Bryan Kelly discusses how, after years of struggling with Asperger’s Syndrome, he was finally able to find success.
Matt Rozsa, an editor at The Good Men Project, requested an essay on how I discovered my passion for computers.
My early life was rather difficult. Neither of my parents had any business having children. We, my siblings and I, had all the physical essentials but grew up in a house barren of love. Add the burden of undiagnosed Asperger’s and my early life was one of solitude and loneliness. One of the results was a lot of reading. My father gave me some books about electronics (vacuum tubes at the time) and I found it easy to understand.
At eighteen I was in vocational school, doing very poorly, and could no longer stand it at home. When I visited the Navy recruiter they were skeptical about accepting me and asked me to take an entrance exam. I passed that and was off to boot camp.
Looking back, I showed high promise, but in practice performed below average. I attribute my poor showing to personality problems – mine, that is. Having performed only at the mediocre level I did not get any schools out of boot camp and was shipped to the USS New Jersey BB-62, battleship. I wound up as a Seaman Apprentice Boatswain’s mate. We were the menial workers of the ship.
By luck of the draw I was assigned as a powder handler for the forward 16 inch guns. My battle station was in the turret, seven decks down. Each round of those 16 inch shells was launched by six bags of black power, each one weighing 110 pounds. Sailors in the power magazine would put three bags into a horizontal brass tube with one side cut out. The tube would be rotated sealing it off from the magazine and opening it up to the turret area. I picked up a bag from that tube, carried it over the threshold into the turret, and put it on a vertical hoist. From there, along with six other bags per gun, it went up seven decks and was gently shoved into the chamber of the 16 inch gun.
I am over six foot tall and the rounds, bullets, we shot were as tall as I and weighed 2,700 pounds. The length of the barrel was 66 feet and in that length the burning black power would accelerate the round to 2,500 feet per second. Almost one and a half tons of steel accelerated from zero to Mach 2.2 in 66 feet. That is a bunch of energy and a whole lot of fire in a tiny place. With three guns in a turret, six bags per gun at 110 pounds per bag, there was 1,980 pounds of black power in there with us. If something happened down in that turret and tiny spark found its way to the powder, maybe static from your clothes, there would no time to talk about who did what wrong, much less correct for it.
So I started asking questions about the procedures. Making this short, the ensign watching our training, I didn’t even know he was there, was impressed and help me get into Fire Control where I could be more of an asset than as a simple laborer. Fire Control really means controlling the firing of the guns. I never knew his name, but his appreciation for my questions made a change in my life that remains present today. I may have gotten here regardless, but he made a difference in my life. I wish I could tell him.
Making this short again, I did well in schools and wound up in training for submarines. I was the head of the class for the A school and had my choice of C schools. “A” school was fundamental electronics. “C” school was training on specific equipment. I selected the group called NavAids, Navigation Aids, because it had a mix of electronics and computers. The NavAids group operated stuff that determined the location of the submarine.
I excelled in the schools. Then on board ship I floundered. Because of my personality I did not do well and was close to being an outright liability to the group. I did get to be a qualified planes-man and was one of the guys that drove the boat. With the wheel in my hands, power control to the engine room at my fingertips, and driving along a couple of hundred feet below the surface of the ocean. That was pretty cool.
Looking back, I now understand my greatest problem. The people around me would not forgive my mistakes. Yes, I behaved badly, but through my distorted perception of depression and Asperger’s, I thought I was behaving as I should. I was wrong. But I had no one on my side and no one that could see the situation.
I managed to survive that tour and rotated to shore duty. That meant a complete change of environment. I had more training on specialized hardware used on the submarines and impressed my seniors with my ability. By this time I had, mostly unknowingly, made some improvements in my behavior and I happened to be assigned tasks where I worked alone. They gave me a rather significant stack of electronics hardware, a pile of procedures and said: Make it work. I did.
Still being incredibly lonely, I signed up at the local community college for two courses. One was a basic freshmen course and the other was FORTRAN 2. I knew how all those transistors and other little pieces could be put together to make one bit in a computer. I also knew how a whole bunch of them could be assembled into a full blown computer. Now I was learning the other end of computers, the software. Typing in the punch cards and coercing the computer to do my bidding was just too cool.
Again, keeping this short, after another six years in the navy I was a senior First Class Petty Officer. I ran into more difficulties with leadership, all of my own origins, but pretty much insurmountable. I left the Navy and worked as an Electronics Technician. And in a different environment, did very well.
Fourteen years after my first college course I graduated with a Bachelor’s in Computer Science.
But it was not smooth sailing. I could write good code, but continued to have problems, changing jobs multiple times. Sometimes the job changes were not completely due to me, other times they were not. I did get outright fired once. That was difficult.
At fifty-nine years old I interviewed for my current position. They were getting desperate and the hiring guy saw something in me so I got the job. When I arrived they said: “These boxes are for you, make them work.” The company that made them gave me two days of training on some rather complex hardware and software, and I was on my own. Another guy that was hired along with me looked around, saw the magnitude of the job, and a couple of Mondays later called in Quit.
So there I was, just me and this new stuff that no one else knew anything about. My loneliness was probably a big factor in my success. I did make it work. And now I can say, I made it work extremely well. I travel in very small circles, mostly a circle of one. But those around me, particularly the senior guy in charge of this project, were able to see my quirks and was able to handle me well.
Here is how well my boss succeeded with me: I work for the Air Force. On mission day, maybe fifteen fighter jets, various support aircraft, and more than a hundred people assemble for the day’s operations. A few critical analysts are watching my data on the screen to ensure things proceed well. Those analysts have the authority to stop a mission cold, based on the data I provide. I remain extremely lonely, but a few key people recognized my abilities and provided the environment where I could succeed. And yes, I am very aware of them and have told them so.
There is a moral to this story. As you travel through life you will encounter people that are difficult to get along with. Most of them are probably not bad people. They just cannot see things the way you can. Look at them closely. Find out what they can do. Use their talents and abilities. Forgive them their mistakes.
They, those difficult people, are me. Those that forgave me my mistakes allowed and helped me to be successful. Sometimes it was not easy for those around me. It was difficult for me to. When you see someone going down the tubes, find out why. Maybe you can be one of those that helped me. Maybe you can be the key person that enabled me to succeed. And I may play a role in your success. I can do tasks you need done, and maybe cannot do or do not have the time to do. I could not have succeeded without your help.
And if you, dear reader, are me, recognize those that help you. Tell them you are grateful for their kindness and forgiveness. When you are grateful to others, then some happiness will find you.