atomic_fungus (atomic_fungus) wrote,
atomic_fungus
atomic_fungus

#150: 9/11, five years later

If Osama bin Laden and I ever come face-to-face, he had better hope it's in polite society. Because if we're not both wearing tuxedos, he's going to eat his own testicles.

In fact, I might even be gauche and do it anyway.

The turn of the century was a bit rocky, economically, for the US. In 1999 and 2000 we suffered a setback when the "Dot Com Bubble" burst.

Investors, it was said, suffered from "irrational exuberance" and the market was seriously overinflated. We didn't have the economy to support a Dow average as high as 11,000. But online businesses were hot and people were investing money, and earning back many times what they'd invested. Hot off the tails of the "Y2K Bug" situation, the technical sector hummed along like a well-kept Ferrari.

Then the Department of Justice, under Clinton appointee Janet Reno, decided that Microsoft was a monopoly and had to be "busted".

The Dow-Jones and NASDAQ both plummeted instantly. The "Dot Com Bust" took weeks. But soon, the formerly burgeoning tech sector was hitting the skids. Engineers, programmers, and technicians who had been earning hundreds of thousands of dollars per year found themselves without jobs, and without job prospects.

The Dot-com Bust initiated a minor recession, in all but name--few newspaper editors would utter the "R" word while a Democrat occupied the Oval Office--and the economy suffered. For all that their existence was virtual, billions of dollars had vanished from the economy overnight, and the people who had relied on the existence of those dollars (virtual or not) found themselves with bills that had to be paid, with no income to pay them.

The election of 2000 only exacerbated the issue. With America's political future hanging in the balance for more than a month, the uncertainties led the market to falter.

In early 2001 the economy started to struggle back from the recession. It was slow going; the excessively high Dow-Jones average during the Dot-com Bubble had acted like a kind of credit card, and the economy now found itself making payments on that advance. But while the recovery was slow, it was a recovery; and even though newspaper editors were now throwing around "recession" like it was confetti, the American public knew what was actually happening. By mid-2001, only crackpots still thought the recession was going to continue until Bush was impeached or otherwise removed from office.

* * *

"Hey, Ed," Dave Fitch said. "An airplaine just crashed into the World Trade Center."

"Damn," I replied. I was in the middle of writing a circuit theory; that was my primary job on the NAV1 writing team at Rockwell-Collins.

Our manager was fond of saying that I had to provide "technical leadership" for our team because I knew the most about electronics of any of them. Dave, our other writer, was in his fifties, if not his sixties; Dale Weirauch, our illustrator, was in his forties; and our editor-composer, Kelly Hill, was in her twenties. Dave was a capable writer but I had never known him to decipher circuit diagrams on his own. I could read the schematics and figure out how the circuit worked, and that was the one remaining facet of the job that I could even remotely call "pleasurable": I got paid to sit and figure out how stuff worked, and describe it.

For that, I was routinely criticized by Kelly, who apparently thought I was sleeping or doing other non-productive things while staring at circuit diagrams and making notes. "Ed, what are you working on?" Argh. I never failed to meet a deadline, and I always got my work done. Once she said that one of my theories was "very poorly written", and I still haven't managed to forgive her for that. (You can call me names, you can mock my hobbies, and you can even step on my blue suede shoes, but don't tell me I can't write!)

Our cubicle was part of a large "cubicle farm", each cube containing a four-man writing team. There were other functions in other cubes. It was on the second floor of Building 153 in the huge Rockwell-Collins technoplex in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

The morning of September 11, 2001 dawned with the promise of a very pleasant autumn day. The sky was free of clouds. It was a pleasant Tuesday morning even as I left for work, toting my breifcase and thinking about anything but how the day would end.

And so there I was, at 8 AM, working at my computer, and Dave told me about what had happened in New York. And a bit later, he told me about the airplane crashing into the other tower of the World Trade Center.

We didn't have any TVs, nor could we listen to "internet radio". It was all but impossible to receive radio signals inside the grounded metal box we worked in; but even so, by the time that Ron Sellner and I took our morning walk, it was all over: the US had been attacked by terrorists. All non-military flights were grounded until further notice; the warning went unspoken that any aircraft which failed to land as ordered would be shot down.

So around 9:30 AM we walked through the bright September sunshine, and as I looked into the clear blue sky, some birds flew past. I thought, "For the first time in a hundred years, you own the sky again."

I was at work until 6 that day, and when I left work, Collins Road was utterly deserted. You must understand, Collins Road drove right through one of two major restaurant and shopping districts in the city of Cedar Rapids; on any typical evening there was plenty of traffic, and around "rush hour" it was horrendous. (Well, "horrendous" for Cedar Rapids, anyway.) Collins Road, at 6 PM on a Tuesday, had as much traffic as it had at 2 AM on a Sunday.

Everyone was at home, or at church. No one was in the mood to be "out and about". Like everyone else, I went home, turned on the TV, and watched the coverage.

I remember watching the coverage and hearing the sound that the towers made as they collapsed--that peculiar jet-engine roar they emitted as the clouds of choking dust ballooned over the streets of New York. I remember the telephoto shots of people falling from the upper floors, sucked out by air pressure, or jumped--better to die quickly in an Icarus-like plunge to the asphalt than to burn to death!--and the peculiar rain of paper.

Around all that, the news that the airlines were tallying up record losses--well, an airplane costs a lot of money, and naturally airlines have hundreds of them. It costs a lot of money for an airplane just to sit, immobile, and due to the nationwide ban on flight, all the airplanes in the country were taking up space and not flying.

I sat, on the evening of 9/11/01, and watched the coverage, unaware that my job had just become--to the US economy--an expensive luxury.

* * *

Over the next several weeks the rumors turned into facts. Rockwell-Collins had cut jobs; and now they were going to have to cut more.

I had survived the Dot-com Bust cuts; but only about a week after the announcement was made, that R-C had to cut payroll again, I was out the door.

It was a fact that the airline industry had been financially devastated by the moratorium on flight. Forget the four airplanes destroyed in the actual attack; the subsequent grounding of every plane in the nation was the real problem. It cost too much to own a passenger jet and not fly it; salaried employees still expected paychecks, the airports expected that their fees be paid, and the airplanes themselves still had to be maintained. The more time an airplane spent on the ground, the more it cost--because besides those other costs, it was not earning any money. "Opportunity cost" is the term economists use, and sometimes that can be the most painful of them all.

With the resumption of air travel, a few days later, the airline industry was in trouble, and everyone knew it. Two days' worth of lost revenue--it was a staggering amount of money, and the airlines operate perilously close to red ink anyway. They immediately began cost-control measures, draconian ones they would not ordinarily use, except in a dire emergency...like this one.

One of those measures was the reduction of maintenance. There are certain procedures which must be done every so often; but there are others which can be safely put off for a short while. It's like changing the oil in your car's engine; although the manufacturer recommends that it be done every 3,000 miles, you can go 3,500 or even 4,000 without any serious trouble.

The division of Rockwell-Collins I worked for was Collins Aviation Services. The manuals I wrote circuit theories for were Air Transport manuals...for the big commercial planes. And the technical publications department had only just finished being changed into a profit center.

Rockwell-Collins' sales hit the skids sometime after I was laid off, on October 15, 2001. The layoffs hit several people but the pattern was suspicious--as if they had been pre-planned, ready for whatever economic malady might come along. In the wake of it all I was pretty sure that R-C had intended another round of layoffs all along, and had seized on 9/11 as the perfect reason for it. Cynical, yes, but sometimes cynicism is not entirely misplaced.

I think about the irony of it all, though. When I started as a technical writer, I started in the Business and Regional Technical Publications department. They wrote manuals for the "puddle jumpers". At the time, technical documentation was part of the package: you bought Rockwell avionics, of course you got the manuals with it. This meant that TechPubs was a cost, rather than a profit, and so we were expected to work 40-hour weeks and not worry too much about deadlines. Working longer hours, publishing more books, all of that would have cost more for no real benefit.

But no one else in the industry was doing it that way, anymore; rather than capitalize on R-C's reputation and distinction that way, they decided it made more sense to follow the industry and start charging for documentation. That meant updating documentation fast and that meant everyone who was salaried had to work an extra 5 hours per week. (Hourly people were expected to go 40 hours per week and no more. No overtime was allowed for them!)

And a year or so later, market pressures caused layoffs. Big surprise!

The transformation of TechPubs into a profit center ruined the job. It took every last single iota of pleasure out of the work and made it into drudgery. My compensation for all this was a bitchy coworker who thought she knew how to do my job better than I did, and a manager who had all the major features of Dilbert's pointy-haired boss except for the pointy hair.

The 9/11 recession--no editor made any bones about that word now!--hit the technical sector the hardest. The tech sector had taken it up the rectum from the Dot-com Bust, and now...well, there were a lot of technical employees chasing too few jobs.

For me, what followed was four years of job-hunting and poverty. My debts mounted and I had no income; in 2003 I started work as a nurse assistant at a nursing home, wiping butts for 60% of my former salary and counting myself fortunate.

And now, five years after 9/11/01, I live with my parents (who, arguably, need a younger person living here, anyway) and work at Target. I am a "displaced worker", and my career in technical writing is utterly ruined, because I've been out of it for too long and have since worked in other jobs. No one will hire me to write technical manuals, not when they can get an unexperienced person right out of college. The fact that I would find an "entry level" salary more than acceptable, and that I would be more loyal than the college graduate, does not enter into the discussion. There is no discussion because no one will interview me.

Whom do I sue?
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