I started working for the state of Maryland in early 1977. I had completed my course work for a Master’s in Civil/Environmental Engineering and had come into the job market at a bad time, because of the oil crisis. While doing research for my thesis, I visited the state Office of Health and Human Hygiene in Baltimore. As I browsed through documents, Ted Yang, the section chief of Operations, asked me about my studies and when I would be available for work. After I responded, he suggested I look him up if I were interested in a job with the state.
I took Ted up on the offer and was working as a Public Health Engineer, and he was my boss. He had organized the Operations Office well and had hired mostly engineers to perform the duties. My colleagues were bright and resourceful; it was a joy working in such an environment.
Our job’s main function was to inspect the many sewage treatment plants in the state. Besides insuring that they complied with the Clean Water Act and Maryland regulations, we provided technical assistance in the operations of the plants. It was one of the most hands-on jobs in my professional career. It was very satisfying, as I felt that I was applying the knowledge of five-and-a-half years of university studies.
When I started my training period, after being assigned my area of responsibility, I was asked to join one of the more senior engineers on a trip to the western part of the state. His name was Bill, and he was what we later would call a geek. As such he was very eccentric and awkward in social situations. Also, his appearance was different. He was always disheveled, poorly dressed and, some had told me, smelly. He was also laconic, and when he talked, it was about something that others could not discern immediately. To say that he was antisocial would be an understatement; however, he was very bright and knowledgeable and was respected by the rest of the staff. We all relied on his advice when we were wise enough to ask for it.
When I picked up Bill for our trip, I noticed he did not have luggage. I noticed no foul smell, and he had a big smile in his face. He was ready to share his knowledge with the new guy and liked it. “Hi Mario, isn’t great to get out of the office?”
“No doubt. I am looking forward to seeing western Maryland. They tell me ….”
Bill had had enough small talk, he interrupted, “Right, we will end up in Oakland, which is as far west as you can go in Maryland. On the way we will visit several plants in Washington County and in Garrett County itself. We will have lunch in Grantsville, which should have been the county seat for Garrett. The people from Oakland stole the election.”
I was confused by all this information and was trying to figure out whether there was a question or something that I should respond to. This gave me a hint about what the trip would be like, especially that Bill would monopolize the conversation, if any, and that he would freely spout non-sequiturs.
Before I could ask him, Bill continued, “When they were trying to decide which city in Garrett county should be the seat, citizens were asked to vote. The votes from the northern part of the county, where Grantsville is located, were temporarily lost and arrived too late to be counted. This made Oakland the seat.”
Not wanting to get into minutia, I changed subjects, “Bill, how come you don’t have any luggage? We will spend two days in Oakland.”
“I travel light; all I brought was my toothbrush.” I was happy we were not sharing a room.
This closed that thread.
As we progressed along I-70 West, Bill asked me, “Do you know that you are drinking Julius Caesar’s urine?” This appeared relevant, as we were on our way to inspect sewage treatment plants.
I played along, “How is that Bill?”
“Well, if you just take the urine that Caesar expelled when he was rudely stabbed by Brutus and his buddies, and you can calculate the number of molecules of his urine that you ingest every time you drink water.”
He then went on about how if you take first Avogadro’s number, then the number of moles of water in a liter and assume complete dissolution of “Julius pee” in the total amount of water on Earth, you end up with at least 2,100 molecules of “illustrious piss” any time you consume water. “Of course, this is just one piss in a long life, so the number should be much higher.”
After listening to the whole exposition, I asked, “Where in the hell did you get this shit?’
Smiling, he remarked, “I just bought a scientific calculator, Hewlett Packard, about $800. In the instructions there was this exercise. Neat, huh.”
Just about that time, we passed the exit for Frederick. “Do you know that the Rebels reached Rockville? There were a few battles fought around this area.”
Without giving me a chance to respond, he continued, “Frederick was laid siege to by Jubal Early of the Confederates and had to pay $200,000 so it wouldn’t be sacked. To this day, the town sends a bill to Congress every year to recover that sum, with interest. It amounts to millions in today’s dollars.”
I had read about the battle of Monocacy but did not know about Frederick’s ransom. This is something I still remember after more than three decades.
As we passed Hagerstown’s route 65 exit, Bill asked, “Do you know that the battle of Antietam Creek was the bloodiest in the Civil War? It is only a few miles from here. McClelland, even having the Confederate army plan of battle, was too shy to take decisive action.”
Lee’s plan of action was found by a Union soldier along with some cigars and presented to his chain of command and eventually to the commanding general a few days before the battle.
The lunch at Yoder’s Market in Grantsville was fantastic. Mennonites sure know how to raise cattle and cook a great roast. After that trip, I would stop at this place any time I made the rounds in Western Maryland.
After we got back on the highway, I noticed a sign indicating that “Negro Mountain” was the highest elevation of the state, 3,213 feet. Bill remarked, “There is some information about lynchings around this place.”
Later I learned that the mountain was named after a soldier called Nemesis, who died during the French and Indian wars. The sign has been taken down since then, due to complains from African Americans and others. I also heard that the sign was restored recently (2019?). At least 44 lynchings did occur in Maryland during the John Crow years.
I learned a lot from Bill and not just about sewage treatment plant operations.