NIPSCO – Life Changing Time
Historical Posts representing Adventure Continues: Second Quarter
What was I thinking? I was a young professional enjoying a great lifestyle in Northwest Colorado. Yes, life was good, but I started thinking I could make it better, but to do that I would need to expand upon this new career as a chemist.
So I started applying at other power plants around the country and an option that came up was to be a plant chemist at NIPSCO’s Mitchell Power Station in Gary, IN. So I rationalized that Gary would not be terrible and access to Chicago might be cool, etc, etc. We moved to the armpit of America in the Spring of 1980, finding a rental home in Hammond, IN, for my new job in Gary. It took about a week for us to start making plans for how we could get out of this place. I now understand how that young man with an adventurous spirit justified this move, but at that time I had no idea how life changing it would be.
I think the tone was set when I took my required physical exam for the job. I was from Indiana but I had changed into a free spirited mountain man from Colorado. During the exam the nurse asked me if I smoked. So my reply was, sure I smoked some marijuana occasionally, but never tobacco. It never crossed my mind that one should not divulge such information. So three days later I was asked to appear in the plant directors office where I was greeted by plant leadership. They asked me if I knew why I was there and I truly did not. They said, no one has ever answered the question about smoking the way I had. OK, now I realized what I had done and where I did it. I took a moment to speak, but then with great confidence I said: “Look at it this way, I am the most honest person that works here”. And they bought it. I assured them that I would never be under the influence of marijuana while at work and they could totally trust my work ethic. I still cannot believe that I did this, but I totally understand where my state of mind was that allowed me to.
Connie and I were making the best of this home. We rented a fairly cool old house in Hammond. Connie got a job as a legal secretary, we got to visit our family in Indiana, we checked out Chicagoland. I was enjoying the chemist job helping them create more standardized testing procedures.
Our pets were dominating our attention since Coco was about to have pups, Rusty was playing the father dog role and Barney the Cat was establishing his turf. Unfortunately, Barney did not understand the ways of the urban cat gangs. He had been missing for a few days when he showed up all torn up from fighting. We patched him up but he went right back out to retake his turf and we never saw him again. We were sad but also a bit impressed by Barney’s determination. Soon Coco had a litter of 12 cute australian shepherd puppies and we were knee deep in puppy poop in our basement. Unfortunately, Coco developed an infection that prevented her from caring for her pups as we might have hoped so Connie and I provided assistance with baby bottles. It was intense for a few weeks and we lost 2 of the pups, but soon we had crazy playful pups all over us.
If we had lived anywhere other than in the Chicago area we could have made some pretty good money off those pups, but soon it was just about finding them good homes, which we accomplished.
It was starting to warm up and the Indiana humidity combined with the industrial pollution of the area was motivating us all the more to escape this horrible place. A volcano named, Mt St Helens, erupted in the Northwest which created red skies in Chicago that looked like there was a fire in the heavens. Why were we here? But then I discovered a computer store called ComputerLand that was selling the Apple II computer. OMG, I could own a computer. I was obsessed and scraped together enough money to buy the Apple with a monitor, cassette tape drive and thermal printer. There were very few programs available so I started writing my own, quickly realizing that I could develop supporting programs for the chemist work we were doing. There was a dream evolving in my mind where I could envision my new evolving skill parlaying into a computer career. It was also about this time when our plant’s labor union decided to go on strike.
I quickly learned that a strike in the industrial armpit of America was a significant event. Unions in this area were in solidarity when it came to strikes, so when NIPSCO management did not budge and our workers went out on strike it was no longer safe for us non-union strike breakers to conduct our lives as usual. We went into a total plant lockdown where the administrators, supervisors and plant professionals took over responsibility for running the plant. Oh yes, and they paid us triple our salary which would financially pave the way for my exit.
This experience was fascinating to watch the process whereby company management had to prove that they did not need the union workers. The line was drawn and the two sides were facing off which is why we initially had to stay in the plant for like 10 days. Then it was something like out for 3 and in for 7 days at a time. Accomodations were made for us to sleep in areas converted to dorms, but I asked if I could bring my parent’s camping trailer on the property and stay there. And they said yes which sort of set things up for me to stay more independent which is what I had always been since I don’t think anyone else had ever taken a job there from Colorado. We went about our jobs along with some new assignments but we did have free time and everyone seemed to showcase some hobby or personal interest. A coworker who I had gotten to know was a serious saxophone player so I got to observe what that life looked like. For me it was about my computer but I also had this desire to play frisbee on the turbine floor. To do that I had to find someone who could throw so that I could have fun with my acrobatic catches. I guess we were all just trying to show off. But I was learning a lot about people.
For entertainment we were fortunate to be living at the time of the VHS and Beta Tape battles and no real legal control over the pirating of current run movies. So we were actually watching movies that were in the local theaters. But the ultimate entertainment night would be on my shoulders. I was telling people about my Apple Computer and that I had some games on it. These were typically simple text oriented games but I started to get some of the guys to checkout my football game. A simple play by play where you would run a play or choose a defense and the computer would randomly provide an outcome for the play. I found a way to put in our own names for the players which gave me the idea to create a game based on our own plant groups playing each other. Somehow the hype took off and everyone ended up in the cafeteria one night with my computer displaying the football game action projected onto a screen. We played an entire game where my computer was giving play-by-play results which included the names of most everyone in the room. These hard core power plant professionals went wild cheering for each play and I just made it run.
Keeping all of this in context: I’m a 26 year old chemist who came from Colorado and by then everyone knew how I had answered the smoking question and I am orchestrating one of the weirdest parties that I could have imagined. I think that is when I realized that anything was possible and I decided to take my strike pay winfall and move back to my beloved Steamboat Springs, CO, to develop laboratory software and open a computer store. I called Jeff, my college buddy who had just graduated with an MBA and degree in Law to see he wanted to join me. Connie was all in and left for Steamboat with the dogs. Soon after that I resigned from my job at NIPSCO and finalized my move back to Steamboat to launch my new adventure.