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 to the left 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.

For my 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 DASD (Direct Access Storage Device). 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 protocol and IBM Operating System, VM/SP.  And I got to be a pretty good beginning REXX programmer.

Since I was one of the few people around who actually had one at home, I became the designated personal computer guy.

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.

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.

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 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.

“Phantom Regiment” – From JeffreyTobin.com

Tobin Anyone who’s ever read this blog past the first few pages has heard me mention Jeff Tobin a few times.  Jeff is one of my oldest friends, mostly because he’s 16 hours older than me.  We were both drum majors in our all-scholarship military school band and went to the same college afterwards.  We also shared short but colorful careers in radio. 

This is from JeffreyTobin.com, Jeff’s professional site and blog.  Jeff brings up this radio “war story” whenever we see each other, which is far too infrequently.  ‘Preciate the write up, sir! 

And if you’ve not subscribed to Jeff’s blog, do it now.  Go ahead.  I’ll wait.

JT-Logo

 

bagpiper-150x150I’ve worked in broadcasting in some form or other since I was in my teens, and  I learned early on that one must always expect the unexpected.

It was the late 70′s at radio station WKST in New Castle, Pa. My best buddy from school and I had continued our close and wonderful relationship through college and into the broadcasting world at area radio stations.

We knew each other well. We were a team and trusted each other implicitly. We still do, these many miles and decades later.

Dan Wolfe was live and on the air on a sunny Saturday morning. From atop a downtown building, he described for his audience a community parade as it passed by. I was back at the studio in the control room running the show from behind the scenes as Dan listened to the broadcast through his headphones.

“Here comes the high school band!” He described the view as the audience listened to the music. “And there go the WWII veterans all marching in formation…”

He heard the music of the bagpiper regiment grow louder as it approached the grand stand. But he could see no bagpipers. He looked up and down the street, but there were no kilts, no drum major, no drums. Nothing. Still, the music swelled in his headphones. How could this be?

Suddenly I heard an almost imperceptible chuckle in his voice: The little giggle of which I’d become so fond over the years. Dan realized the music wasn’t coming from the parade at all, it was coming from the studio! I was playing a recording of bagpipers and carefully feeding it into the mix.

Dan didn’t miss a beat. He described in great detail the approaching  phantom regiment – the bagpipes, the colors, the regalia. And off they marched into the mind’s eye of our listeners. There never really were any bagpipers, and no one was ever the wiser.

My little joke was not a test of Dan’s abilities, but an investment in trust. I was confident that Dan would manage the situation. He was able, and he handled the unforeseen with the panache of the consummate professional he was.

And we grew closer together, both personally and professionally.

This week at my office, I demonstrated that same trust in one of our current employees, handing her a substantive project I knew she could handle.  Like Dan, she rose to the occasion, taking the project on as if it were her own. It was. And she didn’t miss a beat.

If you want to move your organization forward, first develop trust. When trust is established, you can hand off responsibilities that express that trust. In this way, a test of skill is no longer a test; it becomes an empowerment… an empowerment for personal and organizational growth.

“Handing off the bagpipers” to an employee is a gift. It’s a gift that makes everything stronger: The employee, your relationship, and the organization.

How I Spent my 2008 Alumni Weekend

This is another rerun — actually my first ever blog entry.  This started out as an email about my RV adventure and grew until it was this… thing.  Response was so positive that I used it to start this blog.  

Regarding the last post about who’s the better drum major, me or Jeff Tobin, there may be some additional information about that toward the end of this essay which may help you decide.  

The trip began innocuously enough. I headed out on schedule, stopped by the Safeway to get some soda, beer, condiments and chips for the Saturday party I was hosting. I picked up my seven long-sleeved business shirts from the cleaners, light starch. I climbed into the RV and proceeded northbound on I-95 happy as the proverbial clam. Traffic was a little heavy for what one would expect from a Thursday night, and as I got closer and close to Maryland, things slowed and slowed. Once on the northernmost part of the Washington Beltway, things slowed to a crawl with stop-and-go traffic being somewhat the norm.

At one point, I had to stop short. You know how that works, you’re behind some guy and yeah, I was probably going a tad faster than I should have, and he slams on his brakes. Well, I had never had to perform such a maneuver with a 31-foot long big rolling turd.

I slammed on the brakes and it wasn’t enough. I pushed harder and still the inertia of the RV and all the liquid in the water tanks propelled me forward. I stood on the brakes with both feet and only THEN did I feel the BRT begin to slow. That’s good. Very good.

However, anything in the RV that WASN’T stowed came crashing forward. In fact, so short was the stop that the cabinet drawer with all the pots and pans in it ejected itself from the cabinet and ran screaming along the floor finally coming to rest because of the friction of the carpet it encountered along the way.

Relieved to have avoided a collision with the car ahead of me, and yet surprisingly calmly, I continued up 95 toward Baltimore stopping once along the highway to put everything away that had come flying out in the near miss. (Didn’t George Carlin do a bit about “near-misses”? A near miss constitutes a hit, he says and I’d agree! A near-miss should technically be called a “near hit.”)

Anyway for the next oh, I dunno, thirty miles or so, everything was just fine.

Until I got to the Harbor Tunnel in Baltimore.

Was at the toll booth just about to pay my $2.00 or whatever it was to head through when I saw it. A sign, lord a sign! “Recreational Vehicles exit at Such-And-Such Street Before Tunnel.”

Shit. Damn. Oh, crap, my GPS battery is dead!

So I get to the toll booth and talk to the young and rather attractive toll collector asking her how I get where I am supposed to go. She tells me that there are signs (A sign, lord, a sign!) that will instruct me in the proper route to get back to a more appropriate crossing place. I sigh, and thank the comely young toll collector and proceed to the exit for Such-And-Such Street. I make a rolling stop at a stop sign and realize that there’s a big truck facing me down attempting to make a turn onto the street from which I am turning.

Like dogs at a dog park, when the bigger, less fragile Peterbuilt wants the road, my meager Tioga does precisely what’s expected. The RV equivalent of rolling on your back and surrendering. I backed up, shot the trucker a rather sheepish smile and a wave and allowed him to pass first. I am sure that if he would have had one hand free, I would have received a greeting in return, but I suspect it would have been a lot less friendly in nature than my poor attempt at an apologetic gesture.

Onward.

I follow the alternate route signs, but they quickly disappear. But in their place, a regular sign for I-95 appears and so I get in line with the rest of my Thursday night travelers and head towards Delaware.

Not so fast, kemosabe.

Yeah, THIS line is the line for the Fort Mc Henry Tunnel along I-95. Sigh. Shit! Sigh. (Verb. Expletive. Verb. Just to clarify the middle one is NOT a verb.)

No toll booth in sight. No one to remind me that I can’t go through the tunnel with propane in my tanks until I get to the other side. Hmmmm… Yeah, the fuel trucks go through this tunnel all the time! What’s the big deal? I am already stressed out, feeling wary of travelling without the benefit of the TomTom GPS software on my phone, I decide to brave the elements, damn the torpedoes, and remember the Alamo and proceed. And proceed I did.

Without incident.

Paid my couple o’ bucks at the toll booth on the other side of the tunnel and accelerate toward Delaware confident that the worst is over.

Not so fast, kemosabe.

I get about 50 or so miles – without a GPS how the hell would I know – and make it to Maryland House service plaza. I pull off, pull up to the gas pump and fill up with around 20 gallons or so of fuel and proceed. Just not very far.

The Susquehanna River ran very close to my neighborhood when I lived in Harrisburg, PA back in the late 60’s and early 70’s. So I know it’s a really big river at its best, and thank goodness the State of Maryland saw fit to put a bridge across its part of the river on I-95. What was unfortunate is that the State of Maryland chose my Thursday night to perform some sort of maintenance on the span. So traffic was slimmed down to one lane from the usual 3. That also created a commensurate increase in travel time from the bridge to ME from about 12 minutes to… Well, it was about an hour, but it seems as though it was already Labor day.

Sigh. Shit! Sigh. Repeat, PRN.

Finally get through all that and it’s an uneventful trip to Radnor, PA, just another hour and eleven minutes from the Susquehanna River Bridge.

Radnor? I was going to Wayne, not Radnor. So yeah, you have probably already figured out that, just like in the Star Trek movies, the adventure continues.

I zip through Delaware and on into Pennsylvania and up the Blue Route about 12 miles through the western ‘burbs of Philadelphia. By this time, I have successfully recharged my cell phone (Technically found an extension cord to I could run it off AC from the RV’s on board generator.) TomTom tells me to get off at Route 30, Lancaster Avenue and proceed straight under the railroad bridge and on to the school a couple miles away.

For those of you in the audience who are from Philadelphia, you’ll already know that the main line of the Pennsylvania Railroad was built roughly straight west from Philadelphia. Over the decades, this area has become known as the Main Line. My school, Valley Forge Military Academy is located on the Main Line. But to get to the ol’ Alma Mater, I have to cross the main line of the Pennsylvania Rail Road.

There are multiple bridges which carry the former PRR, now probably part of CSX or Conrail or AMTRAK or God only know who knows what government-subsidized conglomerate owns the right of way that used to be the main line of the Pennsylvania Rail Road. Those bridges are old. VERY old. And not much clearance for taller vehicles to get through. I had anticipated this and figured that one of them would be just fine for my nearly 12-foot RV to pass underneath without incident.

Just not the one in Radnor.

A sign, lord a sign!

“10 feet , 7 inches.” As usual, that wasn’t the exact response I was hoping for with my little impromptu appeal to whatever gods there might be.

I make a hard right into an alley of some sort which services the Radnor station of the commuter train and just as the wheel is spinning back to the straight ahead position, I realize there’s no way to pull through. I’m trapped with my only possible exit strategy to back out onto the street unguided and risk getting plowed into from someone less cognizant of their surroundings screaming under the bridge from the blind approach on the other side.

I slowly begin to back down the alley past the parked car without a problem.

“Hey, I am getting pretty good at this!” I said to myself and here’s where I made the significant error in judgment.

I stop the car, still VERY wary about backing out into traffic and inspect the situation. The alley is really fairly wide with a low curb on the right. No obstructions. Hmmmm. I’ll bet I can make a “K” turn here and if I am careful, set myself up to nose-out of the alley none the worse for wear.

Good initiative. Bad decision.

I hop back in, swing the wheel right and begin moving the tail of the vehicle over toward the open area ever so slowly. Gently. Listening for every little peep of a sound which would indicate some obstacle to the swift and safe completion of my task. Or a curb. A curb would be good.

Awright. I can now start to go the other way. The “K” turn evolves into a “ * ” turn. I am making progress, though, just like Austin Powers did in his golf cart in one of his movies. It’s just really slow progress. Ok. I am all set. The next time, I will be clear up front. Then I can swing the steering wheel hard left and pull out and find another bridge. Gently I accelerate. Veeeerrrrrryyyyy gently.

Not so fast, kemosabe.

Crunch!

Sigh. Shit! Sigh. Repeat. Yeah, now’s the time. It’s definitely necessary.

A longer vehicle such as an RV does not have the rear wheels at the very end. So when you turn the front end to the left the back end turns to the right commensurately. In this particular case, against one of those old, creosote covered telephone poles.

Sigh. Shit! Sigh. Repeat.

I’m suddenly feeling less like the confident RV owner I am and more like Will Smith in “I Am Legend” when he keeps saying “I can still fix this!” Matter of fact, I think in between the fortieth “Sigh.” and the twentieth “Shit!” I actually said it out loud, though I successfully expressed the urge to shout “HELL no!” as Will does in just about each of the movies in which I have ever seen him.

Assess damage. Shoot, I am already scuffed up where the pole rubbed against the back right corner of the RV. I almost made it, too – just a couple of inches more and I’d already be parked with a cold beer soothing my deflating ego. (Think the Hindenburg’s legendary deflation, here, and you’ll get a sense of it.)

Sit in driver’s seat. Ease her forward until she’s loose, then cut ‘er hard left and we’ll be good to go. In gear. Inch forward. Endure horrendous scraping sounds as the telephone pole eliminates any surface imperfections on the last few inches of the RV’s right side.

Boing! Pop! I’m clear! Woo Hoo.

I turn the wheel hard to the left ready make my exit. Touch the accelerator ever go gently. No resistance. Good. Moves forward an inch or two.

Not so fast, kemosabe.

Meeting a little resistance, but I am by golly fully committed to this obviously dubious course of action.

Boing! Pop! I’m clear! Woo Hoo.

This time, I really AM clear and roll the RV ahead in the shadows of the furiously swinging power lines which were attached to my opponent, the telephone pole.

I find a suitable crossing point, hold my breath, drive underneath with no collision whatsoever and make it to my destination where I finally set up camp and went to bed.

Next morning, I discover that the second little bit of resistance that I encountered as I wrenched myself free was the pole catching on the passing rear bumper, which now presented a subtle but definite misshapen appearance. Eh, what are you gonna do?

The rest of the weekend continued without incident, except for one other time when my fellow alum and I broke a metal piece to the support structure of the awning we were trying to stow. But to offset that little gaffe, which took about fifteen minutes to fix, I DID get the automatic retractable step working again by tapping ever so gently on the actuator switch causing it to un-stick and begin performing its designed mission again. I told myself that’s like offsetting penalties in football, so really there was only one incident not two as you’d think from casual observance of the weekend.

Oh there was ONE more little thing. It didn’t involve the RV, or contracting some strange disease or anything truly tragic. But people will be talking about it for a long time, I hear.

Fridays of homecoming weekend, the alumni are encouraged to line up and march with their respective organization at second mess formation. (Second mess is lunch, for the uninitiated.) Former Bandsmen are invited to play with the band and march along for old time’s sake. I was the drum major, so I politely asked the Bandmaster and the current drum major if I would be able to lead the band and they all agreed this would be cool.

So at the appropriate time, I position myself in front of the band, the regimental commander orders “Forward, March!” and off we go.

One thing about being the band’s drum major is that your routine is so well practiced and you do it so often, you remember precisely how to do it all, just as everyone allegedly remembers how to ride a bike. I start out with what we called curling, moving the mace in time with the beat of the march. As I approached the reviewing stand I started to spin the mace, stopping it with a satisfying snap into the vertical position, grab it at the top near the ball of the mace and execute a salute as if I had been doing it every day for the last 35 years:

DanMaceWebSpin out of it. Take a few paces. Stroll. That’s where you walk with the mace using it more like a walking stick than anything else, I guess. Next, two column lefts bring the band back around just as we should so that they can reposition themselves in front of Wheeler Hall as the rest of the Corps passes the reviewing stand. Kind of like the marching version of a legal U-turn. After this second column left, we always gave the mace signal for a “forward march” and the band stepped off in unison to their final destination.

Not so fast, kemosabe.

I knew that the mace manual that we did back in my day was very different from what the bandsmen now know. What I DIDN’T know was that our old signal for “forward march” was the current band’s signal to “halt.”

And halt they did.

I’m doing my thing, executing the forward march just as perfectly as I had back in 1975 or so. I’m out there curling away keeping time with the music, just having a grand old time. But the music is suddenly getting quieter. That’s odd.

I sneak a look over my right shoulder to see what was going on and it was at this point that it became apparent that somewhere along I had goofed. Well, actually, no one had goofed. I did what I was supposed to do. Precisely. Magnificently, if I may brag a bit. I just wasn’t speaking their language.

I had signaled forward march and the band stopped right where they were, leaving me to lead oblivious to the fact that the bad had jumped ship about 50 feet behind me. No one was more surprised than I. The bandmaster, a fine Englishman by the name of Phil Evans explained to me that the band had followed my command not knowing that I meant something else. You say “tomato.” I say “tomahhhhto.” That sort of thing.

Anyway, it was all that anyone talked about when they saw me for the rest of the weekend. It was an honor to be able to be in front of the VFMA band again after 30-some years away. And even though I screwed it up, I think people will remember that alumni drum major who lost his band for years to come.

All in all, it was a fabulous weekend filled with friends, fond reminiscences and fantastic camaraderie. I saw people I haven’t even thought about in 35+ years, and bringing up all of that was just absolutely delightful.

We had a tailgate party Saturday night at the RV, and even though the weather was cold and damp, the spirits were anything but.

I’m Calling You Out, Jeff Tobin! (Redux)

This is a rerun of a post I made in December, 2013 and unfortunately lost in a giant computer and database crash.  I believed it to be lost to the ages, however, I found a copy unexpectedly today while assisting another blogger in site management.  I am reposting it here because… Well, because I liked it and was disappointed to have lost it.  More importantly, it celebrates a terrific friendship dating back to 1972 and continues to this day. 

But MOST importantly, I hope to settle this highly contentious disagreement once and for all.

I’m the better Drum Major.

Now SOME might try to mislead you to the conclusion that I’m not, but I am. Seriously, I’m not kidding around here.

I’m the better Drum Major.

This misinformation campaign has been going on since 1974 and I think it’s time for the definitive work on this subject to be written, disseminated and entered into the public record. So make note of this. You’ll be tested on this at some point and I expect y’all to have the right answer:

I’m the better Drum Major.

Someone is spreading lies about this. And I think I know. Who is it that dares to challenge decades of Drum Major greatness? Well, that would be the SECOND best (by a long shot) Drum Major, Jeffrey Tobin. While I respect Mr. Tobin and actually consider him to be a friend – perhaps even his ONLY friend, I’m just tired of the whining. Get over it, dude! Here’s a hanky. Go dry your eyes, put on your big boy pants and get a life.

“Come and take it – Slogan at the Battle of Gonzales”

(Yeah, I searched Google for that. Dammit Jim, I’m the better Drum Major not a military historian.)

This all goes back to the Valley Forge Military Academy and Junior College Band. I was a member from 1971-1976. The aforementioned Mr. Tobin joined me in my second year. It was during that second year that I started practicing to lead this talented and accomplished group (including Mr. Tobin) of high school and college musicians while on the march. You’ve probably seen photos of military bands each with a brightly dressed Drum Major in front of the band with a mace, a roughly five-foot long staff, weighted at one end and adorned with all sorts of flashy accoutrements. The Drum Major uses the mace to move the band forward, turn left or right, or perform some other maneuver all while the band performs martial music to stirring effect. The Drum Major’s specific movements are rehearsed so often that just a glance from any member of the band and they know what the hell is going on.

Make sense?

Being the Drum Major was a big deal at Valley Forge. The Drum Major had a different uniform and a huge, ornate sash sewn with gold thread. The sash weighed a ton, but it looked awesome and as soon as I saw the Drum Major my plebe (first) year, I knew that’s where I wanted to be.

Greg Ream was the Drum Major my plebe year. Jeff Zimmerman was the Drum Major the next two. That gave me three years to practice and get good at it. Somewhere along the way, Jeff Tobin also developed an interest in being the Drum Major, but as I was hoping to be the heir apparent, he’d have to get in line behind me where he belonged. And much to his credit, he did.

photo2

Tobin and Wolfe, early to mid 1970’s.

We were friends – still are, really. Best of friends. For the years we were at Valley Forge, we practiced the mace manual, which is what the movements are collectively called, almost every day. Yeah, we were both pretty damned good. Jeff even developed a modification of the manual for the mace in which we could both participate simultaneously. Yeah, he’s creative AND talented. Best friends, yes, but I hate his guts anyway.

So the year comes and the Bandmaster, Col. D. Keith “Duke” Feltham notified me that I’d be the Drum Major in my fourth year and since there was another after that before graduation, probably my fifth year as well.

It was a lock. When Duke said something, it happened. Period.

That's me on the left with the mace.

That’s me on the left with the mace.

So in the 1974-75 academic year, I was the Drum Major of the Valley Forge Military Academy Band.

But Mr. Tobin, that rat in sheep’s clothing, never let me forget he was waiting in the wings for me to have a heart attack at the tender age of 19 or some such other debilitating event.

Never.

Tobin's taunts, in pencil (Click to examine closely.)

Tobin’s taunts, in pencil (Click to examine closely.)

In fact, while digitizing some music from reel-to-reel tapes of the era, I found this on the back of one of the boxes. My note mentions my cadet rank at the time “M/Sgt Drum Major.” Please note Mr. Tobin’s handwriting reads “But not for long, Ha Ha!”

Jackass.

So anyway, as I said, there I was in the fall of 74, leading the band as the Drum Major. That was, until drummer Pat Parker was involved in a serious automobile accident taking him out of the four-man drum line for a number of weeks prior to the band’s VERY important performance at the Harrisburg Horse Show. We’d already learned the marching routines thoroughly. Reorganizing the band to account for Pat’s absence and relearning everything was far harder than sending me back to the drum line where I’d been the previous two years. Fortunately, there was one man who was prepared to step in and lead the band while I was back in the drum line.

Ha!  Revenge, in whatever minute quantity, is still sweet.

Ha! Revenge, in whatever minute quantity, is still sweet.

That’s right. Jeffrey Tobin, back stabber.

I jest. (I don’t.)

So Jeff led the band until Pat came back healthy, took his place on the drum line and I went back to the front of the band where I belonged, Jeff in the trombone section behind me where he belonged.

I was the Drum Major for Harrisburg and the rest of the year proceeded without incident. I did my job as the Drum Major proudly and with all the dignity, flair and precision that I could muster – and that was a lot. WAY more than that wanna-be in the trombone section.

The next year, to make a long story short, as expected, I was again selected to be the Drum Major. Until they needed a trumpet player on the march. But this time, it wasn’t temporary and I was asked by Col. Feltham if I’d go back and play trumpet instead of being the Drum Major.

Yeah, not part of the plan, but we were all being paid generous scholarships and Duke always stressed professionalism and all that happy horseshit (all of those things are true, but it felt like happy horse shit at the time) and so of course, I reluctantly agreed to step aside and play trumpet.

So Jeff Tobin could take the mace.

Jerk.

So a few weeks in to the 1975-76 academic year, Jeffrey Edwin Tobin became the next in a long line of bandsmen to lead the VFMA band.

image002

Tobin and Wolfe, circa 2002.

Did I mention we’re still friends?

Well we are. Thoroughly.

And I could not have been more fortunate to hand over the mace to a finer cadet, a finer person and yes, even a fine (Ha! You thought I was going to say “finer,” didn’t you?) Drum Major. If I were going to give up something that was that important to me, I would have wanted it to go to someone worthy and who deserved the opportunity as much as any of us who led the band.

Jeff performed admirably. We still kept at the double-man mace manual often. We continued to be a team through those years at VF, then at Westminster College. When we discovered that we both had some talent for radio, we were a team there too, doing all sorts of crazy stunts at our respective radio stations.

Ok, so maybe I wasn’t the best Drum Major. (But I was.) But Jeff was damned good, too. Really good. Really, really good.

I like to think that I’ve mellowed over the decades, but I’m still bitter and I’m still better.

I jest. (I don’t.)

No, seriously. I’ve mellowed. The long-standing feud about who’s the better Drum Major is now, due to advancing age, a long-sitting feud. But there’s no person alive or dead who I’d consider a peer when it comes to being a Drum Major other than Jeff.

I didn’t say that out loud, did I? (I did.)

So ok, you can believe whatever you want to about who’s the better Drum Major.

Just lie to me about it when you see me, ok?  I have feelings, you know.  Thanks.

Tobin and Wolfe, circa 2012.  (Long story about the USS Enterprise in the background.)

Tobin and Wolfe, circa 2012. (Long story about the USS Enterprise in the background.)

 

How I spent my Alumni Weekend

The trip began innocuously enough. I headed out on schedule, stopped by the Safeway to get some soda, beer, condiments and chips for the Saturday party I was hosting. I picked up my seven long-sleeved business shirts from the cleaners, light starch. I climbed into the RV and proceeded northbound on I-95 happy as the proverbial clam. Traffic was a little heavy for what one would expect from a Thursday night, and as I got closer and close to Maryland, things slowed and slowed. Once on the northernmost part of the Washington Beltway, things slowed to a crawl with stop-and-go traffic being somewhat the norm.

At one point, I had to stop short. You know how that works, you’re behind some guy and yeah, I was probably going a tad faster than I should have, and he slams on his brakes. Well, I had never had to perform such a maneuver with a 31-foot long big rolling turd.

I slammed on the brakes and it wasn’t enough. I pushed harder and still the inertia of the RV and all the liquid in the water tanks propelled me forward. I stood on the brakes with both feet and only THEN did I feel the BRT begin to slow. That’s good. Very good.

However, anything in the RV that WASN’T stowed came crashing forward. In fact, so short was the stop that the cabinet drawer with all the pots and pans in it ejected itself from the cabinet and ran screaming along the floor finally coming to rest because of the friction of the carpet it encountered along the way.

Relieved to have avoided a collision with the car ahead of me, and yet surprisingly calmly, I continued up 95 toward Baltimore stopping once along the highway to put everything away that had come flying out in the near miss. (Didn’t George Carlin do a bit about “near-misses”? A near miss constitutes a hit, he says and I’d agree! A near-miss should technically be called a “near hit.”)

Anyway for the next oh, I dunno, thirty miles or so, everything was just fine.

Until I got to the Harbor Tunnel in Baltimore.

Was at the toll booth just about to pay my $2.00 or whatever it was to head through when I saw it. A sign, lord a sign! “Recreational Vehicles exit at Such-And-Such Street Before Tunnel.”

Shit. Damn. Oh, crap, my GPS battery is dead!

So I get to the toll booth and talk to the young and rather attractive toll collector asking her how I get where I am supposed to go. She tells me that there are signs (A sign, lord, a sign!) that will instruct me in the proper route to get back to a more appropriate crossing place. I sigh, and thank the comely young toll collector and proceed to the exit for Such-And-Such Street. I make a rolling stop at a stop sign and realize that there’s a big truck facing me down attempting to make a turn onto the street from which I am turning.

Like dogs at a dog park, when the bigger, less fragile Peterbuilt wants the road, my meager Tioga does precisely what’s expected. The RV equivalent of rolling on your back and surrendering. I backed up, shot the trucker a rather sheepish smile and a wave and allowed him to pass first. I am sure that if he would have had one hand free, I would have received a greeting in return, but I suspect it would have been a lot less friendly in nature than my poor attempt at an apologetic gesture.

Onward.

I follow the alternate route signs, but they quickly disappear. But in their place, a regular sign for I-95 appears and so I get in line with the rest of my Thursday night travelers and head towards Delaware.

Not so fast, kemosabe.

Yeah, THIS line is the line for the Fort Mc Henry Tunnel along I-95. Sigh. Shit! Sigh. (Verb. Expletive. Verb. Just to clarify the middle one is NOT a verb.)

No toll booth in sight. No one to remind me that I can’t go through the tunnel with propane in my tanks until I get to the other side. Hmmmm… Yeah, the fuel trucks go through this tunnel all the time! What’s the big deal? I am already stressed out, feeling wary of travelling without the benefit of the TomTom GPS software on my phone, I decide to brave the elements, damn the torpedoes, and remember the Alamo and proceed. And proceed I did.

Without incident.

Paid my couple o’ bucks at the toll booth on the other side of the tunnel and accelerate toward Delaware confident that the worst is over.

Not so fast, kemosabe.

I get about 50 or so miles – without a GPS how the hell would I know – and make it to Maryland House service plaza. I pull off, pull up to the gas pump and fill up with around 20 gallons or so of fuel and proceed. Just not very far.

The Susquehanna River ran very close to my neighborhood when I lived in Harrisburg, PA back in the late 60’s and early 70’s. So I know it’s a really big river at its best, and thank goodness the State of Maryland saw fit to put a bridge across its part of the river on I-95. What was unfortunate is that the State of Maryland chose my Thursday night to perform some sort of maintenance on the span. So traffic was slimmed down to one lane from the usual 3. That also created a commensurate increase in travel time from the bridge to ME from about 12 minutes to… Well, it was about an hour, but it seems as though it was already Labor day.

Sigh. Shit! Sigh. Repeat, PRN.

Finally get through all that and it’s an uneventful trip to Radnor, PA, just another hour and eleven minutes from the Susquehanna River Bridge.

Radnor? I was going to Wayne, not Radnor. So yeah, you have probably already figured out that, just like in the Star Trek movies, the adventure continues.

I zip through Delaware and on into Pennsylvania and up the Blue Route about 12 miles through the western ‘burbs of Philadelphia. By this time, I have successfully recharged my cell phone (Technically found an extension cord to I could run it off AC from the RV’s on board generator.) TomTom tells me to get off at Route 30, Lancaster Avenue and proceed straight under the railroad bridge and on to the school a couple miles away.

For those of you in the audience who are from Philadelphia, you’ll already know that the main line of the Pennsylvania Railroad was built roughly straight west from Philadelphia. Over the decades, this area has become known as the Main Line. My school, Valley Forge Military Academy is located on the Main Line. But to get to the ol’ Alma Mater, I have to cross the main line of the Pennsylvania Rail Road.

There are multiple bridges which carry the former PRR, now probably part of CSX or Conrail or AMTRAK or God only know who knows what government-subsidized conglomerate owns the right of way that used to be the main line of the Pennsylvania Rail Road. Those bridges are old. VERY old. And not much clearance for taller vehicles to get through. I had anticipated this and figured that one of them would be just fine for my nearly 12-foot RV to pass underneath without incident.

Just not the one in Radnor.

A sign, lord a sign!

“10 feet , 7 inches.” As usual, that wasn’t the exact response I was hoping for with my little impromptu appeal to whatever gods there might be.

I make a hard right into an alley of some sort which services the Radnor station of the commuter train and just as the wheel is spinning back to the straight ahead position, I realize there’s no way to pull through. I’m trapped with my only possible exit strategy to back out onto the street unguided and risk getting plowed into from someone less cognizant of their surroundings screaming under the bridge from the blind approach on the other side.

I slowly begin to back down the alley past the parked car without a problem.

“Hey, I am getting pretty good at this!” I said to myself and here’s where I made the significant error in judgment.

I stop the car, still VERY wary about backing out into traffic and inspect the situation. The alley is really fairly wide with a low curb on the right. No obstructions. Hmmmm. I’ll bet I can make a “K” turn here and if I am careful, set myself up to nose-out of the alley none the worse for wear.

Good initiative. Bad decision.

I hop back in, swing the wheel right and begin moving the tail of the vehicle over toward the open area ever so slowly. Gently. Listening for every little peep of a sound which would indicate some obstacle to the swift and safe completion of my task. Or a curb. A curb would be good.

Awright. I can now start to go the other way. The “K” turn evolves into a “ * ” turn. I am making progress, though, just like Austin Powers did in his golf cart in one of his movies. It’s just really slow progress. Ok. I am all set. The next time, I will be clear up front. Then I can swing the steering wheel hard left and pull out and find another bridge. Gently I accelerate. Veeeerrrrrryyyyy gently.

Not so fast, kemosabe.

Crunch!

Sigh. Shit! Sigh. Repeat. Yeah, now’s the time. It’s definitely necessary.

A longer vehicle such as an RV does not have the rear wheels at the very end. So when you turn the front end to the left the back end turns to the right commensurately. In this particular case, against one of those old, creosote covered telephone poles.

Sigh. Shit! Sigh. Repeat.

I’m suddenly feeling less like the confident RV owner I am and more like Will Smith in “I Am Legend” when he keeps saying “I can still fix this!” Matter of fact, I think in between the fortieth “Sigh.” and the twentieth “Shit!” I actually said it out loud, though I successfully expressed the urge to shout “HELL no!” as Will does in just about each of the movies in which I have ever seen him.

Assess damage. Shoot, I am already scuffed up where the pole rubbed against the back right corner of the RV. I almost made it, too – just a couple of inches more and I’d already be parked with a cold beer soothing my deflating ego. (Think the Hindenburg’s legendary deflation, here, and you’ll get a sense of it.)

Sit in driver’s seat. Ease her forward until she’s loose, then cut ‘er hard left and we’ll be good to go. In gear. Inch forward. Endure horrendous scraping sounds as the telephone pole eliminates any surface imperfections on the last few inches of the RV’s right side.

Boing! Pop! I’m clear! Woo Hoo.

I turn the wheel hard to the left ready make my exit. Touch the accelerator ever go gently. No resistance. Good. Moves forward an inch or two.

Not so fast, kemosabe.

Meeting a little resistance, but I am by golly fully committed to this obviously dubious course of action.

Boing! Pop! I’m clear! Woo Hoo.

This time, I really AM clear and roll the RV ahead in the shadows of the furiously swinging power lines which were attached to my opponent, the telephone pole.

I find a suitable crossing point, hold my breath, drive underneath with no collision whatsoever and make it to my destination where I finally set up camp and went to bed.

Next morning, I discover that the second little bit of resistance that I encountered as I wrenched myself free was the pole catching on the passing rear bumper, which now presented a subtle but definite misshapen appearance. Eh, what are you gonna do?

The rest of the weekend continued without incident, except for one other time when my fellow alum and I broke a metal piece to the support structure of the awning we were trying to stow. But to offset that little gaffe, which took about fifteen minutes to fix, I DID get the automatic retractable step working again by tapping ever so gently on the actuator switch causing it to un-stick and begin performing its designed mission again. I told myself that’s like offsetting penalties in football, so really there was only one incident not two as you’d think from casual observance of the weekend.

Oh there was ONE more little thing. It didn’t involve the RV, or contracting some strange disease or anything truly tragic. But people will be talking about it for a long time, I hear.

Fridays of homecoming weekend, the alumni are encouraged to line up and march with their respective organization at second mess formation. (Second mess is lunch, for the uninitiated.) Former Bandsmen are invited to play with the band and march along for old time’s sake. I was the drum major, so I politely asked the Bandmaster and the current drum major if I would be able to lead the band and they all agreed this would be cool.

So at the appropriate time, I position myself in front of the band, the regimental commander orders “Forward, March!” and off we go.

One thing about being the band’s drum major is that your routine is so well practiced and you do it so often, you remember precisely how to do it all, just as everyone allegedly remembers how to ride a bike. I start out with what we called curling, moving the mace in time with the beat of the march. As I approached the reviewing stand I started to spin the mace, stopping it with a satisfying snap into the vertical position, grab it at the top near the ball of the mace and execute a salute as if I had been doing it every day for the last 35 years:

DanMaceWebSpin out of it. Take a few paces. Stroll. That’s where you walk with the mace using it more like a walking stick than anything else, I guess. Next, two column lefts bring the band back around just as we should so that they can reposition themselves in front of Wheeler Hall as the rest of the Corps passes the reviewing stand. Kind of like the marching version of a legal U-turn. After this second column left, we always gave the mace signal for a “forward march” and the band stepped off in unison to their final destination.

Not so fast, kemosabe.

I knew that the mace manual that we did back in my day was very different from what the bandsmen now know. What I DIDN’T know was that our old signal for “forward march” was the current band’s signal to “halt.”

And halt they did.

I’m doing my thing, executing the forward march just as perfectly as I had back in 1975 or so. I’m out there curling away keeping time with the music, just having a grand old time. But the music is suddenly getting quieter. That’s odd.

I sneak a look over my right shoulder to see what was going on and it was at this point that it became apparent that somewhere along I had goofed. Well, actually, no one had goofed. I did what I was supposed to do. Precisely. Magnificently, if I may brag a bit. I just wasn’t speaking their language.

I had signaled forward march and the band stopped right where they were, leaving me to lead oblivious to the fact that the bad had jumped ship about 50 feet behind me. No one was more surprised than I. The bandmaster, a fine Englishman by the name of Phil Evans explained to me that the band had followed my command not knowing that I meant something else. You say “tomato.” I say “tomahhhhto.” That sort of thing.

Anyway, it was all that anyone talked about when they saw me for the rest of the weekend. It was an honor to be able to be in front of the VFMA band again after 30-some years away. And even though I screwed it up, I think people will remember that alumni drum major who lost his band for years to come.

All in all, it was a fabulous weekend filled with friends, fond reminiscences and fantastic camaraderie. I saw people I haven’t even thought about in 35+ years, and bringing up all of that was just absolutely delightful.

We had a tailgate party Saturday night at the RV, and even though the weather was cold and damp, the spirits were anything but.