Personal history from UCLA to Rocketdyne

As I went through my courses at UCLA and eventually graduated, I had identified my goal as graduate school, with an eventual Ph.D., even though I was hardly a star student (with a solid B average). It’s just that I had no better idea of where to head in my life.

There was a period, though, when I considered becoming a teacher, perhaps a high school teacher. I’ve always thought I was good at explaining things (I was an informal tutor in high school, helping the struggling students with their math assignments). I took a couple teacher-prep courses at UCLA. But as the time came to graduate, my family was seriously thinking about moving to Tennessee, and I needed to find work, and a place to live, sooner rather than later.

I’ve looked back through my journals in those years, and later years, to try to understand why I was unable to find a job once graduating from UCLA, and how easy it was a few years later after attending Cal State Northridge. At UCLA, there was no interaction with local employers. There was a job placement office, but only for students to find part-time, on-campus work while at school. In the summer after I graduated, I did attend a job seminar and created a resume. I sent it out to a few local aerospace companies, like Lockheed, and heard nothing back. (Perhaps my B average at UCLA was not an enticement?)

As the Fall of 1978 came, I began searching for any kind of job, and applied (via an ad in the LA Times), to the County of Los Angeles for a position as a “typist-clerk.” I had to drive downtown – in pouring rain as I recall – to take a typing test. My 11th grade typing class paid off! I did well enough for them to offer me a job, and I got a position in Reseda, at the local DPSS, Department of Public Social Services, i.e. welfare office. I started working there in January 1978, even before the family departed to Tennessee in February. I found a single apartment in Northridge, two blocks from the Cal State Northridge campus, and moved there in early March. (That is, I stayed in the Sepulveda house for several weeks after my family moved, because it had not sold yet.)

Two and half years passed before I roused myself to return to college, at Cal State Northridge. Once enrolling there and taking classes, for another two years I was a full-time student, surviving on student loans and part-time work at the college library. That job, in the library’s acquisitions department on a top floor that students never saw, was a lot of fun, and involved my first involvement with computers.

Yet I’ve always regarded these two jobs as menial. I’d thought I was destined, via my university degree, to move immediately into a prestigious professional career at some high-end aerospace company. That didn’t happen, but in retrospect these two “menial” jobs helped me immensely, in forcing myself to interact with other people and loosen up, after my self-absorbed years in high school and college.

The DPSS job, at Sherman Way and Lindley in Reseda, involved being a clerk, and typist (job title: “typist-clerk”), for a row of welfare workers, each of whom was responsible for a couple hundred cases. The term then was AFDC, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aid_to_Families_with_Dependent_Children), a program that has since been replaced by various welfare reforms. My key involvement was that recipients could call their case workers only between certain hours on certain days. Sort of like your professors at college having only specific office hours. If a recipient called at any other time, it was *my* job to answer the phone, and try to explain to them why their case worker wasn’t available. (Of course the workers were in the office, doing other things, but the rules were that the workers only took calls during certain hours.) This forced me to be interactive with people who sometimes were not too bright and had to have things clearly and firmly explained to them. I did pretty well, actually, and got promoted a couple times; I was complimented on my ability to pronounce non-Anglo names, mostly Spanish names at the time.

Aside from answering phones I maintained case records by updating index cards with the typewriter, and so on. In these pre-internet days, even pre-computer days, files on recipients consisted of fat folders of documents, stored in file cabinets. Every piece of paperwork that came in had to be filed in the appropriate folder.

There was a political incident that affected my job there, in the first year, in mid-1978: the still notorious California Proposition 13, a measure to cap rising property tax increases. It was a reaction against long-time homeowners, whose property assessments kept increasing as the city and county grew and property in southern California became more valuable, from being priced out of their homes simply due to rising property taxes. –But as county employees, we were encouraged to campaign and vote against Prop 13 (which did pass, and remains in effect decades later), with the threat of job losses from decreasing tax revenue.

The people in the DPSS office knew I had graduated college with a math degree, and of course wondered when I would move on to greater things. When I finally moved on the college at CSUN, they treated me like a hero going off to war. (While I felt I was squandering my destiny and had no idea what to do with my life.) My last day there was August 29, 1980; my first day of classes at CSUN was September 2.

Back to School

I applied for graduate school at CSUN, California State University Northridge, and was accepted. My original intent was to acquire a second bachelor’s degree, in computer science—because that degree would be much more useful than a math degree in getting a professional job. (I already had a bachelor’s degree, in math, from UCLA.) I decided on a second bachelor’s degree, rather than a master’s, because the second BS required only completing all the undergraduate classes for a computer science degree, a couple years, rather than an extra year or two to do master’s would.

Fortuitously, the apartment I’d found a couple years earlier was just off the CSUN campus – two blocks, though those two blocks were separated by the busy Reseda Blvd. So I walked to school. I didn’t need my bicycle, let alone a car.

Since I had supported myself for more than two years, I was now eligible for state financial aid, which came as a package of loans and work/study. The latter was part-time work on campus. Of various positions available, the first couple I chose were already filled. I got a position in the college library acquisitions department, on the top floor of the south library. (Like UCLA, Cal State Northridge had two large libraries.) The pay was $3.40/hour, and as I recall there was a weekly cap on hours, perhaps 20, to allow for course work. Loans over the next couple years (from Fall 1980 to Spring 1982, when I started my professional job at Rocketdyne) came to some $15,000, if I recall correctly; rent for my single-room apartment started at $190/month in 1978 and by 1980 might have been $220. (I’ll look these up; I have all my check books since opening my first bank account in 1978.) And once I had a decently paying professional job – I started at $29,000 some in spring 1982 – I managed to pay off my student loans in 2 or 3 years.

CSUN ran in semesters, rather than the quarters at UCLA. The first semester I enrolled in five courses but soon dropped one; I had one engineering course, two computer science, and one philosophy (formal logic). The coursework for the computer science degree consisted of basic principles of computer programming, of course, leading to building large projects, learning the basics of a variety of computer languages (including Fortran and Cobol, legacy languages from the 1950s but still in use then, and even now, in 2020), and more abstract courses on, e.g., mathematical and logical studies of program language structures (if then/else/endif, Do loops, and so on).

So for four full semesters I took a full load of courses. Over the Summer of 1981 I took just one course, while continuing to work in library acquisitions. At some point I changed my mind, or perhaps was persuaded to change my mind, and changed my goal from a second bachelor’s degree to a master’s degree. The plan was to get a professional job once I had the equivalent of the bachelor’s degree in computer science, and then keep taking courses at CSUN toward the master’s degree on the side, in evenings. In fact I did continue taking courses once I got my Rocketdyne job, but my determination gradually flagged. In Fall ’82 I enrolled in three classes, but dropped one; in Spring ’83 took just one; and in Fall ’83 enrolled in one but withdrew toward the end, and never finished it. So I never got the master’s degree.

(Some asides: 1980 was about the time bank ATMs (automated teller machines) came into use. Smog in the LA Basin was much worse in the ‘70s and ‘80s than it has been in recent decades; after bicycle rides I could feel strain in my chest. Crown Books, the first nation-wide chain to discount books, opened. Rubik’s Cubes became a thing.)

My job in library acquisitions was very interesting on a couple counts. Accounting runs were accomplished by keypunching computer cards. Since I was already a good typist, I became the keypunch operator. (Pic.) Stacks of punched cards were taken away by a lady from the computer lab, and next day she would return with a long print-out on that computer paper with little holes on the sides – I see it’s called continuous stationery (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Continuous_stationery). The part of my job was to sit down with my immediate boss, whose name was Ardelle Mollerstuen, and read down the print-out and verify each line matched the original inputs that I had keypunched.

The other interesting part of the job was to see how acquisitions worked. There were couple large book distributors – Baker & Taylor, https://www.baker-taylor.com/, was one – who would send several boxes of books every week of what I think were referred to as “approvals.” These were books on all subjects that were thought to be of interest to university libraries. Occasionally I had the job of opening these boxes and arranging the books on a series of bookshelves according to the subjects indicated on the packing slips—one shelf for anthropology, say, another for biology, another for history, etc. etc. Then over the following week, subject-matter experts, i.e. members of the various academic departments on campus, would stop by and review the books in their domain and decide which ones the library would keep, and which would be sent back. The books included the full range of types of books, including newly published fiction, so I took it upon myself to indicate which science fiction titles were worth keeping… Then one of the other student staff had the chore of packing up the rejects for shipping back to the distributor.

// aside:

In the year or two I collected stamps, inspired by my Great Aunt Maude when we’d moved to Illinois, I discovered companies that would do similar approval services. Or maybe just one…I remember it was called Jamestown Stamp Company, http://stamp-co.com/. Once a month or so they would send a large envelope full of a couple dozen little semi-clear cellophane envelopes, each with four or six or eight stamps from a particular country, or on a particular theme. You kept which ones you wanted, and mailed the others back along with payment. But you could also buy any particular stamp(s) you wanted. There was at the time a huge volume called the Scott Stamp Catalogue, the size of an unabridged dictionary, that listed every stamp ever issued by every country ever. (I bought one of those, for some $20 at the time, when paperbacks cost $.75.) Scott is still around; it’s now a website, https://www.scottonline.com/. At some point after a year or two of collecting stamps, it struck me how pointless it was. It’s not like you grew a collection of stamps that happened to come in the mail. You could order anything and just have it. So I stopped.

Yet there were two benefits from collecting stamps for that while. First, you learn world geography; you are offered stamps from various remote and bizarre countries around the globe, and you learn where they are. (This was analogous to learning US geography from having a jigsaw puzzle where each state was a separate piece, as I had at maybe age 10.) Second was you got a flavor for each nation’s character through the kinds of stamps they issued, the designs and subject matters. The US then, and still, issues ordinary little square stamps in standard denominations for routine use. But three or four times a month, it would issue special “commemorative” stamps in a horizontal rectangular shape, and these would commemorate some particular historical event, or famous artist, or whatever, many of these in full color. Many of these were sets of 4 or 6 stamps on a theme, e.g. four different wildflowers.

In contrast were especially the Soviet Union stamps, many more of them per month or year, mostly monotone, and often issued in sets, and generally glorifying Soviet leaders and achievements. Wikipedia has this page, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Postage_stamps_of_the_Soviet_Union, but … I still have my old stamp albums! So perhaps I’ll snap a photo of the ones I have.

Also, there were small countries, island nations and Arab Emirates nations, that issued so many different stamps given their tiny populations that you got the impression they were deliberately appealing to the stamp collecting market in bigger nations. These were often very colorful, on nature subjects, and sometimes in odd shapes, e.g. triangular. I have some of these too.

In recent years even countries like the US and UK have trended this way, issuing sets of commemorative stamps, 4 or 6 or 8 in each set all on a theme, on every conceivable subject…. For example, Star Trek stamps. You would never have seen such things in the ‘60s or ‘70s.

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Meanwhile, for my coursework we were transitioning from keypunching to terminals. This was the era when large facilities, whether universities or engineering companies, had single large “mainframe” computers (IBM, DEC, VAX were the leading manufacturers), in specially air-conditioned rooms on raised floors for managing the many cables underneath, with remote terminals – keyboards and TV-like monitors – for users to log on, sometimes in adjacent rooms, sometimes from their offices or cubicles. The university library, being a business function rather than an engineering one, ran a bit behind the academic schedule; as I finished up my work/study job in the library, in spring 1982, there was talk of transitioning from keypunch inputs to terminals, but it hadn’t happened yet.

Finding a Job

(I may be repeating myself from some other pages here.)

In contrast to UCLA, whose only job-placement service on campus was to find part-time jobs for students, CSUN had a very aggressive outreach to local employers, and hosted on-campus job interviews every semester. In the Spring of 1982, as I neared completion of courses for the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree in computer science, I paid close attention. On-campus job interviews, to begin March 4th, were announced in January. I signed up for several: Hughes, Litton, JPL, Rockwell, IBM, SDC. Initial screening interviews were held on campus; they would take your resume, and contact you later, if they were interested, for interviews on their site. What struck me was how some of these screening interviews seemed more like the interviewer trying to sell me on their company, rather than considering me with raised eyebrows as a potential employee; no doubt an indication of the economy and the health of the computer and aerospace industry were behind that.

After on-site interviews, I got offers from Hughes (in El Segundo, on the south side of the LAX airport), for $25,428/year, and from Rocketdyne, in Canoga Park, for $2124/month ($25,488/year, just a tad more). I’d done an on-site interview at JPL, the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, focal point for American’s exploration of the planets – my dream job! – despite cautions that it, like university libraries, did not always have the most up-to-date computer equipment. But despite a couple call-backs, they admitted that while I would be a suitable employee, they didn’t have any immediate openings, so I let them go. The decision between Hughes and Rocketdyne came down to convenience: Rocketdyne was maybe 10 miles from where I then lived, on surface streets; Hughes was 30, on rush-hour clogged freeways.

So I accepted the Rocketdyne job and my first day at work there was June 23, 1982.

First Car

What else happening at this time? With a full-time job impending, I bought my first car. Ever since being a kid, I had paid attention to cars, their designs, their shapes, their aesthetics, not for their horsepower or racing potential. In the couple years before getting my job, I’d been obsessed by the third generation Ford Mustang (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ford_Mustang_(third_generation), though none of the photos are very good), for its trim, chic, sleek design. (Better photo of a typical version at https://cars.usnews.com/cars-trucks/the-history-of-the-ford-mustang/slide4.) I would stand at the 4th floor window of the DPSS office where I worked and look to spot them driving by.

I was also interested in the Chevrolet Citation (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chevrolet_Citation), a front-wheel drive compact car that was getting great press in the car magazines (Car & Driver, Road & Track) that I read at the time. But it was actually a bit bigger than the car I would need. And its reputation came to be terrible.

(It’s fascinating, I came to understand, how the car magazines would promote every new model as the best ever, criticizing issues with earlier models, and then do the same two or five years later, implicitly undermining their earlier assessments of the previous new models. This was a lesson to me about how journalism works. They’re not being dishonest, exactly; it’s that everything is relative, and their current job is to sell magazines. Also, standards do improve over time.)

And also, the Japanese cars, in the 1970s making inroads into American markets, especially Honda. My college friend Philip Klutch was driving a 1980 Honda Accord. This was an era in which the Japanese car makers, including Toyota, Datsun later Nissan, and Honda, were paying much more attention to quality control than were the American car-makers, still at the time General Motors (FM), Ford, and Chrysler, and coasting on their domination of the American market. From reading all the reviews in the car magazines, I settled on a Honda Accord hatchback. When I told my father over the phone about my choice, he disapproved, and told me the Japanese car-makers were “killing our country.” I sent him some copies of the various reviews, and eventually accepted my choice.

My Uncle Bob financed this first car, since I hadn’t started my pro job yet; he co-signed the loan, and loaned me money to make the payments for the first few months. I think the list price of the car was something like $7500. I paid him back, of course, over the next year.

Perhaps partly for financial reasons, I bought this first car with a manual transmission, even though I’d never driven a car with manual transmission! At the time my Uncle Bob was driving the earliest model of the Mazda RX-7 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mazda_RX-7) – another Japanese car model! – with a manual transmission, and so I spent some time driving his car, stalling in traffic several times, eventually getting the hang of it. (His car was silver and appears in one of my Apple Valley photos.)

So by the time I started my job at Rocketdyne, I had a car to drive.