In the autumn of 1996, I was in my last year of high school, and the time had come to figure out what to do with my life. Luckily, I had already done so: I was going to be a computer programmer! My dad had gotten an Apple IIc when I was 8, and that machine immediately became my favourite hobby. The person he had bought it from included a dot-matix printer, one of those cool green monochrome monitors, two caddies full of 5.25 inch floppy disks loaded with boring business software like Lotus 123 (my dad was an accountant), and most importantly, a huge stack of hobbyist magazines (Byte) and A+ are the two that I remember). Those magazines always had a few program listings in the BASIC programming language, usually for simple games like Lunar Lander). If you typed them in correctly, you could play the game!
Of course, I never typed them in correctly the first time, since I was just copying word for word without understanding what the words meant. I literally learned to program by mistake. Or more accurately, by mistake after mistake. I got better at finding where I'd made a mistake, and I started seeing the patterns in the programs, and slowly but surely figured out what the arcane words were telling the computer to do. I still remember one program that I was entering where I was sure that the magazine had made a mistake, because if I typed in what was printed, this FOR loop would end one iteration sooner than it should. I decided to type in what I thought it should be, and sure enough, the program worked. A few days later when I was reading the next month's issue of the same magazine, I saw a letter to the editor pointing out the mistake I had noticed!
So yeah, by the time I was 17, I had been programming in some capacity or other for nearly 10 years, and I knew that I wanted to keep doing, and get paid for it to boot. There was only one problem: you needed a college degree to get a job as a programmer (or so I thought, at least), and I had approximately $0 of the $12,000 per year required to get a college degree at my school of choice, The College of William and Mary in Virginia (which is its official name, but hereafter I'll be referring to it as William & Mary or just W&M). I had a sweet job at Burger King running the drive-through, but that pretty much only generated enough money to buy petrol for my 1980 Camaro and the occasional movie, so I knew that if I wanted to go to college, I would need to get a real job.
My only problem was that I was still in high school, and most jobs that paid anything decent expected you to work 9-5, and I had classes during that time. I decided that the whole university thing was going to have to wait a year. So whilst my friends stressed over college applications, I stressed over trying to find some place that would hire me after I finished high school. My friend Ian had started a company that custom-built computers for people (back in those days, buying the components and building a computer yourself could save you a few hundred dollars, so there was a market for people with the know-how to build and sell computers and make a $100 profit), and I occasionally helped out when he had a lot of orders, but he didn't have enough work to be able to hire me for anything approaching full time.
By the beginning of May 1997, graduation was fast approaching and I still hadn't found anything. I was starting to resign myself to just picking up more hours at Burger King and seeing if maybe Walmart was hiring when I got a lucky break. The recreational softball season had just started, and my church had a team that I played on. One of the other guys on the team was an actual programmer at a company over in Harrisonburg, and he knew that the company was hiring a PC technician and said he'd get me an application form and put in a good word for me if I was interested. I told him I very much was, and he brought an application form for me to church the following Sunday. I filled it in and then drove the 30 minutes up Interstate 81 to Harrisonburg to drop it off at their office. It turned out that the boss wasn't busy, and when he heard that the guy Doug had recommended had just handed in an application form, he invited me into his office for an interview. I don't remember much about the interview itself, but I do remember him telling me that I could start the Monday following my high school graduation, which was in about two weeks.
I was elated! The job paid $15 an hour, which was a substantial improvement on the $4.45 an hour I made over at Burger King (minimum wage in Virginia back then was $4.25 an hour, but I had gotten a 20 cent raise at Burger King after working there for a year), so I'd finally be able to start saving money for college. The only problem was that the job was in Harrisonburg, and I lived in Staunton, which was about 30 miles away. My Camaro got about 15 miles to the gallon, so I'd be using 4 gallons of gas a day for my commute. Even though petrol was a lot cheaper (I remember it occasionally dipping below $1 a gallon--a gallon is about 4 litres--when there was a price war between neighbouring petrol stations), having to spend about $20 a week just on the commute didn't sound great to me.
Luckily, I had an idea. My grandmother lived in Harrisonburg in a two bedroom apartment, and she really loved having the grandchildren visit her. One day at work, I called and invited her out to dinner after work, my treat. Over chicken-fried steak at Shoney's, I asked her if I could move in with her for a year before I went to college the next fall. She thought it was a wonderful idea, so that weekend, I stuffed everything I owned into my car and moved to Harrisonburg. And not a moment too soon, because a week or two later, when I went out into the parking lot after work to go home and tried to start my car, it refused to start. Luckily, it was only about a 20 minute walk back to my grandmother's place.
I tried to figure out what was wrong with the car (for the millionth time; this car was always on the fritz for one reason or another), but to no avail. After a few weeks of it sitting in the company parking lot, my boss asked me what the deal was. I told him that it wasn't starting, and he told me that I'd need to call a tow truck, because he didn't want some broken-down car in the lot. He gave me until the end of the week, and I was starting to despair by Thursday when I got another lucky break.
I was hanging out by the front desk, flirting with the cute receptionist, when a car pulled into the parking lot. And not just any car, but a 1980 Camaro, same as mine. When the owner of the car walked in, I told him that I liked his car and I had one just like it. I mentioned that mine was currently broken, and he asked me if I would consider selling it, because his son was turning 16 soon and he wanted to surprise him with a car on his birthday, and his son really liked Camaros. He offered me $500 for it, and given that it a) didn't work and b) only cost me $500 when I bought it from my dad a couple of years before, I agreed to sell it on the spot. After picking up the PC he'd had us fix, he went to his bank, got $500 dollars cash, and promised to have the car out of the parking lot before the next day so I wouldnt' get in trouble with my boss.
My grandfather lived in Harrisonburg as well, and when I told him I'd moved, he invited me over to have supper with him on Wednesdays. He'd just gotten a new computer, and had a long list of things that he wanted it to do but that he just couldn't figure out. So I'd go over there after work, eat supper, and then after that, he and I would sit down in front of his computer for half and hour or so and I'd show him how to do various things. He took notes, and took a lot of pride in the fact that he never had to ask me the same question twice. Until he misplaced his notebook, that is. 😅
He also talked to me about my plan to save up for university, and pointed quite rightly to a slight flaw: though I would be making something like $23,000 after taxes for a year of work, William & Mary cost $12,000 a year, and I wouldn't be able to work full time whilst attending, so I'd start running short on funds after two years. He suggested investing some of the money in mutual funds, and explained to me how they worked. He'd been investing for years, and knew a lot about it. He offered to match every dollar that I invested, provided I would use the money to pay my tuition. It was through his great generousity that I was able to afford to go to university, and in fact he made this same offer to all 12 of his grandchildren.
Now that it looked like I'd be able to pay for school, the only thing that remained was to convince them to take me. The application period opened in late August of 1997 for the fall 1998 school year, and if I got my application in by the beginning of November, it would be considered for early decision. That way, if I was rejected, I would be still have time to apply to other schools before the regular application deadline in February. I got my high school transcripts together, wrote a few essays, and got a letter of recommendation from my favourite teacher (Mrs. Leigh, who taught English my junior and senior years), then put everything in an envelope, sent it off to Williamsburg, and crossed my fingers for a good result.
Harrisonburg was booming back in 1998, with the local college, James Madison University, expanding like wild. Like in any college town, a bunch of bars and restaurants popped up to support the growing student body, and one of those places was a vaguely Greek restaurant called Dave's Taverna. I never met Dave, but I guess he was a big jazz fan, because the restaurant had a jazz night every Thursday night with a live band. My good friend Adam was going to JMU and thus living in town, and he liked jazz as well (both of us got into jazz by way of being huge ska fans), so the two of us always met up there on Thursday nights for dinner and the sweet sweet sounds of saxophone (and bass and trumpet and piano and guitar and sometimes trombone as well, but none of those sound as sweet as a sax!).
The other thing Dave's offered in addition to jazz was free refills on their diner-style coffee (for the non-USians amongst you, that's the thin nearly tasteless stuff that gave US coffee a bad name with European tourists for years, back before we had coffee shows where you could get a proper cup). Adam and I were always competing with each other, and on one particular Thursday night in early December, we decided to see how many cups of coffee we could drink. Adam bowed out after 12 cups, but I decided to keep going to set a record that would never be beaten. After 15 cups, my hand was shaking so much that I was having to hold the cup with two hands to keep from spilling it on myself, and I had to go pee roughly every 10 minutes, but that did not dissaude me! After 17 cups, my heart was racing and I started seeing just a little bit double, but that did not dissaude me! When the waiter came around with the pot, I waved him over and pointed to my cup. He rolled all four of his eyes, sighed, and filled me up.
That 18th cup was a killer. In addition to the double vision, high heart rate, and pressure on the bladder, I started experiencing shortness of breath. I finished the cup somehow, but when the waiter came back around and started toward my cup with the pot, I hurriedly covered it with my hand to indicate my declaration of defeat. At least, that's what I indended to do. What I actually did is smack the cup off the table into Adam's lap, wiping that smirk off his face and replacing it with the wide-eyed look a man gets when a hot drink is suddenly spilled in his lap. Luckily for him, the cup contained at most a few drops of coffee, and I'm sure those drops weren't hot anymore.
I don't remember how I got home that night, but I hope Adam drove me, because even though there isn't any law forbidding Driving While Caffeinated, I was about 10 cups over what should be the legal limit. Oddly enough, I didn't have any trouble falling asleep, and I slept all the way until my alarm when off at 7:30 the next morning. I had breakfast with Grandmother and walked to work, but I started feeling bad almost as soon as I got to the office, and by 10:00, I knew I would have to call it a day. I told my boss that I was sick (but didn't go into the shameful details of why) and walked back home, feeling worse and worse with every step. I got home a little before 10:30, staggered into the apartment, and collapsed on the couch.
That's where Grandmother found me when she got back from her job at the hospital (she used to volunteer as a "candy striper", which is basically someone who goes around the hospital visiting with patients and families and generally trying to make it a cheerier place) a little after 3:00 in the afternoon. She had a few envelopes in her hand, and one was a big manilla one addressed to me. After being reassured that I wasn't dying, she handed me the big envelope, and my pulse quickened (but not from caffeine this time) when I saw the return address: The College of William & Mark, Williamsburg, Virginia.
I ripped the envelope open. Enclosed inside were a few sheets of paper and a glossy magazine of some sort. I pulled out the first sheet of paper, and read as far as "Dear Joshua, we are happy to inform you..." before launching myself off the sofa with a squeal of delight that startled my poor grandmother. "What in the world is going on with you?" she asked. "Well," I said, "I had 18 cups of coffee last night and I just read that I've been accepted to William & Mary!"
I wouldn't recommend drinking that much coffee in one sitting, but I would recommend going to William & Mary if you have the chance.
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