Alexander Vraciu, the original Top Gun

Alex with his full page story in the 1944 Chicago Tribune
Alex with 1944 Chicago Tribune

On my way back from a day trip to LA, I sat next to a quiet old man who was settling in for the short flight back home to Oakland. I asked him how his day was going and was kind of surprised to hear him say he’s been really busy. He then told me he just got through with his interviews for a segment of the History Channel about WWII fighter pilots.

I put my book down and then prepared to listen to what I knew would be a fascinating tale. At first I had to draw it out of him a bit but once he got going he was full of stories. He was not the bragging type – he told me a little of this, and a little of that about his activities during the war but as the time went on I later realized that I was talking to one of the top aces of the Pacific War.

Alexander Vraciu flew Grumman Hellcats during the war and shot down 19 enemy aircraft over the course of the war and was the fourth-ranking Naval Ace of the war. During this time he served on six separate carriers (two were torpedoed) and was shot down over the Philippines where he parachuted to safety and spent five weeks with the guerrilla forces in the jungle, leading command of 180 of them through Japanese lines to link up with General McArthur’s advancing forces.

Alex came home to Chicago a war hero later taking command of a jet fighter squadron in 1951. As one of the top naval pilots, he was sent a congratulatory message from then Admiral Stump, “delighted to hear that you are top gun in jets” which is the first known use of that phrase.

Despite his age (he’s 88), he was sharp as a tack and you could see his eyes sparkle as he swooped his hands through the air, recounting his famous dogfight where he took out 6 Japanese planes in the space of eight minutes. “It was my personal payback for Pearl,” he said.

I didn’t have it in me to break in and say I’m half-Japanese.

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My brush with Louis Rossetto

I read Gary Wolf’s Wired, an account of the magazine and it’s founder, Louis Rossetto. The tales within resonate even stronger than most books about this era because I have a personal connection with some of the characters within.

In 1989, just out of UC Berkeley where I had hammered out a 100+ page senior thesis on a typewriter, I felt strongly that it was time for me to jump on the high tech bandwagon. My roommate at the time had an old IBM XT that he was given after an internship at Wells Fargo and I could see the beginnings of something there that warranted further investigation. I was completely unskilled in computers so in typical Kennedy fashion, I sought out a job where they did things using the object of my interest and begged for any position they would give me.

I’m not sure how I found Reference Software, the small startup at 330 Townsend in San Francisco. I think it was a newspaper advertisement or maybe something posted on the bulletin board (the old cork variety) at the UC career center. At any rate, my future boss, Brian Anthony was kind enough to let me in as a “Fulfillment Coordinator.” Reference made software that would parse word processing documents for grammatical errors with their product Grammatik that came in a bright yellow box which in those days passed for revolutionary marketing in the software world.

Fulfillment was a nice way to say Shipping. I was essentially packing boxes with Styrofoam peanuts and slapping UPS 2nd Day Air labels on them to send them on their way to customers. Because we sold software, I got to hang out with the programmers and tech support guys. As a software startup, we were always trading with other companies for copies of their software so I got to play around with games like Cosmic Osmo and an early version of a graphics software package from Boeing that later went on to inspire Harvard Graphics and later inspire the genre that is now dominated by Microsoft Powerpoint.

While at Reference, I rubbed shoulders with several folks who would go on to be major players in the .com boom. We had parties and folks like RU Sirius and Queen Mu who published Mondo 2000 would be there. I remember seeing Steve Jobs fire up the crowd at a Seybold conference to the point where those in the front row were practically foaming at the mouth for more. Our CEO, Don Emery, had  a traditional advertising background. He had a keen sense of what was needed to kick start customer demand for a product no one thought they needed with a clever campaign that ran in the airline inflight magazines. “Read it a Reap” was writ in bold on the top and there was a full page ad with an image of a type-written memo that contained several errors on it. The contest was to identify all of the errors and mail it to Reference for a prize. The errors were clever such as the repetition of a word at the end of one line and the beginning of the next; something a computer would catch but less obvious to the human eye. The campaign was a roaring success as the mailbags of orders had to be wheeled in the door each day. Our VP of Sales at the time was Jeff Mallett who went on to be one of the top guys at Yahoo. We would all get together for pizza every Friday and I still remember the time we debated if we should get a fax machine. We finally bought one and an entire roll of fax paper was used up over the weekend, all new orders.

My job evolved. I became more involved with coordinating with our vendors down in Santa Clara who duplicated our software and the distributors such as Ingram Micro D who shipped it to the national chains such as Egghead. We were working with companies like Cinnamon Software and Logistix who specialized in just-in-time manufacturing. Each week I would poll the ever-optimistic Jeff to see what the numbers were looking like for the following week, cut the figure by 20% and order up pallets of our software that came in it’s trademark sunshine yellow boxes. Our master disks were at the factory as were digital files of our documentation and boxes and could be produced on demand. Production of software in a box was a fine art because you never wanted to be short but, like perishable fruit, you didn’t want to produce too much because if the software went through a rev while it was still on the shelf, that would mean shipping out expensive update disks to each customer. This was that dark and distant past children, before the internet and modems would allow people to get their own updates.

I had fun too. Commuting from Berkeley, I would walk down from the Powell Street BART stop through the SOMA neighborhood which, being a little rough around the edges, always had interesting things lying around in the streets and alley. Because I got to office before anyone else, I was able to sneak this stuff in and would deposit it on someone’s unsuspecting desk. A hubcab, a book of poems, a catalog of machine tools. Those that complained the loudest got the best stuff – a full dashboard from a 70’s Chevrolet and, my proudest find ever, the full body of stand up bass which I bequeathed to Randy who was a totally neat freak and was so beside himself it took him a whole morning to calm down.

I also came up with some creative solutions while at Reference. The office was stocked with Calistoga bottled water but we always had a problem with the empties. We’d fill a bin but no one could ever find the time to take them to the recycling center. I cut a deal with a local homeless guy that I always saw fishing for bottles & cans in the area, telling him to show up at our backdoor at 2pm every Tuesday for a windfall. Problem solved.

But the most interesting part of my job was the chance to take part in a brand new industry that was finding it’s legs around us. Part of my skill at predicting sales figures came from following the competition and reading trades like InfoWorld and CRN. Stacked onto one side of our communal bookshelf was a colorful magazine called Language Technology. This was Louis Rossetto’s hand crafted newsletter that he produced in Amsterdam. The articles were totally out there and slightly highbrow but utterly fascinating. Each issue had in depth discussions about prickly questions such as how to measure computer intelligence (Is it the byte? That base unit of data?) and machine translation (can language be broken down into component parts, cross-referenced, and put back together again without losing meaning?). Rossetto was really good at simplifying the greater significance of these questions and painted just enough of an image that readers of his newsletter could almost grasp the possibility of resolving these age old philosophical problems. I was smitten.

Subscriptions to Language Technology (which later changed its name to Electric Word) cost $450/year if memory serves. I think we got some deal through Don’s publishing connections but I eagerly awaited each issue and let everyone know that I had first dibs when it came in the mail. After a couple of years at Reference, I got restless and wanted to dive deeper into computing. I took a three week holiday and traveled back home to Tokyo to visit my parents. On a whim, I fired off a letter to Rossetto to see if he needed any help from an eager young convert who worshiped his writing and wouldn’t mind relocating to Amsterdam.

While in Japan, I spoke to a few system integrator companies to see if I could get a job setting up and maintaining computers. Being able to read an English manual was an instant advantage and Terrie Lloyd and his fledgling computer supply outfit, Linc Computer extended me an offer which I accepted.

rossetto-letterIf there’s one letter I wish I still had, it would be the beautiful letter that was waiting for me from Louis Rossetto when I came back to SF to pack up my stuff for Japan. It came in a blue envelope and was printed with a unique but elegant font on green paper. It was encouraging in it’s reply – thank you for your interest and support, we’d love to take you on but we’re going through a transition right now but let’s talk because we’re starting a new publication in San Francisco and could use your help. . . that publication went on to become Wired.

Life is full of forks in the road and, like the Frost poem, one can only wonder where the other road might have taken you. There was that time when I was flying cross-country from NYC and happend to sit next to Joey Anuff, who started suck.com while working at Hot Wired and basically defined the snarky style that you see online today. Joey gave me a ride into the city from SFO, turned me on to Tortise and Joey ended up linking to my celebrity sell out site a few days later. These forces are stronger than life itself and sometimes I think my current work situation, back in the Bay Area, working with Andrew Anker, who ran Hot Wired and the inventor of the banner ad business model, is part of some big cycle that I have yet to appreciate. The wheel turns round one more time. Where will we go this time?

UPDATE: I now see that someone has kindly taken on a project to scan in back issues of Electric Word and post the pdf files online so you can see some of these issues (complete with advertisements) for yourself.