longrubberchickenIt’s Halloween and we all have our ghost stories to tell, right? Here’s mine.

A long time ago, I managed networks and BBSes (a kind of early online community) for a research group in our local agricultural college. Our charter was to persuade farmers, agriculture teachers and the ag industry in general to use the computer to gain competitive advantage over the rest of the world.

Our offices were nestled between the pig sty and the abattoir, in what used to be the campus chicken coop. Where I’d been used to raised floors and over-air-conditioning, I now experienced 100-plus degree summer days in the coop attic, stringing cable. I played nurse to old Unix 3B-15s, cranky modems and a motley assortment of Macs and PCs.

One of my jobs was making nightly system backups on a bank of then-state-of-the-art storage devices known as Bernoulli drives. Bernoullis had wide, thin media cartridges that slipped into a drive and latched in place.

They didn’t like to be jostled, especially in operation, so in early fall we moved them onto a large, heavy table, one the poultry unit left behind when it moved to more luxurious quarters. Right after that, odd things started happening.

I’d start the backup, head for home and in the morning find that the data cartridges had erased themselves in the night. Or they contained data files about the poultry business (and as far as I knew, the poultry unit didn’t even HAVE a computer, let alone a Bernoulli). I started validating the backup at night, removing the cartridges and locking them up…and in the morning they’d be blank. Or filled with the wrong data. Or something.

I tried fresh cartridges, cleaned the guts of the machine, reseated the drives, reinstalled the software, checked the computers for the originals of the poultry files. Nothing. We’d have several nights with no problems, and then…blank. I called Iomega–they’d never heard of such a thing.

One morning a grizzled old poultry professor stopped in to see what we’d done to his coop. “Glad to see you’re getting use out of that old chopping block,” he remarked, pointing to our Bernoulli table.


“Chopping block. Lotta chickens bit the big one, right there. Thwock!” he chortled, making karate slashes with his hand. (I suppose that anyone who bases his career on headless chickens must find fun in odd places.)

After that, whenever something went wrong, we’d nod solemnly at the chopping block, and blame the “dead chicken ghosts. Thwock.”

The dead chicken ghosts were really out in force as we headed into October; one in three backups had problems. I took to staying late to ensure we really got a correct backup, so that’s where I was on Halloween night. I chaperoned the Bernoullis through the process, checked the data, shut off the drives, and headed back to my office to grab my coat while they spun down.

Then I heard the distinctive “click-whrrrrr” of a Bernoulli starting up in the next room. I raced back, and watched in astonishment as the drives powered on in sequence, the activity lights popped on and my data began to vanish. I halted the process, slapped the eject button and stared.

Sitting on top of the last cartridge was a small white feather.

That night I dreamed of headless chickens piloting ghostly data cartridges around the office. In the morning, I thoroughly cleaned the Bernoullis—found no more feathers–and moved them to a different office.

Our Bernoulli problems stopped. We gave the chopping block to the abatoir; it just seemed appropriate.

Happy Halloween.