The First Time

I was young, gullible and naive. That first experience would leave a mark on my psyche that would never be erased. It was even more frightening because it would colour all my future associations. I was, you see, no longer innocent.

My name is Raoul Johann Lightyears. I am not proud of what I will divulge in this tome. It is painful to go back, very painful. To remember the hurt and degradation that I experienced is in no way cathartic. Many years of therapy have passed. Only now do I feel mentally strong enough to tackle the outrageous circumstances of my fall. That I would never be the same again, I would not know until years later. The scars were invisible, but the painful open wound of what happened has left me a victim of circumstance. Let this be a warning to all.

My descent began in 1965. I was as green to the work force as an avocado in Chile. I had called, in response to their advertisement for a junior inventory control position, for an interview with a Toronto manufacturing firm. While waiting to be interviewed, I could not help noticing the tall blond young woman with heavily mascaraed eyes who sat across the room from me. We chatted quietly as we waited with nervous apprehension of our fast approaching interviews. I learned that she was applying for a secretarial position. She could only have been described as vivacious, and she had a very noticeable British accent which accentuated her mystique. I was infatuated immediately and prayed that we would be working together. It appeared that my prayers were answered when, two weeks later, I learned that we had both been hired.

Charlene and I became fast friends, perhaps because we began our employment at the same time. Whatever the reason, a strong kinship developed between us. We were close in age, although she seemed much more sophisticated. I thought it was her charming accent that added to the sophistication, and that was partially true. It took me a while to discover that she had azure eyes because all I noticed, at first, were the black penciled eyebrows and mascaraed lashes. Those brows and lashes stood out clearly from one end of the office to the other.

Shortly after I joined the company, I learned that it was having a great deal of trouble with its manual inventory. The steel products it manufactured contained thousands of small parts: nuts, bolts and the like. It was hell to keep track of, and worse to count at inventory time. That counting and reordering of small parts was one of my responsibilities. The executives of the firm decided that the solution was to get one of those new main frame computers. At that time, they were large cumbersome units, but the promise of solving the company’s inventory dilemma was so great that there did not appear to be any other viable solution.

Computers were something I knew little about and, to be honest, it was not an area that attracted me. Since I was a new and junior employee, I was not privy to any decision making. In fact, in hind sight, I suppose I could have made as intelligent a decision as the final one decided on. My firm called in a computer company named International Business Machines. Its name sounded as impressive as its work was mysterious. I was not totally unaware of its existence but, as I mentioned, it was not central to my lifestyle at the time. What I knew for certain was that, on the outskirts of Toronto, in one of the city’s newest industrial parks, IBM was building a massive complex. It was by far the largest building I had ever seen. It was surrounded by acres of manicured green lawn accentuated with strands of poplar and birch trees. The setting was more idyllic than many suburban homes. I would have to wait until the late eighties and nineties to see a similar large structure. Now, of course, every Home Depot or Wal-Mart dwarfs that early big box building, although the newcomers have replaced the manicured lawns with asphalt and painted parking spots.

The marketeers from IBM, as I prefer to call them, came in and, after a cursory examination of our requirements, set about tearing down walls and rebuilding one quarter of our office space to house our supposed salvation. A special air conditioning unit was also installed specifically for the Big Blue Machine’s comfort. It was imperative that the temperature not fluctuate widely or IBM’s baby might suddenly malfunction. It was a large bulky affair utilizing punch cards and, oh yes, blinking lights. The unit itself measured approximately eight feet long by three feet deep by five feet high. As a disinterested observer, I noticed that the blinking lights worked fine but the cards did not work so well, since the information they supplied did nothing to improve our inventory problems.

Charlene was assigned to the new group set up to care for the machine’s needs. Soon, she was pushing buttons and plucking out cards from slots like she was born to the job. I would poke my head into the computer room occasionally to chat but the icy stares that were returned to me from the “group” indicated that I should desist and not throw the room temperature out of kilter.

To make matters worse, Dave, the IBM technician assigned to our firm to oversee the project, had a supercilious manner that was not conducive to Charlene’s and my personal harmony either in or out of the office. In fact, I had a hunch he was also attracted to those mascaraed eyes. I could see the two of them through the half glass door, talking and smiling while the computer lights blinked in amusement. I was sure that machine knew what was going on as well as I, and was insidiously rubbing my nose in the situation with each blink.

My only consolation was that Dave’s arrogance and decision making, not unlike IS personnel today, was reaping its own reward. He would make sweeping changes to the company’s procedures which, in turn, disrupted one department after the other. Many hours of fruitless adjustments would pass, only to have the original procedures reinstated. There was much hair pulling and gnashing of teeth and the general office morale, I was told, was at its lowest ever. Several general staff members and one department head quit in disgust.

I was in a snit as well. Dave, I felt, was making some serious moves on Charlene. Although she insisted she was only concerned with the advancement of her career, I continued to have uneasy feelings about our situation. She began to make odd excuses about previous appointments when she broke our dates, once even going so far as to say she had to wash her hair. I could understand her concern since she was very particular about her appearance. But, to me, her hair and just about everything else was perfect. One thing she did voice a complaint about was the fact that I did not have an automobile. Dave, on the other hand, had a shiny new Chevy convertible. When I took Charlene out, we rode the red rocket which, in Toronto, meant public transportation.

Another crack in the wall, that I had mentally built around Charlene and myself, was my derision of what was fast becoming the office computer disaster. Despite Dave’s knowledge of the workings of the IBM unit, and his ongoing tweaking and adjusting of it, the inventory procedure and results continued to be dismal. I could barely hide my glee at the growing disaster. I’m afraid my air of smugness was not lost on Charlene. She berated me soundly on my insensitivity to a very difficult internal company problem and declared her loyalty to the “group” and, worse from my perspective, to Dave.

It appeared that Charlene’s and my relationship was hanging by the same thread as the IBM computer’s solution to our company’s inventory dilemma. The final fiasco occurred at the year end inventory. This was make or break time. The IBM was happily blinking its multi-coloured lights. At least the lights were working. Dave was monitoring this crucial inventory card run while Charlene was fussing and running about. It was very clear that much was at stake. The entire office staff had their collective fingers crossed–all except one. Me.

Charlene stopped fussing and looked to Dave. He nodded solemnly and Charlene pushed the crucial button to begin the punch card run. With an external appearance of efficiency, the cards began to spit out into their collective slots. The speed with which the cards spewed out was impressive. Charlene was at one end of the machine and Dave at the other, while I was nonchalantly loitering at the half glass door to the computer room. I quickly returned to my work station when the president and general manager came personally to view this crucial run.

In an amazingly short time, the run was complete and Charlene was briskly efficient in yanking the first cards from their slot. She scanned the top card quickly and her azure eyes widened in fear so that her face, combined with the heavy mascara, was not unlike a grotesque death mask. The punch cards, it seemed, were punched in the wrong place and the information they held was useless.

One year had passed, and our inventory was still in a shambles. The company had invested over $1M, at that time a very sizable sum, in an effort to solve a major problem, and IBM had let us down. My company quietly accepted defeat and decreed the experiment a failure. I suppose that my psyche never recovered from that example, and I never trusted anything Big Blue offered again. Short years later, when smaller more personal IBM compatible computers appeared, I was not in the least interested. Even when I heard of the ease of use of the Macintosh, I could not bring myself to try it, so fearsome had been my first encounter with computers. Only after several years with my psychiatrist, Ellen, was I able to get over the trauma and purchase a computer on my own. Ellen’s intuitive and compassionate understanding helped me come to terms with what I considered, at the time, to be a major betrayal by IBM. I owe an invaluable debt to Ellen and to her beautiful mascaraed eyes.

Oh yes, Charlene and I broke up shortly after the IBM mess. I decided to leave, as I was still reeling from the double whammy of our disintegrating relationship and the IBM failure. She later married the president of the company who left his wife and three children. I lost touch with her since we ran in different circles. Dave also left, destination unknown. Three months later, I found a much more interesting position at Max Factor Cosmetics and was instrumental in bringing their newest eye makeup called “Eye for an Eye” to market. It was years before the competition could match our smearless wear-it-to-bed mascara. It was there where I met my wife, a brunette and Max Factor model. Next year, we celebrate 15 years of marriage. By the way, she prefers the natural look and never wears mascara.

Ralph J. Luciani

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