly my grip gave way - the rubber shoe slipped, peeled off of my shoe, and plunked right into the water. We were only a foot above the water and the water was about a foot above the upper grid - then it was a straight shot down to the top of the fuel elements. That was about fifteen feet below the upper grid. There WAS some radiation down there.
I shot my right hand into the water up to my shoulder, and caught the back of the rubber shoe with two fingers - just after it had cleared one of the holes in the upper grid.
Sometimes, it's just your day.
I was driving down the Garden State Parkway in New Jersey one day, and I saw a parachute descending so close that I thought he'd land on the road. He dropped beyond the scrubby oak trees though, so I figured he was all right.
The guys at Oyster Creek, where I had been transferred for my first assignment as a shift test engineer starting up GE nuclear power plants, told me about a public parachuting facility there, and said I should go do it. I could drive up to Lakewood, take the training and jump the same day. I was a little "juberous," as Dad always said, for dubious. Toshiba Corporation of Japan had sent a young engineer named Yoshio Sunami (YO-she-oh su-NOM-ee) to Oyster Creek for startup training. He was also a bachelor, was my age, and we became quick friends. He said, "I'll do it if you will." We were on.
We took the three hour training - a combination of class lecture, film and practicing in the sand jump pit. It cost $45. The winds were too high that day, so they asked everybody to come back the next Monday and jump in the afternoon. We drove home with the empty taste of postponement in our mouths.
Monday came and we drove back up the Parkway. There were about a dozen of us, and I think I was fifth in line to jump. We were at 2500 feet. I was cool as a cucumber as I followed the trainer's instructions when it was my turn: "Sit in the door!" The side door was open, and I sat down with my feet hanging outside, resting on a step designed for that purpose, my arms crossed over my emergency chute, on my belly. We were doing about 90 mph, and so was the wind. "Stand up," he yelled over the engine and wind noise. "Ready - JUMP!" he screamed, as he slapped me hard on the shoulder, just as expected.
I pushed my belly out as far as I could, like a badminton shuttlecock, as we had been instructed, and jumped as far straight out from the plane as I could - totally trusting my training. I immediately panicked. "Oh sh--, I'm falling" was my next thought. Actually, I had yelled the first two words. I had lost it.
"Think, think, there's something I have to do or I could DIE! What? What? Something? I'm falling, I'm falling! Hurry, hurry! I can't die! What is it?" Then with a firm jerk, my chute opened, having been pulled out by the cable attached to the static line inside the plane.
"Oh, now I remember," I thought, "I was supposed to count out loud to ten, then look over my shoulder if nothing had happened yet, confirm my chute had malfunctioned, then turn back around, and pull my emergency handle to open my backup chute if the 'main' hadn't opened."
I was embarrassed at my panic but greatly relieved at the round, billowy, beautiful, orange-and-white chute over my head. I looked down and watched the 600-yard diameter sand circle rising to meet me. When I got about fifty feet above the ground, I clicked my boots together, positioned my head to look straight ahead, and waited for contact. The instant I felt it, I rolled over on my hip and side as taught. Perfect landing.
"That was great," I yelled to my fellow-jumpers already on the ground.
Sunami-san jumped after me, and when he had landed, we walked across the circle, back to the training area for a critique. I was waiting for my scolding - I knew I screwed it up. "There's only one of you who made a perfect jump. Where is Bob Lootman?" "Uh, here I am," I said. "Nobody will ever know," I thought, as everybody looked at me, wondering just who this stud skydiver WAS.
A friend used my camera to take a sequence of about ten photos, recording my second jump. You see one of them above.
A few jumps later, Sunami landed in a tree, and didn't jump any more. I made a total of sixteen jumps - the first ten on static line, and the rest pulling my own rip cord. The longest was a ten-second free-fall from 3500 feet. I wanted to someday take movies while I was skydiving.
Then, luckily for me, I was transferred to Tsuruga (tsuh-ROO-guh), Japan. I had to survive to write these stories. And become a dad, of course.
I am the world's champion seasick person. In high school I got seasick watching a movie filmed on the high seas. They kept cutting to a shot of the bow rising and falling into the ocean. I had to stop watching.
One thing that the New Jersey shore has to offer is deep-sea fishing. You know how there is some kind of cost associated with certain things you do? The cost of going deep-sea fishing for me was six hours of seasick hell. A few times in my life, I decided I'd pay the price.
Somebody at the plant had heard the mackerel were running and organized an expedition. You probably know me well enough now to realize that I hate to miss any excitement, if it's legal anyway. I signed up.
We were each issued a sturdy rod and reel with heavy line, and three hooks per line. Each hook was covered with a rubber squid, or something similar. We hit the jackpot. I'd say the average number of fish per cast was about 2.2 and the average time between casting and reeling in the fish was about eight seconds.
I had taken my Dramamine, which had the interesting effect of making me sleepy while I threw up. Uncle Calvin's first daughter, Wanda, used to call it "pouring out." The captain gave us an extra large, clear plastic trash bag, and we filled it so full of mackerel that it started falling over. So we got another one, dumped part of the first one into it, then tied off the first bag. When the second bag got halfway full, I stopped fishing. I wasn't feeling so good. I went over, got horizontal on a bench, and watched the activity.
When we got back to shore, we agreed to split the fish equally, but I didn't want any. I contributed my share to everybody else.
Did you ever eat bluefish? Later in the year, we went deep-sea fishing for them, and I caught a really nice one. I took it home and baked it. It was delicious. Every time I make it to the East Coast and the season is right, I try to have bluefish. It's the best tasting fish I've ever had - scrumptuously distinctive.
It was about this time that I was transferred from New Jersey, to Tsuruga, Japan, north of Osaka. The Oyster Creek startup was delayed in paperwork, and Bob Brugge, my boss, came through with his promise to get me another good assignment, since I had had to turn down his offer of a startup in India, for health reasons.
There were lots of little mom-and-pop stores in Tsuruga, where I had been assigned, and it was great fun to take a taxi downtown, or drive my car after I bought it, and just wander around. I found a fruit I loved, called a nashi (NOSH-ee). Now I can buy them in the Nob Hill Supermarket near us, where they're called Asian pears. They have the shape of an apple, but the taste of a crunchy pear. They didn't have many oranges, but had loads and loads of mikans (MEE-KAHNS), or tangerines. And that was close enough for me while I was there.
There was lots of variance in how individual Japanese would react to me (an American Caucasian). Most were curious and friendly, but there wasn't a long history of Americans in Tsuruga, as opposed to Tokyo. A good word in Japan is gaijin (GUY-jean), which means outsider. I believe though, that they use it to mean foreigner, and more probably something like scary foreigner or bad foreigner.
I was in a small market once, approaching the fruit section, and I saw a little Japanese boy who had wandered away from his mother. He was walking briskly down the aisle, running his finger along the edge of the shelves. He came up to me, realized he was going to have to lift his finger and do a temporary bypass to resume his game, when he casually looked up. He froze.
His eyes got huge. He looked like he was seeing a ghost. He turned and ran towards mom, "GAI-JIN!" he screamed.
In case you didn't know, Tokyo Tower is an attraction similar to the Seattle Space Needle or the Eiffel Tower.
As young bachelors, we loved to go into Tsuruga and visit the bars. Tsuruga is on Japan's main island of Honshu. It's on the West Coast, at the end of a deep bay, with the same name as the city. There were supposed to be 65 bars in the city, to support all the visiting sailors. I think that number's high because we could find only about sixty. There was lots of lumber importing, and while I was living in Tsuruga, I saw many Russian ships anchored in the bay. They were the USSR then.
The problem with the bar hostesses was that very few could hold a conversation in English. Typically, they would tell you the few words they knew and then just try to get you to drink as much as possible. One day Dave Jones, our lead startup test engineer, told me that he had heard about a girl in one of the bars who spoke really good English. "Come on down with me," he said. We had never been to this particular bar before, so it would be an adventure.
I recall a pink-and-green neon flamingo sign glowing in the front, to advertise their bar. We went in, and Dave must have already had her description because he said, "There she is over there." There wasn't much activity in the bar at the time. He talked to her a little, then came back over to me. "Let's sit down at this table," he said. We sat down facing each other. Soon his new friend came over, with another hostess for me. She was nice-looking and sat down. "Champagne for me?" she asked. That was their test, to see if you knew the secret of the bars. If you said yes, then they would drink a watered down champagne all evening, at about $10 a pop, and weak enough that they wouldn't get drunk. At the end of the evening, you would owe about $200. If you said no, she would pout and say, "Beer?" And that's what happened next. "OK, beer," I said. You could also say no, but then they get up and go back to the bar, with the other girls.
Dave and the English-speaking hostess started a conversation - she was exceptional for a Japanese girl. My hostess didn't say anything. She was really shy, so I decided to practice the few Japanese words I had learned up to that point. I would touch a part of my body, then say the Japanese word for it, then the English word. She would repeat the English word slowly. She got the idea, and lightened up a little. I did head, nose, mouth, eyes, arm, leg, knee, shin. I ran out of words that I could say, so I shut up and took a sip of my beer. I didn't want to be too forward, although I actually knew a few more words.
Without warning, and breaking the old record for surprise-of-my-life, she put her hand between my legs, and said, "Tokyo Tower?"
Dave almost fell out of his seat, laughing. I said, "What are you doing Saturday night?" She didn't understand me, but she said something in Japanese - probably something like "Nothing with you." Then in English, "Can I have champagne?" "No," I said, "But that was a nice try."
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We had reached 100% power for the first time, but we weren't going to stay there long. We had a turbine trip scheduled in ten minutes. The shift before mine was going to do the honors, and I came in early because I wanted to see the test. It was a big one.
The steam from a nuclear power reactor goes down four steam lines, each about three feet in diameter, through four stop valves (one in each line), through four control valves (one in each line), then to the turbine. The steam spins the turbine, which is connected to the generator, and that's what produces the electricity. A turbine trip closes the stop valves almost instantly - in about two-tenths of a second, and automatically disconnects the generator from the turbine, because the turbine isn't going to be useful under these conditions, so they're designed to disconnect from each other. Sort of like pushing in the clutch on your car.
On the reactor side, the rapid closure of the stop valves causes a pressurization of the reactor, and an automatic scram. A scram is when all of the neutron-absorbing control rods slam into the reactor at once, to stop the chain reaction. The pressure goes up about ten percent in a nice spike, and other wonderful things happen. We testers then get to compare the key signals against their predicted values, and write a report.
This was going to be my first real turbine trip. We had done a few on the simulator near Chicago, about a year or more earlier.
We were using a 16-channel light-beam recorder. A roll of light-sensitive paper is loaded, similar to the way you might load a 36-picture roll of film into a camera. Only the paper comes out in a continuous roll, like wallpaper, not in 36 separate photos. Each light beam swings back and forth, proportional to the signal it represents, thus marking the light-sensitive paper. There is a tiny gap in each beam every once in a while, which lines up with a set of numbers at the edge of the paper, so you can tell which channel you're looking at.
The excitement was intense.
I also wanted to watch the big show, which we had seen a couple of times before. Japan Atomic Power Company normally had perhaps a dozen or so workers in the control room for most tests. However, when it came time for a big one, it's like they deputized the entire town. There must have been two hundred JAPC employees in that control room - each wearing the same gray uniform, with the JAPC logo on it, and each with one or two assistants. They each had a clipboard and a stopwatch, and wore a white hard hat. They positioned themselves in front of what seemed like every one of the meters, gauges, recorders and light panels in the control room, and waited for the countdown.
At Tsuruga, we had a Japanese operator count down backwards in Japanese, continuously from fifteen to zero, over the plant loud-speaker system. They would have preceded this with periodic announcements in Japanese, like "Turbine trip in three minutes."
My point is that it was incredibly stressful. I absolutely loved the pressure of those big trips, and was a little sorry I wasn't running the test. Sort of like a Stealth fighterpilot learning he is not going to be in the first wave over Baghdad.
As the intercom boomed out, the countdown from five sounded like this: "... go, shee, sahn, ni, ich..." We at the light recorder heard a taletale crinkle. It meant that there was about two inches of paper left at the END OF THE ROLL, and since a typical test took about twenty feet of paper, I suddenly knew this test was going to be a practice. "Wait, wait, STOP, DON'T TRIP IT," the GE shift test engineer yelled at the top of his lungs. "... Zero!" yelled the loudspeaker, zero being the same thing Japanese and English.
The overwhelming initial sound of a turbine trip in a control room is that of about a thousand circuit breakers popping at the same time. "POP POP POP BOOM," they said, like a thousand kernels of popcorn popping within two seconds, as the last millimeter of paper rolled out of the recorder.
We watched the lightbeams go back and forth uselessly across the cardboard tube, around which was once rolled a brand new cartridge of light-sensitive paper.
If it had been a submarine, somebody would have yelled, "Take 'er down!" But we just stared in disbelief, and watched the 200 Japanese workers faithfully documenting the events that transpired at their stations.
Fast forward exactly 24 hours. We had recovered back to full power to repeat the test. Mr. Kuge (KOO-geh), the head of the JAPC test section walked back to us at about the T-minus-five-minute mark and said, "Jackson-san*, is the recorder loaded with paper?" You know the answer to that one.
Tsuruga Bay is on Honshu's West Coast. It is picturesque in winter and wonderful in spring and summer. Tsuruga was a plum assignment, and I was going to enjoy every minute of it. But it had another feature that I was eagerly anticipating.
Having lived in California, I knew about earthquakes. I loved earthquakes. And Japan was exciting because they were supposed to have earthquakes too - maybe even more than California. My first night in Tokyo, I was sleeping on the 68th floor of the New Otani (Oh-TAHN-ee) Hotel. I was awakened by the sway of my first Japanese shaker. At my height of the building, I'd say we were moving back and forth about two feet. It was fabulous! It reminded me of my boyhood treehouse on South Oak Street in Versailles, the way it gently shook in the wind. "Ah," I sighed when it was over, and drifted back to sleep.
When Dave Jones, Webb Mills and I became bachelor roommates in an apartment provided by GE in the American compound, we each had our own upstairs bedroom. One night when we were all in bed, it was a little before 11 PM. "Rumble rumble," came the earthquake. It was a nice, medium-sized one. There were so many earthquakes, that none of us even mentioned it the next day. The next night, promptly at 11 PM, our apartment shook again. "Hey," we yelled at each other, "that's two nights in a row!" Pretty cool.
Then the third night, we were all joking that we should get in bed so the next quake could come. We laughed and went to our bedrooms. 11 PM came and went. Darn, no quake. Then at 11:05, "Boom boom." The third night in a row - all at about the same time. "Hey," we yelled to each other, "what's going on?" "This is great!" I shouted.
I couldn't wait for the fourth night, but nothing happened - three in a row stood as the record.
Having successfully completed all startup testing and the warranty demonstration in Japan, I was transferred to Joliet, Illinois, about an hour from Chicago.
Every day, I drove the twenty minutes from our house in Joliet, down the I-55 to the Morris, Illinois exit, then about ten minutes on gravel road to the Dresden Nuclear Power Plant. I could do it in my sleep. The interstate was a divided highway, with two lanes going each direction.
On this particular summer day, I was on the interstate, and was passing slower cars, who were in the right lane, where they were supposed to be. I started to pass a light blue sedan, and just as the front of my VW was almost even with his rear bumper, he intentionally swerved to the left lane to cut me off. I jammed on the brakes to keep from hitting him and almost lost control of my squareback. I could see the driver bouncing up and down and pumping his fist. And his passenger turned around to look at me, pointed at me and began laughing, with a mean expression on his face.
I backed off about ten car lengths because I was afraid they'd jam on their brakes or something else. After a few minutes, I pulled into the right lane, and began inching toward them. Then, when I was about a car length behind, they pulled in front of me again - this time in the right lane. I backed off again. The passenger was hooting and hollering. I backed way off. I tried one more time, with the same result both times. This was getting scary. Kind of like the early Steven Spielberg short film "The Duel."
I was beginning to approach my exit, and we were both in the right lane. I pulled up behind them, but didn't make any attempt to pass. I could see the driver looking in the rear view and side door mirrors - ready to cut me off again. They kept looking over their shoulder to make sure I didn't pass. When they had gone past the exit, and I knew they couldn't turn off, I made my exit, accelerated and pulled even with them. At this point, they were on the interstate and I was on the exit frontage road, about to make a forced right hand turn. We were both going about sixty.
They looked over, and had very concerned looks on their faces. They were afraid I was trying a trick to get past them, and they weren't going to let that happen. Just before I had to slow down, I looked over at them, set my jaw and flipped them the bird.
Smoke poured from their tires, as the driver punched the brakes. I couldn't hear them, but their faces were red with anger, as they spewed some venomous set of instructions. As Mom used to say, I wish I had been a spider on the wall, to hear what they were saying.
Wherever they are, I hope all their children had blue teeth.
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There was a football player named Mike Bass who played for USC. His specialty was returning punts, and he was famous for not making fair catches - in other words, he'd usually got clobbered by the coverage team. He also ran back a lot of touchdowns. He was tough as nails. When Stanford played USC, the Stanford students would yell in unison, "Grab Bass. Grab Bass."
It was his hobby to eat glass. He'd eat drinking glasses, light bulbs and small things like that, to show opposing teams how ornery he was. Mr. Bass was drafted by the Pro Football New York Jets. Joe Namath was quarterback at the time, and in fact also owned a very popular restaurant and bar in New York. Lots of the Jet players hung out there.
It is a tradition in pro football for the veterans to give the new rookies all kinds of grief - like how a fraternity hazes the new pledges, or the way a drill sergeant abuses his recruits. One day Mike was sitting at the bar with another rookie. At the other end of the bar sat two of the veteran players, who noticed the two rookies, so they started making snide comments.
"That Bass guy don't look too tough to me." "I bet I could whoop his butt." "He looks like a shrimp." You get the idea.
Mike finished his drink, then took a big bite out of the rim of his glass. He chewed it, breaking the glass into small pieces. Then he bit out another big chunk. He ate a few more pieces and then left the bar with the other rookie.
This story is remarkable enough on its own, but I was in Chicago at a bar called "Mothers" with my roommates, Rick Hosey and Dave Jones one night. We had met three or four girls who were out together, and were talking with them. The conversation was going great. I told them the "Mike Bass eats glass" story, and at the very end, I pretended like I was going to take a bite out of my glass. They were excitedly telling me I was full of it - that couldn't happen.
A chunk of the glass came right off in my mouth. The girls all gasped, but not as much as I did. "Mmm, that was good," I yelled, taking the broken glass out of my mouth. "Are you okay?" they asked. I wasn't bleeding - I was fine. As fine as I was gonna get, anyway.
Perhaps 25 years ago, a man was making the rounds of talk shows in Los Angeles and San Francisco. He too claimed to be able to eat anything. And like Mike Bass, who came along some years later, he ate glass. He also ate aluminum cans and other pieces of metal. In fact, his big thing was that over the period of one year, he was going to eat an entire car. A CAR!
Herb Caen, the famous San Francisco Chronicle columnist and voice of the city, mentioned him in his column the day after he appeared on the local radio stations. "Oh yeah, it'll probably be a convertible."
It was just before Christmas 1970. I was working on a day watch in the control room at the Dresden 2 reactor. Bob Brugge, my boss in San Jose, called and said that a Japanese plant was performing their tests so successfully, that nobody had time to write test reports. And could I please go over there for about a month, to help out. He knew that I was single, and so might not mind missing Christmas in the USA. I jumped at the chance.
I flew to Tokyo, and took a train up to the Fukushima (Foo-ka-SHEE-muh) Power Plant. I already knew most all of the guys there. The day I landed in Tokyo, there was a plant problem, they had to shut down for about a week, and they in fact didn't need me any more. But because GE had already spent all this money to get me there, and because Dresden wasn't doing much testing at the time either, everybody decided to let me stay there and write reports. And help them celebrate Christmas. What a boondoggle!
I had brought my guitar, and I believe it was the peak of my guitar-playing life. Do you remember a song the Smothers Brothers used to sing? It's a song you sing to make up rhymes to, like this:
Hey Lidey Lidey Lidey. Hey Lidey Lidey Low.
Hey Lidey Lidey Lidey. Hey Lidey Lidey Low.
I got a gal and her name is Doris. Hey Lidey Lidey Low.
Let's just sing another Chrous. Hey Lidey Lidey Low.
And so on. Well there's two ways to sing this song, and we did them both at the Fukushima Guest House Bar. I think everybody from the startup was there that night, and we were all in a fine mood because it was the first break from testing in about three weeks, Christmas was coming, and the drinks were flowing.
The first method is that somebody thinks up a pair of rhyming lines, then yells, "I got one," and sings both Line 1 and Line 2. But the second way is actually the best, if you have the right kind of people.
In this method, you sing around in a circle. One person makes up Line 1 on the spur of the moment, in rhythm to the song. Then you sing, "Hey Lidey Lidey Low." Then the NEXT person in the circle has to make up a line that rhymes with THAT - again without breaking the rhythm. Then again, "Hey Lidey Lidey Low." This method requires people who aren't afraid to make fools of themselves. We met the requirements. We closed the bar late that night, then went over to Ed Underwood's house and continued into the wee hours, tromping through their house, over their bed, over the couches, so finally they threw us out.
What a party. I made up this:
I got a sister and her name is Shirley, Hey Lidey Lidey Low.
Her hair is straight and her nose is curly. Hey Lidey Lidey Low.
The Smothers Brothers best one was this:
I ain't got no imagination. Hey Lidey Lidey Low.
I ain't got no imagination. Hey Lidey Lidey Low.
And their second best one was this:
There's only two things wrong with this verse. Hey Lidey Lidey Low.
It's too short -------- Hey Lidey Lidey Low.
I was becoming an expert in process computer testing in GE nuclear power plants - being trained by the father of the first process computer software, Al Jones. He had taken me under his wing, on a training trip to the Dresden 2 Nuclear Power Plant in Joliet, Illinois, and I absorbed everything I could. He flew through the test, but was very patient to explain everything along the way. By coincidence, we had been officemates, in my very first job with GE in July of 1966. He had requested me specifically, in a call to my boss. I had been in the right place at the right time twice - when I shared offices with Al, and when he needed a trainee. I was really excited to be getting into computer testing, having spent most of my career to date in reactor startup testing. The computer age avalanche was coming, and there was only one thing to do - learn to ski. So to speak.
I then did two more computer tests, teamed with a programmer in each case, in New York and at Tsuruga, Japan, where I had spent seven months a year or so before. We were at the Fukushima plant, about four hours north of Tokyo by train, on the east coast.
A key part of the testing requires something called the TIP, or Traversing Incore Probe. This is a neutron sensor on the end of a flexible cable which can be pushed into and pulled out of a series of tubes which are positioned throughout the reactor core. We plotted the relative neutron flux vs. distance into the core, and by using certain other information, could calibrate these to yield accurate neutron flux. First, we took - oh, never mind.
The point is that the TIP probes were essential to our computer test. There were three probes, to cover the whole core, and soon after we started testing, one went bad. The schedule was to withdraw the probe into its shield, where it was normally kept when not in use, and wait two days for the radiation to be low enough for workers to replace it with a new one. Then it would be another day to get back up to resume testing. I had three days.
Eric Dean, a GE friend and fellow startup test engineer had once climbed Mt. Fuji over a weekend, and that was only two days. So I figured I could do it in three. I called the local travel person, and laid out what I wanted. I jumped in the car and drove back to the guest house, packed what I needed, and headed for the train station. I parked, went in, paid for my ticket and waited for the train. Trains in Japan are more accurate than a Timex, and mine arrived on time
I found my seat as we were leaving for Mt. Fuji. I arrived about 7 PM, got a taxi, and had him take me to the fifth station. In the old days, Japanese people made once-in-a-lifetime treks to Mt. Fuji. They started miles away at the first station. The pilgrimage took them through stations two, three, four, etc., until they arrived at the top station. I think the top one is about the tenth or twelfth. One objective was to watch the sunrise from the top of Fuji.
I bought a Fuji Stick, which was hexagonal in cross-section and about five feet long. Second daughter Shandra has it now, and I recently took this photo of the top, to put in the story. They branded "Fifth Station," on my stick, about a foot below one end, in Japanese characters of course. And I started walking - up. I had my clothes, my camera in a camera bag slung over my soldier, a straw hat, and a light jacket, since it was August. Walking was very pleasant, with respect to temperature.
I was alone, but soon fell in with some other Japanese travelers, who had an endless number of questions. With my Japanese experience, I spoke a little of their language, so could converse a bit. I used lots of sign language and acted out lots of pictures. They got a big kick out of that. I found that it's great for communication. Actually it's very similar to playing "charades." Which I love to do.
All trails on Mt. Fuji go up, zigzagging back and forth, so you don't walk straight uphill. And ever so often, we'd get to another station. I'd pay a hundred yen and have another brand burnt into my stick. After a while, it began to look impressive.
At about 11 PM, I was a little tired. Then at about 11:30, the group I was with went into a sleeping building. This was a fairly large, one-story room, with wires strung across and curtains hanging on the wires. The floor was the wonderful tatami (tuh-TAH-mee) mats that the Japanese are famous for. The proprietor would lay down an entire line of climbers, draw the curtains in front of them, then lay down the next line. We were packed in like sleepy sardines. The guy next to me kept rolling over against me and snoring. I'd have to roll him back away. Finally I slept. About 3 AM, we were all awakened to resume our climb, in order to get to the top about sunrise.
As I climbed, and the sky began to lighten, I could see that it was almost completely overcast. But a little before sunrise, there was a tiny line of clearing just above the horizon, and I watched the beautiful pink circle that was the sun rise through the opening, and disappear into the clouds.
I clicked off a couple of photos, even though I hadn't made it all the way to the top. I resumed my climb. I have to tell you that grandmothers passed me on my trip. Although I was 27, they were in better shape than I was. My back started to ache.
Then I began to see something different than the giant cinder cone of Mt. Fuji above me, which had been my normal view up to this point. I saw a Japanese gate (a tori), and several buildings. I could see the slope going down into the cone behind them. I found the top station, and had my Fuji stick stamped (It says "Top of Mt. Fuji" and gives the altitude in the photo above, if you look carefully). I was so proud. I ran (limped) around and took a few picture, all the while having this nagging thought, "How am I going to get down?" My knees were like jelly.
As I explored the top, I found another way down. I learned that I could descend via this back-side trail, then catch a bus back to the main road and pick up a taxi or bus there, to the train station. The beauty of this, I learned by a small experiment, was that I could sort of ski down. I would take a step and lock my knee, then slide down in the loose cinders about six or eight feet. Then do the same with my other leg. This prevented me from having to use my knee muscles every step, which I would not have been able to do, I can guarantee you.
So I skied down the mountain, using my controlled slide. It took me only about an hour and a half to get to the backside bus station. I had a fellow climber take my photo, showing me lying down on a bench, with my straw hat over my face. I was pooped.
I took the bus around the mountain, the Bullet Train back to Tokyo, crashed for the night in a moderate hotel, then took the train back to the site the next morning. I arrived about 2 PM, and they said, "We'll be ready at 3 PM." I had done it!
The Japanese have a saying. To the people who have never climbed it, "He who never climbs Mt. Fuji is a fool." And to the people who have, "He who climbs Mt. Fuji more than once is a bigger fool."
I'm thinking of going back.
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The Chicago singles nightlife peaked on Fridays. Saturday was date night. Nevertheless, one Saturday night, both my roommates, Dave Jones and Rick Hosey, were busy. And my friend Webb Mills was working or out of the country - otherwise occupied. So I decided to go up and see what was happening. It's about an hour drive, and I left about eight.
It was a very uneventful trip, and both The Store and Mothers were very quiet. I was disappointed as I left Mothers, and walked toward my car, a few blocks away. I had parked just the other side of the YMCA, and as I walked in the dark night past the 'Y', I got an incredible eerie feeling down the back of my neck, just as I walked past a man smoking a cigarette. I looked at him from my peripheral vision, expecting him to attack me with a knife or something. It was really weird. "Relax," I told myself.
Then he started following me, still smoking his cigarette.
I was just kitty-cornered from my car, and so I crossed the first street, hurrying a little. Suddenly I heard this guy say, "Hey, just a second." I immediately thought of Tijuana and considered running - "Hey Meester... ." Then my mom's voice said, "Now Bob, he may be in trouble and need your help."
He wanted my help all right, because when he came across the street, he said, "How about a b--- j-- for a nightcap?" I was so disgusted, I jumped back about three feet. "NO!" I said in as loud and as negative a voice as I could muster, turned, and stomped across the last street to my car. I get the willies, just thinking about it. And about three days before, I had told somebody, "You know I keep hearing about the large population of gays, but I think it's all a joke. I don't think there is any such thing!"
I told this story to Bill Petrick and he said, "Well, which one did he want?" "Huh?" I said, shivering as I recalled the eerie episode. "You shouldn't have said 'no' till you found out whether he wanted to buy you a nightcap or you buy him one," giggled Bill.
I spent a lot of time in Joliet - the nuclear power plant, not the prison. I had a friend who was an avid chess fan, and we were on a two-week business trip to Illinois. GE sold three nuclear power reactors to Commonwealth Edison over the years, and these plants were about a half-hour south of Joliet. We stayed at the Howard Johnson's near the Joliet freeway exit.
One night we were in the lounge, listening to music and playing a game of chess, when another GE guy from the turbine division in New York spotted our game and joined us. My friend was up one pawn, and this guy wanted to make the point that one pawn was worthless, in the overall strategy of any individual game. My friend was hesitant to agree. I finally said, "OK, after this game, I'll play you, and you start off down one pawn." I would give him a chance to demonstrate that it didn't make any difference.
I'm not a great strategist, but I'm an excellent tactician. If you didn't know, strategy is the overall game plan, and tactics are the moves of the individual little battles. So as soon as our game started, every move I made was to force him to trade, piece for piece. He kept saying, "I tell you, it really doesn't matter." Pawn for a pawn, rook for a rook. "If you play a solid game, you can always overcome one pawn." Bishop for a bishop, queen for a queen. "I see what you're doing. You're just trading a piece for a piece. Real chess players don't play that way."
I swapped every piece and was left with my extra pawn, which I marched down to the last row, shielding it with my king. I turned it into a queen. Then I quickly pinned him in a corner and beat him. "You couldn't do that again in a million years," he said. I didn't want to push it too much, so I said, "Yeah, you're probably right," having made my point.
It was at this time that I became a lead test engineer, being in charge of three or four shift test engineers at a startup, and of the implementation and scheduling of the testing itself.
In 1971, there began a series of the spookiest TV shows. I think the first in the sequence was called "The Night Stalker." I have always loved to be "scared to death," at the movies, and my wife Sharon shares that love with me. I couldn't wait for this series to start - it looked like it was going to be first class.
It so happened that I had just been promoted to be the Lead Startup Test Engineer for GE Nuclear, and my first assignment was to be at the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station, outside Plymouth, Massachusetts.
I had a one-week business trip scheduled to review startup test specifications with the customer, and I flew from San Francisco International to the Boston airport on a Sunday. I rented a car and drove down to Plymouth, where I checked into my motel. It was around Halloween, and the weather was perfect for it. It was New England fall chilly, and the wind was whipping the leaves into a frenzy. It was a good setting for Sherlock Holmes.
My motel room was on the first floor, and opened onto a small parking lot in a poor area of town - not that any of the Pilgrims there would agree that any section of their town was poor. I unlocked the door, went in and plopped down on the bed for a second. I wanted to make sure the TV worked before I settled in, so I wouldn't miss my movie. I clicked the remote control power button and heard the "clunk" of the TV power supply come to life.
A solid picture came on in a few seconds, and I was in business. I looked through the peephole and saw my car parked in front. Then I pulled back the curtain next to the door and looked out at the night. Ichabod Crane could go riding past any time. Shiver!
After my shower, I got into bed. It was nine o'clock already - you know how you lose almost the whole day when you travel from West Coast to East Coast. I had left at 5:55 AM, California time and ordinarily would have felt exhausted from the trip and time change. But I was powered by anticipation.
So it started. Darren McGavin was a nosy, obnoxious reporter who was poking his nose around in everybody's business. The gist of the story, which caused many episodes of goose bumps and hair stands, was that an actual vampire was living in the catacombs under New Orleans. McGavin got on his tail, found him, almost got killed, got away, etc. and had to warn everybody. You know how those movies go, where nobody believes the only person who has the true picture of what's happening.
All this would have been fine, except that 1) it was one of those movies where things jump out and make you scream, and 2) something kept banging on my door. And that, together with the movie, DID scare me to the bone. I kept walking over to the door, thinking, "Maybe I should call the front desk and send somebody over here," and "I'm glad I've got this door between me and whatever's out there. It's a lot better than a fence."
That had been in Uncle Pete's lane east of Versailles on a dark night when I was walking a letter the half-mile down the road to the mail box. By lightning illumination, I saw that a big black animal of some kind had been escorting me, on the other side of a fence.
"Rattle, rattle, bang," the thing at the door said, about the same time the camera zoomed in on the fangs of the vampire as he hissed at McGavin. Instant goose bumps. I tiptoed over to the door, and slowly edged back the curtain. Nothing. And no sound while I stood there. I looked through the peephole. More nothing.
Back to bed, covers up to my chin, shiver shiver. More chasing, hiding, terror, pleading, disbelieving. "Bang, bang," on the door. "Maybe it's a vampire," I said out loud, trying to tease the goose bumps into going away. They weren't buying it. "What the heck is that?" I wondered. "This is the real world, and there aren't any vampires, so shape UP!" The only worry was that somebody was trying to break into my room, and surely they wouldn't just keep scratching and banging at the door. Unless they were trying to get me to open it. "So don't open it."
More TV suspense, and nothing at the door for five or ten minutes. Then again, "Bang, bang, rattle, rattle!" Good grief. With the hair standing up on the back of my neck, and with Darren McGavin getting into his deepest trouble, I decided I'd go over to the door, jerk back the curtain, and watch the area in front of the door. Maybe I could surprise it/him. Nothing. The area was poorly illuminated with a low power light bulb from up above. I watched and waited - both the TV and the front door.
I couldn't figure out which was scaring me more - the movie or the rattling noise.
Out of the corner of my eye, as I held back the curtain, I saw movement at the door! Something at the door knob! I suddenly knew what it was. I opened the door, and retrieved my door key and its attached plastic room number placard. Anybody could have come in the whole time I was taking a shower or watching the spooky movie.
As Mom had said when I told her I slept in a sleeping bag beside the road in Arizona on one of my drives to Missouri from California, "Why Bob, somebody could have come right up (in) and knocked you in the head!"
As my daughters used to chant some nights when I'd put them to sleep, "No real ghosts. No real ghosts." Or as Sieren, our youngest grandson says in a similar manner, "No real monsters!"
When I was still married to Carrie, we went to dinner at the Elizabethan Inn in downtown San Jose with Bill and Sharon Petrick. We had heard that they insult you, you have to eat with your fingers, and you have to ask permission to go to the bathroom. We couldn't wait for the abuse.
Shortly after our arrival, we were escorted to a darkened room. Long folding tables had been placed roughly in a large rectangle, with exit spaces for the waitresses to come in and go out. At the head of the rectangle, at a slightly raised table, sat the host of the evening - an employee who was paid to do his Don Rickles abuse act.
As we were sitting down, he said this: "The rules here are simple. You must ask permission to go to the restroom. I may ask you to tell a story or sing a song. If you do a good job, I'll let you go. There are no forks or spoons. You must use your fingers and your knife to eat everything. Address me as "Milord." There is no hand-clapping allowed. To express approval, stomp your feet on the floor or bang your knives on the table."
The waitresses, all of whom he introduced to us as serving wenches, wore peasant skirts and low-cut blouses. They were really nice.
Bread and wine were served, and a roast, as I recall. After a half-hour or so, the host made another request, "I want each of you gentlemen to stand up and introduce yourself, together with your mate. You can't just say, 'We're Mr. and Mrs. Jones,' you must make up something like, 'Squire Williamson and the Lady Janet, of Covington Court.' We'll start with this table," and pointed to his left.
All the guys stood up one at a time, and followed his instructions. Then my friend Bill stood up and said loudly, "Mr. and Mrs. Jones." Everybody burst out laughing, and the host knighted Bill for his clever turnabout introduction.
After a while, I had to go to the restroom. I stood up and requested permission. The host said, "Come before me and entertain me with a story," so I told him the Tokyo Tower story, which would get a great laugh. The interesting part was that near the end of my story, one of the serving wenches sneaked up behind me, put a grape in my ear, and smashed it with her open hand. Everybody roared - Bill loudest of all. "What's the matter, Robin," he yelled, "can't you hear anything?"
The grape girl was bent over with laughter behind me. I pulled the grape out of my ear, twisted around, took quick aim, and tossed it right down the front of her blouse. The room exploded. "Nice shot, Robin," hollered Bill, "Get that grape out of there."
Then just as I was delivering the punch line, I felt a hand reach up from between my legs - trying to stuff the well-traveled grape down the front of my pants. So I closed my legs, pinching off the attack. Everybody was roaring.
So I took off for the restroom. I had to GO...
I had read an article in the Sunday funny papers, of all places, that there was a dry lake bed in Death Valley, California, which had some strange goings-on. Rocks moved all by themselves! In fact all kinds of things moved - boulders, pebbles, and even wild burro droppings.
The best scientific information I had heard was that it's a combination of ultra-slick lake bed mud and extremely high winds - like 100 miles an hour - during local thunderstorms, which causes the movement. To my knowledge, nobody has ever gone out and actually watched this happen. Or if they have, they haven't come back.
John Salisbury and Howard Smith (two other GE startup test engineers) and I went on a camping trip to Death Valley. To get to this dry lake bed, you have to drive about twenty miles on bumpy dirt road. Upon arrival, you see a huge dry lake bed, with a giant rock formation sticking up right near the center. The name given to this area is "the racetrack" (lake bed) and "the grandstand" (rock formation in center of lake bed).
So of course, John sat on one of the "moving" rocks with a small piece of rope, to look like he was riding it, and we took his picture.
This phenomenon reminded me a little of the "Jim The Wonder Dog" stories. You know - is this a hoax?
When I was getting off the plane in Milan (Muh-LAN in the U.S. but Muh-LA-no in Italy) in 1978, I saw policemen all over the place. They wore black or dark blue uniforms, with white chest criss-cross belts, and they had machine guns slung over their soldiers. It was clear that they were the elite police force of Italy. They were the Caribinieri (Cahr-uh-been-YER-ee). I was impressed, and began to wonder what AmCorya would feel like with every airport full of young policemen armed with machine guns.
But I was wrong. It turns out that Italians tells jokes about the Caribinieri the way the rest of the world tells jokes about Italians. I wondered who the Caribinieri told jokes about.
During the next month, while I was temporarily assigned to the Caorso Nuclear Power Plant in Italy, I was invited to several parties. And I found out who the Caribinieri tell jokes about. One of the secretaries told these three jokes:
A new Carbinieri recruit and a sergeant were going to take the elevator from their offices on the fifth floor of the department to the ground floor. They walked up to the elevator call buttons. The sergeant asked the recruit to call the elevator. "ELEVATOR," yelled the recruit. "No, no, you idiot, use your finger. The recruit stuck his finger inside his mouth and yelled, "EWEWAWOR!"
The sergeant was in the car and asked the new recruit to stand in front of the car and see if the left turn signal blinker would work. "OK," yelled the recruit, "turn it on." The sergeant did so, and said, "Is it working?" The recruit said, in about one-second intervals: "Yes .... no ..... yes ..... no....."
This is a true Italian joke about the European river Po. Not that the joke is true, but the fact that it's Italian. So expand your mind a little. It so happens that a stupid man in Italy might say interchangeably "Mah" or "Po" the way we'd say "I 'on't know", for "I don't know." Or those terms might be the equivalent of just shrugging your shoulders listlessly when you don't know the answer to a question, and in fact don't even care about the question. A sergeant was drilling a new Caribinieri recruit in Piacenza, near the Po River. "What are the guiding principles of the Caribinieri?" he asked. "Po," mumbled the recruit. "Well, what is the rank of the badge I'm wearing?" "Po," said the recruit. The sergeant couldn't believe what an idiot he was training. "OK, then, what's the name of the river running through Italy?" "Mah," said the recruit.
Don't let anyone tell you that you can't win betting on thoroughbred horse races.
No one should HAVE to tell you.
Thanksgiving of 1977, Sharon and I went to the races at the Bay Meadows race track in San Mateo, about 45 miles towards San Francisco from here. Not too far from San Francisco International Airport. Mike Racich (RAY-sic), a friend at GE, had been trying to get me to go with him on Saturdays for a couple of years. I finally agreed to go and took Sharon along.
Nothing much happened the first time. I don't think I even won any of my $2 bets. But on the way home, Mike told me about this information he got recently detailing some professor's analysis system based on the horses' past performance data in the official nationwide newspaper, The Daily Racing Form.
You could get the past performances of each of today's horse's last ten races, summarized for further consideration. He gave me a copy of this system and I read it. "Hey, this is fascinating," I thought. I asked Mike if I could go with him the next Saturday and he was excited at the thought of having somebody to go with him.
I drove to Carrol & Bishop's, a now-defunct, downtown San Jose newsstand and tobacco shop, where the next day's Racing Form was delivered from Los Angeles by air to the San Jose airport, then by delivery truck to the store. Sometimes it would be late and they wouldn't have it until the next morning, but it was usually available about 7:30 PM.
So Friday night, I drove down, picked it up, brought it home, and began my analysis. It took about twenty minutes per race, for 9 races. About 3 hours of work for the next day's racing. For each race, I ended up with a percent-chance-to-win for each horse, the total adding up to 100.
So the top horse might be for example, 34%. Next you convert that to "break-even odds," by the formula (100-PCT) / PCT, so (100-34) / 34 = 1.94. So Saturday morning, for that race, if the odds were 2 to 1 or higher, you'd bet on that horse. If he was heavily bet so the odds were lower (like 3/2 or even money, for example), then you'd look at the second choice. He might be 27% chance-to-win. So his break-even odds would be 2.7, by the formula above. Then you'd check his actual odds. If they were higher than 2.7 (say 4 to 1 or better), you'd bet him. Otherwise, you would pass the race. It was "unbettable" in horse-betting parlance.
Now the interesting thing is there is about a 25 minute betting period before each race. And the amount of money bet on each horse determines the odds that the track pays if that horse wins. And minute by minute, the odds change up or down depending on the incremental money bet in the last half-minute or so -- each time the displayed odds are updated. Your 27% chance-to-win, 2.7 break-even-odds horse might start off at 3 to 2 odds (1.5), then fewer people might bet on him in the next update, and he might jump to 5 to 1. Then more people might bet him the next update, and he might come down to 4 to 1. Like a roller coaster. But as you get closer to the actual race, incremental money has less effect on the odds because the aggregate amount previously bet outweighs it so much. But the actual payoff is based only on the final odds.
Anyway, about two minutes before the race, you make your decision. Bet your top choice, your second choice, or pass.
In reality, you can bet on your horse to win, to place (be in the top two finishers) or show (in the top three). But it didn't take much analysis to prove to me that the only long-term choice is to bet to win. So that's what I did.
In 1978, I bought my first computer (a Heathkit), and programmed my system so the computer would do the calculations and make a printout I could take to the track. That's what computers were meant for, at that time, for me.
So in the first race that Saturday, I bet on my top choice, Nashville Night. I had him at a 38% chance to win and he went off at 8 to 1, an overwhelming positive bet situation. I bet $5. He won by about six lengths, and I got that thundering rush of winning a bet on a horse. Mike didn't like him because he was coming in from a small Canadian track.
In one of those tricks God plays on you throughout your life, I won four or five of the nine races that day.
I had discovered a money printing machine. I believed I could make 30 or 40% return on every dollar bet. I was going to fine tune this process a little, prove that it worked over a few months, quit my job and get rich. It was December of 1977.
Over the next few years, I came to love such horses as Old Memories and O.K. So Far at the local tracks, and Seattle Slew, Affirmed, Alydar, Spectacular Bid, John Henry and others across the country. Sharon and I even went to the Kentucky Derby in 1987 when Alysheba won it. In fact, I have a winning ticket I never cashed.
Jump forward to 1989. I had improved my system several times by fine tuning it, making subtle adjustments for new characteristics such as "early speed," "late foot," and other behaviors. Each system improvement, with 100% correlation, provided a worse return on my money than the one before. But I refused to go back to the original, simple one. That made no sense at all. I updated computer languages from Basic (on tape) to Fortran 77 (on floppy) to C (on hard disk). In the end, I proved that I was losing money, so I quit.
What I learned was why there are so many books about how to win by betting on horses. The fact is that you spend the equivalent of two 8-hour shifts getting the racing form, calculating the races, driving to the track, sitting through the races and driving home. And you lose money doing it. So the way to make money is to publish your system, and hope lots of suckers pay money to buy it from you.
The single most exciting time (not counting my first win, on Nashville Night) was betting $100 on a horse that won at odds of 9.8, producing a $980 payoff, plus my $100 back. Another time I bet $50 on a horse who won at 19.6, also producing a $980 payoff, plus my $50 back. My biggest bet ever was $300, and I made two of them. I won one and lost one. The low point was losing 32 bets in a row. The high point was when I quit.
At the peak of my race betting career, I would organize a day at the races for our friends. I would give a copy of my printout to everybody and we'd go up and bet. Some people bet the horses to place, or to show. Others played exactas (pick the first TWO horses, in exact order of finish). Others just saved their money and watched.
My system lost so often that my friend Bill Petrick began crossing off my top two choices, and betting only on one of the OTHER horses. Sharon began betting on horses that had attractive grooming jobs. Others learned that beginner's luck played a bigger-than-normal part in winning, and would ask first-timers who they liked, then bet on THEM.
I think one of my favorite stories occurred one day when a couple was sitting behind me. Here is there conversation, as I recall it.
Her: "Who do you like in the next race?" Him: "What about the four [the horse wearing the number "four"]? Her: "He didn't do very good in his last race." Him: "Yes, but look at the previous four races. Maybe he just had one bad race [this happens with horses all the time. They throw in a clunker for no reason]." Her: "What about the two?" Him: "He's moving up too far in class [the size of the purse]. He'll never win." Her: "Are you sure?" Him: "I still like the four. I'm going up to bet." Her: "OK, bet $5 on the four for me."
Fast forward about five minutes, as the horses break from the starting gate. The four horse - the one they bet - is "Goodfella," and the two horse - her rejected choice - is "Breaker Breaker." Announcer: "They're off. Breaker Breaker breaks on top followed by... . Goodfella trails." Her to Him: "You stupid assh----, I knew the two was gonna win. Godd--- you. You son-of-a-b----." Announcer: "Rounding the turn, Breaker Breaker maintains a seven length lead... . Goodfella trails." Her: "You stupid sh--, you don't know you're a-- from a hole in the ground. God---- it." Announcer: "And crossing the finish line, it's Breaker Breaker by 9 length... , with Goodfella making a late move to get third." Her: "J---- C-----, I can't believe you thought the four had any chance. I'm gonna leave you at home next time, you dumb sh--."
Silence for about fifteen seconds, then... Her: "Who do you like in the next race?"
The GE Site Manager at Caorso Nuclear Power Plant in Italy was Lee Oxsen. He had been at Oyster Creek in New Jersey in the summer of '69, and that's where I first met him. He was extremely low key - nothing ever seemed to upset him. That's why he made such a good manager. But what I loved the most about him was that he was a fascinating storyteller. When he heard that I was trying to make money betting on thoroughbred horses, he told this story:
He grew up in Pleasanton, California, just a little outside of the San Francisco Bay Area. For a two-week period every summer, sleepy little Pleasanton wakes up and has its big county fair. As you would expect, there are wonderful food and craft exhibits. There is a big carnival. And thoroughbred racing. They have a full-fledged one-mile racing track that's only used two weeks out of the year.
I loved to go there on the Fourth of July. They had frozen chocolate-dipped bananas, corn dogs, popcorn, hamburgers, steakburgers, french fries, cotton candy, and ice cream but no Pineapple Whips. It would be about a hundred dry degrees in the sun, though nice and cool in the shade of the big oak trees, around the grandstand.
Lee said that when he had been in high school, there were lots of illegal drugs administered to the horses, to make them run faster. Nowadays, that stuff is almost impossible to pull, but then it was apparently easier.
Lee hung around the track because lots of his high school friends had jobs mucking out stalls and doing other assorted tasks for the trainers. Lee got occasional hot tips through his grapevine.
One day a buddy of his called, "Put all the money you can on Poppa Jake. They're gonna shoot him so full of uppers, he's gonna set a track record." Lee checked the local Daily Racing Form, where they have a summary of the last twelve races or so for every horse in the next day's races, and Poppa Jake had come in last or next to last in every race on the Form. And when he came in last, it wasn't a simple last place finish. He'd be behind 32 lengths, 24 lengths, 15 lengths. No person in his right mind would bet on this horse.
The race was for four-year-olds and up. Jake was twelve. His morning line odds (the odds that an official expects the horse to actually have, at race time) were sixty to one. These are published in the racing program you buy for $2 when you enter the grandstand. So the standard $2 bet would give you your two dollars back, plus sixty times your bet - so that's $120 plus your $2 back.
Lee went home and robbed his piggy bank and borrowed a bunch of money. He said he came up with about a hundred dollars. He went to the track on the Saturday of Poppa Jake's race and bet the bundle. Then he waited for the race.
There are about 28 minutes between each race, and a half-hour before Jake's race, Lee climbed the stairs and went to the front of the grandstand, to get a view of the full track. Poppa Jake always started slow and finished slower. Lee would know pretty quick if Jake was responding to his "boost."
The gun sounded, the gate doors opened, and they were off. Poppa Jake had a rocket under his saddle. He jumped out of that gate like he was wired to the starter's gun. It was a six-furlong race, which is the typical distance for speed runners - sort of like the 220-yard dash for humans. A normal race track is one mile (8 furlongs) around, so a six furlong race starts at about the beginning of one of the long legs of the track, makes one turn, and ends at the finish line, a little past the middle of the other long leg. For most horses, it's a three-quarter mile, all-out sprint.
Poppa Jake was leading the pack from the start to the top of the stretch, and he was running like a three-year-old. Nobody was going to catch him, and Lee noticed that even though everybody and his brother seemed to have got the tip, he still went off at 25 to 1. Lee would make $2500 and change if Jake could only hold on!
Then Jake started slowing down a little, and all of a sudden, he dropped like a sack of potatoes - dead of a heart attack, as it turned out. Caused by the exertion or the injection or both.
In the horse race betting world, this is what's known as a sure thing.
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The fog gets thick in Italy's Po Valley. I'm not sure whether California's San Joaquin Valley Tule fog is worse or not - they're both impossible. My friend Ephraim (EEF-rum) Romesberg and I were working at GE's Caorso (Kay-OR-so) nuclear power plant startup. Eph was renting an apartment because he was there for a longer period than I was. I stayed in the Hotel Piacenza (Pee-uh-CHEN-zuh), in the city of Piacenza and rented a car. This area is in north-central Italy, an hour or two north of Milan.
Our friend and co-worker, Dick Baker had invited us over to his home, where he and his wife were going to fix us some steaks, and we were going to play some card games - I think "hearts" was the big game at Caorso. It was a gorgeous Sunday when Eph and I drove out there. He drove from Piacenza, and I drove my brand new Hertz Fiat from the power plant, where I had worked the day shift.
A little more background is needed here. Dick lived in a little house beyond Caorso, from Piacenza, so we had to drive back through Caorso, to return to Piacenza at the end of the evening. Like my hometown, Versailles and its Highway 52, a new highway had been routed around Caorso so travelers didn't have to negotiate the narrow town streets and stop signs, when they were just passing through. This section of Italy had two ways of handling intersections. The first was the fairly common traffic circle. The objective of the traffic circle is so that nobody has to stop at a stop sign or stop light.
The other is a strange set of inter-weaving lanes, separated from each other by raised curbs and concrete. This was the situation outside Caorso. There was an enormous sign set up beside the road warning travelers passing through Caorso on the way to Piacenza. It was a huge arrow pointing to the right - warning of the upcoming sharp right-hand turn.
When I left the Bakers, the fog had set in. I could barely see the headlights of the Fiat. I was driving at a moderate rate of speed as I approached Caorso, watching for the big sign. As I was beginning to wonder when the sign would appear, I felt the front wheels hit something in the road, and I went flying up into the air. The car came down with a crash on the raised concrete area between the roads - I WAS IN THE CAORSO INTERSECTION. WHERE WAS THE BIG SIGN? Then I dropped down onto the road - in the oncoming traffic lane. I could just FEEL the collision coming in the fog! I cautiously drove about twenty feet in this wrong-way direction, past the concrete intersection, ready to drive back onto the raised concrete portion, but I was finally able to pop back over to the correct lane. Luckily for me, there wasn't any oncoming traffic. Whew!
I pulled over and looked under the Fiat. All I could see was some wild tufts of grass, which the car had picked up when I initially hit the plants next to the concrete curb. And I had to wait for the headlights of an oncoming car, to see that. Well, the car seemed OK, so I drove very carefully in the thick fog the rest of the way to Piacenza, where I went to my room and to sleep. Next morning I went down to the car, looked underneath, and saw a big puddle of oil. I called Hertz, and they sent somebody with an old beat-up Fiat, which was my rental for the rest of the time. They towed away my flying Fiat.
So I went into work a few hours late that day. When I passed through the Caorso intersection, I saw two huge double-tire grooves in the dirt, which had gone right through the "danger" arrow sign, wiping it out. Well, at least the truck hadn't done the same aerial act I had.
So I told my story in the control room, to great laughter. Soon after I started, Ephraim walked in and started listening. He laughed harder than everyone.
When I finished, he came over to me and said, "I can't believe you did that. Listen to THIS. Last night I hit the exact same curb in the fog, flew through the air, landed in the oncoming traffic road, made it back over to the right lane, stopped, checked under the car and then drove home. The big difference," he continued, "is that I wasn't going to breathe a word of what I had done to ANYBODY."
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