Fiction Reading

I’m not really a big fan of fiction. I’m a big non-fiction kind of guy. I like my economics from textbooks, my ethnographies under 200 pages, my political theory in thick books, my history riddled with theory, and my law in blog form. If I do read fiction I normally pick up something by a Nobel Laureate or a popular foreign work rather than whatever is in fashion at the moment here in the States. Over the past four months, though, I’ve found myself delving in to some stuff I never thought I’d be interested in. I recently read Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead and have just begun reading George RR Martin’s Game of Thrones series.

Rand’s book was excellent. The speech at the end was weird, though, but it was not enough to keep me from putting Atlas Shrugged on my “to do” list. I know many of the Notewriters have issues with Rand’s non-fiction work, and many of them have clashed with Objectivists over the years (libertarians and Objectivists are old enemies, largely because the latter are a cultist bunch), but I found myself unable to put down The Fountainhead. I have a tendency to put a work of fiction into the context of the time period it was written in, so for me Rand’s work is all the more compelling (The Fountainhead came out when news traveled slowly and uneven reports of communist atrocities in the USSR and China were derided as ‘political’ by Western Leftists).

Martin’s book is equally excellent. I have never tackled a fantasy book before, but I have so far been pleasantly surprised. Fantasy books are looooong, but I am enjoying the plot line so far. I like the Night Watch guys the best (I am only in Chapter 17, of 72, so nobody spoil anything!), and I do not like the Lannisters.

Nobody leave any spoilers!

My Summer of ’63: Bureaucracy, Sex and Alternating Current

Brandon’s comment about just finishing The Fountainhead reminded me of the summer of 1963, a pivotal time in my life. I can’t imagine why anyone but me would care about such personal stuff, but here goes.

I had the good fortune to attend a fine private engineering school, Case Institute of Technology (now part of Case Western Reserve University). Tuition was modest by today’s standards, even if adjusted for inflation – something like $1,400 per year, but still substantial. There were no student loans and my parents were just a little too well off for scholarships. They and my grandparents provided more than half my tuition and I used my own savings and job earnings to cover the rest. I didn’t work during the school year because the engineering curriculum demanded all my time and energy.

Toward the end of my sophomore year as a civil engineering major, I began to look for a summer job. An opening advertised in the administration building seemed like it would offer good experience and good pay for the time: $295 per month. I applied and got the job, little knowing that three huge life lessons were coming my way. The value of those lessons, in the long run, overwhelmed the monetary reward.

The first benefit was to learn meticulous work. I was an assistant in the Bridge Department of the City of Cleveland. No technology of any kind, beyond dial telephones and possibly an electric typewriter (more likely manual) had penetrated the department. The engineers drew their plans in pencil on large sheets of paper mounted on drafting tables. It was my job to make archival copies of final plans.

Think about how we make copies these days. It’s pretty much a quick “save as” operation, or, in a throwback to past times, people still make photocopies. Although Xerox copiers were available by 1963 (Case had at least one), they were nowhere to be seen at City Hall. Typists made copies using carbon paper (look it up). I made copies of drawings by mounting the original on my board, placing a special sheet of linen over it, and tracing the drawing using india ink. Every line had to be duplicated at the proper width and every character of text carefully drawn by hand. Erasers? No such thing. A tiny slip could be scraped off with a knife but otherwise the only resort was to start over.

Astoundingly, a technological advance that had become universal more than seventy years previously – alternating current – was absent from City Hall. The whole building ran on direct current, a legacy of the Municipal Power authority that was launched early in the century to undercut the monopoly Cleveland Electric Illuminating Company. Fluorescent lights were out of the question as, I presume, were were any motor-driven devices like electric typewriters.

My second benefit was to learn some realities of bureaucratic life. There were six engineers on staff of whom three actually worked. Mr. Sevcik, who sat in front of me, had the same drawing on his table for the whole three months I was there. He appeared to put himself into a state of suspended animation. Somehow he could sit there motionless all day without falling off his stool. His wall calendar was blank except for every other Friday where he wrote “haircut.” Another fellow was constantly out of the office. Nobody seemed to know where he went or why.

One of the actual workers took me under his wing. He trained me in my job but also explained the facts of bureaucracy. All that could be done about the slackers was to keep them out of the way. They couldn’t be fired.

The third and most important benefit – actually two benefits – I got from Sam. Sam was a girl; I never did learn her real name. I say “girl” advisedly because in those days adult women in the workforce were typically, and without malice, called girls. She was a technician of some sort, not an engineer, and she was a worker. Her nickname may have reflected the fact that she was something of an intruder in this man’s world.

Slacks for women were gaining more acceptance by then but generally not in the workplace. I remember her wearing only skirts, and shorter skirts were coming into fashion then. So when Sam sat on her stool at her board, her skirt invariably rode up.  I mean, all the way up to there! Sometimes I would get to sit next to her to consult on some work issue. Needless to say I found it difficult to concentrate.

I made no attempt to hit on Sam. She was probably five years older than me and was clearly savvy about many things beyond her years. I was a nerd and unsavvy to say the least. It just wasn’t in the cards.

Sam was perfectly well aware of her effect on me and she charitably deflected my energy by taking it upon herself to educate me a bit in the ways of the world. After work we would usually walk together to the Terminal Tower to catch our trains. She would tell me about her boy friends – what attracted her to them and how she liked to be treated. She said nothing about her sex life and I didn’t ask. Open and frank talk about sex was still in the future.

One day Sam mentioned a novel she had just finished – The Fountainhead. “I think you’d like it,” she said. I don’t think I read it before leaving my summer job, but I soon did and I found it transformative. The character of Howard Roark was electrifying but it was many years before I understood Dominique. At that time I was trying to figure out who I was and what I stood for, and Rand got me started on my libertarian path. Later in the sixties I had read all her work and took tape-transcribed courses on objectivism from the Nathanial Branden Institute. Fortunately I never became groupie and in hindsight I see many shortcomings, as well as strengths, in Rand’s objectivism.

Not knowing Sam’s real name, I have no way to trace her. If she’s around, she’s well into her seventies. I hope her life has been good. She deserved it.