Push the Panic Button!

Many, many years ago I had a summer job in the research and development arm of IBM.  It may seem very unlikely today but back then IBM was known solely as an all-male organization where you wore only white shirts, black ties, wing-tip shoes and all-blue or all-black suits.  Those of us in R & D were considered wildly outré because we were allowed to wear patterned ties, loafers and sport jackets.   I know this is hard to absorb so please take a moment, sit quietly, take deep breaths and react calmly.

I was joined by a motley crew consisting of a chemist, an electrical engineer and two lab-technicians who rebelled, in a modest way, to the straight-jacketed marine-sergeant like rules that the company imposed on us.   For example, the chemist’s office was in a noisy corridor and mine was in a quiet cul-de-sac.  Since my job was temporary, he asked if he could switch his office with mine.  I did not care but the Oberfuhrer office manager objected vehemently.  My office was too small, according to the official IBM manual on office sizes, for the chemist’s pay grade.  The chemist had no objection and I had no objection but this carried little weight with the office manager so we stayed put.  It made the chemist furious and it was then that we found a way to relieve the oddities and irregularities of our work environment:

The Panic Button!

Remember that this was way before personal computers, Photoshop, cell phone cameras or other conveniences.  The lab technicians went to their workshop and created a panic button.  They made the top of a semitransparent plastic with instructions.  It did, in fact look remarkably like today’s Office Depot Easy Button except that it was white instead of red:


We added a switch, a light, scribed the appropriate symbol on the underside of the plastic, mounted it on the nearest wall, stood back and waited for the first case of panic relief.  We didn’t have to wait long.

Every week we crammed into our boss’ office to review the work we were doing.  Our boss – known affectionately as “Shaky” because he daily smoked about a million cigarettes and drank about a million cups of coffee with the resulting shakes – would review our fruitless efforts to create a new substance that would improve the performance of computers worldwide.  Each week we failed; were told to repeat the same experiments and come back in a week with, supposedly, better results.  The repetitive and useless endeavor began to get to the electrical engineer whose frustration started to boil over.

Quick, we said, push the Panic Button!


Yes I know it was childish and tame by today’s standards.  It also didn’t make sense.  Why would you push a Panic Button to relieve stress?  But it worked: It amused us and annoyed the up-tight, straight-laced guys in white shirts, black ties and dark suits.  We could all use a Panic button from time to time.  In the words of George Ade, “A good jolly is worth what you pay for it.”

South Street

In 1963, The Orlons recorded South Street:

Where do all the hippies meet?

South Street, South Street

Where the dancing is elite

South Street, South Street

The recent heat wave reminded me that, in the 1960’s, I had a summer job in Philadelphia on South Street.  To make ends meet, I actually had two summer jobs.  The first was a National Science Foundation grant to study the effects of using a Coulter Counter to determine morbidity in small cell organisms and the second was a night shift job at the Abbot’s Dairy at Second and South Street, loading ice cream and other dairy products onto trucks for the next day’s delivery.  I will make no further mention of the NSF grant job:  it would be like describing, in lurid and excruciating detail, a root canal or a colonoscopy.

The second job started at about 10 pm and ended around 5 in the morning.  I took a bus each evening from Philadelphia’s west end down to Second and South fully equipped for the evening’s task.  Even though it was a typical sweltering summer in Philadelphia – night time temperatures and humidity in the high seventies – I had to come equipped as a member of a crew to load trucks from freezers maintained at 20 degrees below zero (Fahrenheit).  I wore jeans and a woolen shirt.  Under these I had put on full woolen undergarments.  Over these I added a hooded sweatshirt.  Upon arrival at the dairy, I would add insulated gloves, insulated boots, an insulated full length jacket, goggles and a cap.

We divided into two teams.  Each team, of about six to eight men, was given individual sets of products to load on their trays and we went into the freezers for no more than twenty minutes.  After twenty minutes, you were just too cold to keep going.  We loaded our trays, placed them into a truck and then got out and took a twenty minute break while the next team loaded their items.

Around two or three in the morning, we were given a half-hour “lunch-time” break.  One evening, the driver of the trucks suggested to two of three of us to go onto South Street for a break by having a beer.  A South Street bar, at three in the morning, was no place for any sensible person – period.  My memory is hazy but I recall an extremely long, practically empty bar with a number of tables alongside.  The three or four of us got our beers and sat down to drink them at one of the tables.  At the other end of the bar, two men got into a heated discussion which ended when one of the men hit the other over the head with a bottle, breaking it on his head.  We decided at that moment that it was very urgent for us to get back to work.

The summer jobs came to an end and I returned to fall semester at college with a new appreciation of why I was bothering to get a college degree.