Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Never Give Up

When I returned to Illinois from Virginia, I signed on with a consulting group. My first assignment was to be at Allstate, which required a ten person contingent: a project leader, a technical leader, and eight assembler programmers. I was to be the technical leader.

The project leader and I got there a couple of weeks ahead of the rest - in fact not all "the rest" had been found and hired. I wound up interviewing a couple of them myself. After a couple of weeks everyone was present and *that* is when I learned that Allstate didn't need ten techies. What they needed was a group of people to document some systems written in assembler, and they had decided that should be done by assembler programmers. Our group *might* write a dozen lines of code a week among us.

I called my employers and told them they had to get me out of there, and a week or two later they arranged an interview at IBM for a programming job working (as a contractor, not an employee) with an assembler programming department. I was interviewed by the manager and a couple of days later he introduced me to the others in the department, six in number, and informed me that I would be working with (read "for") Rick.

Rick was in some ways old school IBM: all business, not one whit more sociable than he had to be. I, on the other hand, tend to be somewhat gregarious around people with whom I work. Within a couple of weeks I had made several friends in the department, but no progress in that area with the Great Stone Face, Rick. Nearly every minute of the work day you could walk by his cubicle and see him either staring at programming code on his monitor or making modifications to it, oblivious to his surroundings. In fact, and I *swear* to you this is true, one day an employee in another department had a heart attack, paramedics raced by Rick's cubicle with a gurney and then returned, wheeling the patient past Rick, and when I mentioned it later he was completely unaware of the incident. He was a dedicated worker, no doubt about *that*.

He gave me assignments, pointed me to the programs and libraries I would need, and basically ignored me until I went to him and said I was done. I *tried* to break him down, but that was a very slow process. I would go into his cube, park my butt on his credenza, and wait until he was forced to look at me. He, on the other hand, would ignore me for a bit, then take a deep breath to let me know that this was an imposition, turn to me, and give me the phoniest smile in creation while saying "Yes?"

But *this* Yankee is made of stern stuff, and after a couple of months I could actually get a few minutes of non-work conversation out of him. At some point he began calling me "Fred," which was most assuredly not my name. However, I would have dipped my arm in boiling oil before asking him why, at least until I had *some* information about it.

That came one day when he decided he wanted to talk about a problem he was having with a program. He just *couldn't* find the problem and thought that perhaps talking it out with me would help. I looked over his shoulder as he discussed the program routines and found that he had inserted some testing code to provide him with interim information to help the debugging. Interestingly, he had named the testing routine "Fred." Aha!

I asked him "Why 'Fred?'" He said he had once had a boss that named such routines Fred and he had picked up the habit. Good enough for me, and soon we were *both* calling each other Fred, a practice which persists to this day. (My greatest triumph came one day when the two of us had lunch and I presented him with a bottle of wine from Lynfred Winery, the label of which proclaimed it to be "Fred's Red.")

The Great Stone Face cracked one day. The breakthrough came as the result of some work he had given me. When I said I was done he tested the program. Soon his voice wafted across the corridor: "Hey, Fred. It doesn't work." I, of course, denied that this could be true in a four dimensional universe, and learned something about how the department worked. When you made a modification to the program you owned the *entire* program, not just the code you wrote, not just the functions the code affected. He had found something in the program that didn't work. It wasn't related to my coding and in fact it was obvious that it had *never* worked properly. I pointed that out and he gave me an Ownership 101 lecture. Go back and fix this one, and in the future when I fixed something, test *every* function in the program. It didn't matter if it had never worked, if it didn't work *now* it was my responsibility.

The breakthrough? I said "You should be in Quality Control," and he replied "You should be pumping gas."

That's one of the funniest things anyone's ever said to me, and I have known a lot of people over the years who would have paid mucho dinero for front row seats to it. I once related the story during a telephone conversation with Debbie (you'll just have to read older posts if you want to know about her) and it was several minutes before she could breathe properly.

Rick and I slowly became good friends, and the final proof was that one hot summer afternoon I got him to steal out of the building with me and make a quick run to Dairy Queen.

I left IBM nearly ten years ago, but several of the department members, including Rick and me, still have lunch once a month, and every couple of months Rick and I get together for a movie and dinner.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Stuck in the Sixties, Musically

I imagine that the great majority of pop music fans favor inordinately the music of their youth, the major exception being (perhaps) those who were young musicians and were always impatiently finding fault with the music of the day.

My own experience was that with the arrival of heavy metal I "dropped out" when it came to keeping up with contemporary music. It's not as if I've *never* listened to or liked newer artists, only that at one time I was on top of things, so to speak, and since then my exposure to new artists and new music has been pretty much accidental.

Thus, this post, devoted to pop music related trivia, will focus pretty much on the fifties and sixties. Here are some tidbits for you:

  • The Animals: The original members were a tax collector, a ship's instrument maker, a postman, an illustrator, and a salesman.

  • Seven different artists reached the top forty with Mack the Knife, aka Theme from the Three Penny Opera.

  • The Ronettes, The Crystals, and The Chiffons were all sixties girl groups. In the 1986 remake of Little Shop of Horrors, three black women are occasionally seen and heard in musical numbers and in the credits are identified as Ronette, Crystal, and Chiffon.

  • The Bobbettes: If you're old enough, you may recall their only hit, Mr. Lee.

    One, two, three,
    Look at Mr. Lee.
    Three, four, five,
    Look at him jive.

    Well, the truth is that the Bobettes were aged 11 to 13, Mr. Lee was their fifth grade teacher, and they didn't like him at all. The above lyrics are the cleaned up version of their original recording, I Shot Mr. Lee, which began

    One, two, three,
    I shot Mr. Lee.
    Three, four, five,
    I got tired of his jive.

  • Pat Boone and Roy Orbison were classmates at North Texas State University.

  • Sky Pilot was slang for a military chaplain. When Eric Burdon & the Animals released their song of that name in 1968 it went to number one among the troops in Vietnam and stayed there for six months.

  • Johnny Cash had a big hit with A Boy Named Sue, written by Shel Silverstein. You may recall the verse in which Sue finally finds his father and they get into a fight, Kickin' and a-gougin' in the mud and the blood and the beer.

    Silverstein later wrote and recorded Father of a Boy Named Sue. In this version, told by the Sue's father, Sue is gay and when they meet and fight, they do so Kickin' and a gougin' in the mud and the blood and the creme de menthe.

    And yes, that Shel Silverstein - A Light in the Attic and other children's books.

  • With a Little Help From My Friends, it was reported, was Vice President Spiro Agnew's favorite pop song until someone told him that the friends were drugs.

  • Fats Domino, with eighteen Billboard Top 20 hits, never made it to number one. The closest he came was with Blueberry Hill, which reached #2.

  • Tommy Edwards reached #18 in 1951 and #1 in 1958 with It's All in the Game, written as Melody in A Major in 1911 by Charles Dawes, who was elected Vice President in 1912.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Doowop. Really.

But first an afterthought related to the previous post. (No, honest, we'll get to doowop.)

Georgia Gibbs, whom I called "The Queen of Cover Artists," covered so many LaVern Baker songs that it really angered Baker. Whether it's true or not, there was at the time a widely reported story that Baker took out a flight insurance policy naming Gibbs as the beneficiary, so that if anything happened to Baker then Gibbs wouldn't go broke.

OK, doowop. For some reason So Fine, a song by The Fiestas, popped into my mind the other day. Close behind it came the memory that the flip side was a doowop song, Last Night I Dreamed. Now this is one of those songs that people tend to love or hate. I recall a young woman telling me that in places it sounded like "a bunch of castrated pups."

Sooo . . . I went to YouTube to search for it and was *quite* surprised to find it. I haven't heard it for roughly fifty years. So Fine charted in 1959, while I was in Germany, and although I've heard that any number of times, I had never heard Last Night I Dreamed anywhere but on the jukeboxes in German bars.

I snagged it from YouTube and then, well you know how you watch a video on YouTube and then get presented with the option to watch any number of videos that YouTube thinks might be related to what you just watched. I don't really have a point to make in this post, and am just gonna ramble a little about where those choices took me and the memories they stirred, all fifty or more years old. If old folks bore you, go away.

One of the choices was Daddy's Home, which reached #2 in 1961, by Shep & the Limelites. The mildly interesting thing about this song is that it's a sequel (generally known as an "answer song") to You're a Thousand Miles Away (1956, didn't make the pop charts) by the Heartbeats. James Shepherd had been the lead singer of that group at the time, so he recorded the original song with one group and the sequel with another. He tried to milk it to death by releasing Three Steps to the Altar and Our Anniversary, but they tanked. Enough was enough.

YouTube then took me to one of the truly great doowop songs, In the Still of the Night, by The Five Satins. Recorded in a church basement, this was Voted 100th best song of the 20th century by the Recording Industry of America and the National Endowment for the Arts.

From there I went to My Girl by the Temptations. Arguably the best song to come out of Motown, it was written by Smokey Robinson and was the RIA/NEA pick for the 20th century's 45th best song.

And then . . . and then . . . don't do this, I'm warning you. I clicked on something described as "Most Requested Oldies Medley." Have you ever been doing something and wished you were having a root canal instead?

OK, we'll wrap this up with two items: 1) Since you're dying to know what song the RIA/NEA chose for the 20th century's best: It was Somewhere Over the Rainbow by Judy Garland; and 2) a short list of doowop tecommendations (in addition to those mentioned above).
  • I Only Have Eyes For You by The Flamingos
  • Money Honey by Clyde McPhatter & the Drifters
  • The Tracks of My Tears by The Miracles
  • Stay by Maurice Williams & the Zodiacs
  • At My Front Door by the El Dorados
  • Over the Mountain by Johnnie & Joe
  • Sixty Minute Man by The Dominoes
As with the numbers mentioned in the preceding post, these can all be found on YouTube.