The True Story of the COBOL Language
Recollections by Lenoid M. Trycer di la Billy
Artwork by U. T. R. 3rd Billy
HTML'd by Office Billy
It was 1947 and I was kicking around the Malay Archipelago salvaging scrap metal leftover from the war. They were paying top dollar for this stuff in Hong Kong. When I hit Borneo, I was hot, tired, thirsty and my dreams usually involved a cold beer and Betty Grable. Trekking between the headwaters of the Kapaus and Mahakam I made it through the snake infested sweltering jungle to the coast, ending up at a beach cantina called Chyco and Bolino's Ocean Lounge. I had been promised there would be dumper full of old infantry canteens and a pile of metal buckles that had been stripped from army issue cold weather boots. "Cold weather boots in Borneo," I thought to myself, "Isn't that just like the army high command." As with most scrap metal stories, the mother load turned out to be nothing more than a few rusty tin cans that would get you a twenty-five dollar fine for littering in today's world.
I made it through the snake infested sweltering jungle to the coast, ending up at a beach cantina called Chyco and Bolino's Ocean Lounge.
I didn't like anything about the bar and I especially didn't like the owner's crazy brother sitting across the room next to a sagging pool table that had surface grooves the size of bowling alley gutters. He kept staring at me with a silly grin.
I knew I wasn't going to find Betty Grable here but I thought, at least, I might be able to get a cold beer. What I got didn't resemble beer but it was cold and it had a ten gauge shot gun kick. In my dehydrated condition it didn't take much to knock me out and I ended up asleep on the floor until morning.
When I woke up Chyco (the bar owner) and Bolino (his brother) were back where I had remembered them from the night before, Chyco wiping glasses behind the bar and Bolino next to that dilapidated pool table with his annoying 'all knowing' smile. I walked over to the bar to pay the previous night's tab then turned to leave when Chyco yelled, "Heading on back now?"
"Suppose I am," I responded.
I didn't like anything about the place and I especially didn't like the owner's crazy brother sitting across the room, next to a sagging pool table that had surface grooves the size of bowling alley gutters. He kept staring at me with a silly grin.
"Well, it's too bad you didn't find any metal here. But listen, there's no need to walk away a complete looser. My brother here (pointing to Bolino) he's blessed with 'total recall', doesn't forget a thing. Everyone in this area uses him like a file cabinet. Anything they might need to know later, they tell Lino. Then, when they need to remember, they just ask him. Isn't that right, Lino? Now, since you made such a long hike down here and you had such a rough night, maybe you can ask him a question, anything at all---and he'll give you the answer. Give it a try."
My head was pounding and my stomach felt like a hazardous waste zone. I didn't feel in the mood for playing along with some silly local idiot. But, on the other hand, I was in no hurry to start the forty mile hike back to my base camp so I decided to give it a try.
"Languages," I said, "What does Bolino, here, know about languages?"
"Everything," replied Chyco, "He knows them all."
I knew that was impossible. There were dozens of major languages in the world and if you include local dialects, there would be tens, maybe even hundreds of thousands. Yet to my amazement, when I tested him, Bolino knew every one that I threw at him.
"You're too easy on him my friend," Chyco said to me, "Lino has gone beyond the limitations of established languages---with their double entendres, their vagueness, with their attention to the tapestry of local color. Lino's singularly prolific mind has evolved into a state where all things are precise, syntactically correct, and placed within exact positions. All entities are described exactly by clauses he calls 'pictures'. When he is in this state he finds the commingling of numbers and objects so abhorrent that I once heard him scream out in his sleep 'Sucking seventh!'. That was his seventh nightmare in which the numeric world mixed with the non numeric---and he was nearly delirious. I rushed into his room to calm him down. I told him not to get so upset, just imagine he's punching that seventh dream, you know, socking it. Just imagine S0C7. I told him that whenever he gets into one of those S0C7 situations that he should get out of bed, no matter what the hour, and drive downtown, you know, stay up most of the night. Well, there are no cars here and certainly there's no downtown but the suggestion seemed to help him a little."
As Chyco was talking I noticed a young woman had sat down at the corner table. She must have been a regular here because they all knew her name, calling out "Hi, Gracie," when she came in.
Chyco continued---"So then Lino got hit with one of his memory avalanches, all of Aristotle's logic system came gushing at him in it's entirety. It caught him by surprise. He felt there was something not right, something missing, and I'll tell you, mister scrap metal hunter man, Lino had locked into mortal combat with Aristotle, like a cobra with a mongoose. Eventually, he zeroed in on the syllogism. Let's look at the classic model:
All As are Bs
C is an A
Therefore C is B
I noticed that Gracie, over in the corner was writing as fast as she could. "Aren't you Grace Hopper," I asked. "No I'm Grace Slick," she snapped, "and keep away from me."
Bolino directed all his concentration at that model for weeks. The mental effort nearly killed him but in the end he took Aristotle's approach and stood it on its head---and here's his real genius. In a flash of insight, he injected the simple conjunction 'IF'. With that simple counterattack he had taken what was merely a descriptive tool and turned it into an 'action tool'. That concept 'IF', (the supposition of condition) makes all things possible, it cries out for action verbs---MOVE, REPLACE, OPEN, CLOSE and on and on."
I noticed that Gracie, over in the corner was writing as fast as she could.
"Well," I said, "this is all very interesting but I just wonder how all that will perform under MVS." Bolino give me a knowing wink and he whispered, "It'll do just fine."
It was time for me to leave, I was feeling better and I wanted to get most of the trip done before the snakes got too active. I walked over to the table where Gracie was sitting to glance at what she had been writing. I could see the words Go ask Alice, when she's ten feet tall. I was puzzled. "Aren't you Grace Hopper," I asked.
"No, I'm Grace Slick," she snapped, "and keep away from me."
Chyco came over and said, "Do you know Grace Hopper?"
"I don't know her, but I've heard of her," I responded.
"Well," Chyko said, " she was in here a month ago and wrote down everything I've just told you. I have no idea why. Very nice lady. She wanted to get the name of the bar to include it in her notes, you know, Chyco and Bolino's Ocean Lounge but she thought it was too long for anyone to remember so she just abbreviated it to COBOL.
Just as I was making my final attempt to walk out the door Chyco said to me, "You should have been here about two weeks ago. A French lady came in here by the name of Adie Effe. We just called her ADF. Anyway, she had the strangest idea for a language that any body ever heard of, I mean she was waaaay out there, if you get my drift. Her language included something called SPA Key Ids, Audit Exits, all these pieces that had to be related together with cryptic names that had no meaning. Speaking metaphorically, it was like a mental concept that had been run over by a train leaving the station. Well, we found out a few days later that she had been under care for awhile but the experts decided they really couldn't do much with her and had to let her go---but you know, she actually sold a couple copies of that language."
"It's a strange world," I said, and I left.
That's the story of where COBOL came from.