Sunday Snippet – Punch Card (How I Met Your Grandmother)

I had a writing teacher once that said that ideas were swimming through the air all around us and if you didn’t catch one as it went by, someone else would.

This morning, I caught an idea for a short story and wrote down an outline before I went out for a bicycle ride. There are four scenes, spread out over, say, forty years. The working title for the story is Punch Card (How I Met Your Grandmother).

Here’s the second scene, which takes place in the past (maybe 1975 or so). I’ll write the other three scenes over the next few days – hopefully to take to my writing group. If you want a copy of the first draft when I finish it, send me an email at bill*chance99@gmail.com – except put a period where the asterisk is and the number 57 where the 99 is (take that spammers).

I hated the punch card machine more than anything I had ever hated before. I was a junior, majoring in comparative literature and since I wasn’t in the computer science department I could only use the computer lab after ten in the evening. The giant computer itself took up half of the bottom floor of the building – but nobody was ever allowed to go or even see in there. The other half was filled with a filthy snack bar, lined with rusty autobots that spat out moldy candy bars and bags of stale off-brand potato chips – and a series of dingy rooms filled with hundreds of punch card machines.

I had taken an elective class in Fortran programming because I thought that computers were the future and I was worried about paying rent after graduation. Writing the assigned programs was easy – find the sides and angles of a right triangle, the day of a date, or draw a series of boxes. I could write the code, but I couldn’t punch the cards.

My homework problems had to be punched onto these beige cards – rectangular with one corner cut off. I had to buy a case of the damn things at the beginning of the semester. I couldn’t imagine using all those cards. I didn’t know. Three months later, I had to buy another half-box from some kid in my dorm. I was always a terrible typist and would get nervous, freeze up and hit the wrong letter.

This was worse than a typewriter. You would load a stack of cards into the machine and then it would warm up and start to hum. The heat would rise and the ozone would burn your nose. The keys were big and yellow and had to be shoved hard before the machine would roar and then… “Blam!” it would whack a little tiny rectangle out of the card. A paper flake would fly through the air to join the thick layer of cardstock confetti coating the floor and, magic, a corresponding hole would appear in the card itself.

With the punchcard machine a mistake was a disaster. I never could see that I’d missed a key. Sure, the code printed out along the top of the card but they never put new ribbons in the machines and it was always too faint for me to read. When I had my stack of cards all finished I’d take them into the computer room, wrap them with a rubber band, and shove them through this little wooden door in the wall where they would fall down a chute. You never could even see what was on the other side.

Then it was time to wait. Wait for hours. I’d spend all night there, waiting for my program to run. Then, my output would drop down another, bigger, chute into a pile. Every time an output would drop, all the kids waiting would run in and see if it was theirs. It was horrible.

You see, if your program ran correctly you’d get a few sheets of paper with the code and the answer printed on it but I never did. I’d find my cards still rubberbanded together and clipped to a huge stack of pinfeed folded green and white striped paper. On the top would be a handwritten note that would say something like, “Core Dump, you loser!”

Whenever you made a mistake, even a tiny one, the core would dump and the computer would print out hundreds of pages of gibberish. You were supposed to carefully peruse the printouts and find your error in there somewhere but nobody had time for that. You’d throw the printout in this huge wooden bin, scratch your head, and start looking for your mistake. I have no idea why they wasted all that paper.

Sometimes it would be a mistake in my work, but usually it was a typo in my card punching. I figured out that the little holes corresponded to letters, numbers, or symbols and I punched out a card with everything on it, in order, and I would have to slide the thing slowly over every card I had punched to try and find the mistake.

It was horrible. I would be so tired, my eyes swimming, sitting at that huge punch machine, trying to type. I’d make a mistake and throw the card onto the overflowing trash bins and start again. Even when I made it through a card, I’d be terrified I had made an unknown error and would generate another core dump. It was killing me… but I had nowhere else to go.

Our instructor was always harping on us to put in comment cards. These were punch cards marked in a certain way that they didn’t make the computer do anything, but simply left comments. You were supposed to leave comments about what your code was supposed to be doing or what your variable represented or why you decided to do something the way you did. It was a pain in the ass and I never did it until the teacher started marking my grade down because I had insufficient comments in my code.

So I started putting the comments in, though I never commented on the code. I figured he didn’t really look through everybody’s work for these things and only took the computer’s count of how many comments were in here. Sometimes I’d just gripe… like, “Fortran really sucks,” or “This is too hard,” or “It’s way too late at night to be doing this.”

This got to be pretty boring pretty fast so I switched to some of my favorite Shakespeare Quotes, “As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods; they kill us for their sport” or “There’s not a note of mine that’s worth the noting,” or “I am not bound to please thee with my answer.” I might make some mistakes punching the comments… but who cared? They would still go through as comments and you could still read them.

Like it was yesterday, I remember the day when I picked up my output and, sure enough, there was the big thick stack of folded paper, another core dump, but instead of a handwritten note, there was a punched card on top of my stack. It was different in that it had been done on a machine that had a fresh ribbon in it and across the top, in crisp, clear, printing, it said, “Funny Comments Ronald. You’re getting close. Ck crd 7 error in do loop – Christine.”

And sure enough, in my seventh card I had hit a capital letter “Z” instead of a number “2.” I never would have seen that.

So I redoubled my efforts at witty, humorous, and obscure quotations for my comment cards. I was reading this huge crazy new book called Gravity’s Rainbow and one day I quoted from it. Stuff like, “You may never get to touch the Master, but you can tickle his creatures.” or “If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about the answers,” or “Danger’s over, Banana Breakfast is saved.”

My program ran that time and the card on top said, “A screaming comes across the sky – Christine,” which made me so happy I didn’t stop smiling for a day.

The next program, I added a comment card that said, “Christine, I can’t see you – Ronald.”

And it came back with, “I know, but I can see you. I think you’re cute – Christine.”

So I thought about it and worked up my courage. At the end of a program that I larded with my best quotes from the composition book I carried with me and scribbled in all the time… my commonplace book, I finished with a card that said “Christine, I want to meet you – Ronald.”

All that night I was the first to fight their way in to grab any program that slid down the chute, only to be disappointed again and again as other student’s projects ran before mine. Finally, as the sky was beginning to turn a light pink in the west, my program dropped. On top was a card. I ran back to my dorm room to read it, not daring to look at it anywhere in public.

It said, “Love to Ronald. Snarky’s at six, on Thursday. Don’t be late – Christine.”

Snarky’s was a little chain restaurant off campus not far from the computer building. My heart almost beat out of my chest. Thursday was going to take a long time to get there.

6 responses to “Sunday Snippet – Punch Card (How I Met Your Grandmother)

  1. Having spent hours at a card punch machine in college, I can so relate to this story. …but I never got any dates with the lab techs. 😉 Excellent work!

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