man versus machine
move over john Henry!
t was April of 1972 at the Naval
Air Station in Lakehurst, New Jersey where I had been sent to become a weather
guesser, that is a meteorologist, after the Navy discovered I had a biology
class in high school and my previous six requests to go to Viet Nam were
denied. Somebody didn't want me fighting commies.
One science was as good
as another the Department of the Navy must have reasoned, so despite my three
more times volunteering to be sent to the war zone to see what all the fuss was
about over there, they sent me to the last place the U.S. government used
hydrogen filled dirigibles. The place where the Hindenburg blew up killing
about five dozen and injuring nearly everyone else, an incident that was filmed
and reported live via radio just as WWII broke out. Happy memories.
I had been there less
than a month when myself and another lucky eleven guys and gals, unbeknownst to
ourselves, had been randomly selected to be the first amongst U.S. Navy
personnel to, voluntarily under orders, participate in a Navy, experimental
training program for increased proficiency in data processing and storage.
Formerly known as typing
letters and filing shit out.
Like rats in a lab
nothing had been explained to us, an administrative oversight I'm sure because
the Navy always took great pains to explain to us in fine detail everything to
be accomplished so that we would always be as prepared as possible for any
conflict or situation we might encounter. Just like in WWI, WWII, Korea, Viet
Nam, Iraq, Afghanistan and ________________ (insert next conflict
So early one Monday
morning we filed into the small office-come-classroom where all 12 desks were
armed with what appeared to be props from the latest Star Trek episode.
As I sat for the first
time in front of my very own huge, green faced monster, the size of a Motorola
console television set, which I had earlier seen being uncrated and carried
into the classroom by two large and husky delivery guys, I had to remind myself
that I was under orders from my commanding officer.
In reality there were
about 18 desks crammed up against each other in the cramped room which became
even more crowded with us in there, but due to the size of the HAL 3000's,
which loomed before us, each occupying one and a half desks, we could only get
at 12 of them.
At least we had ample
elbow room. A fact I failed to appreciate because of the distance it put
between me and the cute little, blond corpswave next to me.
eyes! SHIT! Why'd she have to be green eyes?!
After an eerie fifteen minutes
staring at the boldly printed signs taped to the machines:
"DO NOT TOUCH
MACHINES UNTIL TOLD
TO DO SO!"
Then without warning our
clog clad class instructor clopped into the classroom.
Sadly she was a mere
glimmer of Miss Marie Watonoyski my five foot, ten inch svelte, green eyed,
blond haired typing teacher from which I had sorrowfully departed following
high school graduation less than ten months earlier.
Did I mention she had
I never understood why
Miss Watonoyski never responded to my telepathic messages of love and sexual
desire for her. From the first day I stepped into her classroom I knew she
needed me, she just hadn't realized it yet. Probably came to her senses much
too late after I graduated. Poor creature.
We were then informed we
would be spending one full week with Burl Ives the then still semi-known actor
and voice of Sam the Snowman in the animated feature Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer. The same actor who had been black
listed by crazy Joe McCarthy during the commie hysteria back in the Fifties.
The irony of being
taught by a communist reindeer while the navy was at war in Viet Nam against
the communists was kind of appealing to me. I'm a firm believer that everyone
has something to offer. But I always wondered why his nose was red.
Rudolf's not Burl's.
As the first order of
business we were introduced to a thing they called 'the floppy disc'. Although
the term 'floppy' was quickly abandoned by most of the male staff and replaced
by just the noun, 'disk', which later somehow became 'disc', the wonderment
that that little black, eight inch, square disk, (oxymoron alert?), could hold
an entire 80kB's and still be used later to retrieve and even edit your saved info
was a Big Brother step of significant proportions. I thought of all those poor
elderly folks at Weyerhaeuser Paper Industries who would soon be unemployed. No
more typing paper or onion skin. No more carbon paper, no more White Out.
Until that moment in
time Western civilization had been weaned on typewriters. First manual then
portable followed by a huge advancement - electric. Then wonder-of-wonders, the
keyless Selectramatic with one line erasable error correct and automatic ribbon
rewind! What a marvelous age we live in!
Little could we dream of
what these big, lime green monsters looming in front of us foretold.
As per Mrs. Greenbottom's instructions, (actual name), we each picked
up and fondly fondled the sample disk, now spelled ‘D-I-S-C’ for some strange
reason, which had been laid out for us on our descs.
"Stand by to
activate machines!" We located the green and tan toggle switch to the side
smartly labeled 'ON', as instructed, and stood by.
machines!" Toggles were flicked and, one by one, around the room, scenes
from the Twilight Zone ensued as the
screens flickered to life and an iridescent, radioactive-looking dot in the
middle of the Volkswagen-sized screen glowed and pulsated then slowly grew
until it plastered the entire glass surface before suddenly turning a color
straddling Kraft American cheese food yellow and lime-puke, green. The color
like when you chug five too many green apple Schnapps after four tequilas to
impress a girl then run into the toilet looking for Ralph.
The glow intensified
causing several sailors to slide their chairs back to a safer distance. A few
instinctively covered their genital areas as the off white, Bakelite boxes
eerily glowed more intensely and hummed a little more loudly.
information disc into the slot labeled, 'Insert disc here'!"
It suddenly became clear
that Mrs. Greenbottom must have had an advanced
degree in word processing technology.
However, to her credit,
she didn't lose her cool when several of the sailors proved to be a danger to
themselves and possibly to all of society. Dangerous because they had attempted
to think for themselves when they tried to remove said discs from said
protective casings thereby reducing said discs to recycling.
Perhaps it had dawned on
Greenbottom too late that she should have explained
that the disc would slide out of the casing once inside the football
That's when I realized
we weren't the first experimental batch of 'students' as I noted the scrap
basket in the corner was half full of mangled discs partially and pathetically
protruding in agony from their former protective casings.
I bowed my head and said
a quiet prayer to the Circuit Gods hoping that the floppy little fellas had led
long, productive lives before their untimely demise.
The numerous clicks and
buzzes spewing forth from the machine in front of me post disc insertion
clearly indicated what had become of Robbie the Robot form Lost In Space. Some evil genius had shrunk him down and imprisoned
him inside this IBM plastic prison. Evil knows no bounds. I knew it was Robbie
because he was clearly signaling for help to escape.
impressive as the situation was, I didn't speak binary and so focused on
attempting to read the Morse code message now being silently broadcast by the
flashing, square green dot in the upper left hand corner of my glowing,
apparently radioactive screen.
Square dot? Squat? Sqot? Whatever it was it was flashing away.
GOD! ITS GOT A PULSE!
My brain screamed.
'Dot - dot - dot!' or
was it 'Dot-dot-dot-dot-dot'? Was it signaling the letter 'S' or the number
'5'? I couldn't tell. Maybe neither!
name." Came the next command. I obeyed and my name dashed onto the screen
in slow motion from where the sqot used to be. The
spry little dot now pulsated at the end of my name.
As the little blond next
to me gradually sent me clandestine signals of interest by continuing to ignore
me, we continued taking instructions from Mrs. Greenbottom
for the next hour and half when we were told to don the headphones hanging
under the desk tops.
Mechanically we obeyed
the high priestess of technology and the amicable voice of big Burl Ives
introduced itself and then, for the next two and a half hours, took over the
increasingly complicated instructions which we would, for better or worse,
richer or poorer, in sickness or in health, (kind'a like Herpes), carry with us
for the rest of natural lives.
Finally it was time for
I considered it my patriotic duty to invite
the little blond to lunch. You know, with the war on and all. Unfortunately my
patriarchal benevolence was shunned with some lame excuse about being engaged
or something like that. Disappointed that she was obviously a lesbian, I dined
Returning from chow that
afternoon, due to the fact that the temperature in the room had, through the
morning, reached that of the surface of the sun we were told we could remove
our now sweat soaked jackets.
Seized by a sudden,
irresistible fit of reckless eyeballing, my hazel blues drifted over to the
little blond as she artistically slid her jacket off in slow motion with the
grace of a Russian ballerina dancing the introductory movement of Swan Lake. It was at that point that I
knew she needed me and it was only matter of time before she would come to her
My mind flashed back to
Miss Watonoyski who no doubt by now had slit her wrists or consigned herself to
a nunnery at having let me slip away and so I vowed to save the little blond
corpswave from herself by marrying her.
Our children would be
both intelligent and beautiful!
At the end of five continuous days
of being hooked up to a machine, without benefit of having been in a crippling
car accident requiring life support, we had learned how to write a letter using
the first prototype, desktop, well desk and a half, computers. It was months
until I was comfortable enough to use the word computer, a word formally used
with respect to people who yielded a slide rule and were able to do long
My money was still on
pen and paper, but I knew, in time, I would be out gunned by the boys at IBM
and our daily existence would come to be dominated by technology. Electronic
gadgets it had been discovered were just too profitable and cheap to produce to
be gathering dust on a laboratory shelf. Especially when you were under no
obligation to guarantee how long they'd last.
I haven't seen Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer or the
cute little blond since but I did realize, by the end of that week that, along
with the Twentieth Century, the Buck Rogers technology our fathers had been
promised back in the Twenties had finally arrived.
Still waiting on those
fucking flying cars though!