I may seem to be a broken record, talking about the weather again. But I just drove home from a late night at the News-Herald office and noticed that the thermometer in my car was recording minus 15 degrees. And that is not factoring the wickedly howling wind. The “Polar Vortex” appears to be back.
But weather is on my mind, for a reason other than I am still shivering as I write this week’s column. I’ve been thinking about the weather because of a weather related job that I had in the ’80s. It was a great job. I was a secretary for the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in beautiful Monterey, California. I worked for an office of scientists supervised by a NOAA officer, Captain Otto Steffin.
The scientists were an eclectic bunch—they all had doctorates in a variety of fields—marine biologists, meteorologists, oceanographers— and they all worked together collecting weather data. However, they spent the majority of their time in dark offices, staring at lines and lines of code scrolling across their computer screens. I didn’t understand how they were collecting weather information by sitting at their desks all day and sometimes late into the evening.
I didn’t understand much of what they were doing and it didn’t really matter. My job was to provide office support. I answered the phones for them, screening nuisance calls. I ordered supplies using the complicated government purchase order system. I made travel arrangements for our scientists who were going somewhere and booked lodging for visiting scientists and government officials. It was interesting work because they were interesting people.
It was interesting just getting to work. Our office building was on the Fleet Numerical Meteorology and Oceanography Center (FNMOC), a Navy base, and it was a heavily secured facility. I had a special Naval picture ID that served as a passkey at a gate that opened when you swiped the card. It was pretty high-tech for the ’80s. Everyone was matter of fact about it, so I didn’t think much about the secrecy of it all.
Our office had a lot of visitors, from all over the United States, but mostly from Washington, D.C., from the Department of Commerce (DOC). NOAA is part of the Department of Commerce. After a few months of taking messages for the scientists from DOC, I asked Captain Steffin why NOAA and the weather gurus were under the DOC umbrella. It was logical, he said, weather is very important to commerce.
That made sense, but I still didn’t understand what our scientists were doing and what the DOC officials were looking for when they visited. I just provided office support and wondered. The mystery was revealed when Captain Steffin asked me to help find lodging on Cannery Row, near the Monterey Bay Aquarium for a number of officials from DOC. A planeload of dignitaries was coming to FNMOC, including the Secretary of Commerce.
And, very exciting, there was to be a black-tie event at the Monterey Bay Aquarium during their visit—and my husband Chuck and I were invited.
To this day it was probably one of the most elegant affairs I have ever attended. The aquarium was closed for the evening and we were free to wander as we wished and there was fine wine and fancy hors d’oeuvres. And set up in the big atrium, were about a dozen computers, with the familiar code scrolling across the screens. However, our scientists had a surprise. After entering a bit more data, the screens changed. In place of the lines of white text on a black background were funny shaped blobs of color scrolling across a map of the United States. As they flipped the map view from the entire United States to just California, to across the United States to Florida, to Washington, D. C., they explained that what we were seeing was weather. It was a live picture of weather, beamed to their computers by satellite.
It was a fascinating evening and one that I have thought about often when I check out AccuWeather or watch the nightly weather report on TV. I often wonder if I am imagining the import of that evening. Was I part of the advent of weather radar and I didn’t even realize it?
I did some research as I sat down to write this week’s Unorganized Territory and the weather mystery deepened. I can find no mention of the NOAA office in Monterey. Researching weather radar does not bring up the names of any of the scientists I worked with. As I clicked and clicked on NOAA and National Weather Service websites, I found nothing—except a very official-looking government website declaring that I needed special security clearance to go any further.
I’ve lost touch with all my coworkers, so what happened to those brilliant scientists remains a mystery. I hope they are doing well. I hope, wherever they are, they are warmer than we are!
But who wants to be foretold the weather? It is bad enough when it comes, without our having the misery of knowing about it beforehand.
Jerome K. Jerome