First Jobs

Graduation from high school was sort of an anti-climax. After our cadet company failed to shine in the annual competition, there was not much left in my high school experience to interest me. Having dropped back a half year, I was cut off from most of the classmates I had come to know, and naturally being a loner, I made very few friends in the new class. Graduating in June 1930 was not the best time in the century to enter the job market. Although I was fully determined to go to university, Dad made it clear that he could not send me — I would have to earn my own way. Even the University of Maryland had tuition and fees for residents which were out of my (and his) reach. So my first concern upon graduation was a job, and they were not plentiful at the beginning of the Great Depression. A new next-door neighbor, Mr. Bierly, had set up a print shop in his basement, and offered me a job as his assistant. He said he could afford to pay me only $7 a week to start, as he was just getting printing jobs and had no cash on hand, but promised a raise the second week — if I did well. I was familiar with all the work in a job shop — setting type, preparing and operating small platen presses and collating and packaging the printed sheets, both from the training at Tech and my own print shop experience. But I couldn’t cope with the press Mr. Bierly bought (every sheet was printed as it had no throw-off), and he wasn’t satisfied with my productivity. For one thing I wasted too much paper. When at the end of the second 48-hour week he gave me only $7, I decided to quit.

Anyone living in or around Washington is aware that Uncle Sam is its major employer. However, getting a civil service job was not that easy. Most positions were rationed among the States, and Maryland and Virginia were always over-full. There was only one employment opportunity in the Federal Government open to me at that time, and that was apprenticeship in the Government Printing Office. I thought I was already a qualified printer, and the prospect of a four-year apprenticeship was not appealing — but a job was a job, so I took the competitive civil service examination, and was able to place high enough on the eligibility list to get appointed to the next annual class — the last one for five years! The class didn’t start until January 1931, however, and that was nearly six months away. Meanwhile, Woodward & Lothrop, Washington’s best department store, advertised for bundle collectors at $12 a week. For five months, I dutifully appeared at 14th and F Streets each morning at 8:45 and made the rounds of the cashier stations until six that evening to pick up the purchases that were to be delivered to the buyer’s home. I was supposed to do this continuously, but I soon got tired of going the rounds when there was practically nothing to pick up. One of the sections in my area was books. It wasn’t long before I found a hiding place, where I could read one of the many interesting books for a few minutes, before making my next round. My supervisor, a prune-faced spinster named Miss Burke, caught me red-handed several times, and warned me that my job was at stake, but I couldn’t resist the opportunity of such good books. When my probation time was over and I should have been promoted, I got a pink slip instead, and once more was looking for a job.

However, just before being fired, the notice of appointment to the Government Printing Office came, and that took the sting out of being fired. Also Christmas was approaching, and Sears Roebuck was hiring bundle wrappers at their retail store at $15 a week. For a little over two weeks, I put paper around every size and shape of bundle you could conceive of, and had a good time chatting with the other wrappers and cashiers. I even had the opportunity of buying gold dollar coins for face value, but didn’t want to make the investment. All in all, I managed to be on somebody’s payroll all but four weeks of the time between graduation and the GPO.

I don’t remember much of my spare-time activities during that half year between high school and the Government Printing Office. I do remember taking a girl named Thelma Harrison to the Glen Echo amusement park on a Tuesday night during the summer of 1930. That was the only date I had with her, as she went into a diabetic coma two days later and died the third day! That was a great shock to me, and I wondered for a while if anything we did that night could have contributed to her death. I couldn’t think of anything, so let myself off the hook.

Citizen Soldier

In December 1930 I enlisted in the District of Columbia National Guard. When I came home that night and told Dad, he said, "You’re not old enough to be in the National Guard. You go right back and get out." There were no more drill nights until the next year, since Christmas and New Years both fell on Thursday, the regular drill night. By the time of the next drill night in early January, Dad had relented and didn’t make me get out. That extra 10 months (before I would be 18) was part of my military retirement many years later, and I would not now be receiving over $1,500 pension a month if Dad had insisted on my withdrawal!

Printer’s Devil

On Monday, January 12, 1931, I appeared along with nearly 100 other boys (and two girls) at the Government Printing Office at North Capitol and H Streets. We were soon classified and assigned to "frames" in the Apprentice Department, under Mssrs. Williams, Watts and Roller. Each frame or work station had a rack with space on the top for a "case" holding type, and slots below for about 15 cases containing different sizes and faces of type. We were assigned alphabetically, and I was between Matthai and Murphy. Matthai was an egotist and several years older than I. His sole interest in life appeared to be sex. He talked about his sexual exploits morning, noon, and night, and I soon got sick to death of hearing him. I’m sure most of his "experiences" were made up, and told only because he saw I didn’t want to hear them. He was my first encounter with a "nasty man." A whole year I had to put up with him, until our career ladder separated us. It was a great relief. Murphy was, like me, a quiet, shy boy who rarely talked. He must have heard Matthai’s continuous prating, but he never reacted to it.

Each Monday morning for the entire four years of our apprenticeship we had a spelling test. Mr. Watts would choose a column of words from the official GPO dictionary — Webster’s Unabridged — and assign it to us by distributing sheets containing the fifty or so words in that column. We would receive 25 of these on a paper, usually misspelled, and we would have to write the correct spelling, syllabication, and special marks and capitalization, but NOT meaning! About half the class would get them all correct some of the time, and a few did so for every week of the 208! My score was much less than perfect, but I did make some runs of months before stumbling.

Discipline was extreme in the Apprentice Department. Being late to work by only a few seconds (this actually happened to me) cost one 15 minutes pay if not excused. An excused lateness cost multiples of half hours of annual leave. When we were being processed for placement, we were asked to give in detail whatever training we had had in printing, so I dutifully entered my 3-1/2 years of printing class at Tech and my 3 years with George Myers running our little print shop. The instructor who reviewed these held me up for ridicule, saying I claimed I was already qualified. I made no such claim. It merely emphasized the hostile attitude almost everyone had to the job, the "bosses", and the system. In all my working years, I have never encountered a situation as close to a "sweatshop" as the GPO in the 1930’s.

College Student

Having a secure income, even a small one, was a great comfort in the face of high unemployment. Among other things, I could now afford to go to George Washington University, which had long catered to Government workers by scheduling classes at night as well as during daytime. So in February 1931 I registered as a freshman at GW, opting for electrical engineering as my major. Classes were at 5pm or 6pm, Monday-Wednesday-Friday or Tuesday-Thursday-Saturday, with labs at 7:30pm Tuesdays and Thursdays. Because of scheduling limitations, students were permitted great latitude in setting up their curricula, and I took quite a few classes that were not needed for my major. By the time I had reached senior class status, I could have qualified for a major in math, physics, chemistry, electrical or mechanical engineering, with just one year more work in each field. In all I had enough credits for nearly six academic years before I got my bachelor’s degree in EE in 1938.

If my evenings had been dull in the autumn of 1930, they certainly weren’t the next year! The GPO still worked a half-day Saturday, so with classes every week-night until seven and National Guard drill every Thursday night until 10:30, I had to use most of my week-ends to catch up on home-work. Most years I also had engineering lab on Tuesday nights until 10:30. I greatly enjoyed both the school work and the National Guard, making up somewhat for the unpleasant days at the GPO. My cadet experience helped me greatly in the National Guard, and I was promoted to corporal before our first two-week training period that summer. I just happened to be solicited by a fellow in the searchlight battery of the 260th Coast Artillery (Antiaircraft), and thus was part of the most rapidly expanding arm of the war-time Army in the years ahead.

My Three-Career Sophomore Year

Shortly after Roosevelt became President in March 1932, he announced his recovery plan, and Congress passed the National Recovery Act. A set of forms and booklets had to be mailed to every one of the 4,000,000 employers in the United States. Our apprentice class was drafted to stuff the 4,000,000 envelopes. We worked 10 hours a day for over two weeks to get the job done, and got overtime pay in addition to our 50 cents an hour. By this time, my apprentice ladder had brought me to the Job Shop, the part of the GPO that handled jobs too small to go through the major departmental structure. This was simply a continuation of the year in the Apprentice Department but I no longer had to put up with Matthai’s foul mouth. After six months there, we were moved to the Imposing Department, where the type pages were assembled and "locked up" in the huge steel forms that went into the book presses, allowing a "signature" of 16 or 32 pages to be printed on a single pass of the paper. My partner was a journeyman printer, one of the cleanest men I got to know there. Unlike most of the others, he didn’t bet on the horses, numbers, football games and anything else that was available, and his conversation was generally clean and uplifting.

Now that I was making 50 cents an hour, I had to have transportation. A second-hand Harley Davidson motorcycle proved to be the answer, and that became my trusty steed for the next year. I remember a number of outings — hill climbs, impromptu races, and just cross-country runs with other cyclists. I once took Margaret on a ride at 90 miles an hour when she was pregnant with Bobby.

Having spent my first National Guard camp as a corporal, I was soon promoted to sergeant, and spent most of my drill nights teaching the newer men how to soldier. The sergeant is the backbone of the American Army, as he is the man who not only trains the privates, but also leads them in battle. I had charge of one of our two huge searchlights, and greatly enjoyed the thrill of picking out a target plane on our night drills and exhibitions. Since 1932 was the sesquicentennial of our Nation, there were many parades down Pennsylvania Avenue, and our National Guard trucks were in every one of them. I got a day off from the GPO on military leave each time, but the printers’ union made us make up the lost days to complete our full four years of apprenticeship.

During the first two years at GW, I concentrated on courses that were required for any degree — English, math, economics (summer 1932), basic physics, general chemistry, geology, and language (I chose scientific German). The English class was huge — about 500 students, with Dr. Wilbur (who also taught Mother forty years earlier) as the professor. He had written our textbook, and I soon discovered that reading the book was as good as attending class, so seldom went to his classes. We had to write themes several times a month, but that was easy. The night before the final exam I read the book from cover to cover, and made 100 on the exam, getting an A in a class I hardly ever attended! My course in mechanical drawing — a requirement for all engineers — had been a near fiasco. I just couldn’t handle a drawing pen without getting ink all over the drawing. Since drawing paper was much more expensive than erasers, my drawings had most of the top surface of the paper removed by erasures. The prof didn’t like it and gave me a ‘D’ in the course.

My heavy schedule left me no time for dates, so I satisfied my social needs with male companionship with my new friends in the National Guard. I got particularly thick with three brothers, John, Fred and Roy King. We were all in the searchlight battery, and although much younger than John and Fred, I was senior in rank to them all. John alone was married, and we often went to his house after drill night for a snack. In later years, I even lived in their house, and Mary Jo had a few dates with Roy, the youngest of the brothers. I still see John occasionally. Our National Guard regiment had World-War-I equipment in Washington, but used the modern equipment of the Regular Army antiaircraft regiment in Fort Monroe, a Coast Artillery post near Newport News VA during our summer two-week training periods, a circumstance that was to have a profound effect on my life in just a few years.

A Blind Date

The year 1933 may have been the deepest part of the Great Depression, but it was the year that brought me into contact with my future wife. One of my cronies at the GPO (and also in the National Guard) was Charles Haig. We called him "Flit" for reasons that would be obvious to anyone who knew him. He had gotten to know a girl in Newport News named Irmalee (Teenie) Smith, and had dates with her whenever our National Guard regiment went to Fort Monroe for its two-week annual training period. Not having had a date since the summer of 1930, I thought I should begin getting acquainted with the other half of humanity, so asked him to see if Teenie had a girl friend that might be interested in a date with me.

She did, and so I met Mary Charlotte Chapman. We had several dates that summer, and she introduced me to "tonsil diving." She had just graduated from high school that year and entered Mary Washington College in Fredericksburg, only 55 miles from Washington. As our relationship deepened, so did the frequency of my trips to Fredericksburg on week-ends. I even visited her in Newport News that Thanksgiving. It was a difficult week-end. She insisted that I attend the football game of her high school in a cold drizzling rain. On top of that I had a tooth-ache, and had almost the only tooth I ever lost pulled by a local dentist.

The year 1933 was a critical year in several respects. At the GPO, the apprentice curriculum called for a year of proofreading, and for a while, I thought that might be my calling. We apprentices were paired with one old-timer for several months, and then with another, so as to learn the art by osmosis. And proofreading IS an art. There was the GPO Style Manual, a massive compendium of rules of grammar, spelling, and legislative practices which every proofreader had to know by heart. Then there were the hieroglyphics that had been devised to indicate changes and corrections. And finally, there were four levels of emendation — normal, follow, follow including punctuation, and follow literally. For the last category — follow lit. — the proofreader was supposed to spit on the copy if the author had spit on the original! I met two men there who would later touch my life in other ways — Mr. Balch and Mr. Tarr. Mr. Balch was the father of my future brother-in-law, Clyde, and Mr. Tarr tried to teach me Russian, so his three sons would be interested in learning the family mother tongue. The lessons soon petered out because of conflicting radio programs, and I gave up, not being interested in the programs. At school, I was wavering between pure science and engineering.

The Harley needed updating. With Mother’s financial help and that of a fellow apprentice, Gus Johnson, whom I induced to go in with me, I bought a brand new Harley-Davidson motorcycle. Over the next year or so, I hit seven cars which got in my way (illegally of course) and finally I was convinced that motorbikes were too dangerous, much to Mother’s relief. Perhaps the real reason was that Mary Charlotte didn’t like them, since her brother Montgomery had been killed on one just a few months before I met her. I couldn’t afford both a motorbike and a car.

My work at the university was becoming specialized. The next course in chemistry required Tuesday and Thursday night labs, the nights that were regular meeting nights at the National Guard. As I look back on it, I can hardly believe that I was willing to set aside the National Guard, asking to be temporarily transferred to the inactive rolls (and lose my sergeant rank) until the semester was over. But that is what I did, coming back to active status as soon as the lab period was over. The best my battery commander could do for me was corporal for my third camp. During the spring term I had completed the German and geology courses, and took care of the last physics requirement during the summer. That autumn, I began my first electrical engineering course, but was not at all convinced then that EE was to be my specialty.

Hooked by Cupid

For some years I had been an avid reader of what was then a new type of magazine — science fiction. My favorite stories involved heroes who used technology to cure the world’s ills. I was hooked on that theme, and thought that would be a very worthwhile goal for my life. But when my relationship with Mary Charlotte started to get serious, I was faced with a dilemma — marriage and family or celibacy and technology. On one occasion, as I contemplated the consequences of marriage and family as opposed to career and changing the world, I actually did suggest to her that we were getting too serious. I believe she had already come to the conclusion that we had not gotten serious enough, as she gently maneuvered me into proposing just before her birthday in September 1934. I can remember discussing the possibility with Dad that summer at our Randle Cliff cottage. He had studied handwriting character analysis, and assured me from her handwriting that Mary Charlotte would be a faithful wife — a fact proved by nearly 64 years of marriage! He had several other possibilities in mind for me — particularly a girl named Catherine, who was the daughter of a doctor neighbor in Randle Cliff. But he didn't press the matter when he saw my lack of interest.

I remember the night of the proposal very well, and also the next day when I had to speak to her mother and father. Mr. Chapman was 25 years older than her mother, and was 62 at Mary’s birth. Now at 80, he could hardly hear, and evidenced some senility. But he knew what an engagement for his daughter meant, and gave his consent, after Mrs. Chapman had made her recommendation. It took over a month’s salary to buy the ring. The wedding date was supposed to be delayed until her graduation from college nearly three years away, but as it turned out, we didn’t wait that long.

The motorcycle had been sold after my last collision with a car (which could have killed me), and I bought for $10 an old car with a Durant body and a Maxwell chassis which wouldn’t run, certain I could fix it. As it turned out, the battery was accidentally grounded, and when that was corrected, the car ran beautifully. I even drove it to Fredericksburg and brought Mary Charlotte to Washington for a week-end, including Glen Echo. But it was not "pretty" or comfortable, so I sold it for $16, and bought a big, old Chrysler. It was such a gas eater, that I could hardly afford to own it, but it did get me to Newport News several times during the Summer of 1934.

My university work was now split between math and electrical engineering. The EE work involved many detailed calculations, and most students bought slide rules. At $35 a slide-rule, I decided that I could get by using logarithms! On the math side I had a near disaster when I undertook a course in advanced algebra. The course was really for graduate students in mathematics, although undergraduates were permitted to take it. After the course was over, I thanked the professor for giving me a barely passing grade (D), as I felt the subject was ‘way over my head.

My apprentice ladder had now brought me to my final year, for which 1 had been longing. Now I could become a linotype operator, and this became my bread and butter for a number of years. Also, in our final year, we apprentices now made 67 cents an hour, and this was a real help to make ends meet. Upon graduation, we would make $1.00 an hour — very good pay in the middle of the Great Depression. We apprentices did the work on exactly the same basis as did the journeymen, except that our pay was less, and we were given due time to "come up to speed." There were two levels of performance, the higher one requiring 25% more production at 5% more pay! Nevertheless, several of us apprentices managed to reach the higher level during our year of training and stayed at that level as journeymen. The type of copy was quite varied, as the GPO produced the printed equivalent of several hundred large daily papers. Two long jobs come to mind, one a set of correspondence within the State Department concerning our military involvement against the Bolsheviks in Russia and Siberia in the early 1920’s, and the other a hearing about the claims of American Indians against the US Government on the basis of treaties in the mid and late 1800’s. Many of these latter documents were photocopies of hand-written letters, and it was impossible to make our "average" when setting these into type.

Having become active once again in the National Guard, I soon was able to regain my former rank of sergeant, and in June of 1934 was promoted to staff sergeant. Our battery had two of these ranks to provide technical expertise for the searchlights and the generating and control equipment associated with them. My training in electrical engineering, although just beginning, already put me ahead of possible competition in this area, and I easily topped the list in the competitive examination. Unfortunately, our regiment did not go to Fort Monroe that year, as we had to have "tactical" training every third year, so we spent the two weeks in rural Virginia, a long way from Newport News and Mary Charlotte.

How I Looked at Life at 21

Since 1934 was the year I became 21, officially a "man" (see left), it might be of interest to examine my outlook on life as I now remember it. By now, the Great Depression was at its worst, and unemployment nationally had hit 20%. How some people continued to survive was unknown to me — in fact, I wasn’t even aware of their suffering until years later. Having grown up in a depression economy, I didn’t know any other kind. Besides, I had a steady job, and reasonably good pay. Not then being interested in social concerns, I didn’t take the trouble to look into the situation. Dad also had a good job and steady income. Mother had really made a career of business, having taken on the responsibility of distributor for the whole city of Washington, including the Federal Government, for the Scott & Fetzer Company, makers of the Vacuette electric and non-electric vacuum cleaners. At one time she had a sales force of perhaps six or more salesmen, including George Huff, my brother-in-law. My sister Marion was her secretary and accountant, and they lived in the 3-story house at 1209 K Street NW that served as Mother’s place of business. Mother sold vacuum cleaners to the White House, other Government buildings, and many Washington business concerns and homes. When one onsiders that those cleaners cost about as many dollars then as they do now it is remarkable that people, particularly during the Great Depression, would pay so much for them. At one time Mother was elected president of the Zonta Club, a business organization there in Washington. My time and thoughts were fully involved with work, school, and National Guard during the week, and with Mary Charlotte over most week-ends.

Economic privation was not a concern for our family. My idealism concerning the Utopia that technology might bring had largely evaporated, now that I had taken on a fiancée. I no longer lived at home, as I found it more convenient to pay John King my board money, rather than to Dad. But that had its drawbacks. John and his wife had occasional quarrels, and these upset me. It always appeared to my male eyes that she was unreasonable, just as John claimed, and my 63 years of married life since has not changed that general opinion! Not that the man is innocent of that charge! But the woman is more often guilty. I must confess that my Christian faith was at low ebb at this time of my life. Not that I changed my beliefs. It was just that there were too many things claiming my attention that were more important to me. I just didn’t have time for church and God! I still considered myself a Christian, and I sought to live a moral life. Mary Charlotte, on the other hand, was an avid church-goer — whenever the church doors opened, she was there! And so was I, when I was with her. Her church in Newport News was Southern Presbyterian, and her pastor’s name was Dimmock. He preached the dullest sermons I have ever heard, but he was a well-meaning and hard-working pastor who was later to marry Mary Charlotte and me.

All in all it is pretty clear that my thoughts and aspirations were concerned almost entirely with what I could get out of life rather than what I could contribute. I recognized that I had been rather "fortunate" in having a good steady job, opportunities for advancement, and a loving fiancée, hardly conscious that these were blessings from God and not just the happenstances of life.

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