I’ve been meaning to write about this phase of my life for awhile, because it is foundational to a lot of what came afterward, and it factors into a lot of my stories. So much so that I find myself holding back on sharing certain stories because it is just too time consuming to try to explain what it was I was doing with myself between the Summers of 1990, and August of 1994. So in the interest of providing background reference info for future postings, here goes.
I was a Federal Agent assigned to investigate paranormal phenomena.
Err… no wait, that wasn’t me. Sorry, let me start over.
The final semester of my Senior year at Clarkson ended badly. Just how badly is the subject of TGAN, so I won’t get into the details here. But luckily, I managed to land a job prior to graduation, which vindicated my choosing to pursue an Engineering Degree at Clarkson in the first place. Something I only did because:
a.) They had the shortest application of all the schools I was interested in
b.) They made a point of highlighting their 90% placement rate for graduating seniors
Yes, even at age 17 I was a pragmatic kid who sought to maximize his return on a minimal investment. Still do, actually.
As Senior year was winding down, the job search became more and more frantic around campus. I was getting nowhere in finding a job in Western New York, or anywhere in New York for that matter. The long recession that began there in the 1970’s, and continued through the Reagan years showed no signs of abating. Unless you were a Chemical or Electrical engineer with a 4.0 you had little hope of breaking into the few remaining fortune 500 firms left in NY State, like IBM, General Electric, XEROX, or Kodak. I had chosen to focus on the Power Generation Industry in my job search to follow in the footsteps of my Dad. As he always told the story, he walked away from better paying job opportunities at the DuPont and Chevy plants in Tonawanda in the 50’s to take a job with Niagara Mohawk, “because people always need electricity”. (I guess you know where I get my pragmatism)
The PowerGen industry in the late 80’s was still frozen in amber, awaiting the coming “deregulation” that everyone knew was inevitable. Capital investments had dried up, and the boom and bust market of new power plant construction was on a temporary pause. The result was that it was proving difficult to find a job anywhere in this industry too. But a few interviews with ABB Combustion Engineering had gone well for me and I had been invited down to their headquarters in Windsor, Connecticut for a second and third round of interviews. In the end, I received two job offers from them, in very different positions.
The first job offer was for a design engineering position in their nuclear fuels group, where I would live in a cube farm and work in a group of 4-5 others doing something involving “engineering of nuclear fuels”. Honestly, I have no idea what was involved in engineering nuclear fuel. I thought you just stuck the uranium in the tank and started shooting neutrons at it or something.
The second job offer was for a position in their Field Services group. It would require me to relocate to an “as yet to be determined” district office (somewhere in the Lower 48) and spend my days visiting coal fired power plants providing “technical service”. Again, I had no idea what that might mean. Changing the oil, and washing the windows perhaps. In any case, this position paid about $1,000 more per year, plus a per diem to cover living expenses.
It was a tough decision, made easier when I decided that the mess I had made of my life at that point was best abandoned in favor of a fresh start. So I picked the Field Service job, and offered to start as soon as possible. So it was in early June, 1990, I found myself in my car with all my belongings heading to Windsor CT for 3 days of orientation.
It was all so new and strange I felt like a kid playing grown up. Staying in a hotel, eating out at restaurants with the other newbies, and sitting through the basics of how to live on the road, submit expense reports, deposit a paycheck, change the oil and wash the windows of coal burning boilers. Unbeknownst to all of us, the first ‘weeding out” process was underway.
For a job that requires 100% travel, the turnover rate was pretty high. Something like 30% of all incoming field service engineers wouldn’t make it through their first year. By the 5th year, if you were still around, and only about 10-15% made it that far, you were considered a lifer. So to help facilitate this turnover the company had some tricks that they liked to play on the newbies. The first such trick was to be sure to assign you to an office in another region of the country from the one you grew up, or went to school in. This would quickly assess your willingness to leave friends and family behind for work. The second trick was to change this assignment on the last day of orientation to find out if you could handle the uncertainty and chaos of life on the road.
After accepting the job I had been told that I would be assigned to the Philadelphia district office. As far as locations went, I was pretty happy. Sure, the Atlantic Seaboard was pretty different culturally from W.N.Y., but home was only a 6 hour drive away, so I could count on getting back for the holidays. So I was a bit shocked and surprised when I showed up the last day of orientation with my bags packed, ready to drive to Philly and I was told that plans had changed and I should report to the Birmingham, Alabama office.
Now I am a pretty intelligent guy, and had the good fortune of having parents who liked to take long driving trips around the country for summer vacations, but I had never been to Alabama in my life, and my sum total of knowledge about the state came from Lynyrd Skynyrd songs, and TV Docu-dramas about the civil rights movement. It couldn’t be that bad though, could it? I mean, it was 1990 after all. That stuff all took place years ago.
So I must admit it was with some nervous trepidation that I pointed my car south and began the drive. The first day took me to a Howard Johnson’s in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. The second days drive was down the length of the Blue Ridge, through Virginia and into Athens, Tennessee. It was exciting to be alone on the open road. I wondered what my first assignment would be, and what sort of places I would be visiting. The Birmingham office covered Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Eastern Mississippi. It was an area that was pretty much a big blank spot on the map to me, covered in the Rebel Flag, and known only by the place names of the various Civil War battles that occurred there. There was so much to explore, so much to learn, I could hardly contain my excitement.
I showed up for work on Monday morning 30 minutes before the office opened. I was so nervous, and scared to death to go inside. I ended up driving around the suburban office park out on Inverness Parkway. When I finally went into the office and met the staff I felt, well, kinda different. It was weird. There wasn’t anyone there but an older secretary with one of those mint julep voices, the tiny, mousy little District Manager, and his N.Y. Jewish Area Manager. Not quite what I was expecting. They seemed busy, and a bit surprised and put off by my presence. For some reason I guess I was expecting a welcome or something. Instead I was met with indifference. I figured that was part of the weeding out process at the time. Only later would I come to realize the class differences that were inherent between managers and their field service engineers. We weren’t supposed to be in the office wearing ties and loafers. We were supposed to be out in the field in coveralls, hardhats, and steel toed boots. If we weren’t on billable time, we were “overhead sucking dogs”.
I spent one day in the Birmingham office, sitting in a desk in the corner, while the district manager called around to the field engineers out at the jobsites, looking for someone who would be willing to take me under their wing and train me on the job. Eventually he gave up, and just sent me to the last remaining startup project in the district. It was a total clusterfarge of a DOE demonstration project in Paducah Kentucky, where we were participating as an original equipment manufacturer (OEM) in building and commissioning an “atmospheric fluidized bed boiler” (AFB) at the TVA Shawnee plant. The fluidized bed boiler was an attempt to build a low emission coal fired power plant, by mixing crushed limestone in with the coal as it was burned in the “bubbling bed” of the furnace, to capture acid rain causing Sulfur Dioxide during the combustion process. It all sounds very fancy and technical, but trust me it wasn’t much more than dumping some stuff in a big barrel and burning it to see what happens.
The program had been lingering for years in the demonstration status, unable to reach its performance targets for commercialization and be handed over to the customer. It had become an albatross around the neck of the company, and over the course of the previous 3 years it had seen a revolving door of field service engineers, sent there to figure out how to make a silk purse out of a sows ear. The project was in it’s wind down phase, with a small staff left in our trailer, tying up lose ends for the legal team, checking off boxes on the weekly punch list, and trying to account for all the money that had been hemorrhaged over the previous 3 years of mismanagement at the site.
So early the next morning, I loaded up my stuff into the car and pointed it back North across the flat fields of Northern Alabama, through Tennessee and on into Kentucky. My training would begin the next day in Paducah. It would prove to be an education in so many ways.
To be continued….