Thursday, February 26, 2009

Beyond the Call

Pete Baez died this winter in a care facility in Reston, Virginia. I met Baez several times and had some long-distance business dealings with him during my years in the U.S. Forest Service.

Baez’ passing might seem a matter of little consequence to some, but thanks to Bill Hamilton, retired head of publishing for the Forest Service, we have enough details of our colleague’s life to know he was an outstanding member of “The Greatest Generation.”

Baez was born in Puebla, Mexico, in 1921. He grew up in Brooklyn, and later earned a liberal arts degree nearby at Drew University in New Jersey. He enlisted in the Army Air Corps and flew “The Hump” with the Air Transport Command in India during World War II. After the war, Baez returned to school to gain a bachelors degree at Cornell University and a masters at the University of Minnesota, both in soil science.

He started his civilian government employment as a soil scientist in the West with the Bureau of Indian Affairs and then the Corps of Engineers. Later, Baez became a professional working with the language he had mastered in an editorial position with the U.S. Navy. He moved to the Department of Agriculture in 1964 and spent the last 25 years as an editor for the Forest Service, retiring in 1994.

That history is mildly intriguing, to be sure. What came later is absolutely amazing. Baez followed up his half-century of federal service by continuing to work in the Forest Service national office, as an editor and in other jobs, throughout most of the 15 years after he retired until he died at age 88. He worked as a volunteer for no pay. In his spare time, Baez also volunteered as a tutor for children learning English in the DC area.

Incidentally, the first time I met Baez, in 1970, I unwittingly asked the obvious question. Was he related to Joan Baez, the prominent folk singer who was then making a name in anti-establishment circles? Baez muttered, “Yeah, I’m her uncle,” and promptly changed the subject. Coworkers told me he considered his niece’s public activities an affront to the family’s conservatism, and he disliked talking about her.

I worked with many fine people in the Forest Service who gave back much more to America than it gave to them. One scientist, Walt Mueggler, stayed on for more than 15 years after he retired, and contributed more than 40,000 hours of his time to research work in the Intermountain West. I know of dozens of others who made large contributions of their personal time, and sometimes even their personal resources, while they were regular employees or retirees.

Next time you hear some idiot bad-mouthing government workers, think about Baez and Mueggler. Ask yourself how many people retired from General Electric or any other company you can think of and stayed with the organization as unpaid volunteers for another 15 years. Name two.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Official Confirmation

We’ve often contended that Utah has a higher birth rate than Bangladesh. The Beehive State income tax form I just filled out seems to confirm that.

Most forms seeking tax status information provide one box for the filer, one for the filer’s spouse, and two to four extra individual boxes for dependent children. Utah’s has a double box for dependents, allowing one to declare 10 or more kids with no fuss.

No, the Utah box for a spouse does not also automatically accommodate double-digit entries! That’s an urban myth.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

We Now Pronounce You . . .

Over nearly 60 years, I’ve applied for and been granted several dozen driver's licenses. My qualifications earned permits in Wisconsin, Idaho, Utah, the U.S. Forest Service, and the U.S. Army. Sandy also was a successful applicant in many places. We always negotiated the process rather easily. That is, we did until we encountered those helpful guardians of the public driving trust in the local office of the Michigan Secretary of State (SOS seems an appropriate acronym).

The SOS website displays a giant chart showing all the types of documents needed to acquire a Michigan license. We found we could register our car in the same office with a few more documents, which brought our document total to seven.

Being an experienced bureaucrat, I loaded up a whole briefcase full of documents “just in case.” Off we went to Allegan, the county seat, which is a 26-mile roundtrip from our home. Together, we stood before a clerk in the SOS office after only a brief wait.

My temporary drivers license was issued after a routine check of a selection of our documents proved that I was a now a Michigander and a vision check revealed that I could see most things. The car registration also was completed efficiently. Sandy’s license was another matter.

The clerk said Sandy’s documentation was insufficient. “Don’t you have a marriage license?” she asked.

“Not with us,” Sandy said. “What does that have to do with it? I gave you my Utah license and even showed you my social security card and passport. Passports are issued by the federal government. Mine has gotten me across borders in several parts of the world.”

“Michigan his stricter standards than the feds,” the clerk said. “We’re worried about illegals coming across the border.” Sandy asked what proving you were married had to do with crossing borders. I muttered something about wondering whether or not my new Michigan license would get me across the Indiana border.

I pointed out that the SOS website said two bills for services in Michigan showing the name of the applicant was sufficient documentation to establish residency. We had given the clerk a bill to both of us from the local power company, and also had produced a letter from our auto insurance company saying we both were now covered in Michigan and the letter would serve as our bill. The clerk said the power bill was fine, but the letter was not. “You have to have the actual policy.”

Sandy was beginning to make a few decidedly unfriendly comments and turning a shade of what I knew was going to become bright red. I suggested we leave quietly, drive home, get a copy of our marriage license, and return. Sandy’s parting shot was, “Will Michigan pay for our gas?” You know the answer to that.

We got one of the two signed marriage license duplicates that was handed to us after the ceremony several decades ago. Luckily, I decided to also grab a copy of our voluminous auto insurance policy. We returned to Allegan where we were allowed to join a line of other returnees who could go to the counter ahead of all first-time visitors.

I handed over the marriage license to the same clerk we had seen earlier. “Oh, I don’t think that will be acceptable,” she said. “It doesn’t have a seal on it. And this one says it’s the groom’s copy. You’re going to need to contact the courthouse to get a stamped copy of the original.”

“But the courthouse is in Wisconsin,” I said. “Anyway, this is an original. It was handed to me right after the ceremony. Sandy also got one, and I assume God has a third one.” That brought some laughter from the other clerks and applicants, but didn’t produce a driver’s license for Sandy.

As the clerk started for the supervisor’s office with our marriage license to get a ruling, I told her I also had our insurance policy, which clearly showed both our names. “Oh,” the clerk said, ‘then we can go ahead.” Several minutes later, Sandy had her temporary permit.

While we were in the office, we noticed that almost every applicant for anything who appeared before the other two clerks was being told to come back later with one or more missing documents.

The Governor of Michigan recently announced a serious program to cut State expenses. Maybe if the licensing rules were streamlined a bit the Secretary of State staff could be cut in half because residents would need to visit only once to do a piece of business rather than two or three times. That also might be viewed as a gas conservation measure.

And why does Michigan worry about the residency of people who can prove they are U.S. citizens and want to hand over 25 bucks for a State driver’s license? I thought my newly adopted State was hard up for cash. Maybe if we advertised “quickie” driver’s licenses ala the instant marriages and divorces available in Nevada we’d raise enough cash to balance the budget.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Listen to the Rumble

A pleasant phone call from old high school friend Jim Shea caused me to reflect once again on how dramatically computers have changed the way information is processed and exchanged in our world. Shea was a co-worker on what was to be my very first job in publishing. The contrast to my most recent contact with the publishing industry is remarkable.

Several months ago, designer Arik Thuesen and I put together a 300-page book during a series of sessions in his electronic studio. We seldom had to move from our two chairs in front of his multi-screened computer display. When we were satisfied with the outcome, Thuesen merely pressed the “send” button. Our document was on the way from Utah to New York. “It’ll take them a while to download that,” he said.

In less than 10 minutes, a message popped onto our screen: “You are published.” Although not a single page had been printed, the book was just as available as though thousands of copies were stacked in a warehouse. When someone ordered one, a finished copy could be generated from the electronic version in a matter of minutes.

Sixty years ago, anyone who said this would one day be possible would have been laughed out of town. Type for publications was produced by ponderous linotype machines, or put together letter-by-letter by hand. Big, slow presses generated the pages, and workers had to assemble and bind the pages to finalize the document.

Jim Shea and I were among the workers who assembled a new edition of the telephone book for the City of Medford, Wisconsin, in about 1950. The others were Jim’s brother, Danny, and Charlie Bebeau. The age gap in the temporary workforce was noteworthy. Jim, Danny, and I were young teenagers. Bebeau was a Spanish-American War veteran (the only one I ever met) and one of the oldest residents of Tomahawk. The publishers of the Tomahawk Leader had won the directory printing contract and hired us to work a few hours daily after school to assemble the pages. We worked on the project for about a week for 50 cents an hour.

The printed phone book pages were arrayed in some 20 piles along a wooden bench in the bindery section of the Leader printing plant. The Shea brothers and I continually walked down the line picking up individual pages. When we had a set, we placed it neatly in a stack next to Bebeau, who ran a machine called a saddle-stitcher that put two staples in each directory as he manipulated the stack of pages into just the right places.

My recollection is that we put together 2,000 directories. Whenever a substantial number had been stitched, Loren Osborne, one of the brothers who owned the publishing company, appeared to trim the books on a paper cutter. The machine weighed several tons, and its knife could have removed a finger or a hand as easily as it could slice through a stack of phone books. Osborne was a careful man.

Osborne also was a man of few words. He said very little, and his few pronouncements almost always were delivered quietly. So it was a somewhat startling spectacle to watch him in action on the day the Leader was printed. Osborne perched atop a big flatbed press as he fed large sheets of paper into the extremely noisy machine. The back part of the building shook when the press was running. When Osborne hit the button that got the press rolling, he launched into a song at the top of his voice. He almost seemed to be engaged in a contest to see if he or the press could generate the most volume.

Osborne’s song was appropriate. The chorus of “The Wabash Cannonball” opens with the words, “Listen to the jingle, the rumble and the roar. . .”

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Shhhh . . . They’re Secret

Amid complaints that security at President Obama’s inauguration was on the lax side, a Secret Service spokesman was quoted as saying, “The agency’s security measures are not always visible.” Surprise!

During my government service, I encountered the secret agents twice. My observations were (1) the real surprise is how public Secret Service operatives actually can be; and (2) those guys are very good at their jobs.

During my time at the Intermountain Research Station, the Station Director dispatched me and two other staff members to Washington, DC for a week to take a training course given by the Juran Institute, a consulting group reputed to be leading experts in the “Management by Objectives” system that was the current fad among government and private industry gurus. My teammates were Gordon Booth, the Station Biometrician, and Maureen Stettler, a rising star in the Operations Group. Our job was to learn all we could about MBO and come back with recommendations as to whether the Station should adopt all, some, or none of the ideas.

The class met in a hotel several doors down the street from the Soviet Embassy. Room rates in that hotel were too high for Forest Service types, so we lodged about six blocks away in a Holiday Inn. An early continental breakfast was included in the course benefits, and the three of us made an early morning hike every day to take advantage of that. Only a few classmates rose early enough for the breakfast hour.

One man was there every morning before we arrived. He bore a remarkable resemblance to actor Stacey Keach, and was the only classmate who always wore a dark suit and tie. He also was the only one with a slight bulge in his jacket near his left shoulder, which all of us concluded meant his was packing “heat.” A name tag he always wore confirmed that possibility. It clearly read: Secret Service.

After saying hello on the first morning, we started to share a table with the agent every morning. He told us he had been a Lieutenant Commander in the Navy, and described his work with the Secret Service in detail. He left one thing out; he obviously was there guarding someone, but he never revealed who that was by word or action. We learned later that the Postmaster General of the U.S. was among our classmates, and so was a Marine Corps general, but we never noticed the agent going near either man.

Of course, it didn’t take long for us to observe that an agent wearing a Secret Service name tag wasn’t very secret. And the cold war was pretty warm at the time, and the Russians were just down the street. Our agent shrugged that off. “They know who we are, and we know who they are. Most of us don’t work under cover. But some do, and they’re around at the right times.”

There were no reports of anyone being attacked on embassy row the week we were there, so it seems fair to conclude that our public agent friend and his secret buddies did their jobs well.

About a year later, the annual national meeting of Forest Service information directors was held in a hotel in downtown Salt Lake City. By then, smoking had been banned in meeting rooms, so I stepped out into the hallway at intervals to have a puff. One day at mid-morning a man dressed in a dark suit was standing on a stairway next to my adopted smoking area. He asked what my business was in the hotel, and when I told him he said he too worked for the Federal Government--as a Secret Service agent!

“The First Lady is coming to give a talk at a luncheon for Republican leaders,” he said. “Mrs. Bush will be coming right by here and going into that room. We scouted everything out yesterday.” The room was directly across the hallway from our meeting room. “If you come back about 11:30, you’ll get to see her,” the agent said.

I ventured the opinion it seemed unlikely that anyone was going to attack the extremely popular Barbara Bush. “Not so,” the agent said. “She is a grand lady, but there are lots of crazies out there, and we take no chances.”

Impressed by a Secret Service assessment that I wasn’t a crazy, I showed up shortly before 11:30. It was a good feeling to know the agent trusted me. But he proved he didn’t trust anybody. “You can stand over there,” he said. “Keep your hands out of your pockets. You can clap when she goes by if you want to, but that’s it. Don’t make any moves to go toward her.”

Mrs. Bush arrived on schedule in the middle of an entourage. I noticed several men in dark suits ahead and behind the group. When the doors opened and the assembled luncheon crowd cheered, I added a bit to the applause for her. I didn’t make any other moves.

Michael Contezac occupied an office next to mine when I started my Forest Service career at the Forest Products Laboratory in Madison. Contezac had worked in the White House before transferring to FPL. He characterized his job in Washington as “pretty much of an errand boy.” Frequently, people in the communications office handed news releases to Contezac and he was charged with delivering them without delay to a duplicating and mailing operation in another part of the building.

Contezac’s favorite story about White House duty attested to Secret Service efficiency. He said he was trotting down a hallway with a news release one day when he turned a corner and bumped into a tall man. The next thing he knew he was flat on his back on the floor. When he looked up, a .45 was pointed squarely at his eye. “Son, you should take it a little easy around here,” the tall man said.

The tall man was Lyndon Johnson. The gunman, of course, was a Secret Service agent. They take no chances.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Are There Still Differences?

Many people, and I was becoming one of them, think Americans have become so mobile that regional differences within the U. S. have nearly disappeared. Employment changes have become routine, children are sent to schools far away from the nest, and nearly everyone has traveled extensively in the country. We all have Walmart, those golden arches, and other “institutions” in common. Thus, the popular wisdom holds, we have blended together into a homogenous nation, even losing those delightful southern and New England accents in the process.

Perhaps the popular wisdom is wrong in some respects.

Twenty-six years ago we bought a home on a public golf course in the Interior West. A month ago we bought a home on a public golf course in the Midwest.

Sandy and I attended homeowner functions in our Utah neighborhood without fail, served in various capacities with the homeowner association, and often walked the loop road through the neighborhood, stopping to visit with fellow residents. We became acquainted with just about everybody. About half the residents were golfers. A majority had lived in the area for all, or most, of their lives.

I marveled at the fact that an entire winter and most of the following spring passed, and no one had asked me to buy a membership in the golf club or play in the men’s association. In 26 years, no one ever did! Well into my first summer, one long-time golfer and homeowner in a clubhouse bar conversation somewhat belligerently demanded to know why I didn’t play in the men’s association. When I rather timidly ventured that no one had ever asked me to, he snorted for all to hear something like, “Hey this guy thinks he rates an invitation.”

Last night, I was one of about 30 people who enjoyed a Super Bowl party at the home next to our son’s place in Michigan. We had met the host couple (Bud and Chris Jensen) once, and had not previously met a single one of the others invited to the shindig. Sandy was under the weather and couldn’t attend, which was unfortunate because the people were very friendly. Casual conversations revealed that most of the party goers had lived in the area for many years, and many, but not all, were golfers.

Seven or eight of the men present (make that eight or nine; Bud had done so earlier) invited me to join a group of senior golfers who play together at least twice a week. Two offered to sponsor me as a member of the association. One told me exactly how to obtain a fact sheet describing all the local golf events scheduled for the coming season. A half dozen of the women asked whether Sandy played golf, and offered to sign her up in a group they belong to.

Seems like newcomers still “rate an invitation” in Southwestern Michigan.