I pick up the phone and hear a grunt, ambient department-store music, bar noise, and slot machines. I know the grunt. “Larry, where are you?”
“Wanted a drink.”
Larry Gibbons and I worked the Alaska pipeline together, hitchhiked North America for several years, were witnesses to the major events in each other’s lives. This is the man who once gave me the best tip about electrical safety I’ve ever heard. I haven’t seen him in a couple years.
We took the retirement-first, work-later career option. My first full-time job came to me at the age of 45. Larry was an early bird, scored his first legitimate job at 42.
Before that we were college students, travelers, pipeline laborers, college students, and travelers. In those days we had the most important thing: all the time in the world. Finally, the must-get-a-job day arrived and I turned to writing for money. Larry turned to computers.
When you begin your professional career by giving your contemporaries a 20-year head start, you will quickly learn to walk an unorthodox path. Larry had two big things going for him: a 150 IQ and an obsessive personality, which, when translated into daily life, meant doing things such as getting a master’s degree in Russian from the University of Washington in the shortest period of time on record. This is core Larry — unless you’re doing something 12 hours a day, seven days a week, it’s not worth doing.
Larry’s imagination was captured by computers, and so he bought one and studied 12 hours a day, seven days a week. After an extraordinary series of events, he was hired by a computer firm in Irvine. Keeping in mind the unorthodox career path we traveled, the computer company was non-mainstream, a subsidiary of an Indonesian weapons manufacturer.
By now his skills are so technical that I don’t understand what he actually does, but it’s suit-and-tie and computers. Through another series of extraordinary events, Mr. Gibbons was offered a promotion to boss a big software-development program. The position was in Indonesia. Fortunate for me, because this is where I got the good news about electrical safety.
Now, Mr. Gibbons, an honor student of languages, had been studying the local tongue before he arrived in Jakarta. I got a letter from him a couple weeks after he touched down:
“The language is a mystery and a delight. I can speak far better than I can understand and that gets me into a lot of trouble. I craft phrases in my mind, then speak a few words and a torrent of Bahasa Indonesian is unleashed in return. In self-defense, I often tell them right off that I speak like a child and know but a few words, so go slow and simple. Sometimes, though, the magic happens and I can chatter along even without English echoes in my mind. It always falls apart later on. If I hear a sentence comprised only of words I understand, I can usually make it out, though ‘words I understand’ is a very relative thing. If there’s just one new word, I can likely get the drift, but if there’s two, three, or more new words, the whole thing collapses and all comprehension flees.
“The most complete communication failure I’ve experienced has been right here in the Jakarta Hilton, where I’ve been staying while looking for a house. I have an exquisite portable computer and an adapter that lets me plug it into the wall socket in the room. That works fine, but the power supply is quite dirty and generally suspect in Jakarta. In most places, people have heavy-duty power conditioners and surge protectors for each expensive electric device. I thought it would be easy to find out if the Hilton has its own power-conditioning system that guarantees clean power to the outlets in the rooms. I’ve tried to get this question across to a dozen hotel persons, in English, Indonesian, and sign language.
“Nothing has gotten across, and I’ve resorted to drawing smoothly undulating curves of a sine wave to represent the normal condition of good, clean electric power. The front-desk fellow is nodding along, agreeing and murmuring with reassurance, all is as it should be. Then I draw a spike straight up, make a sound like ‘ffffffffffftttttt, kerblamo,’ and throw my arms into the air to indicate that as a result of this potential power spike, my computer could be fried. Immediate concern. The clerk says, ‘Your computer is broken, how sad.’
“‘No, no, no, not broken. It just might break, though, if a power surge happens, like the one in the picture. I’m afraid an electric power surge could happen. Is it likely?’
“‘You don’t have to be afraid of the electricity. You must not put your finger in the wall socket, but you don’t have to be afraid of the electricity.’
With the electrical season coming on, it’s a timely message for us all.