I have loved programming computers since I wrote my first program on my Commodore VIC-20 back in grade 9 (that would be 1982 – damn I’m old). I also got pretty good at it, which explains why I’m still doing it over 30 years later. Being a programmer has had many rewards for me over the years, and one of the perks (before Sybase/SAP, anyway) was travel. I worked for Microsoft in Redmond, Washington for four months on my last university co-op work term, and flew out there again a few months later for grad interviews. While working for Corel, I went to New York City for a day. I was only at Comnetix for three years, but while I was there I went to Boston countless times (roughly once a month for those three years, sometimes for weeks at a time), Washington DC, New York City (again, for a day), Ottawa, San Francisco twice, Naples Florida, and I would have gone to Spain for a project if I hadn’t already had a vacation booked at the time. In my sixteen years at Sybase, I’ve only been on three business trips, all to Baltimore, but now that I have a family, I’m fine with that.
But my very first programming-related trip was to Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania. Now I know the programmers among you are wondering “Damn, Graeme, how did you score that?” This is a place that I would wager very few of you have ventured. And if you actually used the term score, you have definitely never been.*
When I was in grade 12 (this would be the spring of 1986), a few of us were asked by our computer science teacher Miss Gray if we wanted to participate in a programming contest run by the American Computer Science League. We would be given a few questions, and we’d have a limited amount of time to write programs to answer the questions. This sounded like fun, so we entered and did really well – well enough to garner a trip to the finals. And not just the Canadian finals, this was for high school students across Canada and the US. (Actually, another guy that went, Faisal, reminded me that we didn’t actually make the finals, but some other team wasn’t able to make the trip so we took their place.) The finals were held in, you guessed it, Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania. Five of us were chosen to go: me, Faisal, Glen M., Glen F., and Paul. Miss Gray and our school principal Mr. Peleschak came too.
Mr. Peleschak was an interesting guy. He was the principal of the school for our entire five years there. He was an older gentleman, very friendly, almost grandfatherly. He had a full grey beard and always wore a smile. Back in the politically incorrect past, every school day began with a recording of O Canada followed by the Lord’s Prayer. (I remember being a defiant atheist and not bowing my head during the prayer. I was such a rebel.) There were numerous different recordings of the Lord’s Prayer, all done by Mr. Peleschak himself, and all different in some way. For example, in some he said “forgive us our trespasses”, others had “forgive us our sins”, and still others had “forgive us our debts”. His various forms of prayer earned him the nickname “The Pope”. Note that this was not a Catholic school.
We all drove down in Mr. Peleschak’s van, and I think I remember more about the trip down and back than the contest itself. iPods were still 15 years away, so a few of us brought tapes and Walkmans (Walkmen?) to listen to music. Mr. Peleschak said he would put our tapes in the van’s tape player so we could all listen, but we’d have to alternate – one of our tapes, then one of his. This was OK with us, except that all of his were John Denver. I wasn’t much of a John Denver fan at the time and after that trip, I’m still not. But I don’t think Mr. Peleschak was much of a Triumph or Van Halen fan, so I guess we were all even. Mr. Peleschak also smoked a pipe, so now and again the van was filled with pipe smoke (though I believe he opened a window when he lit it). Certainly by the end of the drive I was sick of the smell, but I did have to admit it was better than cigar or cigarette smoke.
The contest was being held at Elizabethtown College, and all the competitors stayed in residences there. Faisal and I were in one room (foreshadowing our time at the University of Waterloo, when we were roommates or housemates for almost four years), the two Glens were in another, and Paul was the lucky one who got to bunk with Mr. Peleschak. Miss Gray got her own room. I have no memory of what we did for food, or even how many nights we were there. Everyone got a welcome package, though the only thing I remember it including was a baby blue frisbee with “American Computer Science League” on it. Outside the residence where we were staying was a large open area. I don’t remember if it was a football field or just a big green space but much of the time we were there, there were blue frisbees flying all over the place. Twenty-seven years later, I still have mine (pictured above). The words have faded a little, but it’s still functional. It takes a lot to break a frisbee, when you think about it.
The contest itself was a complete disaster for our team. Each team could request the types of computers they needed, and we asked for Commodore PETs, which were the computers we were using at school. When we arrived, we found that they had provided us with the right machines though an older model. But the problem was that they had a different language installed. The machines shipped with a version of the BASIC language, but our school computers were using Waterloo Structured BASIC**, which was BASIC with extra stuff added. We were forced to adapt to using regular BASIC, and while not a huge disadvantage, it was certainly frustrating and distracting. I don’t remember where we finished exactly, but I have a feeling we might have had full solutions for one or maybe two of the five questions, and partial solutions for the rest. And I think “partial solution” is pretty generous. In short, we got smoked.
The way home should have been memorable, since we stopped at Hersheypark in nearby Hershey for a day of fun. But the only thing I remember about that part of the trip were the street lights in town (shaped like Hershey Kisses) and the fact that many of the street names were chocolate-related. I have no memories of the park itself, though apparently we played mini-golf, since Miss Gray wrote something in my grade 12 yearbook about that.
About a year and a half after this contest, I began my studies at the University of Waterloo, though I didn’t choose computer science as a major until second year. I guess my next computer-related trip was to Seattle in 1991 to work at Microsoft. That trip was pretty memorable as well, but you always remember your first.
* – That was just a joke, really. I have no negative memories of Elizabethtown itself, though we made fun of the place while we were there because it was so small. We lived in a town of about 50,000 just outside of Toronto, a city of 4 million. Elizabethtown had a few thousand people and wasn’t close to anything big. At one point we saw three people walking together and Faisal said “hey look, an Elizabethtown gang!”
** – This ended up being an interesting coincidence years later. Waterloo Structured Basic was developed by a company called Waterloo Computing Systems, which later renamed itself WATCOM. In 1994, WATCOM was acquired by Powersoft, and a year later Powersoft was acquired by Sybase. I started working for Sybase, in the same office where WATCOM was located and with many of the same people, in 1997. We’ve moved buildings but I’m still there, and some of the people who were on the languages team in the ’80s are also still there though many have moved on and some have retired.