Friendship

There are no known photographs of Dan. Some say that his reflection doesn’t show in mirrors either.

Sometime in the late 80’s, on one of my many trips to Rochester, New York, to visit Eastman Kodak, I got the chance to visit the highly secretive Building 101.  I’ve long since forgotten the name of the Kodak VP who showed me around.  I should remember him; all of Kodak’s classified work for the CIA fell under him.  As we toured the factory’s clean rooms and assembly complex, I was introduced to everyone and anyone who ventured into our path.  Building 101 was not for film processing.  Building 101 housed the optical construction and assembly works.  It was so secret, I was required to be read-into yet another compartmented program.  The cameras and optical systems used on the CORONA and GAMBIT film return satellites were made here.  The building was hopping with activity.  They had a new telescope to build—clean room upon clean room with hundreds of workers in white gowns and white booties covering their shoes.  The positive air pressure and filtration systems ensured the environment was cleaner than an operating room.  Can you imagine if a spec of dust got on the mirror of the Hubble Telescope?  NASA would think it was a new Milky Way.  Anyway, the rooms were very clean.

The VP introduced me to everyone. He knew everyone’s name. He knew their wife’s name and even their children’s. This VP knew them all. To him, these people weren’t workers on an assembly line; they were craftsmen and women with an awesome responsibility. This was his family. The factory was alive with activity. The Cold War was burning hot, and this place had a new telescope to make. Along the tour I was introduced to a worker named Ed. Ed was a simple hourly employee, a wage-grade slave. Ed was proud of his status and let the VP know it. Ed was using one hand to hang onto a long polishing rod over a spinning mirror. The 100-inch chunk of specially-formulated glass was manufactured some ninety-odd miles south at the Corning Company. You know Corning as the company who made your dishes. I knew Corning for their beautiful glass and the images that glass made possible. But to polish the glass, to transform it into a work of art started with Ed. Ed released his grip on the polishing rod, the ‘mirror in waiting’ kept spinning. Ed stopped his work to shake my hand.

Now thousands of steps are required to turn a 100-inch chunk of glass into a telescope—thousands more to transform that telescope into a satellite.  Add several thousand more before the images would get to my processing crews and me.  Images so sharp, crystal-clear images from space.  Ansel Adams would be proud.  Ed’s job was to polish that unrefined 100-inch chunk of Corning glass into the primary mirror for the latest NRO imaging satellite.  Ed would polish the mirror within a few wavelengths of spec, just with the feel of the pressure on the glass spinning under the rod.  Ed’s fingers could sense the tolerance.  I got to shake Ed’s hand.  I felt like the teenage girl who got to kiss Elvis.

Creating large complex things takes many people.  People who are leaders, innovators, creators, visionaries. Large complex things also take simple workers.  These are the rowers of the slave ships.  How else could we get there?  At the time I met him, Ed had polished the primary mirrors for a dozen prior satellites.  All images, razor sharp.  I still remember meeting and shaking the hand of a simple factory worker named Ed.

Did you know that when you attend Officer Training School, they teach you how to sew on a button?  Well, they do.  Maybe a decade and a half after meeting and shaking Ed’s hand, I got to meet Sheila and Gladys.  Sadly, these were not their real names.  Not for security purposes, but more due to my failing memory.  I didn’t really meet Sheila or Gladys in any real sense.  I waved at them from several hundred yards away.  They were too busy.  They were lying on their backs.  Once again, I was taking a factory tour.  The location of this factory will remain ambiguous, but it is safe to say Sheila and Gladys were far, far away from their homes in rural Pennsylvania.  These two women were hourly employees working on the largest satellite in the world.  The satellite was part of the NRO Signals Intelligence network.  Launched by the largest rocket in the Air Force inventory, these satellites orbit at 22,000 miles above the earth.  From this orbit, a satellite stays in sync with a single spot on the earth.  As the earth rotates, the satellite stays fixed on a single point.  To pick up a conversation or a radio signal from 22,000 miles away requires a big antenna.  A really, really big antenna.  

So, that’s how I met Sheila and Gladys, lying on their backs, lying in specially-designed hammocks, sewing.  The main antenna was over 100 meters and made of gold mesh.  The gold mesh looked like a big nylon stocking without the shape to give it meaning.  The antenna was open in a room that could house a few football fields.  The mesh was incredibly thin.  Thin because half a dozen folds of the umbrella would be required to stow the football field-sized dish into the nosecone of the rocket.  To sew the antenna, teams of workers floated below in hammocks.  They were seamstresses by trade and very good at it.  To land the job, a seamstress would be given a pair of pantyhose.  A pair of pantyhose with a single run.  Fix it.  Fix it and make it look new.  Like I said, Sheila and Gladys were very good.

Add Sheila and Gladys to the slave ship of rowers that it takes to do large complex things.

Dan is coming to the end of his career in the government. He’s had so much time on the slave ship, an oar should be named after him. Now, as he approaches retirement, they let him bang the drum a bit. I was a contractor; Dan was my ‘control officer, my handler.’ More important than any of that, Dan was and is my friend.

Dan comes from a family of government workers; his father was a combat vet.  By now, you all can guess which government agency Dan worked for.  Out of respect for the agency’s culture, let’s just keep those three letters to ourselves.  He grew up sweeping floors; he paid his way through college.  Early in his career, he couriered classified information across the country.  A briefcase was handcuffed to his wrist wherever he went.  Eventually, he became the supervisor.  This was not a promotion, although they told him it was.  He oversaw the ‘land of misfit toys,’ he’d say.  He flew so much as a courier, he never wanted to get on an airplane again.  Only once did I know him to get on an airplane.  He flew to Chicago to go to a furniture trade show.  Apparently, the slave ships needed new chairs.  I traveled to Chicago with him.  He wanted my opinion.  I had none, but I tried to look interested.  I lied.  Dan had lots of jobs like that.  Not glamorous, not exciting.  But the kind of jobs that make large complex organizations work.  

He once got the task to develop a process to reduce his organization’s $1 Billion-dollar operating budget by $100 Million.  Dan could have done this in half an afternoon if they’d let him.  Dan hates government waste.  He thinks most government organizations waste tons of money.  More still should be downright eliminated.  Unfortunately for Dan, his bosses asked him to show his work.  They wanted a process.  So, he hired me — again.  I’m not sure that the process we created was any better than Dan’s intuition. But I will say, the color viewgraphs were prettier.  Reviewing hundreds of government contracts, we visited five different locations scattered around the world.  We created a process to reduce the budget by over $100 Million.  Kris Henley and I did the traveling. We did all the contract reviews.  Dan never left his new chair.

When Dan moved to oversee all construction projects for the NRO, Dan asked me to come in and take a look.  While I traveled and looked at the various projects, it was never something that interested me.  For Dan, this was just another job in a large complex organization.  Nothing special, just another sea to cross, another sea to row the slave ship across.

Dan didn’t show up at work very early.  Somewhere around seven.  He was an early riser; however, he hit the gym around five and hit it again when he left the office around three.  I once ran into him at the gym at the NRO headquarters in Chantilly, Virginia.  He was bench pressing 300 pounds.  I was using the powder blue Air Force weights.  Dan’s real passion is his team.  He’s a volunteer offensive line coach for Westfields High.  Westfields High is a big school; their teams are powerhouses.  Many of Dan’s football linemen are well over 250 pounds.  They make good rowers on Dan’s slave ship.  That ship has won five all-state championships.  You get to look at those championship rings if you visit Dan in his office.  Being a good Irish Catholic, I think he genuflects as he passes them every day.  

I once worked feverishly with a mutual friend, Lt Col Dale Jackman, as we plastered Dan’s Honda Accord with bumper stickers from the opposing high school.  It was the night before the big rivalry.  When some of the office workers got wise to our plot, they complained.  “Don’t you realize someone could trash, someone could key his car!”  Dale and I looked at each other.  We shrugged.  “That would be terrible.  Horrible, yes, I think that would be horrible.”  Dale and I looked at each other, “our work here is done, gotta go.”  If Dan was upset when he found his car, he never said so.  Dan’s lack of emotion almost spoiled the fun.  While I now live on the opposite coast.  Dale still lives dangerously close to Westfields High.  Knowing Dale, he’s waiting in the tall grass for round two.

When Dan retires, he’ll probably go down as the person responsible for handing out the most cash awards and bonuses to young government officers.  While most Headquarters rats scurry from the slave ship and run from meeting to meeting, Dan stays in his office.  This is not the HQ way, but it’s Dan’s way of keeping his sanity.  To Dan, if someone wants him to do something, they’ll stop by and let him know.  Dan’s an excellent observer.  He knows who gets the work done.  He knows who wastes time going to meetings, and he knows the few who really know how to row.  Most junior government workers don’t blow their own horns.  Oftentimes, managers are poor judges of who really makes the trains run on time.  Dan looks for those folks.  He spends time writing the paper.  If someone shows off in front of the boss, Dan moves on.  But if you are a rower on the slave ship, Dan knows it and takes the time to recognize those who would otherwise go unrewarded.  

Large complex organizations need smart, dedicated leaders, innovators, and God forgive me, ‘idea people.’  But organizations mostly need rowers.  Rowers who turn ideas into reality.  These folks form the foundation of the organization.  

Dan will retire shortly after a lifetime working for the government and mostly the NRO.  It will take more than a few rowers to replace him.  If they find someone half as good as my friend, I’d love to come back and bang the drum.

Row at my age?  Are you kidding me?  You’ve got to be kidding, right?  Sorry, my friend, that ship has sailed.”

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