My Pong Interview -
It was a Monday in 1978 – February 6th to be exact – when I had my Pong interview. Arrangements had been made for a day off from my then current employer to avoid suspicion and problems. The day was clear and cold, as is typical of Boston in February. The interview was to start at eleven and end by noon. I spent most of the weekend preparing for the interview by going over answers to questions likely to be asked.
The job I was interviewing for required knowledge of hardware, digital systems, software and lab testing equipment. After going back to school for mathematics, applied sciences and engineering I must have had enough of the requisite background to land the interview.
After arriving at a nondescript single story office building along Route 128 – one of the major commuter arteries outside the City – I entered a vestibule and pressed a buzzer. Within about five minutes someone came to greet me and escorted me to a conference room inside the building. I was interviewing with one of the largest independent telecommunication firms in the Country, one eventually gobbled up by a Bell operating company, and subsequently became one of the largest mobile operators in the US. But on this day in 1978 I was interviewing with a small division within the company specializing in secretive government work and contracts for the defense department and intelligence agencies.
The conference room was oblong shaped with a similarly shaped conference table occupying the center of the room, a small desk at one end of the room and an oversized monitor on one of the walls. After a time waiting in the conference room my interviewer – who might have been five years older than I – entered and introduced himself. We spent about fifteen minutes on the usual banter and I answered the usual questions practiced over the weekend. When we were done, my interviewer announced we were going to play a game of Pong.
Up on the monitor came the game of Pong. For those who are unfamiliar with it, there is a white ball flowing back and forth from one side of the Monitor to the other, in much the same way a tennis ball is lobbed back and forth from opposite sides. Instead of a tennis racket, players operate paddles to hit the ball. And much like tennis the objective is to hit the white ball back to your opponent and make your opponent miss the return service. When anyone misses returning the white ball, sounds of gongs announce the end of a round. After about three rounds or so the game is over and whoever misses the most returns loses the game. The complication of the game is the return service and the paddles. The return path is never predictable. In some cases the ball travels slower, faster, and veers off in unexpected directions, thereby fooling the opposing player.
This went on for about forty minutes while my interviewer kept asking questions: play Pong, and ask questions, play Pong and ask questions, and repeat again and again. Near the end of the hour I asked him what the game had to do with the position I was interviewing for and never received an answer. Sometime after noon he announced the interview was over and escorted me back to the vestibule.
I started my car and proceeded to drive to my apartment near the City and as I started driving I noticed an imperceptible fall of snowflakes. Driving further along the route resulted in the few snowflakes being joined by many others and it appeared as though a storm was about to break loose. Having not paid any attention over the weekend to anything but to the upcoming interview I turned on the radio to find out a major storm was forecast.
In fact the storm that arrived that afternoon became known as the great blizzard of 78 and it lasted for 36 hours straight with white out blizzard conditions, snow falling everywhere and drifting of snow that reached three feet in every direction. In some cases the drifts of snow reached six feet and we found some reached eight to nine feet in height.
For commuters who were not dismissed from work early enough, the commute home became a week in shelters and local churches. These people abandoned their cars in the middle of Route 128 when the drifts made it impossible to move. Local residents rescued the commuters using Ski Doos and transported them to shelters and churches where they remained for the week.
For those of us who made it home, we were stuck for the week as well. There was no where to go, and the State had put in place a twenty-four hour curfew on all except essential workers for the entire week. By Wednesday when the storm was over the effort to dig out from the enormous snowfall began around the State. National Guard troops and equipment cleared major arteries and airfields. Local communities enlisted snow removal operators, their own resources and anything else that could move snow. Neighbors shoveled and blew snow away with machines. By Thursday it became possible to find a grocery store or a pharmacy that was open, but in many cases it required a trip through knee and hip deep snow. Neighbors looked after those nearby who were unable to go out for themselves and brought back food and medicines.
By the time the next Monday rolled around nearly everyone went back to work, including myself. By this time I did not care whether I had landed the job I interviewed for and did not care. For all I knew, my interviewer may have forgotten about it himself. I went on to pursue better opportunities and forgot about my Pong interview.
However, my Pong interview and the blizzard of 78 became emblematic of significant life changes for me. Like the game of Pong with its fast changing ball, I was adapting to changes as I transitioned from the arts to the sciences and engineering. And like the massive blizzard of 78, the transition from the arts to the sciences was for me a large pivot event that was like a storm that comes along and blows away life as you knew it.
We all have such Pong balls to return and pivot events in out lives: some are small and some large, some have smaller and others have larger consequences. For some of us such pivot events are more searing, such as displaced people emerging from refugee camps, or graduating the first in your family from college, or immigrating to another culture and leaving behind family.
Celebrate your own pivot events and Pong play – whatever it is – and make it your own as you travel your path of enlightenment.