How Computers Captured Me

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If you’ve been reading this column over the years you may have noticed a couple of things about me. One, I am 81 years old. Two, I’m fairly computer literate for an old fogey.

If you’re over 65 you may be thinking, “Good for you, brainiac! I hope the dumb thing blows up in your lap!”

I know what you mean too. I resisted being computerized right up to the bitter end, but finally discovered that my favorite philosopher — Goldie Hawn — was right when she said, “You often meet your fate on the road you take to avoid it.”

That’s a fair description of, “Garrett Meets Machine.”

When I was young, the dictionary defined a “computer” as a person who computed, and for a very long time that’s the way matters stood. It changed after World War II, but it had no effect on me until I graduated from high school. A friend went off to college and then to a school run by IBM, became a computer technician, and tried to convince me to do the same. It took exactly one hour of his guided tour to convince me that the farther I could get from those number-crunching monsters he worked on the happier I would be.

My next run-in with computers came in the air terminal at McGuire Air Force Base. I worked in Space Control (which had nothing to do with outer space). The only “space” we controlled was the inside of cargo and passenger aircraft. Too bad too. We could have used some control over our own office space, where 14 people were jammed into an office with two keypunch machines, two verifiers, and an immense card sorter. With those dumb things running I could barely think. I walked in the first day, listened to their clattering, and thought my way out of that noisy joint in 18 days flat.

In my own little building, away from the air terminal and its clattering machines, I took over a Statistical Services section where I made two kinds of names for myself — a nice one with the Air Force and a not so nice one with the drones I found filling the place. I cut the labor force from 18 to seven by creating a card system to keep track of inbound and outbound passengers, cargo and mail.

Then %$#@! IBM saw my system and wanted to use it with their computer and tried to get me sent off to their school by the Air Force. Unfortunately — for them, not me — my card system had earned me a promotion and it just so happened that a man in my field and of my rank was needed in Japan. So off I went.

I arrived at the air terminal at Tachikawa, Japan, and to my chagrin was introduced to a “TV-Teletype” — AKA: Keyboard and screen, the latest thing in IBM terminals.

The keyboard was an IBM Selectric typewriter that got so hot when it ran that we had to wrap the operators legs in foil to prevent them from frying off. The dumb thing was down so much we had to do most of the manifests by hand. I found a way out of that place in just nine days, neatly halving my previous computer-escaping record at McGuire.

For the rest of my Air Force career peace reigned between me and the computer because I engineered a job where there was just me, my classroom and my students.

I did have a run-in with one of IBM’s hulking monsters, but it kind of sneaked up on me. I was teaching a group of officers how to teach when one of them said he wanted me to come over to his workplace to see if I could come up with any special ideas for training his men.

I remember thinking as I approached his building that it was beyond doubt the ugliest structure on the planet. It was a four-story tall, windowless cube of gray concrete. At first I thought it had no door, but then he led me around a three-foot thick slab of concrete and in we went. Imagine my shock when I found myself not only near a computer, but walking around inside one like a ...

Uh-oh! Running out of space.

Next week: Life as a roach in a radio.

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