Tuesday, January 26, 2016

My First IBM PC - and a concluding remark

I bought my first PC in late 1982. It was branded IBM, but was mostly put together by a number of other companies in order for IBM to enter the PC market. It certainly was different to now have a machine that you could put on your own desktop instead of having a mainframe in a large air-conditioned room. But in many ways, even though over 15 years had elapsed since I entered the computer field, it was like starting all over again.

Memory – Although mainframes now commonly had millions of bytes, my first PC only had 64K of memory (like the IBM 360 model 30 from 1965). I eventually expanded that to 256K, but that was the limit of the motherboard.

Floppy Disk – These were not unlike the tapes on the mainframe in that there was no initial support for indexed files. I had a choice with my first PC to either go with a single-sided floppy or a new double-sided one. I chose the double-sided drive which supported a floppy with a capacity of 320K (pretty small).

Hard Disk – The following year IBM came out with a hard drive and a new operating system (PC DOS 2.0) to support it. The new disk drive had a capacity of 5M, even less than the old IBM 2311s that I had used back in my early Uniroyal days.

Printer – Unlike the line printers on the IBM mainframes, the PC had a character printer with a print head that printed one character at a time (using an inkjet). I opted for an Okidata 92 that offered “Near Letter Quality” since it had more jets that a regular printer.

So while for many people who had never used computers before the new personal computer was a true wonder, for me, with over 15 years of experience in the field, it was like “déjà vu all over again” as Yogi Berra used to say. It was to be many years, and many upgrades of my home computer setup, before the home computer caught up to the capabilities of the mainframe computers that I was used to working on. It was, however, quite a bit cheaper. My first PC cost me nearly $3000 as I had to pay separately for the processor, the printer, the operating system, the color monitor, and all the various supplies.

I no longer use any mainframe computers (at least not directly, they are still the basis for a lot of the cloud computing and websites that I use). And these days my smart phone has a whole lot more power than I could have dreamed of just a few years ago. But I have never regretted the years I spent in the computer field and the knowledge that I have acquired over the last 50 years.

I hope that this look back gives you at least a little perspective on where we have come from.

Computer Jobs

Computer Programming

When I started working at Uniroyal in 1968 there were no others in the department who had any degree or even college-level courses in the computer field. It was just too new at the time. Most of the people in the department had no degree and those that did had degrees in other fields such as mathematics or business. The only formal training in computers was through classes offered by IBM.

There were three main job titles being used. The first was “Programmer” and was for people who wrote the code that was needed (in a variety of computer languages such as COBOL, Autocoder, and RPG). These folks for the most part had no degree, only a few classes.

The second job title, going up the scale, was “Systems Analyst”. The Systems Analyst was the person who wrote the specifications for the programs that were then turned over to the Programmers. Most of these folks had some significant background in the part of the business that they supported (accounting, payroll, production, etc.) so they could gather the requirements from the business and turn the requirements into the necessary program specifications. Some of these folks had degrees, but others had many years of background in their subject area.

The final job title was “Programmer Analyst”. These folks were capable of doing both the job of the Programmer and the Systems Analyst and so were highly valued.

I was only a summer intern the first two summers, but when I began working for Uniroyal full-time in 1971 I started directly as a Senior Systems Analyst as I was so much more skilled than anyone else in the department. However, I still had to pick up the necessary business background before they promoted me to Programmer Analyst the following year.

Other companies had different philosophies and different reasons for using the job titles that they did, but regardless of where I worked those first few years I was one of the few with an actual college degree in the computer science field.

Computer Operators

It takes more than a bunch of programmer and systems analysts to make the computer a useful machine. The job of the computer operator is also very important. Most operators did not have college degrees. And so they were often (unfairly) looked down upon by those with degrees. But I did not feel that way.

Part of my first few weeks of training at Uniroyal was to spend some time in the computer room learning what the operators did. I was essentially used as a junior operator trainee. I got to mount tapes, put paper into the printer when it ran out, separate the printed jobs and put the output into the appropriate bin to be picked up, etc. The goal was for me to learn what made for a “good” program/system. There were a bunch of little things like having the output of one program on tape drive 3, then instructing the computer to not unload it (i.e. rewind to the beginning but not past the physical end of the tape), then having the next program in the stream use the tape still on drive 3. That saved the operator having to rethread the tape, or having to move it to a different drive and thread it there. These little things not only made the operators happier as it save them needless work, but increased the overall throughput of the entire staff.

I always viewed this part of my training as extremely valuable and always did whatever I could to keep the operators “on my side”. That was I also had them as my ally whenever I might need a special favor or an extra run one evening. 

Other Devices


Other than the overprinting that could be done on a line printer (mentioned earlier), the only true way to draw objects was with a plotter. These devices used a pen (or a set of pens in different colors) to make line drawings. There were two usual types – flatbed plotters and drum plotters.

Flatbed plotters had a fixed size piece of paper. You would instruct the mechanism to move to a particular X-Y spot, then instruct the pen to lower to the paper, then instruct the mechanism move to a different X-Y coordinate. The largest flatbed plotter I saw was at the design center for Ford Motor Company in Dearborn, MI. They could draw entire body panels with it.

Drum plotters used a metal roll that carried the paper. The Y-axis was across the roll, and the drum rotated to position the pen at the appropriate X-axis. The length of the paper roll was relatively unlimited, but a final dimension of 2’ (across the roll) and 3’ of paper was typical.

On one occasion the university borrowed a “pin plotter” which could make three dimensional “shapes”. It had pressed boards about 2’x2’ in size with an X-Y mechanism underneath that carried a spool of copper wire. You would instruct the machine to go to a particular X-Y spot underneath, then instruct the spool to unwind Z inches of wire straight up to pierce the board. The machine automatically added enough wire to completely pierce the board and then would cut off the wire when the end of the wire was at the appropriate X-Y-Z spot on the shape you were plotting. There were limitations, both on the height that you could go above the board (or the wire would begin to bend) and how close together you could put two wires (or risk weakening the board by having too many holes in it). This may have been the first instance of a 3D plotter.


A sometimes forgotten peripheral was the system console. This was typically a variation of an IBM Selectric Typewriter that was used by the main computer operator. But it could be used on a very selective basis for inputting key information. Typical uses were for things like the starting check number that was going to be printed so the program could keep track of the check number generated for each employee that pay period, or a special month-end date for accounting purposes. In COBOL, there were two special instructions “DISPLAY ___ UPON CONSOLE” and “ACCEPT ___ FROM CONSOLE”. So the program would first DISPLAY what it wanted to operator to enter (e.g. DISPLAY “PLEASE ENTER STARTING CHECK NUMBER AS NNNNN UPON CONSOLE”) followed by “ACCEPT STARTING-CHECK-NUMBER FROM CONSOLE”. When computers only ran one or a few programs at once, this was a reasonable solution.

Disk Technology

The first disk drives that I worked with were IBM 2311s. These were about the size of a small washing machine. They had removable disk packs that were 14” in diameter. With six platters (giving 10 recording surfaces since the top and bottom were not usable) and 200 tracks per platter of about 7000 bytes, the total capacity of a disk pack was about 7M. When these were upgraded to IBM 2314s which had several disk drives in a single large box, the capacity per disk pack was increased to 28M. That seemed like a lot of storage space in those days, but it was still only 20% of the capacity of a single reel of tape at maximum density.

However, the power of a disk drive is that we were no longer limited to sequential files, i.e. files that must be read from one end to the other. Instead they supported a common access method that was known as ISAM (Indexed Sequential Access Method). These files could be read sequentially, or could be accessed randomly based on a unique key assigned to each record (such as customer number or employee number).

There were three separate areas in each ISAM file – the index, the data area, and the overflow area. The index area was pretty small and stored the highest key in each cylinder (the 10 recorded tracks that were directly under each other on different platters in the disk pack), then the highest key in each track and for each track the highest key in each block. So with only a few I/Os, you could locate the place that a record was (assuming that it existed). In order to keep things in order, when a new record was added, it was inserted in the appropriate place and the last record in that block would be pushed off into overflow. Records in overflow were not blocked, but were stored individually with pointers from each record to the next.

This caused an interesting situation when I was working at Winchester. One morning when I came into work I was immediately asked to help with a problem from a program that had started running the prior evening and was still not completed. It turned out that there were an extremely large group of records being added to one of our master files and all the new records had new keys in the same range, so they were all being inserted into the same area of the disk. Because the input file was sorted in ascending order, each new record would initially get assigned to the same block, but as the block was full, it would then begin traversing the overflow chain, one record at a time. Eventually it would reach the end of the chain and then write the new record. This was not a problem for the first new record as the chain was only one record long, but by the 100th, the chain was 100 records long, then 101, 102, 103… It was taking the program longer and longer to add each new record as the overflow chain got one record longer for each new record being added.

I was able to use some customized utility programs that I had written to (1) examine a copy of the list of new records to be added, and (2) examine the computer memory (while the program was running) to see which record it was up to (by this time the program had been running for nearly 12 hours!) Making some back-of-the-envelope calculations, I determined that the program would probably be done in about 3-4 more days! I then examined the program and determined that it would still operate properly if the new records were sorted in descending order instead of ascending. This would mean that each new record would find its “home” right at the beginning of the overflow chain instead of at the end. We cancelled the program, restored the master file to what it was before the program began running (thanks to some good design we had that option), sorted the new records in descending order and restarted the program. It was done in less than 10 minutes! I got a lot of kudos for working out that solution!

Magnetic Tape Drives

The primary storage/processing medium on most early computers was the magnetic tape. These were ½” wide pieces of mylar with a magnetic recording surface. They were either 1200’ or 2400’ long. Densities ranged from 200 characters/inch (i.e 200 bpi linearly but with multiple recording channels across the ½” for each bit in a character) to 556 cpi, then 800 cpi, 1600 cpi, and finally 6250 cpi. At 200 cpi you could store roughly 5M in a 2400’ reel. But you could also physically inspect the tape with a low-power magnifying glass and see the individual spots of magnetic recording. At the highest density the capacity was about 140M.

Inter-Record Gaps

But one could not store data continuously the entire length of the tape. Data was stored in records with an IRG (Inter-Record Gap) in between. Because the tape drives had a vacuum tube to hold tape on either side of the read/write head, the tape drive could go from a full-stop to over 100 inches/second in only 1.5 milliseconds. But that still meant that you had to allow about .6” of tape in between records for the unit to go from full speed to a complete stop and then back up again to full speed.

This meant that if you were storing card images (80 characters/bytes) on an 800 cpi tape, then the data would only occupy .1” but each IRG would be .6” so you would be wasting 85% of the tape with the IRGs. So one would have to choose an appropriate “blocking” factor to minimize the IRG “losses”. For example, if you were to block 10 80-byte records, then you would have a full inch of data for each .6” of IRG. But it also meant that you would have to increasing the blocking factor as the tape density got larger. However, this would have an impact on the amount of main memory required to hold each block (see discussion under CPU and Memory).


Some of the early tapes were not as reliable as the later ones. If the tape drive could not read a block of data, it would back up and try reading again. After a few tries, the drive would just give up and skip that block (and all the data it contained).

When I began working at Air Products, they had put together a standard solution for this problem. Each program that produced a tape would keep track of the number of records they wrote and at the end of the tape would print a special record that contained the count. Later programs which read that tape would compare the number of records that they had process with the count at the end and would halt with an error message if the two counts did not match. As tape technology became better, the number of errors dropped to zero and this practice was eventually discontinued, but it took a long time before all the programs were changed.

Tape Transmission
As I mentioned at the beginning, I worked at Uniroyal’s Eastern Management Information Center. It was located in Naugatuck, CT. There was also a Western Management Information Center outside of Detroit, MI. Sometimes we needed to get information from one center to the other. Sending tapes by mail/courier was too slow and costly, so we had a tape-to-tape transfer system when needed. So we had a Mohawk Data Sciences machine that could read a tape at one end and transfer the contents over a phone link to an identical machine at the other end.

In order to do this transfer, the data had to be put on a tape at only 200 bpi and the transmission speed was only 200 baud (i.e. an inch of tape a second). Also, there was no take-up reel on the machine, so as the tape unwound through the read/write head it just unwound into a slot where it went back and forth into a pile inside the bottom of the machine. At the end of the transmission it would rewind it onto the original reel. Not very elegant, but it worked and was relatively cheap.

Using Multiple Tapes

Most programs were limited to using at most four tape-drives at once. A large computer could run four simultaneous programs and would have 16 tape drives with four assigned to each of the simultaneous programs. During my first year after graduation (in early 1972), we had a programmer who wanted to use even more. The company had accumulated a sales tape for each month of the prior year, twelve tapes in all. And they wished to have an annual sales tape with information about each customer with a bucket for total sales for each month of the year. That meant that they wanted to do a logical merge of the twelve tapes into one.

But not every customer bought something in every month. So this programmer (I remember his name and much about him, but I won’t repeat it here) tried to write a program that could account for all the different possibilities (only sales in month 1, only sales in month 2, … sales in only months 1 and 2, only sales in months 1 and 3, … sales in months 1-11 but none in month 12, …). If you do the calculations there are 1023 different combinations! His program was very long and very complicated.

The problem was that in order to run a test the operators had to basically idle down the entire machine, manually reassign thirteen (12 input tapes, one output tape) of the sixteen tape drives to his program, and then run the test. Inevitably the program would read just a few records from each of the 12 input tapes, run into a logic problem and then crash. Then the operators would have to reassign all the tape drives back to the other partitions and start a new program in each of them. They grew to HATE this program and would only allow him to test it every couple of days.

After several weeks of failures, the company also grew frustrated with his lack of progress – he had been hired at a significant salary as they wanted a very talented programmer – so they fired him and sent him packing. They then assigned the project to a very junior programmer who immediately recognized that a 12-way merge was much too complicated, so he wrote a two-way merge (a pretty standard program) and ran it 11 times (once with just January and February, once with March plus the result of the first run, …) No special processing, never used more than three tape drives at once, and he was done by the end of the week!

Card Readers and Printers

Computers were usually show pieces of the company and were in an air-conditioned room with a glass wall so people could look in and be impressed by them. Since there were no online terminals, the primary input was in the form of punched cards and the primary output was printer paper (usually green-and-white fan-fold paper unless one was printing a special form like invoices, paychecks, etc.)

Card sequencing

While cards with transactions such as timecards or sales orders could be sorted by employee number or customer number as needed, the cards that programmers punched their programs into could not. COBOL had allowed for the first six columns of the card to be a page/line number of the coding sheet, but as programs were changed it was difficult to maintain that sequence. So most people after preparing a program deck would fairly soon run a listing of the program so in the event that the deck was dropped it could be reassembled. One afternoon, when leaving the computer center at MSU I saw a rather unfortunate individual who had not done so. He had a large box of cards (perhaps 1500 of them) under his arm along with his text books, and had inadvertently dropped the box while crossing the bridge across the Red Cedar River right behind the data center. Several hundred of the cards had fallen under the railing and were floating down the river below. He was so disgusted that he was in the process of kicking all the rest of them under the railing as well to join those which were drifting down the river. I have no idea how many hours of work that represented, but I wasn’t about to ask him.


While most systems had some sort of card input and several different reports for output, if you declared in your program that you were using them, then the physical card reader or line printer would be assigned to your program and your program could run no faster than the physical device could read/print. Since these mechanical devices were considerably slower than the computers could run the programs may people used ways to speed things up. One that was available on the IBM-360 line of computers was a program called PUPPIT (short for Processing Utility for Print and/or Punch Image Tapes). This program could run in a small dedicated amount of memory (see topic of Foreground Partition in the section on Processors) at the same time as another program was running in the Background Partition. So people would write their programs to write report line images to a tape. Then the tape-to-printer PUPPIT program could run independently later.

This also had other advantages in that one had a backup of the report if the original was lost or some needed another copy. It also meant that something like paper tearing in the printer would not mean that you had to restart the program. Finally, a program could print multiple reports without having to have multiple printers physically assigned to it.

Printer loops

The IBM 1403 printer (and others like it) were controlled by a loop of heavy paper tape. This tape had holes in it where the various “channels” were supposed to be. For example, by convention, the topmost printed line would be channel-1, the bottom of the page would be marked by channel-12, and for something like an invoice the beginning of the invoice details would be channel-2 and the page total would be marked by channel 3. That way a print program would start the address at channel-1, would then skip to channel-2 and print the details, then skip to channel-3 to print the totals. The paper tape would usually be as long as a couple of pages (say 33” for three 11x17 pages) with the channels repeated three times, the tape would then be taped into a loop and inserted in the printer. Each special form would have its own special paper tape loop.

There were two incidents I can remember where this caused a problem. The first was when someone prepared a new paper tape loop and the three instances were not identical. One of the channel punches was supposed to be at a certain position on the page, but one of the punches was off by one line. So when the forms were printed every third page would have its total line not printing in the proper box on the page. This was a pretty frustrating problem to resolve, especially since there were a couple of copies of the paper tape loop and all but one of them were fine.

The second instance was a pretty exciting one. As part of my initial training at Uniroyal I got to work in the computer room for a few weeks (see more below in the People stories). I had just loaded up the printer with a new box of forms and put the appropriate paper tape loop in the printer. I pressed start and was starting to the other end of the room for another task, but I had not yet closed the printer cover (they had sound proofing in the cover to keep the printer noise level down but we did not always close it for short print jobs). Unbeknownst to us, the programmer had changed the program to use a new channel number but he had not given us the instructions to prepare a new paper tape loop. About half way down the first page, the program gave an instruction to jump to the new channel but there were no punches in the column on the paper tape. So the printer just began slewing paper at top speed looking for that channel punch. At that slew speed the paper just shot straight up out of the printer, hit the ceiling above the printer, and then started creating a pile of paper in the area. By the time one of us got back to the printer and hit the stop button, there was a half-box of paper in a huge pile on the floor in front of the printer. We had no choice but to gather it up in armloads and carry it out to the dumpster. Besides the programmer getting scolded for not giving us the new instructions, we began a policy of putting hole in every channel at the bottom of each page to prevent future occurrences.

Printing Pictures

These were all “line printers” that were only capable of printing individual characters at fixed locations on a line. However, one of the lesser used features was to instruct the printer to print a second set of characters without advancing to the next line. This “over printing” was done by using a “+” as the line-feed character (blank was a standard single-space, “0” was a double space, “-“ was a triple space, and another number like “1” or “2” was an advance to channel “1”, “2”, etc.) Some enterprising people designed the set of darkness characters for several shades and by printing multiple times on each line you could create pictures with multiple shades of darkness (all in black on white obviously). Pictures of Snoopy, or one of a cat in 15 shades were common. Of course these were always done off hours and without management knowing what the printers were being used for!

CPU and Memory

In April of 1964 IBM announced the availability of a new line of computers – the IBM 360. This was a pretty major announcement in many ways, but the key was that this was to be a “family” of compatible processors which could all run the same programs. Prior to this you would have one processor to run “business” programs (such as the IBM 1401), and another to run your “scientific” programs (such as the IBM 7090). The IBM 360 had an instruction set that enabled both. Also, the various processors were of many different sizes so that as a company grew (or its use of computers grew), you could continue to run the same programs without having to rewrite them. The first IBM 360’s were shipped in 1965.

By the time I worked at Uniroyal in the summer of 1968 they had three processors in their data center – a model 30 with 64K, a model 40 with 128K, and a model 50 with 256K (a max-size model 50 was capable of supporting 512K). Note that “K” is roughly 1000 bytes (1024), so for those of you who are used to measurements of mega-bytes (a million), giga-bytes (a billion), or tera-bytes (a trillion), these may seem like impossibly small machines compared to what we now have. But the rule of thumb for memory back then was that a million bytes cost a million dollars, so that the memory alone on their model 50 was a quarter of a million dollars (in 1960s dollars), or the annual salary of 20 college graduates. The processing speed of these three machines were about 30kips (that’s 30,000 instructions per second), 75kips, and 150kips. [For comparison, the latest Intel i5 processors run at a clock speed of 3.5Ghz or over 100,000 times the speed of the model 30.]

The smaller machines would run only a single main program of about 40K (in what was known as the background partition), plus a small foreground partition of just a few K (the remaining memory was used for the operating system). This foreground partition was used for things like PUPPIT (see section on printing). The larger machine could run up to four programs of about 50-60K plus two foreground partitions and the larger operating system needed for that configuration.

Memory Size and Overlays

Unbelievable as it may seem today, that amount of memory was pretty impressive at the time. The prior generation of computers, the IBM 1400 series, started at 4K (which occupied a cubic foot of individually wrapped cores) and maxed out at 16K. So even our smaller model 30 was four times larger than the largest 1400 series computer.

When you compiled a program (in COBOL, which was itself fairly new, having only been defined in 1960), you had to declare the memory size you wished to be able to run in and it would check to ensure that the object code generated would fit. If you wished (as some of us did) to run a program which was larger than that you had to define “overlays”, i.e. break the object code up so that parts of it could be dynamically loaded at one point in the program’s execution and overlaid by another part of the code at a different time in the execution. This required very careful planning and coding, but it enabled you to run a program which would not all fit in memory at the same time to still be executed. [Nowadays, most operating systems use some form of “virtual” memory to do this for you and they are constantly switching out your program for someone else’s without you being aware of it, but back then you had to do this on your own.] It took a fairly seasoned and experienced programmer to write those large programs and properly manage the overlay processing so that you weren’t constantly switching in and out the various overlays.

A Half Century of Computing

I just realized the other day that not only is 2016 the 50th anniversary of my high school graduation, but it is also 50 years since the word “computer” became part of my vocabulary when I took my first programming course in college. Since few people these days have that much computer history in their memory I thought that I’d take a look back at what the technology was like 50 years ago and give some perspective on what the early days of computing was like. I had a lot of different topics floating around in my head last night, so I think I will put this in my blog as a series of entries, each focusing on a different aspect of computing.

As a bit of background, when I graduated from high school in June 1966 I didn’t know what a computer was. I went to Michigan State University planning on majoring in Electrical Engineering – to take advantage of my strengths in both mathematics and science. A required course for all engineers was an introductory FORTRAN class which used the university’s supercomputer, a CDC 3600. I very much enjoyed this class and decided to take as many computer courses as I could, but still majoring in engineering as there was no degree being offered in computer science.

But in the fall of my senior year (1968-1969), they made computer science a major and I immediately changed my majors, becoming one of the first graduates with that major in 1969. I then stayed on and got an MS in computer science as well as an MBA, completing all three degrees in a total of five years.

Meanwhile, I worked for the summer of 1968 and 1969 for Uniroyal at their Eastern Management Information Center, then for the summer of 1970 a friend and I set up a company and bid on a project for Cascade Data in Grand Rapids. Then in 1971 I began working full-time in the computing field – first for Uniroyal, then Olin Corporation, then Air Products.

Most of the topics in this blog series are from my learnings in those first early years before 1971, with the exception of the last one which compares my early experiences on the IBM PC in the early 1980s.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Cape Cod Vacations

I think our first family vacation to Cape Cod was in 1954. We rented a small cottage in Dennisport on the south shore. Actually it was a duplex cottage – in our half there was a single bedroom, a small kitchen, a bathroom, and a screened-in porch which is where my sister and I slept on cots. My Uncle Tony and Aunt Vi rented the other half. The beach was about a half-block down the street. This was before Cape Cod became the touristy place that it is now. Route 6 was just a narrow two-lane road the length of the Cape, not the expressway with overpasses and interchanges that it is now.

The following year was the first of a number of consecutive years that our Cape Cod vacation was a “free” working vacation.  A man from our church, Mr. Ranft, was the assistant headmaster of the McTernan School, a private boy’s school in Waterbury (he became the headmaster in 1960). They were just a few years older than my parents.  In the summers he and his wife ran a boy’s camp, Holiday Hill, in Brewster, MA on Seymour Pond. The camp was jointly owned by them and Mrs. Ranft’s sister and brother-in-law and ran from 1947 until the early 1960’s.  The camp property encompassed the entire north shore of the lake and there were only three other residences elsewhere around the lake so it was quite private (note that when the camp was later sold the property was entirely developed and there are perhaps a hundred residences there now). 

Mr. Ranft offered our family the use of one of the staff cabins (the cabin was named “Winwood” as his name was Winston Ranft) either at the beginning of the summer or at the end of the summer if my father would help with all the tasks of opening up the camp or closing it down.  Opening it up involved setting up the archery range, putting the dock back into the water (it was taken apart at the end of the season to prevent damage when the lake froze), mowing the grass, carrying all the canoes from the barn down to the boat house, etc.  The last few years that we vacationed there I was big enough to help.

The Ranfts had two sons – Christopher who was about 4 years older than I, and Brian who was about 3 years younger. Besides the Ranfts and our family, the only other person there to help open up the camp was the camp cook – a large black lady who reminded me of Aunt Jemima. She was a very jolly person – and a really good cook (we usually had our own meals in our cabin, but got to eat in the main house on a few occasions)!

The little cabin where we stayed was more than sufficient for our family and we were able to go boating or fishing in the lake. We caught mostly perch, bluegills, and bullheads (our favorite as once you beheaded them and cleaned out the innards, you could just cut the top and side spines (using wire cutters!), roll the rest in flour and fry them. The tail and side fins were nice and crunchy and there were no bones except the backbone and one behind each gill. Nothing quite like catching your own supper and eating it just an hour or so later! I recall that my sister once caught an eel. Like bullheads, they have a pair of lungs so do not die easily when removed from the water. This one was writhing about in the bottom of the boat, getting tangled in the fishing line and anything else in sight and my father kept trying to stab it with his pocket knife to pin it to the bottom of the boat (not very successfully), while my sister was screaming because it was like a snake at her feet. But like the bullheads, it tasted quite well at the end of the day.

Our last year we did not stay in the cabin. (I think that was around 1959 – in 1960 we used our vacation to fly to Arizona to visit relatives and then started camping elsewhere each summer.) We had by then purchased our first family tent – a 9’x9’ umbrella tent and so we stayed in the woods near the cabins. But that also meant that we did not have the use of the indoor bathroom. So we dug a hole in the ground and nailed a few boards between two trees forming a “V” that you could sit on above the hole and that was our toilet for the week. We also wrapped some black plastic around those same trees to give a little privacy to the person using it. Some of the family were a little queasy at first, but we all did. And at the end of the week we just used the dirt we had removed from the hole and covered it back over. Nature at its finest!

Usually we were able to take a day or two off during the week and tour other parts of the Cape – Provincetown (which was not the artsy, hippie, gay-friendly place that it later became), Nauset Beach (right on the North Atlantic so always very cold water), etc.  Also, a favorite stop on the way back to CT was at Edaville Railroad.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Fun with Water

The final two incidents both involved water – and although they are somewhat funny now, they didn’t necessarily seem so at the time. Gee – six memorable incidents in the same week!

There was a stream flowing through the far side of the campground. Having access to such cool (even cold) water during a hot summer day in NH was a real treat. The stream took a sharp bend and that is where the swimming area was located. As with many such sharp bends, the inside of the bend is shallow and the camp owners had dumped a quantity of sand that formed a sloping beach and then continued down the slope under the water. It was good for kids, but younger kids had to be watched because it dropped off relatively quickly and the stream was quite swift flowing. The far side of the bend the stream had cut into the bank and so it dropped off into fairly deep water and the bottom was very muddy. If you were right along the edge you could still touch bottom though and the “older” kids would swim to that side.

As stated in the last part, I was almost 15, so my sister Beth was 13 and my younger siblings were 8, 6, and 5. They were too young to do much but splash on the near (sandy) side, but Beth and I were both competent swimmers. She and a few other kids about the same age had gone to the far side and had stepped in the muddy bottom (mud up to mid-calf!) But when they came back to the beach they had a horrifying discovery – the mud was a breeding ground for leeches (blood suckers)! They all had quantities of them stuck to their lower legs.

Anyone who knows anything about leeches knows that they will cling tightly, attach their mouth parts to you, and begin sucking blood out of your body until they have their fill, then drop off of their own accord (that’s why they were used medicinally in times past – for bloodletting). These were all very small ones – perhaps ¼ to ½ inch long. But for a 13-year old girl to have several of them clinging to her legs it was not very pleasant. Fortunately, there is a quick solution – and one that both I and my mother knew. The way to get them off is NOT to try pulling them – they stick much too tightly. Instead just sprinkle some salt on them. The irritation and the salt drawing the liquid from the leech’s body makes them curl up and let go as they die from the effect. So we did this – but it also stopped all the kids from swimming to the far side of the stream for the rest of the week.

The final incident involved horseshoes. I was pretty much into that sport at the time and discovered that the owner had an informal horseshoe pit on the side of the camp nearest the entrance. I threw a few shoes and quickly realized that the stakes were too close together. Regulation is 40’, so I pulled out one of the stakes, paced off 40’ and began pounding it back in, using the horseshoes as my “hammer”. I hadn’t gone far when suddenly water began bubbling up out of the ground around the stake. Digging around the stake I was horrified to discover that I had pierced a 2” plastic water line – going right in one side of the PVC and out the other side. It turned out that the main water line for the camp came from the “store” and ran back along the dirt lane to the camp to feed the bathrooms, etc.

My father drove out to the camp store, the owner temporarily shut off the water to the camp, then he came out, dug up around the stake that I had pounded through the line, cut off that section and put in a small splice to repair it. No permanent damage done, but it was still quite embarrassing to me. If I’d been even a half inch to one side or the other, the stake would have slid off the PVC, but I managed to hit it dead center and go right through it. We decided to move both stakes about 5-6’ to one side to prevent future incidents!

Six memorable incidents in a single week – a bonfire, the death of my grandmother, two romances, leeches, and a water line! Would you have remembered all of them over 50 years later?

Romance in the Air

In the first part of this memory from 1963 I told about the death of my grandmother and about the 4th of July celebration at the fair in NH. I’m not sure if those were the incidents that made it such a memorable week of camping, or if it was the sheer number of things that happened that week. At any rate, as I was in bed last night all my other memories of that week came flooding back and I thought I should write about them too. This is part two of my memories for the week and there will be a third part as well.

The two incidents here both involve romance. The first one is about the son of the owner of the campground. As I mentioned in part one, there was a camp “store” at the entrance of the camp and the actual camping sites were about a half-mile back off the road. The owners ran the store and lived in the building (at least during the summer camping season). They were probably around 50 years old. Their son, who was 25, had been serving in the US Navy and was completing his tour of duty and was being discharged that summer. He was discharged when the ship he was on docked in New Orleans and he then acquired a car and drove back to NH from Louisiana. But when he arrived at the camp in mid-week, he had a surprise for his parents.

Apparently, before the ship docked in New Orleans they had stopped at the Navy base in Newport News, VA for a while. He had met a girl there and fallen in love. So on his trip back up the east coast he had stopped in VA and gotten married and so he arrived at the camp with his new bride. That was surprise number one. The second part of the surprise was that although he was 25, she was only 16! But apparently her parents had given their permission for the marriage. (It’s also possible that they gave permission because she was pregnant by him, but this was 1963 and you didn’t talk about such topics openly.) The final part of the surprise was that although he was a quite short individual, being only 5’4”, his new bride was 6’2”, a full 10” taller than he was! One of the camp jobs that they took on was driving the hay wagon that pulled all the kids around the campground every evening. Because of the difference in height, she sat on the tractor and he sat in her lap. It was a very interesting match – I often wondered what became of it.

The other incident of romance involved myself. In July of 1963 I would have been almost 15. There was a girl in the campground around the same age and this was one of my first experiences with having romantic feelings toward a member of the opposite sex. I wasn’t much into girls otherwise. On the night of the 4th of July when we all went to the county fair to see the big bonfire, I asked my father for some money so I could spend the evening with this girl – her name was Marilyn (don’t ask me how such a detail came back to me last night, my mind stores the most amazing facts sometimes!) He gave me perhaps $5, enough for buying some fair food and trying a few of the arcades. In the dark later, sitting and watching the huge bonfire, it was also my first non-relative kiss! A memorable evening indeed. Unfortunately, she and her family left the campground the following day, but the memory stayed with me.

Friday, January 22, 2016

She’ll Keep

This story is perhaps a little irreverent, but it’s true and some may appreciate the humor in it.

My father’s mother was “old beyond her years”. During my growing up years she had gotten to the point that she was in a nursing home, even though she was only in her late 50’s or early 60’s. She was thin, unhealthily so, and always a complainer. Whenever we visited her she would always be complaining about something – how the staff treated her poorly, how they wouldn’t come when she called, how the food was bad – pretty much anything you could complain about. The staff in the nursing homes would eventually get so tired of her complaining that they would ask her to leave, so I don’t think I ever visited her more than a couple of times at any one place. Eventually she got early onset dementia (they didn’t call it Alzheimer’s back then) and so she was placed in the “Insane Asylum”, i.e. the State Hospital in Middletown, CT.

It was a few years later, in the summer of 1963, that our family was on vacation. We had gone to New Hampshire, camping. Our first stop was to see some people who had at one time lived in Waterbury and who had gone to our church. They lived in Durham, NH. From there we went to a campground in the middle of the state where we stayed for several days. The Fourth of July was on Thursday and we went to a county fair where the big event of the evening was a huge stack of railroad ties with a car perched on the top. They set it on fire and everyone waited until the pile burned down enough that the car came crashing down into an explosion of burning embers.

The following weekend we were going to finish our vacation, and, as the 4th and 5th had been holidays, my father had also taken off Monday the 8th as our final day. Then came the fateful phone call…

On Sunday, July 7th, my grandmother passed away in the state hospital. My father was the executor of the will, but as he wasn’t around, they called my aunt Dot who lived in the same town as we did. She was desperate to find my father, but the only thing she knew was that we were going to be visiting this family in Durham, so she called them. They didn’t know where we were, but recalled that my father had mentioned to them that we were going to a campground in the center part of the state. So she then called the NH State Police and convinced them that she needed desperately to reach my father at a campground somewhere in that part of the state. They started visiting the various campgrounds to see if we were registered and eventually located us. The owner of the campground came down to get my father (it was probably a half-mile or more from the “store” at the camp entrance to where the campsites were located), and he drove out to the store to call my aunt.

She told him what had happened and said that he had to come home to CT immediately. But in my father’s characteristic understated way, he only replied “She’ll keep” and said that we would come home the following day as we had originally planned. My aunt was very upset with him that he wouldn’t interrupt our vacation and come home that very day. When my father came back to the campground, he told this story to my mother (and within earshot of me) and my mother only laughed.

I can only imagine the scene back in CT when my aunt heard those words – “She’ll keep”!

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Reflections on turning 4

Yesterday was my grandson Isaiah’s birthday. He is now the grand age of four years old! As I was lying in bed tonight I wondered how I felt when I was his age. How did I view my parents and grandparents and how must he be viewing me? So let me reflect a little…

Me Turning Four

I was the oldest of my siblings. The year I turned four my father and mother were 32 and 28 respectively. Because my father’s parents had divorced and remarried I had three sets of grandparents. Their ages were 58/67 (Russell), 87/57 (Rogers), and 54/54 (Pierpont). So Grandpa Russell and Grampy Pierpont were still working, but Bampa Rogers was long since retired. However, this did not have any impact on my relationship with them since I generally only saw them on weekends and holidays. I never saw Grandpa Russell go off to work (he was a security guard with Pinkerton), and I only recall visiting Grampy Pierpont at his job once in my lifetime (he was a clerk at a plumbing supply company in those years).

My parents only had one car in those years, so if my mother wanted to go grocery shopping I and my sister had to ride along with them to Waterbury in the morning to drop my father off outside the gates of Scovill and then pick him up again at the end of his work day. He worked for the same company for 40 years, so I always viewed him in that context. But my mother’s job was to care for the children. So to summarize my “view” of these significant adults in my life:

Parents – father works, mother is always around to take care of us

Grandpa and Nana Russell – someone to visit on occasion, work is irrelevant, certainly not any one you would “play” with, the adults visit with them and the children were expected to stay quiet

Grampy and Grammy Pierpont – someone to visit regularly, work is mostly irrelevant although I knew about it, they loved interacting with their many grandchildren

Bampa and Grandma Rogers – Bampa is “old”, Grandma is also “old” (it was about this time that she began undergoing dementia and was confined to a nursing home), interactions are few

My Son Turning Four

Because my wife and I waited several years until we had some financial stability and owned our own home, we were a little bit older when we had children. Our son turned four the year that I turned 35 and my wife 36. So our parents (my son’s grandparents) were also a bit older than mine had been. My parents were 63 and 59 and my wife’s parents were 60 and 57 that year.

We lived in PA, my parents were in CT and my wife’s parents in MI. So interactions were limited to occasional visits. However it wasn’t too many years later that we began a practice of having our children stay for a week or two with my parents each summer. But visits to Michigan were only once a year. So how might my son have viewed all of us?

Parents – father works, mother is the primary childcare provider (that was the year that my wife began working full-time as a preschool teacher, but she took our children to school with her, so whenever they were not in school neither was she).

Grampy and Grammy Russell – someone to visit, interested in their lives, willing to spend time with them during their summer extended visits

Grandpa and Grandma VanDeCar – someone a long way away, not someone who ever played with them

Isaiah Turning Four

My daughter and son-in-law are the same ages that my wife and I were when our children were born. But because that makes two generations in a row that waited before having children, my wife and I are older than either our parents or grandparents were at a similar stage in life. Since I decided to retire at age 58, Isaiah has never known me when I was working. And my wife also stopped teaching before he was born. His other grandparents are a similar age, but they both just stopped working in the last few years.

Isaiah is very aware of where it was that I worked. When we drive by it, he is quick to point and say, “Grandpa, Air Products!” but he does not really associate me with going there regularly. And he does not do that with the other adults in his life. Also, since my daughter is the primary breadwinner in their family, he has a different view of his mother than I or my children did. However, he misses her and quite often asks, “When is Mommy coming home?” and “Will Mommy be home tomorrow?” Finally, since my wife and I are the primary caregivers to Isaiah and his brothers, they have a very different relationship to us than the prior generations. So, how do I think that he might view us?

Parents – people who leave him every day, people who are so often working, people who you are always waiting for them to come home

Grandpa and Grandma Russell – people you play with, people who take care of you, the ones who feed you breakfast and lunch every day, the ones who are always there for you

Pop-pop and Nana Christman – people whom you visit, but not ones where you ever stay (and that’s totally understandable when you think of having four boys over for an evening!)


When I was four I had no concept of how old my grandparents were. They didn’t live very far away, but they were still only people that you visited. They loved their grandchildren, but they never played with them. They interacted with the other adults in my life and would sometimes watch over us, but that was about all. (The exception was that Grampy Pierpont would take me and my cousin hiking/camping with him when we were a bit older.)

In contrast, Isaiah, and his older brother, are very aware of how old I am (and they have no problem with telling others either!). And we are very involved in their lives. Last week I had to discard a pair of jeans because I’d worn out the knees by so often being down on the floor crawling around and picking up toys. My wife and I are the ones whom our grandchildren turn to during the day whenever they need a cuddle or some toy fixed.

Turning four was a big deal. We all went out to Friendly’s for dinner together last night. Isaiah quickly ripped the wrapping paper off his birthday presents when we got home and can’t wait to play with his new toys today.

Will he remember any of this when he is a grandparent? Perhaps yes, perhaps no. But as I look back and try to remember what I felt like at his age, I have very different types of memories than he is having now. And there is nothing wrong with that. I’m just happy that I am still here to be a part of his memories too.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Tory’s Cave

As a kid, I always liked caving as well as hiking.  “Jack’s Cave” in Wolcott, although of historical significance due to its use by the local Native Americans, is not much of a cave – it’s only a few dozen feet deep cut into the side of a hill.  I’ve also been in Howe Caverns (NY), Crystal Cave (PA), Luray Caverns and Endless Caverns (VA), Mammoth Cave (KY), and Carlsbad Caverns (NM).  But these are all tourist attractions and easily negotiated.  But one that’s not developed is Tory’s Cave in CT.  It’s located along Route 7 near New Milford.  I’ve been in it four times.  Now you can find all about it on the Internet and there are even YouTube videos about it, but back in the 1960’s you had to know where to find it and few did.

The entrance is up the hill and in the corner of what looks like a small sinkhole.  The hole that you go in is almost vertical, i.e. straight down, so you sit down and start sliding down this twisty hole in the ground (if you’re too large or afraid of small places, don’t go there!)  About a dozen or so feet down the hole you’ll suddenly find your feet dangling in the air.  You have to know what’s below you, but you roll over on your stomach and lever your lower half down, get a bit of a foothold on the wall and it’s only a 3’ drop to the floor below.  The main room is 20-30’ across with perhaps an 8-10’ ceiling in the middle, but it’s pretty irregular.  There are a few other rooms, accessible by going down into holes in the floor and under big rocks.  It’s a true limestone/marble cave.  Usual precautions apply – don’t go alone, tell others where you’re going, bring appropriate equipment (we used flashlights back then, but headlamps would be better).  And be prepared to get a bit dirty going down and back up the entrance hole.

There are a few other caves in western CT that I should also mention. One is Leatherman’s Cave in Watertown. That was formed by the collapse of a ledge formation in the Black Rock area but it not the type of marble/limestone cave that you climb down into. The other is Twin Lakes Cave in Salisbury. This one is probably the largest cave in CT, but it has been closed to the public for nearly 100 years.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jy-B_psK0qU (listen to all the water dripping in this video)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ti74o3_sKh4 (probably the best video of the two)

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Straight down from 10000 feet

There was an article in the news today about a plane that had to turn around and do an emergency landing because one of the emergency doors was not closed fully. (See - http://video.foxnews.com/v/4689813355001/nightmare-at-10000-feet-passengers-spot-unsealed-door/?intcmp=hpvid1). This brought back memories of an experience I had.

In my early years working at Air Products I managed a number of IT projects related to their chemicals business (the name back then was Air Products and Chemicals, Inc.). One such project required that I make a number of trips to their plant in Calvert City, KY. Unlike their other major chemical facility outside of Pensacola, FL, where I flew on large commercial jets, Calvert City was a much smaller place in western Kentucky. The flights from Allentown were generally on smaller planes flown by carriers such as US Air (at the time called Allegheny). But even these smaller planes did not serve Calvert City.

The small regional airline which serviced western Kentucky at the time was named, appropriately, Air Kentucky. They were based in Owensboro, KY. At the time of this project, I believe it was 1980, Air Kentucky had just two planes, both Beechcraft 99’s. Their route was a rough triangle, from Louisville, KY to Nashville, TN, to Paducah, KY with a stop in Owensboro, KY midway between Paducah and Louisville. One plane flew clockwise around this route and the other flew counter-clockwise. I usually flew Allegheny to Nashville then Air Kentucky to Paducah and drove about 30 miles from there to Calvert City.

Air Kentucky had begun flying in 1974 and by 1980 was in an expansion mode and wanted to add routes to other destinations in the area. But to do so, they needed another plane. Since their pilots and mechanics were only familiar with Beechcraft 99’s, they wanted another one of them. The prior year, 1979, Idi Amin, the dictator of Uganda, had been deposed and had fled the country. In order to raise money, the new government of Uganda decided to sell off the aircraft that he had been using. Air Kentucky purchased a used Beechcraft 99 from the government of Uganda, had a pilot fly commercially there, and then bring it to the US through a series of hops across Africa, then South America, and up to Kentucky. They had it certified as airworthy by the FAA, then immediately placed it into service.

A little information about the Beechcraft 99. This plane seats two pilots and fifteen passengers and has a small luggage space in the tail as well as some in the elongated nose. There is only a curtain separating the cockpit from the cabin (in-flight service consisted of the co-pilot taking a wicker basket of candy/crackers from beneath his seat and passing them to the passenger behind him, that passenger passed it down the aisle on one side and back up on the other side back to the co-pilot). It’s an unpressurized plane, so generally flies at about 10,000 feet or so (it’s rated over twice as high, but there is insufficient oxygen at higher altitudes). There is a single exit door on the left side in the back of the cabin, just in front of the rear luggage storage and opposite the last passenger on the right side (in seat #15).

The day after Air Kentucky received their “new” Beechcraft 99, happened to be a day that I was making a trip to Calvert City. I flew in the early morning hours to Nashville and made my way to the Air Kentucky gate. I saw their new plane land and taxi up just outside the window (no jet way, you just walked out to the plane). I immediately noticed the strange color of the plane. Instead of the usual Air Kentucky white with a blue/green stripe down the side, this one had not yet been repainted and still had the colors of Idi Amin – ones that I can only describe as “pea soup green” and fuchsia – UGLY!

As the plane sat outside the window on the tarmac, it quickly became evident that they were having some problems with it, i.e. they could not get the door open to let the passengers off. It seems that the cogs that secured the door would not retract far enough to open it. After several unsuccessful attempts, they finally came out with a crowbar and were able to separate the door from the frame far enough to allow it to open. After the passengers deplaned they continued working on it and closed it and opened it again to ensure that they had taken care of the problem. A few minutes later (they have a quick turnaround), I and my fellow passengers boarded. I had seat #15 that trip, i.e. the one directly opposite the door.

They closed the door and began taxiing out to take off. As they did so, I glanced over at the door next to me (the plane is narrow enough that I could touch the far side of the plane), and noticed that in the process of prying open the door they had slightly sprung it from the frame. So, while the cogs on the sides were engaged, there was a gap at the bottom of the door over an inch wide. By leaning over and looking down, I could see the tarmac below the plane as we gathered speed for takeoff. Needless to say, I was not very comfortable. I cinched my seatbelt up extra tight for the short flight from Nashville to Paducah (about 120 miles).

Since they don’t fly very high and this was a short flight (about a half-hour), the fact that there was a crack along the bottom of the door did not affect the comfort in the plane (after all, it’s not pressurized anyway). But there was a slightly higher level of noise from the air buffeting over the crack (they only fly at about 200 knots (230 mph)). But I do confess to being a bit uncomfortable being able to lean over and look straight down about 10,000 feet when I wasn’t wearing a parachute and was only held in by the normal airplane seatbelt!

A lot has changed in the airline industry in the 35 years since this incidence – mergers, TSA security, bags with wheels on them, etc. But I still have vivid memories of that flight. I suspect that if it happened again that they would not be allowed to take off at all.