Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Saigon 1967 Chapter Thirteen: A Helpful Saying

This is a story that occurred substantially before Saigon 1967. It occurred in 1960. But it turned out to have direct relevance and immense influence upon something that occurred in Saigon in 1967.


I was lucky. Starting with the summer that I graduated from High School and extending through all the summers of my four college years I had a job. And it was a good job. It paid twice minimum wage and hour and had a daily per-diem for living expenses; the per diem was paid because the jobs were always somewhere other than in Portland. They were always in small towns and cities in the rural Pacific Northwest.

I worked for a company called Pettijohn Engineering.

The summer I graduated from High School the job was out of the field office in Quincy Washington. I lived in a place called Henry’s Motel. There actually was a Henry. He and his wife ran Henry’s.

The job was working on a surveying crew doing the engineering for Wanapum Dam. Wanapum was one of the several massive hydro electric dams that were built on the Columbia River in the 50s and 60s. As a group those dams rang the death knell for the huge schools of salmon that had run the Columbia for eons.

But working on the dam was the source of a good income, and the job was in the outdoors during the summer which was hot, but pleasant. And it was interesting to the point of being fun on many occasions. And we were not to know that we were killing all the salmon until all the projects were finished and many years had passed. And after all, we built salmon ladders, so the fish should certainly have been happy and prosperous. They needed to take some responsibility for their continued survival.

The boss on that project was a guy named Bob.

The summer after Quincy and Wanapum – the one between my freshman and sophomore year in college - I worked out of the field office in Madras in Central Oregon. The project entailed the engineering for Round Butte Dam. Round Butte Dam, when finished would have a pool that would back up into three of the most beautiful rivers in the world: the Deschutes, the Crooked and the Metolius. The Round Butte project was making Madras a boomtown. It was a town of fifteen hundred people and had very little public lodging. I had to get creative about where I lived. I lived for the summer in a rented room in the Highway Beauty Shop. The work was on the talus slopes of the three rivers. Central Oregon, like Central Washington is a desert. It is awash in sunshine. Working for and with surveyors was more fun than should be allowed in a paying job. That summer came and went too soon.

The summer between sophomore and junior year I worked at Chelan County Public Utility District in Wenatchee Washington. I was the sole Pettijohn Engineering employee working there. I didn’t know it until several years later, but I had been chosen over several adult full time Pettijohn engineers for the job. Apparently I met both Pettijohn’s and the PUD’s expectations because I was there until a week before college started. It was a desk job. Every hour I called a PUD sub office at Rock Island Dam, which was one of their power producing facilities. There were some French designed and manufactured devices that looked like rocket nose cones with a propeller on their points. They were about two feet long and less than a foot in diameter. There was one of these for every turbine. Every hour the devices were lowered en masse into a turbine chamber where a series of readings measuring the stream flow through the turbine were taken. These readings were taken by a person who was physically located in part of the turbine chamber in the bowels of the dam. The readings came to him via a telemetrically connected gauge. After thirty minutes of these readings had been taken, the readers would average the readings and relay the information to an office in the daylight portion of the dam. I called that office every hour, and entered their information on a form and performed some calculations. The reason for all this activity was that Wanapum Dam, when its pool was filled, was going to go far enough up the Columbia that it was going to impinge upon Rock Island Dam’s “head”. “Head” in the parlance of hydropower, is the distance the water falls from the pool behind the dam to the river below. In this case the river below was going to become the pool below, cutting the distance Rock Island’s exiting water would fall, thus cutting the energy it could produce. The hourly readings and calculations were all being conducted in the pre-impingement environment. They would continue measuring post impingement. There would, I must have guessed, be a post impingement vs. pre-impingement calculation performed. However derived, the loss in output of Rock Island Dam would be paid to Chelan County either in dollars or in power or both by Grant County who owned Wanapum.

This was an interesting job. And living in Wenatchee was quite different from Quincy and Madras. At thirty thousand people Wenatchee was a virtual metropolis by comparison. I lived at the Bruce Hotel, a vestige from the previous century. Its main occupants when I lived there were old men. I was the only occupant below the age of sixty. I also had a deluxe room. It had a bathroom.

The PUD’s employees were a great group of people, and I made a lot of friends. They were different from surveyors, but in their way they were equally enjoyable. I had myriad interesting philosophical discussions with a number of them because I got really good at what I was supposed to do, and it only took about ten minutes out of an hour to do it. And I volunteered to do other things with the extra time, and sometimes they had things for me to do. But nobody was overworked and we were all able to get to know each other quite well. They were all interested to have someone to talk to who was in college. It turned out that all of this was politically astute in the extreme, although I didn’t have a clue about politics at the time. But Pettijohn Engineering had bet on that happening, and it apparently made them look very good.

Apparently it made them look so good that they asked me to come back the next summer to work at Rock Island Dam. I was to be one of the guys in the bowels of the dam reading the gauges. It wasn’t until I had done that for the better part of the summer that I admitted to myself that this just wasn’t the same. There was no sunshine, or sagebrush or surveyors or PUD office guys. This job was a solitary activity. I was in a small chamber that looked something like a space capsule. There was a big shiny cylinder in front of me that was spinning at an amazing rate of speed. And, probably as a by-product of that spinning, there was an all-pervasive high-pitched whine that followed me home at day’s end. And it was hot and humid. And it seemed like the air was filled with an exceedingly fine spray of lubricant that settled on my face over the day and went home with me at day’s end. The lubricant may have been self generated from the fine cover of perspiration that the heat and humidity caused.

This job just wasn’t much fun.

So I went to the boss with a request.

The boss was Bob again. He was the manager in charge of whatever work it was that Pettijohn Engineering continued to obtain in the Grant and Chelan County area. And they had continued to get quite a bit because they had a great reputation for the quality of the work already completed. Bob’s office was still in Quincy, and I was living in Quincy at Henry’s again – Henry and his wife still owned and operated it – so one morning before my ride picked me up for the trip to the Dam I stopped in to see Bob.

“Bob, hi. I needed to talk to you before work.”

“Hey, Noel. How are things at the dam?”

“Great. But, actually, that is what I came to talk to you about. I need to get out on a crew.”

“What do you mean?”

“I really am glad to be working and earning money this summer, and the work is pretty interesting and the people are great, but I just am an outside person.”

“How so?”

“Well right now I spend most of my time alone in a little compartment under the water level of the dam. It’s hot, there aren’t any people to talk to, and I’m turning pale. I need sunshine. Couldn’t you trade me out to a crew and put somebody else in the dam?”

By this time there weren’t the number of Pettijohn crews working in the area that had been there three years before. The engineering phase of the Wanapum project was winding down. So I was probably asking Bob to do something that wasn’t easy. I suspected on later contemplation, though, that he had seen an opportunity to teach a rookie something that would be valuable as a life lesson.

“How long before you go back to college?”

I had to think a minute.

“About five weeks.”

He got a quizzical look on his face and thought for a minute.

“So, you can’t stand working in the turbine room for five weeks?”

“I can. I just would rather not.”

“My God, Noel. I could pick fly shit out of pepper for five weeks.”

I returned to the dam for the rest of the summer.

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