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French Curves - Keeping the Files Straight

6 June 2020

Being half-Dutch, I was always taught during my childhood that cleanliness is next to godliness, and, I always said, Out of two ain’t bad.

Keeping the files straight, and in order, has therefore been a life-long endeavour for me. My mind naturally finds a way to classify just about anything, and so I proved to be a superb file clerk an any office. As a supply clerk, however, I was absolutely lousy, especially during my years of working for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Sacramento, CA. My job during those years was, technically, as a technical writer, but until that Job Classification was approved in D.C., I remained a Clerk-Typist.

And so, along with writing, editing, typing, photocopying, researching, filing and compiling technical documents, reports, letters, speeches, and memoranda, as well as hand-walking the pieces of paper for Sign-off-Approval from the Higher-Up (two floors up), and participating in periodic inspections of dams, I also did the time-keeping.

I was expected, among all of those Other-Duties-as-Assigned, to keep the huge grey metal supply cabinet stocked with office goodies. I hasten to confess that one of those myriad duties fell off of my table of tasks. It was the Supply Clerk function that slipped off, gracefully and quite intentionally, from my work agenda.

The Storage Cabinet, a gray-metal-two-door office sarcophagus had a hollow ring to it whenever any engineer click-rattle-opened the set of doors, only to peer inside, hoping to find supplies of the more exotic engineering kind. With a sigh, he click-rattle-closed the doors, and walked out of the room.

I never felt sorry for him.

When the Novice Engineer first came to work in Civil Design Section A, he handed me a list of Urgent and Necessary Items, and then laboriously went over each detail with me, as if I had never heard of a 30-60 degree triangle, and did not know the difference between acute and right angles. The functions of the mechanical pencil and its leads were also painstakingly explained to me, along with the French curves.

The French curves were indeed new to me. Initially, I’d envisioned something along the sinuous lines of Brigitte Bardot. I was rapidly, and astonishingly, disabused of that notion when the gray-metal desk that would become my Technical Writer desk was wheeled into my office, and I had to clean out the dusty, grimy thing. The upper desk drawer, the big one in the middle, was jam-packed with French curves. That engineer had been a French-curve-hoarder.

For the ever-expectant Novice Engineer, I would dutifully fill out the supply order, a standardized and approved U.S. Army Requisition form that was, as I recall in my own self-defense, confusing as heck. Just about every Beginner Engineer ordered the same items, so after a half-a-dozen requisitions (yes, Section A was going through young engineers like water from a burst dam, due to the newly arrived and utterly incompetent supervisor) — I had the Supply List down to boilerplate:

  • Mechanical pencil leads in widths of 0.3, 0.5. 0.7 and 0.9 mm

  • Mechanical pencils to fit each lead width

  • 30/60 degree triangle

  • 45 degree triangle

  • The Engineer Scale

  • The Architect Scale

  • The Quik-File (which was a horizontal metal shelf-unit that did not make filing quicker; it just spread the paper documents out over a larger horizontal surface, but the more ingenious engineer used it as a privacy hedge)

  • A variety of French Curves

  • Calculation pads, or calc pad, of grid-engineering paper

  • Graphing paper with a smaller grid size than the calc pad.

I am amazed at how I still recall the list. Some bare necessities of life stick with a gal!

I shall not bore the reader with the finer nuances of the differences between the Engineer Scale and the Architect Scale. It suffices to say that the Engineer holds himself, or herself, as professionally and mentally superior to the Architect.

Once the requisitioned items finally arrived, the Novice Engineer looked as if Christmas had, at last, occurred. I was then free to fully go about my much more important work with words, drawings, maps, diagrams, graphs, photographs, writing paper, manila paper, hole-punch and ACCO fasteners. My rather silent, unspoken message to the Novice Engineer was:

You have everything you need for the rest of your office-engineering life, so don’t bother me again with any requisitions.

Word quickly got around Section A that Debra did not do supplies well, or at all!

I therefore forced the further development of an already-in-place, well-established and intricate underground black-market, le marché noir of government provisions. Not unlike the traboules of old Lyon, those secret passageways and tunnels of the Federal Building functioned throughout the structure to provide the much-needed merchandise. This clandestine activity is not to be confused with the Secret Office Football Pool that circulated in a certain manila folder, inside of a Hole-y Joe, the inter-office envelope, that was nonchalantly hand-circulated by the Branch Secretary, a perfectly lovely woman!

One of the Cost Estimators in Section A continued, however, to tell me at the start of November that Christmas was, indeed, coming, so I had to put in an extra-large order of Scotch tape. When I laughed, he thought that the merriment was over his surreptitiously unauthorized use of government supplies. And when the adhesive-tape-for-purloining did not materialize in Section A, he grew grim, very grim, almost Grinch-like. And I never did requisition those cans of WD-40 he wanted either!

For me, keeping the files straight meant putting into practice that godliness thing, something the Cost Estimator ought to have fully known, since he was completely of Dutch heritage!

And so, the metal Storage Cabinet, which was located way across the room, to the right of my desk, nearly out of ear-shot, would rattle-echo from time to time as the demoralized engineer opened the pair of doors. All sorts of engineering paper, pads of Mead writing paper, paper clips, eraser replacements for those mechanical pencils, the minutely-sized leads, masking tape, and adhesive tape were always readily available. In my Tech-Writer-opinion, no one had any justifiable complaint about a paucity of vital items.

I did go all-out once and I ordered some special soft-tissue-towels for wiping down computer screens. This requisition was one of the last that I undertook as the Clerk-Typist because, at long last, the Job Series for the job I’d been doing for almost two years was finally and officially approved! I would get Tech-Writer pay for tech-writer work!

As a side-note here, to give the Big-Wigs at the Corps some prodding on the approval process, I went on a couple of job interviews with Private A-E (architect-engineering) Firms. One of them called my Office one sunny summer afternoon, and left a message for me. A co-worker engineer brought me the Phone Message form. She silently gave me a look of moral stupefaction that whispered with shock: “You’re cheating on the Corps.”

I didn’t take either of the private-sector jobs offered to me because the vacation time started with less than 1 week for the new employee. I’d worked up to 10 whole days with the Feds, and that vacation time was not only a benefit for me — it was a necessity!

When the two Delivery Guys from Bryte Yard, across the river in West Sacramento, wheeled into my office space 12 cases of the ginormous tissue towels, it became clear that my finger had slipped and penciled in the wrong box on the order form.

12 boxes of 12 boxes = 144 individual units of the Quick-Wipe-Computer-Towels! A gross erreur!

Two years later, when I exited this job, and the Federal Government, for a lot of good, those items were still being used — and by more than one engineering section! The things worked great for those office pot-luck lunches!

The girl who filled my former Clerk-Typist slot turned out to be a fantastic supply clerk! She’d wheel her supply cart down to Central Supply on the first floor of the Federal Building, and, after about an hour, she returned to the Home Office with all kinds of office-goodies. The fact that she was carrying on a romance with one of the Supply Guys had nothing to do with her interest in Office Necessities!

Keeping the files straight has not gotten any easier for me as the world has progressed from paper files to computer files. My finger still slips once in a digital while. There was the time that I accidentally sent a love-poem to Dear-Dear Friend instead of to Dear-Dear Husband. She told me it was quite touching, but she wanted to know why I was sending it to her!

Because the letter of her last name and the letter of Hubby’s First Name are the same! In fact, they are listed in sequential order on the e-mail pulldown!

More recently, I sent a list of fashion ideas, complete with attached pix, to Customer Service at a major clothing retailer, instead of to Dear Daughter. I hope the clothing experts there got a few good ideas on classic, stylish designs!

If a certain computer behemoth made it easier for the User to delete contacts, I think keeping the files straight would be a much more pleasant and efficient job for me. Yesterday, after months and months of Reminders, I submitted the Ego-Phone to an Update. Today, my file list of contacts appeared against an ALL-BLACK screen with even more options that I will never use. Fade-to-black-with-uselessness is not my idea of an update!

The atrocious sight made me long for French curves!

On this historic day, I am very much thinking of Brigitte, the woman whom God created to single-bodily restore France to some grandeur. Bardot deserves at least one engineering French curve named after her. The French Curve Ruler for my sewing projects shall be named: Brigitte!


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