The Colonel’s Plan – A Gold Mine of Junk

December 5, 2018

Dear Daddy –

Tonight I’m cleaning up the basement a bit more. Still working in the train room, as I’m calling it now. “We have a train room?” Christian asked me recently. “I’m just so amused that our family has a house with named rooms. Do we have a skinning and tanning room?” (He may not have said “skinning and tanning.” It was something just as absurd. It may have been “taxidermy.”)

This is a somewhat cleaned-up view of the East room of the basement. Before about a 40% clean-out, no view from one side of the room to the other was possible.

In all these weeks, I don’t believe I’ve discussed, in depth, how the basement came to look the way it did when you left us—the way it had looked for decades before that. I believe I mentioned the dreaded trip to the Sacred Heart Hospital in Cumberland, but I don’t think I told the whole story. So here goes.

I don’t actually remember when it began. All my life, we had pieces in the house that other families, normal families, did not have. I mentioned some of those last week. We had an oscilloscope, on a wooden cart that you had made by hand. It matched the workbench you had made by hand, and the cabinet which held the voltage regulator, which you had made by hand.

We had a large bell jar, the kind Dr. Pretorius’s creations danced beneath in The Bride of Frankenstein, but ours would have held a creation double their size. We had an old, military surplus radio with headphones. And we had the odd lamp that you were supposed to fix for Aunt Nelda, the can opener that belonged to some other relative or neighbor, the one that didn’t work (the can opener, not the relative or neighbor), that you were going to take to your engineering class when you lectured on “Design for Failure.”

But sometime in the mid-1970s, you began adding more pieces. Just a few at a time, at first. You bought them at military surplus auctions, run at nearby bases by the Defense Logistics Agency.We still have hundreds of their “Sealed Bid” catalogues, which you scrupulously reviewed and marked up to indicate which pieces you wanted, and how much you were willing to pay for them.

I suppose you learned of these auctions around the time you went back on active duty, in 1977. That was three years after you bought your first truck—well, your first truck bought in my lifetime. In a future letter, I’ll tell the tale of your actual first truck. We took your 1974 F250, and later your 1981 F150, to auction after auction. We also picked up items you had bought from friends you had made in the surplus community.

Some of the stuff was useful. You bought a couple of desks, and a couple of IBM Selectric Typewriters. In the late 1970s and into the 1980s, a typewriter was a very useful thing. The first typewriter you bought had a punch tape reader attached. That was my first word processor. I could type out my homework, save it to punch tape, and correct any errors I had made while typing, thus encoding a perfect copy. When I ran the punch tape back through the reader, the Selectric typed said perfect copy for me, and I suppose I got extra credit for neatness. For a kid whose handwriting has always been that of a centenarian with Parkinson’s, that was a big deal.

A couple of metal cabinets were nice, too. And some armchairs from base officer housing.

But most of the stuff you bought was, let’s face it, useless junk. You couldn’t buy just a desk. You had to buy a lot which contained the desk. With that lot you might get four desks, or two desks and six chairs, or one desk, some mismatched shelves and a rusty swimming pool pump. And the buyer was bound by contract to take the whole lot. Many times I said to you, “Let’s put this rusted signal generator, the one with the exclusive mildew-colored paint, on the tailgate so that we can stop by the dump and leave it.”

“No,” you would say. “I need to clean it up and see if it’s useful.”

“But I promise we’ll set it down gently. The mouse and her babies will never know they’ve been relocated.”

“Now, no! There might be gold or platinum connectors in that.”

And there you had me. You had me going for years on the promise that this junk with which we were filling our home was a DIY gold mine kit and would make us rich. All we had to do was clean it all up, repair it, or salvage it for parts, and it would pay for my college.

Your U.S.A.F. pension paid for my college. That and your consulting fees as Director of Research Applications Lab, Inc. RALi, once it was founded, became the legal owner of most of the junk, and Charles and I, as its employees, started being paid to attend auctions, transport the junk, clean the junk (detail it, I should say. We scrubbed the knobs with toothbrushes, and you repainted the metal cabinets. We still have cans and cans of spray paint that’s just the right color to paint this equipment. I know there was Tektronix blue. I shudder to think what you paid per can for that! It was shipped directly from Tektronix.)

By the later 1980s, when I moved out and got married, you had filled the entire basement—3,000 square feet. You had started taking over the attics and the rooms upstairs. Furniture—lots of furniture. Signal generators, and frequency analyzers, oscilloscopes and early model HP computers. Printers, printers, printers. You bought a lot of 75 IBM PCs, and another of DEC Rainbows. You bought VDTs that probably came from someone’s press office—maybe the bullpen at Stars and Stripes, or whatever paper the military was publishing. We have dozens of phones from the Johnson White House (Lyndon, not Andrew), with the “White House” tag still in the dials.

And, yes, we had lasers and missile guidance systems. And, I didn’t know until I started shipping all this stuff out, three gunsights from B52s. These are the size of a fourth-grade student and weigh as much as two adults.

Once the basement was filled, you rented a storage space. Then a second one. Then you combined the two into one big one. Those you filled in the 1980s, and never or rarely ever visited again. You paid rent on them for 30 years, until I emptied them out right before you died.

Around 1990, you built a 2600 square-foot barn behind the house. You filled that, too. For a while it had work space, and room to drive in cars and work on them. We took the engine out of Renee’s 1981 Chevette with your shop crane in that space. But then you filled it.

It was left to me to clean it up. How I did that—how I’m still doing that—is a tale for another time.


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