Road Trip 2017, Part 1, Stage 2: San Diego Reminiscence

California Tower, Balboa Park, San Diego, CA

I’ve been visiting San Diego, off and on for 40 years, but this is the first time as a tourist.  We’re here with Judy’s brother-in-law, to see the city and visit with a cousin she hasn’t seen in many years.  We did drive through about five years ago on our way back from our first Florida bicycle tour, but didn’t stop.

The drive down from LA on Tuesday was pleasant.  A traffic check before leaving showed the I-5 jammed, so traveling east to the I-15 was just as fast.  We hadn’t been this way before, a rolling, wide freeway with light traffic.  As advertised, we encountered rain squalls near our destination, but altogether a good travel day.  We were able to check in early and freshen up before heading out for lunch and a quick tour of downtown and Coronado.

San Diego is, in my view, an all-American city (that is, stratified in the typical inequality ratios),  a scenic seaport city that is a perfect bookend to its northern counterpart, Vancouver.  As the home of a major military presence, the city-state remains loyal to the Federation, separating Mexico from Greater California, though pockets of resistance can be found. The Old Town area, near where we are staying, sits at the base of the hills where the valley opens to the east.  We threaded our way around the flash floods that still punctuate winter rainstorms here, along the rough pot-holed streets that characterize strongly loyalist cities, on our way down the bay past the downtown airport, where airliners slip between the high-rise buildings in the financial district on final approach.  Past the convention center, we swung onto the Coronado bridge for a tour of the trendy and posh city by the sea, the local bastion of the 1%, then around the bay through the grubbier city of Imperial Beach and back our lodging to settle in for the evening.

Airliners pass low over the city on approach to Lindbergh Field

I first came to San Diego in the 1970s, when I was a systems engineer, working on modernization of the U.S. Navy submarine fleet.  Our team, from the development laboratories in New England, came out to the submarine base at San Diego to certify the systems before deployment on patrol after the boats came out of the repair yards in Long Beach, Bremerton, and Vallejo with the new systems installed.  As the shipyards were relatively unfamiliar with the new technologies, we often ended up as rework and repair technicians as well as test engineers.  The biggest problem was with quality control on the hundreds of 85-pin data connectors in the new computerized systems.  As a result of our testing and evaluation, two other teams were formed, one to rework and repair all the boats as they rotated in and out of port and one to teach the shipyard cable technicians proper assembly techniques.  Visits often involved 12-on/12-off around-the-clock work shifts, 14-days straight through, so site-seeing wasn’t an option.

U.S. Navy Base Ballast Point

Some trips were more casual, though, so on one occasion or another, I did manage to tour the old aviation museum (before it burned and was rebuilt) and take a drive out to Point Loma.  Our work teams usually consisted of a mix of civil servants, enlisted navy personnel, and contractors, like myself, from the various systems vendors.  The non-commissioned officers liked to lunch at the many topless bars that sprang up along Rosecrans during that period.  The government employees often liked to dine at the more expensive restaurants, where they would order steaks and cocktails, then insist on splitting the bill evenly so they didn’t exceed the daily federal M&IE  (meal and incidental expense) allowance.  We contractors would order from the casual menu to make sure the shares didn’t exceed the allowance so as not to have to explain to our families why we had to spend our own money while on expense account…

Naval Air Station North Island and downtown San Diego

In the 1980s, I was working at the submarine base in Washington in combat systems life-cycle support engineering, doing operations analysis: we would get the data package from a returning boat a day or two before they arrived for refit.  A quick review would help plan the work orders during the crew turn-around and identify problem areas that might require an equipment upgrade or maintenance procedure change.  The refit facility kept a set of major electronics modules that were rotated among the boats to simplify troubleshooting and repair at sea.  Any failed units were repaired in the refit facility and returned to the kit inventory.  But, when a new boat was commissioned at the building yards on the east coast, only basic spare parts were loaded for the transit.  On one such occasion, we were notified of a problem in transit, as they passed through the Panama Canal.  As a seasoned field operative, I was assigned to meet the boat in San Diego, at the North Island facility in Coronado, and deliver part of their complement of maintenance assistance units, as well as making sure the problem was resolved.

Old Point Loma Light

In the early 1990s, I was in a test engineering contract group at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard.  Part of my duties as the lead engineer was to prepare reports and presentations for the government managers to present, a task I had performed on several different assignments over the years.  From time to time, I accompanied my clients on their travels to provide additional background or updates to the material.  One of these trips was to San Diego, the first road trip on which I took a computer (my own–I operated as an employee of an East Coast contractor, but out of my home office).  This was before the Internet became ubiquitous and before laptops were common.  My system was an early and unsuccessful tablet (Pen Windows on an NCR 3125,  a 20-MHz386 non-backlit monochrome LCD system, click to see a photo) that I bought on clearance ($300, against a list price of $3000), combined with a full-sized keyboard, mouse, and external 9600-baud “portable” modem.  Getting through airport security with this junkyard laptop substitute was an ordeal, even in pre-9/11 times, when the focus was on D.B.Cooper-type ransom hijackers rather than terrorists.

My connection to the ‘Net was to dial-up my Unix workstation at home and compose email, which would be relayed later when my home system mail server scheduled a dial-up to the next link in the network.  In this way, I was able to correspond with other meeting attendees by email without violating the “speak only when spoken to” policy that applied to “briefcase carriers.”  The presentation was a project management plan I had developed for re-certifying one of the last groups of cold-war-era ships to be upgraded: my client had only the transparencies (for backup) and the new-fangled Powerpoint version on floppy disk, and I had the answers to defend the plan schedule, so I was brought along strictly as backup for any technical questions that might come up.  None did: this was the last major development exercise planned for this assignment, and I had become weary of the briefcase carrier role, so it was time to move on.   During this San Diego trip, I turned in my two-week notice: when I got home, I started work in Seattle at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, under a new employer, as a contract Unix system administrator,  ending my long career supporting U.S. Navy projects, but not the end of government contracting.

Coast Guard cutter and sailboat entering San Diego Harbor

In the late 1990s, I was a network administrator, working in Washington State for a Pennsylvania company owned by the family of a PA congressman influential on the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee.  One of the projects was a contract with the government to train small business owners how to use the Internet to do business with the government.    When the company opened a new office in San Diego, with only a skeleton staff, I flew down to configure and install their Internet servers.  The company was in temporary offices near Hotel Circle, and I unpacked and staged the servers in the partially-finished new offices, several miles away.  The new space was being used for storage, so did not have telephone or Internet, and all the furniture was still in cartons, so it was a strange exercise, working alone in a large building in a city of 1 million.  After configuring the systems, I delivered them to the co-location hosting site on the north side of the city, and managed them from my Bremerton office.  As before, my San Diego excursion foreshadowed yet another career change: the project in Bremerton wound down, so I was in the market for another job, this time for state government. We soon moved to Montana, where I spent a couple of years working at the University of Montana.

the Lath House (Botanical Building), Balboa Park.  Judy and Ben in foreground.

In 2005, midway through my next career, back in the federal contracting world, as a system administrator and bioinformatics programmer at the National Institutes of Health in Montana, I managed to get permission to attend the 19th USENIX Large Installation System Administration conference, held in San Diego that year.   It is very difficult for government contractors to get paid skills training, since we are supposed to be pre-trained and fully qualified, no matter how much the technology evolves during our often years-long tenure, so we funded most of the trip ourselves, as I had done for a bioinformatics conference in Arizona in 2002. At best, we can sometimes get the client to pay our hourly rate for the conference week without taking vacation, but there is never money for fees and travel.  (When I went independent in 2009, I went to conferences more often, bidding the cost into my rate negotiation, though I often had to choose limited or free venues, as reasonable training budgets were not price competitive, naturally, but my time was my own.) Judy and I flew down and took the shuttle bus to the conference hotel, no rental car budget.  I spent the entire conference in the complex, while Judy toured the city on the light-rail and bus systems, and met with a local quilting client—a Navy nurse who had sent quilt tops from Iraq to be quilted while deployed there—to justify a tax write-off for her plane ticket.   The next time I saw San Diego was a fast drive-through, Thanksgiving 2011, returning to Washington State from a bicycle tour in Florida, visiting relatives along the way.

Casa el Prada, Balboa Park

So, it’s good to be back, before the city becomes closed to us and travel to the red zone becomes problematic.  With only three days to spend, I’m sure we won’t see everything: we did stop in Old Town and explore Point Loma and Cabrillo National Monument., and we spent time with Judy’s cousin, whom we hadn’t seen for a long time: she and her husband are in their 90s and don’t travel anymore, but she is an active artist and we visited her at her co-op studio in Balboa Park as well as at home.  Tomorrow, it’s back to LA and then brace for our extended excursion into solid Federation territory.