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A toboggan of cards by Lois

Posted on: May 6, 2005 7:59 PM

January 24, 1978, was our second major snow storm in 4 days and more white stuff was coming. I had a programming assignment due in 3 days. I had spent days on it already but it wasn't finished yet. You know the kind of programming project where you spend three days writing it out on paper and then it takes two weeks to get the punch cards done correctly. All that so the mainframe can work through the program in ten seconds and the instructor can give you a C+ because there invariable was a better way to do what you did - better, fast, with less cards, or fewer instructions. You know the kind of program, because all programming is like that, change the language and the tools but the process remains the same.

On that day, my program had 500 cards or roughly half of what the completed project would require. Computer cards are odd birds, picture something with the consistency of a manila folder and the life expectancy of single-ply toilet paper in tree during a rain. The A9 size punch cards that were used for registration when I was at Purdue had printing across the middle. In large block letters it said, "DO NOT bend, fold, spindle or mutilate" something that was impossible to accomplish when transporting a sheet larger the 8.5 x 11 across a windy prairie campus. Because the sheets were so large you ended up carrying them by hand - wrists together, palms up, forms held flat across the platform, with you fingers curled slightly to keep it all in place - like sacrificial offerings to the registration gods. For years after I left Purdue I kept my black and gold, the school colors, t-shirt that said "Purdue Student" with a reproduction of the registration card on the front.

So there I was on a cold January day, walking home in knee deep snow holding my box of punch cards tightly between my gloved hands. No way was I going to mess up this project with just three days to go. NO WAY!

I had trudged from the sub-sub-sub-basement of the Science Building, where the computer lab was housed, to the empty Burger Chef restaurant in The Village. Ahead of me was Chauncey Hill, a vacant hillside with a steep slope that covered roughly two-thirds of a city book. Chauncey Hill had held several houses at one time but they had long since been torn down. All that was left of those buildings was the stone retaining wall along the lower east sloop.

At the edge of the Hill I had a decision to make, I could cut across the vacant lot and then down the alley toward the townhouse I shared or I could stay on the sidewalks and walk down the hill and around the block a much longer walk. The snow on the Hill showed the foot prints of others who had clearly made it across the vacant lot with no trouble. And well I was tired so I decided to take the short cut.

I made it maybe 30 feet before my lost my footing. I fell and started to slide. The box flipped out of my hands and was sliding along beside me. I remember the thinking, "Don't open, please please don't open." I slide about half way down the hill, and aside from losing face and ripping the back of my jeans open I survived the fall in pretty good shape. The box didn't slide as far as I did and it stayed closed. "Thank you, thank you, thank you." So I got up, brushed myself off, and started back up to where the box was lodged in the snow.

I walked up alongside the box and reached down to pick it up. As I touched it I slipped. Not a fall just a slip. But as my footing moved my hand hit the box and like a pool cue hitting a white ball the box started to slide down hill. I went scrabbling after it without totally regaining my stance. So there I was racing downhill looking like an early primate, an early primate with its underwear sticking out of the back of its primordial jeans, trying to catch a closed box sliding across the snow.

"Stay closed, please stay closed." But of course it didn't stay closed. As the box hit the old retaining wall it flew open spewing punch cards into the air and down across the snow. It took forever to pick all of them up and put them back into the box. Fifteen cards were completely lost, another 200 or so ranged from damp to wet. Once I got home, I spent a couple of hours ironing the cards to dry them out and force them flat. Only 60 or so were unrecoverable and would have to be repunched.

Had the third of three storms not hit early the next morning with more snow and blizzard conditions, I really believe that I could have finished the project on time. But of course the Blizzard of 1978 closed down most of the Midwest for a week. No classes, no access to the Computer Lab, and eventually the assignment was canceled and turned in to an extra credit opportunity. Oh I finished it, 14 days after it was due. It's amazing how much better a C+ looks as extra credit rather then as a regular grade.

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this is really good writing. perfect length. very enjoyable to read.

Posted by: matthew hoppock at May 6, 2005 10:43 PM

ha... i had no idea that programming was ever that difficult! great job... i loved the story

Posted by: james at May 8, 2005 12:04 AM

not to say that programing isn't still difficult... but you know.... physically challenging would have been the right words.

Posted by: james at May 8, 2005 12:24 AM