Then, it happened. Mr. Grierson – the head of Computing Services at the Middle/Upper School, and a staunch advocate of education in computing, changed his “rules of engagement” and allowed those few of us in the fourth grade who had taken this course to discover the Computing Laboratory at the main Middle/Upper School building. My first trip to that magical land, Room 302 if I rememeber correctly, went something like this:
My friends and I were escorted over to the main building, two blocks away, in a group. As we entered the large glass doors, straining to push their weight in the brisk Chicago winter wind, we looked on in amazement at all the “big people” wandering around this alien building. We climbed the broad, low stairs to the second floor, then wrapped around past the cage above the basketball court where candy was sold (to return later to purchase Blow Pops and Kit Kats) and ascended to the third floor. Taking a left, we wound around the U-shaped hallway to the computing laboratory . . . and walked into a noisy room, fearful of what we were about to experience.
There, ahead of us, was a row of large, gleaming terminals, each with its own display, support stand for printed material, and a keyboard complete with numeric keypad. Each VT52 was accompanied by a rolling office chair, an instant hit with us. There was also a line of three DecWriter printing terminals, each loaded with 8.5″x11″ greenbar paper. We were thenled through a small opening into a secondary room, dominated along one wall by a window into the Math Department’s offices and a 4′ tall bookcase filled with the Orange Wall of Digital manuals . . . and, turning left, the 6′ tall tower of a PDP-11/34A hummed contentedly along with the console DecWriter terminal and a punched card reader. Mr. Grierson showed us the 8″ floppy drive (an RX01), and its big brother, the RL02 Winchester Diskpak subsystem. We learned briefly how the programmer’s console worked (“It’s for upperclassmen only, and you must ask permission to use it!”) and how to ask for help to insert diskettes into the slots too high for us to reach. He showed us the chart of how to store diskettes (a warped, disfigured 8″ diskette left in the back seat of a 1978 Datsun during an especially hot summer day), and the posters which would represent our goal for the upcoming year: the 10 Golden Programs required to graduate from a BASIC account to a full-fledged System Monitor Account.
And, in the blink of an eye, I never looked back. The PDP became my goal, my life’s ambition for years to come. Delivering those 10 programs was top priority, no matter how difficult they seemed to an 8-year old. Playing with ELIZA and other BASIC diversions only kept me going so far; I had to graduate to the infamous RT-11 “dot prompt,” learn to use TECO and its bizarre macro language (GOLD-7 is your friend!), discover the very first email and chat systems available, and begin my experiences with FORTRAN, PASCAL, and (eventually) an unheardof language called “C.”
Of course, none of this came without a price. My mother, being lenient in her control of me for the first time ever, allowed me to stay after school from 3:20 to 5PM most days to program and tinker. However, I believe in her heart of hearts she resented my time in the Computing Lab, and eventually purchased me an Apple //e in an effort to keep me home more often. In addition, I had to endure the ridicule of upperclassmen who had programmed since the mid-1970s, belittling my attempts to use BASIC to print a pyramid of stars as wide as the end user specified. My classmates unengaged in the pursuit of computing called me “an egghead,” “a nerd,” “a geek,” and other worse names I’ve since repressed with the help of time and alcohol. As a result of my desire to forge into these realms unknown, I discovered loneliness, VDT strain that turned everything I looked at various shades of pink, sleepless nights preoccupied with debugging — and, perhaps most lasting, the complete rejection of a class of 50-60 students. In time, I’d learn to embrace my difference from the rest of the world, but in fifth grade, I could barely reconcile feeling so alive intellectually with feeling so murdered emotionally.
More to come…