Victory Or Die, or, twenty years and fightin’

This is how raw I was: the night before my first day of work, I finally got hold of a real map and realized I didn’t have to take the Orange Line to Metro Center to change for the Red and get out at Farragut North – I could in fact just get out at Farragut West, walk across Farragut Square and save ten cents each way. Not a minute too soon, because on that day – September 15. 1997 – I started my first day of work at the National Geographic Society.

First, though, jet back: five months earlier, mid-April, I was still with my girlfriend of three and a half miserable years. Trying to keep her sane and do what I thought was my duty had left me three weeks out from my prelim exams with no realistic hope of passing. If I bombed out, my options were basically to go back to Birmingham, tail between my legs, and see what kind of life if any I could piece together. In all likelihood, I would have wound up staying there, trying to spin a temp job into a permanent office gig, maybe somewhere in the bowels of SONAT where I might even now find myself only five years out from a Rolex – or a suicide attempt. But that tale has been told before.

No, this began in a one-bedroom apartment in Arlington, with a boom box and an air mattress and a week’s worth of clothing, and my computer set up on top of a pizza box with a hole cut in it for ventilation. On the first day of work, I was introduced to the guys, and they took me in without hesitation. In fact, before the day was over, the ranking contractor had pulled me aside and handed me two 32MB SIMMs to take home and upgrade my computer from 24 MB of RAM to 72, and a disk to install Mac OS – was it 7.6.1 or were we on 8 by then? Work was still standardized on 7.5.3 rev2 and would be for months. 

I was issued a pager, which was handy as I couldn’t afford to turn on the cellphone I insisted on buying and carrying anyway. If I got a page that said 4663, that means FOOD and it was time to check in with the guys. In those days we were most likely going to see the King, walking down 16th Street NW to the Burger King in a crowd of six or seven. And at the end of the day, about a week on, I was given a P5-90 Pentium Gateway PC with the ticketing software and Quake installed so I could hop on the two-hour LAN battle that seemed to close every workday – and then train home on the Orange line Metro in plenty of time for Monday Night Football. We weren’t close – well, they were, but I wasn’t yet. But it didn’t take much time. After a week of shadowing the other Mac software guy, I solved my first ticket on my own – predictably, a weird printer issue – and once I’d demonstrated that I could and would do the job, we were off.

The big layoffs the year before had left us with a bunch of people waiting out their retirement and a bunch of young feisty guys just happy to still be there. Contractor reductions continued apace – it seemed like someone had a leaving lunch every Friday for most of the fall. There were maybe two women in the IS department that I ever came into contact with in those early days – one was my notional grandboss, trying to navigate the waters around the new VP, and one the office admin and sister of my boss, who bonded with me over women’s college basketball and our shared loathing of the Tennessee Lady Vols, and who was always there with Red Vines or a dab hand altering the time card to preserve my tiny increment of sick leave in a pinch.

It became obvious that we were in a challenging environment. All the VP wanted was for the calls to go away, and once there were no tickets we wouldn’t need desktop support, so contractors were ruthlessly purged to the point where two staff techs were handing all PC software support calls for a user base of 1200 – in a world where some had NT 4 and some had Windows for Workgroups, some had Token Ring and some had Ethernet, some had BeyondMail and some had Lotus Notes and TCP/IP access depended on what floor you were on – and there was a nine business day wait between tickets, which meant we had to escort these guys to lunch like Red Tails or Secret Service. The remaining contractors started showing me the ropes on Windows, getting familiar with NT and Ghost and the things I would need to do to contribute.

And then, one day, a server administrator – who was a server admin only because he had been a mainframe guy, and the Towers Perrin study said he had the salary of a server administrator, so you’re an NT admin and here is a book – came down to take possession of our server. Our NT box that was used as a repository for quickly-needed files, and incidentally our Quake server as well. And the contractor who administered it barred his way, said it wasn’t a server, it was an archive, and hastily typed a line to show up on the screen saver:


End User Services. That was our group. Technically it would become more like an English football firm, or maybe an Irish mob. As the ranks were thinned above us, our lead found himself reporting directly to the VP, who was out to get rid of him. But he fought back like hell on a daily basis. Beneath him, a couple of the guys acted as consigliere and caporegime to the rest of us, who were basically under orders to be a quart in a pint pot – do the impossible, but thread the needle in such a way that the powers that be would know we didn’t have enough people and couldn’t run at 275% of maximum forever.

One new bigwig after another was brought in to tame us. A new director. A new manager. Every one tasked with managing our boss out the door and somehow ending help calls in the meantime. In one of the last conversations I ever had with my father, I described the nonsense, which recalled the chaos of his own last year or two in the workforce, and he sighed and told me “well, just do the best you can and don’t be a horse’s ass.” And I’ve lived by that ever since. Most days I was a lot better at the first than the second. And there in the foxhole – hiding our contractors to keep them out of sight and out of mind, training a callow Mac tech with two poli-sci degrees to add printers on Windows NT and switch Token Ring cards for Ethernet and troubleshoot a Netware connection – we changed. We weren’t doing these things for a paycheck, or for the greater glory of the National Geographic Society, we were doing them because we depended on each other and nobody wanted to let down the guy beside him.

Staying late for Quake turned into staying late for Quake and then going to grab prime rib any way for $9.99 on Thursdays at Sign of the Whale. Prime Rib led to attempts to holler at the girls in the Channels International office and things like hookah lounges and karaoke bars. Solidarity took us to paintball courses and softball fields. One new bigwig after another, brought in to tame us, found themselves taking our side and defending us. And every time I wanted to go ballistic, to take the fight to the enemy in a major way, my boss would take me aside and give me the same advice Patrick Swayze gave the coolers at the Double Deuce: “I want you be nice. Until it’s time to not be nice.”

The Y2K remediation finally gave us all the personnel we needed, some of whom we marked out and made sure to bring into the fold as staff as soon as the opportunity presented itself. And that led us to a public house in Cleveland Park, and for four and a half years, anything that mattered in our lives either happened at or was celebrated at Ireland’s Four Provinces. Then, on September 11, 2001, we lost a friend of the program, the director of the travel office, who was on the plane that hit the Pentagon. And on September 12, 2001, with armed troops in the street and Humvees on every street corner, we reported in for work bang on time. Every. Single. One. Of. Us.

When my father died, they were there to cover my calls and doctor my timesheets. When my then-girlfriend needed a job after moving to DC, they slid her into the org chart and made a tech of her, then a help desk manager. When I broke up with said girlfriend, they were there to load my stuff into a van smelling of garbage and unpack the TV first so we wouldn’t miss the Redskins game while we emptied the rest. When I had a rotten Christmas at home in Alabama, they were waiting on December 26 with a table at the pub and pints of Guinness on the way. And seven months after I’d left and moved to California, when it was bachelor party time, they were there with a house for a poker party and a van to Atlantic City and a shady rented-out resort for us to crash in, and all thirteen of the traveling party came back at least even-money if not up over a thousand because they stood on 12 at blackjack.

The callow kid who started that job twenty years ago tomorrow had not one day of professional Mac support experience. The one who left seven years later was the senior Mac technician, Apple-certified, running the rollout of new machines and acting as the in-case-of-energency-break-glass tech of last resort. And I was able to take that resume to Cupertino and get a job at Apple without so much as a by-your-leave from anyone else, no references or inside help or shady okeedoke, because those guys in DC rebuilt me from the ground up as capable, confident and willing to do whatever it took to finish the job. My life has always been existentially iffy at best, but those last three years in DC, I never once questioned who I was, what I was doing with my life or whether I was any good at it, because I knew.

They took a man barely alive, and rebuilt me faster, stronger, smarter, funnier, in every way better than I was before. The Tara harp superimposed over the yellow rectangle on my shoulder will for the rest of my days be the marker of what they accomplished. I will always be grateful to those guys, because in every way that matters, they saved my life and made me who I am today. We few, we happy few…

Deeds not words, brothers and sisters. The password of the EUS is forever victory or die.

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