From Engineer to Writer

At age 11, my family was stationed in Fort Knox, Kentucky (yes, I’m an army brat) and the new Apollo Space Program dominated the news. I’d also just finished reading most of the young adult sci-fi novels by Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and Arthur C. Clarke located in the elementary school library. So naturally, I wanted to become an astronaut, work for NASA, and go to the moon.

I’m the oldest of six kids, and no one in our family had ever attended college. My parents were born and raised in the Deep South and, like many southern boys, my father saw the Army as his ticket out of poverty. He got married right out of school and headed for boot camp. Mom dropped out of high school to marry him. By the time I was 11, I had five siblings, had learned to cook, babysit, take care of a house and laundry, and had bullied my way into the seventh-grade woodworking shop class.

No one told me that working girls, at least in my generation (yes, I’m also a boomer), were expected to be teachers, nurses, or homemakers. No one told me I couldn’t qualify for space due to my extremely poor vision. And certainly, no one told me only Navy fighter pilots had a real shot at becoming astronauts. Instead, I got the idea into my head that a degree in nuclear engineering was probably my best bet.

In high school, I refused to take typing or home economics and instead bullied my way into pre-calculus, physics and electronics classes. When asked, I told my high school counselor I wanted to become – you guessed it – an astronaut, work for NASA and go to the moon. I would do this by learning to build nuclear power systems that would work in space or, even better, on the moon. I think I terrified my poor counselor.

Jump to 10th grade, Washington High School (WHS), in Kansas City Kansas. At the end of our freshman year, we were given electives. I could actually choose one or two of my classes, within reason. I chose Electronics I. Nobody told me girls weren’t supposed to take that one, so I did. Mr. Farley, our teacher, met me out in the hall on the first day of school to personally welcome me to his class. I was the first girl in the 40-year history of WHS to sign up for his class.

We entered his classroom to the sight of 24 Playboy centerfolds taped across the blackboards surrounding two classroom walls. Mr. Farley turned beet red and started ripping them down. I looked over the artwork, sniffed, and said, “I’ve seen better than that in the girl’s locker room.” Thus began my three-year “culture war” with the boys in Electronics. I won (sorta) by refusing to quit. None of them would date me. They saw me as competition. That was all right. I saw them as competition, too.

Skip forward five years. I was in my second year at Kansas State University, a nuclear engineering major, and had just been given the bad news. NASA had no space-based jobs for anyone who couldn’t pass at least a fireman’s vision test. Anyone with worse than 20-150 vision couldn’t go into space. My vision was 20-800. Radial keratotomy, still experimental at the time, would immediately disqualify me from space. Something about it weakening the eye’s structural integrity.

I considered switching to veterinary medicine–and decided against it. I’d be in school another eight years, and life was too short. I enjoyed engineering. I also had a summer job at an engineering firm and a boyfriend waiting for me back in Kansas City. Besides, I’m (still!) terrified of organic chemistry.

I‘d also picked up the writing bug. My sole humanities elective during my freshman year at K-State was a narrative writing class. The instructor, Professor Russell Laman, only accepted 15 students a semester. I’d been third on his waitlist, and three students ahead of me dropped out. It was fate. I took his class four times, twice for credit and twice for the sheer joy of it.

After graduation, I spent nine years working for Black and Veatch Consulting Engineers in Kansas City, and then 35 years working for Arizona Public Service at the Palo Verde Generating Station in Arizona. During that time I wrote, mostly for fun and therapy. There were worlds to create, and fears to conquer. A husband and two kids, two dogs, a pony, and a horse to play with. But slowly, my day job and our growing family demanded all of my time and energy. I quit writing. I quit dreaming. I sold the pony, the dogs died, and I gave my horse to a family that would give him the time and energy I could no longer muster.

I finally came to my senses and transitioned from engineering supervisor to senior consulting engineer. Slowly, painfully, I learned to delegate more and to say “no” when my workload became too crazy. Little by little, my energy and creativity revived. I began writing again, as time permitted and kept my day job to a “reasonable” 45 to 50 hours a week.

I took writing classes and joined a writer’s critique group. I began using my creative writing skills to write and advocate for policy and program changes at work, notably the site’s telecommuting program. I started dreaming again. I made time to write, usually at 3:00 a.m. During my last year with APS, I focused on turning over all my projects and activities, especially the behind-the-scenes work, to my co-workers.

My retirement celebration was packed with 35 year’s worth of friends and colleagues, cake, and some wonderful mementos of my time there. I packed the last of my office clutter, personal files, and keepsakes into the mini-van and drove home with my head full of visions of FTL space travel and colonies on far distant places.

Making time to dream again . . .

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