My Second Freelance Job: Poison Ivy, Bicycles and the PET

The summer of 1983 was an interesting one for me.

After several years of working at the Hamilton YMCA as a summer day-camp counsellor, I graduated to the big leagues and took a position at a real “overnight” summer camp at Lakefield College School north of Peterborough.

The camp — Lakefield Computer Camp — was a startup operation, poised to capitalize on the growing popularity of small computers and the attendant desire of those in the upper middle class to educate their kids in their operation.

That said, there was surprisingly little geeking around, and the camp — operated by a scion of the Southam family with a deep summer camp background — had all the swimming, capturing the flag, campfires and dining hall fun that any proper summer camp might have.

That the camp was in its first year of operation gave we staff the added fun of being able to make things up as we went along; many of us had been to summer camps ourselves, so the result was a hearty melange of camp traditions from across Ontario. Our leader was the great Molly Lawson, Trent University alum, and perhaps one of the best summer camp people I’ve ever encountered.

Tuesday was my day off. Lacking a car, and being stuck out in Lakefield, this didn’t offer much opportunity for fun diversionary activities. Fortunately Molly had a bicycle, and with a crude map of the route down to Peterborough, I set off early one Tuesday morning for some big city fun.

The ride, on the road parallel to the Otonabee River, is quite gentle and very scenic, and at the Peterborough end I had my first encounter with Trent, an encounter that sowed the architectural seeds that would later take me there for college.

Alas it was also there that things went horribly awry.

The bike got a flat tire.

Fortunately I had $10 in my pocket, which gave me access to some resources. I figured out how to catch the city bus south, found a Canadian Tire, bought a patch kit and a pair of pliers (which I figured were the handiest and most universal of the tool family), caught the bus back, and went to work. After about an hour of fiddling and prying and patching and fiddling, I was back in business. Just in time to head back up to Lakefield.

The ride back up, in the heat of the summer afternoon, was slightly up hill. To take the edge off, I decided to stop for a swim in the river; I pulled over to the side of the road when I spotted a house-sized Island just off the shore, hid my bike in the bushes, waded over, and had a pleasant dip and a little rest in a shady green glen.

Alas it was there, at the time unbeknown to me, that things again went horribly awry.

I dried myself off, rode back to camp, returned the bike to Molly and went on to finish up the remaining week of the camp season before returning home to Carlisle.

Shortly after returning home for the summer, I started to develop a red rash. All. Over. My. Body. The kind of red rash that not only itches, but that oozes and spreads and generally makes life a living hell. A trip to the well-tempered Doctor Hunt revealed that I had a severe bout of poison ivy. It seems that the “shady green glen” where I’d had a rest after swimming in the Otonabee was a shady green glen of poisonous plants. Some summer camp counsellor I was!

The second half of that summer I had another job lined up: a freelance programming job working for my high school vice principal, Mr. Japp, crafting a new computer-based student records system.

While such systems are commonplace today, and available off the shelf, small computers were a novelty in those days, and not much used for office work. The machines on the desks of the school secretarial staff were IBM Selectric typewriters, not IBM PCs. But Mr. Japp, for some reason, thought that we should harness the awesome power of the Commodore PET computer to keep track of the 600-odd students that would be attending Waterdown Distict High School that fall.

WDHS was about 10 km from our house. I didn’t have a car, so the only way to get to work was to ride my bike. Every day. 20 km round trip.

While certainly healthy exercise, if you’ve ever considered riding a bicycle for 20 km when your body is covered with oozing red sores. And the temperature is in the mid-20s. I would not recommend it.

I persevered however and, with the help of modern medicine, the poison ivy died down after a week.

The programming job turned out to be an interesting one. While my first freelance job involved modifying code, this one was a “from scratch” project. The Commodore PET 4032, with a 1MHz chip (yes, 1MHz), 32 kB of memory (yes, 32 kB), although unbelievably under-resourced in modern terms, was all I knew at the time, and the possibilities it offered seemed infinite.

My strongest memory of that project was that I ended up typing the names of the 600 WDHS students into my nascent system about a dozen times. As a result, every time I heard someone’s name on the PA system that fall, I felt like I already knew them.

The job also afforded me an opportunity to work with the vice-principal and the secretarial staff as peers, which did wonders for my self-confidence, and also served me well through the school year when I needed favours.

The summer of 1983 was also the summer that War Games, starring Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy, came out. Without that movie my summertime job would have been regarded as an entirely nerdy experience; although it didn’t exactly make me captain of the football team, War Games gave my chosen occupation a slight sheen of cool, and that too helped with my grade 12 self-image as the year played out.

While my virginity was still solidly intact, and I didn’t have a drink of alcohol for another 3 years, that summer I was seventeen years old — the summer I had my first job away from home, crafted my first piece of real useful stuff (and suffered my first embarrassing malady) — was the summer I came of age.