Sweet and Stinky Memories of the Naval Research Lab on Its 100th Birthday

By Al Perrotta Published on July 16, 2023

39 summers ago, I was stuck in the stinkiest job I’ve ever had … at one of the neatest places I’ve ever worked: The Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, DC.

NRL is a large research facility on the edge of Washington, DC, 80 acres worth of labs and offices along the Potomac. Just a stone’s throw from my town of Oxon Hill, it seemed everyone I knew either worked at NRL or was related to someone who worked in there. “Your mom works in accounting? My mom works in accounting!”

In the mid-80’s, the joint was jumping. Ronald Reagan’s massive “Strategic Defense Initiative” — more commonly known as “Star Wars” — was in full swing, and scientists across the spectrum wanted in on the research — and the government grants. The buzz of scientific discovery crackled in the air.

It Was the Worst (Smelling) of Times …

I worked in several NRL divisions through college: Plasma Physics. The Naval Center for Applied Research in Artificial Intelligence. One of the supply stores. (I am sure it was perfectly safe to help clean out an old chemical storage locker without any protective gear.)

Then I got assigned as a clerk-typist to a branch of the Computer Sciences Division, where I was promptly ignored. Might as well have been a filing cabinet rusted shut for all the notice given me. A cracked beaker. A crusty Bunsen burner. Since nobody talked to me, I never learned the real skinny, but I clearly sensed issues between the branch chief and division office. This mousy fellow was perpetually dour and down and tense, and the office atmosphere made a morgue feel like Dollywood.

And the place smelled like a morgue whose refrigeration was on the fritz.

Although all of NRL sits right next to the Blue Plains Water Treatment Plant, for some reason, this particular office got the full brunt of the stink when the wind was blowing wrong. And in the summer of ’84, the wind always blew wrong.

On the floor above me worked my recently ex-girlfriend, who had been promoted and was kick starting her computer career. So officially she was now a superior. (Which, come to think of it, has been true since we were 13.) Not that she ever — even for her own amusement — said “Can you Xerox this for me, peon?” or was anything less than classy and kind. But it was torture watching from the cheap seats her life rock on without me … amid the stench from Blue Plains … in an administrative office that had the blues … with bitter people who barely acknowledged my existence.

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After a month or so, I ran to personnel begging for a transfer. They sent me to Security. No, not to lock me up or toss me off the lab. To the Security Division. The Personal Security office that welcomed visitors and maintained the background files of employees needed some help. “Show up there Monday,” I was told. 

I arrived early, and the second in command Peggy greeted me warmly and pointed me towards my desk. When I got there, I noticed a large envelope with my name on it. Sure enough, it was a birthday card, wishing me happy birthday and welcoming me to Security. “We noticed today was your birthday,” Peggy said with smile. “We’re so glad you are here.”

I confess I got a little teary.

It turned out I was the only male in Personal Security. The lab’s security force was all male, but they were stationed in another part of the building. Up front, only females. And they seemed determined to mother yours truly.

In fact, when I later managed to get a lunch date with a woman who worked at the lab, the ladies violated several federal laws by examining her background file to determine whether she was worthy.

Shirley’s Lesson

That first day, I also met Shirley, the head of Personal Security. She quickly taught me an unforgettable lesson in leadership.

Shirley was a middle-aged woman, pleasantly plump, her graying hair done up in a bun, with piercing eyes that spoke of a sharp intelligence behind her grandmotherly demeanor.

Mere hours in, I was looking for a particular file, and failing miserably. Next thing I know, not only were Peggy and others involved in the search, but Shirley came down the hall, saw the fuss and joined the hunt. She must have seen my baffled look. “If anyone has a problem,” she said, “We all jump in to solve it.”

Shirley didn’t need to be looking for the file. It wasn’t a classified research document detailing “Star Wars” breakthroughs or the secret to perpetual motion. It was just a file. She had the entire laboratory’s security to worry about, thousands of employees, scores of busy labs. But she was all in.

You do what is necessary, no matter how small, no matter how far below your “position.” A powerful lesson in Servant Leadership, when I had never even heard the term.

A light bulb went off.

Fitting, since it was Thomas Edison who proposed the idea for a national research laboratory and sparked the creation of NRL in the first place.

Happy 100th Birthday!

On July 2nd, the Naval Research Laboratory celebrated its 100th birthday. The scientific discoveries and hard-earned advances have helped turn our military into the most powerful in history. This includes the first U.S. radar, world’s first intelligence satellite, and first operational satellite of the Global Positioning System (GPS).The spin-off benefits from the research done at NRL have benefited every day Americans in countless ways.

So a hearty, heartfelt congratulations to all the scientists, lab workers and support personnel who have served at NRL this past century. Well done! And thank you, NRL for my time there.

In my three years at NRL, I was not part of any scientific breakthroughs. Beyond a little bit of AI voice recognition work due to my radio experience, I didn’t do anything research-y at NRL.

But I did make a discovery from beyond the stars.  

Leading people starts with serving people … and serving people starts with seeing people.

And sometimes out of the stink, beautiful things grow.

 

Al Perrotta is the Managing Editor of The Stream, chief barista for The Brew and co-author, with John Zmirak, of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Immigration. You can follow him at @StreamingAl at GETTRGabParler, and now at TRUTH Social.

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