16 July 2011


If Edna had not become pregnant, I suppose I might have gone on and finished my astronomy degree - but I think it questionable.

I was in the first semester of my 'Junior Year', still majoring in astronomy.  American Universities, or at least the ones I have experience of, are based on a four-year undergraduate course.  The course is divided into two two-year portions - 'Lower Division' and 'Upper Division'.  In those first two years you generally are taking more general courses; concentration on your major occupies the last two years.  This semester was the beginning of my 'Upper Division' years.

In the United States, except for the 'professional' subjects, such as medicine, engineering, and law, everyone is doing a BA - Bachelor of Arts - degree.  This is true whether your major is astronomy, as mine was, or linguistics, as I changed to later, or any of the many other BA majors available.

And everyone is expected to broaden his interests at University.  In particular, at the University of California, all subjects were divided into three broad groupings: science, humanities, and social science.  You had to take a certain number of courses in each of these groupings, regardless of what your major was.

I mention this because this was my last semester studying astronomy - and my studies point to my eventual shift to linguistics.

There were three strands to this linguistic thread.  The first actually began whilst I was still at UCLA.  To do a PhD - and if one were to be an astronomer, that appeared necessary - you needed either three semesters of one foreign language, or two each of two.  I had French in high school and was able to credit that for one semester of French.  I took the second semester at UCLA - and then did Russian.

Well, that might have been reasonable for astronomy, but at Berkeley - in my second year, I believe - in order to satisfy simultaneously the 'breadth requirement' for social science and for humanities, I took a course in linguistics for non-majors - and was quite captivated.

Now in my Junior Year, when I ought to have been concentrating on the physics and mathematics I would need, I signed up for Spanish.  My course adviser, who had to sign off on the course, did so, but reluctantly, telling me that I was never going to get my PhD in astronomy that way.

He was right, of course.

What 'would have happened' is something we are not given to know, but I rather think that I would never have become an astronomer.  The above remarks show how my interest was growing in language matters.  I had even, at one point, the year before, considered changing my major to music.  I had played the horn in the orchestras at UCLA and at Berkeley.  When we married, I left the orchestra - and, necessarily, the horn, since I used their instrument.  And I confess I was beginning to find the more advanced mathematics of my third year very challenging.

I don't know exactly when we knew that Kathleen, our daughter, had been conceived, but it must have been quite soon.  I wish I had a clearer memory of subsequent events.  I know that the following things happened:
  • I applied to work at IBM as a computer specialist
  • I applied for the Oakland police
  • I applied for a job as an operator at a factory in Oakland
  • I tried to enlist in the US Air Force
  • I tried to enlist in the US Navy
  • I tried to enlist in the US Army
  • We moved out of our apartment and moved into the basement room of Edna's parents' house in San Francisco
  • I actually took a job as night operator in the Bank of America's cheque clearing house
IBM turned me down after a medical.  They said I had signs of developing back trouble.  Right again!  In 1980, 1982, and 2006 I spent several months each time partly disabled from my back issues.

The factory turned me down.

The Oakland police required you to be at least five feet eight inches tall.  I was five-seven-and-a-half.  Someone told me if I hung upside down from my legs from a bar, I could stretch my height.  This was true.  When I applied I was five-seven-and-a-quarter.

I told the Air Force I wanted to be an officer.  They told me that was great, I should finish my degree and then talk to them.

I told the Navy the same, with the same response.

I told the Army the same and they seemed ready to promise me anything.  This scared me and I didn't follow up on it.

So we moved to Edna's parents' house.  I rather think we did move only after all the job applications failed.  I went to work at Bank of America, working night shifts, running machines that sorted cheques - very noisy and rather amusing.

But I worked there three nights.  After the third night I had a response from another job application that I had made.  I was offered a job as a 'data analyst' working for a company called Space General Corporation, which was a sub-division of Aerojet General - located in El Monte, California.  I stiffed Bank of America (it never occurring to me at the time that there might be anything wrong with this), and - when? - in March, I think, of 1963 - Edna and I drove there, and rented a two-bedroom apartment.


Edgy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Edgy said...

I am finding these (semi) autobiographical posts to be totally gripping. I understand your reluctance to talk about things that may be better left alone :) dont I just...

But I also commend your bravery in continuing on. I read them with huge interest, all of them are deeply important and revelational. Increasingly it seems to me that they will be a great help to me in the future and something of a legacy to all of your children.

Thanks dad, I appreciate it.

John Thayer Jensen said...

I don't know about bravery - I just don't want to hurt people - but I am glad you find them of some interest and will continue.

Elton John said...

Commend. Now that's a big word for you little brother. In all seriousness I do read them. I may not contribute much but I do read.