RIP, Mike Johnson

Again I’m sad to report a passing. Mike Johnson, my friend for almost 35 years, has died in Nashville. Michael Owen Johnson, in full. He leaves behind his wife Betra, two stepchildren, father Ensign Johnson, older brother Lee, twin brother Steve, younger sister Susie, and many friends. Here’s Mike in 1987 at a wedding we both attended.
Michael Owen Johnson 1987There’s something special about the camaraderie of young men, and I’m glad Mike and Dan and Steve and Rich and I shared that in the early 1980s, late in our respective college careers. A recalling of most of the things we did together wouldn’t be all that interesting to other people, so it’s enough to mention in passing the meals shared, music heard, movies seen, books and girls discussed, parties attended and thrown, intoxicants enjoyed, and the late-night (and sometimes afternoon or evening) bull sessions rising from the friendship of bright, curious lads, of whom Mike was definitely one.

It was Mike’s engineering skills that enabled us to build, in the spring of 1982, an isolation tank in the house we rented, and keep it running through all of the next school year. He planned it and oversaw construction. It was no small undertaking: the thing was a wooden box with a hatch door on the side, and large enough to hold an adult. You floated inside, door shut, in the dark and quiet, buoyed by water saturated with Epsom salts held by a swimming pool liner affixed to the inside. It had ventilation and a heating system that had to be turned off when someone was in the tank (otherwise, Mike told us, there was the risk of being electrocuted by all the power the TVA could offer).

One time Mike was our cicerone in the only bit of non-commercial caving that I’ve ever done. In the summer of ’82 — that fine summer, and Mike was part of it — Mike and Steve and I went to rural Tennessee to an undeveloped cave whose name I’ve entirely forgotten, and we rambled around inside for most of the day, eating lunch under the earth, getting caked in mud, and making our muscles sore. I’m sure it wasn’t a technically difficult cave, but it was a thrill all the same. Here’s something I’ve never forgotten: always have three sources of light, Mike told us. For each of us in that cave ramble, that meant a helmet with an acetylene lamp; a flashlight; and a candle and matches.

By training and inclination, Mike was an electrical engineer. After finishing school, he worked for NASA for a few years, doing I couldn’t tell you what at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. In early 1984, I visited him, and he showed me around the place, a thing that might not be possible now in our more paranoid times. That morning there was a Shuttle launch, and we went to a meeting room with a lot of other engineers to watch it on closed circuit TV. Off it went, and the engineers filed quietly out to their jobs. “They only would have reacted if something had gone wrong,” Mike said.

Though he clearly had a keen engineering mind, I have to add that Mike wasn’t stereotypically narrow. Most engineers probably aren’t, but whatever the truth of that notion, he had a wide array of interests: science, literature, politics, history, and much more I probably didn’t know about. He had a sometimes dry wit and leftist inclinations. We always had something to discuss.

After his stint at NASA, he returned to Nashville, where he’d grown up, determined to be his own boss. Or as he put it to me, “I don’t like having a boss.” And so he was an independent contractor for the rest of his life, with all the ups and downs that go with that — something I can appreciate these days. He acquired a house in the Sylvan Park neighborhood, a vintage property, and did a lot of the necessary renovation himself. While I still lived in Nashville, we hung out a fair amount. Once I went with him to visit a client of his: a refrigerator factory in Middle Tennessee, to see the parts and the guts that went into that everyday machine — something I’d never have seen otherwise.

Mike introduced me his old friend Wendy Harris around Thanksgiving 1982 (there’s that year again), who’s been a dear friend of mine ever since. In fact, once I heard about Mike’s death from Dan on Tuesday, I knew I had the difficult task of calling Wendy to tell her, since I didn’t think she’d heard. So I did. They went to Hillsboro High School in Nashville together, and in fact before I moved away from Nashville, I was friends with about a half-dozen other people Mike had gone to high school with, many of whom Wendy introduced me to. A guy like Mike has a lot of friends.

Late in life — I suppose about 10 years ago — he married the charming and intelligent Betra, a woman originally from Sumatra. I believe they met in Singapore, where she was working and he had been sent for a while by a client. I never heard the full details of their courtship; I don’t usually ask about that kind of thing, and Mike wasn’t talkative about it, but no matter. I visited them twice, and they were clearly happy together.

Unfortunately, Mike wasn’t much of a correspondent, so my occasional visits to Nashville over the last three decades were our main connection over those years. He offered me a place to stay during my visits a number of times, and sometimes I accepted. I sent him postcards now and then. He did get to meet Yuriko, and younger versions of my children; I’m glad about that. I saw him for the last time a few years ago, and despite his manifest health problems, we had a fine visit, talking of old times and more recent things, spending much of the time in the Johnson back yard, where Betra had cultivated a lovely garden.

He will be missed. RIP, Mike.

Item From the Past: A Day at the Office

As expected, a wicked cold weekend – at least for November. Was positively Januaryish, without piles of snow. Authoritative prediction says it’ll be around freezing hereabouts through Thanksgiving at least.

One compensation: the evening skies have been very clear. Venus, which is the Evening Star right now, hangs brilliantly in the west after sunset. More subtle minds than mine have pondered Venus lighting up the west. A little Blake:

Thou fair-hair’d angel of the evening

Now, whilst the sun rests on the mountains, light

Thy bright torch of love; thy radiant crown

Put on, and smile upon our evening bed!

I just look up and think, Wow, look at Venus.

Twenty-six years ago toward the end of November, for reasons I don’t remember, the entire staff of the magazine I worked for at the time got together for a group photo. I’ve had a copy since then.

There was a time, and it extended until past 1987, when men went to the office wearing a tie. No one had to put on a tie to pose for this picture. The term might have been around at the time, somewhere, but I’m sure we hadn’t heard of “casual Friday” or any other casual day when we posed there in our Chicago office.

Top from left: Howard (RIP), Sandy, Mike, me, Kevin, John. Bottom from left: Lisa, Linda, Harriet (RIP), Maryann, Lori (RIP) and Winnie. I think I’ve marked all the RIPs correctly. I haven’t kept touch with quite everyone.

Summer of ’78

So few are the images I have of high school friends that this might be the only one I haven’t posted at some point. It’s provided to me courtesy of Catherine, who’s in the picture.

From left: me, Ellen, Donna, Tom T., Melanie, Kirk, Nancy, Tom J. and Catherine.

It might have been taken by Catherine and Melanie’s father (R.I.P., Mr. F.). I can’t pinpoint the day, but it was in August before senior year started (senior year for all but two in the shot). Mid-August, because I’d been in Austin early in the month and then on a bus epic of a trip to Stevens Point, Wisconsin, and back from the 5th to the 10th.

It might have been August 14, 1978. I marked on the calendar I kept at the time that I’d gone to Ellen’s – with a fair number of other people – to listen to The War of the Worlds concept album, which was brand new. In full, it was called Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds. I remember all of us sitting in her living room, listening to the whole thing as if it were a live performance. I doubt that very many people even remember that record any more, though I’ve read it was more popular in the UK than the US. Who owned it among my friends, and who suggested we listen to it, I couldn’t say.

This picture was taken at Catherine’s home, not Ellen’s, so either it was another day, or we migrated from one place to the other – entirely possible. I’m glad to report that, as far as I know, everyone in the picture is still alive, except almost assuredly the cat. Among us, we have 15 children, though I might be miscounting that.

Speaking of items from the past, but not quite so long ago, it’s been 10 years to the day since we moved into our house.

Still Life With Lawnmower

Temps were cool today, but it was a fine day all around. I went out to mow the yard, and did the front but not the back. Maybe tomorrow. In the meantime, I composed “Still Life With Lawnmower.”

Of course I didn’t invent that title. Here’s a painting from more than 20 years ago that not only features a lawn mower, but also a more traditional vase & flowers motif.

Item from the Past: Old Tech

A grey weekend to begin June, and today was ridiculously cool for June 2 — not over about 60 degrees F. Temps should be warmer later in the week, but not what I call summer.

I’m not sure why I bothered to write the following down in 1997, but I did. These weren’t the first Power Macs that I’d ever used — that was in 1995, when everyone was certain Apple was a doomed enterprise that would never again live up to its glory days, much less become a sinister behemoth on the order of Microsoft. I was glad, maybe, just to have a polychromatic screen.

June 9, 1997

I came back from the fire show in Lake Kiamesha, New York, and our new Power Macs were waiting for us at the office. Fast! It’s a little scary. No sooner is a button pushed than something happens. It didn’t work like that on the old machines (a IIci). This is a 8600/200 with a 7.5.5 operating system.

If I understand correctly, there’s 32 megs of RAM and a whole lot more disc space, and I just discovered that the thing plays audio CDs. Now if it would only play tapes. I have many more of them. No question about who owns the machine, though. A blue label marks it, Property of Intertec Publishing Corp. I may get to buy the IIci for a low price, however. That would be nice to have at home.

I didn’t buy the IIci. It wouldn’t be until 2000 that I had a computer at home, a spiffy purple iMac. Intertec merged into something, and that into something else, and I don’t know what, but some of the magazine titles it published are still around, such as Fire Chief, where I worked at the time.

As for Lake Kiamesha, I’ve posted about that before, though I refer to the trip as White Lake. I happened to visit the Concord Resort Hotel the year before it closed, and it wasn’t hard to see in ’97 that the place was on its last legs.

Dodging a Few Maintenance Bullets

Earlier this week my ancient Sienna started shaking like an old wino, and I imagined that a wheel was coming off. A visit to my trustworthy mechanic — glad to have found him — revealed it sounded and felt worse than it was. Repairs came in at only a couple of hundred bucks. Annoying, but passable.

If it had been a more expensive job, that would have been the end of the line for the car. It’s reached that point. Going to have get another car soon. Some people seem to enjoy acquiring cars, but not me. I once worked with a fellow who bought a car every other year or so, trading the old one in each time. I never understood that psychology. When you have a car the object of the game is to keep it as long as possible.

Also this week, a large amount of vile water collected in our dishwasher, which we seldom use, and refused to drain. Meaning that water from the kitchen sink drain had diverted into the dishwasher because of some blockage somewhere. Would Power Plumber fix this?

First, though, I had to get the nasty gray water out of the dishwasher. I considered various ways to do that before I remembered, having stupidly forgotten, that I have a small Craftsman wet/dry vac out in the garage. The water responded to its suction, and then I applied Power Plumber to the underlying problem. It worked. How often do I get to dodge two potentially expensive problems on the same day? Not often.

That’s what we need nanobots for. To make things that fix themselves. Of course, self-repairing machines would upend a lot of the service economy, but then again the economy’s been continuously upended since the Industrial Revolution. Not that I expect to live to see such things, but it’s a nice techno-pipe dream.