An essay on my first 30-some years

I was born in Springfield, Missouri in March 1953. Springfield is in the southwest corner of the state on the north edge of the Missouri Ozarks.  It's a long way both physically and culturally from the east or west coasts.  It is a quintesential Bible-belt town.  The town's closest thing to a claim to fame is having the world headquarters of the Assemblies of God (Jim and Tammy Bakker's church) and the alma mater of such people as Jerry Falwell.  Many people may also be familiar with Branson, an up-and-coming country music center about 30 miles to the south.

Many people I meet on the coasts seem to think the Midwest is a featureless glassy plain.  The Ozarks is anything but - the terrain is hilly and rocky. Except for some river valleys the land is too poor to raise anything other than livestock and hay grasses like alfalfa.  The Ozarks has lots to offer the outdoor-oriented person, from lakes and rivers (including some of the best canoeing rivers in the country) to the most caves of any state in the USA.  In contrast, the half of Missouri above the Missouri River is rather flat and quite fertile.  There the most popular crops are corn, soybeans, and various grains.  It's fairly similar to the parts of Iowa portrayed in the wonderful David Lynch film The Straight Story.

My late father Robert S., always called Bob, was born and raised a few miles outside of Springfield.  My mother Cristine (Elliott) was raised on a farm outside the small town of Perry, Missouri, about 15 miles southwest of Hannibal, on the Mississippi River about a hundred miles north of St. Louis.  To answer a question I'm often asked: I pronounce my home state's name with a long 'e' sound at the end, as did my Dad.  However, Mom pronounces it the other way with an "uh" at the end since she's from the north.  Both served in the Army.  Dad was in the Army Air Force in Morocco during WWII, and Mom was an Army nurse stationed in the Philipines and then Japan just after it ended.  They met when Mom was stationed in Springfield working in a tuberculosis hospital in 1947-8.

For the first 14 years of my life we lived in a small house a little over a block off of the fabled US Route 66, the Chicago to Los Angeles highway made famous by such things as the old TV series, the migrating Okies of the Charles Steinbeck story The Grapes of Wrath, and the classic movie John Ford made of that book in 1940.

I think the main thing I miss about the Ozarks is real tornado-alley style thunderstorms.  In the words of a friend of mine, "New Jersey doesn't have weather."  I agree.  I also miss being able to see lots of stars in the night sky and how quiet things were if you went a few miles outside of Springfield.  I do not miss the Bible-belt mentality, attitudes, and the slow pace of life there. 

I had a standard Midwestern working-class upbringing, where the fathers of most of my friends were truck drivers or mechanics, not white-collar engineers or scientists.  The mothers stayed home bringing up the kids, as did mine.

My father Bob along with Jack and Norman, two of his four brothers, started a small business about a year after the end of World War II.  An entire section of this website is now devoted to that business.  Over the years they made and sold various gadgets through home shows and mail order. There was the Tru-Gyde™ hooked-rug needle and all the supplies needed to make hooked rugs in the home. Others were the Baker Boy™ cake decorating set and the Little Giant™ wood plane that used a standard double-edged razor blade for cutting.  However, the most successful things they made were bows for archers basd on designs by Dad with the help of his nephew Howard. 

The bow business ran from about 1957 to 1977.  Their equipment was intended for the professional or very serious amateur archer.  Black Widow™ bows were used in Olympic competition by archers from several different countries. About a third of them were sold overseas, primarily in northern Europe and Japan.  The bow business failed in the mid-seventies and was sold.  It ultimately ended up in the hands of Ken Beck who formed The Black Widow Bow Company of Nixa, Missouri.  Wilson Brothers survived as a simple partnership selling the Wilson Tab (a finger tab is the thing that protects an archer's fingers from the bowstring).  This small part of the original business provided my parents and Dad's brother Jack with supplemental income in their retirement until Jack died in 1997.  The finger tab business was then also sold to Ken Beck.  My father died in September 2003.  Norman, the other partner in the business, was felled at a much earlier age than Jack or Dad by lung cancer in 1972.

The shop was always near our house.  From an early (preschool) age I was underfoot in that shop, spending a lot of time with the various people working there.  Being there provided an education beyond price, and was paradise for a mechanically inclined, curious kid.  I was proficient in the use of large power tools by the end of my first decade of life.  By the time I was in my mid-teens I was the main repair person for the shop, doing electrical wiring, motor overhauls, and various kinds of mechanical work.

I no longer have much of anything to do with archery.  I was never a really good archer much to the chagrin of my father who along with his brothers Jack and Norman were national champions.  I was simply not given a couple of things necessary to be a champion archer.  The main thing lacking was a steady hand, arm, and shoulder.  Despite the use of stabilizing weights and rods the only time I was steady enough to get professional-sized groups at 50-90 meters was on a really good day where fortune was in my stars, the phase of the moon was just right, and someone brought me their set of old recappable tires.  It didn't happen very often.  My instinctive shooting (done without the bow sight used in target shooting) would not have been all that much worse if I had kept my eyes closed due to my less than wonderful depth perception.  It is hard being merely pretty good at archery in the shadow of giants in the field, so I left it behind while in my teens.

Like many other fathers my dad wanted his only son to follow in his footsteps and take up the family trade.  Unfortunately for him I was not only not that good at archery but was always much more interested in mechanical things, tools, electricity, electronics, construction, math, and science.  I've now put the specifics of my relationship with archery and the business in an essay Dad, Archery, that Shop, and Me in the Black Widow section of this site.

I attended Southwest Missouri State University (now Missouri State University) in Springfield where I majored in Physics and Mathematics.  The Physics Department was small and personable and I got to know most of the faculty members that were there at the time.  I performed a number of jobs for the department such as equipment repair and keeping the two DEC PDP-8 minicomputers they had running.  I taught classes in computer graphics on a minicomputer and microprocessor system design.  For assorted reasons it took me six years (summer 1971 through summer 1977) to get my BS degree.  The joke was that if I had stayed around there much longer I would have been awarded tenure.

I am the grateful beneficiary of government-supported higher education and have very strong feelings against cutting educational opportunities for the less fortunate who come from families who are unable or unwilling to support their children's higher education.  Horatio Alger type rises from the mailroom to the boardroom may have been more common earlier in the century, but now most such rises usually involve a (costly) detour through an institution of higher learning.

My first job after receiving my BS was at Electronic Associates Inc. in West Long Branch, NJ.  In their heyday in the early 1960s EAI employed about 2,000 people making analog computers.  When I joined them in 1978 the market for analog and hybrid computers was about gone.  I worked on simulators for training power plant operators (for both fossil fuel and nuclear plants) there for three years.  One notable thing is that the Three Mile Island disaster happened while I was working there.  Not only did my co-workers have to scramble to put that particular failure mode in the simulators but I was able to see a lot of inside information on the disaster before it was available to the public.  Those were heady times.

EAI stopped making power plant simulators a couple of years after I resigned.  The company then specialized in small-to medium-run electronic assembly and PC board manufacturing for a few years.  EAI no longer exists as far as I can tell.  The name is being used by a completely unrelated company.  

In February 1981 I began working for the UNIX™ Support Group at what was then AT&T Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, NJ.  For the first six months I merged code in commands from the real-time version of UNIX™ (UNIX-RT) into the mainstream System 3 (or was it 4?) versions.  In September 1981 I was sent to Stanford University on the Bell Labs One Year on Campus (OYOC) program to get a Master of Science degree in Electrical Engineering.  I would probably never gone to graduate school without OYOC as it paid all the bills which were substantial at Stanford.   All you had to do was study.  Unfortunately this program was a casualty of the breakup of the Bell System.  In 1983 it was severely curtailed and died soon after.

I was woefully unprepared for life at one of the finest Electrical Engineering schools in the world.  I had been out of school for three years and hadn't taken many technical courses in the last two years I was an undergraduate.  I persevered though and returned to Bell Labs with my MS in Electrical Engineering in April 1983.  I worked on the UNIX™ networking command uucp(1) until I was transferred to the Applied Research part of  what was known at the time as the Central Services Organization, soon to be known as Bell Communications Research or Bellcore for short.

I will document my 20 year career in Applied Research at Bellcore (which later became Telcordia Technologies) at a future time.  A few words about it are currently in the job-related section of this site.

Maintained by Daniel V. Wilson and last modified 9 October 2011.