American Top 40 PastBlast, 6/29/85: Katrina and the Waves, “Walking on Sunshine”

Soon after returning to campus in January 85, my advisor Dr. Miller told me and my fellow junior computer science majors Mark H and Cathy about a summer job opportunity. It would be at IBM, which then had a plant in Lexington where, among other things, they produced Selectric typewriters. By mid-February we had all applied and soon received offers sight unseen—apparently, Dr. Miller’s recommendation and our transcripts were sufficient. The pay wasn’t terrible at all by mid-80s standards, a little more than three times the minimum wage. We started not long after Memorial Day, following the end of Transy’s May Term.

Fortunately, Mark and I were able to make arrangements to live on campus for the summer, though board wasn’t provided. James was programming for Transy’s IT folks and would also be around, but he moved to a single at the other end of the hall while Mark lugged his stuff into the extra-long double James and I had been occupying. Cathy may have stayed with friends in town.

The three of us had very different assignments—Cathy even worked in another building from Mark and me. On my first day, I met Lisa, my supervisor, and Sam, her boss (the thing I most remember about Sam is a tale he told regarding his days working fast food, about how cole slaw was made at Long John Silver’s—nope, I’m not telling you). My project involved operations research, an applied area of math which focuses on optimizing processes. I was to write code that would determine how to place parts in bins arranged in a circle. The circular bin could be programmed to rotate as needed during a construction process that used the parts—the goal was to arrange the parts so as to minimize the total rotation time during assembly.

It’s probably easier to use bullet points to touch on a few things rather than try to tie it all together with a narrative.

–I had an office to myself for only a couple of days; soon I was joined by Reggie, who was also a college student, though from out of state. We didn’t work on projects that were related but got along well.

–There was an onsite cafeteria but Mark and I quickly decided not to lunch there all that often, favoring some of the local restaurants, be they fast food or Chinese buffet. My friend Suzanne, who was also on campus working alongside James, still gives me grief about our dining out while she made do with bologna sandwiches. Still, Mark did teach me to make a satisfying spam-macaroni-pea dish in a hot pot.

–I got pulled off my project for at least a week about halfway through my time there. Details are murky to me now, but some mid-level manager needed a grunt to help him put together a slide slow with graphics. I think he was trying to win some higher-ups over to his plan for…something? Definitely had the feeling at the time that I was being asked to help him fudge figures in order to present his case in the best possible light. That didn’t give me any warm fuzzies about the business world.

–Just like this year, July 4 was on Thursday, and I’m guessing we got Friday off as well. I imagine it was that weekend a bunch of us took a trip down to Mammoth Cave National Park. It was mostly friends who for one reason or another were on campus for the summer, but Reggie and my sister also came along. After our underground tour, we took the long way home for a cookout at James’s home in Burgin.

–Don’t know why now, but I completely missed out on Live Aid.

–There was a huge, long thunderstorm at around 2 one morning. Our dorm wasn’t air conditioned, so we would have had fans in the windows and thus no way to sleep through the frequent lightning and thunder. I wound up heading down the hall to James’s room. We watched the light show and chatted for quite a while, in a way we didn’t normally when we lived in the same room. (Similarly, it seems like we became closer confidantes exchanging letters in those first two to three years after we graduated.)

–Then, as now, I allowed myself to be too easily distracted (heaven knows what it would have been like had the Internet been around then). Among other things, I occasionally wandered down to their library to read newspapers.

–While nothing was ever said, I have the distinct feeling the program I handed off when I left at the start of August wasn’t useful to them in the slightest. It did compile and run, but there were likely some specs my output wound up not meeting. Lisa had certainly been willing to offer advice and ideas; maybe this was one of the early signs that I was relying too much on intuition and memorization and not enough on understanding.

–Sometime that fall, I went out to dinner with Lisa, Sharon (one of the librarians), and a couple other former co-workers. My main memory from that night out was a big music-related faux pas on my part: I naively thought the conversation had turned to Hall and Oates’s most recent LP, but they were talking about Cheech & Chong instead.

When I think back on songs I associate with my stint at IBM, it’s mostly stuff that came a little later in the summer, like Amy Grant’s “Find a Way,” “Not Enough Love in the World” from Don Henley, Howard Jones’s “Life in One Day,” and “Cry” by Godley and Creme. Mark’s musical tastes tended softer than mine overall, and we wound up listening quite a bit to an adult-contemporary station that was trying to be ahead of the curve.

Since none of those are around this week, I’ll go with “Walking on Sunshine,” which is at #11 after peaking the previous week at #9. I bought both Katrina and the Waves singles that year (“Do You Want Crying” is both seriously underrated and underplayed now). I didn’t listen to “Going Down to Liverpool,” the B-side of “Walking on Sunshine,” that summer but I did recognize the title when I bought All Over the Place a couple of years later. There are two versions of “Liverpool” recorded by the Waves, one of them before Katrina Leskanich came on board. The Bangles’ take owes much more to the original original.

A few years later, typewriters were of course passé, and IBM in Lexington had switched over to computer printer manufacturing. In 91, they sold off the plant; a new company, Lexmark, was formed. Suzanne received a Masters in CS  at UK after graduating from Transy, got on at IBM, and has been working at Lexmark ever since (alongside one of my cousins and his wife).

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