March 1, 2009


Lydia signs in for herself and also adds my name to the list. There is a pleasant odor of overcooked coffee emanating from the corner of the room behind me. I resist the temptation to dose myself with a massive infusion of caffeine. The female executive and her crew have disappeared down one the hallways; Dr. Smartz had taken his Japanese graduate students into tow, somewhere. Dr. Karma arrives.

We wander back through flower gardens and tree lined walkways of the JPL science and engineering complex and I learn that our host is from one of those eastern European countries that has been “consolidated” in recent years. He has been in this country for about fifteen years and is responsible for designing some important, but obscure bits of space hardware. His English is not very good, but that isn’t too important because— after brief introductions and a polite handshake— he and my wife are wrapped up in talking about something more mathematical than linguistic. As for myself, I am more interested in the model of the Mars rover than anything else.

The bright, young, perhaps prominent, scientist or engineer has just finished explaining to me that the green box connected to the purple box has a too-complicated-for-me-to-understand thing in it which makes the whole widget do thus-and-so.

“If you had studied programming, Sir,” the young engineer says, innocently, “you’d be able to understand how this box controls the direction the sensors tell the wheels to turn.”

Behind me, the Project Director asks my wife if she can help them write their proposal for project “Q”. “No money, of course, but think of the contacts you could make,” he says. Lydia’s hand brushes my back.

I point to the bi-directional interface chip on the edge of the exposed printed circuit board and ask the junior team leader, “How many levels of interrupts are guaranteed to provide reentrancy into to your control subroutines, taking into consideration the transfer function of your digital interface?” The engineer inserts her finger into the corner of her mouth and sucks on it.

It isn’t fair, and I’m not an expert, and I don’t know everything about her design, but I do know the right question to ask, because that’s the question I’d want answered if I were responsible for turning loose this fifty million dollar little gadget on the Martian surface. Behind me, the Project Manager, who has heard this little repartee, shifts gears.

He’s good; I give him credit for that. He has seen me look over his pictures, schematics, nod, and look interested, and he thought I was being polite. “Of course,” he continues, “ there may be some funds for outside consulting in the areas of information support services. Perhaps we could interface in that area.”

“Yes,” I hear Lydia say, “that would certainly work for both of us.”

But, this morning is JPL, and they are the good guys, aren’t they? These are the children that make those weapons systems that are supposed to go bang and knock missiles out of the heavens. Good luck.

I am passing a pleasant morning, even if it does give me some weird flashbacks to be in a large government research facility. I think back to Oak Ridge, Tennessee and the National Laboratory jammed into narrow valleys in the limestone hills near the town. Except for the atmosphere of hushed self-importance, there is little to compare between this palm shaded paradise and ORNL . If the thought police are listening, I hope I don’t hurt their feelings.

In my many visits to the Oak Ridge National Laboratories, I learned early-on that the folks there are “real” serious about their mission. Sometimes there was a slip in this otherwise unyielding facade. In an unguarded comment, an administrator was heard to say: “We only put men and women past child bearing age in this wing because the level of radiation is a bit high.”

As I say, to those listening in to me, there’s not much to compare between Camelot and “that other place”. “Here”, it is perpetual spring. warblers whistle, finches fuss, the ivy is green, the bottle brush is filled with humming (what else?) hummingbirds, and the dogwoods are in full bloom. “There”, it is gloomy, cold, and damp. “There”, the grass is the same color as the limestone rock, and water is most often found in its solid incarnation. “There”, women are bundled in thick wool coats and trousers. “Here”, they are in light silk dresses that stir with every motion. This, of course, is the male perspective.

Lunchtime comes far too quickly. I am not yet finished with my examination of the Titan landing vehicle and the receptionist’s hemline. Our host has an important meeting— not more important, he has hastened to add— and furnishes us with detailed directions to the cafeteria. The idea of starvation occurs to me. My wife’s stomach growls, delicately.

We need only a snack. We have a lunch waiting for us in Anaheim, and that lunch is prepaid. There I go again, with that free lunch thing. I find a table to inhabit with Lydia’s briefcase. She spins the cylinder in her .45 and goes foraging among the steam tables. She returns with two diet cokes, a bagel with cream cheese, and a croissant. My tongue feels around inside my mouth and I choose the croissant. Why take any chances with a loose tooth?

One the way out I am surprised that they don’t search the briefcase. Civilization has definitely penetrated paradise. Either that, or the Cold War really is over. Under the care of our giant oak, our van remains in deliciously cool shade. There is a very anxious lady waiting in her Jeep Cherokee to replace us as I back out of our space. She will have to wait while I get the bird droppings off of the windshield. Even the guard looks friendly as we drive past his security booth without stopping. My wife waives at him. I look in my mirror and watch him waiving frantically at us. Could it possibly be that he is looking for our parking pass?

Enough details. Our arrival at the Hilton Hotel in Anaheim is uneventful. Rotarian Marty illustrates the process of check in and registration. I find her enveloped in an overstuffed chair “indistinguishable from the lump of soft luggage piled near her feet”, waiting for her room. Yes, I’m tired and sleepy, also. By some miracle, our room is ready to occupy. We don’t celebrate too loudly, as no one else within earshot seems to have a room.

About charles frenzel

I've been writing all my life. I've also painted, composed, sculpted, contributed to molecular research, advanced some mathematical concepts, lived on a sailboat, and worked for a Nobel Prize winner. Nothing in my life has pleased me more than to share my life with my wife and friend of over forty years.

View all posts by charles frenzel


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