punkwalrus (punkwalrus) wrote,

How I Ended Up in Computerland: Part 4 - What's a GUI?

There was this very odd event that happened in my childhood. I find it hard to place the date, but it had to have been after 1984 or in late 1984.

My mother tried all the time to get my father and I liking one another. She'd make my father take me to his work sometimes. I am not sure what my father's title was, but it was usually some office job where he was important enough to get a corner office. I recall employees were nervous around him, and would often whisper around me like, "That's Dr. Larson's son," as if they weren't sure how to act around me. I was always dead bored since my father rarely paid attention to me, so I'd amuse myself in a book, or wandering the kitchen to drink as much hot cocoa as I wanted. I have been told by many my father was a "beltway bandit," a term given to a lot of defense contractors in the area. My father was working for a company called ARACOR, which now seems to make cargo scanning equipment. I have no idea what they did back then, maybe around the same thing. I think my father was a manager or something. He may have told me at one time, but since I had no experience of office hierarchy at the time, it probably went in one ear and other the other.

What got me was that my father never worked with computers as I had been told. The only computer he had was an old LED HP calculator with RPN, or "reverse Polish notation." RPN was and probably still is the common way to enter data into a scientific calculator. Instead of "1 + 1 =" to get 2, you'd put "1 [enter] 1 +" and "2" would show up. I still have one that I got for Algebra II/Trig, an HP 11c. But I was BUMMED my father didn't work with the computers I saw on TVs and ads. Sleek brown and beige units with built-in tables, or maybe they were white and sky blue terminals on small round stands. In the background would be some huge fridge-sized mainframe with spinning tape wheels. Nope, my father was at a large desk in a room with a hotel-style AC unit. I'd look out of the window, wishing I was somewhere else.

One day, his boss at ARACOR said, "Come down and meet me at my mansion in Sunnyvale!" I think Sunnyvale was right next to Silicon Valley. "Brig your whole family!" My mother declined. "Take little Gregory," she said. And so started a rather awkward trip to California, where I got sick, my ears torn apart by bad plane pressure, and I was alone most of the time. I can't separate this trip from another California trip up to San Fransisco, but in this trip I remember two things:

- I slept through an Earthquake (a mild, "wiggle things on your dresser" kind)
- I got to meet the owner of ARACOR (whom, thanks to the Internet, I have found here), Bob Armistead

Bob's house was quite large. It was huge, had a lot of windows, and faced something down in the valley below; might have been Silicon Valley, who knows. He had a gigantic pool with a connecting hot tub, and his own artificial waterfall. But this whole sideline builds up to a point. I was to bond with his kids, who I think were 2 or 3 boys. They were close to my age, but we were complete opposites in personality. His kids were tanned, shirtless nymphs who ran around barefoot like a herd of buffalo. Whereas I was a pale, chubby, and shy kid from the east coast who had no athletic ability. They didn't so much make fun of me as stare me down, perceived me as no threat, and then ignored me. I think they even left to go to a friend's house.

I wandered around this mansion while Bob tried very hard to schmooze my father. I am not sure why. Maybe it was "I never see you, ya big lug! Move out to the west coast! We can be buddies!" My father was polite, but had a poker face and I knew that whatever Bob was selling, my father had no intent to buy. My father never had "buddies" or even a friend growing up. He was a lone wolf, and after a while, people reciprocated this attitude, and then my father would leave whatever company he was in for a better position in another. My father only stayed at a company for a few years. I think 5 was the longest he stayed at growing up.

As I wandered around this cheerful complex, I came to a room where there was a HUGE wooden desk that might have been six feet wide and made out of a very knobbly wood grain; perhaps a tigerwood or something. Elegant and dominating. On top of this desk was a strange little beige monolith, dwarfed by the vast space around it. What could it be?

It was the first time I had seen a Macintosh. It was probably one of the first 128ks or something. This little box had a strange thing attached to it I had also never seen before: some smaller box the size of a pack if cigarettes. I hadn't been in this room for more than a few minutes when Bob came in and saw me looking at this weird device.

"You seen one yet?" he asked. He turned it on. It chimed.

Now here's the thing that got me hooked right away: the sound chip. Up until now, all computer sounds were reduced "beep" and "boop" or maybe some robo-synthesizer like the Atari 400/800s. There were no realistic sounds, although some people tried with the Ataris by making lots of little clicks in sequence that might have sounded like the real sound... once you were told what it was trying to sound like... and even then, "speech" sounded like it was some guy with emphysema and an artificial voice box vibrator. But the Mac had crisp, realistic sounds. There was a "plonk," a "drip," and a "choo choo." He then launched a game, and I think it was Castlevania or something, but the bats and rats had real squeaks, the door slams sounds like real doors, and the music was like real instruments playing. And while it was black and white only, the graphics were crisp and detailed.

"You like this, huh?" Bob said. "I got this for my kids but..." and I recall the flash of disappointment in his voice so clearly. "My sons never touch it. Do you like computers?" I told him I did. For a few minutes, we connected. I had this feeling like I was the geek, computer oriented kid he was looking for all his life. We connected instantly. But then he left me to the Mac, which I played the rest of the evening until I was invited to the pool for food and swimming.

The next day, Bob invited me down to their office headquarters. Up until now, I had been staying in a hotel room during the day, which was so utterly boring. My dad would leave early, and come back around 6. I wasn't allowed to watch TV (although, I did anyway) and I finished all the books I brought two days into the trip. I wandered around some part of downtown LA, but it wasn't an interesting part because the hotel was next to an industrial park. There was only one strip mall, and all it held in interest was a bakery and a 7-11. Bob said I could see the computers at their office, and wouldn't that be cool? Yeah!

Except... they were mainframes. Now, truthfully, I was set up at a terminal that had the UNIX games of the day, which were adventure, ASCII space invaders, some kind of cannon vs hill game, and so on. Most were in ASCII and text, but they did have some that were made of small dots. Boy, did I get bored quickly, though. I also was dying of thirst, and there was this travel mug right next to me. I ended up stealing sips of water from it, wondering if I would get caught stealing somone's water. There wasn't much left, and thankfully, some girl who worked there finally said, "Do you want me to fill that with some fresh water or something?" Thank you, lady, whoever you were. That was around lunchtime. Bored bored bored.

Then something alarming happened. Keep in mind that up until now, everyone I had seen in this building was in a suit. Even the women were dressed very early 1980s professional. I wasn't allowed to come without a shirt, slacks, and tie. But then suddenly, this guy who seemed like the stereotype of a Woodstock hippie came in. Long hair, unkempt beard, and sandals from which jutted thin, knobbly toes. I forgot what he wore, it was green whatever it was, but it wasn't professional business attire. He fooled with some stuff, ignored my presence, and then left.

Did this guy break in? Was there an unlocked door near the computer room, and this stoned Deadhead reject wander in from his dumpster diving? My mind raced. Obviously, he didn't belong. But who could I tell? A hour went by while I was alone. Finally, a woman showed up. Being polite, waited until she came to my area, but she didn't and then left. Then the hippie came back! Should I stop him? Even though he was wearing glasses, he was easily over six feet tall, and I felt scrawny 5' 2" me wouldn't stand a chance. Maybe the drugs would make him go CRAZY! Yeah, hippies were scary; we didn't have many in McLean since the 1970s.

Later, Bob and my dad came by to see how I was doing. I mentioned the hippie, and Bob laughed. "Yeah, he's an employee here alright. Don't worry. He's really good at what he does, but I can't get him to dress professionally." Bob acted like this was an ongoing issue, but was tolerating the situation.

This, unbeknown to me, was my first example of an IT guru. They guy who knows all, shares none, and refuses to conform.

Bob and I seemed to click. My dad didn't care for him, though. My father hated friendly people, he always thought they were trying to sell him something. I never saw him again, and a few years later, my father quit ARACOR to work for Booz Allen & Hamilton.

But even now, I thought computers were for really smart people. And since I considered myself quite stupid, I had no comprehension that in about a dozen years, I would be so deep in the computer industry, I would be part of one of the most exciting times to be an IT person.
Tags: computer, computerhistory, tech
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