I just learned that the woman who first hired me into the agency where I have worked for the past 23 years died this month. While Pat quit smoking more than ten years ago, she ultimately died from lung cancer. Before she got sick, Pat retired after a long career, much of which was as the supervisor of the micrographics section for which she hired me to be the clerk-typist.
Micrographics was the unit responsible for turning the mail into microfiche. This, of course, was before digital imaging was commonly available and dinosaurs still roamed the Earth. Our unit started each day by sorting piles of mail alpha-numerically by an identification number on each page. We removed staples, unfolded pages, smoothed wrinkles, and otherwise got the paper ready to be filmed. The resulting microfiche was then sliced into “chips” – keeping the pages from a single file together – and inserted into four by six inch plastic sleeves, called jackets. The microfiche jackets were filed into huge rotating racks of metal drawers.
There were other tasks, too, but putting fiche in jackets was as exciting as it got. This was entry-level work. My day shift comrades were a interesting little United Nations. I, as a white guy, was in the minority. Most of the staff were women: white, black, Thai, Indian, and, in the majority, Vietnamese. I enjoyed listening to the conversations in broken English and in languages I didn’t understand at all. I didn’t learn to speak any of the languages, but I worked hard to learn how to pronounce all their names. Silly as that sounds, I was actually thanked by one of my Vietnamese co-workers for recognizing that their weren’t three women named Hong in the group. There were, phonetically, Hong, Hoong, and Hwang.
The multi-national, limited English proficiency environment presented some challenges for my supervisor, but she handled them well. She didn’t really need a clerk-typist, but she created the job and hired me for it anyway. She wanted someone to do the tasks that she didn’t like doing, and I was the right guy for the job. I was a few months out of college with my worthless – as a resume highlight – literature degree in hand, eager to take any job that offered medical insurance and a retirement plan. As a clerk typist, I did a bit of clerical work and a bit of typing, but the micrographics section didn’t demand a lot of either. To avoid succumbing to a chronic case of boredom, I learned how to do all the jobs in the unit: sorting, filming, cutting chips, filling jackets, copying fiche, printing hardcopies. The fun never stopped, and by “fun,” I mean drudgery. By “never stopped,” I mean we ran three shifts, 24 hours a day. Our agency’s thirst for microscopic text was insatiable. I spent nine months in the micrographics section before transferring into a different part of the agency. Over the next 22 years, I “Forrest Gumped” my way up the organizational ladder. I’m not sure how I ended up as an executive manager, but I’m not complaining.
I liked Pat, but she wasn’t a great mentor to me. She didn’t give me a lot of sage advice. What she gave me was an opportunity. She gave me the chance to work for an organization that has been my home for 23 years. I have been involved in some cool projects and gotten some significant work done, but, more importantly to me, I’ve met hundreds of amazing people, some of whom I consider to be my closest friends. If you’ve read my posts before, you’ll know it’s not all great fun. There are days I want to walk away from it and work in a bookstore, but the people I work with are the reason I go back every day. Every day since January 21st, 1992, when Pat showed me my desk in the micrographics section. Thanks, Pat. I really appreciate it. Rest in Peace, my friend.
P.S., the title of this post is a micrographics staff inside joke referring to someone who isn’t completely sane, like being “a few cards short of a full deck.” We couldn’t speak each others native languages, but we could all speak microfiche.