Another EGR Exclusive from Our
Roving Correspondent Rudy BloomHey Chris,
How are ya, Big Guy? Raging OK? Got all of the catheters out without too much of a mess? As you must know, I've been overly medicated in my own way, with a schedule that has refused to let up. Last week was one of those 9 cities in 7 days affairs, all wildly successful and enormously expensive. I finished the week in the FitzPatrick, an often fine Irish-run NYC hotel, arguing with a tall blonde about policy. She says the hotel policy is to charge $1 for each 800# I call from my room, on top of $275/night for staining their towels. I presented her with my policy that prohibits me from ever giving a 6' cunt in a severe black suit something for nothing. Minutes later I was out in the rain, needlessly suggesting to my Brazilian cabbie that conditions mandated he drive on the sidewalk. Felonies later he drove up an exit ramp and somehow squeezed into the Lincoln Tunnel mayhem, and got me to EWR for a flight back to SFO. Somehow arriving 8 minutes before an on time departure w/o ticket proved no problem, and I was off to the only truly important meeting of the week... the 50th wedding anniversary of the couple that saved my life... Harold & LaVon Hall.
No kidding, real people, all true stories, including incredible tales of my survival in the Age of Nixon. My own small part was a mere walk-on role in their grand tale, a footnote rightly, although in Harold's recently published autobiography he generously devoted several paragraphs to a pair of hairballs who visited in the summer of '74. I won't bore you with my personal contemporaneous details, droll accounts of "finding oneself" and living *on* *the* *road* and tiny little squares of flavorless gelatin that carried a remarkable price-learnings ratio. In truth (our major goal here, eh, RB?), I was pathologically naive and had succumbed to my own PR on the need to separate myself mentally, physically and financially from everything... Everything. When one's inherited frame of reference has been irrefutably proven to be a construct of dubious, if not outright evil, intentions, lacking an address, a wallet and a plan seemed divinely inspired. But it's not about me.
Harold & LaVon both came from the prairie of South Dakota, hard land to farm in a hard time. Their tales before marriage were similar: abject poverty, farm foreclosures, and hope despite the evidence. I will not recount the whole autobiography here for you, as you will soon be reading it in a new edition, but let me give you some highlights. They both clawed and scratched their way off the farms, became the first in their families to go off to college, did the South Pacific war thing, met/married, went to grad school in the West, he in physics/she in mathematics. After grad school, Harold got a job at Lawrence Weapons Lab, where he designed thermonuclear bombs under Teller. Went to Lockheed, went on to found a major military-industrial consultancy (Ford Aeronutronics), got deep into the black stuff. Caught 'Potomac fever' while serving as an assistant sec. of defense, advised the Johnson administration on how to win in Vietnam, saw his ideas turned into genocide. Seeing the murdering firsthand cured him of serving his country this way, so he became president of a company that made 'things' for 'The Customer' (a large gov employer in Langley VA). (< -- He was doing this when I was sucked into the Hall family in Pennsylvania. LaVon was a math teacher in my high school, and their oldest son & I became college roommates.)
Harold left that nightmare when a friend of his, George Pake, became founding director of a little research place in Palo Alto, and asked him to join as his second. The summer of '74 found me a dropout from U. Miami with my best friend Dick, a dropout from MIT, continuously hitchhiking coast to coast, cooking lots of brown rice, reading Leary, B.R. Dass, Castanada and Kesey. And El Cid. Do you detect a theme here? After a disappointing attempt at founding a commune in Escondido with about $39 (+ food stamps), we challenged our memories for anyone we knew in California with a spare couch and full pantry. Since we both knew the Halls from PA, and knew them as "cool" because of their radical home policy of enabling underage drinking at their house (entirely practical from their point of view... none of their 5 kids were ever involved in drinking & driving), we made a call and without the slightest amount of effort were invited for an open-ended stay in the Los Altos hills.
LaVon was then in the peak of her Earth Mother stage, and their garden was lousy with huge ripe tomatoes. We ate tomato sandwiches, drank tomato juice, dipped into tomato gazpacho, shit tomato seeds. She secretly called our mothers to assure them that while we remained drugged and confused, we were safe and well-fed for the moment. Each evening Harold would come home and together they would spend hours and hours talking with us (Harold even calls it "rapping" in his book), with true and sincere attempts at trying to find out what we were up to, and where it might lead. The first question was so easily answered, the later a bit of a challenge. I do remember Harold saying how it was unlikely that we would get picked up hitchhiking so easily when we were gnarly and middle aged. I stowed that thought along with the frequency with which we were asked to commit unnatural acts for various drivers.
In between our senseless ramblings about love and welfare, Harold kept mentioning his job, which was then acting director of Xerox PARC. He described all sorts of very cool stuff going on, stuff with computers and designs for the future. He spoke about this damn annoying kid named Jobs to whom he had to show their coolest stuff. I remember reading a small internal PARC book by Alan Kay that described something called a "dynabook," which looked and worked just like today's laptops. Harold was trying to tell us that something was happening right in front of our eyes... and we were gazing right through him.
These late night rap sessions must have been an ordeal for Harold & LaVon; we were so cocksure about our judgment on Modern America, but they had to go to work each morning. As the weeks passed, I was becoming persuaded that I might live long enough to need a college degree, and my plan to get an assembly line job at NCR so I could steal ICs and make my own personal computer was shelved when Harold described how large corporations deal with theft. Dick, on the other hand, wasn't going back. He had thrown open the windows of perception long before MIT, and had been flexing the hinges ever since. He saw I was succumbing to the seductive siren of technology made relevant, and made a suggestion to cash in some of his college savings bonds so we could again hit the road and buy more drugs. How hard was I to convince? NCR wasn't hiring, Patty Hearst was still hiding out with the SLA, and I was still 2 years plus a postdoc from ever being considered worthy of the likes of PARC. In a flash, we were back on I-5 with a bon voyage backpack full of bread, cookies, hard salami and lots of LaVon's tomatoes.
I would not lay eyes on Harold and LaVon again for 24 years, and still wouldn't have without motivating a cabbie to earn his $15 tip -- I was sure happier giving it to him than to the FitzPatrick McBitch. I made for a bulkhead seat and knew that only wind shear would prevent our reunion. Do two dozen years give perspective to youthful exuberance and excess? It had better.
In a fair fight between reality and idealism, the smart money is on reality. Southern California in 1974 was far from fair. Dick and I ran through the cash, I ran into an Boston-Irish thug's fist, we ran into the CHPs, yada yada. Late summer found Nixon retired over the coastal hills in San Clemente, and late fall found us in Needles with the sunset to our backs. Back in PA, we found the menial employment denied us in California, and the late night messages of the summer became clear every time I punched the lateshift timeclock. To my surprise, Dick came by one day and announced he was returning to MIT to resume study in nuclear physics. I was the only person not surprised when he hung himself two months later.
A few months ago I chanced upon the CV of a casual business acquaintance, a Silicon Valley startup executive I knew solely by email. His history placed him at PARC during Harold's tenure, and to my query, yes, he did know where they were... retired in 1988 to a few dozen prime acres of black soil bottom land in South Dakota. I immediately scratched off a hail-long-lost-buddy letter, and almost instantly received email, letters, family photos and contact with not just them but a dozen school friends. Harold had recently finished his stream of consciousness autobiography and published a few hundred copies at a vanity press. Soon after they sent me a copy I was reading one of the most important and disarmingly personal descriptions of a remarkable life. My friends' memoirs can be dustjacketed as "a fascinating description of Depression-era life on the prairie," "a Horatio Alger-like rise from crushing poverty to success," "the origins of the military-industrial complex," "the destabilization of balance of power and the Viet Nam War," "the beginning of the personal computer revolution," and finally "a return home to one's roots."
I had found myself as well, but I insist, this is not about me. Saturday afternoon in Los Altos was the first hot day since El Nino dumped his diapers here, but Chef Chu's hosted about 75 very happy people, evenly distributed between family and friends, infant and elder, farmer and scientist. Harold and LaVon have grown older but are not old. They both carry a remarkable gene that gives them bright eyes that sparkle. My girlfriend could not understand why I was so calm at seeing these people I had not seen in a few decades, while she was terrified at meeting a strange family. I just smiled, and within minutes of arriving, she too felt that strange sucking sensation as she was absorbed into the greater clan.
You see so clearly in a tale like the Halls' how the little changes of course make the difference between landing in shit or shinola. Sadly for some and strangely for me, I am still much the same person as before, with money and scars. What I can do now is the real difference, and so I proposed to Harold and LaVon to be their editor on a 2nd edition and to publish them properly. That they enthusiastically agreed gave me tremendous pleasure. But it's not about me.
So, Chris, I set out to write you a note on my reading Mason & Dixon while I repeatedly cross that transit line between my customers in Maryland & PA. Sorry, save that for another day.
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