February 2024
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Saigon Kid Stories: System Is Down

by Kevin Wells (ACS)

It was the Spring of 1981, and CICS and dumb terminals ruled the data processing world. Being the New Guy where I worked, I got a old one, a VT-30.

How old was it? It was so old it glowed in the dark. I think even the logic circuits were vacuum tubes. It was not the original one, that legend says had Computer screena winding key in the back, but it was ancient and it smelled bad when up to temperature, owing to the decade or so of cookie crumbs and dust cooking away in the innards. It was so old that it took three keys to clear the screen for the next transaction.

When it finally died, I was assigned a newer one, and as far as I could tell, the only difference is that three keys were NOT required to clear the screen, only two keys. The trouble was that by this time, the three-finger salute was well ingrained in my fingers and I had a difficult habit to break.

If you know anything about old mainframe computer installations, you know the disturbance in the Force that accompanies a system failure. Sometimes the language gets a little loud when the indictor at the bottom of the screen goes to ” ? ” or even worse, the dreaded clock face.

When I arrived, system failures existed, but they were relatively rare. When I got the replacement terminal, they increased and I became convinced that the three finger habit I was trying to suppress was the cause. So I, being a good employee, strolled over to the machine room to discuss the problem with the Head Wizard. The Head Wizard, being busy, sent the System Wizard who told me that I should rest easy and that my fears were unfounded, that there was no way that I, a humble User could possibly bring the system down by merely clearing a screen and that I should go back to work and worry no more.

I did not buy it because the correlation was too strong, but being the New Guy, I tried to reform myself and simply not use the old three finger salute to clear the screen. Every so often, I would lapse into my old behavior and do the three finger salute and sure enough, the old system would hit the mat stone cold stupid. So again, I went across the office to talk to the Head Wizard. This time, he was available, listened carefully, and said he did not see how my claim was possible. He called in the System Wizard, who, with a look of great pain and suffering, patiently explained to the User, in simple terms, using only two syllable words, and very slowly that 1) such a thing was impossible, 2) that I, as a User, could not possibly understand the True Reason that such a thing was impossible, and 3) did I not have something better to do than take up the precious time from the Wizards.

It then became official. They were all there in the Head Wizard’s office, having a good laugh at the expense of the poor, dumb, ignorant New Guy User. I was irked, seriously irked, and this required action.

I went back to my office, called the Head Wizard, and when he answered, said “System will be down in 5 seconds, 4….3…..2….1, (I gave the three fingered salute) 50 machines beeped at the same time fifty people said “Oh hell”. and I said “System is Down, I guess you have things to do, how long before the system is up again? You did not have to be at one with the Force to know that there was a disturbance.

There is a silence for about a five count and he said “Would you please not do that again?” It turned out that over 12 years of dragging cable through the dropped ceiling, some cables were, let us say, a little frayed, and while giving the three fingered salute, a 80 volt surge got routed to the communications controller and this is what knocked out the system.

After that, we became the best of friends. I was known as The User Who Could Break Anything, and I had much fun exercising applications before deployment. My personal best was breaking an application program with a repeatable failure in only 5 minutes. Life was good. Is this a great country or what?

2 comments to Saigon Kid Stories: System Is Down

  • Huong


    I remember working on something similar and it was also the CICS screen. We loved the beautiful sound of the “system is down.” That meant we get to leave work early! I also remember my boss said when you hear “system is back up” in the parking lot, you step on the gas pedal. Hard! And don’t look back. – LOL – 🙂

    I salute you!


    • Kevin L. Wells


      With us in South Carolina, it was snow that generated the rush to the parking lot, and if you say the sun on the way home, you just drove home and turned off the ringers on the phone!


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