From PC Techniques #14, June/July 1992


Pay Them Forward



Think back. If you were a weird kid who turned out well, somewhere in your life was probably an Uncle Louie, or an Uncle George, or just some weird guy named Elmer down the street who always had a resistor when you needed one.

Back In Rochester in 1983, I met an extraordinarily bright eighth grader who was writing animated video games—good ones—in interpreted BASICA on his father's PC. He had that old familiar hunger everywhere about him, and I knew that he would become a major talent in a few years.

So I started giving him old copies of books and software, even after I left Rochester to join PC Tech Journal. I critiqued his software. I played his video games. I told him to keep at it. In short, I took him seriously; forgetting, at the time, what it means to an awkward 13-year-old to be taken seriously by an adult.

A year or two later, he wrote me a letter thanking me for the software and the help. In the process, he coined a remarkable phrase: He said that he could never pay me back, so instead he would pay me forward, and someday pass along his encouragement and old software to some kid who he thought might have potential.

I won't embarrass him by naming him, since he now writes for this magazine, and is as private a person as I am an insufferable extrovert. But in three words he took me back a long, long way—and I remembered being 13 myself, and I remembered Uncle Louie.

He was the family black sheep; the unconventional, unmarried Yankee tinkerer, who lived on the South Side with my aging grandfather. He fixed TVs and had one to which he had attached a microphone so that my sister and I could sing along with Mitch Miller and hear our voices on the speaker—pure magic in 1959. He grew crystals in mayonnaise jars, and had a weird transistor radio that was also a walkie-talkie. His tiny flat was a wonderland of ancient knick-knacks and castoff technology, and we would never go to visit without him handing me some gritty treasure when we left. Aunt Mae would give me pajamas, and Aunt Marge would give me house slippers—but Uncle Louie gave me TV chassis and half-dismantled car radios. Guess who ranked higher in my private pantheon of heroes?

He looked at my projects, and sometimes when they didn't work, he poked at something or snipped out something and made them work. He showed me how to fix lawnmower engines, and he taught me how to run wires through walls and install two-way light switches. He never said, "You'll understand when you're older," or, "That's too advanced for you right now." He answered every question I had, as best he could. He took me seriously, and in doing so changed my life forever.

As absolutely essential as they are, mothers and fathers can't serve quire the same role. Teaching us is their job, for good or for bad, and we know it. It's the adults who choose to help kids, even when they don't have to, who add that special magic.

Think back. If you were a weird kid who turned out well, somewhere in your life was probably an Uncle Louie, or an Uncle George, or just some weird guy named Elmer down the street who always had a resistor when you needed one. From them you got the feeling, conscious or not, that being weird isn't necessarily bad, and that knowledge and skill count for something in this world. And more important, that knowledge is best used when shared unselfishly.

If we're to save America, and produce something better than fresh hordes of trial lawyers and corrupt politicians, the cycle must continue. Somewhere, somebody helped you. Pay them forward. Give of your time, your concern, your expertise, your old software, your cast-off add-in boards, or your TV chassis collection. Take a kid seriously. Two hundred years from now, somebody will be helping some kid understand some technology we can't yet imagine, and you will have had a hand in it. The future is built on the kindness of those who remember how the past came to be.

Louis J. Pryes died in February 1990, just as PC TECHNIQUES was clearing the tower. On my next trip to Chicago I found that he bad left me a box full of things: A pound or so of Buss fuses, a small drill press, that peculiar combination transistor radio/walkie-talkie, and a Korean War vintage mine detector. I remembered him talking about moving to Arizona to prospect for gold with the mine detector. He never made it to Arizona, but I did. Thanks, guy. The gold is in the desert sunset, your weird little radio is on my desk, and I will never, ever forget you.