S3:E13: Common Off The Shelf Dad : A Father’s Day Story


A father’s day story about the quest to become the “right-kind” of obsolete.

I’ve been a dad for 22 years and I think often now about how not to become a COTS dad.  What is a COTS dad you ask?  

Let me explain.

My brother Jeff and I loved computers as kids, and my dad supported that love as well as he possibly could.  He bought us our first Atari 800 computer for Christmas 1983, a Gemini 10X printer and 850 interface for our birthday in 1984, a 300 bps Volksmodem for Christmas 1984.    He took us to a parking lot in 1987 to buy an Atari ST from Computer Games + in Orange CA, California and to buy a 24-pin printer for school in 1988. 

His efforts fueled our computer dreams, and I never forgot it.

In return, when Jeff and I were older with jobs and some cash, we tried to return that favor by buying him computers of his own.   We loved them so much, and we wanted to pass that love back to our dad.   All through the 90′s we bought him PCs , each more powerful than the last.  In 1994 we bought him a 386-DX, in 1997 a 486-DX 66, and 1999 a Pentium 2.   Each time we upgraded his computing power, we seeded the computer with games and apps we thought he would love: Chess programs,  word processing, databases, Motocross Madness, soccer games, etc.

When the world wide web was just getting some speed behind it, I was sure my dad would catch-on quickly.   He collected all sorts of things (i.e Civil War artifacts, stamps), loved tracing his family history, and was a fan of conspiracy theories. I figured,   if he would have just logged on, he would have been in heaven.

But he never did.

No matter how many times we sat with him to show him how to use the computers, wrote instructions for him, and tried to make it easier and easier for him, the computers sat unused in his room. My dad rarely, if ever,  touched them. One day in the early 2000s, I went to visit him and I saw that the latest computer had been completely removed.

“What happened to the computer, dad?” I asked him.

“Oh, it was making my room dusty, so I put it in the garage”  He told me.

The answer made no sense at all, but I had learned from experience to not question him very much.     This was just after 9-11, and my dad was a nervous wreck about the world. Most days he would lay under the covers of his bed, listening to poisonous voices of talk radio, scaring him into his little corner.   There were days that he never left his room.   The world was suddenly a much smaller and scarier place, and my dad unplugged from it completely.

Soon, his brain followed, unplugging from his healthy body, wasting away until the day I found him in  2011, completely stiff, sitting up slightly, staring into nothing, the heat of life draining away from him.

I had not thought about my dad and computers until very recently.  I’ve been working on a less game-like, more “engineering” oriented project lately,  like something my dad would have done as a draftsman at Hughes Aircraft.  One of the aspects of this new project is a collection of COTS parts to help engineers create new system designs.  COTS parts mean “Common, Off The Shelf” parts.  Most engineering projects these days need to have a good percentage of COTS parts if they are going to be cost effective.  Having a bunch of COTS parts means you don’t need to engineer as many  specific components for a job, which in turn means the project is less costly to manufacture.   COTS parts are well “common place”,  these days, a situation that is helped by computer based CAD design programs and computerized manufacturing systems.

While working on the project, I thought about what my dad did at Hughes Aircraft in the 70′s and 80′s.  He was a draftsman, and he designed all sorts of small parts for military projects.   With a degree in fine art from Syracuse, he sat at a huge draftsman’s table and drew things on a daily basis.

My dad loved to draw, and even though the things he was drawing were probably not his ideal subjects, he still got to do what he loved every day.   Many of the things he drew were connectors and fittings that would attach one huge, secret classified black box, to another huge, secret, classified black box.  He rarely drew what was inside the huge secret classified black box (or at least, he could not tell us about it). 

When he finished, he would take his drawings down to the basement where they would be test-fabricated by hand, on the spot, by the wizards in the machine shop.  He often relayed to us stories about his friends in the machine shop, the stuff they made, the jokes they played on each other.  One of those guys even fabricated the frame for the bike my dad made for me when I was 10 years old. While it didn’t sound like a perfect job, it certainly sounded like a great place to make a living with great people to do it with.

I recall that sometime in the mid-1980s, my dad came home with a computer manual from work.   Hughes was trying to train all of their draftsmen to use software-based CAD programs, and they asked him to take classes to learn this new technology.    He came home often, and complained that the computer he was using “did not have backspace.”    In fact, he repeated this so often, that I now think it was a proxy complaint for everything he hated about his job, or at least, how it was changing.  Hughes did not want him to draw on paper any longer.  Instead he had become a sort of cyborg, augmented with a machine to help him do the job he had always been perfectly capable of doing on his own.   He took night classes to try to learn new things and was fairly successful.  I still remember  how proud he was of himself the day he came home and told us he had made “MTS”, which meant: “Member Of The Technical Staff”.  Finally he could call himself an “engineer” after working in aerospace for nearly 30 years.  However, it did not last long.  He was pushing 60 years old at that point, and it was at the end of his career. 

In 1990 my dad got the word that his Golden Handshake had come through, and he was eligible for “early retirement.”   This was during the “Peace Dividend” period, after the Berlin Wall fell, but before the uber surveillance of the “Terror” era.  By then, he was drafting exclusively on a computer.  He had long since stopped sending his designs to the machine shop for fabrication.  Along with computerized design came computerized testing that allowed him to test the parts he designed without the need to create a physical version.   This meant the machine shop, and the guys in it, has become mostly obsolete.  However, something else was happening at the same time.   The parts and fittings my dad had designed for decades were becoming common-place.  Another offshoot of computer aided design was standardization.  Instead of customizing everything, project managers could find previously built parts to aid development.   Just like the guys in the machine shop, my dad’s skills were rendered obsolete too, replaced by common, off the shelf software and common, off the shelf parts.    For all intents and purposes, he,  himself had become common, off the shelf.

What once made him special was now easily replicated and replaceable.

However, to me,  my dad was anything but common or off-the-shelf.  He grew-up on an ultra-liberal “for the people” style farm boarding school,  his dad was a semi-famous bronze-age magazine illustrator, he ran track in high school, he lied about his age to join the Army in WWII, he worked in a coal-mine, he studied acting in San Francisco and New York and appeared in several television shows, he started racing motorcycles in the 70′s, he could fix anything (at least he tried anyway) , he took up soccer at the age of 50, and taught himself to coach his own boys, and played until he was 72,  he started collecting Civil War artifacts before it was in and out of vogue, and prospected for gold and hidden treasure, just to name the things I can recall off the top of my head.

He also did not hold anything against his boys, even if they were so interested in the very same thing that ended his career: computers.  Far from being the stereotypical dad (the one that only exists in movies or tv shows I suppose) that would get drunk and rail against a world that had in turn turned against him, he was very quiet about it all.  He supported my brother and I in every way possible.   

And my brother and I have had some success in the world of technology, but even then, we have known the bitter taste of our “specialized skills” becoming common and off the shelf.    All those web pages we painstakingly crafted by hand in HTML and Perl in the 1990s can now be made with a few mouse clicks in WordPress.  All those 2D games we made with FLEX and ActionsScript3 with blitting techniques, game loops,  state machines,  and pixel graphics in the 2000’s can now be built with drag and drop tools like Unity and GameMaker and exported to nearly any platform.   The march of technological progress is cruel for those who get ground-up in the wheels of it’s forward movement.  I learned from my dad’s lesson that to stave off the inevitability of becoming a COTS part yourself, you must be forever in mode of learning, and moving forward, or at the very least, know when to jump out of the way.

While my dad was alive, he never saw any of this. He was able to look past his own experiences and see that the way forward for us was to embrace the future, even if the future had left him behind.     However, he simply could not bring himself to enter our world.   He had no need for it.  He read books and newspapers, used the post office to mail letters, paid for everything with cash, and left the computers we gave to him, sitting unused in the corner of his room.  He never once got online where he could see any of our work.

I suppose this was not because he hated technology, but because, like a good father, he passed the future to his children, and found joy in the success he made possible, even if it meant the end of his own.

And maybe that’s my lesson in all of this. That’s how I don’t become a common-off-the-shelf dad.  I need to support my kid’s endeavors, even if they trend towards making my own life’s work obsolete.  Like my dad before me, I need to become the fertile ground that my kids can use to plant their dreams to grow into their future. By supporting them my legacy becomes their legacy, and in turn my dad’s legacy too.

If I can do that, then I can prove to myself once and for all that while my dad’s skills might have been made COTS, he was never a  “Common Off The Shelf Dad” at all.  

Not by a long-shot.

And maybe I won’t be one too.


By Steve Fulton

Written, Recorded, Edited, Produced by Jeff And Steve Fulton
Branding by Daryl Little
Some music created with 8-bit Weapon Loop Library

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