Originally posted January 17, 2014. I added more to the story:
When I first moved to Ponca City in 1986 I carpooled each day to the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma with Dick Dale, Jim Heflin and Bud Schoonover (See the post: “Carpooling Adventures with Bud Schoonover“). Dick Dale had moved to Ponca City a couple of years earlier after his divorce. He didn’t want to continue living in Stillwater where he felt as if everyone knew about his tragic situation. We had been friends from the first day we met (which is often the case with Power Plant Men) when I was a summer help working out of the garage and he worked in the tool room and warehouse.
I wrote about Dick Dale this past Christmas, when I talked about his situation (See the post: “Harmonizing with Dick Dale on Power Plant Christmas Harmonicas“). I knew that even though it was a few years later, Richard was still feeling the impact from this emotional trauma. One day I found the opportunity to play a “Power Plant” joke on him that I thought might help lift his spirits.
I recently wrote another post about how I had installed dumb terminals around the plant so that regular workers would be able to access the mainframe computer downtown in Corporate Headquarters in order to see their work orders, or look up parts in the warehouse, etc. (See the post: “Working Smarter with Power Plant Dumb Terminals“). In most places where I installed terminals, I also installed large IBM printers that printed using continuous feed paper.
For those of you who remember, at first most dot matrix printers would feed paper from a box underneath them. they had holes down both sides of the paper where the sprockets would rotate and paper would come rolling out the top of the printer.
Ok. Here is a quick one paragraph side story…
One day when my son was 5 years old, we had to wait a while in an airport. We were sitting in a row of seats at the gate waiting. My son kept popping up slowly, jerking as he rose, from behind the row of seats and would lay over the seat back and end up head down on the chair. After doing this a few times, my wife Kelly who was becoming slightly annoyed asked him what he was doing. He said, “I’m paper coming out of the printer”. Of course, this cracked us all up.
Anyway, back to the story. By the time I had to add the dumb terminals and printers to the Garage and Warehouse, I had already been playing around on the mainframe learning all sorts of ways to get into trouble. — Well, what else was I going to do during lunch while Charles Foster and I talked about movies and stuff? I had a personal user account on the mainframe that basically gave me “God Access”. They didn’t really have anything like “Network Security” back then. — This was 1988.
Back then, we also didn’t have anything called “Email” either. It wasn’t until 1989 that CompuServe first offered real Internet e-mail to its users. When we wanted to send something to someone in the company, we either printed it out and put in an intra-company envelope and sent it by “snail” mail, or we could find out what printer they used and get the ID for the printer and send it to them. It was a code like: P1234.
Well. I had been playing with this text editor on the Honeywell mainframe called FRED. This stood for FRiendly EDitor. For those of you who know UNIX, this was pretty much the same as the VI Editor found on UNIX mainframes. The commands were the same. Today, users of Microsoft Word would be horrified to find out what you had to go through to create a document back then.
I had been practicing using this editor, and found that by using the special escape codes for the printer, I could create documents that would come out looking pretty neat. So, I had created some templates that would make it look like I was printing a Memo from some mainframe program. That was about the time that I installed the printer in the garage.
So, I created a big long document that would print out on the garage printer as soon as I connected the printer to the network. It went on and on about how the printer wasn’t happy about being placed in such a dusty environment and how it refused to be cooperative until it was moved to a cleaner place. It would spit out a bunch of sheets of paper, printing protest after protest.
Then it ended up by saying that if it wasn’t moved right away, it was going to shut down in 10 minutes and it started counting down by 30 second intervals. Then at the last minute, it counted down by 15 seconds until it counted down the last 10 seconds by feeding a sheet of paper for each second while it was counting… then it paused at the last second. Finally, it printed out at the end a concession that since it was obviously not going to be moved to someplace cleaner, it might as well give up and be cooperative.
When I installed the printer in the office in the automotive garage, I knew it would take about 30 seconds to connect the first time, and by that time, I was outside making my way back to the electric shop. By the time I arrived back in the electric shop Charles Patten, the foreman in the garage was calling me on the gray phone. The gray phone is the plant PA system:
Of course, I knew why. I answered the phone and Charles told me that something was wrong with the printer. It kept shooting paper out of it and wouldn’t stop. He had even turned it off, but when he turned it back on, it still kept feeding paper out. I told him that sounded pretty strange to me and I would be right over to see what was going on. I took my time returning to the garage giving the printer time to throw it’s tantrum.
By the time I returned, the printer had stopped ranting about being installed in a dirty environment and had given up it’s protest. Charles said that it finally stopped. I walked over to the printer and took the pile of hundred or so pages that it had printed out, and tore them off the printer and walked out with them. I don’t even know if Charles had paid any attention to what the printer was saying.
I think I was the only person that knew that I had just “attempted” to play a joke on Charles. After all, as the paper was feeding out it was carefully collecting into a nice stack in front of the printer on the floor, and unless someone picked up the stack and looked at it, they wouldn’t know that anything was even printed on it. So, in this case, the joke may have been on me. But then again, Power Plant Men are like that. If they figure a joke is being played on them, then they figure out how to turn it around so that the joker is the one that has the joke played on them. Maybe that was the case here. Charles Patten was probably one of the most intelligent foremen at the plant, so it was possible.
Anyway, back to Dick Dale. I installed the printer in the warehouse and Dick Dale, Darlene Mitchell, Mike Gibbs and Bud Schoonover were happy to be connected to the Inventory program on the mainframe….. um… yeah. sure they were…… especially Bud.
Bud Schoonover was the person that when it was his turn to run the tool room would not give you something if it was the last one. So, if I needed a flashlight and it was the last one, and I asked Bud for a flashlight, he would say that he couldn’t give it to me. Why? You might ask. Well, he would explain that if he gave the last one away, he would have to order some more. Bud didn’t like ordering things on the computer. So, in order to keep from having to order anything he simply didn’t give away the last one of any item.
Anyway. I decided one Monday during my regular lunch time computer educational moments to send a letter over to the warehouse printer addressed to Dick Dale. It was from an anonymous woman. The letter sounded like it was from someone that really had a thing for Richard and remembered how they used to work together. It also mentioned other people, like Mike Gibbs and Pat Braden and about how they used to hang around each other.
Since this was a fictitious character, I could say anything I wanted, but I wanted to put it in a time period back when I was still a summer help. Well… It wasn’t long before Dick Dale called me on the gray phone (no. I won’t post another picture of the gray phone here. I think you get the idea). He asked me to come over to the warehouse.
When I arrived, Richard showed me the letter. He was excited about it. He was trying to figure out who it could be. He thought about the people that had moved from the plant to Corporate Headquarters and wondered if it was one of them. I thought for a little while, and I couldn’t come up with who it might be (obviously), since it was me.
The next day at lunch I sent another letter to his printer. I mentioned more about the “old days” working at the plant. On the way home Richard showed it to me. I could tell that he was really excited about this. I held back my smile, but inside it felt real good to see that Richard had finally come back to life. For the past couple of years, he had been so down. Now some woman was paying attention to him, and actually was telling him that she had always liked him.
Darlene Mitchell sent a letter to the printer ID I had sent in the letter to Richard, saying the following:
Dear Ghost Writer,
This has been the most exciting thing that’s happened in the warehouse in a long time. We await your messages. Dick is really trying hard to figure this out, and if you don’t give him a little hint, his little old brains are going to get fried.
He also requests that you send his messages to his printer only, that way I won’t be able to send my message back. He takes all the fun out of everything. P)24 is his number, and if you can’t get a response out of him, I’ll be glad to put my two cents in.
I’m sure Dick would like to see you too. Maybe we can get him headed in your direction, if you tell me where that is.
So, long, see you in the funny papers.
<end of message>
On Thursday Richard called me and asked me to come over to the warehouse. He showed me the letter he had received that day. He said he was too excited. He just had to find out who it was that was sending him these letters. He said that since I knew everything there was to know about computers (a slight exaggeration), he asked me to see if I could find out where the letters were coming from.
I told him I would do what I could to see if I could track down who was sending the letters. On the way home that day, he asked me if I had any luck. I told him I was still looking into it. I told him I thought there might be a way to find a log somewhere that would tell me.
So, after lunch on Friday I walked over to the warehouse. When I entered, I signaled to Richard that I wanted to talk to him. — Remember. Richard and I had developed facial signals while carpooling with Bud Schoonover so that all we had to do was glance at each other and we instantly knew what each other was saying…
Richard and I stepped outside of the warehouse where we could be alone. He asked me if I had found the person sending him the letters. I told him I had (I knew I had to do this right or I would lose a good friend, so I said), “Yes. I have.”
I could see the look of excitement in his face. So I looked straight at him and I said, “I have been sending these letters to you.” He was stunned. He said, “What?” I said, “Richard. I have been sending them to you.”
I could see that he was very disappointed. After all. No two people could read each other’s expressions better than me and Richard. We practiced them every day. The corners of his mouth went down. The middle went up. Edges of the eyes went down. Eyes began to water. Yep. He was disappointed to say the least.
I told him I was sorry to get his hopes up. I put on the saddest look I could muster. Inside I wasn’t so sad. Actually I was pretty happy. I knew this was a tough moment for Richard, but he had spent an entire week flying high. For the first time in a long time, Richard had hope. A couple of hours of disappointment was well worth this past week.
I patted him on the back and he turned to walk back into the warehouse despondent. I went back to the electric shop.
As for my part, I continued sending Dick Dale printed messages from time to time. Just goofy messages like the following:
Sometimes when I type letters I find that the words I use are not always the typical type that I would use if I wrote a letter. The letters that I make when I write a letter aren’t the type of letters that I use when I type a letter. When I write a letter, the letters in the words are sometimes hard to distinguish, but the letters I type when i’m typing a letter are the type of letters that stand out clearly and uniformly. I can’t really say that when I type I’m right, or when I write I’m right, because I usually type a different type of letter than I write when I’m writing a letter. I typically use a different type of words when I’m typing than I use when I’m writing, so I really can’t say that writing is right when a typical typed letter is just as right as writing. That is just the type of person I am.
After a few more days, Darlene Mitchell and Dick Dale began sending me letters indicating that the warehouse workers had been taken hostage, and they had a list of hostage demands. I would write back to them. The hostage letters and my replies would make up an entire blog post just by themselves.
So, what followed this episode? Well. Within a few weeks Dick Dale had attended an event at the Presbyterian Church in Ponca City where he met a very nice woman, Jill Cowan. He began dating her, and within the year they were married on November 13, 1988.
I like to think that I had given him the kick in the pants that he needed at the time that he needed it. For that one week where he had hope, he believed that someone else really cared for him (which I really did, just not in the way he was thinking). If he could believe that, then maybe it could really be true, even if in this case it turned out to only be one of his best friends.
I know that Dick Dale lived happily ever after. As I mentioned earlier, I wrote a post about Dick Dale about a time when I gave a Christmas present to Dick Dale, Christmas 1983. Well. as it turned out, my friend Richard was presented to Saint Peter at the gates of Heaven 25 years later on Christmas Day, 2008, 20 happy years after his marriage to Jill. I don’t really miss him. He is always with me in my heart to this day.