Today as I walking at Cottage Hill Park I could not help but notice the large white water tank. It is almost impossible not to see the tank as it dominates the park from almost every part of the park, save in the depths of the trails through the wooded areas. Just looking at the tank brings back many memories for me, memories of a good earlier life as an environmental/civil engineer. In fact, that tank was one of the last true civil engineering projects I worked on before I left the civil design department to lead the nascent environmental group that would come to dominate the work of the company.
How I came to be a practicing engineer is a long, convoluted story. I had never thought of being an engineer when I was young. I had only one engineering role model in my life. That was Polly Parrott, no lie- that was his real name. Mr. Parrott, as I always called him, was the father of my best friend Joe when I was in my later stages of “grammar” school (Back in the 1950’s, that was the name we used to refer to elementary schools. US grammar schools then were in no way comparable to the English system schools.) Polly was a chemical engineer for the TCI steel mills in Birmingham, a graduate of Auburn. Mr. Parrott was a favorite of mine, not because he was an engineer, but rather because he represented a true male influence in my life. He taught me to fish, hunt, water ski, and love football. He was a union man, a firm believer in the necessity for unions to be the way to force better pay and working conditions in the mills. As a result, he was often on strike and available for extended trips to the camp on the Locust Fork of the Black Warrior River. The camp was a bastion of southern maleness. Women, the wives, were rarely allowed to stay or even visit the camp. Days were spent fishing or water skiing, sometimes hunting; nights focused on playing cards, poker or hearts, drinking beer and chewing tobacco. Of course Polly’s son, Joe, and I were not allowed to drink the beer or chew tobacco. But we obviously were given a taste; I didn’t like either one. I learned what a chemical engineer did listening to Mr. Parrott’s stories of his life in the mills. It sounded interesting, though I did not relish spending long days working in the stink of the steel mills.
My older brother, Dean, had a Gilbert Chemistry Set years earlier and I played with it when he would let me. It was kind of fun, but I really enjoyed building things, first with Tinkertoys and later with an Erector Set. I was so good building things, my mother said I should be an architect; she was a fan of Frank Lloyd Wright.
When I arrived at Banks High School, I was given an aptitude test by the guidance counselor. She said, given my good grades in math and the results of the aptitude test, I should consider engineering as a career goal. I asked about being an architect and she told me that would not be a good idea. She said architects did not make as much money as engineers and that I would be wasting my talents. I filed away my mother’s thoughts of architecture, at least for a while though they were never really gone.
I really did not even think of engineering or any other career during most of high school. I was so absorbed with my secret gender issues, I just focused on my studies and making good grades. My mother hovered in the background, urging me to push for “all A’s,” and that I did. It was only in the spring of my junior year that I suddenly became aware of engineering again. I played football and was a “jock,” a member of the cool group. One of my close friends, Glen Turner, worked in his father’s foundry during the summers and planned on getting a degree in metallurgical engineering from the University of Alabama, his father’s alma mater. Glenn asked me if I wanted a job for the summer. He said it could lead to a scholarship. That seemed to be a good idea, so I spent that summer working at the foundry with Glen and Pete Tyler, another friend of Glen’s and mine. The work was dirty and hot, but we had fun, more or less. And the job did produce a chance at a scholarship from Alabama, a chance that turned into an offer that I had to turn down.
Engineering – Part Two
All during my high school years and even before, my mother worked as a volunteer for U.S. Congressman George S. Huddleston, Jr. My brother Dean, who died in 1958 from bone cancer, wanted to go to the new Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. He wanted desperately to become a pilot. He always loved airplanes and that love rubbed off on me. Dean joined the Civil Air Patrol and got to take his first flight in a L-19, a very small prop plane. He was hooked. Then the following year, he went to CAP summer camp at Maxwell Field in Montgomery where he was selected for an orientation flight in a T-33 jet trainer. (My first stick time was in 1964 in a T-33. I was hooked.) (more to follow here)