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August 2017
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The Great Pinball Machine Of Life

by Kevin Wells (ACS)

Ken Yeager asked “Why me?” in one of his notes, and then wrote about some of his postings with the State Department and how he arrived where he is now. Although he noted that he did not go to the right college (how many of us go to the University of Chicago, Haarvud, or Oxford?) If you did, fine, but life is what happens when you are making plans.

While at college in 1967, like a jerk, I became convinced that study was unnecessary. That turned out to be false, and I was faced with the reality of conscription. Chance stepped into my life in the form of a conversation with an Army veteran, who told me about what amounted to a civilian-status specialty with the Army. Somebody was doing all those security clearance investigations so why not me?

So after eight weeks of grunt type training at Fort Dix, NJ (the armpit of the known universe) getting hot and sweaty; dirty in paces I very seldom considered as exposed to sand, grit and crud, trained with the M-14, M-16, and BB guns (I kid you not!), I collected two gongs for expert with the rifle, and went to Fort Holabird, just outside Baltimore.

In the fullness of time, after training that was interesting beyond belief, we arrived at the Wednesday after the final exam. What is a guy to do but go out and celebrate? So I did. Black Russians was the in thing for the soon-to-graduate Counterintelligence Special Agent.

The next morning we were to indicate our first, second and third choices. That was easy, 108th MI Group (New England), 109th MI Group (New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey), and I thought, what the heck, I dimly remembered living in Macon Georgia, so why not the 111th MI Group?

We got our orders the night before the graduation. Aaron was first, and got his first choice, his home town New York City, Billings got his first choice, his home town of Boston, Carter got his choice, his home town of Syracuse, and so it went, all the way to Watnabe, got his first choice, Honolulu, Wells got sent to Columbus, Georgia. You got that right, the guys at the end of the alphabet got snookered. Wells and Zook missed their first choice and got sent to places of which they had never heard, or for that matter, wished to go. Ever.

After arriving in Columbus, and making my way to Fort Benning, where the Columbus Field Office was in the midst of a name change to the Fort Benning Field Office, I received a blank stare when I checked in. They had no idea I was on the way. There was a theory that I was really intended for Waycross Resident Office to replace a retiree who lived in the Army-owned house on the edge of the Okeefenokee Swamp. That office covered Georgia south of Americus. (I am not making this up!) I was told not to get too comfortable. In those days, being told not to get too comfortable was ominous.

I got bachelor quarters with three others and settled in, including the possibility of chasing Georgia girls. One of my housemates got sick and Jerry was in serious need for a man for a blind date to balance out the foursome. I volunteered, went, had a good time, but understood little of the southern accent and thus was out of the loop for most of the night.

Two days later, Jerry deployed for Saigon, and being new in town, had no clue about how to reconnect with my blind date. About eight weeks later, driving around on a rainy Sunday night, thoroughly lost in Columbus, I happened to glance through the left window and saw where the blind date lived. I just turned in and knocked on the door.

After restoring contact, we became an item. Margo was amazed to find that I was not useless in the kitchen and actually was a fairly good cook, an aptitude developed in the paternal line through my grandfather who was a Chef at a well-known Boston hotel. I did, however, have some weird ideas about dates. The most notable off-the-wall idea was an evening on one of the artillery ranges watching the US Army Infantry School night demonstration titled “Mechanized Rifle Company in the Defense”. This was the standard scenario put on for dignitaries and the West Point Corps of Cadets. Although tickets were hard to get, the overall impression was that I was a big shot I was not, and she discovered that one her own later.

To make a long story short, we were married about 18 months later. I was working on the southern accent but my in-laws did not quite meet me half way on the southern accent thing. We were married five years before my father-in-law was convinced that I was Kevin and not Calvin.

When it came time to leave the Army, I became interested in Clemson University, just 8 miles from my in-laws’ home. I did my investigation of Clemson and it seemed like the place for me. On an impulse, I took some time off, went to the admissions office, hand delivered my application, and talked to one of the admissions officers. My acceptance letter arrived in Columbus the following Tuesday.

While zooming to and from the apartment and classes, I ran into the college sports car crowd, and one of them invited me to participate in the Student Government Legal system, and after three years, I ended up as the Student Body Attorney General, the one who got to point out to the Dean of Women that public nudity was not prohibited by the student handbook and thus there would be no student court indictments resulting from the Great Clemson Group Streak of 1975. This was roughly as interesting as explaining to Dean Wormer of Animal House fame that there could be so such thing as double secret probation.

Even students on the GI Bill, students get vacations, and one involved a trip to New Hampshire. On an impulse, we took sailplane rides. I was lucky, we caught a strong thermal and we got to 3000 feet above ground level. Unfortunately, there were no sailplane operations close to Clemson so I had to settle for powered flight.

I took the lessons, did the solo at 10 hours, and the flight test at 40 hours. My second day as a Private Pilot, Airplanes, Single Engine, Land was December 2, 1973, the very first odd-even gasoline rationing day courtesy of President Richard Nixon. If I could get to the airport, I could fly anywhere because there was plenty of aviation gasoline, but almost no automobile gasoline.

In the fullness of time, and being relatively young and overconfident, I started flying sky divers. In my view, jumping out of perfectly functioning aircraft is like practicing bleeding, you can do it if you have to, but why practice? Somewhere along in there I got up to the point where I had enough experience to fly from Clemson, SC to Norwood, just south of Boston, and back, for Christmas. It was fun, expensive and on the bright side, only one of those big honking passenger jets tried to kill us. I saw him first and maneuvered clear. Margo was sitting in the right seat and I heard her say words I did not think she even knew to use properly.

The spring of 1975, I was fully over-confident, aviation wise, and agreed to evaluate an aircraft for my friend Dean. Dean wanted to buy the aircraft and hired a ferry pilot to fly it from Texas to Clemson, SC. The ferry pilot, a Commercial Pilot, and an FAA Certified Instructor briefed me and we went flying. What he had neglected to tell me was that the stall-warning device was set quite close to stall. During my first landing, about 10 feet up, the stall-warning went off. In normal circumstances on calm day, that is common because after all, this is a landing and typically, there is another 5 knots to the stall. Several things happened quickly, I lowered the nose to the horizon and added a little power. The ferry pilot lowered the nose even more and reduced power. The result was a very hard landing with the added interest of two broken links that normally kept the main wheels pointing in the same direction. After the links broke, we had two fully swiveling wheels, which, of course, swiveled. As soon as the junk stopped moving, I cut the switches and fuel got out and ran like hell, which worked just fine. I have talked to survivors of general aviation crashes and getting out and running like hell is the technique they used too. Fortunately for me, the FAA had issued an Airworthiness Directive to replace the links within 30 days. Dean did not buy the aircraft, and after repair, it disappeared west-bound,

In the spring of 1975, I decided I would work for a Wall Street firm, got hired, and spent the summer of 1975 in study for the Commodity Futures Trading Commission exam. After passing that, I was sent to New York City for the training course for the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) Exam. I have scant recollection of those six weeks other than the first one and the last one. In the last week, we got to go on the floor of the NYSE, where I saw a first day floor broker endure the initiation. The initiation consisted of keeping a mound of shaving cream on the toe of his right shoe with a cherry on top, and the added requirement of replacing it if it fell off. I also spent about 10 minutes on the floor of the New York Coffee and Sugar Exchange and witnessed a fist fight between two brokers; they were brothers.

All that led to trying to sell intangible products to people in the 1976-1980 economic troubles. Doing that is about like being the new defensive lineman. You get hit so hard and so often that it feels good to stop even when the Coach wants you to try one more time. It was a good time, but I quit.

I found honest and steady work in manufacturing production planning and inventory control. I did this for 10 years.

The problem with production planning and inventory control is that you are a hero for six minutes and a bum for six months. Obviously, to be thought very good, you have to be a hero every six minutes, otherwise you get nailed by the bum rule.

In 1988, the bum rule led to a mid-life crisis in which I took an 18-month leave of absence to get a master’s degree. My dream was that some course there would shed light on the question of the application of Chaos Theory to production planning systems (Chaos theory does have an application but the mathematics is nothing less than frightening). Although almost nobody there wanted to talk about it, I finished, after having the time of my life.

The return to work led me back to the same company to work on higher-level matters, including export activities and international banking including wire transfers of funds. The one event that got me selected was the fact that I could figure out the international telephone system and send facsimile transmissions in the age before common use of the Internet.

I also learned how to effectively deal with customs in France, UK, Germany, Italy, Greece, the Scandinavian countries, Mexico and Japan. I got to the point I could hardly wait to call the funds transfer lady in Stockholm just to hear her say Skandinaviska Enskilda Banken. (Trust me, she had the sexiest voice on the darn planet. A little trickle of ear wax would drain out of my right ear when she answered the telephone).

All that led me the situation in which I had fax messages waiting for me when I got to work because European clocks were four to six hours further through the day. They were going to lunch, but I was just getting to work. If I was not careful, I would get interrupted at the end of the day on the way out the door when the customers in Asia started sending messages because those in Asia were just starting their day. I thought my head would explode.

Life in the fast lane is wearing on a person, and the possibility of a head explosion led me to resign, and start (yet) another degree. I did the degree thing every 15 years so I guess I am due again in 2020, when I am 73.

The point is simply this: “Life is what happens when you are making other plans.” (Allen Saunders, ca. 1957). Another way of conveying this is that “No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy.” We operate on inaccurate information or partial information. We act on the margin, judging our actions on what the next, marginal decision gets us. We guess, and other people’s guesses influence our guesses. Sometimes, things just happen and we act on what we know and use the best information we have at the time.

Face it; all of us make it up as we go along. Sometimes we hit the bumpers and zing to a high-number target, sometimes we hit many low-number targets and still run up the score. As long as we remain in play, the score keeps on increasing.

You have to admit, that the results can be pretty cool! Ken Yeager’s results seem pretty cool to me, and we have many others who have done things and been places most people only (dimly) know from a map or the evening news.

We have been around.

Cool, huh?

3 comments to The Great Pinball Machine Of Life

  • H. Clark

    Mr. Wells,

    You’re HIRED!

    • Kevin L. Wells


      Thanks for the link to “Pinball Wizard”.

      I always like the tune, partially, I suppose, because it made my mother crazy (although not as crazy as Satisfaction, Rolling Stones, ca. 1964).

      As it turns out, there is a long serving college president who will remain nameless who made quite a name for himself on the pinball machines.

      He claims that he gave it up but I always wondered if he was letting himself into the student lounge that has the school’s machines.


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