It was literally ‘the good old days’. Data Processing. No MIS or IT or IS. We processed data – and the data came in the form of punched cards. Everything was ‘batch’ processing – almost no ‘real time’ interaction. But that is an aside for the purposes of this post. This story is about walking on the roof of the five story Methodist Hospital in downtown St. Joseph, Missouri.
My first couple of weeks as a new Computer Operator at Methodist Medical Center we invested shadowing more experienced Operators. It was August of 1972. When Larry Koch called to offer me a job I told him quite frankly that I had never seen a computer. He said, “No one else has either”. In those days we were not IT or IS or MIS – we were ‘Data Processing”. It was on-the-job training. There were three Operators, Howard Dozier, Lon Hayes, and me. I shadowed those men for a few weeks and then was left to harass Larry by telephone until my anxiety passed – about five months as I recall.
The three operators covered the 24/7 operation with a variety of odd work schedules. Howard was a full time student at MWSC so he most often worked the 11 to 7:30 am shift, Monday through Friday. Lon and I rotated – we covered the night shift on weekends. Every night there were about three thousand punch cards ready for processing, almost all for census and billing purposes. The cards were read and stored on tape or disk – and then the processing began in earnest.
At about 2:00 AM we began a ‘job’ called CYCT – it was the insurance proration process. That process, even in 1972, was quite sophisticated, and it would occupy the IBM 370, Model 145, for about an hour and a half. Our task was to wait. Larry would say, “Always be waiting on the computer, never have the computer waiting on you”. Only people from that era will understand this.
About half a block away, through underground tunnels, was the Hospital Power Plant. At that time the main building was powered by steam from the Light and Power plant at second and Edmond – about half a mile across downtown. But there were boilers in the basement of the main building and those boilers were monitored 24/7 by ‘Engineers”. The Engineers had a small office with a coffee pot – that office became the hangout during the running of CYCT – about ninety minutes. The boiler Engineers were in their fifties, the Computer Operators were in their twenties. It was literally where old technology met new. Tom Lease, an Engineer, called us the BIM Boys, a joke referencing IBM.
The night shift Engineer had to ‘walk the building’ twice every night. It had to do with fire insurance, I think. They walked every hall, every nurse station, as a precaution to insure that all was well. If they did their walk during CYCT then we often walked with them.
The main building was built in 1924. A technological marvel of the time, it had elevators. The muscle of all elevators sits on top of the elevator shaft – usually extending an extra story above the main building. From there one could open the door and walk out onto the roof. The elevator shaft was accessible through a door on the fifth floor. It was early on a Sunday morning when Tom Lease opened the door and Lon and I followed him up the steel ladder to the roof.
As one stepped out onto the roof there was an awesome view. Methodist Hospital sat on top of a hill on the north side of downtown St. Joseph. The downtown rests along the Missouri River, settled between the bluffs of Wyeth Hill and King Hill. From the vantage point of the roof one could see ten miles across the Missouri River Valley, all the way to Wathena, Kansas. I don’t know why, but the roof surrounding the elevator shaft was raised about eight inches above the rest of the roof – and this extended out about fifteen feet from the shaft. It was another twenty feet to the edge of the building – a drop of five stories.
Lon and I stood at the elevator shaft for a few moments, taking in the view, then we walked to the roof edge. We did not know the roof took an eight inch drop. Lon was ahead of me and gazed out across the city as he walked. He stepped off the eight inch ledge.
Tom and I could only imagine what was going on in Lon’s head as he dropped those eight inches. He thought he had stepped off the edge of the building. He screamed, of course. His arms were flailing like an eagle with no feathers. It took less than a second for him to hit the roof, eight inches below – but Lon was always a fast thinker. Fast thinking is one thing – but recovery from a heavy dose of fight-or-flight is another.
Lon did recover and Tom told the story of ‘those BIM Boys’ for a long time.