Once Upon an Oracle

Oracle Open World 2006

(Editor’s Note: This article was first posted Sept. 25, 2011 on my blog Big Grove Garden. It is about missing mainstream culture in the late 1970s and captures some of my life while living in West Germany and epiphanies while visiting San Francisco where I jogged on Market Street in the middle of the night, saw DEVO and Sir Elton John perform at the Cow Palace, and stayed in Chinatown while there to attend Oracle Open World in 2006. It is  presented unedited.)

By the time I returned from a Cold War West Germany in 1979, I had missed a lot of the music, movies and other artifacts of popular culture of the late 1970s. Jackson Browne, Bruce Springsteen, Talking Heads, Blondie, Sex Pistols, the Cars, the Clash, The Ramones and DEVO, never heard of them. In movies, Blue Collar, Star Wars, The Deer Hunter, Kramer vs Kramer, Norma Rae, Taxi Driver, F.I.S.T., Saturday Night Fever, All the President’s Men, and Dog Day Afternoon were all beyond the ken as instead, we viewed repeated screenings of Patton in forests near the Fulda Gap, our projector powered by generators.

Most of us did not even own a television while we were stationed overseas, preferring to get together at the officer’s club or go hiking and rock climbing in the nearby Taunus mountains during rare times when, for a few hours, we could get away from being a soldier. My vacuum of experience in popular American culture is between the bookends of Jaws, which I saw with house mates when living in Davenport and Annie Hall which I saw in Amsterdam subtitled in Dutch while on leave from my post in Mainz just before returning to Iowa. In retrospect, missing these shared popular culture experiences was a formative influence. Even missing the start up of Saturday Night Live was important.

Instead of music and movies, I took in the stuff of life. The politics of being an occupying force leftover from World War II was real. One of my buddies went on missions to East Berlin where he talked with Soviet soldiers to see what they were up to. Mostly, it appears, they were drinking vodka and we never worried about the threat they may have posed to the West. One time we chipped in and he brought us hats made in East Germany. I still have mine in the closet, as it is very warm.

Our battalion had a severe drug problem. Almost every soldier had some connection to use of heroin or hashish. It was so prevalent, and our enforcement capability so limited, that we would bust someone caught in the act more to ruin their Friday night than send them to jail. Often soldiers caught using drugs in the military were sent to the Community Drug and Alcohol Counseling service. Turned out the counselor supplemented his military pay by selling heroin to his clients. Heroin purportedly coming from Afghanistan through East Germany. Looks like both sides of the Cold War had their problems with substance abuse.

By dealing with existential realities in the military, I was spared the evisceration of everything I knew from growing up in a union household. Popular culture reflected that. The late seventies were a prelude to Ronald Reagan’s supply side economics, and notably the PATCO firings that were a continuation of the assault on unions that began under Nixon. It would have been tough to witness all of that. While I missed the first run of DEVO, I did finally catch up with them.

I got a chance to attend Oracle’s Open World in 2006 while working at a logistics company. It was a time on the cusp of the explosion of hand-held devices and cloud computing we are in the middle of today. Gavin Clarke wrote about the event in The Register, whose tag line is, “Biting the hand that feeds IT.”

More than 40,000 delegates will flood downtown San Francisco’s hotels, restaurants, and transport system, drawn from the developer, customer, and partner ranks of the 21 companies Oracle bought since January 2005 plus those using Oracle’s own middleware and applications.

Keynotes from […] AMD’s Hector Ruiz, Cisco’s John Chambers, Hewlett-Packard’s Mark Hurd, and Sun Microsystems’ Jonathan Schwartz, plus Dell chairman Michael Dell, and Network Appliance president Tom Mendoza who will no doubt pay some kind of homily to the power of their relationships with Oracle on servers, virtualization, and software […]

Even the entertainment is big: […] it’s the rocket man himself Sir Elton John.

Somewhere on one of the numerous venues arranged by the conference organizers within San Francisco’s Cow Palace, along with Sir Elton John, a dozen bands, circus acts and contortionists, I saw the band DEVO perform for my first and only time. They played Secret Agent Man among others I did not recognize.  It made me glad I missed the 1970s culture of the De-evolution of American life that was tied so closely to corporations making things like Goodyear tires in DEVO’s home town of Akron.

I was still on Iowa time at my hotel in Chinatown near the Moscone Center. I went jogging on Market Street in the early morning, encountering an army of homeless people, socializing and sleeping in cardboard boxes and under blankets on the sidewalks. As I ran, I wondered how the popular culture of the 1970s became one more thing to be marketed and bought by consumers. In doing so, it bred a deep cynicism that penetrates our culture today. It also gave rise to today’s self purported “new revolutionaries” of the Taxed Enough Already party, who too have become one more thing to be marketed by the corporatists at Fox News and NBC Universal.

As the sweat built and I headed back to the hotel, missing the late 1970s popular culture did not seem so bad. It enabled me to hope that as a society we were better than this, and that life was about more than militarism, poverty, sex, drugs and rock and roll. For that I am grateful.

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