My return, after three years in Peace Corps, was more difficult than I would have imagined. The first inkling I got was when my friend Ralph and I stopped over in Paris on our way home. I guess I thought I was someone special for having made it through what I considered an ordeal. I assumed that everyone would be fascinated by my tales (it appears that I still think that). But person after person tuned out my self-absorbed banter. When Ralph saw I looked crestfallen, he uncharacteristically offered unsolicited advice. “You know what you could try, Mike?” He asked me. “Come up with two or three of your favorite stories and then try one out the next time you get into a conversation. Just one. See how it plays out. If they are interested, they’ll give you an opportunity to tell a second one.” It was damn good advice.
My second re-entry challenge occurred when I got home. Everything in America seemed so overly abundant and excessively clean. I reacted with dumbstruck awe to supermarkets packed with out of season fruits. I couldn’t process the vast expanse of manicured lawn of the National Mall. I made a hurried retreat to my old room in my parent’s house under the legitimate pretext of typing up my manuscript.
About the only thing I’d decided was that I needed to go to graduate school. A Master’s degree in disaster response stuck me as a critical credential. I somehow managed to get into all the schools to which I applied. I went to each in the order of my interest in them to see what they had to offer.
The University of Virginia was my first pick. I went down there to talk about what I hoped to study, but the representative I was speaking to looked at me askance. “If you come to this program you’ll take the course of study as laid out. There is no such thing as ‘disaster management’. We teach a curriculum that has stood us well over the test of time.” He might have added ‘in keeping with Mr. Jefferson’s vision for his venerable institution’. I presume he felt that was self-evident enough to be left out.
I got the same line, though in gentler and more accommodating terms, from all the other schools on my list. That is, until I got to the last one. The Dean at American University, nodded when I said I wanted to do disaster management. “Would you be focusing on natural or technological disaster?” he asked. “Because we’d make you choose.”
It was a brilliant response, and I was immediately sold. He was extemporizing, as it turned out. They didn’t have a disaster management program (no one did at the time). But, true to his word, he built one that satisfied my request.
Forced to pick, I chose technological disasters. I further specialized in the brand new field of environmental risk analysis. I had the good fortune of working for Dr. William Rowe, the author of ‘The Anatomy of Risk’, the field’s cornerstone. He is now considered the science’s preeminent pioneer. He was a nice guy but his brilliance made me cower. Most of the time I could hardly understand what he was saying. I often felt like a dog tied behind a fast moving truck.
In truth, I never should have gotten into the program, in part because Calculus was a prerequisite. I didn’t know the first thing about calculus. I approached Dr. Rowe to ask that he waive the rule for me. He looked at me like I was something unpleasant he found sticking to his shoe. Even so, I persevered. I explained my motivation for taking on technological disasters. Then I said that people no longer needed to understand calculus to deal with our day-to-day world. I explained that I could solve calculus equations without understanding how it worked. Then I entered a quadratic equation into my TI-80 calculator exactly as he’d written it on the board. I pressed ‘enter’…and voilà, the correct answer popped right out. He said he thought it was a ridiculous demonstration. Nevertheless, he agreed to admit me to the program.
I also realized that getting good at the science of probability was key to determining risk. Knowing that I was as bad at probability as I was at calculus, I once again turned to my computer tricks. I found a mainframe programming language called General Purpose Systems Simulator (GPSS). It turned out that I could program GPSS to handle my probability questions. I set it up to run the scenarios in question hundreds of thousands of times. Then all I had to do was to print the distribution out.
I had also landed a job at the University working the Department of Continuing Education. In 1981 they asked me to create a new adult education program, called Personal Computing. It was the same year IBM released its first personal computer, and I knew nothing about them at the time. In fact, I was still getting my feet wet with mainframes, punching cards and submitting them in stacks. But these forces coalesced and I ended up with a solid footing in computer technology. I bought my first personal computer, an IBM PCjr, when they released it in 1983. It cost me a month’s wages.
The big news in disasters back then was the emerging saga of abandoned toxic waste sites. Congress passed a huge spending bill to cover the costs of cleaning up these sites. A place called Love Canal became its milk carton poster child. That year I completed an independent study on Superfund and Love Canal. I even had a few meetings with Lois Gibbs – who got the credit for getting Congress to enact the Superfund. By then I had decided on my job goal: I would bring computer automation to Superfund.
I managed to locate the Superfund office in an underground garage in the EPA’s Waterside Mall. I cornered one of the executives and explained my degree and my commitment to their work. He told me they weren’t hiring. I said no problem, I’ll work for free. He gave me a long studied look and offered me his hand. Then he asked me to come back in two weeks.
When I came back as scheduled, he was expecting me and took me to another office. That person let me know that the personnel department had nixed the deal. “President Reagan has ordered a government-wide Reduction in Force, a RIF. We can’t bring new people on – even someone willing to work for free – during a RIF.”
I felt lost. I didn’t have a job. I didn’t even have a girlfriend. And I was running out of money. Worse, none of the environmentalists I spoke to could imagine why they would want someone with a degree in risk assessment.