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CollegeCollage2

( ... more ^z autobiographical fragments ... )

After spending the summer of 1972 at home, working part-time in his Father's small business (building pick-up truck covers and campers in Pflugerville, a little town north of Austin), ^z returned to Rice University for his Junior year. He stayed in an efficiency apartment for a month or two before a vacancy in a dorm room opened up and he was able to move onto campus. A little 50cc Honda motorcycle let him putter back and forth. As proof, he still has the scars on his knee from a spill, rounding a corner on a gravel road.

Rice was loosely modeled after Cambridge: student houses were called colleges, and no fraternities were allowed. ^z was assigned to Hanszen, "The Gentleman's College". Hanszen members (all male, then) were at one time obliged to wear a tie to dinner. Many met this requirement by putting a piece of string around their necks, on top of their t-shirts. The evening meal in the early 1970s was often a hasty affair, since the original Star Trek TV series happened to air at dinner time. In that pre-VCR era, many student-fans bolted their food and raced back to their rooms to watch. Other evenings there were food fights, "Viking Table" (no utensils!), or similar sophisticated academic activities. A sign labeled the knife/fork/spoon bins, "Alphabetized by second letter of each word".

Junior year was pleasant and productive for ^z. His roommate was a prototypical petroleum engineer, Andy Arismendi --- compatibly studious and quiet. Physics and math classes were challenging but fun; work in the school library was relaxing and offered many opportunities to discover new authors worth reading. Reshelving books brought ^z's first encounters with Knuth's Art of Computer Programming and with the Horatio Hornblower series of sea stories, for instance. ^z read ravenously.

Undergraduate social life? Next to none ... no dates, though much admiration of local feminine pulchritude from afar. In spite of its participation in Southwest Conference football, Rice was a serious school. The acronym TRG = "Typical Rice Girl" was frequently used to suggest that the brainy women there lacked normal beauty. This was unfair.

But on the techno-social side, the amateur radio club had equipment which was free to use for hams. ^z got his license, advanced to Extra class (WB5CMQ, later N6WX), exchanged telegraphic messages with his Brother in Austin, and took the graveyard shift for on-the-air contests which the club participated in.

Rice's excellent computer facilities were the major source of nerdy entertainment. The main campus CPU was a monster IBM mainframe, programmed in FORTRAN on punch-cards and in BASIC or APL via hard-wired paper teletypes, Decwriters, and Selectric typeball printers. Processor time was expensive, a tightly budgeted commodity. But between midnight and dawn the machines were under-utilized, and some genius in the computer center declared free access during those dark hours --- the "Night-Owls" service. (An Athenian owl was Rice's mascot.) It became a local geekish tradition to get to bed early, set the alarm, and then hike in the darkness across campus to get a few hours of computer time for experiments in recreational programming before breakfast.

For his Senior year at Rice, ^z joined a small consortium with fellow physics majors Ed Biegert and Bert Wallace plus a younger student named Dean Coleman to capture a prime suite of rooms in Hanszen College: the top floor of the Tower. (Rooms were allocated by seniority in a bidding system.) Bert was a short West Texan with big boots and a bold personality --- scrupulously honest, wealthy but modest. (He returned home after graduation to run the family ranch.) Ed was loud and funny, hard working and hard playing, a natural ringleader. When ^z first encountered him Ed was telling a joke: "The car companies have a conspiracy ... they know perfectly well how to build tires that last forever, but they choose not to. The secret? Make tires out of steel!" (^_^) Well, perhaps one had to hear Ed tell it, from two rows back before math class started, in order to appreciate the humor. (Ed got his Ph.D. in physics at Rice, married a TRG, and has been working in and around the geophysical side of the petroleum industry in the Houston area.)

The Hanszen dorm Tower was five storeys tall, with no elevator --- which made the penthouse suite nicely isolated from frivolous visitors. The top floor that Ed, Bert, Dean, and ^z took over consisted of a pair of bedrooms, a shared living/study space, and a bathroom/shower. The crew soon had moved all the bunks into one bedroom, the desks into the other, and had the place quite liveable. Dean build the first digital clock that ^z had ever seen, a Heathkit with bright red LED display. Everybody stayed up until 11:11:11 the first night it was plugged in, to marvel at the symmetry of the time. Dean also wired a neon bulb to the phone line, so he and his friends could see it flicker and answer the phone before the first ring, often much to the consternation of the calling party.

The Hanszen penthouse team had a singular close call: they were on the sun-deck outside their tower suite when a Houston thunderstorm approached. No rain, just gusts of wind and distant rumblings. Then suddenly --- blinding flash and tingle of corona discharge! The gang was terrified and ran inside to cower. Moments later, friends from the floors below raced up the stairs to ask what had happened; they had seen the lightning and heard an almost-simultaneous boom of thunder. Neither ^z nor his roommates remembered any sound whatsoever. Apparently the thunderbolt had passed nearby; the building and foolish balcony occupants were protected by a lightning rod on the roof a few feet above them.

The senior year went smoothly for ^z; he missed getting a double major in math + physics by a couple of credits, but no matter. He studied hard, got good grades, and graduated summa cum laude, albeit in absentia --- he went home to Austin instead of hanging around for the final ceremony. He had been inducted into Phi Beta Kappa the previous year, since his excess transfer credits from UT/Austin put him over the threshold then. None of these honors meant much to him, however. He continued to practice the quasi-stoic oblivious-to-externals attitude that he had slid into in his youth. Zen? Mr. Spock? Or just indifference? Life was good, learning was fun, and other more complex things could wait.

^z applied to Caltech and was admitted to graduate study in physics there. He flew to California for the first time in his life in late August of 1974.

(see CollegeCollage1)

Tuesday, October 03, 2000 at 06:03:43 (EDT) = Datetag20001003

TopicPersonalHistory - TopicLibraries - TopicProfiles


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