When I was in college, I worked evenings and weekends as a keypunch operator for a large hospital system. Those were the days before PCs and laptops. The computer filled an entire room, and the data disks looked like large wedding cakes. We punched all the billing information into cards that were fed into the computer.
The company vice president, in an effort to save the extra dollar or so an hour it cost to have a computer operator, decided the part-time college student keypunchers should run the computer on weekends to print out the bills. We were smart, we were in college, we should be trainable.
He didn’t know that while I could effectively use the word “milieu” in a term paper, I had no idea how to run a computer. He didn’t know that my trainer was in love and her boyfriend was waiting outside to take her to lunch on my training day. He didn’t know she’d be leaving me alone with this giant machine and the assignment to run and print all the bills for a system of large and small hospitals.
My trainer hastily wrote out instructions on how to run the computer on the back of a keypunch card. Her instructions included, “If you see XXX message (the message is lost to either history or my aging brain), type DELETE.” With that, she handed me the card and rushed out the door to meet her date.
In those days, the computer communicated by typing its message and waiting for you to type back. I entered the day’s date and carefully followed the instructions from the back of the keypunch card. Almost immediately the XXX message popped up. I consulted the card and dutifully typed DELETE.
The computer didn’t type back, “Are you sure?” or “Really? Are you serious?” Instead, it hesitated for a bit and produced the next XXX message. The message came up enough times that someone who could define the word “milieu” should have considered this a red flag. But I deleted and deleted.
Finally, the message came up that the files were ready. I once again consulted my keypunch card and entered the command to print. Nothing happened. I tried again and the computer was as silent as today’s Republicans when asked about their support for essential medical benefits. I reviewed the card. Yes, I’d done every step.
I went through the reams of paper that had printed out while I was typing DELETE. And, at last, I found it. At the very beginning, instead of typing in the date as 1972, I made a slight error and told the machine I wanted all the billing from 1927.
It finally dawned on me that the machine was asking me what to do with all those bills dated after 1927, and I was blithely telling it to delete them. I had just deleted the entire billing for three large and several small hospitals. I had done more in 45 minutes to bring down a health care system than the Republicans could do in seven years.
When my love-struck trainer came back, rosy-cheeked and glowing, I showed her my little error. To her credit, she didn’t cry.
Next thing I knew, they’d called in a programmer, a computer operator and the vice president. The programmer and computer operator were on overtime. The vice president already made more per hour than I made in a week. I don’t think he got overtime.
With luck, backup tapes and lots of overtime, the billing system was restored and the hospitals were saved from financial disaster. The decision was made that the part-time college keypunch operators should stick with keypunching. They hired a trained computer operator to handle the bills. I was relegated back to the keypunch room where I clearly belonged.
I don’t know what ever happened to the vice president who thought he could save a few dollars. Perhaps he became a legislator. I do know that I always think twice now before hitting the delete button, I backup my computer and I’ve totally forgotten the definition of “milieu.”
Linda Norlander of Tacoma is one of six News Tribune reader columnists who write for this page. Reach her by email at email@example.com.