Going bats with bash unit testing


, , ,

My team is committed to Test-Driven Development. Therefore, I was struck with remorse recently when I found myself writing some bash code without having any automated unit tests. In this post, I’ll show how we made it right.

Context: this is a small utility written in bash, but it will be used for a fairly important task that needs to work. The task was to parse six-character record locators out of a text file and cancel the associated flight reservations in our test system after the tests had completed. Aside: I was also pair programming at the time, but I take all the blame for our bad choices.

We jumped in doing manual unit testing, and fairly quickly produced this script, cancelpnrs.bash:

#!/usr/bin/env bash

for recordLocator in $(egrep '\|[A-Z]{6}\s*$'|cut -d '|' -f 2)
  recordLocator=$(echo -n $recordLocator|tr -d '\r')
  echo Canceling $recordLocator
  curl "http://testdataservice/cancelPnr?recordLocator=$recordLocator"

The testing cycles at the command line started with feeding a sample data file to egrep. We tweaked the regular expression until it was finding what it needed and filtering out the rest. Then we added the call to cut to output the record locator from each line, and then put it in a for loop. I like working with bash code because it’s so easy to build and test code incrementally like this.

After feeling remorse for shirking the ways of TDD, I remembered having some halting successes in the past with writing unit tests for bash code. We installed bats, the Bash Automated Testing System, then wrote a couple of characterization tests as penance:

#!/usr/bin/env bats

# Requires that you run from the same directory as cancelpnr.bash

load 'test/libs/bats-support/load'
load 'test/libs/bats-assert/load'


@test "Empty input results in empty output" {
  run source "$scriptToTest" </dev/null

  assert_equal "$status" 0
  assert_output ""

@test "PNRs are canceled" {
  function curl() { 
    echo "Successfully canceled: (record locator here)"
  export -f curl

  run source "$scriptToTest" <<EOF
	                        Thu Apr 02 14:23:45 CDT 2020

  assert_equal "$status" 0
  assert_output --partial "Canceling LZYHNA"
  assert_output --partial "Canceling SVUWND"

We were pretty pleased with the result. Of course, the test is a good deal more code than the code under test, which is typical of our Java code as well. We installed the optional bats-support and bats-assert libraries so we could have some nice xUnit-style assertions. A few other things to note here–when we’re invoking the code under test using “source“, it runs all of the code in the script. This is something we’ll improve upon shortly. We needed to stub out the call to curl because we don’t want any unit test to hit the network. This was easy to do by creating a function in bash. The sample input in the second test gives anyone reading the test a sense for what the input data looks like.

Looking at the code we had, we saw some opportunity for refactoring to make the code easier to understand and maintain. First we needed to make the code more testable. We knew we wanted to extract some of the code into functions and test those functions directly. We started by moving all the cancelpnrs.bash code into one function, and added one line of code to call that function. The tests still passed without modification. Then we added some logic to detect whether the script is being invoked directly or sourced into another script, and it only calls the main function when invoked directly. So when sourced by the test, the code does nothing but defines functions, but it still works the same as before when invoked on the command line. We changed the existing tests to call a function rather than just expecting all of the code to run when we source the code under test. This transformation was typical of any kind of script code that you would want to unit test.

At this point, following a proper TDD process felt very similar to the development process in any other language. We added a test to call a function we wanted to extract, and fixed bugs in the test code until it failed because the function didn’t yet exist. Then we refactored the code under test to get back to “green” in all the tests. Here is the current unit test code with two additional tests:

#!/usr/bin/env bats

# Requires that you run from the same directory as cancelpnrs.bash

load 'test/libs/bats-support/load'
load 'test/libs/bats-assert/load'

carriageReturn=$(echo -en '\r')

setup() {
  source "$scriptToTest"

@test "Empty input results in empty output" {
  run doCancel </dev/null

  assert_equal "$status" 0
  assert_output ""

@test "PNRs are canceled" {
  function curl() {
    echo "Successfully canceled: (record locator here)"
  export -f curl

  run doCancel <<EOF
	                        Thu Apr 02 14:23:45 CDT 2020


  assert_equal "$status" 0
  assert_output --partial "Canceling LZYHNA"
  assert_output --partial "Canceling SVUWND"

@test "filterCarriageReturn can filter" {
  doTest() {
    echo -n "line of text$carriageReturn" | filterCarriageReturn

  run doTest

  assert_output "line of text"

@test "identifyRecordLocatorsFromStdin can find record locators" {
  doTest() {
    echo -n "testName|XXXXXX$carriageReturn" | identifyRecordLocatorsFromStdin

  run doTest

  assert_output $(echo -en "XXXXXX\r\n")

You’ll see some code that deals with the line ending characters “\r” (carriage return) and “\n” (newline). Our development platform was Mac OS, but we also ran the tests on Windows because the cancelpnrs.bash script also needs to work in a bash shell on Windows. The script ran fine under git-bash on Windows, but it took some tweaking to get the tests to work on both platforms. There is surely a better solution to make the code more portable.

We installed bats from source and committed it to our source repository, and followed the instructions to install bats-support and bats-assert as git submodules. We’re not really familiar with submodules and not entirely happy with having to do a separate installation of the submodules on every system we clone our repository to (we have to run “git submodule init” and “git submodule update” after cloning, or else remember to add the option “–recurse-submodules” to the clone command).

Running the tests takes a fraction of a second. It looks like this:

$ ./bats test-cancelpnrs.bats 
 ✓ Empty input results in empty output
 ✓ PNRs are canceled
 ✓ filterCarriageReturn can filter
 ✓ identifyRecordLocatorsFromStdin can find record locators

4 tests, 0 failures

Here is the current refactored version of cancelpnrs.bash:

#!/usr/bin/env bash


doCancel() {
  for recordLocator in $(identifyRecordLocatorsFromStdin)
    recordLocator=$(echo -n $recordLocator | filterCarriageReturn)
    echo Canceling $recordLocator
    curl -s --data "recordLocator=$recordLocator" "$cancelEndpoint"

identifyRecordLocatorsFromStdin() {
  egrep '\|[A-Z]{6}\s*$' | cut -d '|' -f 2

filterCarriageReturn() {
  tr -d '\r'

if [ "${BASH_SOURCE[0]}" -ef "$0" ]

There are two lines of code not covered by unit tests. Because the one test that hits the loop body in the doCancel stubs out curl, the actual curl call is not tested. Also, the doCancel call near the bottom is never tested by the unit tests. We ran manual system tests with live data as a final validation, and don’t see a need at this point to automate those tests.

So there you go – no more excuses!

Dusty Old Articles

Cover of Software QA magazine, Vol 2 No 3

It’s been too long. Hello again. I’m still working on the next installment of Jerry’s Story. I’m going to restart it once again, and some day I’m going to get it right. Meanwhile, I dug up a list of my articles, presentations, and other content from 1995 – 2009, both self-published and otherwise, and found working URLs for them (I appreciate archive.org so much!). I’m putting them here mostly for future reference, but if you do delve in, please let me know if any of the links still don’t work.

One bonus if you scroll all the way down–my very first feature article, from 1987.

There are also some posts on my Tejas Software Consulting Newsletter blog that I may republish here. Many of the articles linked below have outdated contact information. I’d love to hear from the modern you either in a comment on this post or via Twitter.

So with no further ado, in reverse order of musty outdatedness, here is my long list of nostalgia.

Testers from Another Planet
StickyMinds.com column, January 26, 2009

January 2009 StickyMinds SoundByte podcast
I was interviewed about the “Testers from Another Planet” column here.

Unit vs. System Testing-It’s OK to be Different
StickyMinds.com column, October 20, 2008

Real-World Math
StickyMinds.com column, July 14, 2008

Peeling the Performance Onion
StickyMinds.com column, April 21, 2008. Coauthored by Rex Black.

StickyMinds SoundByte, late April 2008
I was interviewed for this podcast, talking about the Peeling the Performance Onion column.

March 2008 Gray Matters podcast (mp3)
Jerry McAllister interviewed me for this podcast, where we talked about the testingfaqs.org Boneyard and the strength of the worldwide test tools market.

Bisection and Beyond
StickyMinds.com column, January 7, 2008

Communicating with Context
StickyMinds.com column, October 15, 2007. Coauthored with Michael Bolton.

Synthesize Your Test Data
StickyMinds.com column, July 20, 2007

Do You Work in IT?
Last Word column, Better Software magazine, June 2007

Toolsmiths—Embrace Your Roots
StickyMinds.com column, April 2, 2007

Challenges of the Part-Time Programmer
StickyMinds.com column, January 8, 2007

Hurdling Roadblocks
StickyMinds.com column, September 21, 2006

Get to the Point
StickyMinds.com column, June 26, 2006. Coauthored with Rick Brenner.

Wreaking Havoc With Simple Tests
StickyMinds.com column, April 1, 2006

A Look at Command Line Utilities
Better Software magazine Tool Look article, March 2006

Exploratory Load Testing
StickyMinds.com column, January 9, 2006

A Bug Begets a Bug
StickyMinds.com column, October 3, 2005

A Look at PerlClip
Better Software Tool Look article, September 2005 (free membership required)

Five Minutes Ahead of the Boot
StickyMinds.com column, July 11, 2005

After the Bug Report
StickyMinds.com column, April 4, 2005

Not Your Father’s Test Automation: An Agile Approach to Test Automation
StickyMinds.com column, January 10, 2005. Co-authored with James Bach.

Browser-Based Testing Survey
Open Testware Reviews, December 2004

Seeking the Inner Ring
Tejas Software Consulting Newsletter, December 2004/January 2005, vol. 4 #6

Technology Bulletin: Web Link Checkers
Open Testware Reviews, November 2004

Free Test Tools are Like a Box of Chocolates
Invited presentation at STARWest 2004, November 2004

Test Tools for Free: Do you get more than you pay for?

Keynote presentation at the TISQA Test Automation Today Conference and Expo, October, 2004

Keyword-Driven Testing
StickyMinds.com column, November 8, 2004

How to Make your Bugs Lonely: Tips on Bug Isolation
Pacific Northwest Software Quality Conference, October 2004

The Consultant as Human
Tejas Software Consulting Newsletter, October/November 2004, vol. 4, #5

Open Source Development Tools: Coping with Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt (PDF slides)
2004 Better Software Conference

Keywords are the Key to Good Automation (PDF slides)
DFW Mercury Users Group, September 14, 2004

Being Resourceful When Your Hands are Tied
StickyMinds.com column, August 30, 2004. Co-authored by Alan Richardson.

Software I Don’t Install
Tejas Software Consulting Newsletter, August/September 2004, vol. 4, #4

Review: MWSnap
Open Testware Reviews, August 2004

Stress Test Tools Survey
Open Testware Reviews, July 2004

Meaningful Connections
StickyMinds.com column, July 26, 2004

Alphabet Soup for Testers
Tejas Software Consulting Newsletter, June/July 2004, vol. 4, #3

Review: Mantis
Open Testware Reviews, May 2004

A Testing Career in 3-D
StickyMinds.com column, May 25, 2004

Linking up on LinkedIn
Tejas Software Consulting Newsletter, April/May 2004, vol. 4, #2

Interviewing the Interviewer: Turning the tables on Vipul Kocher
Tejas Software Consulting Newsletter, April/May 2004, vol. 4, #2

Book review: The Book of VMware
StickyMinds.com Books Guide, April 5, 2004

Testing, Zen, and Positive Forces
StickyMinds.com column, March 15, 2004

My Mentor: The Internet 

Better Software magazine, February 2004

Review: FitNesse
Open Testware Reviews, February 2004

Out of the Terrible Two’s
Tejas Software Consulting Newsletter, February/March 2004, vol 3, #6

Scripting Language Survey

Open Testware Reviews, January 2004

Books in the Pipe
Tejas Software Consulting Newsletter, December 2003/January 2004, v3 #6

Let’s Hear It for the Underdogs
Better Software, 2004 Tools Directory, December 2003

Review: The Grinder
Open Testware Reviews, December 2003

Screen Capture Tools Survey
Open Testware Reviews, October 2003

Technology Bulletin: System Call Hijacking Tools
Open Testware Reviews, October 2003

What Is This “Testing” Thing?
Tejas Software Consulting Newsletter, October/November 2003, v3 #5. Republished on StickyMinds as “Dear Aunt Fern.”

Data Comparator Survey
Open Testware Reviews, September 2003

Review: QMTest
Open Testware Reviews, September 2003

Test Design Tool Survey
Open Testware Reviews, August 2003

Review: Holodeck Enterprise Edition (Trial Version)
Open Testware Reviews, August 2003

Trip Report from a USENIX Moocher
Dallas/Fort Worth Unix User’s Group, July 2003, reprinted in the Tejas Software Consulting Newsletter, August/September 2003, v3 #4

Review: JUnit
Open Testware Reviews, July 2003

Diving in Test-First
developer.*, July 26, 2003

Populating the Boneyard
Tejas Software Consulting Newsletter, June/July 2003, v3 #3

Testware for Free: Adventures of a Freeware Explorer
StickyMinds.com column, May 19, 2003

GUI Test Driver Survey
Open Testware Reviews, May 2003

Review: InstallWatch
Open Testware Reviews, May 2003

Unit Test Tool Survey
Open Testware Reviews, April 2003

Review: Sclc Metrics Tool
Open Testware Reviews, April 2003

Convex is dead, long live Convex
Tejas Software Consulting Newsletter, April/May 2003, v3 #2

Black Box Test Driver Survey
Open Testware Reviews, March 2003

Review: OpenSTA (Open System Testing Architecture)
Open Testware Reviews, March 2003

Bug Report: But It’s a Feature!
STQE Magazine, March/April 2003

Defect Tracking Tools Survey
Open Testware Reviews, February 2003

Review: ALLPAIRS Test Case Generation Tool
Open Testware Reviews, February 2003

Two Years at Tejas
Tejas Software Consulting Newsletter, February/March 2003, v3 #1

Yes Virginia, We Do Want Our Software to Work
Tejas Software Consulting Newsletter, December 2002/January 2003, v2 #6

Mini-Review – How to Break Software
Tejas Software Consulting Newsletter, December 2002/January 2003, v2 #6

Strawberry Jam and Self-Esteem: A Review of More Secrets of Consulting
Tejas Software Consulting Newsletter, October/November 2002, v2 #5

The Dark Underbelly of Certification
Tejas Software Consulting Newsletter, August/September 2002, v2 #4

A Survey of Freeware Test Tools
 (zipped pdf slides, 420K)
Quality Week 2002 quickstart tutorial

The Making of an Open Source Stress Test Tool (paper)
slides in zipped pdf format
Quality Week 2002 track session

Event-Driven Scripting (html slides)
Presented at the July 12, 2001 meeting of the DFW Unix Users Group.

What Flavor is Your Freeware?
Tejas Software Consulting Newsletter, June/July 2002, v2 #3

Test-First Maintenance: A Diary

Dallas/Fort Worth Unix Users Group newsletter, June 2002

A Lesson in Scripting (pdf)
STQE magazine, Mar/Apr 2002

Book Review: Mastering Regular Expressions
Dallas/Fort Worth Unix Users Group newsletter, March 2002

A Year at Tejas
Tejas Software Consulting Newsletter, February/March 2002, v2 #1

A Bug Tracking Story  (pdf)
Slides from my presentation at the ASEE Software Engineering Process Improvement Workshop, 2002

Use Your Resources
Tejas Software Consulting Newsletter, December 2001, v1 #9

Boom! Celebrating a Successful Test
Tejas Software Consulting Newsletter, October 2001, v1 #8

“Reference Point: Testing Applications on the Web” (book review)
STQE magazine, November/December 2001

Book review – The Art of Software Testing
Tejas Software Consulting Newsletter, September 2001, v1 #7

Scripts on My Tool Belt (PowerPoint slides)
Fall 2001 Software Test Automation Conference.

Tools, Tools, Everywhere, but How Do I Choose?
Tejas Software Consulting Newsletter, August 2001, v1 #6, and also a letter from the Technical Editor on StickyMinds.com.

What’s on Your Tool Belt?
Tejas Software Consulting Newsletter, July 2001, v1 #5

Software Quality Notes: Test Tools for Free
Dallas/Fort Worth Unix Users Group newsletter, June 2001

Book Review: Load Testing for eConfidence
Tejas Software Consulting Newsletter, v1 #4, June 2001

Watts Humphrey on Teams
Tejas Software Consulting Newsletter, May 2001, v1 #3

Performance Testing Terms – the Big Picture
Tejas Software Consulting Newsletter, April 2001, v1 #2

Setting up a Mailing List with Subscribe Me Lite
Dallas/Fort Worth Unix Users Group newsletter, April 2001

Consumer protection efforts threatened by UCITA
Dallas-Fort Worth TechBiz, April 30, 2001.

Software Quality Notes — A Return to Fundamentals in the 00’s
Dallas/Fort Worth Unix Users Group newsletter, March 2001

My observations on UCITA in Texas
Dallas/Fort Worth Unix Users Group newsletter, February 2001

Seamless Risk Management from Project to CEO (PowerPoint slides)
February 12, 2001 meeting of the IEEE Dallas Section Consultants Network.

Developing Your Professional Network
The Career Development column in the January/February 2001 issue of Software Testing and Quality Engineering magazine. References from the article are available on the STQE web site.

Position Statement: Is Software Reliability an Oxymoron?
Panel Session at the Technology Business Council Software Roundtable, Richardson Chamber of Commerce, October 26, 2000

Book Review: The Cathedral & the Bazaar
Dallas/Fort Worth Unix Users Group newsletter, April 2000

Asynchronous Improvement: a cst-improve experience report
Presented at the ASEE Annual Software Engineering Process Improvement Workshop, February 19, 2000

Book Review: Open Sources
Dallas/Fort Worth Unix Users Group newsletter, October 1999

Getting Published, or, Help Bring Software Engineering out of the Dark Ages and Help Your Career Too
The Career Development column in the July/August 1999 (Volume 1, Issue 4) Software Testing and Quality Engineering magazine.

Book Review: Managing Mailing Lists
Dallas/Fort Worth Unix Users Group newsletter, October 1998 (10/98)

The PIT Crew: A Grass-Roots Process Improvement Effort
Presented at the Software Test, Analysis, and Review conference, May 1998.

Software Defect Isolation
Co-authored with Prathibha Tammana. Presented at the High-Performance Computing Users Group, March 1998, and InterWorks, April 1998.

Integrating Perl 5 Into Your Software Development Process
Co-authored with Orion Auld. Presented at the High-Performance Computing Users Group, March 1998, and InterWorks, April 1998.

The Jargon of J. Random Hacker
Dallas/Fort Worth Unix Users Group newsletter, November 1997

Usenetters Leaving the Homeland
Dallas/Fort Worth Unix Users Group newsletter, July 1997

Book Review – The FAQ Manual of Style
Dallas/Fort Worth Unix Users Group newsletter, June 1997

Experience with OS Reliability Testing on the Exemplar System: How we built the CHO test from recycled materials (slides)
Presented at Quality Week ’97 and the May 16, 2000 meeting of the IEEE Reliability Society, Dallas Chapter.

The Scourge of Email Spam
Dallas/Fort Worth Unix Users Group newsletter, January 1997

What Color is Your Surfboard?
Dallas/Fort Worth Unix Users Group newsletter, December 1996

Hunting for Unix Knowledge on the Internet
Dallas/Fort Worth Unix Users Group newsletter, November 1996

Tester’s Toolbox column: The Shell Game
Software QA magazine, pp. 27-29, Vol. 3 No. 4, 1996
Using Unix shell scripts to automate testing. Basic information about the available shells on Unix and other operating systems.

Tester’s Toolbox column: Toward A Standard Test Harness
Software QA magazine, pp. 26-27, Vol. 3 No. 2, 1996
The TET test harness and where it fits into the picture.

Tester’s Toolbox column: Testing Interactive Programs
Software QA magazine, pp. 29-31, Vol. 3 No. 1, 1996
A concrete example of using expect to automate a test of a stubborn interactive program.

Tester’s Toolbox column: Using Perl Scripts
Software QA magazine, pp. 12-14, Vol. 2. No. 3, 1995
The advantages of using the perl programming language in a test environment, help in deciding whether to use perl and which version to use.

Apple Kaleidoscope, Compute! Magazine, pp. 111-112, issue 91, Vol. 9, No. 12, December 1987.
I was interviewed about this article for “The Software Update” episode of the Codebreaker podcast, released December 2, 2015.

Jerry at Berkeley

In this installment of “Jerry’s Story,” we’ll continue the tale of Jerry Weinberg’s education. Refer to the home page for Jerry’s Story to see the other installments.

While he was finishing his undergraduate degree in Lincoln, Nebraska,  Jerry decided that he still had much more to learn. He applied to six graduate schools: Harvard University, Princeton University, Stanford University, the University of Chicago, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the University of California, Berkeley. All but Stanford accepted him and offered a fellowship. Despite getting accepted to five schools, the rejection by Stanford bothered him for some time – he was still sensitive about the awards he was cheated out of in high school. Later, when he realized how small Stanford was compared to the others, he had a better understanding of why they might not have had room for him.

UC Berkeley was his first choice, because two of his physics professors at the University of Nebraska had strong connections there. They could arrange a job for him to supplement his fellowship, and they could help him get into a program to earn his Masters and PhD simultaneously. He accepted the invitation from Berkeley. Shortly after that, he received an acceptance letter from MIT, also offering a job in their computing lab. He very much wanted to go to MIT so he could work with computers, but he was afraid that someone at Berkeley would tell MIT that he had reneged on his acceptance and then MIT would reject him. On later reflection, he realized that this thinking was naive. But he would become much fonder of the Western region of the U.S. than the East coast, so he was probably happier in California than he would have been in Massachusetts. The computers would come soon enough.

Jerry moved to Berkeley, California in 1955 with his wife Pattie. Shortly thereafter, in September, their first child, Chris, was born. They had some typical first-time parent worries. They were in what was essentially a one-room apartment, so Chris slept in a crib not far away from them. The first night they brought him home, they worried all night about whether he was still breathing. They would drift off to sleep, then both of them would wake with a start because they couldn’t hear him breathing. But he was fine – Chris kept breathing, and he slept a lot better than his parents did.

When Chris was two weeks old, they took him to a pediatrician for his first checkup. I’ll share with you the conversation I had with Jerry about how that went –

Jerry: So we go in and we had about thirty pages of handwritten questions for our pediatrician.

Danny: Oh my Lord. Poor doctor.

And they were prioritized.

Thank goodness for that.

We knew we probably couldn’t get to all of them so we had the most important one first. What do you think the first question was? Two weeks.

So many possibilities.

You’ll never guess it.

Well you mentioned breathing so I guess I just have to say, “How do you make sure he keeps breathing without staying up all night?”

No the first question was when should we get him his first pair of shoes.


I’ll never forget this, I wish I had a video of this. And he’s this wise old guy and he says, ‘Well that’s an important question. Because you know if your kid gets to high school and he’s barefoot, the other kids are gonna mock him, it’s going to destroy him psychologically.’ I remember the answer, it was just wonderful.

Great answer!

And we just put away the rest of the questions. It was so good, that was one of the great learnings of my life.

Jerry started his coursework in Physics. This included working with a particle accelerator called the “Bevatron” at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, which overlooked the UC Berkeley campus. The Bevatron had only begun operation the previous year. He set up experiments to try to simulate cosmic ray events. About 90% of the work involved stacking lead bricks to build a shelter from the particle beam. The researchers didn’t carry any kind of radiation detection with them, and Jerry worried later about whether the beam in the accelerator had caused him any harm. Records show that proper shielding may have only been installed later.

The Bevatron was used for some groundbreaking work around this same time, but we don’t know whether Jerry was involved with any of it. In 1955, the existence of the antiproton was proven using the Bevatron, which earned a Nobel Prize for two people.  The antineutron was discovered there in 1956. The work for either of these could have overlapped the 1955-1956 school year Jerry was working with the Bevatron, and cosmic ray experiments like he was doing may have been relevant to the antiproton work.


Interior of the Bevatron without shielding in place, 1956. Photo credit: Berkeley Lab.

In less than a year, Jerry had passed the necessary exams and finished the experiments for his thesis, which concerned a mysterious bump in a cosmic ray energy graph. But he never finished writing his thesis. Early in 1956, Jerry saw an ad in Physics Today that changed everything for him. Here’s the text of it, in part–

who’s ahead of his time

IBM is looking for a special kind of mathematician, and will pay especially well for his abilities.

This man is a pioneer, an educator—with a major or graduate degree in Mathematics, Physics, or Engineering with Applied Mathematics equivalent.

You may be the man.

If you can qualify, you’ll work as a special representative of IBM’s Applied Science Division, as a top-level consultant to business executives, government officials and scientists. It is an exciting position, crammed with interest, and responsibility.

Employment assignment can probably be made in almost any major U.S. city you choose. Excellent working conditions and employee-benefit program.

Other ads that IBM placed that year were more clear that the job involved computers, but this one did include a picture of a computer room with a caption talking about data processing. You can imagine the appeal – the chance to finally work with computers, a promise of a good salary, and a choice of where to live. He had the right degree. He happened to be male, which the ad strongly implied was an important factor. Jerry applied for the job. 

Jerry and Pattie were almost out of money. His fellowship covered his tuition. Wedding gifts and a small amount of savings were covering the rest. They had no health insurance to help pay for Chris’ birth, and now their second child was on the way. Jerry borrowed $400 from his father, the only time in his life Jerry had to borrow from him. Though they were down to their last penny, he would be able to pay it back soon.

Jerry got an offer to start at IBM on June 15. He told the university he was leaving, and his fellowship was terminated. His advisor cried after hearing the news – Jerry needed perhaps only two months more to complete his thesis to earn his doctorate. He did leave UC Berkeley with a master’s degree in Physics as a consolation prize. When I asked Jerry if he had any regrets about leaving, he answered, “only my regret that I’m finite, and can’t do everything I’m interested in.”

He had also applied for an engineering job at Boeing in Seattle, which led to a job offer from Boeing. This job did not involve working with computers, but the salary was more than twice as much as IBM was offering. Plus, he could start a few weeks earlier, which was important, because his fellowship money was gone and he was broke. But the computers were calling him. Jerry told IBM that if he couldn’t start a few weeks earlier, he would go to Boeing instead. IBM said “Yes” and Jerry accepted their offer.

It’s hard to tell whether Jerry was bluffing about going to Boeing. The part of the decision that was easy for him was leaving the university. He said, “I realized that the PhD would be irrelevant to my life, and I wouldn’t learn anything new completing the thesis. My favorite expression about education I think is Mark Twain, who said ‘I was always careful never to let my schooling interfere with my education.'” (The Quote Investigator gives compelling reasons for why Grant Allen is more likely the originator of this aphorism.)

Going to college for him was all about what he could learn, and only peripherally about earning a degree. His desire to always be learning extended beyond his schooling. This influenced all of his decisions about how he spent his time, including his decision to walk away from a chance to double his salary at Boeing and work for IBM instead. 

If he saw opportunity that didn’t involve learning, he was likely to turn it down. And if he was doing something that didn’t allow him to learn at a sufficient pace, he would tend to stop that activity. But how did he judge whether he was learning fast enough? Jerry told me, “It’s just a feeling. Like how do you know you’re hungry?”

Years later, Jerry did earn a doctorate, but that part of the story will be easier to understand after exploring his role as a programmer, which we’ll do in the next installment.

It’s a Wonderful Career

As I sit here listening to Christmas music, I’m giving myself the gift of extra time to write. I want to respond to something Paul Maxwell-Walters recently tweeted:

If there is such a thing as a Tester’s Mid-Life Crisis, I think I may be in the middle of it….

He followed it up with an interesting blog post–The Fear of Age and Irrelevancy – On the Tester’s Midlife Crisis (1)

Paul cited the director of a counseling center who said mid-life crises are likely to happen between age 37 through the 50s. Paul, approaching his 40s, worries that his crisis is here. As I see my 50s getting large on the horizon, I don’t know if my crisis has past, is still coming, or will never come. I was actually around Paul’s age when my consulting business dried up and I ended my 16-year run in software testing. Four years later, though, I went back to my comfort zone, and had four consecutive short stints in various testing jobs.

That last testing job morphed into a development job. I’m very happy with my current employer for encouraging that path to unfold. Over the years, I have fervently resisted several opportunities to move into development, some of them very early in my career. I had latched onto my identity as a tester and staunch defender of the customer, and I wouldn’t let it go.

Paul wrote:

I have also come across people around my age and older who are greatly dissatisfied or apathetic with testing. They feel that they aren’t getting anywhere in their careers or are tired of the constant learning to stay relevant. They feel that they are being poorly treated or paid much less than their developer colleagues even though they all work in the same teams. They hate the low status of testing compared to other areas of software development. They regret not choosing other employers or doing something else earlier.

That’s surely the story of any tester’s career. Low status, low pay, slow growth. I embraced it, because I loved the work and loved what it stood for. The dissatisfaction seems to be more common now than it used to be, though. My advice, which you will know if you’ve been reading my blog, is: get out! Don’t transition to doing test automation. Become a developer, or a site reliability engineer, or a product owner, or an agile coach, or anything else that has more of a future. I think being a testing specialist is going to continue to get more depressing as the number of available testing jobs slowly continues to dwindle.

Because I’m writing this on Christmas Eve, I want to put an It’s a Wonderful Life spin on it. What if my testing career had never been born? In fact, what if the test specialist role had never been born?

Allow me to be your Angel 2nd Class and take you back to a time when developers talked about how to do testing. Literature about testing was directed toward developers. What if no one had worried about adding a role that had critical distance from the development process? What if developers had been willing to continue being generalists rather than delegating the study of testing practices to specialists, while shoving unit testing into a no-man’s land no one wanted to visit?

And what if I could have gotten over the absolute delight I got from destroying things and started creating things instead? I’m sure I’d be richer now. I’d have better design skills now. But alas, I’m not actually an Angel 2nd Class, and more to the point, I haven’t dug up enough historical context to really play out this thought experiment. But I’ll try to make a few observations. Within the larger community of developers, I might not have been able to carve out a space to start a successful independent consulting practice, which I dearly loved doing as a tester. Maybe I wouldn’t have developed my appreciation for software quality that I have now. Maybe I wouldn’t have adopted Extreme Programming concepts so readily as I have, which has now put me in a very good position process-wise, even if I’m having to catch up my enterprise design and architecture skills.

How about not having any testers in the first place? Maybe the lack of critical distance would have actually caused major problems. Maybe the lack of a quality watchdog would have allowed more managers to actually execute those bad decisions. And maybe those managers would have been driven out of software management. Would the lack of a safety net have actually improved the state of software management by natural selection, and even allowed some companies with inept executives to die a necessary death? I think I’m hoping for too much here, and perhaps being too brutal on Christmas Eve.

It has been a wonderful career. It could have been a different career, but I’m just glad that it has taken me to where I am now. Paul, I wish you a successful outcome from your mid-career crisis. I realize that my advice to get out is much easier said than done.

Reflections on Boris Beizer

Another one of my mentors is gone – I got the news that Boris Beizer passed away on October 7, 2018. I’d like to pause to share some of my recollections of Boris. If you knew him, I would love to hear your stories, too.

I think my first introduction to him was reading his book Software Testing Techniques. It was published before the software testing specialist role was common. I was working as a software test engineer, and I was a bit confused by the book’s point of view. I discovered that Boris and most of the other authors who wrote about software testing at the time were participating in the comp.software.testing Usenet newsgroup. This was likely in 1994, give or take a year. I was amazed that I could interact with the people who “wrote the book” on software testing. So I joined in, and I learned a lot more than I would have just from their books. Somewhere along the way, Boris explained that Software Testing Techniques was written for programmers, and suddenly it made a lot more sense to me. When I wrote the frequently asked questions list for the newsgroup, I used quite a bit of material from Boris to flesh it out.

In 1995, I set up the swtest-discuss email list that Mark Wiley and I conceived to discuss how to test operating systems with a few colleagues we knew. The list grew to 500 subscribers and the topic area greatly expanded. Some people liked how we could enforce a better signal to noise ratio than what we had on comp.software.testing. Boris participated on the list. But some people felt that his tone was too abrasive. I’ve forgotten the details of the social dynamics that were in play so long ago. Some people moved on to other forums where Boris wasn’t invited. I realize I can’t make everyone happy. And Boris clearly didn’t care to.

My participation on Usenet got the attention of Dr. Edward Miller, the conference chair for the Quality Week conference. He invited me to join the conference’s advisory board that chose the papers that would be included. I was flabbergasted. I was still practically a kid. But Dr. Miller was certain he wanted me on the board. So I accepted. I joined a distinguished group of industry experts and academics, including Boris Beizer, who was a prominent industry consultant and also still acted like an academic, having gotten one of the first ever PhD’s in computer science.

I traveled to the Quality Week conference in San Francisco, which was in the Sheraton Palace. I remember going to the dinner that the advisory board was invited to during the conference each year as a thank-you for our efforts. I wasn’t sure how I was going to get to the restaurant as I stood on the curb in front of the hotel with Boris and other board members, many of them smartly dressed, and me in my business casual. Then Boris hailed a limo. What? I didn’t know then that you could hail a limo, but that’s how several of us got to the restaurant. Edward and Boris and the rest accepted me as one their own, despite my inexperience and casual mode of dress.

Some of the specific things I remember from Boris include the Pesticide Paradox. which taught us that test suites lose their effectiveness over time. His software bug taxonomy inspired many discussions, and I even helped him research the origin of the word “bug.” He taught me that if I can model any aspect of a program using a graph, I can use that graph to guide my testing. And not long ago, at a talk I was giving, someone in the audience reminded me of the fabulous poem “The Running of Three-Oh-Three.” Boris published it at the very beginning of Software Testing Techniques, “with apologies to Robert W. Service.” It remains the best poem about software testing that I’ve seen. I’ve only now bothered to figure out the link to Robert Service; it seems that Boris’ inspiration was Service’s poem “The Cremation of Sam McGee,” published in 1907.

Boris must have been in high demand. He told me at one point that he sold his services in 1-week blocks for US$20,000. Any shorter time than that wasn’t worth his attention. He told me later that he had enough “f-you money” to be very selective about which clients he took. He is credited with changing the industry in ways I don’t even understand, because the transformation was well underway when I joined the scene. With his brash nature, he made enemies along the way. But I didn’t like to choose sides. I have learned both from Boris and many of the people who steered clear of him.

I am especially proud of the inscription that Boris wrote in my copy of his book Black Box Testing:

Boris Beizer inscription

However, after I read the book, I had to report to him that I really didn’t like it. He explained that the publisher had assigned him an inexperienced editor who made a wreck of the book. I sure learned a lesson about dealing with publishers.

I found out at some point that Boris had written two fiction books under the pseudonym Ethan I. Shedley. They were both out of print, but I found a used copy of The Medusa Conspiracy. I started reading the book but didn’t finish it. I probably don’t have the generational context to be able to appreciate it.

Ever since Boris retired some time ago, I’ve wondered if we would ever hear about him again. Last February, I felt an urge to check on him. I no longer had a working email address for him (he seemed to change his email account regularly), but his phone number was easy to find in his Usenet signature. Dialing a phone is a quaint thing nowadays, but I was determined. Sure enough, someone picked up the phone, and when she asked who was calling, I hastily had to summarize who Boris was to me. She summoned him to the phone and we had a nice talk. I mentioned that I’m writing a biography, and as soon as it came out of my mouth, I felt that awkward sensation that I’ve felt a few times before, that I was talking to someone who may merit a biography of their own, but yet they hadn’t made the cut. Boris mentioned his last book, “Software Quality Reflections.” I still didn’t have a copy (it may have been an e-book), and I think the only way to get one is to get it straight from him. I sent him an email to his new email address to request it as he asked me to do, but I never got an answer.

For more about Dr. Beizer, see the interview in the May 13, 1985 issue of Computerworld. This was before he started his consulting practice, and there’s a great picture of him. You’ll also find his resume here. Other remembrances have been posted by Jerry DurantSimon Mills, Bob Binder, and Rex Black. Here is his obituary.

We’ve come full circle, with Boris ushering in the age of the testing specialist, and now as he makes his exit, testing efforts are shifting right back to the developers he originally addressed. I think his goals are well-stated in the dedication that he wrote in Software Testing Techniques. I’ll let him have the last word–

Dedicated to several unfortunate, very bad software projects for which I was privileged to act as a consultant (albeit briefly). They provided lessons on the difficulties this book is intended to circumvent and led to the realization that this book is needed. Their failure could have been averted—requiescat in pace.

Jerry, The Student (Undergrad Years)

In this installment of Jerry’s Story, we’ll cover his experience as an undergraduate student. Refer to the home page for Jerry’s Story to navigate to other installments.

Earlier, we learned how Jerry ended up starting college at the University of Nebraska (in “An aspiring auto mechanic changes course“). This was in the Fall of 1950. Because he had skipped two grades in elementary school, Jerry was only 16 years old; it was still a few months before his 17th birthday. Despite the age difference with the vast majority of his peers, he seemed to fit in better in college than he had in high school. He no longer felt the need to hide his intelligence to avoid bullying, and he made friends with other smart people. He didn’t have any financial help from his parents, so he didn’t consider any other schools that were more expensive.


Lincoln, Nebraska in 1955. The University of Nebraska is a few blocks to the right. Photo credit: army_arch

Jerry told his counselors that he wanted to work with computers. There were no classes in computing and there were no computers on the campus at all. The only thing the counselors knew about computers was that they had something to do with electrical engineering and physics. Because he was good in mathematics, they recommended that he major in physics, thinking that his math talents wouldn’t be put to good use as an electrical engineer.

He took an exam that allowed him to skip the freshman English composition class and go straight to advanced English composition. He found out that the advanced class covered everything from the regular English composition class in just six weeks and then continued on to more advanced topics for the rest of the semester. He wasn’t excited enough about studying English to be interested in an intense class like that, so he signed up for the basic English composition class. At the beginning of his book Weinberg on Writing, Jerry told the story of how he met the professor, Wilbur G. Gaffney–generally known to his students as Bill–

On the first day, we assembled on the second floor of Andrews Hall, only to discover that our section was actually two sections, with two different instructors. We stood in the hall while the instructors counted us off, one-two, one-two, to divide the class. I was a one.

The instructors were both men, but there the resemblance ended. One was skinny, immaculate, clean-shaven with hard eyes and bony cheeks. And no smile. The other was rotund, clothed in wrinkles, with a white walrus mustache covering plump, rosy cheeks. He smiled as if he’d just taken a nip before class. I had no doubt as to which one was for me, but unfortunately, Bill Gaffney, the Walrus, was taking the twos. So, of course, I had to cheat.

I just moved with the twos. It was one of that handful of truly life-changing moments.

Jerry dutifully completed his first writing assignment for the class, which earned a C-plus and a lot of red marks on his paper. For his second assignment, he couldn’t stand writing about a topic he wasn’t interested in. So instead, he wrote a paper explaining why he wasn’t going to do the assignment or any other assignment like it. He wasn’t surprised at the professor’s response, at least at first–

On Wednesday, the graded papers were handed back, but I didn’t get one. Instead, Gaffney handed me a note in red ink saying to come to his office after class. I was right. My brief college career was over.

His corner office was a mess, more rumpled than his tweed jacket, more tangled than his walrus mustache. Books piled everywhere. Reprints on every horizontal surface except the ceiling. Pipe smoke odor permeating everything. He motioned me to clear a space on one of the two wooden chairs, then shut the door on the passing student throng. He returned to his desk and picked up what I recognized as my message. It had red marks all over.

I took a deep breath, probably my last as a matriculated student. Before handing me the paper, Bill Gaffney packed his pipe, lit it with a Zippo, and blew out a huge cloud of pungent smoke. I didn’t want to say this in front of the class … He puffed out another Vesuvian billow. … but in all the years I’ve been teaching freshman English composition … Another gargantuan puff. … this is the best paper I’ve ever received.

He handed me the paper. I forgot to close my hand, and the pages fluttered to the floor. He continued speaking to my bent back. Your argument has totally convinced me, so from now on, you’ll just ignore the assignments I give to the rest of the class. You’ll still have to turn in a paper every week, but you’ll choose whatever topic, whatever style, and whatever length you wish.

Bill Gaffney had years of experience as a professional editor in New York, which made him a more effective writing teacher. Jerry took several classes from Gaffney, learning a lot about the mechanics of English and how to revise his writing so it “sang on the page.” Jerry even worked for Gaffney, helping to grade essays. Jerry read hundreds of essays from freshman composition classes, never receiving any coaching from the professor on how to grade them. Jerry actually had worked for a different professor before then, but he quit when he saw that professor adjusting grades upward for his favorite students and downward for the rest.

When reading all those essays, Jerry observed rudimentary spelling and grammar mistakes, and also mistakes of thinking and reasoning. This went a long way toward shaping his writing skills, and he was happy to get paid to do it. Gaffney became of one of Jerry’s lifelong friends.

When he started at the university, Jerry joined a social fraternity and moved into the fraternity house. He thought that’s what everyone did. The fraternity had a contest where the members bet on what the freshmen’s grade point average would be at the end of the first semester. Jerry was still good at concealing his intelligence, so much so that he was given the longest odds of having the best grades. One fraternity brother bet on Jerry and later won a lot of money when Jerry came out on top of the grades list. The two became friends and bridge partners.

Jerry and his partner won the school’s bridge tournament two years in a row, and also went on to be NCAA regional champions one year. Jerry got a productive friendship from his experience at the fraternity, but once he learned more about how the fraternity conducted itself, he realized that it wasn’t a fit for him, so he left the fraternity.

The University of Nebraska was a land-grant college, which at the time, meant that students were required to join the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC). Jerry joined the Army ROTC program. His habit of skipping class and not bothering to wear the required uniform earned him demerits at a rapid rate. When he reached 300 demerits, he was required to report to the commander, a Colonel, which could have resulted in him failing the program. Jerry described what happened:

When I went in to his office, he was playing bridge with three of his underlings. I watched until the commander’s partner, a captain, played a hand but did not make the contract. Captain said Colonel had overbid. I said, no, the contract should have been made if played properly. After a few more hands, Captain had to leave and Colonel invited me to be his partner. We beat the pants off the two majors, and it turned out they were playing for money. Colonel asked why I had come to see him. I told him about the demerits and he waved them away, on condition that I come twice a week to be his bridge partner.

Jerry didn’t just get his demerits erased. He no longer had to march in parades; he checked out the rifles for the parades instead. The commander even bought him socks to match his uniform.

Jerry quickly became a good marksman. He could take the rifles apart and reassemble them blindfolded. He became a rifle instructor while he was still a freshman. Years later, his shooting skills helped out when we was living in Switzerland. He visited a few local fairs and showed his skills at target shooting. He thinks the locals really valued marksmanship, and this helped his family fit in to their new community.

The only thing Jerry ever killed with a gun was a rabbit he once spotted in his garden. It’s wasn’t a pleasant memory–

I saw it die, and I felt terrible. I did give the corpse to a friend who made a rabbit stew, which made me feel temporarily better about the shooting, but it was really unnecessary. I guess I thought I could make a near miss and scare the poor thing away, but I was too good a shot.

Early in his second year at the University of Nebraska, Jerry started having health problems that were so severe that he moved back home to Omaha. After three major surgeries, he was finally diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. His weight had dropped to 110 pounds. He become addicted to morphine during this ordeal, but was forced to quit during one of his hospital stays.

He must have had some good days while back in Omaha. There was an event Jerry wanted to attend, perhaps a dance at the University of Omaha. For his date, he had his eye on a girl named Joan. But Joan was hard to reach on the phone. Unable to talk to Joan, he thought of her close friend Pattie. He knew Pattie because she sometimes helped at her father’s paint store. When Jerry had helped at his father’s auto body shop back in high school, he would occasionally see Pattie when he picked up paint supplies. She was a high school senior at this point and still living in Omaha. She accepted the invitation, and they had their first date.

After spending almost a year in Omaha, Jerry had recovered from the worst of his symptoms, though he would suffer from the effects of Crohn’s disease for the rest of his life. He returned to Lincoln to continue his studies at the University of Nebraska. Pattie also enrolled there, where she moved in to a sorority house. As a result of his ongoing health problems, Jerry was given a 4F classification by the Army, which meant he was released from his obligation to participate in ROTC.

What started as a date of convenience in Omaha turned into something more over the next year. By the time Jerry went to work a summer job at 3M in Saint Paul, Minnesota, he couldn’t stand to be away from Pattie. He said, “I don’t recall that there was a proposal. We both knew we were going to marry. It certainly was planned, with all the ridiculous fuss that implies.” In August 1953, when Jerry was 19 years old and she was 18, Jerry married Patricia Anne Korney in Omaha.

Jerry felt strongly that the doctors in Omaha had saved his life. He wanted to be a “heroic doctor” to give back to society, so he decided to become a pre-med student. He was already planning to take all of the science courses required by the pre-med program, so it didn’t actually require any change of coursework. But he was willing to give up on a chance to work with computers to take this path.

Then, on a lovely Spring day, another student stopped me outside between classes and asked if I was going to the initiation ‘tonight.’

‘What initiation?’ I asked.

‘The pre-med honorary society.’

‘Why would I go there?’

‘Your name was on the list.’

‘I didn’t see any list.’ It had been posted, but I hadn’t seen it or thought it had anything to do with me.

He explained how being in this society (I forget the name) increased your chances of being admitted to a good medical school, so I asked for details. He gave me time and place, then said all it cost was a 50 cent initiation fee.

‘Oh,’ I said, my mind clearing. Suddenly I knew that my desire to become a doctor wasn’t worth fifty cents. That was the end of my medical career.

Thinking that he couldn’t get into medical school without joining this society, and thinking that he’d rather being able to afford an order of French fries than pay to go to the meeting, Jerry abruptly dropped his plans to go to medical school. Later, after several more experiences with doctors and also comparing notes with others, he concluded that in fact the doctors had almost killed him with their treatment.

One of the many subjects Jerry explored at the University of Nebraska was psychology. But he dropped his psychology class after only going to a few lectures. Why? “A really stupid lecture in a huge classroom. The lecture seemed full of obvious or ridiculous stuff. I think I’d hoped it would teach something about intelligence, but clearly that wasn’t going to happen.” He would come back to psychology many times later in his life, however, referencing it in his writing and even learning how to be a therapist.

He appreciated being introduced to anthropology and was disappointed that the university didn’t offer an undergraduate major in the subject. This is another subject he would stay close to throughout his life.

Jerry enjoyed his physics classes, especially when he got to work in a lab. He worked as a teaching assistant for a freshman physics lab at age 17, and was told he was the first undergraduate ever to get a TA job in that department. He remembered a physics project that involved building a crude copy machine. It consisted of an inflated plastic hood and a camera, and you’d develop and print the picture to get the copy.

For many of his classes, if there was a textbook, he would read it in a day or two, and then he had learned all he would learn from that class. This didn’t always lead to good grades, though. In his differential equations class, the students would learn a progressively more sophisticated method of solving the equations each week. Jerry read ahead and learned better ways to solve the problems the class was currently working on. But his work was counted wrong if he didn’t use the technique he was supposed to be using that week. He didn’t understand the need to use inferior techniques if he could skip ahead and use better methods.

A letter to the editor of the university’s student newspaper at tells us how Pattie and Jerry felt about the quality of the journalism the newspaper was producing. This is possibly the first example of Jerry’s writing that was ever published:

Letterip column

The Daily Nebraskan, March 2, 1954, page 2

Dear Editor:

We are of the rapidly growing group of students who believe that the function of The Nebraskan is to protect the hair of coeds on rainy days. Since most coeds own scarves which do almost as good a job, we question the advisability of continuing to dissapate (sic) University funds on paper hats.

If, however, the function of the paper is to busy the idle hands of journalism students, those students alone should pay the expense or see that the paper pays for itself. As for the argument that The Nebraskan serves as a carrier of the torch of truth to the student body, we question whether a candle wouldn’t shed more light with less smoke. Furthermore, we question whether the students are really in the dark; whether they really want the Rag at all.

We challenge the editors of this paper to publish this letter (without editing); and with it, a request for letters of confidence from members of the student body (other than staff members and workers) which would have to be signed and delivered in person to the Rag office. In this way, we would test how many students really want The Nebraskan badly enough to make this slight effort to back up the staff and its policies. No petitions, please; and no surveys—just personal letters delivered in person.

Even twisted journalism can be interesting and well written; but how about you? Or is bad journalism better than no journalism?

Pat and Jerry Weinberg

The editors probably delighted in meeting the challenge of not editing the letter except for adding “(sic)” after the misspelling. In fact the letter did motivate another reader to send a vote of confidence that was published three days later. And a month later, another reader wrote in expressing confusion over the meaning of the “(sic)” annotation, and adding a nonsensical request that seemed to parrot Pattie and Jerry’s letter: “Do not edit this letter. If you can’t print all of it, don’t print any of it, or you’ll ruin the whole train of thought and the reasoning behind it.”

I asked Jerry about his letter 64 years after it was published, and he couldn’t recall what journalistic offense had prompted it or whether it was he or Pattie who wrote it. There is another letter that Jerry alone wrote that was published about a year later. In this one, he expressed his disappointment at a few misrepresentations of Alice in Wonderland he had noticed in an editorial.

Jerry was a long-time fan of Alice. Using his IBM Selectric typewriter, he corresponded several times with Martin Gardner regarding Gardner’s book The Annotated Alice some time after it was published in 1960. In The Annotated Alice: The Definitive Edition, Gardner mentioned him in two places and included some of Jerry’s insights about the text. The book also cites an article written by Bill Gaffney.

In 1955, Jerry graduated magna cum laude from the University of Nebraska with a Bachelor of Science degree. He was nominated for the Phi Beta Kappa (humanities) and Pi Mu Epsilon (mathematics) honor societies. His curriculum vitae also lists the Sigma Xi science honor society, though it doesn’t say when that happened. He was ranked third in a class of about 5000, but he remembers marching in to the graduation ceremony at the front of the line, next to the man who was first. Second place was a woman, and she was required to march behind them. It’s not clear why the school did this to her. Jerry felt bad because she was treated unfairly.

The record isn’t quite clear on what subjects he majored in. Jerry consistently claimed to have majored in both physics and mathematics. But he told me and others that he also majored in English and philosophy, for a total of four majors. He has also said that the university only allowed two majors, so it seems plausible that he may have met the requirements for all four, but was only officially recognized for two of them.

In addition, Jerry earned honors in all four subjects by completing these special projects:

  • Physics–reproduced the Michelson-Morley experiment (in 1887, it helped to disprove aether theory and eventually led to special relativity).
  • Math–competed in an annual math competition and took second place (the son of the head of the math department took first place).
  • English–wrote an essay, the subject of which is long forgotten.
  • Philosophy–studied and wrote about some of Isaac Newton’s philosophical work.

Much later, in 2008, Jerry was among the first people inducted into the Nebraska Hall of Computing that’s sponsored by the University of Nebraska. He thought this was funny, given that he had asked to study computers when he was a student there, but there was none to be found anywhere on the campus. The other five honorees for that year are pictured wearing suits in formal portraits. Jerry’s picture shows him in an action shot wearing casual clothes and a lanyard. Formalities never seemed necessary to him.

The next installment is: Jerry at Berkeley.

Jerry’s Story: Competitive Eating–Permission to Make a Mess

In this installment of Jerry’s Story, I’m not going to risk turning a lively discussion into a pile of sterile facts. I’ll present the email discussion we had with little editing.

We were talking about whether having unlimited access to ice cream might lead to weight gain, and how he gained so much weight he was offered a football scholarship. But it wasn’t just the ice cream.

(Jerry Weinberg) I was a champion eat-contest participant. My specialties were watermelon, pie, and hot dogs.

(Danny Faught) You’re still full of surprises! What age did that start, and what got you started?

I must have been 15. In Omaha. The first one I recall was at a birthday party. I ate 36 hot dogs.

Then, at the University of Nebraska, they held these contests fairly regularly.

I imagine that this was a cultural trend at the time. Seems that would make it expensive to throw a birthday party, though, supplying all that food. 

What kind of prizes did you win from competitive eating?

I don’t recall. They must have been insignificant. Besides, it was the glory that I was after.

How long did you continue to compete before you lost interest?

I never lost interest, but once I had Crohn’s Disease, my eating habits had to change drastically.

How did you feel about winning? (Or in other cases, not winning?)

Mostly I won. I was very good, and knew the secrets. Like not worrying about seeds in the watermelon, and managing to spill most of the melon on the floor as I swung my mouth back and forth.

This would be a very different kind of watermelon time. 🙂



The Sandia Mountains as viewed from Jerry’s back yard. Jerry said, “It’s like a big watermelon and it turns red when the sun is going down. They call it ‘watermelon time’ here. It’s very special.” “Sandía” means “watermelon” in Spanish.

How did I feel? I expected to win, so it was no big deal. I suppose I would have felt bad if I had lost, but if I lost, I must have felt so bad that I erased all memory of it.

How did you learn the secrets that helped you win?

Through experience, I guess.

So nobody cared that so much of the watermelon was on the floor rather than in your stomach?

Not at all. Watermelon spectators expect a certain amount of slop on the floor. In fact, that’s one of the attractions, different from polite everyday life.

Was this an attraction to you, to have permission to make a mess?

I don’t think I ever needed permission for that.

Awesome. Tell me more about messes you made.

While eating?

Whatever you were thinking about when you said you never needed permission to make a mess.

In general, I’ve lived by the credo that it’s better to ask forgiveness after than permission before. I was always doing new things that people didn’t understand until after they’d seen the results.

Who else do you know who follows this credo? Any examples of them having similar successes as you, or ever having big regrets about it?

I recall discussing this with Ken Iverson, creator of APL (and a good friend). He was certainly successful.

I think I may have learned it from Jim Turnock, my boss for a while at IBM, who headed the Mercury (IBM) projects.

Have you counseled people to stop asking for permission?


I can recall cases of you telling me *to* ask for permission, like when asking someone for a hug.

Yes, that’s definitely a case where you should honor another’s personal space.

Examples? Well, there’s all the many experiential exercises I’ve concocted. People generally didn’t understand why I didn’t just lecture, so I never asked permission, and some of those exercises definitely looked like messes.

And that’s just one example, with dozens of sub-examples.

Are these the attitudes of the people participating in the exercises?

Well, I should correct myself a bit here. I always ask permission of the participants. As you may recall, before any exercise, but with particular emphasis on new, untried ones, I always remind people of their right to refuse or to drop out. That way, I always have permission, because they have permission to take care of themselves. And, I make sure they don’t have to ask permission if they want to drop out. Nor do they have to explain why they want to.

How does it go from looking like a mess to being a great success? (Depends on who thinks it’s a mess, I think.)

You’re right. But, for example, in some exercises we make a great physical mess (as in House of Cards, which winds up with cards all over the walls, floor, and even ceiling). Even then, make the mess part of the exercise, and try to make it reversible (no permanent damage to the premises).

Sometimes, though, an exercise makes a “mess” of a participant’s model of the world. That’s really the point of the exercise, but I always try to work with that participant to make a new model to replace the mess.

What’s another example of not asking permission?

One great example was in the Mercury Project. To do a real-time system on the IBM 709, we needed an interrupt clock, and there wasn’t one on IBM’s machine. We did ask for one to be built, but IBM refused. So, we just snuck into the factory and soldered in our own interupter without telling anyone.

The funny part of this story is that when a machine arrived in Bermuda, it was a different machine, so we had to put in another interrupter. And we never did find out who got the other machine, and if they even noticed the non-standard interrupter.


And that’s where we left it. Several months later, Jerry sent me a news article about the winner of the Nathan’s Famous hot dog eating contest, adding “I was never in his class.” This prompted me to try several different angles to learn more about the context of his competitive eating experiences. I got a few more facts, but nothing that really furthered the story. I searched the student newspaper for the University of Nebraska to see if he was ever mentioned as a winner, and I came up empty, but I did uncover several other interesting things about his college experience to talk about. And that’s how the stream of consciousness of our discussions went.

The next installment is Jerry, The Student (Undergrad Years).

Jerry’s Story: In Memoriam

Yesterday the news of Jerry Weinberg’s death was announced. I have lost a friend and a mentor. I am sad, but like many others, I am also feeling a great deal of gratitude for Jerry’s life. He was kind, and brilliant, and so many other things that I plan to share to the best of my ability. He lived a full life. An oversized life. This earth is better for his presence. I’m not going to try to write a summary of his accomplishments right now–that would fill a book, and that’s what’s I’m trying to do a little bit at a time.

My biography project has turned a corner. From now on, the new information I gather must come from indirect sources rather than directly from Jerry’s own vivid memories. Knowing that Jerry wouldn’t be around forever, I focused on asking him about events early in his life that would be hard to know from any other source. There are a still a few subjects that will be difficult to research, like his programming experiences before he started consulting on broader topics. I hope I can count on some of the thousands of people who were touched by Jerry to help me understand more about his story.


A fieldstone wall I encountered at the Quiraing landslip during a recent trip to Scotland. I couldn’t help but think of Jerry every time I saw fieldstone, so I sent him a few pictures of what I saw, including this one.

I am so happy that I started sending him my barrage of countless questions a few years ago, which he patiently answered. The biography project was somewhat of an artificial catalyst for us to start interacting more than we ever did before, but we were both pleased to have the motivation to swap stories with each other. This was how it all started:

Screen Shot 2018-08-09 at 8.40.28 AM

I asked him if he ever thought about writing about early computer history, and he replied, “I’ve thought about it, but it’s not my cup of tea. But why don’t you write it?” I found out later that when people pitch book ideas to him, he often reflects these requests back to where they came from. When it became clear that the project would work better as a biography, he was even more insistent that someone other than him should write it. No one else seemed to be doing it, so I decided to give it a try.

Since then, I have logged more than 300 pages worth of conversations with him. It will take some work to turn it into cohesive chapters, but I’m enjoying the process of organizing the extensive set of fieldstones I’ve collected while also still adding to the pile (see Jerry’s book Weinberg on Writing: The Fieldstone Method if you don’t know why I’m referring to stones). Recently, his replies had slowed their pace, until this, the last email he ever sent me–



Jerry still has a lot to say to us all. He has left behind a rich legacy for us still to discover. Rest well, my friend. You have sent us much.


Next up: Competitive Eating–Permission to Make a Mess

Jerry’s Story: The Student (Early Years)

If you haven’t been following along, you might want to see the home page for Jerry’s Story for links to other installments.. This is the 7th installment in the series.

Delving into Jerry’s experiences as a student takes us back to some of his earliest memories, even before starting school. In this installment of Jerry’s Story, we’ll explore Jerry Weinberg’s childhood and schooling through high school, with a few peeks beyond. We’ll cover other childhood experiences like Scouting and sports. Jerry and I have done our best to accurately document his memories, some of which are more than 80 years old. We might not have gotten all of it right, but I’ve done the best fact-checking I can.

Jerry remembers as early as age 3 how he spent time with the neighborhood gang in his Chicago neighborhood, hanging out in the alley and on the tops of the garages that opened up to the alley. It didn’t occur to him at the time to ask who owned the garages, and the homeowners never seemed to catch them there.

He was too young to be aware of any major illegal activities the older members of the gang may have been up to, but he did get involved with the fighting with other nearby gangs. He remembers that someone threw a brick that hit him in the head. When he was about 6 years old, Jerry had an altercation with a bully after school. He was within sight of his own house, where his father was watching from the porch. Jerry appealed for his dad to save him, but his dad said he had to take take of it himself. So he wrestled with the bully and threw him off of another nearby porch, breaking the bully’s arm in the process. Jerry’s dad seemed to be proud of him. This had a big effect on his sense of self-reliance.

Another formative moment was when Jerry visited an elementary school for the first time. This was at Gregory Elementary School, which Jerry would also later attend. Jerry says –

I must have been three or four. My mother took me with her for a conference with my older sister Charlotte’s teacher. I was given a brush and an easel with about six pots of paints. I painted a garage, but the only way I could think of to indicate the wooden siding was a rainbow series of stripes, using every color I had.

When the conference was over, the teacher came over for the first interaction I’d ever had with a teacher, one I’ll never forget.

She said, “That’s nice. What is it?”

“A garage.”

“Oh, no,” she corrected. “Garages don’t have rainbow stripes.”

My first experience with schooling, one I remembered when we finally had a garage that needed painting, outside of Lincoln. I’ll let you guess what I did.

Later, in Colorado, I ran across someone else’s garage painted in rainbow stripes. Take that, teacher!

Jerry had a lesson in how things can be done differently than you expect when he visited the Brookfield Zoo. He remembers watching a gorilla eat an orange by putting it whole in its mouth, then spitting out the peel. This wasn’t a technique he was physically able to try. But much later in life, he learned how chimpanzees peel bananas from the bottom, though he had always opened them from the stem end before. He decided to learn a lesson from the chimps, so he now opens his bananas from the bottom.

When he was 6 years old, Jerry saw his first movie. It was a horror movie, The Cat and the Canary. He saw it in a theater, because that was the only way to see a movie in the 1930s. He was sitting in the last row with a wall right behind him. He still remembers the scene where a bony hand reached out of a secret panel in the wall and stole a necklace from a woman in bed. This scene spooked him so much that he still doesn’t like to sit in the last row of seats in a room against the wall. Maybe that wasn’t the most useful lesson he could have learned.

When he was 7 years old, Jerry’s family moved to northern Chicago. Jerry transferred to Daniel Boone Elementary School. He was exceedingly bored at school. By the time he was in fourth grade, school officials had skipped him two grade levels ahead. His IQ was measured at 181. He was separated from the rest of the kids most of the school day and was taught by a private tutor. The tutoring generally went well, except for the day that his tutor told him he had learned all of the math that there was (he was sure this just meant he had learned everything that the tutor was able to teach).

Jerry’s favorite activity in elementary school was recess, even though he was often bullied by the other students. He did well at playing “line-ball,” where someone would bounce a ball against a wall and they would all try to catch it. He wasn’t very good at throwing the ball, but he excelled at catching it. His success at line-ball did not lead to more bullying, though his academic success did.

The troubles he had as one of the “smart kids” are reflected in a passage he wrote many decades later in his fiction book Quantum String Quartet

Anyone who’s ever been smart knows you have to hide your power. Otherwise, people try to control you, to take advantage of it.

In elementary school, Jerry didn’t know how to hide his intelligence in order to escape from the bullying. He did eventually figure it out, and has learned from the experiences of other smart people. He now likes to teach people how to be happy “in spite of their intelligence.”

Jerry almost won a spelling bee while in fourth grade. He made it to the final round–he was up against an eighth grader. He was given the word “vertices,” which was not a word he was familiar with. Nonetheless, he produced the spelling v-e-r-t-i-c-e-s, but the judges told him he was wrong. They said the correct spelling is “vertexes.” After missing out on victory, he went home and looked up the word, finding that both spellings were valid. He protested the outcome of the spelling bee, but this didn’t change the result. The sense of unfairness that Jerry felt from this stayed with him for the rest of his life.

There was a formative experience in music class at Boone. The teacher didn’t like the sound of his voice, so when the class was singing, she told him to lip-sync silently. This may have suppressed any desire he might have had to sing. Still, since then he has made music with a kazoo, a jug, a washboard, and a gut bucket, as well as playing a bugle at Scout Camp. He long had a desire to learn to play bagpipes, and he acquired a practice chanter that beginning bagpipe players use to learn, but never got very far in learning. He says he’s envious of those who have developed their music talents. However, he has always loved listening to music.

Jerry’s sister had a 78 rpm record player and only one album–Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. He listened to the symphony repeatedly. In college, he would study in the library while listening to Mozart. He later bought a hi-fi and could afford only one album, Mozart’s Hunt Quartet. He now has recordings of all of Mozart’s compositions, and many other classical works.

When he completed the 8th grade at Boone Elementary School (there was no middle school between primary and secondary school), the teachers there wanted to send him to the University of Chicago, which had a policy of accepting bright students straight out of the 8th grade. However, the university was three hours away by streetcar to the south side of Chicago. Jerry’s parents didn’t want to send him to a dorm (likely because of his age or the cost, or both). So he went on to high school. Jerry wasn’t enthusiastic about college at this point, so he was happy with this decision.

Because he had skipped two grades, he was only 12 years old when he started high school as a freshman. He lied to his classmates about his age so he could blend in better. There had been talk earlier in elementary school about skipping him ahead one more grade level, but he refused to do this because this would have put him in the same grade as his older sister, who had skipped a grade herself. If he started attending classes with his older sister, it would be much harder to hide the fact that he had skipped ahead.

He had a scare when everyone in gym class took a physical ability test. The results were normalized by age, and the gym teachers used his true age for the calculations. His young age gave his scores a boost, and Jerry was pronounced the best athlete in the high school. The gym teachers couldn’t figure out why he wasn’t proud of this feat. He was nervous that the other students would do the math and figure out that he won because he was so much younger than them. But as far as he knew, none of the other students ever learned his true age. That included his 14 year old girlfriend, who would have been mortified to know she was dating a 12 year old boy.

Rainbow Garage

A reproduction of the rainbow garage. Original art by Gretchen Faught.

For several years, Scouting was an important part of Jerry’s life. He was a Cub Scout, and then he moved up to a Boy Scout troop. As a Boy Scout, he still volunteered to help with Cub Scout meetings. He quickly rose to the rank of Eagle Scout. One positive memory that he has from scouting was the the clear structure for earning awards. In many parts of his life before and after his experiences as a Boy Scout, Jerry felt he was denied the awards he had earned. In contrast, he felt that the non-competitive criteria for earning merit badges and ranks in the Boy Scouts were fairly administered. But again, he worried about his classmates discovering his age difference.

Though a Boy Scout can remain a youth member until age 18, teenagers often drop out of Scouting around the time they enter high school because they find other activities more compelling. Jerry didn’t want to look childish to his older peers, so he stopped going to his Boy Scout troop’s activities shortly after starting high school. He doesn’t recall anyone in his troop asking him why he hadn’t come back, and he had no friends in the troop that he missed seeing. He had been getting increasingly annoyed at having to travel to the troop meetings that were a significant distance from his house.

Eagle Scouts are now encouraged to mention their Eagle rank on their resume to give them an advantage in the job market. But that wasn’t the case for Jerry when he was a Boy Scout. He never mentioned it on a resume and it didn’t occur to him to bring it up to anyone at all. He says it was like his stamp collecting–something that didn’t seem worth talking about.

Several of the skills Jerry learned as a Boy Scout have stuck with him, including knot tying, recognizing trees, sewing, woodwork, electrical wiring, and first aid. He has bandaged a lot of wounds since his scouting days. The most dramatic use of first aid skills was when he was attending the University of Nebraska. He was using a circular saw while building a homecoming display for his residence house. Someone bumped into him, causing the saw to cut his thigh so deeply that he could see the bone. Several pre-med students who were nearby came over. Three of them fainted after seeing the wound, and the rest didn’t do anything to help. Jerry tore off his shirt and made a tourniquet for himself. He used a hammer he found nearby to tighten the tourniquet. He was angry with the other students for not helping, and he even had trouble convincing someone to take him to the student health center. Jerry was awake while a doctor sewed up his leg. The doctor wanted to reassure him that the wound wasn’t too bad, so he told the story of how he had recently treated a farmer who had tried and failed to kill himself by shooting himself with a shotgun, giving graphic details of the wounds. This did not help Jerry get through the experience, of course. He still has a 4-inch scar from the injury.

Jerry was bored with many of his high school classes. One experience didn’t help; as he describes it–”I’m in English class and we had to read a novel. HAD to read a novel, like who wouldn’t want to read a novel?” The assigned novel was The Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy.  He read the portion of the book that had been assigned, and decided that he liked the book, so he finished reading it in one evening. The next day, the teacher led a discussion on the assigned reading. Jerry’s contribution to the discussion revealed that he knew what happened later in the book. The teacher rebuked him for reading ahead, which has stuck with him as being a ridiculous thing to complain to him about.

Jerry has much fonder memories of his auto shop class. He learned engine repair in this class, which is something that was lacking in his time working in his dad’s body shop. He remembers rebuilding a tank engine with pneumatic automatic transmission. He also took a course in electricity, where he built a small electric motor. There was no coverage of electronics, just basic electricity. He didn’t really have opportunities to tinker with electronics. He did enjoy using a ham radio to listen to radio programs from across the world. He used to hide it in his bed when he was supposed to be asleep. And he tinkered with a pinball machine that his father had, adjusting solenoids and relays.

Another useful class was print shop, where he learned how to set movable type. The students didn’t get to operate the printing press, but they learned a lot about formatting documents. Jerry learned the origin of the meaning of “upper case” and “lower case” (there were two separate cases for the type, with the upper case type conventionally propped up higher and behind the lower case). He felt that his hands-on experience with formatting documents physically in the print shop helped him later with using a computer to build documents, and he saw that others who didn’t have this kind of print shop experience struggled more with formatting documents. The print shop printed all of the school’s paperwork, including hall passes. Jerry is coy about whether all of these hall passes were used by authorized personnel.

Jerry remembers an important lesson on approximation from his trigonometry teacher. Jerry had been opposed to using any kind of approximations, thinking that it’s far better to do only fully precise calculations. What he didn’t know at the time was that he had already been using approximations any time he used a slide rule or a table to do a calculation. Drawing on his war-time experiences in the Army, the teacher explained how to do a milliradian (or “mil”) approximation. Jerry said he objected to using an approximation. Though most of Jerry’s teachers would have squelched his objections, the trig teacher listened. I’ll let Jerry tell the rest of it:

Unlike most of my teachers, he took my objections seriously, so he told us a story. He described Big Bertha, the largest cannon ever built. It could send a tonnish projectile over thirty miles through the air. ‘It could have been fired across the English Channel and into a trench in France.’

He then did two calculations: the most exact trig calculation, using tables (which were, of course, still approximations), and the mil approximation. Then he computed the difference. I don’t remember the exact number, but I do remember his exact sentence: ‘If you hit your enemy soldier in the left eye or the right eye, it doesn’t matter.’

In his last semester at Omaha Central High School, there was one last math class he hadn’t taken yet–solid geometry. Jerry remembers that the teacher was blonde, beautiful, and old, that is, probably 22 years old, which to 15-year-old Jerry, was really old. He found the class interesting for a few days. Then he finished the textbook and got bored listening to the lectures. Maybe because of boredom, and maybe because he wanted to win the teacher’s attention, he started acting up in class. She only tolerated this for a day or two before she talked to him about it after class. When she asked what was wrong, he said that he was bored, thinking that this was a smart alec remark that would get a rise out of her. But she took it seriously, saying “There’s not a whole lot to this subject. Not really enough for me to fill up a whole semester. So what interests you?” Still trying to be a smart alec, he replied “Gambling.”

“Oh,” she said. “That’s good. I don’t know much about gambling, but I’ve heard there’s a lot of math to it. It’s called probability or statistics.” This was news to him, and he also really liked that she wasn’t speaking down to him. Then she said, “I have an idea that might not be boring.”

“What’s that?”

“Instead of hanging around in this boring class, you could go to the library and learn about probability and statistics applied to gambling, then you could come to class and I’ll give you an hour to teach the others about it. What do you think?”

Jerry jumped at the chance and studied like a fiend all semester, focusing on the game of craps. During the final week, he gave his lecture, working out all the odds in craps. He doesn’t think his classmates enjoyed it much, but he had a great time doing it. The way the teacher dealt with him in this class left a permanent impression on him.

Jerry has a broad interest in competitive and recreational sports–he calls himself a sports dilettante. Though he wasn’t usually committed enough to excel in a sport, he would study the sport extensively so that he understood it intellectually even better than the more serious participants.

There wasn’t so much study involved with his brief try at boxing in his Boy Scout troop. All of the boys had watched boxing on television, but otherwise didn’t have any training when they put on boxing gloves and went at it. In Jerry’s first bout, he won with a knockout, and he got excited about doing more boxing. He fantasized about being a star boxer like Joe Louis. Then a week later, he faced off against the same opponent again, but this time it was Jerry who was knocked out. All of his excitement about boxing dried up at that point. Getting a knockout was fun, but he didn’t want to be knocked out ever again.

Jerry enjoyed playing 16-inch softball. Softball had originated there in Chicago, with a ball with a 12-inch circumference, and the 16-inch variant was a direct descendent of the original game. Jerry’s contemporaries just knew the game as “baseball” or “softball.” This variant used 10 players on the field, and none of them wore gloves. This was slow-pitch softball–he remembers that there were a lot of hits and few strikeouts.

Jerry worked as a caddie at Tam O’Shanter Country Club near Chicago for part of a summer. He would sometimes work for 72 holes in one day while carrying two golf bags. Working as a caddie allowed him to play golf when the club wasn’t open, because he otherwise couldn’t afford to play. He says he was a pretty good golfer.

Tam O’Shanter sometimes hosted national golf tournaments. At one of them, he got to meet Joe Louis. Though Louis was best known as a boxer, he also had an interest in golf. Jerry listened to the white members of the country club make bigoted remarks about Joe, who was African-American. Jerry’s school was well integrated, so he hadn’t heard much of that kind of talk before. It made him feel so awful that he quit being a caddie right after the tournament.

Jerry also tried working as a tennis ball boy. He never played tennis, though, because the players where he worked treated him with contempt. He had no interest in playing tennis with people who would treat a ball boy like that.

He tried basketball on a club team in Chicago–at 6 feet 3 inches, he was a tall center for the time. He earned the nickname “Swede” because of his height, blond hair, and blue eyes, but not because of any actual Swedish heritage. His coach didn’t seem to know much about basketball, though, because his philosophy was “never pass, dribble as far as you can, then shoot.” Jerry’s team never won a game.

At 240 pounds, Jerry was a good candidate for his high school football team. Players on his team played on both the defense and the offense. Jerry tended to play center on the offense and end on the defense. None of the players wore helmets, and he says it’s a wonder he can recall anything after playing football without a helmet. The coach was abusive to the players on his team. At one game, the coach managed to get the opposing team’s star player isolated from the rest of his team. The coach ordered his own team to surround him and the opposing player so no one else could see what was happening, then the coach kicked him in the stomach. Jerry quit the team after that. This experience left him with a lasting distrust of all authority figures.

Jerry had much more fun playing for a local club team that was sponsored by the Chicago Bears and coached by two of their players. He stayed on that team until his family moved to Omaha near the end of his junior year. He was later offered a scholarship to play football at an NCAA Division II school, Drake University in Iowa. At the time he got the offer, however, he had no plans to go to college, so he turned it down.

In high school in Omaha, Jerry tried track and field sports like the mile run and shot put. He had some success with this, earning a few third place ribbons.

As the end of his high school tenure at Omaha Central High School drew near, there were a few more disappointing events where Jerry felt he was treated unfairly. The student commencement speaker was going to be chosen using an audition. Jerry wrote a speech and went to the audition, where he found six other students, each accompanied by a teacher acting as sponsor. He hadn’t heard that he needed to have a sponsor. The judges weren’t sure what to do with him. They gave him a chance to audition his speech, but it didn’t appear that anyone was listening. The teacher sponsors talked to their students while Jerry gave his speech. Of course, his speech was not chosen. It may not have been a stellar speech, but he would have liked to have a fair chance with it.

At graduation, the school gave awards to the students who had taken all eight math glasses that they offered and earned an A in all of them. Jerry had taken several math classes in Chicago, and after moving to Omaha, he took every advanced math class they had, getting a higher grade than all the other students each time. And yet, he got no award. When he asked about this, the answer was “How do we know your Chicago high school had the same high standards as Central?” Because he had taken some of his math classes at a different school, he was not eligible for the award. Because all of his grades from Chicago were discounted, he had no chance of being valedictorian. He didn’t receive any awards from the school at all. It’s easy to imagine the level of disappointment this would have caused.

The people who ran Omaha Central must have felt they had a reputation to protect. Jerry remembers them proudly asserting that they were the second best high school in the nation. He never heard who had done this ranking, or whether there was any desire to take the number one spot. Since then, Jerry has counted 20 different people who assert completely seriously that their own high school is the second best in the nation.

In the next installment, we’ll continue to follow Jerry’s education into college and beyond. Here’s a teaser. Jerry went to a birthday party in Omaha when he was about 15 where he ate 36 hot dogs. This was the beginning of a new activity for him that continued into college. Watch for more about this unlikely competitive eating champion.

Next up: Jerry’s Story: In Memoriam

Taking Care of Our Own

This is a true story about a harrowing rescue. Just replaying this story in my head gets my adrenaline up again. But really, this story is about family.

To set the stage, imagine an old farmhouse on the plains of West Texas. My great-grandfather built the house, and his descendants have now protected it with a family trust. The outhouse is still there, though the house was adapted for indoor plumbing some time ago. I love how you can identify such a conversion by observing the bathroom taking a corner out of a room rather than being built into the floor plan. This farmhouse and the land around it are important to the family primarily for the one weekend a year when they gather there for a family reunion. The numbers vary a bit every year, sometimes with perhaps fewer than 100 people coming, and sometimes closer to 200. But they keep coming every year. The extended family has long outgrown the capacity of the house, so for that one weekend and several days on either side, the old farm looks like a campground with RVs all around the house and a few brave souls pitching tents in between.

160 feet above the rolling plains

The view from 160 feet above the rolling plains.

There are reunions for other branches of my family, but this is the only one that I attend every year that I possibly can. I think it’s because this is where I’ll find my first cousins and many other relatives that I remember as far back as I have memories. It’s great to see the traditions of the reunion carry on even though my great-grandparents are long gone, and their many kids who lived in that farmhouse are mostly gone too.

The reunion happens at the peak heat of the Texas summer, because that’s when Great-Grampa’s birthday falls, and well, traditions die hard even when we’re facing the blazing sun and nighttime surprise thunderstorms. There are no name tags. I’ve actually started asking people I’ve seen for decades what their name is (or at least the name everyone calls them, which is often different), because they had never once said it to me directly. We’re just all comfortable sharing space without any formalities.

Most years during the reunion, a group of people set out to hike a spot near the Caprock Escarpment, which is a few miles away and clearly visible from the farmhouse. The Caprock is where the rolling plains rise abruptly up to the high plains. We love exploring this part of the landscape that our ancestors used to see from the house every day. The part we like to explore is a narrow ridge that juts out from the Caprock like a finger. As best as I can calculate, the top of the ridge is about a 160 foot vertical rise from where the base starts to level out below, and another 90 feet to where we start the hike. For people who are used to scaling mountains, it doesn’t appear to be a very challenging hike, but there are plenty of extra challenges along the way, including rattlesnakes, loose rocks on steep slopes, black widows, prickly pear, and very little shade from the intense summer sun. There is clear evidence of the presence of wild pigs on the trek to the base of the ridge. In fact, the only established trails are the ones made by the local animals. The clearest evidence I’ve seen of the pigs was the two I hit on the highway at night that tore up the front of my car. They can easily tear up a person, too, but I’ve never encountered one during the day except that one that we barbecued, and man was that good eating.

A few years ago, my then 67-year-old mother decided to try the hike, despite her frail knees. She hadn’t gone on the hike for some time, and she felt that this might be the last chance she had before her body couldn’t take it any more. It’s no coincidence that my father had not gone to the reunion that year. None of us who were there had the gumption to tell her “no,” but Dad certainly would have. She brought a walking stick, and offered an extra one to me.

Mom and son

We paused for a picture on the way to the ridge’s north slope.

Eleven people covering a broad age range joined the hike that morning. Mom fell once on the way to the base of the ridge, but she got right up, not much worse for the wear. She started slowing down as we got higher, taking breaks more and more often. The last 10 feet or so is nearly vertical as you scale the hard top of the ridge. Mom was so exhausted we had to drag her up. As I pondered the wisdom of dragging her up there, I thought about how the route down on the other side would be more direct. I took a picture of her looking across the landscape from the top that’s one of my all-time favorite pictures of her.

favorite picture of Mom

Mom is exhausted but happy. Facing north from the top, the Caprock is visible in the distance.

We rested at the top, hoping to regain some strength. All of the younger crowd headed back down, leaving my aunt, my uncle, me and Mom. As we snacked and rehydrated while we feasted our eyes on the expansive landscape below, we saw that Mom wasn’t recovering any of her strength. She seemed to be suffering from heat exhaustion. We had started our hike early in the morning, so we now had several hours before we would get any relief from the heat. Mom had difficulty standing up, and it was hard to imagine her getting back down from the ridge under her own power. I tried to stand so I would cast a shadow over her as we discussed what to do. The temperature was about 95º, a good deal less than the highest we’ve seen, but still we could feel the heat beating down on us. The breeze we often enjoy on the top of the ridge was sparse that day.

We decided to call for help. Cell phone coverage has improved in the area in recent years, but it still was challenging to find a signal from the top of the ridge. We needed more water, and something to repair a blown out sole on my uncle’s shoe. We asked for a tarp so we could fashion some sort of sling to get Mom down the ridge. We got through to the family at the farmhouse, and the rescue was underway. The ATVs that several families bring to the reunion proved useful in getting supplies to the base of the ridge quickly, and soon we had a bag full of water bottles and a roll of duct tape. Where would we be without duct tape, after all? But no tarp was offered–all the tarps that could be found were being used as ground cloths for tents, and they all had hundreds of sticker burrs embedded in them. We offered Mom more water, but she was feeling nauseous and couldn’t drink any more. She also tried to eat some cheese crackers, but couldn’t stomach that either. I’m thankful for whoever included some sports drinks in the bag, because I needed the extra electrolytes at that point. I had brought just enough water for an uneventful hike, but not enough for a rescue.

We struggled to make a plan to get Mom off the ridge. My aunt (Mom’s sister-in-law) sat with her, giving her a bit more shade, and kept talking to her to keep her calm and awake. They sang some songs, but they had to use some discretion a few times. They changed their minds about singing “Ding-Dong! The Witch Is Dead.” I vetoed “I’ll Fly Away”, though I love that hymn, because I know Mom wants to include it in her funeral. Some of our fears were cracking through our facade.

At some point, the decision was made to call for an air ambulance. However, the emergency medical services denied the request because we were too far away from where the helicopters were. It was pretty clear that we were on our own.

I grabbed the walking sticks and walked to the edge, thinking that I would throw them down the hill and recover them later. I needed to lighten my load. But I stopped myself, remembering my Boy Scout training about building a stretcher. If only we’d gotten that tarp! I walked back to the group, which now included several people from the farmhouse encampment who came to the top to help. I mentioned building a stretcher somehow, and one cousin immediately took off his T-shirt and offered it to me. I practically slapped myself over having forgotten that part of my first aid training. Another cousin offered a shirt, and soon we were building a stretcher with two walking sticks, two T-shirts, and the extra duct tape. I felt a little guilty for not thinking to use my own shirt, but I was feeling pretty exposed to the elements already and I was glad to have that little bit of protection from the sun.

lightning strike at night with a blue sky

A lightning strike near the farmhouse in the dead of night lights up white clouds and a blue sky.

We decided to go down the slightly steeper south side because it would give us easier access to get vehicles to the base. There’s a trail taking a nice easy slope angling across the south side, but it’s too narrow to accommodate the width of two people plus a stretcher. So we decided to go straight down. I’m guessing it’s about a 35º slope on average, starting with a vertical drop down several feet. We loaded Mom on the stretcher and down we went. We had six people holding the stretcher at a time, so if one or two people fell, the stretcher would still be secure. We found out pretty quickly that we had to build a headrest to keep Mom’s head from banging on the rocks that were just a few inches below her head on the high side of the stretcher. More duct tape to the rescue!

As people got tired, someone else would rotate in to hold the stretcher. It was rough going. Normally when walking across the rugged terrain, you take a wandering path, avoiding large rocks, cactus, and scrub brush. But with six people walking in the same direction, you don’t have much choice of where to get a foothold. I lost my footing a lot, and one time I fell completely underneath the stretcher, sliding downhill for a bit. We all had to take a break at one point, so one inventive family member sat down near the downhill end of the stretcher and held that end in his lap so we could set the stretcher down.

After we started our descent, we saw a patrol car that stopped at the end of a dirt road in the distance. Two sheriff’s deputies made their way toward us from the car, and one of them scaled the hill to meet us. He didn’t hesitate to join the rotation of stretcher carriers. Our call for help from the authorities didn’t come up totally empty after all.

My 21-year-old daughter also made her way up the hill and joined the rescue. I was fatigued at that point so I gave her my spot. She explained that she had been told that only menfolk were going to help and she should stay behind. She said “That’s my Granny up there!” and got in the car anyway. There might have been a few, uh, emphasizing words she added that I chose not to remember. I congratulated her for sticking to her guns. She was an accomplished athlete after all, and could certainly be a help.

Back at the farmhouse, tensions were high as everyone waited for news of Mom’s well-being. After the first call for help, adrenaline peaked as supplies and people were quickly gathered and sent on their way. But then that energy had nowhere to go. I had another daughter there who had some health issues, and she had argued with her sister about staying behind. Many of the remaining men were champing at the bit to join the rescue party, but others were pleading with them not to get in the way if there was enough help already. Some people were praying, and some were endlessly pacing. The person who is our best organizer for many things related to the reunion expended a great deal of effort coordinating the phone calls. It seems the anxiety was higher at the farmhouse than it was even on that hill, where we were focused on the task at hand.

Pretty soon I had given all that I could. Having helped Mom up that darn hill, I didn’t have the energy to get her all the way back down. My uncle and I both sat down on the hillside to rest. We had more than 30 people participating in the rescue operation, some on the hill and some providing support at the bottom. The stretcher crew continued down to the base where one of my cousin’s Jeep was waiting. I managed to get myself the rest of the way down. We loaded Mom in the back, lying down. We heard that an ambulance was waiting on the nearest paved road. Another cousin drove the Jeep, tearing through the landscape, right over prickly pear patches and even a few of the thorny mesquite trees. Our driver hadn’t driven the Jeep when she came over to the Caprock, so she didn’t have a good recall of what the route was. We lost all sense of where the roads were, and I had to use my phone to get our bearings to find our way to the ambulance. I couldn’t believe that the tires on that Jeep were still intact, though the paint was all scratched to hell. Our driver ignored us as we warned her that the car was taking damage. She was on a mission. The Jeep’s owner shrugged it off later, saying that that was her contribution to the mission.

Mom had this recollection of her journey down that hill–

I cried most of the way down, but I covered up my face with a damp bandana because I thought that seeing that would make things harder for the ones carrying me. And I prayed that we were making enough noise to scare away snakes. I was so afraid someone would get hurt because of my determination to hike. I was exhausted and felt old and stupid. And my hair kept getting stuck in that duct tape and that hurt. For some reason, both my feet were hurting badly, but I didn’t say much about it because I just couldn’t think of anything we could do about it.

prickly pear cactus

Prickly pear cactus tends to hide in the scrub. The fruit are good to eat if you have the patience to get all the tiny spines off.

We rolled up to the ambulance that was waiting some distance down the road. When we said that Mom had fallen, the paramedics were concerned and insisted that they take her to a trauma center some distance away. We told them that the fall wasn’t really the issue, and we convinced them to go to a smaller hospital in a nearby town.

I headed back to the farmhouse, where family expressed concern about my own condition. I was exhausted and dehydrated, as were most of the other rescuers. I found more electrolytes and took the coveted seat next to the window air conditioner in the house. You have to get pretty close to the air conditioner to get much of the benefit from it in the poorly insulated house. After a while I had recovered well enough to go with a carload of people to visit Mom in the hospital.

It was a pretty routine case of heat exhaustion. Perhaps it would have become a life-threatening case of heatstroke if we hadn’t taken action when we did. Mom’s sister, who’s an X-ray technician, insisted on reviewing the X-rays herself to make sure there was no damage from the fall. In the hospital room, someone noticed an orange trail on the floor. Mom explained that they must be crushed cheese crackers that had been in the cargo pocket on her pants. Her brother, who was also holding vigil in the room, dropped down into his chair and said “Oh, thank God.” He had grabbed her leg there earlier and felt a sickly crunching sensation. He had been afraid he had crushed the bone. Only then did he realize how silly that fear had been.

Mom checked out from the hospital, and we all went to the Dairy Queen for supper. It occurs to me that eating out with my aunts, uncles, and cousins is a rare event, though we’ve eaten home-cooked meals together countless times. I like the homemade food better. Mom had been very reluctant to call my Dad to tell him what was going on, but around this time she finally filled him in. I don’t think he’s going to miss another reunion.

Many of us who were involved in the rescue were due to go home that same day. As I drove to get back to my daily routine back home, it felt surreal having been through that experience. It still feels that way.

A few days later, the rescue was written up in a local newspaper. The article was filled with wild inaccuracies, like the slope being nearly 90º, and it minimized the family’s role in the rescue. The deputies were commended, and I’m fine with that. I was glad to have them there. Mom made commemorative bandanas for the family with “We take care of our own” printed on them. Those who participated in the rescue got a star added on the bandana. I can’t help but think of star-bellied Sneetches, but I digress. Mom kept the stretcher as a souvenir, and the guys didn’t mind not getting their shirts back.

the terminus of the ridge

The terminus of the ridge viewed from below the south side.

I’ve had a few years to reflect on this experience. Is my family special? Wouldn’t other families also take care of their own? Surely they would. We’re special in how tight-knit we are, though our links to each other on the family tree get looser with each new generation. We still show up in great numbers to see each other every year, so we had plenty of able hands at the ready when someone needed help. Maybe another family would have been smarter about letting a 67-year-old grandmother scale a hill, or maybe they would have figured out how to treat heat exhaustion while still on the ridge so she could come down under her own power. Who knows? I like my family’s sense of adventure, though I do regret both the family and public effort that was ultimately required to recover from being a little too adventurous.

Most people in the family are proud to identify as rednecks, with the conservative politics and religion that goes along with it. That doesn’t describe me at all, but they let me hang out with them anyway. I can identify with the part of the macho redneck bravado that motivates people to get a job done without whining when it really needs to be done. But the part where the women are expected to stay in kitchen needs some updating. I hardly ever listen to country music, but I was happy to find common ground with my aunt recently when she was complaining that old-fashioned country music is better than what the kids are listening to now. Right on. One family member who played a prominent role in the rescue is someone who has made decisions both before and after that day that I take strong exception to. Typical dynamics found in any family, I suppose. He certainly earned some respect that day, and it showed me that no one is all bad all the time.

There's beauty all around in the harsh landscape

There’s beauty all around in the harsh landscape. Mom, you don’t have to climb up high to find it. 🙂

I’m glad that Mom got her one last chance to see the beautiful landscape below the Caprock with her own eyes. Actually, knowing her stubbornness, I won’t guarantee that it was her last chance, but she darn well better have a creative plan for getting back down if she ever tries it again.