Short Story Title: The Postmark is Dated One Day after the Deadline

Story Type: Fiction


This Short Story is Chapter Fifteen of "Early Microcomputer Experiences"

Date Written: July 16, 2019

Written By: Joel T. Kant

Copyright (c) July 16, 2019


Over Christmas Break, I picked up the December issue of "Compute!'s Gazette." Josh Cistern had an an article published about clever programming techniques for accomplishing more in a computer with little RAM. His article writing career had taken off.

When I read his article, some of the clever programming techniques went against how we had been told to code on the new Vax mainframe. As an example, with plenty of RAM on the VAX, we were taught to use long and descriptive variable names like DELTA_X rather than DX. We were taught to put in many comments to explain to humans reading the code in great detail. While I had my doubts about how practical this really was, one professor claimed our program should be so clear from the comments that if every line that actually made the computer function was taken out, a programmer reading the comments could recreate it all. On the Vic-20, the included Commodore BASIC did allow comments, but leaving those out was one of the easiest ways to save RAM memory.

I found it odd how what was going on with eight-bit microcomputers to write concise code seemed the opposite of techniques being taught for students learning to code on mainframes. I mentioned that to Dad.

Dad remarked, "At the paper company, programmers earn more money per line of code created. Thus, programmers will use five hundred lines for a job that should only take ten! This policy generates the slowest, most bloated, useless code imaginable. It's union rules, though, so what can anyone do? Maybe people with their microcomputers creating concise, efficient code will take over the programming world."

Soon, New Year's Day was over, and I was back at Cornfield University. I got into a Power Electronics class. It was the first time it had ever been offered. However, I had a scheduling conflict with a new Digital Electronics class that was also being offered for the first time. I had a full load even without that Digital class.

A newly hired EE professor was teaching Power Electronics. This was a class that all EE students had to take, although not all took it this first time it was offered. We used relays, transformers, silicon-controlled rectifiers, thyristors, and three-phase motors. Kevin Hector and I were in this class, although Ted Talker and Jason Miller decided to put it off until the next semester.

As Ted put it, "You two are brave taking a course the first time it is run. I find it works better waiting at least until the second time."

My Vic-20 had become used mostly for word processing. Some professors looked favorably on a typed and printed lab report rather than a handwritten one. That was especially true for Dr. Silver. I had been using Josh Cistern's word processor for the Vic-20 and it was pretty good, with steady improvements by Josh every few months. However, the relatively new magazine "Compute!'s Gazette" in the issue of January 1984 in Issue Seven published a word processor called SpeedScript. Because it was written entirely in machine code rather than BASIC, it performed exceedingly well and fast. There were SpeedScript versions for both the Vic-20 and the Commodore 64, which could work with each other's files. Soon, nearly everybody I knew with a Vic-20 or a Commodore 64 were using SpeedScript as their word processor. There was nothing unique or even too unusual about having a word processor anymore.

Granted, SpeedScript needed at least an eight-kilobyte memory expansion to work on a Vic-20, but so did Josh's word processor. Memory for the Vic-20 had gotten a lot cheaper in the last year, while sales of the Vic-20 itself fell off dramatically as the Commodore 64 was greatly superior and not really too much more money.

I switched to using SpeedScript for my main word processor. The only issue with SpeedScript is that commercial word processors were starting to have spelling checkers, but it did not have one. I did not have the spare cash for a commercial word processor.

Thus, with my word processor now being SpeedScript and owning a printer, my Vic-20 system continued to be an almost unfair academic advantage, but the size of the advantage faded day by day. Having a microcomputer simply was not that uncommon anymore.

One weekday afternoon, Kevin and I were working away on a circuit involving three SCR's and three high power diodes. We were using live line voltage of 120 Volts, so I was nervous and extra careful. That kind of voltage if mishandled can kill a person.

The new professor was at a table of the left of us helping a pair of students wire their circuit properly.

Abruptly, two tables over to the right of Kevin and me, there was a small explosion sound like a loud pop. A young man screamed, with his scream replaced by swearing. Kevin and I turned. I had not seen the accident happen, but I saw the student with a hand to his right eye. He pulled back his hand, and there was blood on it.

The professor shoved by Kevin and I to get to the student.

Kevin pulled me back and said, "Don't crowd in unless we can help with first aid."

The professor looked at the student's face closely, then said, "It's just a little cut in your eyebrow."

The professor left with the student to head to the Student Clinic. The other students got back to work, unsupervised. Because of the 24/7 access all EE students had to the lab room, they commonly worked without supervision. No professors were ever around after around eight pm, after all.

I no longer recall if it was an electrolytic capacitor with reversed polarity that had exploded or an SCR that had too much current pushed through. It had not been a big bang with a typical firecracker being more loud and violent, but it had tossed a metal fragment. The student had his face right over the circuit without his safety glasses on when the accident occurred. The metal piece had cut him drawing blood in his eyebrow. His actual eye was fine. He and the professor came back from the Student Clinic about twenty minutes later. Some tape held white gauzing over the student's eyebrow. Despite the bandage, he and his lab partner got to work diagnosing the circuit with the destroyed part.

Everybody in the room just went on with their work as if this accident had never happened.

Kevin left around five pm to have supper with his wife, while I went to join my roommate Albert Rose and some of his friends at Glenview Cafeteria.

Around seven pm, Kevin and I were back in the lab room working on a circuit for a different EE class. Other students were working in the room, mostly for the new Digital Electronics course.

Around eight pm, Dr. Silver came in and looked around at who was there, then announced, "I'm heading home for tonight. See you all tomorrow."

As usual, the room got most crowded around nine pm.

While Kevin and I were just breadboarding a circuit, other students were soldering circuits together for their Digital Electronics class. Despite prominent and multiple warning signs on the walls and many safety glasses available in a cabinet, I noticed some students soldering without wearing safety goggles.

I went over to them and pointed to the sign on the wall and suggested, "You should wear safety goggles."

Tom Anderson was one of them soldering on his Digital Electronics project and said, "Trying to be our Mom, Joel?"

Bruce Brown was another of them soldering and added, "You're not the professor. You cannot tell us what to do!"

Tom snapped, "What are you doing to do, Joel? Go running to Dr. Silver and snitch! Again!"

Kevin Hector came over and angrily shouted in his Army voice, "Don't you know what happened this afternoon?"

Kevin told the story. Tom, Bruce, and the others soldering had not heard of the accident.

Kevin had just finished the story at about nine-thirty pm when the student himself walked in. He still had the white cloth taped on his eyebrow.

Tom, Bruce, and the others asked him about it. He promised he was fine. He didn't even need any stitches. The student explained what part had blown up and why.

The people soldering seemed reassured that the student's injury was so small. They went back to soldering, still not wearing safety goggles!

I protested, "What are you doing? Look at his eye! Go put on some safety goggles!"

The guy with the bandage said, "I didn't get this soldering. It was a breadboarded circuit in Power Electronics, and a part exploded. No soldering was involved."

Tom said, "Maybe we should put safety goggles on when we solder, guys. Otherwise, the Snitch will be at it again, and Dr. Silver will read us the riot act tomorrow after Joel spills the beans. Again!"

Tom, Bruce, and the others soldering did get and don safety goggles.

At my own bench, Kevin said, "Despite them giving you a hard time, you might have just prevented another accident."

I looked at the circuit we were working in and said to Kevin, "I cannot do any more tonight. See you later."

I grabbed my red toolbox and headed out.

As I left, I heard Tom say, "The Snitch is gone."

I looked back. He was starting to take off his safety glasses. He saw me looking at him, so put them back on. I got out of there.

At my dorm room, Darnell was watching "Scarecrow and Mrs. King" on the TV, sitting on the half-sized couch. Albert was in his desk chair typing away on his Commodore 64.

Albert remarked, "Here's a rare sight. You're home early tonight. It's not even ten pm yet."

I told Albert and Darnell, "I just don't know if I can do this any longer."

Darnell asked, "Still getting a hard time and being called the Snitch?"

Albert remarked, "I thought with your new and successful EE team from last semester that nonsense had been settled."

I said, "After what happened last year, the penalty of reporting things to Dr. Silver seems much too high. Yet, today in Power Electronics with the new professor, we had a major safety violation. A part exploded, and a metal fragment hit a student's eyebrow. If it had been one centimeter lower, he could have lost his eye."

Albert asked, "Was there no supervision?"

I replied, "The professor was there. He's generally pretty good for insisting on safety goggles. He just missed seeing this student had taken his off, I guess."

Darnell said, "It's really not funny that you're worried about telling Dr. Silver an incident like that. I just program computers, so had not thought of physical risk of building circuits. Could that guy really have lost his eye?"

I answered, "It put a nice cut into his eyebrow, so probably. All the other EE students act like having unsupervised 24/7 access to the terminal room and to the lab room is the greatest thing ever. Some idolize Dr. Silver as if he were some sort of religious guru for getting that to happen. They love the open access. It's a form of great camaraderie to be there at one am, two am, or later. I admit the students that do that are accomplishing great things, but sometimes not in a safe manner."

Darnell pointed at the TV and said, "You can finally see what this show is about."

I plopped down on the beanbag chair and said, "I might as well. I'm too frazzled to get anything else accomplished. Oh, no! I just realized if the new professor tells Dr. Silver about the accident, which might be required by university rules since Dr. Silver is the chairman, the other EE students will automatically assume I raced off to tell Dr. Silver! Tomorrow's going to be hell."

It turned out for all the EE courses, all four EE professors gave stern warnings about safety goggles. All four mentioned the accident, and how although not serious this time, we had to obey the warning signs with wearing safety goggles while working with circuits with more the 28 volts applied or when soldering. The assumption among the EE students, other than Kevin Hector, seemed that Joel the Snitch had struck again.

One day, I happened to be in my dorm room. Albert asked me about what summer school at Cornfield University was like last summer. I told him about it. I said that it was intense for the math class of Linear Algebra, but the two humanities classes I took were reasonable even with the compressed summer timeframe.

Albert said, "I've decided to go to summer school. Next year is my Senior Year. I'm a little behind from flunking Calculus the first time, and dropping it in the second attempt. I don't need Calculus for Computer Science here, but that puts me behind in credits. Summer school will catch me up."

I replied, "While I don't need to go to summer school to finish up when Dad demands, I am thinking of going to summer school anyway. It would make my Senior year much easier if I have three more classes out of the way."

Albert suggested, "The dorms don't seem a nice place to stay in the summer. I'm going to stay in the frat house. Almost nobody is there for the summer, so I can stay for the same price as it would cost to stay in the dorms. They're just happy to have anybody there. Even though you failed at becoming a frat member, they might let you stay for the same price. They're desperate for anybody who will stay in the summer and give them a little extra rent money. Something is better than nothing, after all."

I said, "I like that idea! Let's see if that can be arranged,"

A week or two after the student cut his eyebrow, I phoned home. Dad had been promoted to supervisor of a lab at the papermill. When I told the story of the student with the cut eyebrow, which to me seemed old news almost not worth mentioning, Dad got upset. He took the lack of wearing of safety goggles as a serious and systematic problem.

Dad asked with some incredulity, "Students are left unsupervised all night long while doing soldering?"

I replied, "Yes, Dad."

Dad asked, "Who's the chairman of the Electrical Engineering Department?"

I answered, "That's Dr. Silver. He got promoted to it about a year ago when the previous chairman had to suddenly resign due to a bad case of cancer, and died a couple months later."

Dad asked, "So Dr. Silver's the big boss, and he's the one that started the 24/7 lab room access. Tell me, after the incident with the student who cut his eyebrow, how have students been about wearing safety glasses?"

I truthfully answered, "Most students are good about wearing safety goggles until around eight pm or so. After that, it is unlikely any professors will show up for a surprise inspection, so many students went back to their old habit of no safety goggles as they solder."

Dad changed the topic, "I have some good news for you. Tim chose a college. He's going to Minneapolis. He earned a full-ride scholarship."

I replied, "That's fantastic."

Dad took a deep breath, then said, "Since I won't be paying for Tim's college like I expected, you do not have to be done in only two more semesters. I'm not impressed with the education you're getting at Cornfield University. Maybe you should get out of there. During Christmas, you mentioned what your friend Josh Cistern is doing. You could follow his advice and example by getting a Computer Engineering Minor at Bill-of-Rights University."

I could barely believe what I was hearing as I said, "Dad, I will certainly lose classes with a transfer, so it will probably take one more semester for that. Going after the Computer Engineering minor could add still another semester. It would likely require being in college an entire extra year."

Dad declared, "That's not an issue since I'm not paying for Tim's college anymore. You have my permission to transfer. You told me how the EE program is unaccredited there, but I looked the Bill-of-Rights EE program up in the Peterson Guide to Colleges. The Bill-of-Right's electrical engineering programming is accredited and rated in the top twenty in the nation. Rated number fifteen, I think."

I replied, "It isn't really the fault of Cornfield University that EE is not accredited. It can't be because the first graduates are at the end of this semester. It'll be five years after that that before it can be accredited for the first time. I expect it will pass."

Dad said, "Whether it will eventually be accredited or not, I would prefer to have you out of that place even if it does take you an entire year longer. If Dr. Silver ran a lab here at the papermill factory like you describe what is going on down there, he'd be fired! I hope you don't find unsupervised students at Bill-of-Rights University soldering all night while being lax about wearing safety goggles. Think of this. If somebody really did lose an eye, and you knew of the violation of not wearing safety goggles and never spoke up or did speak up and were ignored, then that would be very hard to live with!"

Now that I had Dad's blessing to transfer, I contacted Josh Cistern. He talked to his parents, and I could come up that very Friday and stay through the weekend. Skipping classes on a Friday was not something I would normally ever do, but this was an unusual situation. I found a ride from a guy who lived in Irate City, and had arranged his Cornfield University to have no classes on Friday. That seemed a challenge to me, but he had done it. Granted, he was in humanities major, not in Electrical Engineering or Computer Science. To me, it was a relief that I had found a ride.

It was a comfortable ride in a giant, luxurious, rusty Cadillac. Given the size of this car, I could see why he was happy with a rider contributing gas money! I had never ridden in a full-sized Cadillac before. It felt more like gently floating along even when there were potholes on the road as the big mass of the car just seemed to suck up the vibrations. It was the first time I appreciated the soft ride of a land yacht.

Thus, on Friday, I ended up in the office of Electrical Engineering professor Dr. Skidmark. I sat in front of Dr. Skidmark's desk. His office was crowded with manila folders and textbooks. Dr. Skidmark had a couple business envelopes on his desk.

He looked at me, then at the top envelope, then said, "This is your application to Bill-of-Rights University. The postmark is dated one day after the deadline. I'm sorry, but you cannot be considered."

Disappointed, I nodded and left the office. Josh Cistern was waiting in the hallway.

Josh said, "That visit was much too short to be good news."

I replied, "I'm stuck at Cornfield University. I missed the deadline by one day!"

Josh sighed and said, "That's one thing about this place. The rules are followed to the letter. Well, let's get out of here. I have a big surprise for what we're doing this weekend!"

We had just gotten to the stairwell when Dr. Skidmark popped out of his office and called, "Joel Kant, please come back into my office."

I did so, leaving Josh behind.

Dr. Skidmark smiled and said, "I hadn't looked at the second envelope."

I said, "I recognize the first envelope. It holds my application. What's the second envelope?"

He replied, "It's your official transcript from Cornfield University."

I recalled I had to go to the Registrar and pay five dollars for it to be mailed. The application specified no photocopies of transcripts were allowed, but only official transcripts mailed directly from the university itself.

Dr. Skidmark grinned and said, "The postmark on the transcript envelope is one day earlier! Using this postmark as your date of applying, you just made the deadline after all. Now, let's look more closely at your application and transcript."

The Registrar's office must have mailed the transcript almost instantly after I gave them the five dollars, while the mail with the application itself had not been picked up until the next day from the campus mailbox.

We talked for some time.

Dr. Skidmark told me, "At Bill-of-Rights University if one starts as a Freshman, one has to apply after two years to get from what we call Pre-Engineering into the actual School of Engineering. The programs are overcrowded, so this year, we added overall gpa requirements. It's overall 2.9 or above for Civil Engineering and 3.1 or above for Mechanical. Since Electrical Engineering is by far the most popular, it requires overall 3.5 gpa or above. I see you've got an overall of 3.8. These are good classes too. I see you're done with all three semesters of Calculus and with Differential Equations. Even Linear Algebra is done."

I replied, "I had that last summer."

Dr. Skidmark said, "I'm going to recommend to the dean that you be accepted not just into Pre-Engineering, but into Electrical Engineering. There is almost no chance that he will not follow my recommendation. Welcome to Bill-of-Rights University, Joel."

I thought of something and said, "I was planning on going to summer school at Cornfield University."

Dr. Skidmark asked, "What courses were you planning on taking?"

I named the courses.

Dr. Skidmark informed me, "None of those three courses will help you get through EE here any faster. Here's what we can do. I'll change your admission date from August to June. You can take courses here that will help you complete your EE degree faster. That's not a problem because courses seldom overflow for summer session. You'll find it easy to sublet a place for summer. I don't know if you realize that at Bill-of-Rights University, getting admitted does not automatically get you into the dorms. Over half our students live off campus. It's easy to find a place for the summer as lots of students have one-year leases, yet leave for the summer. I'd recommend while you are here during the summer, hunt for affordable housing. The dorms have a long waiting list, so you may not get in."

The mention of housing for the summer reminded me of something. I hurriedly thought to myself whether I had signed any papers yet at the frat house in Cornfield City. I realized all I had done had been oral. That was important because I was going to have to bail out on that. I wondered how Albert Rose would react to this turn of affairs.

When I got back to the hallway, Josh was still there. I told him the good news. He agreed that finding an inexpensive summer sublet was easy.

Josh then said, "You picked a great weekend to be in Irate City! There's a big science fiction convention downtown! I've been working hard to get ahead in my schoolwork so I'll have this weekend free to go to it. Think of it as a way to celebrate transferring schools!"


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