Moving On Up

My first sales outing was to the annual conference of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), in New York City. Dr. Fulmer (whom I now called Allan, after a couple of years working together, preparing for this launch)  reserved a booth and had some signs and flyers made. I looked at the neat but dowdy housedresses I had made for myself, and knew I had to have something classier to wear. Allan suggested and paid for an outfit—a white wool suit with blue silk shell and a pair of white slingback high-heeled shoes. I had my hair cut, and highlighted. He paid for that, too. Expenses, he said. And bought me a first-class ticket on a United Airlines nonstop to New York City for my first time on an airplane. I was beyond excited, being on my own, like a real person with a real job, and knowing I had the knowledge and chutzpah to carry this off. I was launched. It was 1965, and I was 25 years old.

Computing was done on large mainframe computers, or using Teletypes connected by telephone lines to a central computer—“time-sharing.” But the refrigerator-sized stand-alone ECP-18, with 1K of disk memory, was the first of its kind.  I had written an article for the NCTM magazine touting the exciting possibilities for math teachers and their students to use “classroom computers” to learn to program in math classes, so interest, particularly among math teachers, was intense. The earliest small computers like the Altair, the Pet 2001, the TRS-80 and the Apple II weren’t introduced for several more years. The Altair came out in 1975, but was only available by mail order from electronic magazines. The first all-in-one home computer, the PET was introduced for the Consumer Electronics Show in 1977, about the same time the Apple II was introduced. By that time, I had been working with computers in schools for nearly a decade, and had earned a PhD in Psychology and Instructional Design.

That first sales trip to New York City was a huge success, for the most part. Allan had built a heavy plywood crate for the ECP-18, and designed a front panel which could be removed by taking out a screw in each corner. The computer slid out on its own wheels. I could manage it by myself, and I had practiced. I only needed a Phillips-head screwdriver, which I carried in my purse. My booth was mobbed for the whole convention, and I was able to schedule sales trips to schools in Washington, Oregon, and California, driving Allan’s van with the computer inside.

But, a small dark cloud happened the day I arrived at the convention hotel. When the computer crate was delivered to my booth, I took my screwdriver out of my purse and started to remove the four screws. Immediately, two very large and rough-looking guys materialized at the booth and yelled at me.

“Hey, lady, you can’t do that!”

“Can’t do what?” I asked, as I removed another screw.

“That’s carpentry! Anything involving screws or nails, you hafta hire two union carpenters to do it.” I’d had no experience with New York unions.  To remove four screws? I held up my handy dandy screwdriver, incredulous. But I was willing to follow the rules, if there were some.

“How much?”

“$70 an hour per each, minimum one hour, time and a half since it’s Saturday. That would be…” he figured it out in his head, “…$210. And you can’t touch that box until the carpenters are here.”

I knew Allan’s marketing budget, and it didn’t include union fees. “You’ve got to be kidding. I’ll do it myself.”

“OK, lady, suit yerself.” The two big guys went away.

Victorious, I finished taking off the front panel and slid the computer out of the box. Then I looked for a floor outlet, and found one in the corner of the booth. As I rolled the computer to the outlet, two more large men appeared. “Hey, lady!”

“Don’t tell me,” I said, and held up the electrical cord. “Electricians?”

“You gotta hire two electricians to plug in that thing. Can’t do it yourself.”

“$70 an hour each, minimum one hour, time and a half since it’s Saturday?”

“You got it, lady.”

They stood looking at me, legs apart and hands on their hips. I leaned over and plugged in the computer. Once again, I felt victorious. The two men gave me disgusted looks, and walked away.

From then on, at least two union thugs guarded my booth throughout the conference, telling everyone who came by that I was anti-union and they shouldn’t patronize my booth. It made no difference. Math teachers were no  more intimidated than I was. The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) and the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America (UBCJA) were alien entities to all of us from the West coast. Naïve. We all were.

After all that intimidation, by the end of the conference, I had decided maybe I should go along with the program. I would have to trust union workers, after all, to get the computer in its box to the loading dock and onto the airplane. I hired two electricians to unplug my computer, and two carpenters to put the four screws into the box. Wrote a check for $420, figuring Allan would certainly understand the need, under the circumstances.

Union labor got the computer to the loading dock, from where it was transported to the cargo plane for the trip home. The next day, Allan and I went to the airport in his van to pick up the computer. We got it back to the garage/shop and removed the front panel to see how it had fared during transport. And saw nothing but a mess of smashed and broken cabinetry, ripped-out wires, broken control panel, and the delicate disk lying on top, smashed and twisted beyond recognition. $420 didn’t make up for the first refusal. I should have paid the $840.

Allan was remarkably philosophical about the whole thing, recognizing that we were all naïve and inexperienced in the new world in which we now operated. We had learned an important lesson. Allan called a lawyer about suing somebody, but the lawyer explained that probably the only reason hadn’t been found smashed up and ripped apart in an alley rather than the computer, was because I was a woman. It was one time I was glad being a woman made a difference.

Allan built a new computer, I helped him solder the boards, and he built a new box, even nicer than the first one, had the van tuned up, and I hit the road.

Don looked after the kids after school during my two-or-three-day forays into northwest schools. By then they were old enough for daycare in a daycare home down the street. Laurie was three, Kelley four, Mike six and had started school. I left casseroles in the freezer, with detailed instructions for heating and serving. I worried about the kids, because I had studied Piaget’s theories of child development, the psychology of a three- or four-year-old, and knew that they had just passed the stage (ages birth-2) where they believe if something/someone disappears, she’s never coming back–Object Permanence. I reassured them all, endlessly, that I would only be gone a couple of days and their Daddy would take good care of them.

Then I worried. But I drove away in the van, the computer and Teletype neatly buckled into a large seat belt in the back, and equipped with a roll of very long, heavy-duty orange extension cord.



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2 responses to “MEMOIR: CHAPTER SEVEN: Moving On Up

  1. I love your story! The same thing happens now at Carnegie Hall (my daughter tells me), and at music presenter conferences – the rules about who can do what, not the destruction. I once played cello in an amateur orchestra at Benaroya Hall in Seattle and wasn’t allowed to move my chair – there was a union person for that. I remember a time a Univ. of Wash. when we wanted to string cable to connect some Apollo computers together. We were willing to pay the union electricians to do it, but they said “We don’t string computer cable!” I thought how stupid to take that attitude at the start of a new industry. So we did it our self for free.

  2. judyallen

    Wasn’t allowed to move your chair!!! I love these union stories, but nevertheless, HATE the union busting that’s going on all over the country now. Doing it yourself for free…cool.

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