Our second daughter, who is away at college, bought a used PowerBook 5300 a couple of months ago. It was one of those deals that sounded too good to be true, but she went ahead and made the purchase anyway. When she called home to tell us about it I was somewhat skeptical, being a firm believer in the old adage: if a deal sounds too good to be true, it usually is. But Dawn insisted she got the better end of this bargain and assured me the PowerBook worked fine. And it did—a couple of months ago. Now, as Paul Harvey would say, I’m getting “the rest of the story” about this very strange PowerBook.
It all started with Dawn standing in front of the campus bulletin board in the central plaza of Santa Clara University. She was reading the numerous 3×5 cards pinned haphazardly on the board in the hopes of finding a bargain on a used PowerBook. She noticed several cards advertising PC laptops for sale but only one for a PowerBook, and this guy wanted way more money for it than she could afford. Dawn dreaded the thought of having to settle for a PC laptop but time was growing thin. Her senior thesis was due at the end of the school year and it was fast becoming a real pain in the butt having to walk from the house she rents off campus to the computer lab or the library just to work on it. If she didn’t find an affordable PowerBook pretty soon she just might have to settle for one of those cheap Windoze machines.
As she turned to walk away from the bulletin board she almost ran right into a small elderly gentleman who was standing directly behind her. Startled, an involuntary screech of surprise escaped her but she recovered quickly, saying, “Excuse me, sir,” and began walking around and away from the old gent. As she walked she heard him softly say, “Might the young lass be interested in purchasing this fine portable computer?”
“Excuse me?” Dawn said again, turning towards the man. “Did you say something?”
“Indeed I did, lassie. I said, might ye be in the market for a fine portable computer like the one I hold here?”
Dawn looked closer as the old man raised what he was carrying and she saw the unmistakable Apple logo on the closed lid of what was obviously an Apple PowerBook.
“Umm, what kind is it? I mean what model? I can see it’s an Apple.”
The elderly man smiled at Dawn and said, “Of that I’m not sure lassie. Not sure at all. You see, it belonged to me late dear wife and I never paid no mind to such things. I’ve trouble enough operating me confounded electric can opener, I do!”
Dawn smiled at that and moved a little closer. “May I look at it?”
“Surely you may, lassie, surely you may indeed. Let us sit down on this bench so you can inspect the goods thoroughly,” the man said.
Dawn scanned her surroundings in the campus plaza and saw numerous students and faculty members coming and going in all directions. She decided it was safe enough to share a bench with this strange elderly gentleman. If he turned out to be some kind of weirdo, he wouldn’t likely try anything in this public place.
They sat down and the old man handed Dawn the PowerBook. Dawn opened the lid of the machine and immediately recognized it as being a 5300.
“Do you mind if I turn it on, mister?”
“Of course you may, lassie, of course. You turn it on, you shut it off, you take it apart if you feel the need to. Take your time. Do whatever you think is necessary to verify its worth. Oh dear, yes! As I’ve stated, I know nothing of such things, so you take a real close look-see and tell me what you think that contraption is worth. Lord knows I have no use for it. None indeed! Not unless ye can show me how to open cans with it!”
Dawn and the old man both laughed at this. The old man extended his right hand and said, “Me name is McDuff, Harry McDuff.” Dawn took his offered hand. “Dawn Miner, I’m pleased to meet you, Mr. McDuff.”
Dawn turned on the PowerBook and watched as it powered up surprisingly quickly. She opened the ‘About this Macintosh’ in the Apple menu and scanned the information there. Following the words ‘System Software’ where she expected to see the version number of the OS, there was nothing.
“That’s weird!” Dawn said.
“Something wrong, young lady?”
“Yes. It doesn’t say what operating system is installed.”
“Oh me gosh! Is that a bad thing? Might it be broken?”
“No, no I don’t think so. It seems to work fine. It’s, well… just weird.”
Further down in the window next to ‘Total Memory:’ and ‘Largest Unused Block:’ were two more blank spaces.
“Wow! This is even weirder. How much memory is in this machine, Mr. McDuff? Do you know?”
“Oh lass, as I’ve stated before, old Harry McDuff knows nothing of such things, no sir, nothing. Me wife used it all the time. Indeed she did, right up til her last day, she did.”
Dawn continued to search around the computer. She opened the Apple Menu again and was amazed to see the extensive variety of software listed there. Photoshop, Word 98, Illustrator, PageMaker, QuarkExpress, Excel, Quicken, FreeHand, KPT Bryce, Painter, Live Picture, CodeWarrior and lots more, some of which she had never heard of. There were thousands of dollars worth of software installed on the machine!
She double-clicked the Hard Disk icon on the desktop to find out how much disk space was being used, but again that information was blank. Blank MB in disk and Blank MB available. She opened the Memory control panel only to find more blank space where the pertinent information should have been. Stymied by this, Dawn began opening applications one by one to see how many apps she could open before the machine ran out of memory.
She chose the memory intensive programs first. Each one opened in less than 3 seconds. She gave up after counting twenty-seven open applications, the last one opening just as quickly as the first.
What Dawn didn’t notice as she was opening applications on the PowerBook was the student sitting on the grass some twenty feet away. The student was putting the finishing touches on a Biology report that was due in less than an hour. She didn’t notice the screen on the students laptop as it faded to black. She also didn’t notice or even hear as the student raced his fingers over the keyboard, saying , “No, no, no! Don’t do this to me!” Neither did Dawn notice when the student slammed the lid of his laptop closed and walked away quickly, heading for the computer lab on the other side of the plaza, mumbling something that sounded like, “I’m dead meat! I’m sooo much dead meat!”
The student wouldn’t find any help for his problem in the lab because when he walked in he saw that they were having problems of their own. Two of the desktop PCs that were being used by other students had gone down the same road as his own laptop. And the two on-duty lab techs were occupied trying to figure out what happened.
Dawn was unaware of any of this. She was too busy being impressed by the old man’s PowerBook.
“This is some computer you have here, Mr. McDuff. Other than a small glitch that won’t allow certain information to display, it seems to work perfectly. Better in fact than the brand new G3 computers in our computer lab. Unfortunately, it’s worth a whole lot more than I can afford to pay.”
“Is that a fact now? How excellent! Yes yes, how excellent that ye can get some use out of a contraption that I have no use for. We must strike a deal. I insist we must come to agreement.”
“As I said, Mr. McDuff, I couldn’t afford…”
“Nonsense, my dear!” Harry McDuff interrupted, “a deal is waiting to be struck here, I kin feel it in me bones. And Harry will see to it. Yes he will indeed!
And Harry McDuff did see to it that an agreement was reached, in the most bizarre illogical use of mathematics Dawn had ever witnessed.
The old man had Dawn write down on a piece of paper what she thought the PowerBook was worth, while he jotted down a number that he would be willing to sell it for.
Taking into account all the high dollar software inside the machine and knowing she couldn’t afford even half this amount, she scribbled $2000 and handed the paper to Mr. McDuff.
“Oh me gosh, lookee here!”
He showed Dawn the number he had written down. It was $20.
“Looks like ye have too many zeros and I not enough. We must fix that, yes we must!”
The old man crossed out one of the zeros on Dawn’s paper and added a zero to his.
“There ye be, lassie. Our numbers are now the same. ‘Tis more than me wanted, ‘Tis less than it’s worth. A bargain for the both of us, wouldn’t ye agree?”
“Mr. McDuff, as tempting as your offer sounds I must tell you that this computer is worth substantially more than two hundred dollars.”
“Are ye trying to back out of our deal, young lady?”
“Well, no sir. It’s just that…”
“Kin the young lass pay the two-hundred dollars we just agreed upon?”
“Then pay me the money and the contraption is yours. We both walk away feeling satisfied that we made a good deal.”
Not believing her good fortune, Dawn reached into her purse and pulled out her checkbook and ATM card.
“If you’re absolutely sure about this, Mr. McDuff, it will only take me a minute to walk across the plaza and get your money out of the bank machine over there.”
“No need to do that, lassie. No need indeed. Ye kin write old Harry McDuff a check. Yes, yes, a check will suffice.”
So Dawn wrote out a check for $200 payable to Harry McDuff. She thanked him kindly, and stood up with the PowerBook. As they shook hands Harry said one last thing.
“I ‘spose ye should know what me dear wife Helen told me ’bout that contraption just ‘fore she died. She told me it was a magic machine, she did. Said it did things other computers couldn’t do. Told me to find a good home for it after she was gone. Made me promise it would get used and not just sit in me closet.
“I am afraid me Helen’s mind was failing ‘er towards the end. I ‘spose it were all her pain medication made ‘er talk crazy like that. Magic computer indeed! Not magical enough to keep me Helen alive though. No indeed! Not that magical.”
Dawn felt bad for the old man rambling on about his deceased wife and would have spent more time with him but she had a Communication class in twenty minutes. She explained this to Harry and took her leave.
Walking away, an idea struck Dawn. She whirled around to ask Mr. McDuff if he would care to have dinner with her that evening. But Harry McDuff was already gone.
From where Dawn stood the view in the plaza was unobstructed for twenty yards in every direction. A sprinter couldn’t have fled from view in the few seconds Dawn had her back turned. Yet, he was gone. As though he’d never been there at all.
“The spookiest thing I’ve ever witnessed!” my daughter told me in a phone conversation.
“You know what else, Dad?” He never cashed the check! It’s been over two months and that $200 check still hasn’t cleared my bank! I don’t think it ever will.
“I tried to track him down in the phone book with no luck. I inquired at the school administration, thinking he or his wife may have been on the faculty. I even called the local hospitals and researched the obituaries for the last two months. Nothing!
“You got any ideas, Dad?”
“Yes I do.” I told my daughter. “First thing you do is contact the university’s security. Explain it all to them and ask if they can run a check on the PowerBooks serial number through the local police department to see if it shows up as stolen property. If it does, I suggest you turn the PowerBook over to them, stop payment on the check, and start looking for another computer. If it isn’t stolen, then maybe the police can provide you or your school’s security with information on the registered owner of that particular serial number. I’m sure Apple has that information on file. It’s just a question of whether they’ll release it to you.”
“Okay Dad, thanks. I’ll try that and let you know what I come up with. Luv ya!”
Three days later Dawn called me again.
“This is turning into Twilight Zone material, Dad!”
“What are you talking about, honey?”
“The PowerBook! It’s bizarre!”
“Oh yea, what did you find out?”
“You’re not going to believe this Dad, but I almost got arrested for making false statements to the police!”
“WHAT!” What are you saying? Is that thing stolen? Is that it?”
“Not hardly, Dad. In fact this PowerBook and all the expensive software inside it is legally registered and on file as being purchased by one Dawn Miner of Santa Clara, Ca., the address on file is my current address. The date of purchase on the PowerBook was September 1st, 1995. Guess what? I wasn’t living here on September 1st, 1995!”
“The old man must have transferred your name to the registration, honey. No big deal.”
“Nope. Not according to Apple. They show me as the original buyer.
“The police asked me if this was some sort of joke and said I could get in trouble for making a false claim or false statement or some such thing. I apologized and said I must have made a mistake and got the heck out of there.
“Well, Dad, what do you think? What’s going on here?”
“I don’t know, kiddo, but I’m sure there’s an explanation for it. Whether or not it’s a reasonable one is a question.
“How’s the PowerBook working for you otherwise, Dawn?
“Well… okay, I guess. It does some strange things, or at least gets accused of doing some strange things.”
“Like what?” I asked.
“Like making other computers around it crash when I turn it on.”
“I thought so too, and attempted to make light of it by telling my friends they should have bought a Mac instead of a PC. But Shauna, Penelope, and Jessie have all lost big chunks of their theses because their computers have been crashing a lot lately, and I feel pretty badly about that.”
“That’s not your fault.”
“They say it only happens when I’m in the house and only when I’m using my PowerBook. And whenever I take the PowerBook to the library to do some work, there’s always one or two of their machines that goes bonkers while I’m there.”
“Has your PowerBook ever crashed or frozen up?”
“Never. It runs so smoothly and so fast that I sometimes think it knows what I want to do next before I even know it. Like the other night in my room, I was racking my brain searching for the right words to string together to explain the importance of journalistic ethics while on the trail of a particularly dicey political story. Finally getting my thoughts together, I looked up at the PowerBook screen and there it was, three full paragraphs of eloquently stated information that I didn’t even know I had typed. I must have typed it while I was thinking about it and being as tired as I was—it was 3:00 AM—I just didn’t realize it.”
“What were you doing up at 3 AM?”
“I try not to use the PowerBook while the other girls are using their PCs.”
“Just trying to keep the peace, Pops!”
“Still, it’s ridiculous.”
“You might not think so after I tell you this next little tidbit.”
“The battery in the PowerBook. I never have to charge it.”
“So? You wouldn’t need to if you always ran it off the AC adaptor.”
“I don’t have an AC adaptor, Dad. I’ve used this PowerBook every day since I bought it from Harry McDuff and not once have I charged the battery. Heck, I don’t even have a battery charger! You know what I think, Dad? I think that whenever I turn it on, it gets its power from the nearest available computer. I also think it borrows whatever memory it needs from available computers in the area. Strike that! Make that available PCs, as it doesn’t seem to effect any of the Macintosh machines.”
“You’re not taking drugs or anything like that, are you?”
“DAAAAD! Of course I’m not! You know that!”
“I know, kiddo. It’s just that what you’re saying is so… so… unbelievable!”
“Tell me about it! Hey, I gotta run Pops. I’ll be graduating in a few weeks and then you can take this PowerBook and turn it inside out and figure out what the deal is with it. Till then I need it to finish my thesis. I’ll just be a little more careful where I turn it on. Luv ya, and tell Mom the same. Bye!”
So, now you all know as much as I do about my daughter’s mysterious PowerBook 5300. Is it possessed? Is it magical? Who was this likable little Scot, Harry McDuff? What happened to him? What happened to the uncashed $200 check? These are questions I ponder every day. But until I see this machine for myself I will withhold any judgement as to my daughter’s sanity.