The most important computer job at the Soo Line Railroad

I think everybody who worked at the Soo Line in the early 1980s would agree that running the railroad was an important task for the million dollar IBM 370/158 mainframe computer. Well, most of time ūüėČ

Turns out that during the summer, on Thursday mornings, the primary role for the computer, and most important task of the programming department was the preparation of the golf league statistics. Wednesday evenings employees would do their rounds of golf while documenting their swings at each hole.

Thursday morning they would give this to the programmer assigned the task of entering them into punched cards and running the programs to prepare the eagerly awaited statistics that included standings, best and worst at each hole, and so on. Woe unto the indiscreet person who would attempt¬†interrupt the¬† golf programmer’s work¬†before the statistics were done–as I did on one occasion.

The golf league was well represented in the computer room, so someone would be watching the printer, and begin preparing to burst and distribute the reports the minute they were done printing. And then, of course, the flurry of activity as the statistics inspired much raucous discussion, bragging and excuses.

One one occasion I was invited to sub for a league member who couldn’t make it. Walking down the fairway ¬†after teeing off on the first hole, we moved out of sight of the clubhouse. My manager waved me over to his golf bag. I went over and asked¬†what he wanted. He reached into his bag and handed me a beer. Those were simpler, freer times.

My golf score that day was so bad that I received a high handicap, and one of the other golfers begged me to play on their team the next week. He believed that my score had nowhere to go but up, and that my handicap would propel me into a very low score. I declined, and to this day I mildly regret not joining them for one more round.

Some 27 years have passed, and my work at the Soo Line, from 1979 to 1982, still stands as one of my most enjoyable jobs with some of my favorite co-workers. It was the first job where I really excelled, where I felt I had a place. I was too young to know how good I had it, and one day in the autumn of 1982 I exchanged this somewhat idylic world for the somewhat grim and darwinian one of law school.

Point Man in Vietnam

I once had the pleasure of working with a Vietnam Combat Vet. He told me that his main weapon was a sawed off shotgun shooting 00 buckshot. It already sounded like a pretty hairy job.

He worked in a combat squad that attacked in a wedge formation. He was on the point of the wedge. He explained that when engaging the enemy, he would fire off everything he had in the shotgun and then lie down and let the guy behind him take over with a browning automatic rifle.  I was struck imagining the intensity of that sort of firefight, and the kind of reliance the members of the squad had for each other.

So when you hear the phrase ‘point man’, bear in mind the military origin of the term.

He had a couple of other stories of interest. He recalled one occasion he was¬†sleeping during battle at night. He had become accustomed to the regular noises of rifle fire and bombs and was able to sleep when appropriate. On this occasion, he was awakened by a loud buzzing sound he had not heard before. He checked around and learned it was “Puff the Magic Dragon”, a cargo plane with a gatling gun pointed out a side door. The gun fired so rapidly that it made the buzzing sound. Every tenth round was an illuminated tracer, but it looked like a solid line of light pointing down. It fired so much and so quickly that there were a couple of guys in the plane shoveling shells out with snow shovels. In the morning he saw the side of a hill that puff had reduced to rubble. Formerly a wooded area, there was no piece of wood remaning more than a couple of inches long.

On another occasion, a supply guy gave him and some buddies some special shotgun shells. He refused to say what they did, just encouraging the guys to try them out. Well, it was nighttime so they went behind a building and fired off a round. He saw a 30 foot sun emerge from the gun and claimed the loudest sound was that of the irises of his eyes shapping shut against the light. Turns out it was some sort of phosphorous round. I never learned what role such a thing might play in combat.

************* Let’s put some Nathan Hales here *****************

As a young programmer, I was reviewing some assembler code and I noted something like this:

  • LA¬†¬† R6,STDHD
  • BALR R4,R6
  • BAS13¬†¬†¬†¬† SR¬†¬† R4,R4

I was used to seeing asterisks as a means of setting out comments, but I asked Sherm what the Nathan Hale part meant. He explained that Nathan Hale, an early American Revolutionary War patriot, prior to his execution by the British, was famously heard to exclaim “I regret that I have but one as-te-risk for my country!” ūüėČ

Th Old Coders, Sherman Larson

As a very young programmer, at my second job at the Soo Line railroad, it was my privilege to cross paths with The Old Coders. These men were giants who walked the earth in the infancy of the Computer Age. The railroad, and thousands of other companies, ran on the code they wrote using early computers of extremely low capacity–by today’s standards–making up for the hardware shortcomings through encyclopedic knowledge of the IBM System/370 architecture and tight, efficient, code.

After writing a bit of COBOL at the railroad, I was promoted to a position as a systems programmer, supporting the computer terminal management software, CICS. I wrote programs in assembly language (formally known as IBM Basic Assembly Language–BAL), and loved it so much that after I, perhaps foolishly, left the Soo Line, it would be 20 years or more before I found a job nearly as enjoyable.

The manager of systems programming at the Soo Line was Sherman Larson. A modest man who’s unassuming manner concealed his true nature as one of those giants. His other notable quality was that on the chalkboard in his office was always written the date of his next scheduled vacation to Las Vegas with his lovely wife, Naomi. I will let one anecdote suffice for now:

I was writing an assembler program, and was perhaps asking Sherm a question about some other matter. He must have noticed I had a loop where I was subtracting one from a counter on each iteration. He commented “If you use a BCTR with zero as a parameter, it takes less machine cycles.” ¬†BCTR was the name of the Branch on CounT, Register instruction. I stood in awe as I realized that he knew the number of machine clocks each assembler instruction took. He also had wonderful quality that whenever I exclaimed that some programming task simply could not be done, he would patiently show me how it could be done.

When I install the latest 20 gigabyte version of Microsoft Windows, needing ever faster hardware to lumber along at the same speed as the previous release did on lesser hardware, I think of the Old Coders and how they are a race almost extinct. And I think with pride how, 30 years later, I am perhaps a lesser version of Old Coder myself.

Green Salted Sea-Dog Skins

When I worked at the Soo Line railroad in the early 1980s, programmers would occasionally browse the government-provided commodity master file for amusing entries. The one I recall was ‘Salted Sea-Dog skins, green’. Those more knowledgable about railroad operations explained to me that ‘green’ meant unpickled or uncured.

The aggressive job-seeker

In the late 1970’s, when I started programming big iron (IBM mainframes), there were far more programing jobs for experienced programmers than there were experienced programmers. Also, a programmer’s salary tended to double in the first five years–provided he changed jobs. You see, companies had some rigid ideas about how much of a raise an employee should receive each year (sub-inflationary), so programmers typically hopped every year or two for a 20% raise.

Among all of this action, there was one guy who went the extra mile to ensure he landed the optimal job. Rumor has it he accepted two job offers at the same time. He spent one week at the first job while calling in sick at the second one. The second week he worked the second job and called in sick at the first one. At the end of two weeks, he stuck with the job he liked best, and quit the other one. The recounting of his escapade, particularly over a few beers after work, was the subject of much laughter, and while we admired his moxie, I am not aware of another programmer who tried this approach.