Flashback

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Reprinted without permission from the University of Houston Magazine Spring 2018 issue. Permission requested numerous times without response.

If we were having coffee today I’d again be waxing all nostalgic on you.  I saw this picture in the Spring 2018 University of Houston Magazine.  Wow, what a flash from the past.  I see from the banner that this dates from the campaign days of 1976.  I could so easily be in this picture as during those years I went up and down those stairs countless times.  I was even grabbed by a Secret Service agent on the bottom of the stair case on the left when I attempted the go up the stairs while President Ford’s son was getting ready to speak on the upper landing during the 1976 campaign.

I got nostalgic seeing this picture because I have very deep roots to this building and most of my experiences there went way beyond just being a student.  For over two years I was employed there with two different jobs.  At that time the building comprised of two sections, the three story primary structure (well, basement and two upper levels) and an adjacent one story underground structure.  Just behind and below those stairs is where the entrance tunnel to the underground section was.  My first job was in an office down there and I was heading to class from work when the Secret Service grabbed me.

I worked for what was then called the “Campus Activities Department” and they provided support and advisors for all on-campus organizations like clubs, honor societies, student government, campus programming, fraternities, and sororities.  This service center took up the major portion of the underground portion of the building. One of the services was called the Organization’s Bank, and it allowed qualified groups from all aspects of campus life to have an “account” for their treasuries, all managed through a central Campus Activites bank account.  I first encountered this when I volunteered in the campus programming board, then called Program Council.  The woman who ran this bank was very friendly and pleasant so I’d drop by and visit from time to time just to say “Hi.”

In early 1975 she needed a new assistant and offered me the part-time office job. It was convenient working on-campus and it helped draw me into the mainstream of virtually all of campus life.  This was long before mass computerization so all the transactions were handled manually via an even-then ancient Burroughs automatic posting machine with individual ledger cards for each account. Young people are always amazed that we were able to use tools such as this in those pre-computer days but the machines and the procedures worked quite well. I worked there for over a year and quite enjoyed my time there.  The office was down a back hallway and I was working once when a fire occurred in one of the maintenance closets on the far edge of the building.  They evacuated both buildings as a precaution and that office was so out of the way, I was found happily working away by someone making a last pass through the building.  It was news to me.  Of course, they had suppressed the alarms.  So much for fire drills, right?

I could have worked in that office for another year until graduation, but through contacts in the building I became aware of a job in the maintenance department of the same building, as a student assistant to the building mechanics.  Office work was okay, but this job provided the opportunity for more hours and an even more flexible schedule. My hours were quite limited in the office job but in this role, I could work evenings and even weekends and pretty much set my own schedule.  There was *always* something to do.   Some weeks I could almost work full-time if the evening mechanic was sick.  On a student economy, more hours was always a plus.

This job was great, and because of it I eventually came to know almost every inch of the building complex.  I’m talking every office, every mechanical room, every deep dark cranny, even disgusting places you don’t want to know exist. Those steps in the picture? I painted those once, with a non-skid coating.  I regularly had to go onto the roof of the building too. One of the main duties was to go on rounds and make sure there were no problems like squeaky belts or grinding motor bearings (remember that fire I mentioned).  Once, while working over the holidays, I found a large amount of water pooling in the corridor between the main building and the underground offices and checked outside on  the ground above that corridor. It was obviously a major water main leak.   University repair crews had to be called in for an emergency repair even though it was Christmas Day.

The building was extensively renovated a few years ago and I’m sure when they were doing that, they found my scrawl on any of the older breaker boxes that had survived 35+ years in the building.  Once, some electricians were working in the ceiling above a dining room of what was called the old Cougar Den on the bottom level.  The workers found they needed to flip an unmarked breaker and this unfortunately cut power to the cash registers in the main dining area one floor above.  This happened in the middle of the lunch rush.  Nobody realized that during some past construction work  power had been tapped below the floor to a circuit in the Cougar Den to facilitate installation of new outlets for a cash register station that had no other access to power.  It took a frustratingly long time to locate the problem because no one thought to relate the work on the lower floor to this problem.  After that, another student worker and I spent a weekend mapping all the breakers in the building.

That particular work came in handy too because not long afterwards, we had been called in to help the short-staffed custodial group to do a rather large banquet reset in the third level ballroom late one Saturday night.  When we were almost done I was in the hallway outside the ballroom and detected a faint whiff of burned tar, which I knew was most likely the tell-tale odor of a fluorescent light ballast shorting out.

Sure enough, a quick survey discovered a nearby display case just beginning to fill with smoke.  We immediately ran to shut off power at one of the recently audited breaker-boxes down the hall.  My boss found a key to the case, which was thankfully almost empty and I removed the bulbs which rendered that fixture totally inoperative.  I replaced the ballast the next Monday morning and found it had suffered primary short that had already burned a hole in the ballast case (sometimes they just get hot and stop working) — this would have  definitely continued into a bad fire and would have caused a lot of damage.  It was just pure luck we were there (hey, it was a chance to grab a couple of extra hours pay, right?) and we knew the smell and immediately went hunting for the source. A hot ballast can not be ignored.
Ah the anonymous life of the Unsung Heroes.

I checked every maintenance closet and machine room every day I worked, mostly for just that sort of thing.  Problems were always cropping up on equipment that ran 24/7 (I return again to the fire, even though that pre-dated my maintenance work).  I had other regular duties too, for instance I changed all the air filters in the building every month or so.  I also changed uncounted numbers of light bulbs in every section of that building.  To this day I still find myself instinctively scanning ceilings in big buildings and secretly noting the lights that are burned out. I worked on plumbing repairs, helped with repair work on the food service equipment, and was involved in really unusual stuff too.

Once, one of the sewage sump pumps (one of those disgusting areas I mentioned earlier) jammed and bent the long drive shaft. It needed to be machined but most machine shops around the area could not handle a shaft that long; it was at least ten feet.  Somehow my boss heard about a super machine shop in the Physics Department, which even back in 1977 was an amazing facility.  We both carried this disgusting, mumblemumble-encrusted hunk of metal by hand far across campus to that shop in one of the science buildings  and they machined it.  It barely fit in the service elevator, which opened directly into the machine shop floor.

The curious thing about working in that building was that, as it turned out, both jobs were unplanned extensions to my education.  The office and bookkeeping skills I learned in the Organization’s Bank were a huge help in every job I held later.  Note: computer business processes were all built on the models of the tried and true manual process.  In he next job, by doing the varied maintenance work I gained invaluable on the job experience in electrical, plumbing, and carpentry repair. These are things I still use to this day.

The other great part about the maintenance job was that it was a blast most of the time.  The two senior mechanics were WWII veterans, one was a marine in the pacific and the other one had been with the Flying Tigers and was later a B29 mechanic in India, working on the bombers that flew over the Himalayas, so the stories I heard were personal and insightful.  Truly they were part of the greatest generation.  Once that B29 mechanic and I had to make a long excursion across campus in the underground tunnels that snake under most campuses.  (Maybe I’ll share that story another time.)

I had other duties too. I served as projectionist for  campus-run movies and there were times I ran the sound and lights in the ballroom for dances and other events held there. As I previously said, there were also times we helped out the custodial staff for banquet setups.

Neither one of these jobs were college “work-study” positions, they were considered regular employment; part-time jobs that added to my seniority when I later held a position at another state institution.  But just like any work-study job, it was a great convenience to work on campus.

Heck, I even had a master key to the building, something I needed to use while doing my general rounds.  Even custodial staff with many years employment there didn’t have a master key.  If I had to work on Saturday/Sunday mornings, I had to be on-time because I was the guy with the key!

Who knew what a flood of memories would come from that simple picture.
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Thomas Fenske is a writer living in North Carolina.  He’d like to say he was a product of the famed writing program at the University of Houston but sadly, that program came into existence the year after he graduated.  Missed it by *that* much.

http://thefensk.com

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