Return to Vashon

In the summer of 2010, we were invited to spend a day visiting with a friend who was house-sitting on Vashon-Maury Island, a semi-colon of land hanging below the exclamation point of Blake and Bainbridge Islands in the middle of the Salish Sea southwest of Seattle. We immediately accepted, of course, as it was a chance to revisit the site of a major turning point in our life and careers, more than 20 years ago.

In the spring of 1988, we decided we’d like to consider an island lifestyle. We were, at the time, living in the heart of downtown Bremerton, an industrial community framed by the U.S. Navy’s Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, U.S. Submarine Base Bangor, and the Naval Undersea Warfare Engineering Station Keyport. I was, at that time, a systems engineer, mostly working on systems life-cycle engineering support at the submarine base, but had worked at all three facilities. The other half of the family had recently moved from the hospital and surgery center surgical suites to a claims analysis job at a major insurance company in Seattle. Our last child at home was about to enter college in Seattle, and I, in my mid-40s, was about to start long-delayed graduate studies.

In 2010, the Country Store and Farm on Vashon sells bumper stickers that read, “Keep Vashon Weird.” Vashon, once a major fruit and vegetable supplier to the Seattle metropolitan area in an age when the Mosquito fleet put the islands at the hub of the Puget Sound transportation system, had, by the late 1960s, become a haven for hippies seeking the idyllic pastoral life and yuppies seeking cheap waterfront properties. The island is no longer cheap, and the counterculture has evolved into a community of artists, writers, and folks interested in sustainable green living. The Vashon-Maury atoll still stands out as an island of cultural leftism as well as a physical island, accessible only by boat or airplane, and not very, at that. The single short grass-runway airstrip deters most sky-borne visitors, and the only safe public anchorage is within the lagoon of Quartermaster Harbor, with its entrance facing Commencement Bay in Tacoma, to the south. The Washington State Ferries serve the island at north and south ends, where the island rises abruptly from the deep waters, as it does along most of its perimeter.

We moved to the island in the fall of 1988, found the real estate market rather restrictive, and ended up building on a secluded mid-island site with a peekaboo view of 14,410-foot Mount Rainier, 70 miles to the southeast. For the first nine months, we commuted in opposite directions from the north ferry dock from various rentals while we prepared to build. My commute was convoluted by evening graduate school classes in Seattle, resulting in a clockwise grand tour of the archipelagos of the Salish Sea. Driving around Sinclair and Dyes Inlets north to my office near the Hood Canal in the early morning, I left work in the afternoon and headed north around Liberty Bay, onto Bainbridge Island to catch the ferry to Seattle in time for class, then south to West Seattle and the westbound ferry to Vashon. To save a few dollars, on the days I didn’t have school, I parked the car in the commuter lot on the Kitsap Peninsula side of the Sound and walked on the ferry, meeting at the commuter lot on Vashon, where the other car was waiting.

After nearly a year of this personal madness in pursuit of “the good life,” a collective madness took hold of the corporate world in the pursuit of higher profits: the “angel of downsizing” visited us in the summer of 1989, and I found myself prematurely retired at the age of 45, with a new house under construction and no prospect for re-employment soon. I had spent 24 years in the world of proprietary software and hardware systems, compounded by serving in a niche of that world where almost everything was classified in the interest of national security. I had no discernible job skills. I was an expert in the details of designing and analyzing distributed parallel programs in high-availability compute clusters on multi-processor systems, about 20 years before anyone in mainstream information technology realized this was a valuable skill or desired to build such systems. I had, according to my resume, worked on systems XXX, YYY, and ZZZ, programmed in the ABC and DEF languages. I had learned to program in Prolog on a PC to support my projects, but logic languages weren’t then and still aren’t mainstream outside academic research. If I got an interview, the first question was usually, “And, what makes you think you are in our line of work?”

Cast loose from a 24-year career in a highly specialized niche, our move to Vashon was truly a life-style-changing event. The new house was completed, thanks to wiping out the rest of our meager retirement savings. Graduate school tuition, paid the first year by corporate reimbursement, got paid with credit cards. Meanwhile, I was learning a bit about Unix on Seattle University’s system, spending time before and after class in the terminal room.

By spring, I found a job–of sorts–on the island, at Software Research Northwest, which later became part of Bi-Tech and is now Sungard Educational Systems Division. After avoiding COBOL for 29 years since it was developed, I found myself in a crash course in COBOL programming to prepare me for a job as an entry-level COBOL programmer. The operating environment was HP’s MPE. Meanwhile, I converted our 80286 Sperry PC-IT computer from Windows 2/286 to Coherent, a Unix System 7 clone, and starting learning Unix in earnest, along with C programming. The job didn’t pay the bills, and I couldn’t work long hours because of my almost daily commute to Seattle for school, working on a Unix-based (SunOS) Master’s project, so advancement was out of the question.

As graduation loomed, I found a better-paying job, but back in the old military-industrial complex, managing a test engineering group contracted to write system test procedures to certify naval combat systems after overhauls and upgrades. Once again, we were back to the daily opposite-direction commutes and the problem of staging transportation. An opening for a key medical review position at another insurance company opened up a few blocks from my new job, so soon we were both commuting westbound in the morning, though we now spent little more than a few hours a night on the magic island that was to have been our forever dream home.

In the early summer of 1992, we sold our custom home on Vashon. Like Brigadoon, the isle faded into the mist over Puget Sound, and we rejoined the hustle and bustle of fast-paced, fast-food, and bright-light life in a rapidly-growing industrial city. Later, when we both got new jobs in Seattle, she in medical policy and case management with her old employer and me in my first full-time Unix system administration job, we commuted across the Sound, with only brief glimpses of the fair island in the distance to the south in mid-passage. By this time, I had been teaching Computer Science nights at Chapman University’s branch campus on the submarine base, to pay off my tuition bills, so we were tied to the Peninsula. Vashon was lost to us.

When I was in my mid-50s and it was time to look for another job, the Salish Sea had become the heart of Microsoft country; Unix jobs were scarce, and age-agnostic jobs even scarcer as the dot-com boom propelled eager young turks into the computer field. We started building a fall-back: a primitive cabin in the mountains of Montana in which to retire if necessary. As luck would have it, Unixers were scarcer than jobs in Montana: we stayed there ten years building yet another lifestyle as quilting replaced case management and Unix became a tool for genomic research rather than an end in itself.

Returning to the Salish Sea, where we had forged our careers and raised our children, we, now in our mid-60s and battered by the housing slump recession, dismissed the idea of island life, choosing instead to live between the Olympic wilderness and access to civilization, within sight of saltwater. But, Vashon still beckons, at least for a weekend excursion. Like all small communities, many of the businesses depending on steady sales have turned over, but other island institutions have survived and prospered. The custom home we built has been expanded and transformed, and now houses law offices. The trees and bushes have grown to obscure the view, as they have in our new mainland home, perched on what was once a neighborhood with a view and is now a secluded forest hilltop.

Ship traffic and Mt. Rainier, the scenery from Gold Beach, Maury Island