Bombs, Black Widows, Daisy Wheels, and Floppy Disks

Not long after the Mexico trip I took with DT — which left me penniless — my dad convinced me to go back to work for him. He had a job that paid a very good wage and would allow me to live in hotels. That sounded oddly romantic to me, and so I went into it with enthusiasm.

Exterminate! Exterminate!

Little did I know I would be defusing ticking time bombs.

You see, electric companies have lots of these things called transformers. They look like big metal buckets, or boxes, (or sometimes Daleks), and they take high voltages and transform them down into smaller voltages. When overloaded or overheated, they have this nasty habit of exploding.

A lot of electric companies keep their transformers underground, where they’re safer. They rest in things called “subsurface transformer enclosures.” The problem is that sometimes these enclosures fill up with water and soil, and over the years the heat from the transformer bakes the dirt into a hard clay. This keeps the transformer from cooling, as the heat is trapped just like it’s inside a thermos. This overheating leads to breakdown of the transformer, and power outages, and a big nasty detonation.

The only way they knew how to get the dirt out was to shut off the transformer, and then dig it out with shovels — which usually resulted in damaging the transformer to the point where it had to be replaced. Also, this entailed turning off electricity to the surrounding area, which also resulted in a loss of income. Instead of going through all this, the electric companies would just let the transformer explode before they’d deal with it. This was actually cheaper than preventative maintenance — even after taking into account the wrongful death lawsuits brought by surviving relatives of anyone standing near the explosion.

Don’t believe an electric company would think this way? Just watch the movie Erin Brockovich — she was dealing with the same electric company that I was.

My father figured out a way to use his Terravac vacuum trucks to clean out these transformer enclosures without the power company having to shut them down. We did it gently, with water pressure and suction, so it never damaged the equipment. We had to be very careful, because the high voltage plugs that the linemen called “elbows” would, if knocked loose, also result in an explosion — and most likely kill whoever was working on it.

I became really good at doing this. I would diffuse an average of four to six of these “bombs” a day. I never got comfortable with it, though, which is probably why I’m still alive.

There was this one job in Monterey where I encountered another danger. Working in posh shoreline neighborhoods, sucking out sand and mud from these enclosures (which often were embedded in people’s lawns), I would feel something crawling up my leg and I’d slap it, hard. This is exactly what the lineman I was working with told me to do. “If you crush them, you’re okay,” he told me. “Black widows don’t bite after their dead.”

This area, you see, was completely overrun with black widow spiders.

black-widow-spiderDid I mention I’m afraid of spiders? I have a very intense case of arachnophobia. Black widows especially. There was one time when I’d hung my wetsuit out to dry, and I pulled it down the next day and almost put it on, when a big, fat black widow dropped out of the sleeve. I swear I nearly had a heart attack.

So there I was, slapping at every little twitch in my leg, just knowing that this guy was playing a trick on me and it was all my imagination. But still, I slapped my legs until they were sore. All day long, slap! Slap! Then finally, at the end of the day, I went back to my hotel room and pulled my clothes off, and there were maybe thirteen dead black widow spiders on my socks.

The person in the room above me heard my hoarse scream as if I were standing right next to him. Within minutes people were banging on the door. I actually let the hotel manager in and showed him the socks. People crowding around outside the door, peeking in to see if there’d been a murder, also gave off shuddering exclamations and at least one danced around as if there were spiders crawling on her legs.

Proof that I can be a brave person: I went back to work the next day.

I had rubber bands around my pant legs, but it didn’t help.  I still got black widows up my pant legs — and I was working in the infested area for over a week. There wasn’t a day where I didn’t come home with at least three dead spiders. One day, I swatted a live one off the lineman working with me — it had made it all the way up to his chest, nearly to his neck.

The perk of working this dangerous job was, of course, money. Lots of money. I made more in three days than I did working a month back in Berkeley.

daisywheelThe computer boom was upon us, then, and I knew at some point I would replace my trusty old IBM Selectric typewriter with a word processor. But the computers at that time were not portable, so I settled on a “smart” electric portable typewriter that that had a parallel port on the back. Hook it to a computer and it would be a daisy wheel printer.

I’m all set, I thought, and dragged that big white beauty with me from hotel room to hotel room, up and down the California coast, as I typed out the second draft of Travels.

This dangerous but lucrative job depended upon contracts, and when one job was finished there was no guarantee it would immediately resume elsewhere.  I spent the between time at home with my parents, in my old room, working on my stories and spending all the money I had saved up.

There was a sale at the local computer store for a computer at an amazing low price.  Not just any computer, but an IBM.  It was called a PCjr.

Wow, I thought.  I can afford this.

PCjrSo only seven months after spending $799 on a fancy typewriter, I spent a mere $999 on a computer that had, get this, an astounding 128K of RAM. And, because I was friends with people who worked at the store (one eventually became my wife) they threw in IBM Writing Assistant (aka pfs:Write) for free.

A word processor! Finally! I was in heaven.

However it was not so wonderful. You see, IBM had purposely crippled this machine so as not to compete with their “real” computers, and by the time I bought all the third-party add-ons to bring the thing up to speed, I’d spent enough to have actually bought one of the “real” computers. Also, all the work I did on it made me, over time, into a bona fide computer expect — which led to a new career (one that sidetracked me for years).

Anyway, so I finally get this word processor, and I had the second draft of my novel Travels all typed out and ready for a third draft. So during lulls in my work I sat at my new word processor and wrote a third draft of the novel.

As I typed the manuscript into the word processor, I threw the page I’d just finished into the trash. When the trash filled to overflowing, I threw it out. Then I’d fill it up again.

Garbage trucks came and went. Page by page, the only hard copy of my manuscript migrated to an anonymous landfill.

Then, one fateful afternoon, I finished typing. Done, I thought. Completed. Mission accomplished.

I knew that the next step was to back the files up. Immediately.

Floppy Disk
This was back when floppy disks were actually floppy.

Now, this was in the days before hard disks. I had two floppy drives on the computer, and what I had to do was make a copy of the floppy disk with my novel on it, so just in case anything happened to the original, I had a duplicate.

Lord help me if anything happened to the disk, because it was my only copy.

It’s a simple process. You put the original disk into one floppy drive, and a blank disk into the other, and you type in the DOS command DISKCOPY A: B:

Nothing hard about that, right?  Pretty darn foolproof, wouldn’t you think? Of course all of this depends on you putting the right disk into the right floppy drive. If you don’t, you end up copying the blank disk onto the original disk, erasing everything.

That would be bad.

How do I know? Because that’s exactly what I did.

Intending to protect it from being lost, I ended up erasing it. Completely. Poof. The novel was gone. All I had left were the few pages of the last chapter, none of which at that point I had actually used.

The novel, in essence, had vanished.

I spent about a week mourning it, and then I sat down at the word processor and thought … well, I know this story frontward and backwards by now … why don’t I just type it out again? So that’s what I did. I typed it all out, from memory, and I’ll be damned if it didn’t turn out a lot better.

This time around there was no fussing and fighting with the prose, no tight wedging of things in, no forcing this or that character to do some unnatural thing for the sake of the plot. Why? Because I knew the plot already, I knew from page one exactly what had to be laid out, and when. I knew the characters like they were family. I could see how they’d interact naturally, and was able to realistically portray their growth through the course of the story.

That was months later. Months. When finished, it still wasn’t finished, because it was now a first draft again. I had to rewrite and polish it before sending it off.

Little did I know that that would take years.

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