|The Military-Industrial Complex and Me
Fresh out of college, I became a functionary in the military-industrial complex. Dwight David Eisenhower was still President and had not yet given a name to the behemoth, much less warning the nation of its predatory powers. Besides, what did I know? I was twenty-one and needed a job, a career, something to sustain me in the life ahead. General Electric offered a future in Advertising and Sales Promotion. And so, with no work experience beyond summers as a bus boy and after-class hours as a bookstore clerk, I found myself in a cubicle eight hours a day editing ships' turbine instruction manuals and playing surreptitious games of hang-the-man with my coworkers to break the tedium. This was suit and tie real life, my first trainee assignment. In another forty-some years I could retire.
The bÍte noir of our working lives was someone I'll call Mr. Wardlaw, the Navy inspector of manuals, a civilian, a dry man with pale skin, thin hair, rimless glasses, and a croaked voice, who tssked over misplaced commas and denied approval of a manual at the whiff of a typo. At a later time, one might have called him computerized, except that computers occasionally crash. Mr. Wardlaw droned along with flawless consistency, exemplifying an ideal of military precision, more likely to sell secrets to the enemy than crack a smile.
His office was located far back in the manufacturing area, a long walk from my cubicle, where men with real skills spent their days engulfed by great whirrings and poundings as they constructed huge turbines that someday, if Mr. Wardlaw approved the instructions, would actually propel a ship. How such a ship would function never occurred to me. My work life was all pencil and paper, disengaged from the world's vast oceans. Hang-the-man and a brownbag lunch were the high points of my days.
That was the routine. Hours of assuring the figure number on each drawing matched the number in the text, every margin was aligned, and then a monthly visit to Mr. Wardlaw, manual in hand like a supplicant before the king. Then, one morning my manager-Weldon Dick, let's name him- called me into the chair facing his barren desk. He was a squat man, mustache scrunched over a perpetual cigar, legendary in our cubicle for returning to work duties an hour after his first child was born. Foul smoke hung heavy between us. I choked back a coughing fit.
"The economy is not good this year," he muttered to break the ice. I nodded, knowing as little about the economy as I did about turbines. "Our department needs new business." He paused, and I nodded again. New business seemed reasonable. "The Missile and Space Vehicle Division has offered us the opportunity to produce proposals to the military for new weapons systems."
Finally, I spoke. "Good."
"We need someone to go to Philadelphia to coordinate the project."
This time I didn't even nod. Why was he telling me about it?
"We want you to go."
Me? What did I know about proposals? About Philadelphia? Where would I live? Totally ignorant of expense accounts, I even assumed I would have to pay for my lodgings in that city as well as my apartment in Schenectady. "Mr. Dick," I said. "If you're considering anyone else for the assignment, let him win."
Dick removed the cigar from his mouth, cleared his throat, and looked at the ceiling. "We've already had to let some people go this year. Without new business, there may be others."
Even I caught on. A few days later, I boarded a train to Philadelphia to turn out proposals for weapons systems.
Today I'd barely trust anyone like a kid I was then to change my oil. But there I was. Hang-the-man and Mr. Wardlaw one day, responsible for bidding on a $300-million project the next.
I did catch on to expense accounts very quickly. A secretary, Barbara in our case, actually delivered into my hands plane tickets and cash advances. I liked going up to her and saying, "Barbara, I need four hundred dollars," and stuffing the bills in my wallet an hour later. I liked telling desk clerks who claimed to have no available accommodations, "I'm with GE," and having a room suddenly materialize.
I was, however, much less confident about being able to produce a proposal by the deadline. Deadlines, Weldon Dick emphasized many times in the hours before I left Schenectady, were something the military took very seriously. One minute, just one second, late and our company would lose its opportunity to make its case for a substantial project. Three million in research down the drain. All my fault.
In those years, the Missile and Space Vehicle Division was located in a former warehouse on Chestnut and 39th Streets, few windows and long rows of pale green partitions. On my first morning, once I signed in at Security-some fool in the FBI had given me a Secret clearance-and a couple of engineers shook my hand, they asked me to toss a paperclip over one of the partitions. "What?" I said, looking down at the metal loop in my palm and feeling like a idiot. "Why?"
"Go ahead," they urged in a chorus of whispers. "It's only a paper clip."
So I tossed and immediately, from behind the partition, there was a great crash and clatter of empty metal containers. The engineers roared. Several more emerged to slap me on the back as they staggered with laughter. I was initiated. This was space vehicle humor.
The Navy project the proposal would bid on was called Subroc, and it didn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that it had something to do with missiles fired from a submarine. That, however, was the extent of my technical grasp. With no math beyond trigonometry, I found the text impenetrable, all vectors and graphs and formulae with sigmas and other strange symbols. It was all a magnitude of complexity beyond a ship's turbine. I didn't dare edit a line. I could change a "which" to a "that" and have the whole thing blow up in my face.
My function was coordinating, working up a list of all the material to go into the proposal and finding out which engineer was responsible for it, then compiling the data. That meant begging the man to relinquish his pages despite his professional compulsion to tweak until the last possible moment. These were men in their forties and fifties who had been working day, nights, and weekends for months, strangers to their wives and children, growled at by their dogs when then slipped in from the garage at midnight. One PhD in physics begged me for a few hours extension so that he could attend a Sunday birthday celebration for his mother-in-law: "I haven't had a day off in six months. My wife threatens divorce." I gave in and let him go.
The fact that the proposal was classified Confidential complicated my life greatly. It meant that every page had to be logged in, every transfer documented, all of it sorted and locked in a secure cabinet each night, then unlocked and redistributed the next morning. The process took several extra hours each day. I learned that the reason for the classification was a single photo of a jet engine. Several months after we finished and delivered, a picture of the same engine, from another angle, appeared in Life. But that one photo, as it were, spread its aura over every other sentence, drawing, or picture in the proposal. It was all Confidential now, and once the military classified, it was impossible to declassify. We were in a cold war.
About two weeks after I arrived in Philly, Weldon Dick sent two artists from our layout department, Les and Tony, to design the proposal's pages one by one. In those days, artists did rough sketches on tracing paper and then actually cut and pasted typeset prose and graphics on cardboard to be photographed for offset negatives. The several hundred pages of the core proposal would be laid out, printed in two colors, and bound in blue leatherette hard covers. The thousands of technical support pages would be multilithed and placed in matching binders. The plan from higher up, we assumed, must have been to awe the Navy's decision makers with a one-two punch of elegant formatting and solid science.
By that point, we were working one-hundred hour weeks with the deadline looming darker and closer with each second, Les and Tony bugging me for material and me bugging and begging the engineers. It was mothers-in-law and marriages be damned.
Breakfasts and lunches were gulped. Our only break in the day was dinner in a restaurant, an hour or so of calm before returning to our desks and drawing boards. One evening, Les, a frail man with bags under his eyes, left the table for the men's room and didn't return for quite a while. Tony looked at his watch, and I went to look for Les. There he was passed out on the floor tiles. An ambulance came in minutes to rush him to the closest emergency room. Tony and I paced, but the doctors diagnosed only fatigue.
First thing in the morning I called Weldon Dick and reported in a tone meant to shame him, "Les collapsed from exhaustion last night. He was taken to the hospital."
"He hasn't been working that hard," Mr. Dick muttered.
Somehow we finished. Every section wheedled from an engineer, every graphic in hand, every page designed. Too late for an airplane, I was to take the midnight Saturday train from Philadelphia to its last stop in Albany, and then a cab to Schenectady at dawn so that the printing plant could begin its double-time production. I carried all the pages in a large leather artist's portfolio so stuffed it wouldn't zip closed, Tony running alongside on the platform as the train pulled out to shove revised layouts at me.
I soon discovered I was on the equivalent of a milk train, this one for Sunday papers, jerking to a stop at every dinky town north of New York City as conductors tossed off bundles of Timeses, Newses, Mirrors, Tribunes, Journal-Americans, and other newspapers long forgotten. Those were also the days long before professional basketball players became pampered multimillionaires. In the car with me were the Syracuse Nationals, probably having played the Knicks Saturday and now heading home, very tall and very thin men, all legs and arms, unable to twist into comfort in the, for them, undersized train seats. Their squirming was infectious. My own joints ached as I stared ahead in hollow-eyed sleeplessness.
When I turned in my expense form the next week, Weldon Dick fussed about the cab fare from the Albany rail station even though that was the train went no farther. "Couldn't someone have picked you up?" he asked. "It was 5 a.m." I told him. "So?" he said.
The plan had been for me to go home, put all the Confidential pages in the refrigerator in the event that fire consumed my apartment, and then get some sleep after the material was picked up and driven to the printing plant by a co-worker. Everything worked out but the sleep. The phone rang as soon as I hit the pillow. They needed me to explain some things. Another hundred-hour week.
We met the deadline. Hurrah. But no one took time to celebrate. A long shower and it was back to ships' turbines and Mr. Wardlaw. We didn't get the Subroc contract.
But there were other proposals. In the next year, I went back for a month in a Philadelphia hotel and hundred-hour work weeks several times, producing thousands of pages on potential technologies for surface to air missiles, air to surface, surface to surface. Ranges, velocities, propulsion, trajectories, effectiveness probabilities. Only once in all the convoluted prose did words emerge that gave an indication of what purpose these devices served. Writing about a weapon called Mauler, the engineers estimated "kill power." "Do you really want to say that?" I asked, assuming a taboo had been violated. They just shrugged: "Why not?"
Though the cast of characters shifted somewhat with each project, everyone was looking more haggard. The offices were as crowded on Saturdays and Sundays as they were Monday through Friday, the only difference being that the men wore sport shirts instead of suits and ties. I never asked, and no one mentioned the status of his marriage. Perhaps they had forgotten all about their wives and families.
The Mauler proposal ended up twice as big as Subroc, with no time for Les and Tony to dress it up in a customized layout. Just getting it the pages on and off press took all our energies. What emerged from the bindery were twenty volumes inserted into a two-foot wide maroon-colored case, one hundred sets of them. Seeing them completed, all stacked on the loading dock of the printing plant, I sighed and wondered if I would have the energy for a hot shower before sleeping through the next day and a half. But Weldon Dick stopped me before I got to my car.
"We have a delivery problem," he announced. The situation was this: It was late Friday afternoon and the proposals had to be at Redstone Arsenal by 3 p.m. Monday. In an era before FedEx, no commercial shipper would guarantee meeting that deadline. But Dick, manager that he was, had a solution: four of us-three others and me-would be plucked from our desks, ordered to drop all other work, and drive them from Schenectady to Huntsville, Alabama.
Donald Nunn and Rick Drummy were given a van from the company motor pool, while Walker Clairmont and I ended up with a wallowing old Chevy station wagon that rattled even when parked. And so we started off, fifty red leatherette boxes behind us stacked to the roof of the station wagon, another fifty strapped to a skid in the van, each box thick with words, graphs, and formulae.
For hours I dozed on and off, opening eyes when my head vibrated against the window and then snoozing again, finally waking up when it was dark and we were somewhere in Maryland. Even though Walker was driving, I was the one to notice the lights flashing in the side mirror. At first I thought the surges of glare came from high beams pitched up and down by a washboard highway; then I realized the road was smooth blacktop and that our station wagon was wallowing. The car behind was signaling a warning. An elderly man in a tweed cap got out of a grey Lincoln and joined us at the back of the station wagon as we searched for some sign of a problem. "You boys are overloaded." The man put one foot on the bumper. "Too much weight in the rear. Can't you jettison some of that stuff?" "Afraid not," I told him. We crept to the next gas station and pumped more air into the tires.
The van was miles ahead, but we had agreed to meet at a hotel in Tennessee, where Donald, a by-the-numbers guy, insisted that we unload both vehicles into our rooms because the proposals were Secret. Weary as I was, I didn't sleep all night, shaken by the vibrations of semis roaring past on the two-lane highway. At dawn after a quick cup of coffee, we reloaded and labored up the inclines of the Appalachians, staring at our watches. By noon we were in Alabama, by 2:45 at Redstone Arsenal, and by 3 we had a signed receipt. The Mauler proposal had been delivered on time. We did not get the contract.
By that point in my young life, it was time to do my six-months active duty training for the National Guard, that as an alternative to being drafted for two years. I was about to leave the industrial for the military. Yet there was still six weeks to work on my last proposal, this one for a weapon called Phaeton, and this time the work was to be done in Schenectady, not Philadelphia.
Moved out of my apartment, I was sleeping in a room at the YMCA but living at the office, showing up at work by 8 in the morning and going straight through till midnight or 1 or 2 a.m. Then I'd eat a tenderloin at a Toddle House and cross the street to a few fitful hours in my room in the Y. It became a ritual.
Material for this proposal was to arrive from GE facilities in various parts of the country, and I was on my own for all the traffic managing, Weldon Dick gritting teeth on his cigar when I asked for help. "Can't be done. This is a very busy time."
The Secret classification drove me nuts: all that logging in and locking out and locking up at night. It took an hour each night to put the stuff away and another in the morning to arrange it the way I needed just to keep track of what I had. One night, at 2, barely able to stand up, I shouted to the empty office, "I can't do this any more." And so, instead of locking up every page, I tore large sheets from a roll of brown wrapping paper and spread them over the Secret papers laid out on every desk. Then I turned out the lights, locked the door, and trundled off to the Toddle House.
The next morning, I expected to be handcuffed by Security, hauled off to the federal prison where they locked away all the security leaks. But no one seemed to have noticed despite the fact that the night guards probably had never seen desks tented with sheets of brown paper. Perhaps they didn't want to know what they would find if they looked underneath. Perhaps they had orders not to. A deadline is a deadline.
We made it. Somehow we always managed to make the deadline. I had a feeling that maybe this time we would get the contract.
A week before I left for my months in uniform, a manager in another department, an old GE hand, someone who once had been as callow as I, sat down at my table in the cafeteria. I asked him about our chances. He shook his head. "Not this one."
"How can you be so sure?"
"Common knowledge. These things are decided in advance. Long before anybody submits a proposal. We never had a chance for Subroc, you know. General Dynamics has an empty plant the Navy paid for. And besides, it was their turn. Raytheon got Mauler. Word is that it's Lockheed for Phaeton."
"Then why did we bother?" I said. "All that money invested, all those people putting in all those hours. Me."
"That's the way things work. We submit proposals so that the military can claim it considered options. Every once in a while, our turn comes up."
Within weeks I was straining at chin-ups, marching through mud, crawling under barbed wire while tracer bullets flared over my head. After finishing my active duty, mired at the lowly rank of Private E2, I didn't go back to GE. The military-industrial complex had to manage without me. Eventually, three decades later, the Berlin Wall was demolished, the Soviet Union collapsed, and our side won the Cold War.
But I had nothing to do with it.
Walter Cummins is Emeritus Professor of English at Fairleigh Dickinson University as well as editor emeritus of THE LITERARY REVIEW. He has published approximately 100 stories in such magazines as KANSAS QUARTERLY, OTHER VOICES, CROSSCURRENTS, FLORIDA REVIEW, SOUTH CAROLINA REVIEW, VIRGINIA QUARTERLY REVIEW, and many more. His story collections are titled WITNESS and WHERE WE LIVE. Early in his career, two novels, A STRANGER TO THE DEED and INTO TEMPTATION, came out as paperback originals. He also has published memoirs, essays, articles, and reviews.