Friday, June 03, 2005

When I started work at FEL

This is a part of my tribute to a dear friend, Samuel R. Frankel.

I started work for Sam on September 19, 1977 - my first real job. It was a strange sequence of events...

On Labor Day I had fallen out of a tree (from three feet off the ground), getting a hairline fracture of my ankle, and I had a cast. I had no degree, despite having been in college for four years (no free advertising for it here!) having spent too much of my time playing with the two-million dollar toy they had: a Control Data Corporation 6400 computer. That was a gigantic thing, amazingly powerful as Cray's machines were (someday I may tell more of THAT story too!) I had been proposing my own software projects, designing and implementing them almost from the start of college in 1973 - and so I thought I KNEW programming... heh, heh. (I didn't. I could not spell NP, you see... more on this next time!)

Sometime during that summer, a friend of the family had suggested I see if "Frankel Engineering Labs" might not have an opening. It was not far, only six blocks away. As I was to learn, FEL had two departments: NC and DP. DP was "data processing" - they did what we call business applications like payroll and accounting and that sort of thing. NC was "numerical control" - they did a variety of engineering consulting functions, primarily handling the cutting of metal by machine tools which were controlled by a computer. (They did not DO the metal-cutting, but assisted those who did.)

So I took a two-inch thick stack of listings of my college projects to show Mr. Frankel...

SRF: (big smile) "So, young man, do you know BASIC?"
me: (nervously) "No, I used FORTRAN and their assembler."
SRF: (eyebrows raised, gesturing to back room where computers were) "We only use BASIC here. Some FORTRAN, once in a while; some assembler."

So the interview seemed (to me) to be "well, thanks, but no thanks".

Then, one day in the middle of September, in my room with my cast, wondering what would happen, my mother called me to the phone. It was Mr. Frankel. He wanted me to come in on Monday and "talk about work". So I took the bus, and with my crutches, I hobbled down to 125 South Fifth Street and up to the second floor...

SRF: "Here is a FORTRAN program - it does XXX with a plotter, and we want you to check over it for bugs and get it working..."

That first morning I had no idea what the words (here represented by XXX) meant, and that took a good hour or two to explain. I won't re-live them for you now, but the quick explanation was that the program had to take some information which was really instructions for a "Bridgeport milling machine" and turn it into a picture on a plotter (a mechanical thing which draws pictures - you know those "earthquake machines" with a drum of paper and a pen wiggling? Instead of moving the pen according to the earth's motion, a plotter moves the pen according to a computer's commands.)

SRF: "And this is Charlie. If you have any questions, ask him; he'll help you..."

And so it began. I sat there reading over this code, still not entirely sure what the "Bridgeport" thing was - it had to do with a lot of commas, though, and some were M codes, but there weren't any M that I could see! At leaast I had been using a plotter at "that school" to draw music since 1974, so that part was OK. Plus it WAS in FORTRAN, which I could read. (Also I had gotten a book on BASIC, and it was not all that strange, sort of like knowing Latin and looking at Spanish... Later I became fluent in two dialects of BASIC.)

Maybe an hour after lunch, I said to Charlie, "OK, I think I am ready. Can I get on the computer and edit this program?"

And then he said this strange thing, which told me I really was in a new world:
"What do you mean 'edit'? And no, it's after lunch so we can't do it now."

As I was used to using the interactive editors at "that school" - nowadays we call them word processors, but there is nothing really new about them. (You know, like "notepad" or "WORD" or the thing you type comments in.) I could not understand why I could not use the "editor" there... but that was because there WASN'T ANY. (Some months later I wrote one - in BASIC.)

And it was even harder to understand what lunch had to do with FORTRAN. Except that the computers were being used by other customers to do "timeshare BASIC" - running their business or engineering programs - and could NOT do FORTRAN at the same time! (During lunchtime there was a free hour when we could stop the BASIC software and use FORTRAN...) Wow, it certainly wasn't like the big CDC at "that school"!

Finally, it was late in the day, and I was wondering when Mr. Frankel was going to meet with me "to talk about work"... So I went to see him.

SRF: (smiling broadly) "Yes, young man?"
me: (nervously) "ah, you said that we were going to talk about work..."
SRF: (nodding happily) "Oh, yes. Yes, it's fine."
me: (even more nervously) "but... ah... am I employed?"
SRF: (BIG smile) "Certainly, I thought that was obvious."
me: (still nervous, not really able to belive it) "Oh? OK, then."
SRF: (smiling and nodding happily) "Good bye, young man. See you tomorrow."

And it was soon even more clear that this was an unusual place: a week or so later Sam announced "we're having 'Lunch in' today because it is Elaine's birthday..." During this lunch, he read a poem he had written for her. We had, ah, Chestertonian beverages. It was a good time!

And it was. When my birthday came around, Sam wrote a poem for me, and I had to look up what "peripatetic" meant.

Later I wrote poems for Sam's birthday, and even lyrics for something I called an "opera" titled "Frankeletto" (Oh, yes, I can be dangerous with a keyboard!)

I worked for FEL for over six years, during which I finished my B.S. and also learned to spell NP as well as NC.

"We love you Samuel, oh yes we do.
We don't love anyone as much as you.
When we're without you, we're blue...
Oh Samuel we love you!"
-- from "Frankeletto"

Sam, at your funeral, I counted the lights in the synagogue - I knew you would approve. (I can hear you laughing - yes, I remembered that!) I did: there were 16 around the sides (four on each wall), and 13 above the platform (five, three, three, two). Some of the FEL gang was there: Tom, Rick, Kevin, Marcy, Marcia, Skip... and the peripatetic frenetic "Doctor Thursday"...

But Sam, the most amazing part was when the Rabbi read "The Lord is my shepherd" and "I will lift up my eyes" in Hebrew, of which the only word I could recognize was "Adonai" - and then I realized that Jesus had heard and used those very words...


At 03 June, 2005 17:47, Blogger Nancy C. Brown said...

Beautiful reflection, I can see that he was very special to you, a father figure.
BTW, my b-i-l worked for CD for years, until they shrunk into nothing.


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