On the Sixteenth Anniversary of 9-11

I wrote this back in 2009 in response to all the “Where were you when 9/11 happened?” questions and recollections that were being circulated around the Internet.  I’ve reposted it many times in the hope that I’ll continue to recall not just the horrific facts of that day’s events, but the feelings with which I associate it.  To this day whenever I hear replays of the news broadcasts of that day, the feelings, anguish and anger can be nearly overwhelming.

Even though I wasn’t near any of the three places that were scarred forever by the acts of a few, 9/11/2001 changed my life in ways that I could not have imagined then and which I sometimes don’t believe even now.  Regardless, I will never shake the feelings that 9/11 evokes in me nor do I ever want to.  More importantly, I wish that all of us could share the unity, resolve and dedication to our nation and our common defense that we all felt in the days and weeks following that awful day in 2001.

Thanks for reading.

“So, do you think the Army’s going to call you up because of this?”

“I sure as hell hope so.”

That was the big question my supervisor at the E! Channel asked me on 9/11. While I did eventually get called up, I’d gladly give up all the financial and professional gains which resulted if it had never happened. But that’s not what these words are going to be about.

I was awakened that morning by a phone call from my mother-in-law who told us in frantic, disjointed words that something bad was happening. As a native New Yorker, she was understandably shaken at learning that Manhattan was under attack. The message was related to me by my spouse at the time who slammed into the bedroom and shook me awake and said “Wake up! The Pentagon’s under attack!”

I got up, rushed to the TV in a groggy stupor and saw the story as it was unfolding, still in chaos. Information was rolling into news agencies willy-nilly and much of what was heard and reported was unconfirmed. I dressed and hurried to work in the Wilshire District in LA, near the La Brea Tar Pits. The streets of Los Angeles were relatively deserted – not empty as they were during the LA riots in 1992. But it was clear that people were staying home. Businesses closed for the day and many more operated on essential staff only. Which is why I was going to work.

When I arrived at E!, I could see that many of the national cable networks which shared our satellite space had either gone dark or were carrying coverage from one of the big three networks. It was at that moment that the enormity and the immediate practical impact of this event on this Nation became apparent. Even broadcast commerce stopped for a time – shopping networks were carrying round the clock news coverage. Sports channels and others had full-screen graphics up telling people to tune to a network broadcast and follow the news.

One of the positive things about working at a TV network with all measure of high-tech TV equipment is that we could monitor as many TV stations as we had monitors. And we had plenty. CNN, Fox, ABC, NBC, CBS, MSNBC all raced to get pictures and firsthand accounts of the unfolding tragedy on the air. I flipped back and forth from moment to moment and channel to channel trying to find the best pictures. No one had a lock on the best, so it was back and forth from channel to channel.

As for what I was doing in between times, E! was trying to decide whether to take coverage from a major news network or stay with the on-air schedule without regard to the situation. My job was to design on-screen graphics in support of either option. Ultimately, E! chose to stay with their own programming rather than switch to one of the majors. I will not debate that decision, but I will observe on my own behalf that I had no interest in entertainment fluff at that point, and I couldn’t imagine anyone else feeling differently.

From the moment it sank in just what was going on, my heart was heavy, but my fists clenched in preparation. When my terrific boss, Ken Mason, asked me if I was going to get called up, not only did I hope so, but I was hoping it would be within the hour. For the rest of the day, most of us sat in network control going about our business with about as much feeling as the machines supporting us. It was quiet and the sounds of our air signal were mixed with the sounds of the coverage coming from ancillary equipment racks where the carnage of the day was being replayed over and over.

I would be many months before I actually got called up and reported here to Washington, D.C. in January, 2002. I spent the next 71 months assigned to the Pentagon in various assignments, some 9/11 related and others not.

A year after the attacks, our office moved into the rebuilt section of the Pentagon and shortly thereafter, the small indoor memorial and chapel was opened. Whenever I thought I was being unfairly put upon, I’d stroll the 30 seconds down the E-ring to the 9/11 memorial and stand for a minute or two.

It gave me perspective in two profound ways. It made me recognize that getting picked on that day wasn’t really so bad, and that any one of these people whose biography and photo were in one of two books would give anything to be in my predicament. Alive. Within reach of those about whom they cared. And it humbled me. Standing there for only a moment made me remember why I was there and that I had better do the best job I could.

Eight years have passed since the attack on our Nation. Today, while driving into my civilian job, I listened to replays of the coverage from that day and remember what it felt like that day. How shocked and horrified. How angry. How resolute. I suspect that will never change. I suspect that I’ll always feel the intense mix of emotions on this day. And I’ll fight back the tears on this day just as I did on this day eight years ago.

For many, the feelings we experienced that day have already escaped us, relegating the horror of the day to a collection of historical facts, figures and stately memorials to those who perished. It is right that we recall the facts and honor those who were murdered that day. However, it is my wish that somehow the shock, horror, anger and resolution I felt – that most everyone felt that morning – stay with us and unite us as it did on 9/11 and in the shadows of that day.

Eight years hence, we find ourselves a divided Nation when in truth, there’s so very much more about us that is alike than those things which divide us.

I wish we weren’t so divided and I have no solution as to how to unite us. I just know that we have it in us. The days following September 11, 2001 were some of America’s finest.

Remember what that was like. Not just today on this horrific anniversary. But every day.

It would serve us all well.

To All The Computers I’ve Loved Before

With apologies to Willie Nelson and Julio Iglesias

I’m a nerd.

This is common knowledge among those who have been in the same zip code as me.  You don’t actually have to meet me in person.  It’s kind of like radiation.  No, it’s not contagious.

No, this is my grandma Effie, not my slightly older sister.

Anyway, I was thinking about something my (slightly older) sister and I were discussing a while back regarding our grandmother, Effie Wolfe, and the degree in which technology exploded in her lifetime.   Think about the degree that technology emerged from her birth in 1897 until her passing in 1987. It’s hard to imagine what it was like for her and others of her generation to have been born into a world in which technology was just in its infancy to seeing people landing on the moon.  

For example, the first electric power transmission line in North America went online on June 3, 1889, with the lines between the generating station at Willamette Falls in Oregon City, Oregon, and Chapman Square in downtown Portland, Oregon — about 13 miles.  That’s only 8 years before Effie was born and I doubt tiny Deshler, Ohio was a place where cutting-edge home electricity distribution landed first.

When I was a really small human, I remember she had a phone with no dial.  You picked it up and the local Deshler operator answered and placed your call.  My sister mentioned remembering a phone with a hand crank on it, but I don’t remember that.  

But I DO remember computers. Lots of ‘em starting with this baby:

This is the computer from the Seaview, the fictional submarine featured in both the movie and the absolutely awful TV show “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea,” and I vividly recall watching this show at Effie’s house.  In black and white, ‘natch.

The TV show ran from 1964–1968, and as an impressionable youngster, I was nuts for this show and its vision of advanced technology.  Mom said that it gave me bad dreams and I would wake up in the middle of the night turning imaginary knobs and pushing imaginary buttons on the wall, presumably dreaming I was operating the Seaview computer.  (Out of curiosity a few months back, I looked it up on Netflix to see what I was so obsessed with back then.  Trust me when I say the show does NOT hold up.  At. All.)

Another Irwin Allen show that prominently featured a computer was “The Time Tunnel.”  Here’s the way it looked on the show:

From the pilot episode “Rendezvous with Yesterday” September 9, 1966.

Something I didn’t know until recently, this was a real computing system, the AN/FSQ-7 Combat Direction Central.  (Click the link or the photo below to learn about it.)  

This computer would show up in a whole lot of movies and TV shows including a couple more from “Tunnel” producer Irwin Allen:  

“Q7 components were used in numerous films TV series and TV series needing futuristic looking computers, despite the fact they were built in the 1950s. Q7 components were used in The Time Tunnel, The Towering Inferno [Featuring O.J. Simpson], Logan’s Run, WarGames and Independence Day amongst many others.”

“The Juice” on the loose in “The Towering Inferno.”

After all that good stuff, I found myself taking a different track into music.  I got a music scholarship to Valley Forge Military Academy in 1971.  In 1974, I believe, they offered a one-semester course in Computer Programming with FORTRAN IV.  I and my fellow students had to take our deck of punch cards on the commuter train over to Villanova University’s computer center to have our programs run through their IBM 370/168.  

I have only vague recollections of running my cards through the reader, waiting for 15-20 minutes for the program to run and then retrieving my printouts from the computer technician through the glass window.  Very old school. The computer center looked something like this 370/168 installation:

There was a watered-down version of either BASIC or FORTRAN on the Academy’s very own minicomputer, the Interdata Model 4.  

It had a single Teletype as its primary interactive device and a single punch card reader which, as I recall, wasn’t good for much since we could never get the Interdata version of FORTRAN IV to run even though it was supposed to.  It was plenty good to teach programming techniques that we could implement in our programs we took to Villanova.  

Many years passed before I did any programming of any kind.  I had access to the Commodore VIC-20 when I was in SHAPE, Belgium and I wrote a BASIC program to do TV scheduling for the American Forces Network TV station there.

When I got back to the US in 1985, I promptly bought a Commodore 64…

… and just as promptly outgrew it, replacing it with a pre-owned original IBM-PC for which I needed a bank loan for something like $3,000.  (Yes, computers were painfully expensive.)  

Later on, I upgraded the memory from 384k to a whopping 640k, which at the time was as much as you could stuff into one of these babies.  Down the road, I upgraded it again with an extraordinarily large, thought-I’d-never-be-able-to-fill-it-all-up-in-a-zillion-years 10 MB hard drive. That’s megabyte. To me, it was a huge amount of storage space.

In 1985 about 6 months after returning from Belgium, I was assigned to Fort Sill, OK as a student in the Communications/Electronics Staff Officer Course (CESOC).  Since I had just become addicted to the newly discovered online world, I could not bear to go without being on CompuServe for the nine weeks of the course.  To pass the time, I got this little guy, the Radio Shack TRS-80, Model 100, one of the very first “laptop” computers.  It had 8 lines and 40 characters on it’s LCD screen and, most importantly, had it’s very own acoustically coupled modem.


Three years later, for a nine-week school at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, I bought myself the very first Zenith laptop computer. This one came with 640k of memory, I think, and two of the newest type 3 1/2″ floppy disks, which were really no longer floppy at all. 

This lasted me for quite awhile until…  well, the divorce and the former spousal unit got the IBM and I kept the laptop.  Fair enough.

Jon and Andy hung on to that laptop for quite a few years, most of which were spent gathering dust.   

In 1987, I started working for the newly-formed Information Center at Fort Richardson, Alaska.  ‘Twas there that I met and worked for the brilliant and talented Raymond Brady, a long-time mainframe programmer and Department of the Army Civilian.  Raymond trained me on the IBM 4361 mainframe computer that was the central hub of the Command Wide Area Network encompassing Forts Richardson, Wainwright and Greely.

Publicity still of an IBM 4361.

I recall that Fort Richardson received a cutting-edge Direct Access Storage Device (DASD). Think of it as a mainframe hard drive. Raymond was crazy impressed that it was a half gigabyte system. Let’s face it — we were ALL impressed with this thought-we’d-never-be-able-to-fill-it-all-up-in-a-zillion-years DASD.

Raymond taught me about the 3270 terminal, SNA network protocol, and the IBM Operating System, VM/SP.  And I got to be a pretty good beginner REXX programmer.

About the time Raymond and I started working together in the Information Center, the Army negotiated a huge contract to buy desktop PC’s from Zenith. These Z-248’s flooded very quickly onto desks around Alaska and throughout the Army, armed with an integrated software suite called Enable.  Since I was one of the few people around who actually had personal computers at home, I became the designated PC guy.

I spent a lot of time teaching basic and advanced courses in MS-DOS to the new PC users at all three posts in Alaska.  My close friend, Chief Warrant Officer Don Foley, loved Enable so much, he wound up teaching Enable classes even though he was assigned elsewhere.

I can’t tell you how many of these machines I installed and repaired in the roughly two years I was in the Information Center, but it must have been well over a hundred if not more.  I got to know the Z-248 quite well.

I would be remiss were I to fail to acknowledge fellow VFMA alumnus Ben Sherburne.  Long after graduation, Ben and I unexpectedly ran into each other in the headquarters building barber shop at Fort Richardson. We wound up working together with Raymond in the Information center until 1990.

Me, Raymond Brady and Ben Sherburne in Alaska during our time together in the Information Center.

During my time serving in the Fort Richardson Information Center, I also administered a few of what were then called minicomputers.  The first was an Intel 386 minicomputer.  At it’s heart was an Intel 80386 processor that ran SCO Xenix, which like Unix before it, was a multiuser operating system.  Each of the two boxes supported 12 users.  Both boxes were connected to the aforementioned IBM 4361 mainframe through an IBM Systems Network Architecture (SNA) network, a terminal-based protocol.

One other computer dinosaur was Digital Equipment Company‘s MicroVAX Unix computer.  It was installed for the purpose of helping the Fort Richardson Director of Logistics manage some sorts of transportation-related missions.  I wasn’t aware of the application side of things, but I did do some system administration on that machine.

In 1990, I got out of the Army for the first time.  The Zenith laptop continued to serve me well. Then I started collecting computer parts. People would just give me their old computers that they replaced.  I sustained my computer habit over the years by rescuing the parts and pieces from these hand-me-downs and building systems that did what I needed ’em to do.  They weren’t cutting edge, but they got the job done.

Not too long after that, PC’s pretty much became a commodity. The brand you bought really didn’t matter all that much as it had in the early days of PC deployment.  In 2008, I bought my first Mac Laptop and it’s still working just fine even as I sit at the kitchen table and type this:

Samsung Galaxy S8.

Of course, even the tiny cell phone with which I snapped the photo of my nine-year-old MacBook Pro has enormous power when compared with the Interdata Model 4, the first real computer I got to use. From 64 kilobytes of ferrite core memory, to 64 gigabytes of solid state storage on my Samsung Galaxy S8 smart phone, it’s easy to see how drastically things have changed.

Just since I started in the computer business in 1974-ish with punch cards and core memory, to having access to nearly the entirety of human knowledge in my pocket is genuinely astounding when I stop to think about it.

I doubt Effie ever laid hands on a computer keyboard before her passing in 1987.  With new devices and new technology popping up almost daily, I wonder just how far beyond the S8 and Alexa-powered smart homes we’ll be in 20 years.