The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

August 12, 2012

Ralph Couey | NDIC: Memories permeate silence

For uprooted employees, center was more than a high-tech workplace

Ralph Couey

Ralph Couey of Chantilly, Va., formerly worked at the now-closed National Drug Intelligence Center in Johns-town. He wrote an occasional column for The Tribune-Democrat. Below is a piece he penned about the NDIC.



The room is empty, and somehow seems much larger. The lights are off and the only illumination is the late afternoon sunlight streaming through the windows. But the most profound impression is the lifeless silence that permeates the space.

There was once life here, the noise of machinery and the hum of electronics. Mostly, though, it was the sound of voices.

In this now-silent space, the delightful sound of laughter was heard. There were low voices engaged in earnest discussion, louder ones raised in passionate debate. It was the orchestra of dedicated people engaged in work that was important and vital.

A building is … just a building. It is an amalgamation of concrete and steel, plastic and fabric, wiring and piping. 

Some are grand and glorious designs, others decidedly pedestrian. But the building itself is never as important as what goes on inside. 

People give it life.

The floors bear the constant tread of footsteps, hurrying to and fro. Walls echo with the vibrant sounds of human activity. The building now has an identity; a name that presents to the world the nature of the work that goes on inside. 

But it wasn’t just the work.

Life went on here as well. 

People came, some from far away and became part of a larger family. Friendships were forged, love was found. 

People married, had children and shared the drama of their lives together.

And for some, this building was the last place before they passed on to another more glorious life.

Joy and grief was shared here, as was triumph and tragedy. Achievement was recognized and celebrated, and brought wider fame to this place.

Visitors arrived with skepticism and cynicism, but left in admiration and wonder.

But good things and good times do not have much survival value in the world we live in. Behind the scenes, plots were hatched and carried out that would undo much of the good that had been done. After some 20 years, a series of events unfolded that ended the work, emptied the building and sent the people scattering across the country, most never to return.

Now, the building sits empty. Where once stood a city of cubicles and desks is now a sea of gray carpet, spotted here and there with stains from a careless and long-forgotten cup of coffee.

Cables hang from the ceiling and the walls. Break rooms that hummed with dispensers and microwave ovens and warmed with friendship and laughter, sit empty and silent. The cork boards that once held announcements of bake sales, car ads and apartments for rent have been removed, the square of unfaded paint the only sign of their existence.

The entrance, lined in walnut and manned by armed guards who knew every single person by face, name and personality is wide open. No longer is the possession of a card required for entry, the sign of membership in a very limited club.

A small gym was once filled with the machines of fitness and people working hard to stave off the burden of encroaching age.

Outside, life has changed as well. Fewer people walk the streets during the day. The restaurants are noticeably less crowded.

Suddenly, there seems to be an abundance of parking spaces.

Homes and apartments sit vacant with signs rusting in the front yards, vainly attracting buyers who may never come.

 Friends have been parted, the ties of school, church and community sundered. 

But this is a town that has survived. The past years of floods and economic devastation didn’t defeat the town or its people. One more empty building downtown certainly won’t spell a doom any more certain than before.

Life here will go on, much the same as it has before. 

Those who remain will glance toward the big building and remember that something important had once been there. But that memory, like so many others, will fade into the backdrop of the encroaching years, as the passage of time puts space between what was and what will become.

For the 300 people who were a part of the work that went on in that building, the memories will stay.

Through the miracle of 21st century social networking, there is no longer such a thing as a remote location. 

They will all stay in touch. 

The friendships will remain. 

Years, even decades from now, some will meet again on a street or at a conference in some far-off locale. The memories will begin to flow and for a few joyful moments they will once again remember the work they did, the friendships, the experiences, the stories – funny, ironic and tragic – that told the story of this one chapter in the book of life.

And they will remember how they shared a bench in Central Park on a sunny fall day; a time and a place that although far away, remains so very close within the human heart.

 

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