A Second Look Back at My Beginnings

Illustration by Fran Davis for Nancy Haberman.

Illustration by Fran Davis for Nancy Haberman.

I was 20 years old with almost no professional work experience to my credit (unless you count selling movie theater tickets), plus I was about to become a college dropout, so I felt really lucky to have landed a job working with computers as a “computer operator trainee” and keypunch operator. 

One night about six weeks into the job, it was work as usual, just like any of the other long and lonely swing shifts, except that night there must have been a crimp in one of the punch cards. I stood alone in disbelief, while the computer belched up hundreds of cream-colored 80-column punch cards, spewing them into the room. 

They collided high in the air, pouring down all around me, leaving me knee deep in data. Eventually, the data storm tapered off and the last punch card drifted gracefully down to the gray industrial carpet. The weary Univac 9600 coughed up the sum total of its cards in the thousands, leaving me, the bewildered novice, down on the floor facing the prospect of an all-night clean-up and sorting job. 

While I was gathering up the punch cards, I recalled the time when I was five years old, and I was duped by my big sister for the umteenth time into playing this fun, new card game called “52-pickup.” I can’t even count the number of times I fell for that one. Eventually I would wise up, so she changed the name to “Round ’em up, cowgirl”—and I was sucked in again. Call me gullible.

This time a game with a new name had me picking up hundreds of cards instead of the familiar fifty-two. I straightened the cards, about the size of a business envelope, placing them all face side up, weeding out any that were bent or torn so that I could duplicate the information on them before placing them back into the mix. 

As I sat on the floor, surrounded by a blanket of cards, I set about the task of collecting, duplicating and sorting the mass of the mangled media. Silly as it might seem, I was captivated by those 80-column punchcards. That’s when I started ruminating on how all “those little holes” worked. 

This “happy” accident and the night-long salvage operation set me on on a journey into a world rich with digital information. That night back in 1971 I began my love / hate relationship with computers.

Art Imitate Life Imitates Art

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