Thursday, March 15, 2018

Press Hard

It's interesting how things come and go. The compact disc was released in 1982, and sales of the medium peaked in 1999. Yet here we are, only 36 years since its debut, and the compact disc is very quickly becoming a thing of the past. A recent article from Digital Trends indicates that Best Buy will stop selling CD's on July 1 of this year, and other major retailers are rumored to be considering a consignment model for selling discs. Truly, nothing lasts forever, and even though I was aware of that maxim at the time, I still took a job as data processing manager for a carbon paper company in 1980.

My employer, American Tara Corporation, was at that time one of the nation's largest producers of carbon paper. Headquartered in Chicago, and with branch offices in Atlanta, Boston, and Los Angeles, their annual sales volume peaked at about $50 million in the early 1980's. To understand the importance of carbon paper at the time, you have to know a little bit about the product itself.

To anyone born after 1980, carbon paper is something of a mystery. Everyone has heard the term "carbon copy," but many people may not know how that term originated. Carbon paper consisted of rolls of very thin tissue paper, coated with a wax-like ink, usually in either black, brown or red. The rolls were cut into document-sized sheets, and these sheets were used to make copies of handwritten or typed documents. The way it worked was that you would put a sheet of carbon paper behind your original document and on top of the second page, then another sheet between each layer below that. Often, there would be printed instructions on the top document which said, "Press Hard -- You are making xxx copies," where "xxx" ranged anywhere from one to about six. The mechanical nature of it sounds primitive by today's standards, but at the time it was, just like having no air conditioning, all we knew.

Offices used reams of carbon paper, because sheets did not last for more than one or two uses, after which most of the ink would be transferred to the copies. And "carbon copies" were a necessity as proof that the original had not been tampered with after the copy had been made, since any extraneous notations after that time would stand out like a sore thumb. Given its pervasiveness in the workplace, carbon paper held on for many years, until it was upstaged by carbonless paper and Xerox machines. One very specific niche market for carbon paper was for airline tickets -- years after the working world had adopted photocopying as the norm for document duplication, airlines continued to use red carbon in their tickets. In this application, there were no separate carbon sheets; rather, the top copy of the ticket would be coated on the back with a layer of red ink, and since all the ticketing machines in use at the time were impact printers, characters would be transferred through to the back copy. When airlines finally moved to computer printed boarding passes, it was evident that the days of carbon paper had come to an end.

American Tara was a well-managed, profitable company, and it treated employees fairly, regardless of their positions or levels within the organization. I recall being asked by my boss, the corporate controller, only a week into the job to make an emergency trip to L.A. one afternoon. He paid for a first-class ticket for me and put me up in a fancy Marriott. There were no per diems, so dining could be fairly open-ended as well, although we were careful not to go out on a limb in that regard -- we did work for accountants, after all. For me, travel was frequent, but since I was visiting the same offices over and over, I began to make friends all across the country. The work was demanding: I handled programming, support, maintenance contracts, and budgeting, but I didn't mind, because the experience was so educational. On one occasion, I even spent a week wiring a recently remodeled, high-ceilinged office with data cable, climbing on Jack-and-the-Beanstalk height ladders and soldering each individual connection, of which there were many.

Adjacent to each of Tara's administrative offices, where people in roles like mine worked, was a physical carbon paper plant. My boss told me during my first week that there was no point wearing my best clothes, since I would likely get ink stains on them, not to mention that the pervasive smell of hot ink would permeate every thread. (I stuck mostly to sport coats and dark suits.) Because of the nature of the business, our plants weren't located in ritzy areas, but the Chicago plant stood alone in this regard.

We were located on West Lake Street in Chicago, about a dozen blocks west of the Loop, in an industrial area that had seen better days. Down the street were a handful of cafes, a loan company, and a bookie joint. (The bookie joint didn't have a sign over its entrance, but my compadres told me what it was.) Prostitutes periodically roamed the streets, with the most common invitation being, "Honey, do you want a date?" One snowy, slushy winter evening, I was very late leaving the office after working on a payroll system upgrade and took a side street to save some time getting over to the Kennedy Expressway. I stopped at a stop sign, and suddenly, out of nowhere, four or five hookers converged on my old Chevy Nova, some lying on the hood of the car. I was startled and to be honest, somewhat terrified, but I motioned to them to move away, which they did in a singular collective water-parting motion. I drove very slowly past.

Located in South Central L.A., our West Coast office presented its own unique challenges. Our management recommended that we leave early, so every afternoon at 4:45 PM sharp, office operations would cease, and the employees would move equipment such as adding machines, check writers, and calculators into a walk-in safe. The computer system was rack-mounted, and it was located in its own locked room, so it was presumed to be secure. Nevertheless, one evening, plant employees in the adjacent building watched two men roll the computer cabinet out of the office and down Beach Street in a vain attempt to steal it. The two thieves were spotted by plant employees, and they fled immediately. After that, I took the 4:45 PM closing time even more seriously.

The L.A. plant manager was a man named Bob Judy. He was a former Marine who, despite a sometimes rough and ready attitude, was a consummate gentleman and something of a big kid. Bob and his wife lived in a beautiful home in Whittier, California, just outside the city. I was born in Whittier, and when I told him this, Bob and I became fast friends. I spent several evenings with Bob, his wife, and others at their home, drinking wine, playing the piano, and soaking in their giant hot tub beneath the stars. Bob was a personal friend of Robert Mondavi, and he received regular shipments of 375 milliliter wine bottles, delivered to the office directly off the Mondavi truck. He and his wife maintained a small cellar beneath their kitchen. Being the consummate entertainer, Bob also kept an inventory of disposable plastic-paper swim trunks that he would offer to guests when it was hot tub time. There was nothing not to like about Bob's house.

Even with the challenges of the each of the respective factory neighborhoods, we had some fun days. At the L.A. office, a food truck would appear every morning about 9:30 and announce itself over the intercom as "Lunch-er-o!" I would stroll out to the parking lot and catch up with the factory guys while we feasted on high-carbohydrate snacks. Unlike the L.A. operation, Tara's Boston office was located in a quiet, suburban neighborhood, but once the employees found out that I was married to a native Bostonian, I immediately became family and was treated to many lively New England breakfasts and lunches. Funny things happened at that office.

Our Boston office manager was a charming lady in her sixties named Miriam, who kept absolutely everything humming. Whenever she would call with a computer problem, I knew it was real. She was adept at handling her own issues, but one morning she called me at my office in Chicago, and before I could even answer, I heard her laughing hysterically. Every morning, Miriam's first order of business was to boot the computer from a Teletype console. (Teletype machines were high-impact printers with attached keyboards and paper tape readers.) When our computer systems booted, the operators were typically presented with a message which read "PLEASE WAIT...", but that morning, Miriam was treated to an Easter egg.

When Miriam finally stopped laughing, she said, and I am rendering her thick regional accent the best I can through written words, "Rich! You'll nev-ah believe what the compu-tah said this mah-ning. When I booted it up, instead of saying 'PLEASE WAIT,' it said 'PIS-SAH!" When I repeated what I thought I'd just heard, she confirmed that the computer had indeed issued a scatological message. We never again saw that exhortation from any of our systems, but you had to think that someone at Data General (the computer manufacturer) was laughing his or her head off. That computer eventually booted up, by the way.

On another occasion, I received a call from Teresa, who was the data processing manager in our Boston office. When I answered, she exclaimed in an agitated voice, "Rich! The compu-tah is on fi-ah!" When I asked for details, Teresa told me that the entire 12 x 12 room was filled with smoke. I called our Boston service representative, and when he checked out the system, he found that a light panel on the front of the computer chassis had shorted out, sparking a small internal fire which burned its way through a circuit board. I have worked for years since in the computer industry, and not since that day have I seen a computer catch on fire.

In 1982, the owner of the company began to turn over control to his son, who lived in Atlanta and worked in the office there, so several of us were offered an opportunity to transfer south. I had worked with the Atlanta crew for several years and already had some friends there, so after an evaluation trip and some soul-searching, we decided to move. Our last winter in Chicago, American Tara hosted a Christmas party at the legendary Como Inn in Chicago, which in its 57-year history had been host to the likes of Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, and Perry Como. We had a wonderful dinner, followed by jazz and dancing. Late in the evening, the band played "Georgia on My Mind" for all of us who would be moving to Atlanta the following summer. That's an emotional moment that I will always remember.

The American Tara operation in Atlanta was not quite the same as in Chicago, but there were some glory days. We bought a house in suburban Roswell (as far out as our realtor wanted to take us, but now relatively close to the city). In 1985, our first daughter was born, and soon thereafter, I left American Tara to explore greener pastures. Several of the Tara employees are Facebook friends, and there are several others whom I see from time to time.

There are places and times you never forget, and for me, my days at American Tara were among the most memorable. I learned from my time there that you don't have to be in a leading edge company to learn. In fact, my times at Tara offered more broad-based experiences than I've seen since, and I've worked in companies far larger and more "modern." But in a small company, you learn about people. You see good and bad, up close and personal. For its part, American Tara was in many ways a compassionate company which truly understood its people. I'd like to leave you with a story about that compassion.

The founder of American Tara was a man named A.M. Bridell. He had started the company himself, and he ran a tight ship, but he was fiercely protective of his employees. During the early days of the company, in the 1940's, he employed a number of young Japanese men, and several of them were still working at Tara when I started there in 1980. One day, I was talking to Mak Kawano, who was one of our chemical engineers. Mak was constantly monitoring and studying ink formulas, which were, of course, the core of our business. As we concluded a meeting one afternoon, Mak said to me, "You know, Rich, I owe A.M. Bridell my life." When I asked him to explain, he told me why.

According to Mak, one afternoon during World War II, A.M. literally stood between his Japanese employees and agents from the Immigration and Naturalization Service, who had come to take the workers away, presumably to internment camps. Mak said that at one point, A.M. looked the INS officers in the eye and said sharply, "You're not taking MY MEN." That was the end of the story: the officers left the premises, and A.M. assured them that they had nothing to fear. Consequently, Mak and many of the other men worked at Tara until they retired.

Mak passed away several years ago at the age of 90. Had I not heard his story, I would never have known the things he'd lived through, because he was the personification of a peaceful man. I like to think that Mak left the world knowing the spirit of goodness that he saw exemplified by American Tara, the same place where I learned that you don't have to be a giant to make a difference.