The most important computer job at the Soo Line Railroad

I think everybody who worked at the Soo Line in the early 1980s would agree that running the railroad was an important task for the million dollar IBM 370/158 mainframe computer. Well, most of time ūüėČ

Turns out that during the summer, on Thursday mornings, the primary role for the computer, and most important task of the programming department was the preparation of the golf league statistics. Wednesday evenings employees would do their rounds of golf while documenting their swings at each hole.

Thursday morning they would give this to the programmer assigned the task of entering them into punched cards and running the programs to prepare the eagerly awaited statistics that included standings, best and worst at each hole, and so on. Woe unto the indiscreet person who would attempt¬†interrupt the¬† golf programmer’s work¬†before the statistics were done–as I did on one occasion.

The golf league was well represented in the computer room, so someone would be watching the printer, and begin preparing to burst and distribute the reports the minute they were done printing. And then, of course, the flurry of activity as the statistics inspired much raucous discussion, bragging and excuses.

One one occasion I was invited to sub for a league member who couldn’t make it. Walking down the fairway ¬†after teeing off on the first hole, we moved out of sight of the clubhouse. My manager waved me over to his golf bag. I went over and asked¬†what he wanted. He reached into his bag and handed me a beer. Those were simpler, freer times.

My golf score that day was so bad that I received a high handicap, and one of the other golfers begged me to play on their team the next week. He believed that my score had nowhere to go but up, and that my handicap would propel me into a very low score. I declined, and to this day I mildly regret not joining them for one more round.

Some 27 years have passed, and my work at the Soo Line, from 1979 to 1982, still stands as one of my most enjoyable jobs with some of my favorite co-workers. It was the first job where I really excelled, where I felt I had a place. I was too young to know how good I had it, and one day in the autumn of 1982 I exchanged this somewhat idylic world for the somewhat grim and darwinian one of law school.

Point Man in Vietnam

I once had the pleasure of working with a Vietnam Combat Vet. He told me that his main weapon was a sawed off shotgun shooting 00 buckshot. It already sounded like a pretty hairy job.

He worked in a combat squad that attacked in a wedge formation. He was on the point of the wedge. He explained that when engaging the enemy, he would fire off everything he had in the shotgun and then lie down and let the guy behind him take over with a browning automatic rifle.  I was struck imagining the intensity of that sort of firefight, and the kind of reliance the members of the squad had for each other.

So when you hear the phrase ‘point man’, bear in mind the military origin of the term.

He had a couple of other stories of interest. He recalled one occasion he was¬†sleeping during battle at night. He had become accustomed to the regular noises of rifle fire and bombs and was able to sleep when appropriate. On this occasion, he was awakened by a loud buzzing sound he had not heard before. He checked around and learned it was “Puff the Magic Dragon”, a cargo plane with a gatling gun pointed out a side door. The gun fired so rapidly that it made the buzzing sound. Every tenth round was an illuminated tracer, but it looked like a solid line of light pointing down. It fired so much and so quickly that there were a couple of guys in the plane shoveling shells out with snow shovels. In the morning he saw the side of a hill that puff had reduced to rubble. Formerly a wooded area, there was no piece of wood remaning more than a couple of inches long.

On another occasion, a supply guy gave him and some buddies some special shotgun shells. He refused to say what they did, just encouraging the guys to try them out. Well, it was nighttime so they went behind a building and fired off a round. He saw a 30 foot sun emerge from the gun and claimed the loudest sound was that of the irises of his eyes shapping shut against the light. Turns out it was some sort of phosphorous round. I never learned what role such a thing might play in combat.

The notorious case of the lip biting marine

At a law alumni activity, I once had the pleasure of talking to an attorney who worked in the Navy JAG core. JAG is Judge Advocates General, and is the judicial branch of the navy. It has been sensationalized in popular culture with the phrase “You can’t handle the truth!” and an eponymus tv drama.

This officer, who we will call Lieutenant Commander (LTC)¬†Doe, recounted to me the story of perhaps her most famous client, a marine who had been dubbed¬†the “Lip Biter”.

The facts of the case were not in dispute. One evening some marines were in a bar drinking, dancing with their girlfriends or wives, and socializing. At some point, one of them got liquored up and imprudently made remarks which assailed the virtue of another marine’s date. Defending her honor, the aggreived marine returned fire, and in the course of the fistfight, threw the indiscreet marine down on a pool table, bent down, bit off his lip, spit it out on the floor, and stomped on it.

LTC Doe was assigned the role of criminal defense attorney for the lip biter (as he was universally referred to on base). After reading the arrest report, she was a bit nervous about meeting him. She took every precaution available, arranging to have the defendant chained hand and foot and to the table, with two marines to guard him. During the discussion, she was surprised to find the lip biter soft spoken and unfailingly polite.  He remained so throughout pendancy of the case, and attended subsequent meetings unchained.

This case quickly became the talk of the base. One day an admiral entered her office. She shot up and snapped off her best salute. She had never had someone of that high¬†rank in her office before. Nervously inquiring how she could help him, he asked “So, you have the lip biter case?” This increased her trepidation, wondering what she had done wrong to warrant this visit. She responded “Yes, Sir!” He then inquired “Can I see the pictures?” Greatly relieved, she accomodated his request.

In the fullness of time, the case was resolved in a courts martial. The lip biter was facing perhaps 10 to 20 years in military prison, but was sentenced to something like 18 months. There was some sense that his actions, while violative of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, were not quite as violative of the unspoken Marine Code of Chivalry.

The case of the well armed FBI agent

One option for a graduating law student was to join the FBI. It was a surprisingly competitive opportunity. In fact, word was that in those halcyon days in the early 1980s, the FBI was only hiring law graduates who were women, minorities, or those with single digit class ranks from ivy league schools–as a means of curing certain demographic imbalances in their ranks. But in any case, those of us who were interested were able to see¬†a presentation from an FBI agent in the usual 90 seat amphitheater room.

So, things were going pretty well until he showed a video made by agent candidates who were attending FBI basic training, or whatever it was called. One of the candidates exclaimed that the school was academically difficult and that the candidates studied as much as three hours a night! There was some twittering from those of us in the audience. During my first year, I studied from 6 to midnight 5 days a week, and I was by no means the most diligent student. The agent noted the giggles and snorts and commented that law students must study more than that.

After the video there were questions and answers. I can’t recall the details, but I vaguely recall a police hater type student grinding his axe with commentary and pointed qeustions. At some point the agent apparently¬†felt he lost the upper hand psychologically, so he pointed to his gun and stated, apropos of nothing, that “If any of you were to make a move on me, I could K-6 you right in the heart.” I presumed that K-6 was a target range metric indicating tightness of pattern.

Well, those of us sitting relaxed in our chairs, having never given the slightest thought to “making a move” on anybody in the amphitheater, gave each other some subtle eyebrow raised looks to the effect of “What kind of a clown are we dealing with here?” Fortunately, the presentation completed without any shots fired, and the agent closed by explaining the demographic targets of their recruiting as I noted above.

Having said all that, the fact remained that the FBI represented a great career opportunity for those with the right disposition and demographics to get hired there.

[I believe the reason they were called ‘special’ agents arose from agency law. A general agent is presumed to have unlimited authority on behalf of the organization they represent, while a special agent designation puts counter parties on notice that the agent does not have unlimited authority and they need to ascertain what authority said agent has. For instance, a special agent has the authority to arrest a suspect, but typically not the authority to enter into a million dollar building purchase agreement on behalf of the FBI.]

The case of the friday night studier

As I mentioned, many of us liked to let go a bit on friday (as well as saturday) nights. When gathering the gang and trying to figure out what to do, we often tried to recruit a certain classmate whom we will call Jack for the purposes of this anecdote. Now Jack was¬†¬†quite personable and was an enjoyable and humorous guy to party with. Then I started to notice that he frequently didn’t come along with us, but rather took a stack of books to the law library on friday nights. We would try and convince him to go and he would say stuff along the lines of¬†“Listen guys, I’m not as smart as you are. I’m just not getting the material, I gotta work on it more.”

So, this goes on and after grades come out at some point we find he is like third in the class. Well, live and learn…. Jack gave us much to admire and envy.


Night of the living Real Estate Transactions students

While I don’t know what things were like at Ivy League law schools such as Harvard and Stanford, at Hamline, for many–myself not the least among them–the end of the last class on friday triggered an alcohol fueled release of tension and revelry that went on until the wee hours of saturday morning.

This worked well in theory, but it turned out that Hamline scheduled a Real Estate Transactions class from 9 to noon saturday morning. The class was taught by a prominent and seasoned practicing real estate lawyer who didn’t want to take off work while he generously donated his time to the school.

The attorney, who’s name escapes me, was a wonderful character who made the minutiae of complex commercial real estate transactions seem as interesting as anybody could. On one occasion he described the potential for a one-inch boundary dispute between two large and contiguous commercial buildings downtown as something that would make him bolt upright in the middle of the night, covered with sweat. In fact, he described and I saw a brass monument with a boundry line indicator placed in the sidewalk in front of Dayton’s back in the day for the very purpose of preventing such a lawsuit.

But I digress. Due to his past experience with the wayward nature of law students on friday night, the class had a strict two absence/late rule. More than two, and you received a three credit F. A few weeks into class, when all the absences had been used up, I was once again on the left side of the 90 seat amphitheater and gazed upon some hung-over classmates. Pasty faces with a fine patina of sweat, baseball hats with stray hairs pointing out in all directions, unblinking stares, faces radiating pain waves… It occurred to me that one could to to the morgue and secure a group of three day old corpses and populate the room with a more enthusiastic audience.

I admired this professor who diligently shouldered on, discussing the intricacies of eminent domain and sales contracts, in front of a class with many who didn’t want to be there, or were barely capable of being there.