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From Bean Counter to Programmer – Part 1

Either I passed my drug test―and for that I would have owed a debt of gratitude to comedian, political activist and fasting advocate Dick “Cookin’ with Mother Nature” Gregory―or the head honchos at the lumber company felt that, despite evidence of marijuana use, a well-groomed and relatively articulate guy was worth a chance, so I began working as the only computer programmer in a company of 75 employees. 

My career in data processing arguably began when I was 25, shortly after I left the mine.  The Colorado state employment division referred me to a tiny Denver company that sold thermocouples and calibrated electrical and mechanical equipment.  The company was looking for a “full-charge bookkeeper.”  As usual, I was willing to take nearly any job offered to me. 

However, I never filled out an employment application at the company, and no one at the company, which employed just five people, ever said in so many words, “You’re hired.”  I simply showed up at the company’s doorstep one day with a referral from the state.  The company then commenced to training me and told me to come in the following day.  The following day, the company resumed training me and told me to come in the day after that.  After a week of this somewhat peculiar routine, I presumed I was hired. 

My trainer was my predecessor at the company, a fellow named Lawrence, who appeared to be about 75 and was retiring after decades at the business.  Bald and rotund, he reminded me of my hospital-accountant grandfather.  During my training, Lawrence hovered over me at my desk, a burning cigarette held effeminately between his first two fingers, his eyes squinting against the smoke.  A retired Army colonel, he all but forbade me to do a procedure unless each thing on my desk―pen, Texas Instruments calculator, coffee cup, Burroughs mechanical adding machine, pack of cigarettes, ashtray―was in a place he deemed appropriate. 

Long before Sarah Palin, Lawrence introduced me to the expression, which seemed to me particularly Western, “Youuuuuu betcha.”  And one rainy day he introduced me to a thing he called a “bumbershoot.”  He had beautifully flowing handwriting, graceful as the curves of drifted snow, with his numerals being exceptionally elegant, and my penmanship markedly improved under his tutelage. 

Lawrence trained me for a month.  Soon, I was well-versed in balance sheets, general ledgers, financial statements, work orders, payroll taxes, 3% 10/Net 30’s, and imprests.  Before long, I wouldn’t relax until I’d reconciled the company’s monthly checking account statement to the penny, even if it meant toiling alone at the office on a Friday evening.  (My monthly bank statement receives the same attention today; I regard the mental exercise of reconciling it as a defense against dementia.)  Indeed, if nothing else, my job seemed to reveal I had a knack for detailed work. 

Now, many another young man would have enthusiastically looked upon this job as the first step up that proverbial ladder of success in the world of business administration, accounting, or sales.  I didn’t.  The business utterly bored me.  Every lunch hour meant suffering the annoying staccato of right-wing radio newscaster Paul Harvey as he hawked automobiles―American-made, of course―and “porkburgers”; spoke lovingly of his wife, “Angel”; told maudlin stories; delivered cutesy sign-offs; and jabbed at communism.  The dreariness of the sales and servicing of thermocouples, pressure gauges, and Hewlett-Packard oscillators overshadowed any satisfaction and pride I got from keeping the accounting end of this whole uninteresting enterprise humming.  My ennui particularly tested the tolerance of my gentle boss, Joe.  For instance, it was also my job to answer all phone calls to the company with, of course, the expectation that I would do so in a spirited and professional manner―very difficult to do, given my attitude.  Therefore, Joe would have to wearily remind me, “Phil, please don’t say ‘yeah’ when speaking to a customer; say ‘yes’.”  In addition to me, poor Joe had to deal with a lifelong bum leg that he dragged behind him whenever he moved about the office.

Still, I couldn’t bring myself to quit, goldbrick for a couple months (and fritter away my meager savings), and return to the drudgery of job-hunting.  

Meanwhile, the company, while not failing, was not exactly increasing its market share.  A year after my hiring, as various malfunctioning gauges and oscillators deep in the company’s back room―repair orders years old and somehow forgotten without consequence―gathered dust and the company barely made payroll, the aging owner of the business, now retired, sold the company to a toothy, back-slapping, 40-something guy with a hard-on for the Denver business world.  I disliked him immediately: his ambitious ideas for the company threatened to disrupt my narcotic anomie.  Shortly after taking over, and to my great indignation, he accused me (correctly) of being a “clock-watcher,” and I therefore had no alternative but to be affronted and terminate my employment.

As I’ve written, I drifted from one job after another after that.  Then one day I decided that if I wanted a car; an apartment larger than a storage locker; furnishings beyond a table, chair, mattress, and a few pieces of United States Marine Corp dinnerware; and an attractive girlfriend who expected a boyfriend with a modicum of financial stability, I’d have to consider my career options with an iron practicality.  I’d have to get into what was all the rage in the early eighties.  I’d have to get into computers!

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