On-Call Welcome again to On-Call, our Friday frolic through readers memories of odd jobs in odd spots.
This week, reader “Gerald” wrote with the story of his time at a “one-man-and-a-dog computer dealer, selling mainly early PCs with accounts software.” If you can remember the likes of Wang and TABS, you'll understand the kind of kit Gerald wrangled.
Gerald's job saw him deliver “support with the odd bit of bespoke software - menus and such like, usually written in the dialect of BASIC that came with the system - usually to glue things together for our customers.”
Among the firm's clientèle was a mushroom farm, which one day called to report a problem with a monitor. Apparently text was scrolling over the screen as if horizontal hold had died.
Gerald asked what type of monitor it was but all the customer could say was that the connector was a 'C' shape, fair enough given the chap was a mushroom farmer.
As luck would have it, the shop where Gerald worked had a Commodore monitor in stock with a sock that looked like the right fit. So Gerald and his boss put it in the car and headed for the mushroom farm.
On arrival they were greeted by an office shoe-horned into a temporary building and a set of World War II aircraft hangars converted into mushroom nurseries.
“Inside the office was a desk with a strangely familiar keyboard and a monitor that was indeed scrolling along as it the horizontal hold had been lost,” Gerald recalls. “The keyboard and screen were connected to a large industrial looking wall mounted box with a Dutch name on, probably some company that made bespoke mushroom growing control systems.”
The good news: Gerald and his boss had brought the right monitor. The bad: once plugged in, the replacement had exactly the same problem.
At which point Gerald asked the immortal question: “Have you tried turning it off and turning it on again?”
“Yes I know its a cliché,” Gerald wrote, “but it was all we had to go on.”
The mushroom farmer said he had tried this, so Gerald asked him to open the Dutch box.
Inside he found “a customised Commodore 64 with an extended backplane and lots of add on cards and LEDs, presumably used to control the motorised environmental systems for the mushroom farm operations.”
“I asked the farmer to re-try the 'Turn it off/turn it on' routine and he obliged by throwing the big switch on the fuse box that connected the unit to the power. He did, and it was then I noticed that the LEDs scattered about the 'Extended Commodore 64' motherboard stayed lit.”
Gerald surmised there was a UPS inside the main box and the farmer's attempts to reset the system therefore had no effect.
But when he tried the little rocker switch on the C64 itself … presto! “The system booted up and the issue with the screen vanished and started working perfectly.”
“Folks more familiar with the Commodore 64 may remember that the OS had to be running OK for the monitor screen sync to work correctly,” Gerald says. “The system could crash in such a way that the monitor would lose its sync signal.”
For sorting this out, Gerald received – drumroll please – a bag of mushrooms.
Have you done a job somewhere weirder than a mushroom farm? Or been paid with something stranger than fungus? Write to me and you might end up in a future edition of On-Call. ®