Sunday, June 15, 2008

Dabs Lights the Rocket Fuse....

If you want to ignore this blog entry, you won't be held responsible - this is less my usual musings on science, tech and society then it is a self-induldgent reminiscing about the town of my birth. Hey, I'm allowed....

My father's death this week brought me back to my town of origin: a small, edge-of-the-wilderness place called Hibbing just south of the Canadian border. (For a cartoon point of reference, it's 60 miles due south of International Falls, Minnesota - the non de plume of which was "Frostbite Falls" in Rocky & Bullwinkle.) My father, or as his family and close friends called him, "Dabs," was a soft-spoken man, an Italian-American (his father, Dominic, was one of those gangs-of-New-York-off-the-boat Italian immigrants from a small Abburzo town, Rocca Morice), fought in the marine corp after World War II, was a barber for most of his civilian life...and, was not well educated. It served him, tho - an education was a luxury for a man of his time.

I got my start in Hibbing, obviously - attended Hibbing High School (a beautiful high school with imported marble, chandeliers, and mahogany and oak wood - a bribe, from the Oliver Mining Company in 1915, given to the town when OMC found iron ore under the town's original location), and started programming after school for the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium (now defunct)...

There are two surprising things about this mini-bio for Young UberRocket:

  1. It took place between 1974 and 1978, long before PCs and Apple ]['s were a gleam in Gates & Jobs collective eyes
  2. It took place in one of the coldest, most remote locales in the continental US. (Go ahead, Northern Tip of Maine, debate me on this!)
I was reminded of both of these facts when I went back to Minnesota this week to bury Dabs - the town is a shadow of it's former-self, which is really saying something - since it's former-self was on life-support 30 years ago... Oliver Mining Company is long since gone, with the larger Mesabi Mining Company having taken control of the mine. The mine itself is the largest open pit mine on the planet - a testament to raping the landscape - however, in its heyday it employed 10,000 miners. Now, however, thanks to automation it takes only about 700 people to produce the same output...which leaves Hibbing residents scrambling for a new vocation.

So, in short:

northern minnesota + short growing season + mining operation - miners = ghost town in the making

Which leads me back to: how could I have even found the technology rocket, let alone boarded it, in a place that had - shall we say - other things on it's mind?

To be fair, some of this had to do with the desire/need/intensity to get the hell out of Dodge. It was pretty clear, even to an Iron Range adolescent, that this was Not The Place To Stay. The only road out was through education. That beautiful High School was good for more than just admiring the chandeliers, it attracted teaching talent -- which meant that the math, science and english teachers and curriculum were significantly above average. (I didn't realize this until after I got to college, and realized that I could test out of calculus, entry computer science and certain physics courses, because I already had been given that education.)

There's more to the story, of course - out of a graduating class of 460, a full 420 stayed behind in Hibbing -- so it wasn't just the opportunity provided by that high school... there was something else going on: my siblings and I all high-tailed it outta town to take some pretty serious tech jobs in various cities around the planet.

Which brings me back to Dabs - when I was writing his eulogy this past weekend, something occurred to me about the old man: despite his lack of formal education (it's unclear if he even graduated from high school, actually), Dabs was something of an engineer wannabe. When I was barely old enough to hold a wrench, he had me in that fucking frozen garage in the middle of a Minnesota winter re-gapping spark plugs. When I was given a chemistry set (note to the 20-something crowds who have had Jarts, Klackers and model rocketry taken away from them by a paranoid, whacked out 1980's-era, ruling parent class: chemistry sets in the 60's were honest-to-god chemistry sets. Real chemicals, working Bunsen burners...the whole nine yards), Dabs dragged out the encyclopedia Brittannica (note to the same 20-somethings: encyclopedia Brittannica == Wikipedia with a slower information refresh rate), opened it to "gun powder" and walked away before mom got suspicious. (Yes, I did succeed in blowing a hole in the basement floor.) He would come to pick me up at 3am from the "star parties" thrown by my astronomy teacher - yes, he was swearing the whole time, but he did it...

As I got older and more into electronics, Dabs would try to keep up -- the gadgets would break, and he and I would haul the mechanical carcasses into the basement workshop or the hardware store down the street, and 9 times out of 10 get the damn thing working again.

However at some point in my late teens, I started to drag primitive computers into the house - and Dabs met his match. He would sheepishly come into my room or wherever I had the large, clunky things set up (think Altair and Tandy computers), and ask me questions. I'd answer him in the hauty arrogance of a 16 year old...he'd shrug and leave. Eventually, he stopped coming. (Later, I would find him at the corner hardware store or in the garage among the tubes and wires and rubber that he felt most at home with....)

So...I blame both nature and nurture for lighting the fuse of the Rocket - thank you Dabs, I'm forever in your debt. (Note: Dabs is the little guy leaning against the gas pump in front of the hardware store where he'd later teach me how to solder.)