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That Joke Landed Like A Lightning Strike

, , , , , , , | Working | May 17, 2023

I had various work/study jobs while in college in the 1980s. After being a computer lab aide for three semesters, I was promoted to student programmer. I was later promoted again, and I was tasked with running backups for the administrative computer, a DEC VAX/VMS. This entailed loading and unloading reel-to-reel magnetic tapes after I’d started the backup procedure.

For the two hours that this took, I would return to my office space and do homework. This would happen after working hours for the professional staff of the college. Nobody would be using the VAX except for the cafeteria because they needed to log students’ accounts when they bought food on their meal plans. This being the 1980s, the terminal in the cafeteria was hard-wired to the VAX with a quarter-mile cable.

On my third night in my new position, I’d started the backup. After I’d unmounted and mounted a few tapes, a thunderstorm rolled into town. A lightning strike hit the student center, and the direct connection cable sent a high-voltage spike right into the VAX. This caused the backup to stop, and some equipment in the computer room started squealing. I had no idea what to do; I’d only been given the basics of starting and stopping the backup.

I found an emergency list that had the computer department director’s home phone. I called and explained what had happened. He came down and contacted the local DEC technician and a few of the full-time programmers. The technician determined that the lightning strike had basically fried the electronics card that attached the cafeteria terminal to the VAX, which then sent errors all through the computer.

I was in the room with the director when the tech casually mentioned that he’d have to order the replacement parts and that the damage was around $10,000. The director then turned to me and said in a serious voice:

Director: “We’ll have to make arrangements for this to come out of your paycheck.”

“Holy cow!” I thought. “How am I going to pay that off? I only make $4.50 at this job.”

I was close to an anxiety attack when the director realized I was not getting his “joke”.

Director: “We have insurance for this, [My Name]. Don’t die on us.”

It was then that I started to learn the level of jokes that adults pull on each other. Nineteen was just a little young to get the immediate humor.