Funding, and the Ford Fairlane
I had already cooked my goose in Independence before I packed up my three kids and the few pieces of furniture I didn’t hate, and moved to the big city. Without my husband. He had to have seen it coming— Don and I were still married, but barely. We had lived like brother and sister for more than a year, no longer talking about anything important, if we ever had.
With our improving financial situation, Don and I had moved our family from a large older home in a long-established neighborhood, to a small, new housing development just outside of Independence. I soon realized that that the stay-at-home mothers in that neighborhood had a very different life style than mine. They shared recipes and tips for ironing shirts and folding sheets, made macramé hanging baskets, had Bible Study in their homes, baked for PTA meetings, and monitored their children’s every move. I, on the other hand, worked outside the home, which made me alien, and suspect. I also did consulting work for computer companies, on the side, at home. I was hired by IBM as liaison with the county for the first punched-card ballot for an election in Marion County; my job was to work with the programmers, the hardware installers, and the county election officials to make sure everything worked smoothly. It was a tense time. The kids were all in school, and I went to work in Salem most days, either for the Computer Instruction Network or IBM. Much of the IBM work I did at home. And I was tired all the time.
I finally made an appointment with the only local doctor, my new neighbor, Dr. Peterson. When I described my fatigue, Dr. Peterson didn’t ask what my life was like—two jobs, three small children, and a husband who was no help—he simply gave me an infinitely refillable prescription of what I came to know as “Christmas trees”—pure amphetamines, called “speed” in the street. It was the late Sixties, not at all uncommon for doctors to prescribe speed for exhaustion. I took the pills as needed for a couple of weeks, until I realized I could no longer sleep at night. Back to Dr. Peterson. This time I walked out with a refillable prescription for “little reds”—Seconal. Seconal is now outlawed except for use in Physician-Assisted Suicide.
After a couple of weeks on speed and seconal, I realized I could no longer form a coherent sentence. The drugs went into the toilet—a no-no these days, but then? Who knew?
As the funding for Computer Instruction Network wound down, I started working on curriculum for teacher training in computers, in my spare time. Finally I realized there just weren’t enough hours in the day, and I packed for a trip to Washington D.C. to the National Science Foundation. I had a proposal to make.
Seated across from the man responsible for funding computer innovation in education, I made a passionate case for developing teacher-training materials, and I had a few people in mind who might be able to do it. I named some prominent names in universities, men who already had funding from NSF for various computer-related development projects. Mr. G. encouraged me to keep talking, tell him more, and I grew animated as I described exactly what was needed—and soon! No time to waste! He smiled a lot, his broad face amused and captivated. The morning wore on to lunchtime as I spun my plans for the “big name” university-based person who would be funded to do the development. Mr. G. picked up the phone and called his colleague, presumably the man who could make the funding decision. We went to lunch, the three of us. The colleague, a gray-haired man wearing a gray suit and gray tie, seemed similarly captivated. At the end of the lunch, he leaned back in his chair. “Well, Ms. Edwards, I have a proposal for you.”
Innocent, I cocked my head. “For me?”
“Yes. You align yourself with a University—we have good relations with Oregon State University, in fact—you’ll need an adjunct faculty position there.”
“But I don’t have a PhD!”
“No matter, neither do I. We can work that out with them.”
“But why do I need to do that?”
“Because we are going to fund this project, but only if you are the Director. And you have to get us a full, written proposal, with University approval and boilerplate, before the first of the year.”
It was December 20.
I flew home in a daze. On Christmas Day, after the presents were opened, I spent the day writing the proposal. A trip to Corvallis, with the right introductions, produced an adjunct faculty position for me, an office, and a staff. The university got 40% overhead on top of the money needed for the project, so they were eager to cooperate. The proposal was submitted December 31, and was fully funded within a week, for a one-year project. It was 1968-1969, the last year for Computer Instruction Network, so the two projects overlapped and complemented each other. We tested the teacher-training materials with CIN teachers, then revised. I commuted to Corvallis and Salem on alternate days, winding down the Computer Instruction Network, and still doing some consulting at home. I didn’t need “speed.” I was energized by sheer passion, belief, and the thrill of being in the forefront of activity that would, I believed, change the world.
My suspect status in my neighborhood, however, was close to complete breakdown.
I was being wooed by salesmen from various computer companies, who wanted me to recommend their large, time-shared computers for schools. They each had their pitch, and I usually listened for awhile, before I pointed out that they were going in the wrong direction for schools—they should be working on developing small, personal computers; computers used by only one person rather than time-shared through Teletype or some other kind of terminal connected to a large mainframe. That kind of equipment, I told them, would never really take hold in schools, at least not for instruction. Maybe administrative tasks.
A day that was finally another “last straw” happened when a salesman for Digital Equipment Corporation came calling. I was working at home that afternoon, so he came there. The salesman, whose name I have long since forgotten, if I ever knew it, drove a Ford Fairlane 500 convertible with the top down. His blonde hair was swept into a ridiculous updo and heavily pomaded. He sat down on my gold couch, laid out his brochures and sales materials on the coffee table, and made his pitch for using a large mainframe DEC computer with classroom terminals, for instruction in schools. I noticed that he had had a manicure, and appeared to be wearing clear nail polish on his perfectly shaped nails.
I listened to his pitch, looked at his brochures, then politely gave him my usual lecture. “Time-sharing could work for awhile, but it’s not a permanent solution, not for teaching,” I said. “You should be talking to the administrative data processing people in the main offices. And why isn’t DEC working on developing a small, personal computer that could be used in a classroom or in a home? That’s where the future is. A computer that a teacher or a student could use without having to call the administrative data processing people to set it up for them.”
The conversation was clearly not going the way he had hoped. He was more accustomed to making his pitch in a slick business office to a man who agreed with the large computer solution to all problems. Sitting in my living room with the stereo playing Herb Alpert, a pot of chicken soup simmering on the stove in the kitchen, put him off his stride.
I was in no hurry—in fact, I enjoyed imagining what the ladies in the neighborhood must be thinking as the first hour became two. I no longer cared much what they were thinking—I was certain their imaginations about my life, so alien to their own, provided a lot of gossipy entertainment.
After a couple of hours, Mr. Ford Fairlane sighed in defeat and gathered up his materials. I walked him out to his muscle car parked in our driveway with the top down. The car was an unusual shade of lavender I’d never seen in a car before. His well-fitted gray suit looked iridescent in the sunlight. Mrs. Peterson, the doctor’s wife, was standing on her lawn watching my house, her arms crossed on her bosom. As Mr. F.F. drove away, I noticed other ladies of the neighborhood peeking. Their curtains, usually kept closed in case the sun came out, so their furniture wouldn’t fade under the plastic covers, were pulled slightly open. Peepholes. Watching me.
The next day I looked out and saw my daughter Kelley, eight years old, standing in the back yard crying her heart out. She had been out riding her bike in the neighborhood. I called her in and pulled her into my lap in the rocking chair. “Why are you crying?”
“Bobby Peterson told his mother I threw a rock at him,” she sobbed “and I didn’t throw a rock at him! I only threw it through his spokes. He’s always teasing me!”
“But why are you so upset? What happened next?” I had always promised the kids I wouldn’t punish them as long as they told the truth about what happened, so I usually got the true story.
“Nothing, for a few minutes. He kept going, but then he decided to pretend the rock hit him, so he started screaming bloody murder and his mother bawled me out and said I was a little brat and she’d tell my mother except she knew it wouldn’t do a bit of good.” I believed her.
So I was a bad mother who couldn’t control my bratty kids.
“What did you say to Mrs. Peterson about that?” I was hoping she’d said something outrageous.
She wailed, which was unusual for Kelley, a tough little cookie in most neighborhood scrapes. “I just ran home!” Could it have been the comment about her Mom that made it hard to bear?
It was time.
That night I told Don I was leaving him, and taking the kids. I’d had a job offer in Portland and was still negotiating the salary, but I knew I could make it on my own.
“But why?” he protested. “We don’t have any problems! I haven’t changed a bit! You have!”
Exactly. He was still the same kind, gentle, humorous man I had married, and would always be the same. The part about being an attentive father, flexible with change, hadn’t worked out. Our trajectories were no longer even parallel. I didn’t need him in my life, holding me back. In a way, he was a victim of his own upbringing, and of the times. Wives didn’t leave, they endured. That’s the way things were, then. But not for me, not any longer.
“We can go to marriage counseling,” was his last desperate ploy.
“I’ve suggested that a hundred times, Don. You would never do it. Now it’s too late. Way, way too late. I’ve moved on.”
The house was on the market the next day.
“There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.”
— Ken Olson, president, chairman and founder of Digital Equipment Corp., 1977 (company defunct in the 90’s)