BeowulfGirl

The adventures of a New Jersey college professor with very strange friends, colleagues, and family members.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Engineers In The Mist

Several years ago, to supplement my income as a professor, I took a secretarial job at the F.A.A. My job interview went something like this:

"Look," the man who was interviewing me said, "the truth is, we need someone to look after these engineers. They're just not good on their own."

The engineers in question were a large group of insane men (nope, no women) whose job it was to design airplanes to be "more efficient." They had a large banner hanging over their work area which said: "Our Mission: Fewer Crashes." I would have felt better if they had been aiming toward no crashes, but I took what I could get.

The man interviewing me was named Ed, and he was also an aerospace engineer. He was the only one there with a sense of humor. On his office door he had a bumper sticker that said: "Actually, it IS rocket science!"

I was asked if I had ever worked with engineers before. I told him I hadn't, but that BeowulfDad had spent forty-five years as a service technician. Ed seemed to think that was close enough, and hired me on the spot.

Then it was time to meet the engineers.

I first met the head of Engineering, who was an Annapolis man named Rich. He was very, very, Alpha Male. I found out that he didn't so much do engineering as he did bully the other engineers, who, after a lifetime of schoolyard bullying, were used to it. Rich and I never really had much to do with each other; he stayed in his office and flexed his muscles.

A short, portly man came up to me and stuck out his hand. "Hello," he said, "I'm Joe. But you can call me by my Star Trek name!"

"Er...and what is that?" I asked, nervously.

"T'Katch," he said, and walked away before I could say anything.

"You have to be careful with him," warned Ed. "He actually signs documents that way."

We were then passed by a tall balding man who was shaking all over and muttering: "My forms...my forms...my forms..." He took no notice of me or Ed. I asked Ed who he was.

"That's Jim," Ed said. "Don't worry about him, he's insane."

"Er...okay," I said, wondering what I had gotten into.

On my first day of work, I noticed something odd. Fastened to all of the walls of the building, every twelve feet or so, were whiteboards with markers. Occasionally, a bizarre ritual would take place. An engineer would wander up to one of the whiteboards, take a marker, and write some kind of equation or diagram. He would then stand there and stare at it for twenty minutes, until another engineer also sidled up, took a different marker, and added something to the diagram. The first engineer would nod, slowly. They would both point at the board. Sometimes they would be joined by a third engineer who would do the same thing. It was not uncommon for me to come upon whole groups of engineers standing by whiteboards in complete silence, staring.

Another thing they would do (Ed told me) was forget that they were walking. It was not uncommon to find an engineer completely motionless in the hall, eyes to the heavens, apparently thinking great thoughts. Ed told me that all I had to do in this case was give the engineer a slight push on the shoulder in order to get him going again, and they would then wander back to their office. I had to do this a lot.

The other thing I had to do was make sure all the engineers showed up at the Monday 9:00 project meeting. This was difficult--I would have had an easier time corralling cattle than the engineers. None of them wanted to go to the meeting because it involved talking in public, which they were all terrified to do.

They loved caffeine. God bless them, they never asked me to make coffee...most of them had their own coffee makers in their office, and every morning it smelled like a Folgers factory.

After a few weeks of this, it was clear that the engineers still didn't really know me. Don't get me wrong, they were polite and all, but they just wouldn't engage me in conversation. I finally found an answer.

I put up a large poster of the instrument panel of a Cessna aircraft in my cubicle. I knew nothing about aviation, but I figured it might get the engineers to talk to me. And it worked!

They would wander up with their coffee: "I see you have a Cessna," they would say.

"Well, not personally," I would reply. "I just like flying."

What inevitably followed was a long diatribe about altimeters, the "T-Zone," the horizon, and a thousand other things that I didn't understand but what really seemed to thrill the engineers. They began saying hello to me in the halls and using my first name.

When Christmas came around, the engineers had a contest to see who could decorate their cubicle most creatively. It was a hideous sight--thirty cubicles with twinkling lights, luminescent Santa Clauses, Frostys, and those weird, abstract Christmas trees that look like spirals. No one got any work done, and the engineers had a gay old time trying to outdo each other.

One day when I came back from lunch, I smelled something burning. Horrified, I called out: "Guys? What's on fire?"

It turned out to be a guy named Simon, our lone Jewish engineer, who had a real menorah in his cubicle, with real flames. Apparently, no one had told him that open flames weren't allowed in the cubicles, and he set one of his binders on fire. Ed, fortunately, was on hand with the fire extinguisher, and Simon had to use another cubicle for a couple of days until his old one could be cleaned up.

After all this time, I still think about the engineers when I see a plane pass overhead and I think about "fewer crashes." I hope they're happy, wherever they are, and that they're not just standing still in the hallway!

3 Comments:

  • At 8:36 PM, Blogger Tamara said…

    I love your posts...just wish you'd update more often! (I'm a snopes lurker)

     
  • At 1:50 PM, Blogger Mateus said…

    I care.

    I also enjoyed your story.

    -Mateus (from snopes)

     
  • At 12:34 PM, Blogger Elizabeth Sanford-Anson said…

    "Another thing they would do (Ed told me) was forget that they were walking. It was not uncommon to find an engineer completely motionless in the hall, eyes to the heavens, apparently thinking great thoughts. Ed told me that all I had to do in this case was give the engineer a slight push on the shoulder in order to get him going again, and they would then wander back to their office. I had to do this a lot."

    I would doubt this if you even claimed it were true of one person, let alone engineers as a group. Ridiculous.

     

Post a Comment

<< Home