My dad used WordPerfect 5.1 for DOS to manage our tape library.

The first computer I really had regular access to was my parents’ 486DX 33 MHz with 8 MB of RAM and a 250 MB disk. It came from the shop with various software, I don’t know if that included WordPerfect 5.1 for DOS or not. I don’t know if the shop bundled it—this was common in that era, but my parents friend Jim “Computer Man” Myers (recently deceased) also came and brought shareware over to the house and might have snuck in a copy. It was a widely pirated program.

My parents love poetry, although now that my father has dementia I doubt he appreciates it much. He suffered a traumatic brain injury when he was around 18 that left him with Broca’s aphasia, which meant for him that while he could understand people without much trouble, it was hard to string a complete sentence together. We got used to slipping him a word he was groping around for so he could finish his utterances. He used to write poetry too. One was published in Arizona Highways although I can’t find a link to his poem online.

I think trying to figure out how to use this machine led him to take a community college class on computer literacy. Whoever taught the class must have been a complete maniac because the text was The Secret Guide to Computers, I believe 16th edition or so. If you haven’t seen this book, you are really missing out, because it’s enormous, loaded with tacky clipart, and has the author’s opinion on pretty much everything related to computers over the last decades. The author, Russ Walter, has his phone number on the cover and says you can call him if you ever have troubles.

I did have troubles at one point, I had made the mistake of using Drivespace^3 on another computer and lost all my data. I called Russ and he basically said that program is crap, hope you have backups. I felt let down by this at the time but of course he was right.

I stole this book from my dad and learned an enormous amount from it and I think it led me to my early obsession with programming language diversity.

What did my dad do with this computer? Much less than my mother, who used it to type up all sorts of work-related stuff. She used WordPerfect to write memos and training materials, and she used Print Shop Pro to make certificates and other stuff for work. We used something like Greeting Card Creator to make cards for special occasions. But my dad apparently did two things with it: he wrote up his personal journal and poetry, and he maintained the tape library.

My mother is a bit of a hoarder and my dad was a bit of a financial worrier. My folks did some odd things at the intersection of hoarding and penny pinching. One was the tape library. We must have arrived fairly early on to the whole VCR scene; I have a fairly early memory of trying to watch Zebra in the Kitchen by finding the tape in the list. The list looked something like this:

 Buckaroo Banzai......................93, 204
 Robin Hood...............................123

The movies were alphabetically sorted, and if there was more than one number it meant that the movie had been recorded twice. We had basic cable and sometimes got HBO or Cinemax during a free week or something. Mom would buy extra tapes for when that would happen. The VCR was set to the lowest quality setting so she could cram 6 hours of video onto one tape. She’d pop the tape out, put the label on it and list the movies that were recorded on it and then give it to Dad. He would figure out the last number in the library and write the new number on the tape and go off to the computer room and update the list by hand. I think we topped out around 350 tapes; my brother thinks 400, and they were stored in several bookcases around the house. Most tapes had 2 or 3 movies on them.

I recovered files from this computer some time ago but they’re sitting on another computer right now that I don’t have access to. I started copying the files onto my Dropbox so I could go through them but the upload got stalled out after 6 hours or so. Still I have seen enough other samples of his documents to be fairly sure that he organized this file without using either the built-in sort function or right-aligned tabs or dot leaders. I recorded a session of myself pretending to do this with WordPerfect 5.1 in DOSBox, but using those features:

You can probably tell from this description that what my father really needed was a desktop database. As far as I can tell, he didn’t really survive the transition from DOS to Windows. He eventually became somewhat conversant with the Mac, able to do the same kinds of things he did in DOS, but Windows was I think a bit too much for him at the time. I think the situation with my mom was the opposite; DOS was really befuddling but Windows (and eventually Mac OS X) were pretty easy to get around. Neither one of them ever really became users of desktop databases like Access. I think dBASE would have been way too much for him, although if he’d never had that brain injury I’m sure he would have loved it.

WordPerfect is kind of an amazing program. You can learn the fascinating history by reading this excellent book Almost Perfect but it raised for me the question of “what is a word processor?” The answer, in brief, starts out with the Wang 1200 as “a typewriter with memory.” WordPerfect started here and evolved in many interesting directions. Apart from the somewhat obvious functions you see in the above recording, it has an interesting “math mode” that deserves a longer post of its own, which doesn’t really exist in modern word processors.

Some famous writers still use DOS word processors like WordPerfect and WordStar. A part of me assumed that this was because of the “distraction-free” nature of these programs; another author made similar investigations. Doing my own learning, I can see some truth to that, and that running WordPerfect in an emulator doesn’t quite do it justice because you can just pop over to your browser and get distracted. But another way it doesn’t quite work is that every function key does something in WordPerfect. To get access to everything it can do you would have to eliminate all of DOSBox’s key bindings. WordPerfect came with a “template” you put over your amazing Model M keyboard’s function keys to see at a glance what it could do. You can see it at Xah Lee’s site. I imagine using WordPerfect 5.1 for DOS as an expert user, you would be able to do things extremely quickly. It was a very high-bandwidth conversation between the user and the machine. Not for my parents, of course, but for expert users.

For my parents, it was just a great way to write a professional letter, a personal journal, a poem, or to manage the tape list.