The February issue of Reader’s Digest included an invitation to share a memory which always brings a smile. I submitted one from late in the summer of 1974. It happened shortly after I graduated from college and had begun working with Burroughs Corporation in Tallahassee, Florida. The occasion is easily recalled because it was a rather awkward moment.
Burroughs was a leading manufacturer and seller of computers. They had an innovative array of products which I would soon be learning to market. Before joining Burroughs, the only computer I’d been close enough to touch was in a programming class at Valdosta State College. It was bigger than a Volkswagen Beetle, used punched cards for processing, and required Arctic like conditions to avoid a meltdown of the vacuum tubes. The heat-spawning behemoth was housed in a walk-in cooler amidst cardboard boxes of an unidentified substance served on Thursdays in the cafeteria.
Similar massive systems were offered by Burroughs, along with a line of desk-size mini-computers for less demanding business needs. Those were the ones I was to be taught how to sell at a company facility in Tampa. Meanwhile, I had a few days with nothing pressing to do.
A staff of highly capable technicians took care of software and equipment matters. The sales force was strongly encouraged to stick with marketing and leave technology issues to the folks who had graduated with honors. Burroughs implemented that policy before my name was on payroll, but there’s no doubt my single venture into the tech world gave credence to their decision.
The Decatur County Sheriff’s Department bought a computer system about the time I began my career. One of the Burroughs’ technicians, an extremely capable man named Denny, oversaw the installation. After he returned from Bainbridge to Tallahassee, Denny realized a data line needed to be connected to the modem. His plate was loaded, so he asked if I’d mind driving up to Georgia to attach it.
“Be glad to,” I said, tickled to have a reason to get out of the office, astutely asking as I headed towards the door, “What’s a modem?”
“It’s a little gray plastic box near the computer. After you take the cover off, you’ll see a small wire that needs to be secured. Call me when you’re done so we can test the system.”
The poet Alexander Pope once wisely wrote, “A little learning is a dangerous thing.” An outing to Bainbridge, Georgia, helped me understand more clearly what Mr. Pope meant.
Sharply dressed in my black suit, white shirt, and silk power-tie, I strolled confidently into the sheriff’s department, knowing they would be impressed by the wet ink on my business cards showing I was a bona fide MARKETING REPRESENTATIVE. The chief deputy escorted me to an office where I immediately spotted the modem on a little table by the computer.
I didn’t have a screwdriver, so the deputy borrowed one from a prisoner, a trustee I assumed. It was a bit surprising to see how many screws were holding that cover in place. My work had hardly begun when the deputy inquired, “Are you certain that needs to be done?
“Yes sir,” I assured him. “It won’t take but a minute to fix this once the cover is off.”
Denny called to check on my progress, wondering why he hadn’t heard from me. I told him a dozen screws had been removed with just a few to go. He paused, probably in hopes I was kidding, then whispered so no one could overhear, “I don’t know what you’re taking apart,” he said, “but the modem cover only has one screw.”
That’s when I saw a familiar pattern of letters that gave me a queasy feeling. Z E N I T H. As soon as I put the screws back in, the deputy picked up the tiny television and spoke in a polite but non-negotiable manner. “I’m going to move this out of your way,” he said, while slowly backing out the room.
I quickly found the real modem, attached the data line, returned the screwdriver to the prisoner, and grabbed my business card off the front desk. Sometimes I wonder what that deputy told the sheriff, but it may be best not to know. I can’t speak for him, but for me it was a rather awkward moment.