Tuition for a Taco

Have you ever had a friend you have known for a long time – 30 years or more – for which you could always reconnect no matter how long you hadn’t seen each other?

I had 2.

I first met Dan while I was living in San Diego – in a little apartment off Upas Street, right across from Balboa Park. The aroma of Eucalyptus trees permeated the air, and at night you could hear the animals from the San Diego Zoo.

I decided that I wanted to learn computer programming, and a national trade newspaper, Computerworld, cited Coleman College as one of the best. It was an accredited trade school. I would call it a boot camp for computer programming. They had the computers, starting with a massive IBM 370 Mainframe, with assorted mini-computers.

The PC was still in its infancy and people like Steve Jobs were building their own.

It’s been 43 years now, and the languages I learned are pretty much relegated to the “bit bucket” – languages that mainframe and mini computers used.

Such as COBOL (which has US Navy origins!), PL/1, RPG…and even the hated assembler.

While there I even witnessed some living history at a dinner with (then) RAdm Grace Hopper.

She was a character even in her advanced years, telling us that at hotels with her Navy uniform, people were mistaking her for a bellhop.

But with the years she was proven to be a visionary.

If you are pulling a wagon and need more power, do you get a bigger ox or get more oxen?”, she asked us. She was predicting distributed processing.  I am sure that she would have loved to see any of the large facilities today, such as Google or Amazon, where 100s of computers are all at one’s beck and call for a task.

She also told us the history of the “first computer bug”, which was literally a bug – a moth that had gummed up the works of some massive mainframe.

Anyway, there was a small group of us that shared programming problems, and on Fridays with the Margarita special ($1!) walked down the street in Old Town San Diego for some libations.

And what an eclectic group it was – including a former Navy SEAL (Carl), Liz from Carlsbad, Juliana, Dan, and…me.

Anyway, Coleman was accredited and offered a Computer Science degree. With my other schooling I could get it…IF I knew Trigonometry and Calculus. From the 60s, it was always believed that to be a good programmer, one had to know heavy math. It was always a mystery to me as the only real math I ever used was computing the memory location of a program abort and translating it to the code you had written. IBM would provide a listing of a “core dump” if your program bombed, er, aborted, and it was for brevity’s sake, in base 16 (not 10), or hexadecimal.

That is the only math I ever was called upon in programming.

And, like Lex, I hated to take math classes in school. Took them when they were required (a class in probability theory at Virginia was illuminating), but usually dreaded the classes.

I’ve mentioned from time to time that I believe math and history are the 2 worst subjects taught in school.

I had one professor at UVA that taught history in an enlightened way – such that he would start with a normal class and so many wanted to sign up he ended up in the auditorium.

Another who enlightened me in math was…..Dan.

If I had to describe him in one sentence, I would say that he had a keen intellect within the most laid-back personality you could imagine.

Think San Diego surfer dude, although he wasn’t into surfing.

When I informed Dan of my dilemma, he said he would tutor me for 30 minutes during the lunch hour. All he asked of me was to buy him a lunch at a little taco stand down the street (the other way from the Margaritas).

And he always ordered 2 tacos.

We’d get back to Coleman and in front of the blackboard for 30 minutes, he generally prefaced by saying “OK Bill, this is the way they teach it but this is the way I want you to think about it”.

Did I mention that he had been a PhD candidate at UC Santa Barbara?

Within 3 weeks I was solving problems with Calculus and Trig.

And of course, the test I had to take barely mentioned these disciplines.

Dan’s family lived in the suburb of Lemon Grove. His transportation of choice was an old (even then) ’65 Toyota Corona.

This was the car that put Toyota “on the map”, first on the West Coast.

When I mentioned to him the traffic congestion (not anything like it is today), he said that getting on the freeway was easy. He just picked the newest car in the right lane and steered for it while on the onramp. Seeing this old Toyota veering towards them, they inevitably let him in.

His other love was sailing, and he had a hand-built 16’ sailboat he christened Sorcerer. We went out into San Diego Bay once, and he told me of a time he was out in the middle, with little wind, when he saw the USS Nimitz bearing down on him. He laughed as he was describing those frantic minutes when he was struggling to start the outboard motor.

The San Diego area has a microcosm of climates. You can be in El Cajon, 15 or so miles to the east on I8 and find it 20 degrees warmer than the coast. Or, it can be 80 degrees in San Diego and in Julian, about an hour away and 4,000’ up, it can be snowing.

When we want snow, we drive to it”, he said with a laugh.

Nine months later, we graduated from Coleman and Dan decided to get married to the lovely Emily.

I last saw him during a Lex get-together in, I believe, 2018. We met for breakfast at what was a San Diego tradition, Ricky’s, on Hotel Circle, soon to be gone with the gentrification of the city.

He and Emily moved up to Reno in the last few years, and we were going to the Reno Air Races last September. I had bought a ticket, and was eagerly awaiting the time.

At the last minute, I could not make it and told him to give the ticket to an appreciative neighbor.

 Emily called a few days ago to tell me that he had died.

After all, I thought, there was always next year.


Filed under Friends, Uncategorized

4 responses to “Tuition for a Taco

  1. mcthag

    “When you say goodbye to a friend, assume that one of you is going to die before you ever get to see one another again. If you want to leave something unsaid, fine…but be prepared to leave it unsaid forever.”

    Joel Isenberg, a fiction author, said that.

    As the years wear on, it’s taken on more meaning.

    Especially when the last thing I said to my friend was, “talk to you tomorrow.” I was the last person he spoke to.

    So, a toast to lost friends.

  2. ohengineer

    I’ve lost several friends in recent years. I’m getting long in the tooth at 67, so expect that process to speed up, and eventually the grim reaper will come for me, as he does everyone eventually.

    I worked on those micocomputers when they were first coming out. I did work on the Intel 8080 and 8085 (liked the 8085 because it built in serial communications, similar later to the Compupro “bit banger,” which made it easier to design and build dedicated controllers). Moved on, for the most part, to the Zilog Z-80 which was much faster, and used the same assemblers I had in the past because most of the instruction set was the same as the 8080. Started working with 16 bit processors later, and stopped after the 80286. Loved the dual processor board Godbout/Compupro produced. Godbout used to play with people by running PC software on his “boat anchor system” (what Jerry Pournelle called the big Compupro S-100 bus system) and having just the monitor in view. People would accuse him of having it tied to a VAX, then he would show them what was under the counter.

    Those were fun heady days. Like you, the languages I used are pretty much in the bit bucket. I played with Digital Research’s implementation of PL/1. Cromemco sold a version of Cobol. I didn’t use it, but I heard it didn’t work. The language I used most was BASIC as later most of the stuff I needed to do was process large data sets while making some sort of small change to data, or simply searching it for what I was looking for. GWBasic worked well and was easy to program. I also didn’t expect to keep the programs around for very long. Once had to process 30 million lines of data, and having the GWBasic compiler, it worked quite fast. For quick “kleenex” programs, it was quite good. Now it’s unusable because it was 16 bit software.

    • You got really into them! I have a friend I would consider in the top 5%-or less-tier of programmers. Applications or systems he’s done at all.

      All self taught.

      He told me of a time he worked for Xerox. Micro processors were first used in peripherals before they were considered as dedicated CPUs.

      He remembers programming a giant Xerox printer and trying to convince them to make a personal computer.

      Sort of like Steve Wozniak tried to do with Hewlett-Packard.

      They could not see a future with personal computers.

      Remember when so many giant companies were making “IBM 370 clones”?

      And with some of the main frame guys that attitude prevailed into the 80s.

      I had a boss who worked for Aerojet General during the Apollo days.

      Heady times.

      When Lotus 123 came out he said they were doing that on their main frame.

      Of that I have no doubt although without CRTs everything was printed out.

      When I asked what he thought of personal computers, he replied “toy computers”.

      This was in the mid 80s.

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