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Volume 15, Issue 34 ~ August 23 - August 29, 2007

An Old Dog Slowly Learns New Tricks

Like writing this column on a new computer

Yeah, sometimes they will do that.

—Charlie Tait.

You won’t see Charlie Tait’s name in any edition of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations — or any other volume of quotes past, present or future. He was a working stiff like me among a big pack of newshounds at the Sunpapers of Baltimore in the 1970s and ’80s.

Charlie had the toughest job in the big brick building that housed reporters, editors, others who handled circulation, business, presses and the composing room, editorial writers, cartoonists, copy boys, bureau editors, writers and overseas correspondents around the world — and anything and anyone else at Calvert Street and elsewhere associated with putting out a big daily newspaper.

Everyone knew Charlie. No one wanted to cross Charlie. To do so would be like being in the middle of the Sahara with an empty canteen and no camel. Charlie Tait at middle age was chief of computers for the entire Sun crew that put out the evening, morning and Sunday editions.

He was in the catbird seat. Everyone from chairman of the board Gary Black and publisher Bill Schmick down to copy boy Larry Short and me as an outdoor columnist in the Sunday and evening editions depended on Charlie. To the Sunpapers of Baltimore, Charlie was the vital cog in the wheels that printed our publications. He never missed a deadline by more than a few minutes.

He was to the Sunpapers what Alex Knoll is to this publication, the key to turning words into a journal of news and advertising.

Charlie was an average guy in appearance, prematurely gray; who wouldn’t be with the job he had when computers were in their infancy. He had the patience of Job, and I never saw him ruffled, but methinks there were more than a few times he wished he had the configuration of Paul Bunyan.

When a frenzied reporter on deadline towering over Charlie and shrieking that his computer ate a thousand words or more was set to toss the damn thing and Charlie, too, out the window … came Charlie’s usual calm response:

“Yeah, sometimes they will do that.”

When Journalism Met Computers

Computerese was forced on us. The Sunpapers, we were told, was the first big newspaper to go 100 percent computer; Charlie came with the computers.

Calculators, adding machines and typewriters went out the windows, and there was a time or two I worried that Charlie and one of Harris System computers might do the same.

Sometimes it was close. Words are the gold of reporters and editors. Once the computer screen goes blank, it can well mean words are gone forever; they must be rewritten — a difficult and time-consuming task made virtually impossible by deadline.

With the old workhorse typewriter, once the words were written, they were on paper and would remain there. If something happened, you could pick up where you left off. Not so with a computer. It eats them. Start again.

I am a computer illiterate. A Neanderthal among writers, I know nothing about computers other than how to write a column and to play a game or two of cribbage to relax before starting to write. I spend more time praying when writing than when I’m in church.

I recall the time I had to write two pieces to finish up a five-part series before leaving at noon with chairman Gary Black on a chartered jet to a turkey hunt in South Carolina. A piece of cake; I had six hours. But in haste, I neglected one simple thing: to push the save button on the computer, which in most instances will save what is written somewhere within the terminal being used or the master computer.

Unbeknownst to me, the master computer was down. So I kept punching in words, probably a thousand, before I realized something was wrong. There I was, two articles that had to be written before I could leave, a chairman of the board soon to be waiting for me at his limousine for a ride to the airport. Why was I ever born?

I screamed to Charlie, who coolly responded “Yeah, they will do that sometimes.”

I was furious. How do you tell the chief honcho the charter jet will have to wait at the airport a few extra hours because of a computer glitch?

I started writing again. I’d put off calling the boss as long as I could, I told myself. We were good friends, good enough that I realized how impatient he was when it came to hunting and fishing jaunts. Boy, was I in a pickle. I was thinking of jumping out the window on the fifth floor when along came Charlie, same usual unassuming, look on his face.

“Let me check your computer.” he said, “I want to try something.” He took the top off the computer, fiddled with the intricate machinery underneath, punched some keys, and bingo, there were my lost words. Charlie was a miracle man at times.

I made it to the limo 13 minutes late with no excuses. Gary to my knowledge, never punched a letter into a computer so he wouldn’t have understood.

My Strange New Computer

As I write now, I feel like I did that day about 30 years ago. I have bought from Wired Up Cafe a second-hand computer, a Dell, which is completely different from the two ancient Apples I have — and have kept because new computers, even Apples, don’t operate the same way. I’ve improvised and patched to keep them running rather than learn new systems that work differently.

A writer, at least this old timer, has to concentrate on what he is writing. The words. I can’t be doing that effectively while being interrupted to learn the mechanical side of a new and different operating system. But I need something portable so I can write when on the road, which I can’t do with the big bulky Apples and screens.

I’m going bananas. On the new Dell, almost all command keys are alien. Computer whiz and friend Alan Doelp, is lending a hand, and I shortstopped son Joel — headed to lecture on computers in Sweden and Malaysia — to do some configuring for me, seeing that since he was 10 he has figured out my computer problems. For the past several years, he has run his business out of San Francisco, and long distance calls are expensive.

Alan is great, but I can’t help remembering pranks that he has played on those he tutored in computers. Once he reconfigured a computer for a former Evening Sun reporter so some keys wouldn’t punch in the letter requested.

So if one day you turn to this page and you read klob, brnt5, @#$(tl nmmk68$%+, don’t blame me. Computers are the worst thing since Millard Fillmore. Enough said.

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