Gnomie Robert Frederick writes:

Hello, Chris! I thoroughly enjoyed your chat with Earl Thibert; it is nice to know that his disability hasn’t prevented him from being who he wants to be. I applaud him heavily for what he’s doing, though I would love to ask him how he got into computers. I feel bad because I am not as open about having cerebral palsy as he is, but since mine isn’t severe, I just prefer to stand aside and let those who have it worse than I do take center stage. The odd thing is that I was reading this article at CNN.com when you started your chat with Earl.

It’s kind of a sad article, but an example of what can happen when CP is as bad as it gets (not that the parents helped matters, either). The doctors said that I would also be totally dependent on my mother — pretty much a vegetable. Fortunately it didn’t turn out that way, and I had some good teachers that helped me along the way. It was one of these teachers who had a little extra class that involved activities with Apple IIes. I had a lot of fun with these machines. There were five set up along a wall in the library, three of which had ImageWriter printers. I always tried to get one that the printer hooked up to, as I thoroughly enjoyed making it print banners and other things, just to watch the thing work. Lots of fun times.

I have been trying to get an Apple IIe since, though I actually have an ImagreWriter printer now. As computers go, it was utter simplicity in its operation. You turned the thing on and put the appropriate disk in the floppy drive, typed in a command, and away it went. No activation key, no UAC, no blue screens. Just a simple task of waiting for the program to load. Those were the days.

Oddly enough, the desire to build systems didn’t strike me until I met another librarian in about 1991. He had (at the time) a top-of-the-line, IBM 486-based system with Prodigy Internet, an external 14.4 modem, and a Pioneer 12-disk CD-ROM changer. (I have not seen anything like it since.) It outclassed my mother’s Tandy 1000 TL/2 by a country mile (she’s ashamed to admit that she had that system, by the way. Please do not mention it to her). This librarian was an older guy, but knew quite a bit about the system he had. I credit him with pushing me to get more interested in computers.

At this point I was getting pretty good at being able to completely dismantle a handheld game and reassemble it again. Oddly enough, the most logical thing to do in order to learn to build a system was to take one apart. And guess which system I took apart? The Tandy. It also subsequently became the first system I would clean. Successfully putting it back together again was slow, but it resulted in a machine that was much cleaner than it was before. Mother never knew I had done it, either, and the machine worked perfectly for seven more years (before a dead keyboard BIOS finished it off)! It was fun, but it was only one machine and I was starting to want more.

It took a while, but in 1995 I got a pile of 8088 parts and a dead 8088 system to tinker with from my Uncle Joe, who at this point had picked up on the same thing that the librarian had picked up on four years earlier. One day I spread all of the parts out in front of me, and started working. That was pretty much the way it started. I fixed that dead 8088, and built another. Things went faster after that. 8088 parts became 286, 386, and then 486 parts within a year and a half. The same with the operating systems I used. Direct Access 5.1 became Windows 3.11, and Windows 95 just as fast.

My brother-in-law came into the picture about ’96-’97, and from his job came my first DX2 66 processor with more RAM, 98 SE, and later, the first real influx of Pentium class parts. At the time I had replaced my 386 DX 40 system (bought at a yard sale for $20 — my first self-bought system) with a 486 DX 2 66 system with 16 MB of RAM and my first 200+ MB drive running Windows 98 SE. this was the system I first got on the Internet with — using a Sportster 14.4 modem!

It wasn’t long after I started using the Internet regularly that my brother-in-law cued me into an e-mail newsletter that he was a big fan of (can you guess who it was by? He hailed from Des Moines, Iowa). It was my first newsletter subscription. I remember him making that Lockergnome Winamp skin that is now lost to time. For the life of us both, we could never find it — or any copy of it for that matter. I got my first taste of Windows 2000 in 2000, of course! After mother helped me build an AMD 400 MHz system with 64 MB of PC 100 RAM and a whopping 6 GB hard drive. I housed the whole mess in an 11-bay, $35 beige tower that had included a 350w PS.

It’s pretty much a blur after that. Windows 2000 gave way to a much anticipated OS called Windows XP, and the systems I worked on flew by as well Dells, HPs, Compaqs, DECs, eMachines, generics (41 systems [mostly gutted] that someone gave me from an auction), and eventually Macs. They were in all types of conditions from near-mint to an HP that I got a couple of months ago that was probably the worst system that I have ever had to clean. I actually had to take this machine outside to work on it. Roaches are the bane of our existence down here in the Florida Panhandle — not the big kind, but the kind that are apparently small enough to turn a neglected 2 GHz Celeron HP into a massive colony. The person had taken one of my Dell 500 MHz systems in exchange for this thing, which she said was no longer reading CDs. Understatement of the year! If I had known what I was going to be dealing with I would have simply tossed it. I guess if your CD-ROM drive were full of roaches and bugs, it wouldn’t read discs either.

“Brown powder” is apt to describe what came out of this system. I tossed the case, power supply, CD-ROM drive, and floppy drive, and scrubbed the board down with isopropyl alchohol. The original 20 MB hard drive was also salvageable, as it actually was one of the cleanest parts of the machine. I was able to mount the thing in a generic case and basically provide my brother with a 2 GHz Celeron system with 512 MB of RAM and a 20 GB hard drive. All for only the cost of the case and power supply. Not bad, but I wouldn’t do it again!

Anyway I’m sorry for the long email (again), but I figured I would let you know a little more about how I have come to view computers as a lifestyle and as a hobby. My disability has prevented me from doing a lot of sports and sometimes I do wish I could do more than I do, but computers are my outlet, and I pretty much go crazy unless I’m working on one (even when I stay up until 5 in the morning, much to my mother’s dismay). So I shouldn’t complain. Some people say it’s a gift having learned what I have without setting foot in a computer literacy classroom, but I just take it in stride. I build and fix systems, just to do it, be it as a favor, or just to donate the system once I’m through cleaning it. After all, I’d rather someone get a chance to have a system rather than see it go into the trash. It’s been a long road from my first experiences with that Apple IIe all those years ago, but I hope that I have a ways to go yet.