MEMOIR: CHAPTER SIX Metamorphosis

MEMOIR: Metamorphosis

“Mama!”

The squeal came from the living room, where my kids were playing. The two girls, four and two, had ganged up on their brother Mike, five. It happened a lot. He was outnumbered, and too gentle to hit them back.

I left my kitchen task and went in to break it up. Used my own mother’s old tactic: “OK, you girls, you have to kiss him.”

In my day, that was the worst punishment. Kiss my brother? Just spank me, please.

But Kelley and Laurie went at it with the same enthusiasm they had used to hit him with blocks, and they all three ended up in a giggling pile on the floor. I could have joined them, but I was busy.

I went back to cleaning around the sink with a toothpick.

I had been a full-time mother for five months. Five long months. School had started, no chance of getting my teaching job back. Don was teaching junior high math a few blocks away, and I was at home. I stood back to check the sink. Like the rest of the house, it gleamed.

After two years of teaching junior high math with baby spit-up on my shoulder and a harried expression, I decided to quit teaching and have a crack at being a “full-time mother.” Before I switched majors, I had studied “time and motion management for homemakers” and was a natural multi-tasker, so it was a cinch.  I usually had the housework done by 10 a.m., often grinding wheat and making bread in the meantime, not to mention whipping up an outfit or two for the girls on my sewing machine, and maybe typing the church bulletin.

The inner voice I had learned to pay attention to in my better moments whispered to me: Face it. You’ll start in on your kids next. They will gleam. They will need psychotherapy later, but you’ll make them perfect.

I already monitored my kids’ activities to the point of obsession, making them jumpy with me around.

You’re bored. Next, you’ll be making gluten balls.

There was no answer to this observation.

I would never be a good housewife, I hated housewifery. I had become a robot, a Stepford wife, ten years before the movie. I wore homemade housedresses and sewed aprons with rick-rack, tied them behind in a starched bow. I did it all, welcomed Don home from work with his favorite dinners, saw to it that he had no worries or duties at home. I didn’t wrap myself in Saran wrap as recommended by Phyllis Schlafley to greet him at the door, but I did have the gravy simmering on the stove.

I loved being a mother, but mothering seemed completely divorced from this “homemaking” business.

And it had only been five months.

My inner turmoil was the continual fight between the responsible person, the mother, and the woman who longed for more. My two selves were like my kids, fighting on the floor. Hard to bring together at times.

When the phone call came I was sitting on the couch dully watching the kids chase each other in and out of the house. “Don’t get dirty,” I yelled, and answered the phone in the kitchen.

“Hello?”

“Allan Fulmer here ,” the familiar voice said.

It was Dr. Fulmer, the physics professor at Oregon College of Education from whom I had taken a class in machine language (binary) computer programming, in 1962, a two years earlier. It had been my third such class, since I had learned the subject thoroughly at Oregon State College on their huge brand new base 16 (hexadecimal) computer in 1957. Dr. Fulmer had invented, patented and built a prototype octal (base 8)  computer, so learning a new machine language to program it was easy, for me.

Computers do everything with strings of ones and zeros (circuits turned on or off)— base two (binary)—rather than base 10, our familiar decimal system. Base two can be expanded to other number bases, as long as they are powers of two—base 8 (octal), base 16 (hexadecimal), and so on.  The way of representing numbers in other number bases is the same as in base ten. In base 8, counting is from zero to 7, and 10 represents the number 8.

I had loved teaching this stuff to seventh-graders, to help them understand the basis for base ten. We  made up an imaginary planet called Octal where everyone had only 8 fingers, so their number system was based on 8’s.  The kids loved it, too, until my principal made me stop—they’d never use it, he said—and go back to teaching from the standard textbook, Chapter 23, how to fill out a Form 1040 and write checks. Then the fun had gone out of it.

“Judy?” Dr. Fulmer said.  “I heard you weren’t teaching this year.”

“That’s right.”

“I know you have children, you brought your baby to class that last term. She must be about two now, right?”

“Two and a half. And there’s Kelley, 18 months older, and Mike, 18 months older than she.”

“Sounds like you have your hands full.”

“Oddly enough, no. I’m bored.” It was the first time I’d said it out loud. “I miss using my brain.”

He chuckled. “Well, then, maybe you’ll be interested in what I have to offer.”

Anything!

“You have a talent for machine language. I’m building a streamlined version of the ECP-18, for use in high school math classrooms, and I need someone to write software. An assembler, for example, so the user won’t have to program in number codes, but can use intuitively useful commands like ADD and DIV and MULT and PRNT. And I don’t have the time or inclination to do it. So I thought of you. You were my best student. You can do a lot of it at home. You’d have to test it here, use the punched paper tape on the Teletype for input and output.”

I nearly leaped through the phone.  Mike ran into the kitchen, pulled out the bread drawer, the peanut butter and the jelly, sat on the floor and began to construct a PB&J sandwich. Kelley ran into the kitchen and planted her foot in the middle of the peanut-butter side. Not on purpose…probably…but Mike’s anguished cries made me cut the call short. For sure, they’d need therapy.

“I’ll talk to Don and call you back. Give me your number.”

It was a good thing I kept the floor clean enough to eat on. Now I would have to wash Kelley’s tennis shoes.

Over dinner, I told Don about the offer. I noticed his curly reddish hair, so attractive to me at age 18, was receding, thinning, and turning brown. He was only 32. He wasn’t wearing his Army uniform, so appealing to me at age 18, and he looked tired after teaching math to 12-and 13-year-olds all day. While I cleaned the sink and did the laundry.

He chewed, not looking up from cutting his meat. “How much?”

“How much what?”

“What’s he going to pay you?”

“I forgot to ask. I’d do it for nothing. I love programming.”

“Fine with me, as long as nothing slips at home. I don’t like coming home to a dirty house.”

“I’d be working at home, in my spare time, and could go to his lab to test the programs after you get home from work. Anyway, when I was teaching, did you ever come home to a dirty house?”

“Well, no, but…sometimes there was laundry on the couch.”

“Clean laundry! To fold! And as soon as I got home from work I took care of it.”

It had never occurred to him to fold the diapers. He made it a practice never to touch a diaper. Not even clean ones. That’s the way things were, then. The woman who longed for more stood up and stretched. I had made a decision. Someone else could deal with the diaper pails (no disposables, then) and the laundry that needed folding. I would pay someone to do that. Somehow. Or do it at night, before going to bed.

And my pay? Well…he didn’t really have any money to pay me. Would I be interested in a 40% interest in his company, newly formed to make and sell the world’s first classroom computer?

Manna from heaven. My inner voice was loud and clear. “Do it. Whatever is required, do it. It’s the chance of a lifetime.”

And so I became programmer, marketing director, and part owner of a computer company, at the age of twenty-eight.

Dr. Fulmer could pay very little beyond my expenses, but he’d give me a 40% ownership in his fledgling company, if I’d write all the software, do demonstrations and marketing, and learn to solder circuit boards. I jumped at the chance, envisioning  a future where boys and girls could have their own computers, at home and in the classroom. His computer, the size of a small refrigerator, was the first one that could conceivably be used in a high-school classroom. The size of the computer’s memory drum was 1K. Yes, 1024 memory locations of storage. The first Apple II had 8k of memory. These days, computer memory is measured in megabytes—a byte is equal to a string of 8 binary digits—one megabyte is a million bytes. The laptop computer I am using to write this memoir has 750 gigabytes of memory, or 1,073,741,824 (230) bytes. Terabytes yet to come. Don’t ask me.

With only 1024 memory locations to work with, I had to develop an assembler which could be loaded into the computer in two passes with punched paper tape being read by a Teletype, and run in two passes. (Pre-assemble, load another tape, then assemble into code which would be punched on a new paper tape.) From then on, we could program using simple commands rather than numeric codes. I completed creating and testing the assembler in a couple of months.

I wrote a two-pass assembly language in machine language—ones and zeros combined to form base 8 numbers from zero to seven—and used a Teletype with paper tape punched eight holes across for input and output. The assembler made it easier to write simple programs with codes like PR for Print, AD for Add, JU for Jump to another location for the next instruction.

Then it was time to take it on the road. Dr. Fulmer was right, he was simply not a salesman. Dr. Fulmer was a physicist, an electrical engineer. His interest was in designing and building computers, not programming them. Small and hunched over, balding, he much preferred to be in his computer lab, drawing electronic diagrams and soldering connections. He had taught me to solder diodes and connections on hard 4” X 4” plastic boards, but we both knew my interests and talents lay more in software than hardware.

It was 1964. The Altair 8800 didn’t come out until 1975. The concept of students using a personal computer didn’t really catch fire until later, when the Trinity of small computers hit the market in 1977—the Apple II, the PET 2001, and the TRS-80 from Radio Shack. By that time, I had been learning and working and selling classroom computers and training teachers and kids and inventing in the field for over a decade. I owned a very early prototype of each of these three computers, and was on Apple’s Education Advisory Board which met in Cupertino with Steve Jobs twice a year. He wore jeans with holes, and flip-flops. Very laid back, always with a smile of curiosity, always listening, making mental notes. The next version of the Apple (or Mac) was always an improvement, and I recognized some of our suggestions.

Early 1978, with an early Atari computer that used 5 in. “floppy” disks.

By wonderful luck and intuition, I had leaped headfirst into a truly new field, in which the pioneers had worked only with large IBM computers with punched cards for input and output.

My next job was to hit the road to sell this revolutionary computer. Dr. Fulmer suggested and financed my new clothes more appropriate to a traveling saleswoman than housedresses and aprons. He also paid for the professional haircut that masked my Toni home perm. I learned to use eyeliner, mascara, and blush.

I was moving fast, leaving so much behind. Don was receding into the distance, a bit bewildered by all the changes, phlegmatic as usual, scratching his head, wondering how to hold me back. I was not stoppable. He tried, a little, to keep up, then gave up and watched the show. Surely it would soon lead to a good income. And it did.

Kelley, 8, Mike 9, me 28, Laurie 6.

Me at home with the kids, 1968.

I had to engage Penny, the housewife next door with two small preschool children, to include my children in her own household during the day any time I was out of town.

My quiet inner voice encouraged me through every change.

In this photo, irrepressible Kelley was 8, serious Mike was 9, I was 28, and Laurie was 6, with her two front teeth missing.

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14 Comments

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14 responses to “MEMOIR: CHAPTER SIX Metamorphosis

  1. dehelen

    I’m loving this, Judy! Kelley was the first young woman I met who was raised by a feminist, so I was always curious to know more about you. This is a real treat for me. Thank you for sharing it now.

    • judyallen

      It was an evolution, for all of us. As you can see. Kelley was only about 4 when I began my own. She was a quick learner, though, and not only for that particular “cause.” One night we sat down for dinner when she was about 10 and looked at the piece of (probably plain hamburger). She said, “I can’t eat this.”
      “Why not?”
      “I’m a veterinarian.”
      In case that WAS the word she meant, I didn’t make her eat it.

  2. What a wonderful story! and what a nice way of describing it. I never programmed with switches, on/off, but as an undergraduate in 1961 was nice to the graduate students so they would unlock the door and let me use cards on the IBM 1620 (brand new). While I programmed the rest of my life, it was in 1979 when I got my Apple II+ – eventually I could write documents, download stock prices, and do many of the things we do now. Once when I was the Univ. of Wash. rep to Apple for their University Program, I sat at the table with Steve Jobs, but I was awed and didn’t say a word. I always thought the first Macintosh was the best-designed piece of equipment every built – pushing each constraint to its limits but ending with a portable computer. Thanks for helping that come about.
    Bruce Finlayson

    • judyallen

      Wow, another pioneer!! I wonder if we ever met? How did you happen on this blog?

      • Paula Hills,in Portland, sent me the link.

      • judyallen

        Lovely Paula. My very best friend, for so long. She came yesterday and gave me the most phenomenal sound healing treatment.
        I loved that first Mac, too. SO USER-FRIENDLY!! The holy IBM priesthood of privilege had been busted, and the Mac became the computer of choice for personal use and classroom use. Apple gave me a lab full of Apple IIe’s for teacher training, then a lab full of Macs for more teacher training, early on. It made a big difference for teachers to be able to get their hands on something they could actually use without hauling those decks of cards in for just one more try…would never work in a K-12 classroom. But they took to Apples like ducks to water.
        So good to hear from you.

  3. Michael Edwards

    One of the things I have heard Bill Gates comment on most passionately was creating BASIC for PCs and how hard it was to make it all fit in available memory. Later when I was interviewing for a position in a new team at Microsoft, leaving the phone team, I was chastised for my algorithms all focusing on memory conservation above all other considerations.There is somethng deeply satisfying about making a big thing fit in a little space.

    • Hear, hear! I LOVED making an assembler “fit” in 1000 bytes of memory! They said it couldn’t possibly be done, but I did it!! Of course, it took running the assembler in first, then the program, in two passes, before creating the assembled code. Laurie has preserved one of the first BASIC programs I wrote, which computes and charts biorhythms. Economy of space seemed very important in those days, with computers that had memory measured in K’s not MB’s.

    • This is a direct quote from Bill Gates: “640K ought to be enough for anybody.”
      Bill Gates, 1981
      Ha!

  4. Angie

    “That’s not an Apple in that photo.”
    “Oh shush! She’s a pioneer! Let her make one simple mistake!”
    “But… But, that’s not an Apple II…” *cries*

    • judyallen

      You are so funny! You’re the first sharp-eyed reader who caught that!! I think it’s an Atari! Or is it? I do have photos with my first Apple II so I’ll find one and post it and change this caption. I’m still laughing! Call it chemo brain or incipient dementia, or just poor eyesight…

  5. The external disc drives don’t look like Apple ones. The first Apple II+ I had (Dec. 1979) had no disc drive – I couldn’t afford that. Could we have used a tape recorder or is my memory gone? Anyway, playing Lemonade Stand was a great hit for one of my daughters (who became a musician). My son learned Basic and became a computer programmer (not using Basic!). But, I can one-up on a picture – I still have my Apple II+ (now with disc drives) and it still works. I can’t just throw it away!

    • YOU STILL HAVE YOURS! wow. My picture appears to be of an Atari, though I have no memory of every having one! I’ve been searching for a picture with the AppleII+ and can only find one that’s from the back! I think at first we used punched paper tape with the first Apples.My kids all learned to program in Basic on Apples and a Commodore PET. Now two of them are professional programmers or IT, and one (the first one who learned FORTRAN, in high school) is a technology user, has all the latest stuff, but not working as a computer person.

      • Isn’t it interesting how the things around you and the passions of your parents affects your life’s work. I love FORTRAN and still program in it for really fast, numerically intensive calculations (like turbulence).

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