Thieves

Unfortunately, theft is a part of the retail world. I worked at Heath/Zenith for almost ten years, and unfortunately, a fair number of things vanished on us over the years there. We were not in a bad neighborhood, but we weren't far from Detroit, which meant, though we had excellent protection from the Eastpointe (then, East Detroit) and Harper Woods police (we were right on the boarder), unfortunately, our products did their fair share to fuel the drug trade.

The Color Video Card

Shortly after I started at the store, we had an interesting machine on display, a Heathkit H-89, with an external color monitor and color video card. It was sitting on a display near the door (ok, not the brightest idea) running its silly graphics demo.

Now, understand: This graphics card was totally unsupported by application software. You could write software to do whatever you wanted, but there was absolutely no practical use for it. We knew it. We didn't try to sell it. It was our Corvette on the lot -- you bring 'em in to look at the toy, you sell them what they need. We honestly couldn't figure out why anyone would ever buy this $400 card that did NOTHING.

One day, the boss noted the machine wasn't running the demo, and sent me over to find out why. After a little investigation, I realized the card was just plain missing, and mentioned it to the boss.

It took the two of us a while to realize this was just plain idiotic. No one at the store had removed it (why?) so obviously someone had opened the machine and stole it (again, though, why?). We scratched our heads, and were relieved we could at least tell the factory we had managed to get it out of our inventory in ONE way...

"Show me"

Not too long after the above event, it was a Saturday morning, there were just three of us at the store -- the manager, me and our TV tech, who was in the back. We were starting our early-morning stuff, including processing our corporate e-mail (hey, not bad for 1982!). A man walked in, and started talking with us about our products. The discussion was very strange, he told us he was comparing our H-89 line with the newly released DEC Rainbow systems. This was strange in that our H-100 line was a much closer competitor to the Rainbow than the aging H-89. We even stated that outright. But no, he was interested in our H-89s. He asked to see the insides of the machine, and being ever the show offs, we quickly popped open the cover on our e-mail system (remember, this was the days of floppy disks. When we were done doing the e-mail, we pull the disks and take them into the back, and the machine became a floor demo again) and gave him a tour.
"What's this card?", he asked.
"That's the 16k RAM upgrade to bring the system to 64K RAM", I explained.
"How about this?"
"That's the soft-sectored disk controller, which operates these drives over here"
"And that?"
"That's the hard sector disk controller, which operates the internal drive"
And so it went, with us showing him and identifying every part in the machine. Believe it or not, this wasn't unusual at that time, people wanted to know what was in their computers. There were only a few signs that something was strange -- the comparison of radically dissimilar, basically non-competitive machines, and his curiosity about things he didn't seem to be too knowledgeable about.

When the manager decided I had things under control (I was there for less than two months at that point, probably more like one month), he left me to do some paperwork in his office. This was all taking place in roughly the middle of the store.

At this point, the phone rang, and I excused myself to go get it. The caller asked me to check to see if we had a particular item in stock, so I went to the back, checked, and returned to tell the caller we did have it. The man I was talking to was now at our counter, which was all the way to the back of the store, and thanked me for my time. The manager had headed back out to the computer, and the man left.

I walked over to see what Dave was apparently puzzled over -- the e-mail machine was locked solid...absolutely unresponsive. Now, again, this is 1982, this just didn't happen then like it does now -- when a computer hung, you fixed it. So Dave is trying to figure out what is wrong with this computer. He opened the cover to see what I had screwed up, and didn't see anything wrong. I looked...and pointed to one end of a cable that wasn't going anywhere. And the spot where the soft sector card had been a few minutes earlier.

Dave and I looked at each other. We looked at the screen...we verified that what was on the screen couldn't have got there if we hadn't booted from the external floppy drives...which HAD to have been attached to the soft-sectored controller card. It *was* really there before, and it *was* really not there now.

Dave made a run to the door, but the guy was gone.

What apparently had happened was this:
The guy was just filling an order for a soft sectored disk controller. This was a highly desirable part, and very expensive, about $600 if my memory serves me correctly. It allowed you to use a 5.25" floppy drive with a 600k capacity, instead of the machine's stock 100k capacity floppy. For reference, the brand new IBM PC had a 320k disk drive -- it was actually a step backwards in technology.

His customer had told him where the card was in the computer and how to remove it. He came into our store, opened up a machine (not a particularly shocking event, again...this WAS Heathkit, after all!), saw the board, and grabbed it. Problem was, the machine he opened had that idiot color video card in it in the slot normally occupied by the soft-sector controller card. He hands this card to his customer, who probably laughed and said, "What is this junk?" So, a couple weeks later, he returns, has US show him which card he is after...and waits until we are distracted, and grabs it. He then had the nerve to walk further into the store to say good bye to us and thank us before leaving with the card under his coat.

Amazing. That's all I can say. The guy had serious guts.

Copyright 2002, Nick Holland
Return to War Stories
Return to Nick Holland's Home Page