I DON'T try to hide the fact that I'm a new arrival in the world of digital
culture. Like a few million others, I rode into D-town on a cheap modem
last year and decided to stay. But that's not the whole story.
You see, I am also one of Silicon Valley's native sons.
As a toddler, the scratch paper I drew on came from system manuals. As a
child, the forts I built were boxes of tech journals -- the blue-covered
"Proceedings of the IEEE." And back when next-to-nobody knew what
a computer was supposed to look like, my sister and I were made to go on
our Halloween rounds dressed as matching mainframes. If you haven't guessed
by now, I am the adult child of an engineer.
Picture the nameless engineer Michael Douglas played in the film
"Falling Down" and you'll be pretty close to my earliest
recollections of Dad: drip-dry short-sleeve shirts (always blue or white),
skinny ties, Ray-Bans and a plastic Samsonite briefcase.
When I was very young, every few months an airport limo would come early
in the morning and take him away to Houston, where he'd work for weeks or
months on end. I never knew what he did at NASA's Mission Control facility,
but I understood it was important. This was back in the days when the words
"Gemini" and "Apollo" made Americans walk a little
taller. Back then, the whole country would stop and watch each time a
Saturn rocket left the pad. When people asked what my father did, I
matter-of-factly told them he sent men to the moon. As far as my 6-year-old
head could fathom, he did everything down to punching the ignition button.
George P. Plotnikoff left few things to luck when he was in
full-pocket-protector mode. But, make no mistake, he was a very lucky guy
-- especially when it came to being in the right place at the right time.
He was just two years out of Berkeley with a master's in electrical
engineering when William Shockley left Bell Labs to establish Shockley
Transistor, the granddaddy of all high-tech firms. The Silicon Valley we
know today is the direct result of two technological explosions -- the
transistor and the integrated circuit. As a young engineer at IBM and later
at Philco-Ford's Western Development Labs, Dad was near ground-zero for
So Dad knew Silicon Valley when it was a town of a few hundred people.
But he's far too modest to ever admit it in the company of strangers. It
was only in passing, and only very recently, that I learned he had worked
with Al Shugart in the mid-'50s at IBM, back when the firm had its labs on
Julian Street in San Jose. They were on a team working on some crazy kluge
called RAMAC. The team's mission was to make the first disc drive.
A few months ago when I was showing him my spiffy new Mac, he picked up
the mouse and turned it over in his hand several times before saying
casually, "I'll tell you sometime about the guy who invented these . .
Every so often I ask him what he did back in the NASA days. The response
is always the same: "I was a foot soldier -- one of thousands."
To this day, he has never told me the real story behind "The Right
Stuff," and I doubt he ever will.
When I was about 10, Dad gave me a slide rule and a really nice drafting
kit. They stayed in the top drawer of my dresser. But within two or three
years, I was charting my own course through some areas that were as foreign
to him as circuit design was to me. By my freshman year in high school, my
sphere of affairs had vanished off his radar screen.
He retired in 1982, after a brutally competitive career that spanned
technology from vacuum tubes to fiber optics. He walked away from the tech
battlefield with no regrets and not a shred of sentimentality. The
Commodore PET computer on his desk at home hasn't been booted up since Reagan
was president. Today, the main constellations in his universe are my
mother, my sister, myself and one granddaughter whom he dotes on
constantly. There's a garage full of woodworking tools and one old cat to
mind. The rest of the world can take care of itself.
As for me, I didn't turn out to be much of a rebel after all. I am
another corporate foot soldier with a white shirt and a briefcase full of
printouts. Yet nobody will ever look at me and murmur, "Ah, his
father's son." I'll never be able to analyze problems the way he does.
I don't have that engineer's framework through which to view the world. And
I certainly don't have his patience.
The great Silicon Valley historian Michael S. Malone once wrote:
"Centuries from now . . . the two most likely events for which the
20th century will be known will be the landing on the moon and the
electronics revolution." I know nothing I achieve in this lifetime
will ever equal what Dad accomplished. This does not bother me.
It's only in this past year that my world and his -- my culture and his
-- have fully reconnected. With popular culture and telecommunications now
fully intertwined, we find ourselves speaking the same language for perhaps
the first time in 20 years. Today, I am tremendously proud that my father surveyed
Mile Zero of the digital highway. He remains as staunchly unsentimental as
ever. I have a sound sample linked to the shut-down function on my Mac. The
last thing I hear every night before I put down my tools and go to bed is
Neil Armstrong telling Mission Control "One small step for man . . .
one giant leap for mankind." It's kind of a tribute to Dad. He's heard
it and, frankly, he's unimpressed. It was no big deal.
Somewhere in Dad's garage is a small, rough-hewn wooden toolbox, the box
his father carried to work each day when Grandpa was a laborer on the
docks. I don't know what it means to Dad but it always reminded me how far
they both had to come so that I could have a secure life -- a life where
work wasn't a fight. Today, on the eve of Father's Day, I plan to be
looking for that slide-rule Dad gave me. I can't fully explain why, but
suddenly it's terribly important that I find it. It's not lost. I just set
it aside someplace for about 20 years. Now, Dad, I'm back on the project.