Fear of Flying, Ch 1: I Accidentally Get A Job In Aerospace

In the mid-1970s I found myself in Southern California. I worked at whatever job I could lie my way into using my collection of references from out-of-state out-of-business businesses. I had no particular preference about what it was I did for a paycheck. Factory work, fine. Office work, fine. Bank teller, fine. I was in my early 20s, I was a quick study and as long as I could pay for cigarettes and some of the other necessities of life all was fine with me.

There was a guy who used to drop by my apartment to visit. Where did I ever meet him? No idea. Maybe at the Club for Currently-Not-Drinking Drunks (CCNDD). He had a huge crush on me for some reason though I certainly did everything I possibly could to make him miserable. At the time I was working across the street from LACMA and it was quite a ride to get there. Crush Boy (CB) said, “Why don’t you get a job at the place down the street? They’re hiring.” I asked him what sort of work it was. He replied, “They write manuals for jets or airplanes or something. Aerospace. You don’t have to know anything to work there.

I laughed! “What do you mean, ‘You don’t have to know anything to work there???’ If they’re writing stuff for aerospace how could that be possible?” He insisted what he said was true. I said that since a person didn’t need to know anything to work there he should go get hired. If that happened, I’d follow along.

Now CB was not the smartest guy in the world. To be completely honest, he was as dumb as a box of rocks and about as interesting. But a few weeks later he returned and announced that The Company (TC) had hired him.

Incredible! Could it be possible? Maybe he didn’t understand what they were really doing there?

So I called TC.

CB was right. I didn’t need to know anything. I set up an appointment for an interview.

At the interview I was told TC was going to try something new and different. Training.

Up until then people (including CB who I saw looking baffled and depressed at his desk during a tour) had been hired off the street. Each was handed a pencil, a pad of long green sheets of paper and a stack of folders with ‘Jobs’ in them. It was pretty much up to them to figure out what the ‘Jobs’ meant and what they were supposed to do with their pencils and green sheets of paper.

I wondered if CB had decided yet whether the pencil was meant to be eaten or used to collect ear wax. Or both. I didn’t want to know what he’d decided upon for the green sheets of paper.

If I was willing to wait a month and if I could pass a test TC newly required, I could be part of TC‘s First Ever Training Program Class (FETPC). I loved tests! I signed up and when the day for the test came I happily lined up with the rest of the Know-Nothings. I enjoyed their little exam as much as I’d enjoyed every exam I’d ever taken. Which is to say: A Lot. It was not as easy as I thought it would be which made it even more fun.  CB would never have gotten through it. If he’d ever had to take it.

[Oddly, after working for a few months, I realized that particular test had nothing to do with the actual job. Perhaps it was part of the Gub’mint’s financing program requirements.]

The FETPC was to be 6 weeks long. We would be paid minimum wage while taking it. How could it hurt? I’d been working part-time and could use a full paycheck. $3.25 (maybe $3.50) an hour and a 40 hour week! I dreamed about what I would do with all that money! I later found out that our wages were being paid for, in whole or in part, by the Gub’mint and would be for the first 6 months of work as well. If we made it through the class. I had to admit that TC knew a good deal when it saw one.

I looked forward to the first day of class, curious as to what the job was all about. I arrived to find that everyone but me and two other Know-Nothings were there against their will. They’d been forced to go by the Employment Department’s Department for Unemployed Shirkers (EDDUS). No test for them! Just “Go or else!”

And so there they were. And there I was. And there we all were. Three volunteers and a seething mob of 27 victims of “The System” run by “The Man” stuffed into a small make-do classroom.

The FETPC classroom had a door that opened directly to The Big Room (TBR) where all of the writers worked. Once in awhile I’d get a view of the long long rows of desks and rows and rows of fluorescent lights. At the very far end was a coffee machine. Everyone in TBR not hunched around the coffee machine was hunched over a desk. Some looked like they were doing something. Cigarette smoke filled the air. I breathed it all in and stepped back into the FETPC.

“I can do this,” I thought.

In the FETPC I learned we’d be writing “Illustrated Parts Catalogs” (IPCs) for Aerospace Manuals. The instructor, Mr. Sandy Hair (who looked like a jaundiced ex-commercial pilot with a Not-Very-Secret drinking problem), told us what IPCs were and what this and that on a blueprint meant. He talked about ‘Effectivity Codes’ and ADCNs and ATA-100 and lots of other things also named forgettable Acronyms and about how Illustrators in Another Big Room (ABR) would draw the Parts from our Lists. About how everything we wrote on those long green sheets would be input on punch cards that would be fed into a computer that would print out The Lists along with The Illustrations that were the IPCs.

I paid close attention. I listened carefully to everything Mr. Sandy Hair said. At the end of each day I still had no idea what it all meant or how it all fit together.

Where was The Big Picture (TBP)? There was none given and astoundingly, though I’d been writing my ass off in Aero for what seemed like Forever, I wouldn’t discover it for another 18 years or so.

What I remember most clearly about FETPC, other than my inability to make sense of anything Mr. Sandy Hair wrote on the board, is what still makes me laugh the most today. Every time he walked out of the room it would turn into a juvenile free-for-all! Throwing things, yelling, laughing. And there were cat fights! Oh yes! Two of the trainees had become mortal enemies over which of them Handsome Class Boy (HCB) liked best! Every chance they got they’d be rolling around on the floor, ripping each other’s hair out, screeching and carrying on. The constant hubbub from the ‘classroom’ annoyed the Supervisors in TBR. They’d come in a few times every few days to tell everyone to knock it off and keep the noise down.

After the first two weeks the class started to dwindle. Every Friday Mr. Sandy Hair would call out a few names and hand the bodies that matched the names notices to vacate the premises. The relief on those faces! The only “older woman” in the class, one of the others who was there by choice, whispered to me, “Maybe soon it will quiet down in here since all the trouble makers are being let go.” The following week her name was called. She was stunned. Out she went. Though I’d miss seeing her Crazy Lady Lipstick every day, it was my first experience with the glow of a feeling I came to know well. Schadenfreude in (aero) Space!

[Apropos of nothing, a few weeks later Ms. Crazy Lady Lipstick died what I think of as The Perfectly Perfect Southern California Death (TPPSCD)… after drinking martinis in their hot tub all day long, both she and her husband passed out and boiled to death. At least that’s what we were told. Believe it or not.]

Looking back, I realize it was the Most Perfect Training Class Ever (MPTCE) for Aerospace work. I left the class knowing not much of anything but fully prepared to join a passive-aggressive work force, the sort of work force I found on the floor of TC and of every other Aerospace Company I worked for from then on.

And the class? Oh, Mr. Sandy Hair thought I was a geeeniussss! The why of that baffles me to this day! I comprehended nothing! But as in much of life, it’s not what you know it’s what they think you know. I was sent out to the floor to work in just 4 weeks while everyone else stayed behind for the full six weeks of class.

I sat down at my new desk at my new job, looked at my pencil, looked around, looked at the stack of ‘jobs’ in folders, lit a cigarette and wondered how I was ever going to fake my way through this predicament.

… to be continued.

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