Two men walk into my bedroom carrying a very large, flat box. My eyes grow wide. “A computer!” I exclaim. Mom’s voice filters in from outside. “It’s a new boxspring to replace the one you set on fire.” My disappointment shakes me to my soul.
It took three months for my obsession to burn out, but I finally finished my maps, hand-drawn, intricate, with detailed notes. I write the last label: Flood Control Dam #3. Now that I have them, I have no clue what I made them for.
Career day. Each of us is given a deck of cards, with a career of some sort listed on each card. A series of holes has been drilled along the top of the deck, through which we are to slide long metal rods. The holes in some of the cards are slots, so they fall off the rod and out of the deck, leaving a smaller set. A series of questions determine which holes, and in what order, we are to slide the rods through. This continues until only a couple of cards are left, informing us what We Will Be When We Grow Up.
I’m horrified. I already know What I Will Be, and if The Cards don’t agree then I will be doomed to a future of misery doing something else. Fortunately for me, the cards embody a simple, transparent decision tree. When the teacher isn’t looking, I examine the deck closely, locating the cards I want and noting which holes will eliminate them. Armed with this knowledge, my future is secure. I run through the procedure and avoid the answers that will disqualify my cards. I happily fill my results into the form: “Systems analysis”, “Computer programming”, and “Systems Integration”. I didn’t like that last one too much, but I understand. The job I want hasn’t been invented yet. These are just the closest approximations.
I’m a “latch-key” kid. Mom has to work all day, and instead of leaving us alone has enrolled my sister and I into a kind of summer school. I’m in “basketball camp”. Maybe mom doesn’t know how much I detest sports. Shooting hoops can be fun for a little while, but all day every day?? It’s inhumane.
The following week, the coach asks me to run a note to a classroom elsewhere in the building. I walk in and see kids my age Painting! Reading! Writing! Playing Games! Laughing!
I make my plan.
The next day, instead of going to the gymnasium, I stroll into that classroom as if that’s where I am supposed to be. I make it through half the day before the teacher calls me aside to scold me. My eyes get teary as I tell her the horrors of the gym and explain how much I’d rather stay with these kids. “OK”, she says.
“Some of the kids are going on a field trip tomorrow to see a computer. If you want to go, your mom needs to sign this.”
The field trip was unusual. A handful of us go downtown and enter one of the more institutional doors at a local University. We follow my favorite teacher, Greg, through a long tunnel and into a mirrored room with an old teletypewriter in it. A real one, loud and clunky. I am in complete awe. Greg shows us how to use it to punch out paper tape so the holes form words, making skinny little banners.
I am in heaven. “I’ve always wanted to touch one,” I tell Greg. “Can we come here again?” Greg laughs as he recognizes the larval-stage geek standing before him. “We’re not going to have another field trip here,” he says, “but I’ll tell you what. You can come with me sometimes when I come here to do work. But you have to let me work.” Greg makes good on his promise, as Gods will do.
I resolve to own a computer.
Since the cheapest computers cost far more than I could ever hope to gather, I realize it’s not going to happen. Unless… can I build one? I go to the library and come home with a dozen books on the subject. As I wade into them, I realize… this is totally doable. There’s nothing in computers that you can’t make on the cheap. They’re all tubes, relays, and transistors. Just switches. A LOT of switches to be sure, but if I scale back my goal a bit… Heck, you could even make a computer out of tinkertoys, if you had enough of them and didn’t care that it would be glacially slow.
I’m doing very badly in school, and my school counselor has determined that it’s because I’m bored. Man, is he ever right. He enrolls me in a special program for smart bored kids. It gets me out of the classroom two days a week for special classes — and I get to pick the classes! “Digital electronics,” I tell him, pointing to the class on the sheet. “I think that will help with my computer.” I’ve caught wind of a special kind of circuit, called a “microprocessor”. The library books didn’t mention microprocessors, so I’m not real clear on exactly what they do, but I heard that they contain almost everything you need for a computer in one tidy little package, and although they’re spendy, they’re not impossibly so. It sounds like just the ticket, and a digital electronics course sounds like a place where you’d learn more about them.
Halfway through the course, we’ve learned all about things like Karnaugh maps and basic logic circuits. We’ve built adders and flip-flops and the other fundamental circuits. I’m growing bored. Most of this stuff is pretty obvious (although the k-maps were a choice revelation!) and we haven’t even discussed microprocessors yet. At the end of class, the instructor asks if anyone has any questions. I shoot my hand up and ask: “What, exactly, does a microprocessor do?”
He stares at me like I grew another head. “It’s a circuit that takes a set of input signals and emits a set of output signals in response.” That must have been a really stupid question to warrant such a brush-off answer. I think I have some catching up to do.
Instead of digital electronics this year, I’ve taken a programming course. I’ll need to know that, too, after all, and I learned something significant about electronics: it takes money to experiment with them. You gotta buy stuff, and a 12-year-old’s allowance doesn’t buy much. Programming can be done for nothing, if you already have access to a computer. I learned my first programming language (Pascal). I also learned of the existence of a fantastic game, “Advent” (later to be commercialized as Zork), and became addicted.
The whole thing seemed eerily familiar. I’d never heard of the game before, let alone played it, but still… I know where the rooms are. Look, there’s a crack in the wall here. If I go through it, I’ll end up in a cavern. See? I shouldn’t know that yet. I’m baffled. Until I reach the room called “Flood Control Dam #3”.
It’s the end of the school year. Next year, I’ll be in High School. As a bonus, the school system has instituted a new desegregation plan. They have designated certain schools as “magnet schools”, which have specialty curricula. The idea is to lure kids from predominantly white, middle-class districts to go to school in predominantly black, poor districts. I can choose to go to one of them rather than my local high school if I wish. My counselor asks what I’m interested in, and I say “computers”.
He frowns. “There isn’t a computer program. What would be your second choice?”
I’m disappointed. “I don’t know. What else is there?”
He looks over my file. “Hmmm, you’d probably enjoy television production. If you go to Jefferson, you’ll learn how to make television shows, run cameras, edit, all that kind of thing. It’s the largest educational TV studio on the west coast.”
That doesn’t sound too bad, even if it isn’t computers. “OK”.
I bump into my good friend and fellow computer-geek, Ben. I haven’t seen him since grade school. “I thought you’d go to Adams,” Ben tells me. “Why did you go to Jefferson instead?”
“Oh, I went for the TV production, since there wasn’t a computer school.”
“What are you talking about? Adams IS the computer school!”
I turn white.
“Wait a minute. Your counselor was Mr. Fraddlehom, wasn’t it? Man, that guy HATED computers. He lied to you. He didn’t let any of his kids go to Adams.”
For the first time in my life, I realize that I am capable of murder.
Revenge is mine! Adams High School has closed down, and the computer program has moved to Jefferson. Fuck you, Mr. Fraddlehom, may you rot in hell.
Mom thinks I’m on drugs, but she’s wrong. I’m failing out of school because I don’t go. Instead, I hang out in the computer lab, draw schematics for the computer I’m building, and do a fair amount of skirt-chasing.
My computer works. I immediately disassemble it for parts. It’s not as good as I want it, and now that I know I can, I don’t have to.
Mom is pretty upset that I’ve dropped out of school, and getting a GED didn’t console her much. “You’ll never get a good job without at least high school. You’ll never get into college without high school. What about computers? You need college for that.”
I believe her. OK, then. I’m not going into computers as a career. So be it. Taco Bell will be just fine.
I meet a man who has heard that I know my stuff with electronics and computers. He grows pot for a living, and as we’re sampling his crop, he asks “Want a job?”
“I need something to run the operation. Monitor humidity, temperature, CO2 levels, soil condition, that kind of thing, and to adjust things as needed to keep the whole thing in spec. I want it all to run automatically.”
I set to work, modifying an old IBM-PC to do the task. It’s a good bit of work, and I’m pretty proud. He’s pretty happy with it too. “Hey,” I say, “if you know anyone else who needs this kind of thing, let me know.” You never know where your next job is coming from, and this sure beats cleaning hotel rooms.
Although I lost my job, I have enough money to last six months. I’m sick of menial labor anyhow. I make a deal with myself: I’ll spend three months applying for jobs I actually want to do, and if I don’t swing one, I’ll start looking for jobs I think I can get.
I get a call for an interview at the local University.
When you’re sure you won’t get hired, it takes the pressure off. I had no “official” job experience as a programmer. What the hell. I list the growroom job as prior experience. “Greenhouse control system” is what I called it, and reported the company as defunct. I think up fancy names for every other major project I’ve done, going all the way back to that computer I built.
The University gig was an incredible experience, but the grant that paid my salary has been eliminated. No matter. Now, amazingly, I have credibility. I’m published. I have a reputation. I have experience. I can do anything I want to.
Mom was wrong. Nothing can stop Destiny.
I learned that at Flood Control Dam #3.