Stories lost in the floppy disk graveyard

I took the old laptop out of its nifty leather case and stared. Was it always that clunky looking? So square? Like an old Volvo. Instead of a mouse, it has a marble-sized trackball. The screen is about the size of my Kindle screen. And what’s with the giant box with a little plug sticking out of it?

This thing doesn’t have a USB port, but it does have a place to plug in a telephone line for the modem. Suddenly the old backup computer has become an historic artifact. But it’s my only hope to find out what happened to Roberta and Frank.

I’ve been reading through short stories I wrote back in the late ‘90s. Some are so awful I’m relieved no one wanted to publish them. But some are still good, especially this one about Roberta and Frank, who run into trouble while traveling in their motorhome. I was thinking I should polish it and send it out. It’s not too out of date. Look, Roberta, even has a cell phone. She doesn’t know how to use it, but I can fix that. I got to the end of page 5. The ambulance is coming and–where’s page 6? Where’s the rest of the story? I have a vague memory that Roberta stops being such a wuss and saves the day, but I don’t know the details anymore.

I have to leave for church in five minutes. I tear through my files. I sent it to literary journals back in the days before we submitted everything online. I have to have more paper copies of “Runaway Dream.”

I find maybe 50 short stories. Lord, I was prolific. But not that one.

Okay, look through the pile of CDs. Nope, too new. Where are those old 3.5-inch floppies? The only computer with a floppy drive that I still have would be that laptop I bought in 1993. There it is back behind the unsold books.

Epson ActionNote 700 CX. I plug it in. The poor thing is beat up, the F7 key coming off, the screen part separating from the keyboard part (unlike a lot of today’s laptops, it’s not supposed to). It turns on. Gray screen, words and numbers. DOS. Oh crap. Does anybody remember the DOS operating systems that preceded Windows?

Press F1. Okay. Setup failed. Press F12 for setup utility. I get a screen full of choices and no idea what button to push. The date shows Jan. 1, 1990. Memories of Y2K. Remember how we thought the world would fall apart because all our computers couldn’t make the leap to a new millennium? Most of them did but maybe not this one.

I decide to take pictures so I can show you all this historic computer. I close the top to shoot the outside. When I reopen it, all the words and numbers are gone. The computer doen’t even hum. When I push the power button, nothing happens. Old ActionNote seems to have passed away while I was trying to take its picture. But how does Roberta get off that deserted road? Does her husband get to the hospital in time?

Wait. Do I have another laptop, an interim between the Volvo and my current HP, a Honda maybe? Can’t find it, but I find some 5.25-inch floppy disks. Short Stories 1 and 2. Great! Oh. I have nothing that can read them. I have always backed up my files, carried copies in my car, and put them in the safe deposit box at the bank. It’s all useless nonrecyclable plastic now.

But wait, the Volvo didn’t die. The plug got super hot and the computer turned itself off. After it cools, I plug it in again. Green light. Must act quickly. Setup. Change the date. OMG. Windows 3.1. Insert disk. Horrible wailing noise. It can’t read the disk, can’t read any of my old disks, but hey, here on the hard drive is the old version of my novel Azorean Dreams. Hello, old friend.

“When the alarm shrilled at 7 a.m., Chelsea groaned and covered her eyes against the light pouring in the bedroom windows.” The whole book is there. Wow.

What else is on this thing? There’s the unfinished novel about a quadriplegic named Daniel. And something called deaderma.wps. Oh, I love that story. Reporter goes to do an interview and finds the subject dead in the rose bushes. Being a reporter, she gets nosy . . .

No Roberta and Frank. I created these people. I need to find out what happened to them, even if I have to retype every blinking word into the new (ish) computer.

I’m still looking. And no, I do not want to write a new ending. The moral of this tale. Print everything out. I still have poems, stories and essays I wrote on manual typewriters 50 years ago, but I can’t read what I entrusted to my computers in 1997. Even 2007 is iffy. Paper lasts longer than modern technology. We’re putting all of our information into machines that will be obsolete before I pay off my Visa bill. Is anybody thinking about that?

Do you have antique computers and antique media hanging around? Ever try to use them? What is going to happen to everything we have entrusted to our computers in five, 10, 20 or 30 years? Are writers the only ones who care?

I could tell you a whole other story about the days I spent last week sticking slides into the old slide projector. I thought I would get them digitized, but then I thought, why? Even my own slides bore me now. It’s been a dusty time in the Lick household lately as I try to sort things down to manageable levels. Within reason. Marie Kondo, queen of throwing away everything that doesn’t give you joy, can’t take my stories away. She’s not even getting the old laptop. Not yet.

Here are some interesting links to read about the history of laptops and the history of data storage.

Laptop history in photos

Another history that is better if you mute the music

Check out this video on how to prevent “data rot” No music, cute guy, but skip the ad after he gets to the stone tablets

You might also want to mute the music on this history of data storage

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GwJfERnF30g
Fascinating, but the music is a bit much


What? They didn’t have computers?

18334059 - old fashioned typewriter

Once upon a time, I wrote a short story for a Writer’s Digest correspondence course. The lessons came by mail in those days. The assignments–outlines, character descriptions, scene summaries, etc.–added up to a final story that’s reminiscent of “The Devil Wears Prada.” Eager young worker, horrible boss, boyfriend who doesn’t get it.

The plot revolved around the boss’s refusal to move from typewriters to computers. Our young heroine struggles with the correction tape on her electric typewriter (remember those?) and her boss complains that if she were a better typist, she wouldn’t need so much correction tape. Our girl, Colby, is mired in work and about to get fired because she just can’t keep up. But then, an angry client comes in while her boss is out. He wants his ad changed right now. Colby sneaks onto a co-worker’s new computer (an Apple?) and click, click, click, makes the changes. The client is delighted, Colby is promoted and she gets her own computer. Only in 1988, right?

It’s a terrible story, full of holes and clichés and way too many adjectives. I found it while cleaning out old writing files. I never throw away my work, but this went into the big blue recycle cart, where it is now lost among the boxes, butter tubs, and junk mail. I have also discovered reams of articles about writing from back in the olden days when I and others who taught or wrote about writing urged wannabe writers to get a computer or be left behind. It seems silly now, but I remember . . .

I learned to type on a manual typewriter with a slippery roller. The letters were attached to rods that got tangled up if I typed too fast. In my late teens, I used babysitting money to buy myself a new typewriter, blue plastic. My father couldn’t understand why I would waste my money on such a thing. It wasn’t like I needed it for school or anything else; we all wrote with pens and pencils, but I was determined to be a writer from the time I discovered words. Real writers had typewriters.

I encountered my first electric typewriter in a college typing class required for journalism students. It seemed to have a mind of its own, the keys moving so fast they stuttered out multiple letters if I breathed on them. I actually told the teacher I couldn’t handle this fancy electric typewriter. She basically told me to suck it up. I did. I got good at it, typing over 100 words per minute–if you don’t count mistakes.

On my first newspaper job in the early ‘70s, we used manual typewriters, big heavy Royals, typing on scraps of newsprint with carbon paper to make copies. We edited in pencil before sending the pages to the typesetter. I moved up to IBM Selectric typewriters in 1978 for a PR job. The letters were on ping-pong-sized balls, interchangeable for different typefaces. High tech! But you couldn’t “save” anything. You had exactly one copy, and if it got damaged or destroyed, you had to do the work over again.

Fast forward. Divorce. Temping as a secretary. Another newspaper job working on old Royal typewriters. And then, 1984, a typesetting gig at a print shop in Sunnyvale, California. The file-cabinet sized computer on which I worked used floppy disks that were eight inches square. The operating system was DOS. No Windows. No mouse. If you didn’t know the right sequence of letters and symbols, you were screwed.

Future jobs would take me through the Apple orchard and early PCs, from DOS to Windows, from Compuserve to the World Wide Web, news groups to Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Now I own a desktop computer, a laptop computer, a tablet and a smart phone, all of which I can use to write, send and receive stories, information, photos, music and almost anything else.

My short story would never work now, even if it were well written. It wouldn’t even make sense. What do you mean her boss wouldn’t let her use a computer? I probably saved that story about Colby and the typewriter on a floppy disk, either 5 ¼ or 3 ½ inch. If I could find the disk, I would have nowhere to plug it in and no program that could read it. What will happen to the stuff I write today?

A Facebook friend recently asked what we’d do if the Internet went away. Well, my blogs would disappear, along with all of my online connections, my ebooks, and any writing I did not save on paper, but when you get to the basics, writing is writing. I drafted this blog in my notebook with my new favorite pen, a Papermate “Inkjoy.” I quadruple back up everything I write and carry a flash drive in my purse, but I also print out everything I value on good old paper.

I don’t know whether to toss all those yellowing articles about prehistoric computer gear or save them as historic artifacts. I have another batch of articles about cameras that used film. I just know a lot has changed.

When I was an editor at the Saratoga News around 1995, a group of Girl Scouts came in to observe real live newspaper people at work. None of the girls knew what a typewriter was. How about you? Any typewriter memories? Or are you wondering what a typewriter is? See the photo; that’s a typewriter, similar to the one I started with. What was your first computer? What would you do without it now? Let’s talk about it.

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Text copyright Sue Fagalde Lick 2017. Photo copyright micelecaminati / 123RF Stock Photo