Life of Ed
(A Work in Progress)
by Ed Schreiber
I begin with my grandfathers, because they mattered.
Eduard Schreiber, born circa 1880, was in Sarajevo as a civil servant in the Austrian government on July 7, 1914, when Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated, triggering World War I. He distinguished himself as an officer in the war and was knighted by Emperor Francis Joseph. Already wealthy by inheritance, he married the much wealthier Baroness Maria Schnelka. After the war, he became General Director of the Zagreb Pencil Factory, which became the largest employer in Zagreb and the largest pencil and pen manufacturer in Europe during his tenure. He returned to public service, serving as Director of the Croatian census bureau. As a child I was groomed to follow in his footsteps. Had things worked out differently, I, being his only grandchild, would have inherited his fortune, a few hundred million dollars in today’s money.
Antun Iskra, my mother’s father also came from a distinguished, though not wealthy Croatian family. He was a journalist, and for several years served as a foreign correspondent in the US for a Zagreb newspaper. My mother was born in New York City in 1909, three months before the family returned to Croatia. That made it possible for my mother and me to immigrate to the United States much later, in 1956.
Both Eduard and Antun died before my birth. Eduard’s widow Baroness Maria (that’s how everyone addressed her, even my mother) lived until I was five and made great efforts to raise me as a proper gentleman in the 19th Century Austrian aristocratic tradition, with special emphasis on noblesse oblige, a duty to treat the less fortunate with compassion.
Hinko Schreiber, my father, became a lawyer and served as a prosecutor in the pre-WWII Yugoslav government. When war came, Croatia seceded from Yugoslavia and became an ally of the Axis. My father remained in government service and was a rising star when I was born in 1943, eventually becoming police chief of Zemun, a strategic suburb of Belgrade, shortly before the end of WWII. Two years after the war he was charged with war crimes, tried and executed. All of grandpa’s fortune was confiscated, and I lived in poverty until years later.
My mother was unaccustomed to a working life, and had a hard time making it. We moved around a lot, so that by the end of seventh grade I had attended seven different schools in different places in Yugoslavia. In spite of our dire circumstances and the wartime devastation of the country, I received an excellent and varied education, equivalent to a tenth grade US education in math and sciences.
The education included a dose of communist ideology. Simultaneously, my mother condemned the communist government that killed her husband and praised how things were before (yes, under Hitler). There was also the nanny who took me to church with her every morning and infused me with Catholicism. I was a seven-days-a-week altar boy for four years.
My mother and I made it to the United States when I was 13. Not knowing the language, and away from supporting friends and family, she had an even harder time making it here. I finished high school in Detroit, and economic realities made it impossible for me to start college, even with two scholarships earned in math competitions. It was also impossible for an unskilled funny-talking 17-year old to find a job in Detroit, because the auto industry had a big slump and a lot of layoffs at the time.
My best alternative was to go into the military as a $58/month private, and get it out of the way (universal conscription was still a fact of life). A lucky break allowed me to avoid running through mud loaded with combat gear for three years. I learned to play the trumpet in high school (I had had years of classical piano and music theory training in Europe), and the Army was in a great need of trumpet players to play Taps at funerals for veterans, who were dying in droves at the time. I was auditioned and accepted into Army Bands, without a doubt the best job in the military. It is called “play”, not “work”.
I enjoyed being an Army bandsman enormously. I was improving as a musician, and I learned a lot from other more experienced musicians. I could see an easy and secure life in the military until I retired at 37 to start a new career in the civilian world as a seasoned musician. So I re-enlisted, and negotiated a transfer from a sleepy base in Virginia to Verdun, France, about two hours from Paris, where I spent four years.
Tough gig: win the hearts and minds of the French people by entertaining at wine festivals of Burgundy. I did my best but apparently it wasn’t good enough. In 1966, shortly after I left Verdun, De Gaulle pulled France out of NATO.
After three years of service, with higher rank, and with proficiency in my MOS (military occupational specialty), my military pay rose substantially. I also played regularly at the officers’ and NCO clubs and elsewhere, often earning more from moonlighting than my military pay. Considering other benefits (PX, free housing, food and medical care), I was living much better than the average Frenchman or a junior Army officer. Life was good, first time since I was five. And I was close enough to Paris to go there for dinner or a late gig, even on a weekday evening.
While in France, I read about Mensa in a Life article by Shana Alexander. I took a look at my Army test scores and realized that I should set my sights higher than the best opportunity the Army offered of maybe making Lieutenant Colonel, if I stick it out for 30 years and work like hell. Through my association with the bohemian culture of the Left Bank and the music scene, I became politically aware, and realized that serving in the US military was completely contrary to what I was philosophically.
My mix of aristocratic, fascist, communist, and Catholic upbringing and exposure to American capitalism came into play. I heard about what was going on in Viet Nam from soldiers who were transferred to France after serving there as “advisors”. This was early, in 1964, but it was enough to convince me to leave the Army. I arranged an unfriendly early discharge and in 1966 left the military after six years of service.
I spent a year in Washington, DC, which I liked, and I thought that there was more opportunity there for a musician with my skills than elsewhere. There was, but there was also too much competition and it was too difficult to break into the old-boys network that controlled the better-paying live music market.
I moved to Colorado Springs in 1967 on invitation of an Army friend to start a music production business – jingles for radio and TV commercials. We had some success, but I had to hold a “day job” of selling furniture. I was lousy at it and I hated it.
To the rescue came my first wife, an ex-Marine Mensan whom I met in Colorado Springs. She convinced me that I was too smart not to go to college, and shortly we moved to Denver where she became a policewoman, and I started at the University of Colorado. The marriage only lasted a year and a half, but it was fun.
I played piano in Denver night clubs while in college – a great diversion from the dry engineering curriculum, and much better pay for short hours than waiting on tables. And again, it’s “play”. Because of my late start, I rushed through the BSEE curriculum in two and a half years, and earned a summa equivalent. I started grad school, but got lazy and bored, and was more interested in participating in the sexual revolution of the early 1970’s.
I left school as an ABT (all but thesis) for a Master’s when a former professor offered me a job in a start-up computer graphics company. I stayed there for six years, and got to do some of the most fun and innovative stuff that was going on in the computer industry at the time.
In 1976 I met Lea, my second wife. Like I, she was Eastern European, smart, once divorced, and looking for the same thing I was. We clicked immediately, and still do after thirty three years, often. Unlike my father, her father fought in the Polish underground and in the Red Army during WWII, a wounded and decorated hero. She is a Polish Jew and a Holocaust survivor. She has a brother, two sisters and a dozen nephews and nieces in Israel. Here she has a son, a daughter and two granddaughters. Her daughter-in-law and I are the only Goyim in her huge family.
In 1978 I ran for the Colorado State Assembly, and came quite close to winning. Encouraged by my performance, I ran again in 1980, this time for Congress. Not so good that time. I was running as a Democrat in a suburban/rural/military district where Republicans had a 2:1 advantage historically, and that was the year of the great Reagan landslide.
On my second job in the computer industry, I led the development of another graphics system, the first microprocessor-based CAD system to make it in the market, later overtaken by AutoCAD. In 1981 I partnered with an MBA type to develop a system for energy exploration. It was very successful in the booming oil and gas market of the time, but crashed in 1986 when the price of oil fell from $32 to $16 a barrel.
Independently I developed another product based on the same technology – surface modeling – but more versatile and priced for the PC market. It did very well in the civil engineering market, and my one-man company grew beyond a size that I could manage while also being the technical guru. I took on partners and investors who decided at a point that they didn’t need me any more, and pushed me out fraudulently in 1995 with what one might call a “bronze parachute”. Just enough for my lawyer to tell me that it was all I was going to get. They went down shortly after.
I got very involved in the Balkan wars of the 1990s. I was lobbying in Washington, made two trips to Croatia, raised and sent donations for refugees in the war zone, and co-founded an organization that brought to Denver and helped resettle about 150 Bosnian Muslims who had been released from Serbian concentration camps. They brought their families later and now there are about 5000 Bosnians in Colorado. My payback for the help that my mother and I received from others as new immigrants.
In 1997 I partnered with an old friend to develop a system for fire sprinkler system design – something we had worked on before. It involves complex topology and large systems of non-linear equations for hydraulic analysis of simulated fire conditions. Preferred over flooding a building to test the performance of a sprinkler system. This was the largest and most interesting project that I ever worked on, way, way ahead of the competition and very successful. I left the company in 2001 when my portion of the project was finished. It’s still paying nice royalties – probably will for some time.
I effectively retired in 2001, when the dot-com bubble burst and thousands of techies here started new careers in the food service industry and the like. I’m out of ideas for a “killer-app” that no one has thought of before; I tried but couldn’t improve on some fun algorithms like photogrammetry, big-number arithmetic and my own surface modeler; and I find nothing interesting in Internet work.
I always did a lot of volunteering, but since retiring I seem to have less free time than I had when I was gainfully employed. My volunteer work now includes a Unitarian-Universalist congregation where I lead a weekly discussion group, a humanist group, Democratic politics, occasional music gigs, public speaking, and high-IQ societies. Two years ago I organized and led a group of twenty on a tour of my old countries that used to be one, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia and Montenegro. Last year I organized a reunion of my Army Band from France.
I’m the last Schreiber. I have no children, and no regrets. The future looks grim – less personal freedom, bad economy, energy shortage, terrorism, nuclear proliferation, global warming or cooling, etc., all due to the overpopulation of the planet. I think I’ve lived through the best of times, and I pity the young and the yet to be born.
I’m living happily ever after, but it’s good to be old.
More at http://ed.schreiber.org