When I was a kid, I used to spend 2-3 weeks of my summer vacations with my aunt, uncle and cousin. They lived several hours away, and I would otherwise see them only around Thanksgiving and Christmas. So for my cousin and me, the summer weeks were nonstop spacemen vs. aliens (pew-pew!), swimming, fort building, tree climbing and bug collecting.

I think I was about 8 and visiting for another summer vacation when one day my aunt said we were going to my uncle’s place of work. At the time, my uncle was a programmer working with mainframe computers at the local state university. I didn’t know what to expect because I didn’t really know what a computer was, except for what I’d seen on Star Trek.

We met my uncle in his office area, and soon after, he offered to show us around. I remember entering the computer room and seeing rows and rows of immense machines with blinking lights, spinning tape drives and printers clattering away. After the customary “don’t touch anything!” speech, my uncle explained to us what each of the machines did and why they were so busy… and then he asked if we’d like to “talk” to one of the computers. That sounded like fun, so within moments, my cousin and I were seated in front of a terminal, eager to talk to the computer.

My uncle told us he had to get the computer ready and briefly consulted with a co-worker, who quickly left, saying he had to load the necessary program tapes. My uncle then instructed us how it would all work: we would type in questions on the terminal, and the computer would answer by “speaking” to us through a telephone handset using something called a speech synthesizer. When everything was ready, we began to type in our questions.

Initially, our questions were pretty basic — like asking what 10 plus 10 equaled, and who was the first President of the United States. In response, we would hear over the handset, a somewhat robotic-sounding voice giving the correct answer! I was amazed and intrigued. I felt like I had discovered something wonderful and I knew right then and there, that someday, I wanted to work on a computer just like my uncle did.

After about 10 minutes of fun, I needed to visit the restroom. My uncle told me where I needed to go, but somewhere along the way, I became disoriented and lost. While wandering by an office with an open door, I peeked in hoping to ask for directions. Instead I found my uncle’s co-worker, sitting back in his chair with his feet up on the desk. He was looking at a terminal and speaking with a bored, somewhat robotic-sounding voice into a telephone handset, “The-capital-of-Missouri-is-Jefferson-City”… and the gig was up.

In retrospect, it didn’t matter that my uncle had played a trick on us. The impression made on me that day has lasted a lifetime, and it fostered my early interest in computers that became a hobby and eventually turned into a profession.

Apple II Forever!