The MS-DOS User’s Guide, Version 5.0

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I was invited to speak at a local event called Fish Tales last night. Fish Tales is a recurring storytelling night put on by the Gloucester Writer’s Center in which each speaker presents a five to seven minute story, all sharing a unifying theme. I was invited to speak on the night on which the theme was “nerds”. What follows is the written form of the story I told. Caution: Contains nerdity.

Fish Tales: A Book Report by Len Pal

I’m sure at one point or another you’ve been asked to name a book that changed your life. For some folks it’s The Bible, for others it’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Or maybe it’s On The Road, or even The Chronicles of Narnia. For me that book is Microsoft’s MS-DOS User’s Guide Version 5.0.

In the early nineties, home computing was relatively young, but maturing into the PC and Mac camps we have today. They weren’t cheap though: back then about fifteen hundred dollars would get you a “top of the line” home computer. I was a health and human services worker at Hogan Regional Center in Danvers, Massachusetts back then, making about eight bucks an hour. I didn’t have fifteen hundred dollars.

But then a buddy of mine said “Hey, you should check out Rent-A-Center! You can rent a computer for twenty-five bucks a week, and after two years you own it!” I’m no math whiz now and I certainly wasn’t one then, but I knew that twenty-five dollars was a lot less than fifteen hundred dollars. I could do that!

Then again… twenty-five bucks a week was a big commitment. I bought junk cars because I didn’t want a monthly car payment. Would a computer really be worth a weekly payment? Ultimately, I decided it was. After all, my career goal at that time was to be a writer, and if I had a computer at home, I would write more! No more excuses! A few hours a night! It was a professional expense! An investment in my future!

So, I got the thing. And top-of-the-line it was: a 386-20MHz processor with a whole megabyte of RAM and a forty megabyte hard drive, running a graphical interface called GeoWorks over MS-DOS 5.0. Geoworks included a writing program, a drawing program, a calendar, and even a way to log onto America Online, whatever that was. It also had Tetris and Solitaire, if you like that sort of thing.

I was invited to tell this story at “Nerds Night”, not “Published Novelists Night”, so you’ve probably guessed I didn’t get a lot of writing done. But Tetris, though! And that was just the start! There were other games, too! My friends got computers, and they had games I could borrow. Adventure games! Puzzle games! Dad loaned me a game called Myst! Holy crap, these games were cool. One problem, though… this “top-of-the-line” computer only had one megabyte of RAM, remember? Adding more would void my contract, and some of these games wouldn’t run on my wimpy little system.

I vented about it to a co-worker during our overnight shift at Hogan. He was in the same boat; his computer was crappy too. But he heard that there were things you could do to make the games work. Something about “extended memory, or upper memory blocks, or something. You just need to free up more memory.” When I got home that morning, I dug through the bin into which I had tossed all the paperwork that came with the computer, and there it was glowing in the morning light coming through the window: the MS-DOS User’s Guide, Version 5.0.

I flipped through the table of contents. Chapter 13: Optimizing Your System. It was broken down into sections. The last section was Freeing Up Memory, with sub-sections entitled Freeing Up Conventional Memory, Freeing Up Extended Memory, and Freeing Up Expanded Memory. There was hope! I would learn what those words meant! (But first I would sleep, because I had been up all night.)

For the next few weeks, I brought that manual with me pretty much everywhere. I read Chapter Thirteen twice, and then started from the beginning and read the whole book like it was Huckleberry Finn. I learned how many bits were in a byte, and what a batch file was, and how to partition a disk. I learned how to browse and delete files, and found out that even though it seems like all COMMAND.COM does is tell you what version of MS-DOS you’re running, you shouldn’t delete that one. (And immediately after that, I learned all about troubleshooting techniques, because I had found out by actually deleting that file; not by reading the book.)

The important thing is, I squeezed every last drop of memory out of that computer, and my games worked. And that was why I had this computer, right? Wait…

Around that time, Hogan’s sister facility, JT Berry State Hospital, announced it was closing down. When you work in health and human services in state-run facilities, seniority means everything, and all those JT Berry folks were going to be merging into Hogan. People were going to lose jobs, and most of those people would be folks like me that had only been there a year or two.

But hey, I had a computer. I could make resumes and cover letters and send them to all of the group homes and private agencies in the land, and find a new job like that. No worries! And while I’m waiting to hear from them, I could play Wing Commander!

Nobody was calling me in for interviews, though. Like, at all. After a while I started scanning the want-ads for just anything. I still had my job, but time was running out. I needed to find something FAST. And one day, there it was, in the Gloucester Times classifieds: Help Wanted. MS-DOS-proficiency required. Mac a plus. It was a company in Essex, MA called TIMESLIPS Corporation. I sent them a resume out of desperation, and with fingers crossed. I had no formal training, and no experience. They would see right through me, right?

They called back, though. And during my interview, I realized that I was actually pretty good at this stuff. And that’s how I started my IT career… thanks to reading the MS-DOS User’s Guide, Version 5.0. 

Always read the manual, folks. You never know where it might take you.

L.

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