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Trials, Tribulation, Triumphant Tale of the Old Computer Geek

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Trials, Tribulation, Triumphant,Tale

of the

Old Computer Geek

by Samuel E. Warren Jr.

My birthday is only a couple of days after Microsoft Founder Bill Gates. Computer software made Mr. Gates wealthy.  Computer software gave me gray hair and, probably, ulcers,  Nonetheless, I am an “Old Computer Geek.”

United States Air Force “Buck” Sergeant Bill Law, a KC-10 crew chief, of the 2nd Bombardment Wing of Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana, did his best to bring me into: The New Emerging Computer Age Of The 1980s.

I was a Junior in Galena High School, in Galena, Missouri, in 1972, when Wes Ashcroft, my math teacher, gave me a 8 by 10-sized paperback book with about a hundred or so pages in it. I forgot the title of the book, but, not the story inside. It outlined the ongoing development of computers.

The Book

In the 1800s, while Thomas Edison and Luther Burbank were working on various inventions, some people were determined to discover a way to capture light to make pictures that would become photography and devices called, cameras. Still, there were other people in the 1800s, that knew there had to be knowledge and a method to build a “Counting Machine.” The overall idea was beyond adding machines, cash registers and calculators.

The technology of the day, of the 1800s, had the refined and polished parts of the Industrial Revolution to work with. But, the polished parts of sheet metal and forged metal arranged together only resulted in abacus type functions that did not allow for the “counting” that the inventors had hoped for.

Those original “counting” machine ideas were the first rough ideas of computers. Alas, while the ambition, passion and innovation of creative people was rampant; technology did not provide a way to combine the metal, mechanical machine functions with a power source to create a computer.

After all, the hard charging newspaper reporters of the 1800s were still pounding out their breaking news stories on heavy manual typewriters to make the morning, afternoon and evening editions of America’s daily newspapers.

The Math Teacher

The book, Mr. Ashcroft gave me, outlined how development of electronic parts had allowed these transistors to be used to build huge room sized contraptions that performed simple mathematical functions. And, the book theorized that someday the “computer”, especially, the popular, expensive game computers built for use in homes might become as common in American homes as televisions and automobiles.

I always remember Mr. Ashcroft because of his smile, sense of humor, and he was the only math teacher I ever had that made me “like” math. I hated math. To me, math was boring. Mr. Ashcroft teaching method helped to allow me to want to understand more about math.

Most people in southwest Missouri, remember, Wes Ashcroft, the math teacher, as the brother of John Ashcroft, who became a United States Attorney General.

The Sergeant

While I never forgot the book that Mr. Ashcroft gave me, it was Sergeant Bill Law, who did his best to convince me that computers would make a difference in the future. He would put a cassette tape in the Tandy Radio Shack cassette recorder and we had to wait for the electronic bits to travel along the cords to wake up the TV or the crude monitor.

Then, the electricity would allow pixels to appear on the screen to reveal childish art that looked like rough cave paintings on the screen, The words at the bottom of the screen were text and described an adventure story that you were suppose to push buttons on the keyboard to play the game.

Bill Law was an early computer gamer. Me, I would shake my head and wonder why anyone would be willing to spend all that money, the time to connect all those cords and pieces of equipment to spend a few minutes to play a computer game.

My First Computer

I told myself I bought my Commodore 64 to impress people and learn computers. It sat on the coffee table in my barracks room and I gave it a light dusting each morning, just in case the First Sergeant (i.e., the “First Shirt”) decided to pull a surprise barracks room inspection. I know, now, I bought the computer to keep my friend from always giving me his “used car salesman computer pitch” and his prophecy that someday computers would change the world.

Bill’s Computer

Bill had a Tandy Radio Shack Color Computer II that he thought was the “Cat’s Meow.” We were two young, single American G.I.s interested in airplanes and girls.

We understood airplanes and we did our best to understand the girls. A United States Air Force KC-135 Stratotanker crew chief, who took the additional training to become a KC-10 crew chief, Sergeant Bill Law knew that computers would change the world.

I bought Bill Law’s old “Trash 80,” computer so he could upgrade to the “elite of the fleet” the Tandy Radio Shack 1000. I took my orders to Kadena Air Base Okinawa and said “Good Riddance To Computers”

How could ugly green screens with dim yellow flashing dots ever hope to change the world ? They did.

Meet The Frankenstein’s Of The Future

My favorite philosophical uncle, “Uncle Sam” had sent me to Kadena Air Base. Day One, The large, long, rectangular, heavy, beige, plastic encased, IBM Selectric III typewriter, with it’s 12 pica elite and courier balls, I had used at Barksdale was not on my desk at Kadena.

A ugly, squat, dark plastic gray box that looked like a cheap, pregnant, TV sat on my desk. It was an NCR computer.

It was a physically ugly machine that looked like it had been born. not in a hospital or laboratory, but in the back seat of a junked car in a salvage yard. It was a gray, plastic electronic head, missing a pike or a body.

The machine was a Frankenstein of the Future that looked like it should of remained in the horrific nightmares of a mental patient in an asylum, rather, than leeching space on my desk.

One look at the ugly machine and it was all I could do to keep my breakfast at the chow hall in my stomach. The only good thing about the ugly machine, it didn’t take up much space on the corner or my desk.

The Miracle Of Newspapers

To be able to publish a newspaper is always a Miracle. There are so many factors that have to happen to be able to get “a newspaper out on the street.”

A good manual or electric typewriter had become the Global Support Beam Of A Worldwide Publishing Industry.

Computers were toys – plastic boxes of electricity and wires for people who were “gamers.”

The idea of “Desktop Publishing” in the mid-1980s seemed to rank right up there with “Unicorn Farming.”

We were suppose to be able to publish a weekly military newspaper. While we had the usual duties of coming up with story ideas, contacting people, setting up interviews, doing interviews and writing the stories and arranging for pictures to be taken – we still had to work with an electronic life form that seemed better suited for the autopsy table of a mad scientist’s laboratory than in an office.

We, military journalists, were the Ernest Hemingways and the Ernie Pyles of the United States Armed Forces, who were expected to moonlight throughout the day as Doctor Frankenstein’s hunchback assistant to try to get our electronic Frankenstein abominations on the desk to do something remotely like typing and publishing.

It was not exciting to me to be at the forefront of a new technology.

I was a newspaper man, who just wanted to get the story in print and out on the street. Of course, global technology proved to be the “ultimate speed freak” because it took off and did not stop.

Computer Curiosity

My contempt for computers changed to curiosity. By the time Uncle Sam handed me orders for “The P.I.,” I had become a neophyte in the Celestial Cosmic Order of Global Geekdom.

I knew how to get into DOS and use wild cards, forward slashes and back slashes to wake up a “Windoze pizza box” computer and get it to blink back to life.

Uncle always had all his “official” policies about computer repair, alas, as the clock on the wall ticks off the seconds to a newspaper deadline and the pizza box on the desk is schizophrenic – it became “red S on the chest time” – and I would hear, “Get Sam !” I never popped the buttons off my uniform shirt to reveal a big red S on my chest, I would just smile, slip into the chair and type my way into MS-DOS.

Deadline Dollar Delays

Uncle Sam, of course, would have been livid at me not waiting for the “blessed, sanctified, certified, official computer US Government repairman”, but, when a newspaper is late getting out on the street; it affects the “credibility” of the publication.

Uncle Sam’s “bean counting, number crunching, regulation writing, regulation reading, penny pinching bureaucrats” could understand, an even more important concept, – miss a newspaper deadline and Uncle Sam has to “pay for the delay.”

And, the delay was never the pocket change of a few dollars, but several hundred dollars that could quickly rise to several thousand dollars as minutes became hours and printing presses sat idle waiting for the news copy to be delivered to the publisher.

When I solved a computer problem, I felt good. I had gotten into the head of the “electronic dumb animal” and jump started it’s mustard seed mind. I had us back at the keyboard ready to “beat the clock” and make the deadline.

Whether the shadowy bureaucrats appreciated it or not, I had saved Uncle “money” and “time” – no need to schedule an official repairman, who would most likely try to give us the song and dance act of, “Umm.  I can’t get to it today.  I’ll have to work you in later in the week.”

Back Burner Bureaucracy of Computer Repair

The “official” computer repairmen, who were usually contracted from a computer company by Uncle Sam never understood a primal instinct of human nature.  Like hungry cave men and women, people have always had a barbaric hunger for information.

Newspapers, dailies, weeklies, military –  were all the “real-time, streaming information” equivalents of the day.  In Society, before facebook and Twitter, people still had an insatiable lust and hunger for the latest factual information on issues that interest them and affected their lives.

When CNN first went “On The Air” it was “The Second Coming of Television Broadcasting,” I, and other Americans did not seem able to get enough of the constant news coverage from around the world.

“The Passionate Priesthood Of Public Publishing”

When the first issues of USA Today came “hot off the presses” in the early 1980s, “The Messiah Of American Newspaper Publishing Had Been Born.” 

The clean layout, colorful design, large, action oriented photos and the “fast” publication of the daily newspaper in what was considered “remote” places in the world made USA Today the facebook and Twitter of the American Newspaper Publishing Industry.

In technical training school we were required to look at the stories and overall design of USA Today each morning before classes.  Instructors were teaching us USA Today design concepts probably as quickly as editors at the newspaper were publishing the ideas.

CNN had transformed American Television News Coverage and USA Today had transformed the American Newspaper Publishing Industry.  Thus, any delay in getting “news out on the street” was an unforgiveable sin of the highest order.

Computer repairmen simply did not understand “The Passionate Priesthood Of Public Publishing.”

Deadline DOS Dancing

When I had succeeded in tinkering and typing around with the DOS codes to get a computer back up and running, I would smile, “The Fate Of The Free World” and more importantly, “My Newspaper” had been on my shoulders and I had “Saved The Day.”

Thus, I “tinkered” and “played” with Windows DOS computers, marveled at the expensive Apple computers and took every opportunity to “dabble” with Amiga computers.

Now, that I am retired – I just want to write, shoot photos and publish my articles and photos.

GIGO Chromosomes

Personal Computers still have too many “GIGO Chromosomes.” GIGO is an early computer term of the 1970s and 1980s, which reminded the early nerds and geeks of a common sense commandment – “Garbage In; Garbage Out,” which meant if you input in the wrong information, then, you would get bad information out of the computer.

Some things Never Change – Love-War- Computers.

Computers have been programmed to be “smarter”, but the flaw remains “intelligence.” Like some people, ALL computers “lack Common Sense.”

A computer can still not think for itself. There are all types of “artificial intelligence” schemes, projects, initiatives and various undertakings ongoing, but – computers still rely on the “human” to input data at some point.

In retirement, I have fixed friends Windows PC computers to get them up and running. I smile at my Filipino and Filipina nephews and nieces and amaze them with my computer knowledge to resurrect the “Lazarus” laptop computer back to life and duty.

I leave the “illegitimate children of computers” – cellphones –  to the fertile young imaginations of my nieces, nephews and future generations.

After my passionate interests in telephone operators “Barksdale 18” and an Offutt telephone operator of my young, single days, I lost my interest in “Ma Bell’s” frustrating ringing device and chose to stand beside Mark Twain, in his conviction, that telephones are annoying, nuisance devices.

Nonetheless, I am an Old Computer Geek. When a computer issue comes up, good reporter that I am I find my metaphorical Ma Bell phone booth, step inside, and emerge “Up, Up And Away” to save the day for “Truth, Justice. . .And A Working Computer.”

Sam

Article published using Windows Live Writer 2011

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Written by samwarren55

July 28, 2012 at 8:04 PM

Posted in Bloggers, Blogs, Current Events, Editorial, Family, Opinion, Sam I Am, Stone County History

Tagged with , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

364 Responses

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  1. When i come to your article then i found I am reading this wonderful article to increase my knowledge and can say that it increased lots of information about the computer geek.

    Monu Jain

    April 15, 2017 at 3:57 PM


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