How I Learned to Love the Internet

by Charles B Pettis

Have you heard grandparents tell you about the days before school buses, when they had to walk miles to school and back in snowstorms, “uphill both ways”? After reading this, you may want to believe them. At least, don’t scoff. Take it from an old-timer: our contributor’s essay about computers and communication in the early, pioneer days of the Internet doesn’t really exaggerate very much.


About two months ago, I subscribed to an access provider to get on to the Internet. This new service is available in only a few locations. It goes by the name, Xpress. I figured no one could go wrong signing up with a company like that. The name said it all. They were certainly the speed merchants of Internet access providers. I would soon learn a few valuable lessons.

On Monday July 8, 1991, after I got home from work, it looked like dinner was going to be either canned soup or a microwave entree from the freezer. It was six-thirty, the perfect time to turn on, dial up and tune into the Internet.

My new SineWave computer was fresh out of the carton and ready to go. Its speedy processor and outrageous memory made it the perfect box to use. Then, too, I had purchased and installed the Puma Seventy-Two, the fastest modem in the world. My system could download faster than Xpress could get the data to me.

All the people in my office were familiar with the Internet. They talked about it all the time. Frank, he was in accounting, and a real jerk. We always said he couldn’t get a woman to notice him if he were the only male in the company. About a month before, Frank had mentioned finding an incredibly interesting site on the net that featured travel and vacation information. First, a couple of others asked Frank about it. Next thing I knew he was the center of attention.

Beth, the girl from Human Resrouces with the big brown eyes, was in the room. She turned, looked up at me and smiled. I was sure this was going to be my lucky day. Then she asked me what I had found browsing the net. Since I had nothing to say, and because I was nervous just having her speak to me, all I could do was stand there with my mouth open. Now who was the jerk? Just imagine how I felt.

That single experience convinced me that I needed to buy some pretty serious equipment so I could learn about the net, and fast! All the computer stores advertised great deals on hardware and software. A few even offer free delivery, installation and technical support. A new store in town, Byte Me, was advertising their grand opening sales event. I wanted to be first in line when the doors opened last Saturday morning.

Byte Me is located in the Southtown Mall. It took me only an hour and a half to get there. It was a little inconvenient, getting up at 5:00 a.m. and hitting the road at 5:30. But somehow I just knew they would have exactly what I need. Apparently, several other people had the same idea. When I pulled into the parking lot at 7:25, it was almost full. The line at the door went all the way around to the rear of the building.

Precisely at 8:00, the doors to Byte Me opened, and I entered the world of Internet computing. A voice asked if I could be helped. I looked down. The nametag, blue with bold red letters, said, “Jeff. I’m here to help.” The voice sounded a bit young. I made some remark about an experienced salesperson. No one was going to catch me saying “salesman.”

Jeff explained he had been helping people purchase computer gear for over three years. I was satisfied. He will be graduating from Southtown High School next year; he was in the top seventy-five percent of his class. Jeff was so helpful.

He sat me down at a small worktable complete with a computer terminal and asked me a few questions. Then Jeff pulled up some impressive-looking tables on the screen, pushed some keys, and printed out the configuration — the personal profile — that met my needs. He directed me to the cashier. She was a perky young thing, maybe younger than Jeff. Her nametag said “Suzi.” She added up the total, looked at the numbers for a minute, and called her supervisor.

A very serious-looking young woman, college age, came out from behind the glass partition and spoke with Suzi for a moment. Amid smiles and nods I was assured everything is in order. I flashed my credit card, Suzi swiped it through the cash register, I signed the two-part form and made my way to the pick-up counter.

“Al” greeted me. I would say he was a senior member of the Byte Me family, maybe in his mid-twenties. Al took my personal profile from me, peered at it for a moment, and turned to the gleaming silver microphone by his left hand. He pushed a button, and then announced to the stock room and everyone else in the store that he needed one Star System 55 brought to the loading dock.

I told Al there was no need for everyone to know what I was buying. He assured me that Byte Me wanted customers to feel like part of the family. I told him one family is enough for me. Al smiled, handed me my profile and pointed toward the dock.

“Marcel” and “Eugene” were on the dock. They took my paperwork and headed into an enormous canyon that is the Byte Me warehouse. Soon, Eugene and Marcel returned with two carts stacked high with my system components. It’s a good thing I had brought my pick-up truck. There just wasn’t enough room in the sedan.

With the last box stored neatly on the front seat, Marcel initialed my papers, and I was on my way home. A quick look at my watch told me it was 10:05. I would be home well before lunch.

Back to Monday night...

First, I turned on the SineWave. My buddies had told me to make sure the modem was on before booting up the system, so I did that. The computer hummed through the usual routine and presented me with its undulating corporate logo on the screen. If you looked at it too long, it could make you a bit queasy, so I moved the cursor to ON and clicked.

The ugly SineWave logo was gone, and now on the screen was the SineCall menu. What a great machine. It even anticipated that I wanted to dial into the Internet.

I selected Xpress and, in a wink, my computer was loading software into RAM. Did I mention Random Access Memory and Xpress? Well, it requires a minimum of ninety-six million bytes. The SineWave usually comes with sixteen.

The additional memory fits nicely in what the manufacturer calls an adjunct facility. It sits on the floor of my office closet. Actually, I can only put a few hats on the top shelf now. But that closet was never used anyway.

The adjunct — they call it FasTer — puts out some heat, so I leave the closet door open all the time now. The fan in the hallway helps, especially during the summer.

Believe me it gets torrid here in Phoenix come July and August. Once again, the manufacturer anticipated my needs. The SineWave came complete with a five-hundred dollar mail-in rebate for modifications to my home air conditioning system.

They even provided the name of a recommended contractor. And the telephone number is the same as the computer company’s. In fact, the people who make Xpress, and the vendor for the Puma Seventy-Two, and the folks who sell FasTer — you know, the adjunct unit — they all have that same number, too. What convenience.

At seven-fifteen, the booting, whirring and loading were completed, and I was all set to become a bona fide surfer. The adrenaline was pumping, the fan was blowing and both air conditioning systems were running.

Yes, I had extra air conditioning installed, according to the recommendation of the SineWave people. There is not much room in the crawl space anymore, and the blower is in the garage. But we have mild winters, and the car sits outdoors now. Mostly, I have to replace melted windshield wiper blades about every month or so. The new paint job will cost a couple hundred, and should last two years.

The computer told me it was initializing my modem, and I heard the Puma Seventy-Two come to life in the kitchen. I would have put it in the office, but it required a ground fault interrupt outlet.

The kitchen was the best choice. A few wires and cables are strung across the floor right now. Next weekend, I’ll have some time to hang them from the doorframes and cabinets. That will be much neater, and safer, too.

Now it’s seven-thirty and the Puma is completely initialized. Some of the smaller modems are ready to go in fifteen or twenty seconds, but the Puma Seventy-Two has a feature called the triple-redundant, fail-safe interface, TRFSI for short. While an older, less robust unit can be ready in seconds, the Puma must go through the same program steps six times. It’s much safer that way.

Also, while I’m waiting for the computer and the modem, I can always use that time for other work, like writing letters, dusting furniture, starting a load of wash, or making a few long-distance calls. I have a lot more time on my hands these days, and I intend to use it wisely.

At seven-fifty right on the dot my Puma Seventy-Two, FasTer, Xpress and SineWave are all ready to go. Only an hour and twenty minutes. The place is really humming and shaking now. That is literally true.

In order to support the weight of all my new computer gear and the upgraded air conditioning capacity, I had the house mounted on a new floating foundation. This is another recommendation of the SineWave people. Although we don’t have too many earthquakes here in Phoenix, my house is the only one in the area that will survive when the Big One hits.

Of course, the additional cost was offset by another five-hundred dollar mail-in rebate, courtesy of SineWave.

With the last of my letters written, I am ready to sign on to the net. You can imagine how excited I am. A long wait, but well worth it. My SineCall screen gives me six choices: On, Off, Make, Send, Receive and Browse. Since I finished my letters earlier, there is nothing to Make. My friends all respond by “snail-mail,” so there is nothing to Receive.

No need to Send letters that I’ve already put in envelopes. Even I know that! If I choose “Off,” the software will terminate my session and send me back to that horrible logo screen that makes me woozy. I’m already “On,” so that’s out of the question.

I guess I’ll go browse the net. Maybe there is some receptive someone on line who will spend some time chatting with me. I’ve always wanted to be a part of a chat line. I select “Browse.”

This is truly a riveting story!

With the selection made, the SineCall screen informed me I would have to wait just a moment while Xpress and FasTer came on line. They went into a wait state after fifteen seconds of inactivity. It had been over an hour, so they were taking a nap.

While waiting for the hardware and software to ready itself, I called Mom. She would be thrilled to hear about my new computer. I had given her my old one; it holds the old magazines down in her condo; keeps them neatly in one place.

Mom was not happy about my call. I interrupted one of her bridge groups, and her beer was getting warm. It was a short conversation. I decided to call Mom in a week or so. Maybe she would be in a better mood on a Sunday afternoon.

At eight thirty-five the SineCall screen said, “You may Browse.” Hot dog. I was in. Life would never be the same. I was truly a nineties kind of guy. Maybe I’d go all the way and have my own web site.

But first, I commenced to Browse. In the box, “Where would you like to go?” I entered “Europe.” The machine whirred, then blinked and responded, “Europe has 3,487 points to browse. Which would you like?” I responded, resolutely, “Italy.” It is a short name and I was getting a little sleepy.

The SineWave or SineCall said, “Italy has 421 points to browse. Which would you like?” I responded, firmly, “Rome, if you please.” The system said, “Confine responses to those listed on pages 345-667 of your user manual. “Rome” understood and available. Rome has 46 points to browse. Which would you like?” With great purpose I typed “List” and waited.

A short six minutes later, FasTer — or was it SineCall? — responded with the list. My eyes lit up as I entered in quick staccato taps, “Trevi Fountain.” Xpress, SineCall, SineWave, or Davey Jones for all I know, responded, “Cannot find. Try Fontana de Trevi.”

Now just a tad irritated, I banged out on the keys and said aloud for emphasis, “Fontana de Trevi, dammit!” One of the several million applications, facilities or pieces of hardware responded promptly, “Fontana de Trevi understood. Confine responses to those listed on pages 345-667 of your user manual. For ease of reference in the future, you may use ‘Trevi Fountain’ or ‘Trevi’ in your response after clicking on ‘Alias.’ Available. Trevi has 3 points to browse. Which would you like?”

“List,” I typed hurriedly, as I hissed the word under my breath. It responded noiselessly, “Scalini de Espangna, American Express, Other.” “Other?” I shouted. “How many things can be in ‘Other’?”

“Ten seconds,” the cursed machine responded without missing a beat. I thought quickly, the perspiration running into my eyes and down my arms and fingers. I typed, “Other.”

Lights flashed, the screen turned blue, then green, followed by a soothing gray. Nine twenty-five in the evening and I was going to chat with someone on the “Italy-Rome-Trevi-Other” page. I waited expectantly as the unforgiving system looked through its data banks for the answer, My Response! It said, “Trattoria Aldo.”

I sat in a pool of sweat and near exhaustion and stared at the screen. “Three hours!” I screamed. “You make me wait for three hours, and all you can come up with is ‘Trattoria Aldo’?”

“Ten seconds,” came the silent reply. I had to think fast; and that was nearly impossible at this point. Then I remembered something I had read somewhere in the seventeen volume user guide. And I typed it in the box titled, “Where would you like to go?”

“ALL POINTS!”

I hit the keys with a ferocity unknown to me since Ronnie Skrnyvch tried to steal my bicycle in third grade. And I screamed to the ceiling, “That should keep the lousy system busy for more than ‘ten seconds!’ That should max out the FasTer box in my closet! That should test the speed and capability of Xpress for the next few days! That should give old Mr. Puma Seventy-Two a few things to think about while his little red and green lights blink till they fall out! That should be just about the Beta Test From Hell for a SineWave computer, complete with mail-in rebates.”

I hadn’t felt this good in years. Then, without a second thought, I took off my sweat-drenched clothes and took a shower. After letting the air conditioning dry me off, I slipped into a t-shirt and shorts, grabbed a Sierra Nevada from the refrigerator and stepped out the back door. I found a chair on the patio and sat down.

The sun was going down and the western sky was red with the last rays of Monday, July 8. A cooling breeze stirred the flowers and the small trees around the patio.

“Tomorrow,” I said to myself without rancor. “I’ll sell it tomorrow, and let someone else learn to love the Internet. While I learn to take things just as they come.” I was content, quite satisfied with myself, indeed. “That calls for another cool one.”

I walked across the patio, back into the kitchen, and found another Sierra. As I retraced my steps to the patio and sat down, I smiled at the prospect of living life on my terms.


Copyright © 2017 by Charles B Pettis

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