Foreword By Chris Hofstader
Amanda Carson, formerly Amanda Rush, worked in technical support for a few years at Freedom Scientific. John Carson (Amanda's husband) started at FS in tech support, was promoted into the scripting group where he worked for me for about a year and then he was promoted again to the role of escalations manager, a job he would hold until he chose to retire. I was VP of Software Engineering during my six years with the company. Last week, all three of us got together on Zoom to share our memories of the funniest and most fun things we could remember from our time at Freedom Scientific. I laughed a lot during the call and I hope you enjoy the stories.
We do not include the names of other FS employees who weren't also people who would appear publicly on behalf of the company, effectively, we mention the names of executives but not the rank and file as some of them still work for the company, we didn't want to embarrass anyone and just wanted to tell silly and funny stories. I'm sure people who worked with us back in those days will recognize some of the anonymized individuals but they would know these stories as well.
Introduction By Amanda Carson
Chris and my husband John have been friends for a million years. I've been friends with Chris for a million years now and was friends with John for almost that long before we got married. All three of us have twisted senses of humor and we all share the distinction of having done time at Freedom Scientific: John and I in support where we met, and Chris as executive staff. So all of us getting together to share stories was practically inevitable, and I thought it would be fun to show our twisted senses of humor off publicly to give people a look behind the curtain at a company that's been a cornerstone of the blind community for decades.
No actual humans were harmed during the writing of this or the drinking on my part during the original storytelling.
The Cup Holder
Amanda: A call came to my desk and, of course, I answered it. The caller could not figure out how to install JAWS from a CD-ROM. The caller said he couldn't find his CD-ROM drive on their computer. I asked what sort of machine this person had and was told that it was a tower style PC. I told him where a CD drive was usually located on such a computer and the caller said, "You mean the cup holder?"
Everyone had heard the urban legend about a person calling tech support and referring to it as a cup holder but nobody actually believed it. I was certain I was being pranked and. Told the caller so. They responded with some shock in their voice and I realized this one was serious, I'm willing to guess I was the only tech support technician to actually experience this in real life.
John: One of the low vision tech support guys went to the office kitchen to make himself some microwave popcorn. Upon returning to the tech support room he started eating his popcorn and noticed that one of the blind technicians had a finger up his nose so far that it looked like he was trying to give himself a lobotomy. The fellow with the popcorn asked a third person if they'd like some but the dude with the finger up his nose reached into the bag and grabbed a handful. The low vision guy with the popcorn told him he could keep the entire bag and grabbed another from his desk and microwaved himself a fresh bag. Within minutes, everyone in the company had heard the story and started calling the nose picker "Booger" as a nickname. I can't remember when he left the company but the booger nickname stayed with him for the rest of his career at FS.
The FS Newsletter Prank
Chris: Eric Damery and I were in his office discussing some long forgotten subject on a day when an issue of the Freedom Scientific newsletter was released to the public. The newsletter featured an animated .GIF file which had the alt-text, "Shark fin swimming in circles." Eric and I felt like being a bit silly so we changed the alt-text to "Small blind child being eaten by shark." I went to the office next door where Sharon Spenser sat and, in whispering conspiratorial tones, I told her she had to join us in Eric's office and it was really important.
Eric slowed the speech rate on his PC to something a normal sighted person could understand and did a SayAll from the top of the newsletter. When it got to the animated .GIF, Sharon heard the shark eating a small blind child version and literally screamed as Eric and I asked, "Did this just go out to 100,000 people?" She then just started stuttering until she noticed that Eric and I were practically rolling on the floor and realized that we'd pranked her yet again. So, Sharon, being an FS executive, had to get in on the fun and ran to get the marketing manager who was responsible for the newsletter. Eric had JAWS read from the top again and the marketing manager went ghostly white and we thought he might have a heart attack. It took us about five minutes to calm him down and to get him to understand it was just a prank.
The Fart Box
Amanda: One of the other tech support technicians went to the mall one day and while visiting Spenser's Gifts bought one of those little boxes that make various fart noises. We hid it in another tech support person's trash (it had a remote control) and waited for the right moment. Suddenly, it sounded as if one of the tech support people was farting and was doing so loudly. The "victim" of the prank was asking, "What is that noise?" while the rest of us laughed ourselves silly.
On another occasion, we were in a fairly serious meeting and the fellow who had the fart box attached it to the back of another's chair and hid the remote in his arms which he kept folded. As the meeting grew more tense, a loud fart sound rang out and everyone burst into laughter, except the fellow who was trying to give us a lecture on some nonsense. He just kept talking and the farting grew more frequent and the laughter even louder. I think a fart box is a must have bit of gear for any disciplinary meeting.
John: Jill, my late first wife and I really enjoyed entertaining. If Freedom Scientific held a Christmas Party, we hard partiers would all come back to my place for the after party. We were usually already drunk from the free booze at the company party but we weren't satisfied until people couldn't walk. After one of the.Christmas Parties, another tech support person puked into our sofa. On another occasion, we had a band with full drum kit set up in the middle of a mid-sized apartment in a crowded apartment complex. The band, all FS employees played and played loudly until the police arrived.
Another time, after Jill had passed away, Amanda and I decided to see who could do more shots of Goldschlager but, instead of using a standard 1.5 ounce shot glass, we went head to head, shot for shot drinking from five ounce tumblers. Neither of us passed out before the booze ran out. Even though it wouldn't happen for many more years to come, I think this might have been the sign that she and I belonged together.
The Consulting Services Meeting
Chris: If you looked at my Outlook calendar, you would notice that from 2:00 until 4:00 every Friday afternoon, I had it reserved for the consulting services meeting. This meeting also appeared on a handful of other FS employees calendars, oddly only one of them having anything to do with our consulting services business. More strange was that the engineer in charge of consulting services on my staff was not included in this group.
I can't mention any names here as I think at least two members of the consulting services club still work at FS but it wasn't a meeting at all. It was a two hour break after a long and stressful week. We just hung out and talked about fishing, sports, music, politics and made fun of other people around the company. One time we came up with nicknames for the other departments but the only one I can remember is "Quality Assurance: We Put The K In Kwality!"
Amanda: If I had a standing Friday two-hour screw around meeting on my calendar, I would have lost my job. I did, however, threaten to leave my desk for the local pub one time when the phone system was down and my direct supervisor asked us contractors to clock out so they could avoid paying us for the downtime.
The Women's Restroom
Amanda: The women's room at FS was so disgusting that I would avoid fluids all day at work and use the toilet when I got home. It stunk to high hell and, having heard many of Chris' stories about the old punk rock clubs, it may have been more disgusting than the famously disgusting restrooms at CBGB.
I don't know what the gals were stuffing into the toilets but something was almost always overflowing and we had those turbo flush toilets that you could probably flush a volleyball down but the women at FS found a way to stop them up. I wonder if they put actual effort into this or if they were just opposed to hygiene in general. The one good thing was that the fluids would flow under the wall into CFO Roy Rafalco's office so, if you had to go to the CFO's office, you were really stepping into the doo doo.
Eloquence With A Lisp?
Chris: In the old days, there was a file in your JAWS folder called symbols.ini. It was a text file that, if you knew it was there and little else, you could use it to change the pronunciation of single letters. We would change the "s" to sound like "th" and the "r" to sound like a "w." I learned of this hack when someone from our test lab pulled it on me. As we developer types often worked late into the night, one of us from time to time would take a break and make Eloquence lisp on some random non-technical employee's desk. They would call our IT guy who was in on the joke, he would fix it for them but not tell them what he did to make Eloquence sound normal again. We must have pulled this prank a few dozen times.
Caught With Their Pants Down
John: one summer we had two interns, one male and the other female. They apparently found each other attractive and, rather than going to the nearby low cost Comfort Inn to satisfy their urges, they elected to have sex in a hallway closet. They got kind of loud in there and others noticed. Both were fired.
Jerry's NASCAR Computer
Chris: Jerry Bowman, our General manager and my boss, decided to take a vacation with his wife to attend a NASCAR event. One of the product managers and I went out to a software store and bought a NASCAR game, returned to the office and installed it on Jerry's computer. When Jerry returned from his vacation, he had no keyboard or mouse but, instead, a steering wheel, gear shift and gas and break pedal on the floor beneath his desk. He laughed loudly and then pretended to scold us but couldn't stop giggling.
John: When I was on the scripting team, Jerry called all five of we scripters and Chris into his office for what he would call a "come to Jesus talk." Jerry didn't get angry often but when he did, he exploded. The lead scripter stood with his hand over his mouth and later admitted he thought he might vomit, another turned so white that he could have been confused for a corpse. I can't recall why we were being scolded but the following day, Jerry reminded us that we had to do better but apologized for losing his temper.
Fun With The Audio Kids
Chris: There were two blind kids living in North Carolina who were interested in audio production. One was Derek Lane and the other was Patrick Purdue, both now working professionally in the audio space. Somehow, Derek figured how to work his way through the FS phone system and get directly to my desk. We had no caller ID in those days so I'd always answer calls that came in unless they'd disturb a meeting or important conversation. Derek and Patrick would play for me their latest JAWS parody recording. My favorite was called "Doctor JAWS" and we spread it around the office to allow others to enjoy it as well. After a short while, I put Derek on all of our beta teams so he got to enjoy his JAWS, PAC Mate and probably some other stuff at no cost.
Amanda, John and Chris: Remember the time Patrick made DecTalk sing "Bohemian Rhapsody?" What about the "You're screwed" that they'd end their parodies with? Remember all of the other songs Patrick had DecTalk sing?
Amanda: Another guy made a really good JAWS parody that was spreading around the company while Eric Damery went into a panic that someone would sneak it onto a JAWS CD and release it to the public. Eric was running all around the building and the rest of us found it hysterical.
John: Even before I joined HJ, I was there a few years before Chris and many years before Amanda, HJ tech support had one guy named Donnie Donne. He was a Viet Nam veteran who lost his eyes, legs and part of one ear after setting off a landmine. He worked remotely from his farm in Oklahoma. After a few years of doing tech support as a volunteer, he finally asked Ted if he could be paid something for his time and, of course, Ted agreed.
Chris: I joined HJ in November of 1998 and the following month attended my first HJ Christmas party and, as my wife was still in Massachusetts working on a legal case, I brought the O&M instructor assigned to me as my date for the evening. We weren't romantically involved but had become good friends in a short amount of time.
Ted Henter took to the microphone and announced that we were not only celebrating the holiday but this was also Donnie's retirement party. Ted then told the story of how he came to meet Donnie. "I got a call from the Oklahoma Commission for the Blind and was told they had a client who needed a database to keep his "girls" in order. I knew I had to meet this guy as how many other blind people need a database to keep their girls in order and the person at the commission gave Donnie my contact information so we could speak directly.
"On that call, I learned that Donnie ran a cattle farm and the 'girls' to which he was referring were cows and he needed a database to prevent inbreeding. I just wish my in laws had such a database."
The Cute One
Chris: One day a bunch of the developers and I were joined for lunch by a gay member of the senior staff. As we were filling our plates at the buffet, the senior staff member asked who the others were as he was new to the company and hadn't met all of the developers yet. We named the different people and when we got to one of the young men, he said, "Oh, you mean the cute one." For years after that, we would refer to the developer as the cute one as I guess he must have been.
Chris: I got chucked out and, in retrospect, if I were in charge, I'd have fired me too.
Amanda: I got an email from my supervisor that my hours had been reduced to zero and was asked to send back my phone so I could get my last pay check. I did not engage in any tricks because I wanted the check, but I went from Freedom Scientific to college again with learning WordPress on the side, and I've managed to turn what started out as WordPress hacking at a job with completely inaccessible software in to my day job.
John: I had been there for so long that I was burned out and chose to take retirement.
During the Henter-Joyce years, the company was more relaxed and I'm told we had more fun but that was all over when I joined Freedom Scientific. But, while FS was high stress and hard work, we found ways to have fun and many of my co-workers there remain friends until today. I'm glad I worked there but wish I had known that the blind people working at Home Shopping Network one bus stop west of the FS headquarters earned on average $50,000 more than the blind people working in telesales or tech support at FS, the majority of the blind people at the company.