You stole my lighter!

This is the sixth in a series of Friday Tales From Tech Support. Some stories from the past featuring broken computers and even more broken tech support operatives - mostly me.

Scene setting

My first job out of college was for the auspiciously named “National Telecom” as a “Computer Operator”. Back then, this was a job, rather than something you just do day-to-day. I mean, it’s quite likely many of you have “operated” a “computer” in order to read this blog today. Well done, have a pay raise!

It was 1990, and I was just getting to grips with the workplace, having been in it a month or two, so far.

Daily tasks

When I started in July, the computing systems were quite diverse, and old. There was a combination of dumb terminals connected to a machine we’ll kindly call a “mainframe”, Personal Computers and even one Next workstation.

The “mainframe” was made by Data General and was two-tone beige and light blue in colour. It had many switches on the front to initiate a boot sequence. There were two tape drives - the reels of tape kind, not the compact cartridge kind - and a big old Winchester disk.

A couple of printers in the computer … “suite” shall we say, would crank out documents and reports. One was a golf ball printer, the other was a very fast line-printer. I would need to load these up with a box of paper before going home in the evening as the overnight jobs would spit out tons of printed matter.

There were many other entertaining and manual tasks, but mostly it was keeping everything “operating” within normal parameters.


Sometimes I’d have to venture out of the glass computer room to visit human users. One common task was to replace or upgrade hardware on their desks. There were a bunch of users with what we tend to call PCs but they weren’t “IBM” or even “IBM Compatible” computers, but random weird beige boxes with almost compatible versions of DOS installed.

One day I visited a user to replace a network card. We didn’t use Ethernet or Token Ring at that office, but something else called “Magic”. I vaguely recall each card had two 9-pin D-Sub connectors, but maybe I am misremembering.

Anyway, I visited a user and they got busy with paper-based activities while I used my handy Philips screwdriver to bust open their PC to replace the network card. When I was finished with the hardware side, I booted the computer to make sure it could connect okay. All was fine and dandy, and I left after a job well done.

Small office

The offices covered just two floors. I was based in a room with the lead (read: only) developer. The user I’d upgraded was downstairs in another department. So our paths didn’t cross often.

I happened to enter their office en route to another job a few days later. They saw me and called out “That’s him!”. Everyone else was heads-down, typing or thinking. I was the only one in the office to be moving, so quickly figured they were talking about me.

“That’s the guy who stole my lighter!”

From across the office, I performed the international hand gesture and mime for “Who? Me?”.

“Yeah, you!”

I ventured closer, to find out what was going on. They had been telling their colleague that recently I’d visited their PC to do something, and while there I’d pilfered their favourite lighter.

“Uh, no I didn’t!”, I protested.

“Yeah, yeah, you did. It went missing when you were at my desk.”

We went back and forth, but nothing was resolved. I protested my innocence, and they wouldn’t accept it. No evidence was produced, and no formal complaint was made. I shrugged a bit and moved on.

Time heals

A couple of months later, another hardware upgrade was required by our accusatory user. Everything was cordial, but they clearly remembered me as “That guy who took my favourite lighter”.

Again, I pulled out my Philips screwdriver, and they moved across the desk to do some paperwork. I opened up the PC and my face must have pulled a weird blend of confusion and amusement.

“What?”, they asked.

“I found your lighter!”

Their favourite lighter was somehow, inside their PC. Resting quietly on the metalwork of the case, next to the motherboard. Both it and the base were covered in a thin veil of dust, from a couple of months being inside the case.

I just stepped back and pointed. They stood up, came over and looked at the lighter then looked at me, then back to the lighter. They took their mildly dusty lighter, and popped it in their pocket.

I still, to this day, have no idea how it got in there.

I didn’t get an apology.