The Curiosity Shop

My Trip To Austin

Hi Terry,

Here's the story of the trip I told you about.

I mentioned before that I'd gone to work for Texas Instruments and that I taught the programming language Pascal there. I'd always had an interest in artificial intelligence and in 1983 I got lucky. The head of the defense contracts division's internal education group that I was in, Artie, was asked to form an artificial intelligence group and I was asked to be in it. Furthermore, I got to go off to the Corporate Software Lab to learn Lisp. That was in March or Aril. I spent a lot of time learning Lisp, reading a book and working all the exercises. The last 3 or 4 months of the year I got to do some work on a Lisp Machine, a computer where the operating system, the programming language, everything, was written in Lisp. It was definitely a programmer's machine, a real dream to program on. Nothing I've programmed on since Lisp machines vanished from the world has even come close. I could go on and on about Lisp machines, but I won't.

The work I did at the corporate Computer Science Center was on the editor on the Lisp machine, Zmacs, a cousin to the world's best text editor currently, Emacs. At the end of the year I turned over the responsibility for Zmacs to the people who were responsible for developing our own Lisp machine, known then as Eagle. It turned out that nobody there took the trouble to learn anything about it and as the system software was fixed and changed Zmacs suffered bitrot. I guess it was nearly a year later that I was helping the technical writer prepare a manual for Zmacs. I tried out one editor function and it didn't work. Then I tried several others. Some worked and some didn't. I checked some more and then told the supervisor of the Eagle software project, Joyce, and my supervisor Artie what a sorry state the editor was in. The result was that, some time later, a real Emacs expert, Paul, and I spent two months working night and day getting every known bug out of Zmacs. I fixed approximately 200 of them. Paul fixed at least that many more.

The beginning of that effort was to be a meeting at the Austin plant with Paul, Pat from Austin, and me so we could plan the debugging job. I was told several weeks in advance that I was to come to the meeting. It was on a Monday. Normally when there were trips I had to make for work, my plane tickets would come several days before I had to leave, but the Friday before the meeting came and still no plane tickets had arrived for me. I tried to call Joyce and the lady in charge of the Eagle software project in Dallas, Ellen, but I couldn't reach either of them. Saturday I decided that I would have to take matters into my own hands, and I phoned for reservations myself.

Now I had only lived in Texas for five years, but my wife and I had taken a trip to Austin, Corpus Christi, Galveston, past Houston, and home shortly before our first child, Marijka, was born. We'd stopped at the company plant while in Austin too so I knew where it was. Also, from listening to the radio, I knew that besides the international airports, there were commuter airports with pretty good rates. The one in Dallas is Love Field and the other one down south is Hobby Field. So I phoned and asked for a round trip ticket from Love Field to Hobby and back. I made it nice and early so I would be sure to get there at 8:00 in the morning, though that meant getting up at 4:00 a.m.

It was a cold winter morning when I went out to our old Volvo to drive to the airport. That Volvo was made the only year that they used a very narrow alternator belt, too narrow to grip the pulleys in cold weather, as we'd learned during our winter in Wisconsin. I squirted some red, belt grip goop on the alternator pulley when I started the engine and the belt started squealing that morning. Usually that fixed the problem, but that morning I was 6 or 7 miles down the road before it stopped. I didn't have time to fool with it more before leaving with my plane to catch.

When I got to the Mockingbird Lane exit from I35, the exit to Love Field, the alternator light came on. I was sure the battery was good enough to get me to the airport and back home. I just couldn't remember for sure if that belt powered anything else. I drove on to the airport and everything seemed OK.

I boarded the plane and flew down to Hobby field in Houston. I rented a car from National Rent-a-Car, where TIers always rented cars, and asked where the company plant was on a highway northwest of town. The lady showed me the highway on the map, more or less where I'd remember it from my Austin visit a few years earlier. I got on the beltway, and about half an hour later got to the exit I wanted. The sign said, "Highway 290, Austin." I said to myself, "I'm IN Austin. Oh no! I'm in HOUSTON."

I took the exit, went under the freeway, and headed back to Hobby Field. There were flights every hour or so from Love Field to Austin and Houston and I figured that I'd soon get a plane to Austin. In fact, it would have been faster to drive to Austin but I didn't know that. I was very upset about the mistake and somehow that made all the windows in the car steam up when I took the exit to turn around. As I headed back to Houston I had to turn on the defroster and open the windows for a few minutes. I could barely see where I was going.

When I got back to Hobby Field, I turned in my rental car and went back inside the terminal. There was a lone, Southwest Airlines ticket desk just inside the door I entered. I took a few steps to the agent and presented my ticket back to Dallas. I asked to have it changed to go to Austin. The ticket agent put a line through where it said, "Dallas" and wrote in "Austin". He directed me to the gate, where the plane would take off at 11:30 a.m. When I got there I noticed that there were a lot of people waiting for a flight to Dallas at the gate next to mine.

Since I was going to be so late getting to Austin, and I had quite a wait, I decided to call Joyce and tell her I'd be late. I didn't have her number, so I called back to the Computer Science Center's computer room and a friend answered. He said, "I'm glad you called. Joyce's been trying to get you all morning. Pat has the flu and won't be coming in today, so the meeting has been canceled."

I rushed over to the neighboring gate where the people were waiting to go to Dallas and asked if I could have my ticket changed back to go to Dallas. The ticket agent put a line through "Austin" and wrote in "Dallas". I asked how much time there was before the plane left. She said that they were just about to begin boarding, so I still had some time.

I went to the phone to let Joyce know I'd gotten her message. She said, "Oh, Pat decided to come in anyway, so we may as well go on with the meeting. Where are you?"

"At the airport." I said, not wanting to look too foolish by saying too much.

"Then you'll be here in half an hour or so?" she asked.

"No," I said. "I'm at the Houston airport."

"What are you doing there?"

"It's just a mistake. I'll be there about noon." I said.

I said good-bye to Joyce and went back over to the lady at the Dallas gate. I told her that I wanted to go to Austin after all. With a somewhat wild look in her eyes, her tore the ticket in half and threw it in the trash. Then she gave me a gate pass for the flight to Austin. I sat down and waited for the plane to come.

When I got to Austin it was just past noon and I was hungry. As I drove to the company plant I was looking for a fast food restaurant. I soon saw a Burger King in front of me and went in and got a hamburger and chocolate shake to go. I returned to the car, unlocked it, got back in and put the key in the ignition, but it wouldn't turn. I wiggled the steering wheel and the shift lever but the key still would not turn. I took the key out and put it back in again. I wiggled everything again, but no luck. I couldn't start the car.

I had once driven a car that belonged to my university on some university business. That car wouldn't start unless my seatbelt was fastened. I didn't know a lot about American cars, particularly new ones, and it occurred to me that there might be something I didn't know about starting this rental car. I took my rental car papers and went back into the Burger King to the pay phone. I called an 800 number listed there but there was no answer. There was another number in Minnesota, but that was no longer in service a recording told me. I tried the 800 number again, but it was still busy. So I called back to the Computer Science Center computer room. Almost everyone was at lunch, but one fellow was there and answered the phone. I described my problem and what I'd done and asked if he had any ideas. He said he didn't. I thanked him and hung up.

There were a couple of men and a little boy eating lunch in a booth next to the pay phone. After I hung up, one of the men said to me, "Having trouble with your car?"

"Yes, I can't get the key to turn in the ignition." I said.

"Mind if I try?" he asked.

I answered, "Be my guest." As we walked out to the car I took the keys out of my pocket. I unlocked the door and handed him the keys. He got in and started the car without difficulty and turned it off again. "Let me try that!" I said. I got in and started the car as easily as he had. I didn't know what to think, but I thanked the man and went on my way to the meeting.

It took me a while to find Joyce and Pat when I got to the plant. Everyone was at lunch. But finally they finished and Pat and I went to his cubicle to discuss our plans for the debugging job.

"Well, let's see, just what do we need to discuss?" Pat asked.

"I don't know." I said. "We'll just need to work on the bugs till we have them all fixed."

"Yeah, I guess so." said Pat. "Maybe we should call Paul and see if there was anything he wanted to discuss."

I agreed. Paul, lacking a plane ticket to the meeting, had decided not to come. We called him and asked if there was anything he wanted to talk about, but there wasn't.

So much for the meeting. Pat said that there was some computer code he wanted to give to someone at the Computer Science Center and asked if I'd mind waiting until he could put it on a tape. I didn't mind and talked to some friends in cubicles nearby while I waited for the tape.

Then I drove back to the airport, turned in my car, and flew to Love Field without any problem. As I walked to my Volvo I was thinking again about that broken belt. It was dusk by then, I had no tools with me, and I had pretty well convinced myself that the bad belt had only driven the alternator. As I got near the car I reached in my pocket and pulled a set of rental car keys. That was why the second rental car hadn't started at Burger King, but I didn't realize it for another 12 years or so. I was telling a good friend this story and when I said I'd pulled a set of rental car keys from my pocket she interruptedme with the question, "So when did you realize why the car wouldn't start?"

"Not till right now." I answered, feeling not too brilliant.

I didn't get more than a mile or so down Mockingbird Lane before I noticed that the temperature gauge was headed for the high end of the scale. I pulled quickly into the parking lot of a hotel I was passing and found a parking place. The parking lot was on a slight grade. The Volvo's emergency brakes didn't work very well, so I picked a parking place as far downhill as possible, rolling the front wheels right up to the curb that separated the lot from the sidewalk along Mockingbird Lane.

I went into the hotel, a very nice one, and phoned my wife. She had just finished giving our girls baths and was about to put them to bed. Instead she brought them, my toolbox, a couple of flashlights, and our spare alternator belt to the hotel.

When my wife got there she gave me the keys to our Mazda and went inside with the girls to pass the time. I got out my trusty old 5 D cell Radio Shack flashlight and turned it on. There was only a feeble light. I'd thought the batteries were weak and that's why I'd asked my wife to bring the other light. We'd been given it for Christmas a couple months earlier. It was the kind you leave plugged in so it's always charged. I turned it on. It was totally dead. There was a street light near the car, but the Volvo hood cast a shadow on the entire engine compartment. Even so, I'd worked on that car so many times, I thought I could probably do it by feel. I tried for a while, dropping half a dozen spacer washers under the engine at one point. They were too well centered to reach from either side and the curb was in the way in front. Well, I wouldn't need them for a while, so I went on working. I got nice and greasy, but I couldn't find all the bolts to loosen the alternator and finally had to give up. I was also getting somewhat nervous about a couple of guys hanging around on the sidewalk just at the edge of my vision. It's not a very good part of town, and I kept my heavy ratchet in my hand at all times. Finally I'd had enough. I went back into the hotel, grease all over me, and walked all over that pretty hotel looking for my family. After much looking I found them and we went back to the car. I asked my wife to drive. I told her that after the day I'd had I didn't feel like I'd be lucky enough to make it home without a wreck.

The next day I drove back to the hotel with my wife and fixed the Volvo in about 15 minutes. I noticed a bus stop sign where the two young men had been standing the night before. Then I drove to work.

A couple days later I was filling out my expense form to be reimbursed for the trip. When I got to the part for airline tickets I realized that I had no receipt for my trip to Houston and from there to Austin. The receipt had been torn up by the Houston gate attendant. I went to Ellen and told her that I didn't have a receipt, that it had been destroyed, and asked if she would authorize the reimbursement. She said she would. Then I added that I'd gone to Houston on the trip too and asked if I could be reimbursed for that too.

"Why did you go to Houston?" she asked with a curious look.

"I went there by mistake." I admitted.

"O.K." she said and smiled as if to say, "I won't embarrass you by asking for more details."

So everything worked out fine in the end. At least that part of things did.

And now it's past time for me to go to bed. Hope you're all doing well. Write soon.


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