Clueless In River City

This morning we walked to a restaurant, The Soup Shop, for breakfast. It is about a five mile walk, and was fairly relaxing since we were not in any hurry. The restaurant is in a commercial area called The Brockton Arcade, which would now be called a “strip mall”, though it was built long before that term came into common use. After a good breakfast, we walked across the street to look at an Elementary school, the Palm School. I like the look of the exterior of the school.

After several decades of use as an Elementary School, Palm School was later used as a “Adult Education” facility. The school offerred G.E.D. Accreditation (High School Equivalency) and various classes that might be of interest to adults.

“I don’t remember why.” I said to Lisa. “But I swear I took a class here.”

“You don’t remember what it was?”

“No.”

The school’s front lawn, what the English would call a garden, is a pleasant setting. We sat on a wooden bench soaking in the surroundings for a few minutes, then I shot a few frames of the building’s exterior with the G1. While setting up the photos, it finally came to me.

“I know what it was.” I said. “It was a basic computer class. In the early 1980s.”

In that time period I was preparing to open a commercial printing business in a couple years when I would receive the money for my share of a real estate deal (filtered laboriously through divorce proceedings). I was going to use the money to open a  small printing company, pay myself for six months, and make a down payment on a house.

In preparation I took classes in Small Business Administration and Accounting at the local community college. I also wanted to be able to keep the businesses’ books on a personal computer using a spreadsheet program and write with a word processor.

Because I also thought that my children (and myself) should be able to play games on the computer, I didn’t buy a IBM PC. I opted for a Commodore system, which would handle both rudimentary business and game programs. In addition, unlike the IBM PCs, the Commodore would display state-of-the-art (at the time) color graphics. I knew “all about” these things, having read widely about personal computers for many months while saving for a system.

The day finally came when we went out as a family and bought the Commodore. The entire system included monitor, computer/keyboard, 5.25″ floppy drive, joystick, and printer, and cost approximately $1,100, which was a considerable chunk of change at the time. The system included a floppy disk containing business applications and we had also bought a disk containing a game which looked promising and a few blank floppy disks to store data.

With great anticipation and excitement, son Aaron and I unpacked the components and set up the computer system at home. We then turned it on.

And nothing much happened.

The system was obviously on. Various lights indicated that components were receiving electricity. On the monitor screen a single word, “Ready”, appeared followed by a blinking cursor.

“Ready for what?”, I wondered. I stared at the unchanging screen for a minute, then thought that it was possible that I had to put one of the floppy disks in the drive before something happened. I inserted the game disk into the floppy drive. The drive hummed for a few moments. Our excitement returned. It was about to do something. We waited while  the floppy drive emitted various mysterious humming sounds.

Then the drive stopped humming. We looked at the screen. Nothing had changed.

I, apparently, was an idiot. Completely clueless.

I took out the game disk and inserted the disk with the business applications with the same result. The literature that came with the system was very clear about how to connect all of the components and turn the system on. But that was all of the instruction provided by the manufacturer. With twenty-twenty hindsight, it may have been the first of a long series of incidents that eventually pushed me toward Technical Writing.

Now keep in mind that this happened sometime around thirty years ago and I had no previous experience with a computer of any kind. It was incredibly frustrating. During the next  twenty-four hours, I discovered a couple things; I had no friends who owned a computer and the local library contained no literature that would tell me how to proceed with the computer (the Internet existed then, but was only used by Universities and scientific establishments, and probably wouldn’t have contained any information about anything as frivolous as using a silly-assed personal computer, anyway). I stewed over these developments the next day, then finally phoned my brother Joe, though I didn’t want to. Joe had been working as a Technical Writer/Illustrator for a few years since leaving the U.S. Air Force, and he used computers at work.

I explained my problem with the computer. My explanation was liberally sprinkled with variations of a certain Anglo-Saxon word whenever I thought about the company that sold me the system, then gave me no instructions on running it.

He laughed, just as I knew he would. “You have to tell it to do something.” He said. “It is actually quite dumb.” He then gave me enough knowledge of simple commands to run the programs I had. I wrote the commands down, thinking that there was no good reason that Commodore hadn’t included a four-page booklet with the system, a booklet that explained the basic commands and what to do with them. It was as if they had deliberately erected a knowledge wall to keep undesirables such as myself out of some secret society.

I didn’t have too many problems with the computer after that phone call, but I wanted to learn more and found out that a basic computer class was being offered at Palm School once a week in the evening. I went to two of the computer class sessions. The class was instructor-led. It was obvious that I had already learned everything I was likely to learn in the class, so I stopped going. But it was a good thing that the class was offered for anyone who wanted to learn about personal computers.

I had done things in reverse order, though. The proper way to proceed would have been to take the class before buying the computer…

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