Burton on the Bay

 Vol. 10, No. 41

October 10-16, 2002

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My Kingdom for a Geek on Call

They can do it to you. (Sigh.)
— Charlie Tait, first computer guru at the Sunpapers of Baltimore

Always, there was an emphasis on the low, long, drawn-out sighs. Charlie Tait knew that computers crashed, and he also knew that newspapermen covet their every word as they would their firstborn.

The sighs were evidence of compassion, understanding and, perhaps intentionally, his modus operandi. Time and again, “They can do it to you,” was Charlie’s trademark response when confronted by an anguished, sometimes downright belligerent writer whose prose was gobbled up like cookies left before the Cookie Monster.

I thought back to the times when in newsrooms, computers were in their infancy, as I read in the Washington Times of a new business in the District, Geeks on Call. By no means was Charlie Tait a geek, but he was always on call.

I frequently wondered how, for at least a decade, he survived; why he returned to the fifth floor of the Sunpapers building each day, whether or not he got any sleep the nights before. And if underneath the shirt of his slight build, he wore a vest of Kevlar.

Shoulder pads with a matching helmet atop his sandy, gray-haired head would have been understandable. His job was more dangerous than being a Protestant cop in Belfast.

“They can do it to you,” came from Charlie in words barely loud enough to hear in normal conversation, but when he spoke them, conversation was not normal. He was usually face to face with an irate, glowering writer whose prose only moments before was a brilliant green on the big tube of a suddenly blank screen.

When the Sunpapers became one of the first newspapers across the nation to adopt a 100 percent computer operation in its newsrooms, Charlie had the job of teaching, tutoring, repairing and too often apologizing when the system crashed.

The Coming of Age of the Computer
Typewriters didn’t do that. The rare time one conked out, a writer went to a nearby vacant desk, switched Underwoods, rolled in the copy paper the previous words were already typed on and resumed pecking away. Nothing lost but maybe five minutes of writing time. Higdon Typewriter across Calvert Street would have the busted machine repaired in a day or two. Ah, the good old days.

It all changed when the Sun entered the age of the computer, and Charlie assumed the formidable task of weaning us from our typewriters. Like some other staffers, I was lost as soon as he informed us that the lower case ‘L’ would no longer also serve as the number 1 in a story. For the figure 1, you pressed a 1 key, something no typewriter had.

It took me weeks to get used to that simple change, so one can imagine how long it took me to understand all the other mysterious things that turned letters punched on a keyboard into words on a screen. Alas, I never did quite get used to pushing a button that read “save.” No such thing was on the old office Underwood or my personal portable Smith Corona that accompanied me when writing on the road. And with the old manual Underwoods, you had on paper what you had already written.

When an individual computer went down, the user usually lost all the words he hadn’t saved. When the master computer of all computers in the system went down, not infrequently everything by all writers was lost. Carefully chosen words were gone, and try as they might, frustrated writers on deadline could rarely resurrect them in their original sequence. Computers, “they can do it to you.”

Boy, can they do it to you. You could kick the pedestal that held the big and cumbersome Harris machine, curse and scream at Charlie or one of his minions, cry (and a time or two I saw tears on the faces of a few colleagues on deadline), push buttons, pray or whatever — including the tossing of a few units to the floor, which I also witnessed several times. Nothing worked.

The screen remained a blank, dark hole into which 200 to 2,000 or more words were gone as completely as J.D. Cooper and all his ransom loot when he jumped off that airliner in the Northwest a couple decades back. Nothing could put another letter on that screen until Charlie and his geeks fixed things up in an awesome bank of electronic gadgetry beyond our view.

Typewriters Endure
I’ll not forget back in the ’60s when doing an on-the-spot waterfowl series. The old U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service two-engine amphibious Grumman Goose I was aboard south of the small Inuit village of Povungnetuk — about as far north as you can get in Eastern Canada — had to make an emergency landing due to a whiteout created by a sudden, surprise July snow storm.
Fortunately, we landed on open water; unfortunately, the landing was more than bumpy. My camera was wrecked, and the ‘e’ key on my Smith Corona froze. As I tried to repair the thin arm of the key, it snapped. Had it been a computer, I would have been out of business many hundreds of miles from civilization. No one — including me half the time — can read my handwriting.

But typewriters aren’t computers. I merely substituted a ? wherever an e was called for, wrote my stories as usual with a note explaining the switch, and at various remote airstrips I passed the copy on to a bush pilot who promised to get it back to a Western Union office when he returned to civilization. The series never missed a day in the Evening and Sunday Sun. Try doing that with a busted computer.

Deep Doo Doo
No one is as vulnerable as a writer who depends on a computer. Editors want copy, not excuses that a computer has crashed. So today, in “retirement,” I’m back where I was 30 or more years ago at The Sun, still computer illiterate, but with no Charlie Tait to come to the rescue.

There are too many wires, cables, connections, gadgetry and accessories to allow me to cart the whole shebang to a repair shop. With no nearby friends familiar with Mac Apples, I’m as assailable as a quarterback out of the pocket.

Now, there’s hope: Geeks on Call. Maybe a franchise coming to Baltimore soon, someone from a roving crew to knock on the door, and for $25 for each 15 minutes of toil, bring my screen back to life pronto.

When the washing machine or dishwasher goes on the fritz, you can do the job by hand; if the car won’t start, call a cab or use shank’s mare; if the TV screen goes blank, listen to the radio; if the furnace fizzles, light the fireplace and don an overcoat.

But when the monitor of a computer goes blank, you’re in deep doo doo; nothing around in this electronic age can handle handwritten — or even typed — words anymore. Some freelancers not intimidated by computers have learned trouble shooting, rudimentary repair techniques. Others have a backup computer or two, live next to a repair shop or have a nine-year-old kid who can solve just about any problem.

Then there are those like me. Here, I am at the end of a column. Everything has gone okay so far, but there’s a lump in my throat. Still ahead is the e-mail process so intimidating and foreign that I can never figure whether a column has made it past all the obstacles.

Let me know if you read this.

Copyright 2002
Bay Weekly