Cadet at Full-Screen Terminal

Today is December 1, 2013. Today I turn twenty-eight years old. Today is also approximately the ten year anniversary of the most interesting “birthday party” I’ve ever been to. As a millennial mainframer, I’ve occasionally had instances where I’ve figuratively considered my nuts in a vice (like last week, when I ran the wrong CMS commands and copied my broken z/VM environment over my backup DASD volumes instead of visa versa), but ten years ago, my nuts literally were in a vice. Just thinking back on this story makes my testicles writhe in pain and retract into my abdomen.

Ten years ago, I was a first-year cadet at the United States Military Academy at West Point. First-year cadets at West Point are called “plebes,” which is a Latin term that denotes the underclass. Much like the barbarism of antiquity, plebes at a military academy are treated like crap. They clean the barracks, deliver the newspapers, pick up the trash or recyclables, march not walk, and salute all of their superiors with a chipper attitude. They also are expected to memorize the meals of the day, the football schedule, the main articles of the New York Times, West Point lore, and errata about the heroes of the American Empire.  Failure of any of these tasks is never pretty.

The corps of cadets is organized into companies of around 120 cadets each, and each company has a slightly different culture. To my misfortune, I was a plebe in company A-2, known as the Spartans. Due to the historical legacy of Spartan military discipline and oppression of the enslaved Helot underclass, company A-2 was well known for their thorough and systematic hazing their Plebes.

At West point, there is one socially sanctioned avenue for plebes to exact revenge on especially brutal upperclassmen: the “Birthday Party.” In such a birthday party, the plebes break into the upperclassman’s room, tie them up, and demean them in some way. Often this might be tying them up, placing them in the communal open shower, and spraying they with ketchup, mustard, etc. stolen from the mess hall. Of course, the specific recipe of revenge would always slightly vary from upperclassman to upperclassman.

So there was one Spartan upperclassman that was considered especially mean and vindictive towards the plebes. He loved to ask obscure and seemingly impossible-to-memorize trivia in the hope of being able to scream at and bully a plebe. Considering that his grades weren’t great, his physical fitness was poor, and other aspects of his life likely sucked, bullying seventeen and eighteen year old plebes was likely the high point of his life. Given his general asshole-ish-ness, it was guaranteed that this guy was going to get one hell of a “birthday party.”

So the Spartan plebes geared up as if for the battle of Thermopylae. We put on football equipment used by the intramural football team. We drew battle plans and planned to stay in formation to be able to overwhelm the upperclassman and subdue him quickly and painlessly. Unfortunately, things didn’t work out to plan.

McBride Football Plebe
In my Intramural Football Garb

Once the plebes burst through the door, the upperclassman’s roommate attacked up from our right flank. This disoriented the biggest plebes leading the charge, and forced me to assume point and continue the attack. I charged at Cadet Sergeant Douchebag and tackled him facedown onto his desk. With his torso down pinned down, I considered him momentarily subdued.

However, the upperclassman still had one last gambit. I felt his hand reach up along my thigh shortly before I felt a strong hand close vice-like around my testicles. I let out a shriek several octaves higher than I had ever uttered before, and the upperclassmen let out an evil chuckle and made an ominous announcement to the other plebes:

“I have McBride’s nuts, and if you ever want him to be able to procreate, you’ll back the f*** off and get out of my room.”

Once everyone realized the gravity of the situation, the plebes stopped their attack and my comrades retreated away. Suddenly, I was alone with the two upperclassmen. My testicles throbbed with pain, my face was beat red, and a layer of persperations seeped through the football equipment.  “Damn it,” I thought to myself, “why the hell didn’t I wear a cup?”

With the situation diffused, the upperclassman opened his strong hand and released my family jewels. Looking at his face, the upperclassman had a sly and self-satisfied look on his face. He caught my glance and winked.

So with this being a mainframe blog and everything, you might be wondering why you’re reading about military academy hazing and Sean McBride’s “nuts in peril” anecdote. Well, it turns out that mainframe computers were a big deal at West point in the 1960s and 1970s that they became part of the hazing culture.

By the 1960, it was clear to the big brass that the Army needed savvy centurions ready to answer the President’s call to directly engage the forces of Global Communism in limited nuclear wars or “brush fire” conflicts in far off places like Vietnam. As a result, West Point changed it’s curriculum so that “every cadet should have practical exposure to computers, including the writing, running, and testing of computer programs to solve real problems.” In short, the West Point leadership voiced opinions quite similar to those now heard by EVERYONE (or at least every cadet) should learn to code. Fifty years ago, these curriculum changes were downright revolutionary. At MIT and other computing powerhouses of the era, computers were used by highly specialized engineers, mathematicians, and asocial hacker types. At West Point, even the dumb jocks coded… Even the Football player coded… Even the future Infantry officers coded…

Sure West Point had “Hacker” types like Charles L. Baker of Sheffield, Alabama, who had an “admiration for force vectors, do-loops and [the] dear old GE 225 [mainframe that] know[ing] no bounds” and Larry Hartman of Tucsan, Arizona, who “spied a sweet young thing named the GE 225 and has been in love ever since,” but by the mid 1960s, all cadets had personal experience coding on a mainframe computer, making computing a common cultural touchstone for cadets decades before PCs made computing mainstream.  Sure, computing clubs at places like MIT coded, but at West Point, even the SCUBA Club coded, modeling an Underwater Navigation Course using the GE 225.

It didn’t take long before computing combined with the timeless West Point tradition of hazing Plebes (first-year cadets) to produce bizarre scenarios, such as this:

Upperclassman: “Plebe! Are you stupid or something?”
Plebe: “No, sir!”
Upperclassman: “Wrong answer, beanhead, are you stupid?”
Plebe: “Yes, sir!”
Upperclassman: “How stupid are you, crot?”
Plebe: “Sir, I make the incline plane look like a GE 225 digital computer!”

In fact, in many ways, the very act of learning to code became an additional element of West Point hazing during the sixties and seventies. At that time, plebes were required to take a programming course, where they would code in a simplified version of FORTRAN called CADETRAN using mark-sense cards (think number-two pencils and Scantron-style cards). This process was euphemistically called “squint and print,” “jot and plot,” and “punch and pray.” Whatever it was called, it surely must have been better than “nuts and crunch.” 🙂

Between 1968 and 1971, cadets transitioned to being able using teletype terminals that resembled typewriters, and between 1974 and 1983, cadets even used terminals with full-screen displays.

Cadet at Full-Screen Terminal
Cadet Frank Monaco (USMA Class of 1970) pecks at a keypunch while working diligently on his senior design project for EF489: a macro assembler for the GE 635 Mainframe. In a twist of fact, Frank later returned to West Point to act as the Academy’s Chief Information Officer during the 1990s. Frank now consults and teaches courses on computing. Follow him on Twitter at @ProfessorMonaco.

I’ve recently asked a handful of West Point graduates about their memories taking computer coursework on this mainframe, and here are few of the best anecdotes:

“Our mainframe was enclosed in a huge heated and air conditioned room in the bowels of Thayer Hall. We never interacted directly with “THE MACHINE.” We created flow charts and wrote code in an abbreviated version of fortran called cadetran. Then we created punch cards which represented each operation of our code. If there were no “hanging chads,” and if the damn cards were in the right order, and after waiting hours (or days) for everyone else whose stacks of cards were in line in front of us, our program would get run by “THE MACHINE.” Frustratingly, I rarely got my programs to work properly on the first run. I usually wrote good code. Failure to catch that “hanging chads” had caused the card reader to misread a card, or failure to have them all in the proper order was typically the culprit. But it took an inordinate amount of time to track down the culprit, create new cards and/or reorder cards (opportunities for more error – like inspection walking the area is an opportunity for more demerits!), place card stacks into the queue again, and wait. Oh yes, I remember it well….”

“My classmate had a program in his hands one day that was about four inches high. As he was crossing the road they slipped and the wind took punch cards to hell and back. It took us fifteen minutes to police them all up.”

“Some of us played Star Trek [one of the earliest computer games] while most were lost in space. Time was of the utmost importance. As if by magic, by the time our terminal got to the last line in a drawing, the last multiple guess, the final print-out, the 635 would disconnect.”

Prior to Cadetran we also did programs in a version of Basic which I think they called Cadet Basic. I was fortunate to take a couple of electives in Management Science that actually used computers to solve problems, rather than just running programs to learn computers… In spite of the operational hurdles it took to actually use USMA computers, we did learn the concepts of computer science. At least I like to think that foundation is what allowed me to go into CS for my graduate work.”

“I was enrolled in a Fortran course (known as FORTY). I am sure most remember working on teletype variants in which your input was typed as a new line on a very long sheet of paper and your output came back the same way. That and punch cards were the standard. As someone taking an elective, I was admitted to the outer rings of cognoscienti. At one class period, this semi-select group was taken down the hall by our Professor. He pulled out his keys and opened a locked door, ushering us into what was surely one of the sanctums of computer engineering. In that stronghold, I was shown a strange new device in which our interactions with the computer were displayed, a CRT! Of course it was monochrome with everything displayed in various shades of green. We emerged discussing our discovery in hushed and reverent tones.”

“I remember when we witnessed a demonstration of programs drawing vectors on the screen of a monitor. That was top notch stuff. FORTRAN was fun; it made me think I wanted to go into computer science. COBOL was so boring that I changed my mind. Our mainframe was a 635, Honeywell or GE. I can’t remember which company bought the sector from the other.”

“I just remember hand writing out the code, and then transferring it to the punch cards, and waiting – a common refrain from you all. As I recall, in the late 60’s, it was always a challenge to decide whether to use the faster automated punch card writing machines (that took whatever you gave them even if it had a typo) or to use the slower but potentially more accurate mark sense punch cards. I am still not sure how we ever identified the errors, much less corrected them.”

“Yes I remember the card punch room outside the glassed-in computer. That’s where I learned a phrase I still use today. The Do loop. 010 Do 20 020 Do 10 I’ve been in a do loop ever since.”

“The more important memory for me was the Star Trek game. I look at video game interfaces now and think about the mental math that was required to play that game and just shake my head in wonder that it was actually as much fun as it was. I also learned not to go up to the terminal room until somewhere around 10 at night. If I went up earlier, I would get so absorbed in the game that I wouldn’t notice the time. Taps would come and I would realize that I hadn’t gotten all the rest of my assignments done. I guess that qualifies as addictive behavior, but at least I worked out strategies to control it! Those memories also make it hard for me to get too far up on my high horse with my boys when they spend entire evenings playing video games!”

On that note, I’m going to sign off and play some video games myself.

Have a great week and remember to protect your nuts!