Government Housing

Watt Key poses with one leftover parallax computer that was discovered on the property of his grandmother’s farm last year.


All old houses have good stories to tell, and our house on the Bay is no exception. It was paid for by the U.S. Government in an unusual way. 

My grandfather was from Marshall, Texas. He didn’t discover Alabama until he joined the Navy and was stationed in Mobile as a naval engineer during World War II. As the war dragged on, he and my grandmother decided to look for a quieter place to rent outside the city. They subsequently discovered Point Clear and rented the Ollinger house just south of the Grand Hotel.

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When the war was over, my grand-father moved back to Texas, but Point Clear stayed on his mind. He wanted to build a vacation home there one day, but at the time, everyone was more focused on rebuilding their lives than on attaining vacation homes.

Back in Texas, my grandfather and his two brothers formed a company called Key & Key Brothers. At the time, the military ran enormous auctions to dispose of leftover materials from the war. Deciding to focus on this opportunity, the brothers purchased a warehouse in Jefferson, Texas, where they used some of the space for their offices and the rest for stocking an inventory of surplus hardware.

Seeing an advertisement for “computers, ” my grandfather entered a bid of slightly less than 4 cents each for what he assumed were slide rules, manual plastic ruler-like devices common in
that day. These instruments typically sold for nearly $1, and he anticipated an easy profit.

It wasn’t long before a government agent contacted them with news that they’d won the bid: 168 computers were at a storage facility in San Antonio, ready for pickup. San Antonio was several hours away by car, a trip that would substantially cut into profit margins.

“Can you ship them to us?” my grandfather asked.

The agent said this wasn’t possible.

“We’ll pay the postage.”

“It’s going to take more than a little postage to get these things out of here, ” the agent replied. “A parallax computer is a 270-pound electronic fire control instrument. The 168 computers in their packing crates are taking up nearly an acre of our facility.”

My grandfather explained that there had been a misunderstanding, but the agent wasn’t sympathetic. He insisted that a deal had been made and that Key & Key Brothers was contractually obligated to remove the merchandise from the premises.

The Key brothers reluctantly shelled out $4, 000 to have their $6.89 purchase shipped to Jefferson and stored in their warehouse. Then they dusted their hands of the disaster and focused once again on other, more profitable merchandise.

Several years later, not long before the Korean War, a procurement officer from the Air Force walked into the Key & Key Brothers warehouse. He explained he’d been sent to inquire about classified military technology that had been mistakenly auctioned to their firm. After the agent described the items, my grandfather recalled the old computers.

“We still have them, ” he said. “They’re stacked against the back wall of the building. Not even opened.”

The agent then agreed to pay Key & Key Brothers $63, 000 for the computers which would have cost them $1 million if ordered new from the manufacturer.

 With his share of the proceeds, my grandfather purchased a lot in Point Clear and built his long-awaited vacation home — a home he would later pass to my father, the home where I was raised. Until Hurricane Katrina, the fence pickets around the house were made from the packing crates of the parallax computers.

Text by Watt Key

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