I pulled up at the light at El Segundo and Continental. It was a beautiful California morning. So beautiful that I’d’ve had the sunroof open if the traffic weren’t so noisy. To my left, waiting for traffic to move was Steve Douglas in that blue Chevy. I waved. Steve looked glum: even more harassed and harried than normal, which meant plenty harassed and harried. I rolled down the passenger side window. “Everything OK, Steve?”
He shook his head in a kind of dismissive way and gestured up and to his right. I didn’t have to look up to know what he was indicating: a building on the corner with the logo “Northrop Grumman” on the top. Northrop’s new CEO had started work that week and, as his first act, he announced that the company was moving its headquarters from Century City to Washington. I nodded. This was another blow to the aerospace biz in southern California, which doesn’t need any more bad news. Steve, after all, is an aerospace engineer and … wait a minute. Could it be that Steve works for Northrop?
I heard a friendly little “beep-beep” behind me to my left and turned to see Ward Cleaver pulling up in his Fury right behind Steve. I waved and he waved back. “The Beav has his SATs today,” he called out. “Hey, Steve,” I relayed, “The Beaver has his SATs today.” No response. Wow, Steve was down. Way down.
And how time flies. I pictured those two suburban paradises, the Cleaver and Douglas houses, with their broods of sons growing up (though slowly!). We ASSUME those neighborhoods are somewhere in LA, though we can’t tell for sure: the palm trees seem to be a strong clue. What if Steve works for Northrop? Granted, the HQ move is only supposed to affect the 300 or so people in the tower up in Century City but, if my own experience is any indicator, there’s always a lot more fallout when the bosses leave town. Maybe Steve’s own boss is moving east … will Steve be expected to follow suit, or will he simply be relegated to a life that starts at 5 A.M., checking e-mail and voice mail to make certain he hasn’t missed any early-breaking developments from the Eastern time zone on his project? Man, it’s tough. Imagine having to do that from home at 5 in the morning with a house full of boys grousing about getting ready for school. Not a pretty picture. Darn it, this is the kind of thing that “My Three Sons” and “Leave it To Beaver” didn’t prepare us for. Steve moving the Douglas clan to some godforsaken suburb in southern Maryland, a seventy-minute one-way commute into Washington, while Bub and the boys deal with weather that prevents them from playing baseball every day of the year or working on jalopies out in the driveway whenever they find those mysterious people who were always selling jalopies to teenagers for $50? Can’t picture it. Steve Douglas picking up slugs to fill up the car for the HOV lanes at some beltway intersection? Nope. What’s the deal here, folks? Just because Convair and Douglas and Hughes and TRW about a jillion other companies don’t exist any more doesn’t mean that highly skilled engineers no longer want to work in a place where their kids can surf and snowboard and play baseball pretty much year-round. Inside the beltway? Belt me one!
I glanced in my mirror, and there, behind me, was Ozzie in the big Chrysler, top down, golf clubs protruding from the back seat in a particularly jaunty way that seemed to suggest, “My bosses left town, and I’m better off for it.” Maybe that’s it! Maybe that’s the secret of the universe that Ozzie cracked. Perhaps he had worked for Douglas or Convair and they left town and, well, just forgot he was out here! So he gets in the car every morning wearing a white shirt, a tie, and a cardigan sweater (standard engineer wear, after all) and drives off, but not to work! He’s off to play Las Verdes or Chester Washington or Fox Hills, whichever course suits his fancy that day. To be left, to be forgotten, but still on the payroll! Ozzie! You’re the man!
All these folks in cars around me were part of the Southern California aerospace heritage. Some of them had stood in the street and cheered as the first shuttle was trucked out through the streets — they had built it. The oldest of them — although most of those folks were now retired — had watched with tears in their eyes on July 20th in ’69 as the LEM touched the moon; they, those very people, had assembled the ten thousand parts that, by god, worked, and were landing on the moon! And the younger ones now work on satellites and radar systems and other technology so advanced and exotic that even if they described them to you would not make sense to an ordinary person.
“Steve, is that where you work?” I asked, but the light changed, and we all had to move on. I hope I still see him on these mornings. I noticed a bumper sticker on the back of Steve’s car that I hadn’t noticed before. It read, “As a matter of fact, I AM a rocket scientist!”