Happy Birthday

Happy Birthday to the U.S. Air Force, the Central Intelligence Agency, BBN Technologies and Me. I had three jobs in my adult life and they were with organizations that began operations the same month I was born. BBN may have a 1948 founding date but it began in October 1947 when Richard Bolt applied for a contract as acoustic consultant for the United Nations building. The Air Force and CIA were both created by the National Security Act of 1947 signed in September and they began operations in October. I was born in October just five days after the sound barrier was officially broken. My father claims he wished the sound barrier had been broken in our house, because I was born with a closed esophagus and apparently was none too happy about it.

BTW if you want to see a really outstanding piece of acoustic design visit the United Nations General Assembly hall. You can stand on one side of the hall, speak in a normal tone of voice and be heard on the other side. Now, mind you, that hall is 165 feet long by 115 feet wide, with a 75- foot ceiling. Then for sound on my first assignment in the Air Force I lived in an on base townhouse located between the T-37 and T-38 engine test cells. The engines were tested at night and, well if you’ve never heard the Dog Whistle (T-37 engine nickname) or a J-85 in afterburner, let’s just say hearing yourself think was a chore. My wife wondered why we had moved on base from our not so chic, but certainly quiet, house trailer in Universal City. Then, there was the constant wop, wop, wop, as the helicopters took off and landed over our house at Malmstrom, AFB Montana. My son would stand on the sidewalk waving at all of them as they flew overhead. He yelled Hi, Daddy! I always waved back.

In the CIA it wasn’t so much sounds as it was smells. The smells of the world must be experienced to be believed. Whether it was the rotting vegetation of Thailand and Sri Lanka, the burning cow patties of Delhi, or the body odor of millions of homeless refugees in Khartoum, the smells live with you and are sometimes occasioned in memory by this word or that. Of course, that world is not without its own sounds, as the wails of a Habub as it forced its red desert sand through the poorly built windows and the thunder of the Monsoon rains pounding on corrugated roofs created dins of their own. And then there were the five mosques that surrounded my house in Jiddah and the one next-door in Cairo, all with amplified calls to prayer five times a day. None of them, of course, were synchronized with any of the others. I can still chant the call to prayer, and the profession of faith.

As for BBN, it seemed my visits to Boston always coincided with a Nor’easter, winter and summer. I often felt I was standing watch on the deck of a foundering ship watching the rain, snow and sleet cross the window of my office horizontally. The forty and fifty mile per hour winds loudly moaned as they made their way around my corner office. Sometimes, I felt the building sway, but then, I have a very good imagination.

So, in forty-four year of working with in my sibling organizations I lived an interesting life. My mother swears we knew no Chinese in my infancy who might have bestowed that curse upon me, but someone did, for I certainly have lived in interesting times and places.

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