DEATH AT THE ROUNDTOP 
Thursday, August 23, 2018, 09:49 AM
Posted by Administrator


My brother-in-law and I were talking on the phone, yesterday, about his post near-death experience which was communicating with the hospital whose doctor almost killed him. He had written to the hospital saying, more or less, that they had messed up bad when they failed to diagnose his pulmonary embolism (potentially fatal blood clot in his lung...he had had clots in his legs in the past, appeared at the hospital with serious heart-related symptoms that came and went, and was sent home with unhelpful medicine only to, later that day, sit gasping for breath at the foot of the steps at his house until a neighbor came and called an ambulance). The diagnoses should have been fairly straightforward (clots in the past...look for clots).(Yes...my guess, the night of the ambulance call was correct...and, those who know me knew I would mention that.)

The hospital should have been too embarrassed at their stupidity to send a bill to Medicare or to to bill Jim for co-pays. Anyway, the hospital responded to his letter, someone from the hospital called....they offered to wipe out his bill, pay back insurance, and, maybe, give him money on top of that. They'll phone him again next week, the caller said. (Cynical note: The hospital mainly called so that he would confirm that he was now okay and they would know their exposure was limited---in that he wasn't dead or almost dead.)

Would this have happened in Florida (Jim lives in Vermont)? I don't think so: it is awfully hard to file a malpractice case, we all love and protect doctors so much that our legislature makes it very hard to sue and, here, we aren't like those unsophisticated Vermonters---we don't admit to anything. I don't know the med-mal laws in Vermont but, in Florida, it is hard to get anything except in the most egregious cases of obvious and devastating doctor-wrongdoing. Dead? You had better have been married or have kids under the age of 18. (Note: A Florida hospital would have called to confirm that the patient was now okay...but, the conversation, I believe, would have gone nowhere after that.)

Jim and I then got to talking about the man I killed back in the late 1970s: Earl Friant.....the business manager of the Red Hook School District in Red Hook, NY (on the Dutchess County side of the Kingston- Rhinebeck bridge across the Hudson River in slightly upstate New York). My brother-in-law and my sister visited around there last weekend and that's how we got on the subject.

About 40 years ago, Earl and I and a couple of dozen other people were having a luncheon in Kingston, NY at the Roundtop Restaurant. This luncheon was going to set me up for some big computer system sales. Here is what happened to Earl:

In the mid and later 1970s, most small computers did not work in the sense that they did not do what salesmen (like me, at the time) promised they would do. This was more to do with software than with hardware. But, to be clear, the hardware back then also was not-so-great: One program (I think they call them "aps", now), ran at a time----not two or three or four, all in different "windows"; storage space took up a file-cabinet-size box and held a fraction of what the 1st generation iPhone holds; processing time was slow (remember...if you are old...the description of how a Volkswagen Microbus went up hills "It will go uphill but bring a book."?....sort of like that); there was no public access internet. Why the small businesses and small governments (towns, villages) we sold to would ever spend $50,000 - $200,000 on a mini-computer in the 1970s was a big question mark in my mind.

North of where we were, in Syracuse, NY, a man in his early 30s named Gordon Corbin was the business manager of their local school district and one of his jobs (same with Earl)was to produce the dozens of reports that the State of New York Dept. of Education required, every month, if Gordon's school district was going to get their funding. One day a salesperson from the Burroughs Corporation came to him and said, more or less: "We have a computer system that will automatically produce all of the reports for New York and save you hundreds of hours of time and labor. Want to buy one?"

It was the mid-1970's and Gordon must have optimistically thought: transistor radios have been invented, technology is at a zenith, a man has gone to the moon, how could things go wrong? Unfortunately, the Burroughs salesperson was lying to get the sale.

Burroughs delivered a computer (a "B700", I think) to Gordon's office. It was the size of a desk and a file cabinet and had a keyboard and flashing lights and a punch tape drive to get it started. It had two printers: one, a "dot matrix" that sped across the 3 foot long platen (the round, black tube in a typewriter that turns round and round and feeds the paper in and out) from one end to the other stopping and buzzing at seemingly random intervals along the way and the other a faster printer that used a continuous chain, like a bicycle chain made out of letters, and a hammer beating on the chain to print on paper fed from open boxes of blue and white, pin fed computer paper that sat on the floor underneath the machine. Within a day or the machine arriving, the Burroughs salesperson, no doubt, was on site trying to get the software he's sold to Gordon to do what he promised Gordon that it would do.

But.......come on, it wasn't ever going to happen. The salesman only had two things to rely on: 1) An off-the-shelf Burroughs program that did some accounting but had nothing specific for New York Dept. of Education reports, and 2)His branch's programmer a young man or woman who likely had about two months of experience in computer programming since graduating from a small public college somewhere in the snowbelt of upstate New York; had no previous experience with anything resembling Burrough's odd operating system; had no help from corporate...or anyone else; had a dozen other jobs to do for other salesmen who promised whatever-they-could-think-of to their customers in order to make their sale; knew nothing about NY Dept. of Education reports; and whose current goals in life were to get a girlfriend and get a job with a company that used the operating system every other company was using and make real money...though not necessarily in that order.

After the debacle of the $100,000+ computer that didn't do what was promised, the school District sued Burroughs! Really though, it didn't. Instead, Gordon hired a programmer named Steve Brightbill to write the software and, he did. And, it worked.

Was Gordon in danger of losing his job after buying a system that didn't work? I dunno (though I do know of at least one person who lost their job as a direct result of my selling the organization they headed a $150,000 system that didn't work. In my defense, my employer told me that it worked and even showed the customer and I a "working" model.)

So, Gordon and Steve got the system running. Gordon then left the school district and he and Steve started a company named BrightCore to market their New-York-State-specific school system accounting and report generating system. It was going to save school business managers lots of time and get their schools lots of money. Since the Brightcore system ran on a Burroughs computer and since Burroughs used an odd operating system that didn't run on other companies' systems, BrightCore teamed up with Burroughs to sell their system. In the mid-Hudson valley, I was the "Territory Manager" for the government and school "line of business".

I was barely out of college, owned a few cheap suits that I wore with un-ironed white shirts and nylon ties, drove a Renault R17 Gordini (purple, fantastic seats, roll back top.........but I needed that book if I was driving uphill) and I had 8 months in the business when it came time to get Gordon and Steve and Earl together. Earl figured in not just because he was the business manager at Red Hook Central Schools (which was in my territory)but also because he LOVED Burroughs. He had been using one of our systems for years for budgetary accounting. Here is what his system did:

The operator would sit behind what appeared to be a long desk with a keyboard on the left-hand side. To the right was a rolling bin full of 8 1/2 X 14 ledger cards and, running along the right edge of each card was a 14" strip of magnetic tape....like the tape you find in a cassette or reel-to-reel tape recorder (remember those). There was, for example, a ledger card for each employee. Let's call one of them "Ed Bender" (Ed, in fact, was the manager of my branch....he was all of 26 years old and he arrived a week or two after I was hired by the former manager who had, a few days after I was hired...had been fired and then escorted out the door). Ed was large, overweight man a round face, a mop of black hair with bangs across his forehead and a black mustache that ran from one side of his upper lip to the other but did not touch the lip or extend past either edge. (He was at the luncheon.)

Anyway, it's Thursday and time to cut Ed's paycheck. The operator of the Burroughs machine took Ed's card out of the bin, "dunked" it into a card reader on the right hand side of a 2' long platen. The machine read from the magnetic stripe: Ed's name and pay rate, the operator typed in Ed's hours for the week, the machine did the math and typed out his check, the card was automatically updated with new totals for the year, the info was simultaneously printed out on green and white pin fed computer paper, the operator pulled Ed's card out and then moved on to the next employee. Same thing for paying vendors and it could print all kinds of standard accounting reports which the machine would print out on pin fed green and white papers. Big time saver over doing everything by hand.

When Earl had a problem... Burroughs techs raced across the Kingston-Rhinebeck Bridge to Red Hook to fix it. But, on the other hand, Earl was a very smart man and was able to take this early 70's technology and make it work for him. Many other customers took these $5,000-$15,000 machines with their early 70's technology and put them out back with the trash.

Here was the plan: We were going to have a luncheon with Earl and Gordon and Steve at a local restaurant....the Roundtop....right off the Kingston-Rhinebeck Bridge and up a small hill immediately North of the New York Thruway exit in Kingston. If you were on your way from Kingston to Woodstock (where the Woodstock Music Festival did NOT happen) in the 1970s, you would have seen the sign.

We would invite lots of local school business managers. Steve and Gordon would demo their machine. Earl would say how great Burroughs was, we would make a bizillion sales, I would (eventually) and I would get commission from all of them......it was a brilliant success in the making.

I don't remember the turnout. 20? 25? We sat around a long table and ordered lunch. I was sitting to Earl's right--in the middle of the table. Gordon was at the head of the table. Earl ordered a Reuben sandwich.

Let me say now that Earl, at 50 or so years old, was a big man......6'2"? 250 pounds? (By which I mean 300 pounds). Red hair, ruddy complexion, and BIG. So, when he took that first bite of his Reuben sandwich and leaned back in his chair and his head lolled back a little bit and he was about to go over....there was no stopping him. He hit the floor with a "thud". This next part is something I think about frequently:

I don't remember why I was watching Earl take the bite but I remember the bite and I remember Earl toppling backwards onto the floor... as it it were last week and not 40 years ago. It runs through my mind every few days, even now. Earl landed sprawled on the floor mostly on top of the chair he had been sitting on. Laying there, he looked same as always except his cheeks may have been a little redder than usual and his lips looked livery and, maybe, they were quivering a little. He wasn't making a sound. He wasn't moving at all. I said, in an authoritative voice to everyone at the table: "He's choking!"

In my defense, the Heimlich maneuver was just becoming well known. I don't think I'd heard of CPR yet (it first began being taught to the public in the early 70's). Earl had just taken a bite of the Reuben. I thought the Reuben was still in his mouth. I figured it was stuck.

In retrospect, I think I should have known that if he were choking, he would have made some noises, grabbed his throat, thrashed around. In my defense, though I had my Red Cross Junior Lifesaving Card since I was 12 or 13 (it is possible it was in my wallet at the time all this was happening), we weren't near water and Junior Lifesaving pretty much concentrated on water rescues and left out absolutely every other possible peril. Also, I was the youngest one there (not an excuse, just a statement).

In response to my call for help with Earl choking, Gordon (also a big man...) came over and he and I (maybe some other people, too....maybe Ed) hoisted Earl up and, once he was vertical, Gordon grabbed around his waist, which was an awfully big waist and it was likely that only Gordon had the wingspan to do it, and yanked. Nothing happened. After a few tries, we laid Earl back down.

An ambulance came. Ed and I followed it, in Ed's car, to the hospital. We went to the ER. A doctor came out after a few minutes and told us that Earl had died of a heart attack, that there was nothing we could have done and (because I asked him) that I hadn't killed him.

The luncheon must have broken up. We didn't go back to see. That was the end of trying to sell the BrightCore system....at least, for me. The sales we anticipated vanished. A little while later, I found out that Steve and Gordon had the system running on other mini-computers with more standard (read IBMish) operating systems. Digital Equipment? Wang? I don't remember...all of these little manufacturers are gone now. BrightCore no longer had any interest in Burroughs.

I told this story many years ago on the Blog and, a year or two ago, I got an email from a man from the Mid-West who said he was Earl's grand-nephew. He told me that he had always heard about Earl when he was growing up but that he'd never met him...that Earl had left the Mid-West early in his adulthood and that the family always wondered what happened to him. I believe I know why Earl left home, but I didn't tell him.

Note: It appears that Earl was "in his mid 50s" or "57", according to newspaper obituaries that are available on line. And he died in 1978, exactly 40 years ago. It may have been in February. I think I remember it was cold with a little snow on the ground. Certainly, it was a gloomy day but the mid-Hudson valley is frequently gloomy. I would have been 23.
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