Trapped in the Coal Mine

16 March 1999



In 1978, I was called to Wright Patterson Air Force base to untangle a complex air defense simulation program which had been built by the company I was working for at the time and which did not work.

I had been on the initial design phases of the effort but did not win the battle over who would actual program the simulation and the company scientists, who look down on engineers at the time and still may for all I know, did the actual programming.  “Programming?  How hard could it be?", they said.

And so after weeks and weeks of trying to get the costly simulation program to execute at Wright Pat, and with the whole project severely over budget and the client ready to lynch everyone involved, I was sent out and told I had one week to “fix it”.  Lucky me.

When I reached Wright Pat, I met a very hostile client.  An engineer and not a scientist, he knew enough programming to know that what had been delivered to him was a mess and as he did not know me at all, was not inclined to be real helpful and in fact, I think at the time, he had already started the wheels turning to have the project put into default where the government sued for breach of contract.

And so, I was given an old teletype machine and placed in a closet at the end of one hall, as far away from the project office as possible.  Even still, the teletype machine was very nosey and so I had to keep the door shut on the closet all the time.

And so for one week, from 7 am until midnight I was in the 4 foot by 4 foot closet, examining computer code, rewriting it, entering into the teletype and executing the program over and over again.

About day 3, I began to go a little crazy over the cramped quarters and decided to bring a radio with me so I could at least have some contact with the outside world.

It was on the very first radio day that I heard of the coal mine disaster with 5 men trapped deep below ground and the efforts being made to rescue them.

From 7am until midnight, day after day listening to news flashes of the rescue efforts and I began to see myself trapped with the miners there in my closet and me untangling multilevel embedded loops and the brilliant scientist letting complex variables being divided by 0 all the time.

On day 5, when I got off work at midnight, my brain was mush.  The rescue efforts for the miners was stalled as part of the tunnel had fallen in again and hopes of finding any one alive was fading and so at bed time I swallowed several doses of drugs.

Somewhere around 11am the next day, the hotel management broke into my room and woke me after repeated attempts by Air Force personnel to locate me had failed and phone calls to me room yielded no results.  And so, back into the pit, the closet, the mine.

Analyze, rewrite, enter, execute, over and over again and move the rock back out of the hole and pick and shovel some more, hoping to reach the trapped men in time and on day 6, the program finally began to execute fully and by midnight the system was operational or nearly so and I could finally get some rest but time for one more news bulletin on the rescue efforts and the men had been saved!

On day 7, I spent all day in the light and space of the Air Force's project manager’s office and drank coffee and smiled and talked.

And so, here, now, many years later, I know there was no connection between me being in that closet, my own efforts and those trapped men but at the time,  I was absolutely convinced that I was in that mine with those men and would not get out until every last ton of programming errors had been moved.


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