Confessions Of A Wannabe Geek - I
The Early Years
Ray Levasseur (c) October 1999
Technoid Since I was knee high. The fabulous 50-60's
My fascination and "on/off again" love affair with all things technical began when I was about 5 years old. My Dad was a fireman by trade, but his avocation was tinkering with and fixing up anything remotely mechanical. Dad had this innate mechanical aptitude that was passed on to me, probably from following him around like a puppy when I was a lad, "a chip off the old block," as he would say. My Father was not a man of letters; in other words he was no rocket scientist, but he was very good at carpentry, plumbing, heating, automotive, electrical and other repairs. Dad did not know anything about electronics, although the topic did fascinate him. There was a fine line between the innards of radio, tv, etc. and "magic". I often refer to most high tech "miracles?" as "Electronic slight of hand."
My Father had a little den in his workshop, and in the corner sat a pair of re-upholstered easy chairs (his handiwork) and an old console Philco short wave radio. Dad had re-finished the "genuine mahogany" cabinet, stopping short of messing around in the guts of the beast. He assured me, "it's a real powerful one son, 9 tubes and a big 12" speaker." It also had 8 bands, AM, long wave and 6 short wave bands. I'd sit by his side on cold Winter nights as he'd tune in BBC London, Radio Moscow, Radio Free Europe, Cairo, Japan and the rest of the world. We'd eavesdrop on ham radio conversations and anything else that captured Dad's interest, "that's really something son, no?" By age 6 I grew to love Short wave listening and Dad told me that some day, when I was old enough this old Philco would be mine. That day would come sooner than later.
Very early on I learned to respect the higher voltages, as one day when Dad was not around I powered up the old set and pulled it away from the wall, peering in at the motionless innards that emitted a soft orange glow from the tubes. Well let's see, there was this wire dangling there that the electrical tape had slipped from, exposing a soldered connection. Curiosity got the best of me, so I touched it and was thrown backward, "ahhh, the B+ voltage that flowed through the speaker's field coil." I also learned that tubes can get very hot by poking around where small hands were not meant to explore. The following Christmas I got a Remco, crystal radio kit, which Dad helped me put together; I was hooked after that.
By the age of 8-9 I got a 4 tube radio kit that ran from a 90 volt B battery, which could also give one quite a jolt is they got across it's terminals. This was when Dad taught me the fine art of soldering. The smell of hot solder and flux or heated Bakelite was the finest perfume on Earth to me. Dad was active in our church parish, where the rector was a ham operator. Our rector was very active in ham radio and kept in contact with missionaries around the world. The priest also ran electronics and ham radio classes for the boys in CYO. I was way too young to be in the CYO, but Dad got me into the Rector's basic electronics classes, where he told my old man, I took to this stuff like a duck to water. By age 11 I passed my Tech class license, and a year later earned my "General Class" ham radio license.
As my skills grew, I was able to fix TV's and radios, and where most of my peers got athletic stuff for Christmas and birthdays, anything electronic was on my wish list; a tube tester, VTVM, Oscilloscope, Signal generators, etc, etc; whatta geek! My father being a fireman, had tons of friends among all the fire fighters and cops in town. Home electronics were not too reliable back then, so Dad kept me busy with TV's and radios to fix, passed on to him by the city's finest. I was able to make enough money to supply my growing techno habit.
I was a regular face every Saturday morning down at the electrical wholesale supply house. At first the regular customers were put off, "what is this snot nosed kid doing here?" It didn't take long for me to become sort of a mascot, where the guy behind the counter and the other grownups would quiz me with random questions, "hmmm the kid's pretty sharp." The regular Saturday routine would then lead to "Harvey's" a used book store and corner spa. The owner got to know me from all my pestering and always had boxes of used Popular Electronics, Electronics Illustrated, plus other magazines for me to rummage through. Harvey also owned a hobby shop, across the street from the book store. This was about the time I got into model rocketry, and radio controlled model airplanes.
As I approached puberty, friends and relatives of the family questioned Mom and Dad about my lack of interest in girls. You don't think young Ray is going to be a, ummmm, uhhh, Homo," they would ask? Mom found this rather embarrassing and at times took it out on me, "you little weirdo, are you a homo?" It was the 50's after all and I had no idea what a "homo" was, except hearing the jocks in school gossiping about homos trying to pick them up, or that homosexuals dressed in women's clothing and hung around in school yards; I would learn much later that none of these rumors were true.
My nerdy friends
I was not popular in school and neither were most of my friends, the other electronics nerds, science fiction fans, model rocketeers and future geeks. We picked in neighborhood trash, especially during Spring cleaning time, when people tossed out broken radios and TV sets. Police and firemen always seem to have broad networks of all sorts and one of Dad's buddies was a retired fireman who ran a junk/salvage yard. He would let my friends and I run riot through a section of the yard where electrical and electronic scrap was piled. I could not have been happier if a guard let me load up wheelbarrows full of gold bouillon at Fort Knox to take home.
Most of my friends also held ham radio licenses, so when we became old enough to drive, would take weekend jaunts to ham fests, and electronic swap meets. Dad was not too pleased at first, but later said "ok" to my request to install a 10-6-2 meter transceiver in his car. As we got into our teens, some of my friends discovered the opposite sex, so the rest of us saw much less of them. I did have a girlfriend or two later in high school, but my popularity came from having an enormous record collection and one of the biggest home made hi-fi's that any kid could ever dream of. I began disk jockeying at sock hops, backing up a local band from a neighboring town's high school. Yeah, a couple of the band members were also ex-nerds I met through boy scouts, and yes the boy scout troupe I had been in specialized in ham radio, model aviation, etc.
During high school the class I dreaded most was "gym" We had a brutal coach, who didn't like nerdy types and singled me out for a big fat "F". I couldn't catch a ball, pitch or bat. Half out of fear my friends Dan and I began working out at the Y and his folks bought him a set of weights. We pumped iron all the time in his basement, when we were not sitting over hot soldering irons. Both of us developed quite the bodies for nerds, all pecs, washboard abs, etc. Dan grew to become quite handsome and discovered girls with a vengeance. I saw less and less of him as he gained the reputation of being one hot stud muffin. He bought a motorcycle, and then a car. Dan was actually getting laid, or "going all the way" as we called it then. I was envious, I was all pumped up, but was still very visibly a nerd. This was a major turn off to all the girls.
After high school many of the kids went on to college, almost as many were going into the military and some getting jobs right out of school. The plum jobs were Doctors, Lawyers and Electrical Engineers. I did poorly in geometry, trig and introductory calculus, but did ace out physics and chemistry. Unfortunately, I did not qualify to take the SAT tests since I was in a mongrel mix of college prep and business classes. Three of my crowd were also in the same boat and we all applied to and were accepted in a 15 month tech school.
My friend Dan attended the same tech school but I saw very little of him, as he lived in a dorm and had a full dance card. It was 1966-67 and he began to look like a hippie with hair down to his butt, wearing torn faded jeans and being quite the ladies man. He said that queers were always coming on to him and he'd let them give him a blow job for kicks if he was really horny. I envied him more and more as he was in demand and I was not.
Being a techno geek was fun then. The greed heads had not quite taken over the industry for themselves and technology was not being marketed as the new religion yet. Everything seemed fun, exciting and new back then. This would all wear off in time, after I began to work in high tech for a living.
Uncle Sam's Navy
I graduated from tech school with a 4.0 average, and as the other graduates were all accepting plum jobs with military contractors, I was coerced into serving my country by my parents. The Navy scoffed me up before the Army had a change to draft me into a ground pounder billet. During boot camp I scored off scale on certain mechanical and other aptitude tests. I wound up getting 15 months worth of training on avionics radar, communications, and computers. To be honest I hated digital electronics, but spent my Navy career working on an airborne early warning sub-system. I actually had a somewhat cushy job working in an air conditioned avionics lab on board carriers and at the Naval Air Station. I belonged to an early warning squadron or E2A Hawkeyes (or Hummers as some referred to them). The Navy still flies the E2, which looks like a 2 engine turboprop that a UFO is attempting to hijack.
There were times I hated having to be in the military. There were too many fun and exciting things going on outside during the 60's. The nerds I worked alongside in the Navy were different from the ones I grew up with; they had real lives outside of electronics tinkering. They were hard driving, hard drinking, ladies men, besides being techies. Being exposed to and living with guys from every part of the USA expanded my mind and as I look back, It was a very worthwhile experience. Remember me mentioning "homos?" I hung out in the radio shack on board ship during off hours, where I stood my military watch running MARS ham radio patches back to the states. One of the best friends I made on my West PAC cruise (Vietnam) was an infectiously funny, sharp and charming Black guy who was a radioman. Some shipmates warned me that I was hanging around with a queer. He confirmed the fact and I shrugged it off. I would later find out there were quite a few closeted and not so closeted gay men in the military, long before Bill Clinton's "Don't ask, don't tell" policy became news. I entered the military having no interest in getting a college degree, but after discharge it became my Holy Grail, along with finding a woman and getting married.
College and beyond...
After discharge I returned home and began applying to colleges. I was able to take the SATS "In Absentia" toward the end of my Navy career. We had stopped in Cannes France over the Christmas holiday season and the test was offered on board ship. I took the tests with a raging hangover and scored in the 1500's, which I was told was pretty good. Of all the colleges that came knocking after I got home, I decided to attended a local state college. During my college years I worked as a field engineer for a classical music station in Boston, worked part time at Radio Shack doing repairs, worked for a couple of government contractors and dating my ex-wife. I won't get into the whole marriage quagmire, save to say we split after 5 years, remained friendly for a couple more after the divorce, then no further contact.
Since I was now working in high tech, it was not as much fun. There were deadlines and budgets to meet, and since the Viet Name war and the entire military industrial complex was slowing down, the constant threat of layoffs. I think that the 70's marked a turning point for me. Electronic kits were not nearly as popular as they were when I was a kid. Everything was more and more "out of the box." What used to be a challenge and took a month of Sundays to build was now almost a plug-n-play deal. "Insert the 5 numbered and color coded cards into the appropriate slots, connect the power cord and Voila! you have now completed construction of your project."
I gradually lost interest in ham radio and sold off my room full of ham radio gear. As the 70's wore on the same went for all of my electronic test equipment. You now had to be state certified to repair home electronics; bureaucracy takes it's toll. It was just not fun any more.
I still had no interest in digital electronics. The closest I got to this was suffering through 2 semesters of COBOL during college, and SWORE I would never deal with computers or programming again. A lot of my peers were more visionary types than I and were cramming in as many computer classes as possible. The university I attended had just added a "Computer Science" major to the curriculum, YUCK! Computer Science.
The rest is all history
I got tired of the dead end job I was now in at the military contractor. I had been working as an R&D Engineering tech and after getting my Bachelor of Science in Management Science I became a new product planner. The job went from being fun to 99% boredom, meetings and paperwork. After a year of fruitless job hunting an agency set me up with an interview at Digital Equipment Corporation. I thought "OH NO, NOT a computer company!" I loved the world of analog, matter of fact I had been one of the last lonely holdouts who still felt tubes had transistors and IC's beat by a country mile. I went for the interview and I guess they liked me, because on that same day I was made an offer and started a couple of weeks later. Digital (or DEC to those familiar with the company) had the reputation of being one of the absolute best places to work on the entire planet. My first couple of jobs were pretty mundane, but I was getting a foot in the door with the legendary computer giant. I can't say I liked, let alone loved my first 3 positions at DEC, all basically paper pushing.
I was fortunate that most of my managers were very good. I won't discuss the 2 or 3 in my 22 years that were downright evil incarnate. My first couple of bosses knew that I was not a good fit for what I was doing, but in the world of bean counting, there are not many who can steer one toward a more technical career.
During my first couple of years at DEC, I had pretty much sold off all my test equipment, bins full of parts, and rooms full of electronic junk. Funny how not too many years earlier what I was now calling "trash" had been treasure. If I needed an electronic gadget, I bought one ready made. After all those ingenious Japanese could pump out electronics with 10 times the functionality, 100 times the reliability at about 10% of what it would take me to build the gadget myself. This took into consideration the time spent rustling up the components, laying out the project, building it, then getting the darn thing to work.Without my knowing it, time and life were accelerating at warp speed. Spending every waking free hour sitting at a work bench no longer felt satisfying. Well, anyway, technology was now advancing so fast, I found it more difficult to keep up with. And it would just keep accelerating faster, and faster, and faster. I did always manage to trade my old equipment for the latest and greatest audio gear I could afford. Audio was still my major passion and I had to keep up with the Jones's
This is where it seemed high tech was heading. Just like the automotive industry, each year they kept upping the stakes, hoping that Joe and Jane consumer would no longer feel adequate with last year's television, stereo, and just over the horizon, personal computer.
This ends part One of my technology journal. In part two, the 80's; video, computers and my re-introduction to programming.