NAAO: Eccentricity and Aerospace

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They might be giants

Aerospace in general, and Rockwell (NAAO) in specific (in 1983) was a strange place to work at times. There were many types of people there; nerds, lifers, a few interns, lots of managers, and a few genius eccentrics. Then there are some consultants that are temporary workers, treated like whores, and expected to produce while be ridiculed for making more than everyone else. Of the groups to belong to, I think I lucked out.

Now those pocket protector, black horn-rimmed glass wearing geeks do have jobs somewhere; and that seems to be Rockwell. Yes, they had female versions of the same too. Someone once said, "90% of female engineers are gorgeous, and the other 10% work at NAAO". Ouch, that's a little harsh, but most that are capable of being supermodels don't opt to become aerospace engineers. But it was interesting seeing people in the 80s that still carried around stacks of punch cards. Not because they had any punch card readers left (though I think they might have had one in the back room), it was more a security thing; giving people something to riffle through while they talked to you. There were also more than a few that would use slide rules, and scoff at calculators. Damn it, they had built the B-25 with a slide rule, and if it was good enough back then, then it was good enough now!

Another group were the lifers. You could tell the lifers because time slowed down around them. I swear you could through a ball to them, and watch it slow down as it approached them; of course, even that slowed trajectory wasn't slow enough - and it will still bounce off their head, and hit the ground before they would react. It was sort of like the advanced stages of burn-out. What happens when you've worked for 30 years in the same place, and hardly gotten anything done? It was about marking time until retirement, and flying below the RADAR. Which is interesting, since many of them were working before RADAR was invented, or had stood a little too close over the years and microwaved a few too many brain cells.

There were lots of managers. Org charts were popular and confusing; and ever changing. Who do I report to this week? And so on. But all those managers meant they had to have something to do; so lots and lots and lots of meetings. The more you felt you were falling behind and complained, the more meetings they would have to compensate. Many of the workers just learned that meetings were for managers, and wouldn't show up. It was interesting watching a manager be the only one to show up to a meeting, and manage himself or herself poorly; but it happens. Dilbert is life.

Eccentricity Personified

Now the eccentrics existed. They were rare; but it didn't take many of them to add color to a company. And you didn't seem to want to get rid of them, because they did work that no one else wanted to do, between fits of speaking in tongues. I remember one guy (Chan); a Ph.D. from MIT in Math. He was a strange cookie that fit the norm for aerospace eccentrics.

He's the kind of guy that wouldn't use a urinal by unzipping like a normal male; he unbuckled and dropped trou right there. So you'd walk in to use the restroom and there's some ass (literally) mooning you from the urinal. While that wasn't good Urinal etiquette, and it was amusing to talk about - I just didn't know how to broach the subject about not wanting to see his hairy-backside. If nothing else, it was amusing while washing your hands (guys occasionally do that), to see other guys come in and triple-take at the scene, or just turn around and leave because they were uncomfortable and didn't know how to handle it. If only urinal etiquette was the extent of Chan's eccentricity.

Schizophrenia

Chan also had a tendency to walk around outside my mega-cube (bay of cubes) and argue with a pole. There was a support pole for the building that was his best-friend and arch nemesis. As near as I can tell, he liked to talk to himself, and debate, LOUDLY; but wanted to anthropomorphize the pole as an aid to visualization. He would sometimes burst out in gesticulations and smack unaware passers by (who were looking down riffling their punch cards, or playing with their slide rules). Once they realized what had just happened, they got quite perturbed and hustled off; scared of provoking the loon.

The first few times you saw and argument with a pole starting, you might ask, "are you OK?" This gets you into some argument with him playing both roles, and thinking that you're much better than a pole to argue with. And he would follow you around debating with you until his problem resolved itself. After that, you learn to butt out. I wanted to start spiking his food with lithium, because it could get hard to concentrate with all those heated debates going on.

Naptime

Chan also had a favorite desk. It wasn't his, but it had once been. It was the guy who sat behind me's desk, but that didn't stop Chan. Each day at 11:30 he would come and stare the guy down, until he left his desk, and then Chan would curl up in a fetal ball in the footwell of the desk and take a loud, snoring nap. It was George Kastanza a decade before Seinfeld; I kid thee not.

Company Representative

Because of Chan's incredible people skills, Rockwell had also sent him down with us to San Diego to subcontract to Cubic, as a representative of the organization.

That was until in the middle of one meeting with the Air Force and Cubic executives, he was bored; and took off his shoes, and then his socks. Not only did he have his socks off, and was airing out those stinky dogs in a small meeting room; which I assumed were pretty bad since people next to him were making faces (I was across the room). But then in the middle of this progress meeting, he starts playing with his socks like airplanes; people were trying to ignore that. Then he makes hand puppets and starts mocking the people that are presenting; and that was when the meeting adjourned suddenly because the leader of the meeting just couldn't take it any more. I think he was concerned that Chan was next going to use the corner of the room as a urinal.

Rockwell quickly had second thoughts about letting Chan near customers after that. But they wouldn't fire him; he was so good at math, and no one else could do what he did, so he stayed. He's probably still there, talking to his pole, and sleeping behind someone else's desk, and mooning everyone who needs to use the restroom.

But wait, there's more...

What is more frightening was in aerospace I'd start telling stories of Chan, and others would be like, "that's nothing you should have dealt with the guy I used to work with". And there are stories about labs filled with houseflies with toilet paper streamers glued to them flying around the room (someone thought that was cool), or people that would have sudden outburst like either break out in song or profanity for no known reason (like some demented Turrets-suffering gay chorus singer), and so on, and so on. Aerospace made a game of "our loons are worse than your loons". In many ways, I miss the color and diversity that only the truly insane can bring to an organization.

I really do think the Military and Aerospace is the best social program America ever created. Despite the quirks and loons, they actually make useful things; and they do provide a place for these people to be far more productive members of society than they would be sleeping in the park, a door stoop, or in a padded cell somewhere. Do you really want to kick them out of aerospace and have to be accosted by them on the streets? Let them make weapons of mass destruction where they belong!/BODY

2003.05.05