Printer Follies in the 1980s

Sometimes what seems like a problem is just two people who haven’t talked to each other yet

Jack Herlocker
4 min readMar 3


Illustration created by author using DALL-E: “male person talking on phone looking stressed in abstract style”

James Finn responded to a tech-related story I posted, which reminded me of another story. (This happens when former military swap sea stories, or whatever the Air Force calls their tale tales of uniformed days. This, however, is a “guarenteed no-sh*tter,” as my chiefs used to say.)

Back in the mid-1980s, I was at Navy Recruiting HQ, working as part of the effort to get microcomputers (PCs) out to the recuiting regions and districts (we were still a few years away from getting them down to the stations). Hewlett-Packard had recently come out with laser printers, and while they were slow and primitive by current standards, they were crazy fast compared to the daisy-wheel printers that we used to produce “typewriter-style” letters, which went to candidates, parents, etc. Dot-matrix printing was a no-no, this had to look like it came out of an IBM Selectric that someone had typed manually. Professional, y’know.

Districts with budgets were snapping up the lasers, no surprise. Not all districts had commanding officers who believed in the latest office technology, however. I would chat periodically with the district tech gurus (this was still too early for the command structure to actually have IT positions, so anybody who was “good with computers” got handed tech duties along with their official job) and one senior chief (E-8) would always finish our conversations with, “Hey lieutenant, if you ever have one of those laser printers lying around extra, I’d be happy to trade one of our daisy-wheels!” “Senior chief, you are first on my list!”

One day I get a call from a district XO.¹ She is not happy. VERY not happy. And it was my fault.

“Lieutenant, we bought one of those laser printers on your recommendation. The quality is awful. It looks like a cheap copier.” This was the first complaint I’d heard, so I try to troubleshoot over the phone, and I determine that the district has purchased a large quantity of cheap copier paper. Very cheap. Which looked okay with a daisy-wheel printer, but with a laser printer… yup, cheap copier, because a laser and a copier are the same engine at heart.² I explain this to the XO.

“What should we do about this, lieutenant?” Frosty tone. Not happy. Still my fault.

“Well ma’am, how much paper do you have?”

“Twelve pallets.”

Okay, ten reams of paper to a box, twelve boxes, that makes — waitasec. “Ma’am, did you say boxes or pallets?”

Pallets, lieutenant.”

“Oh… that’s a lot of paper, ma’am.”

“I am aware of that, lieutenant.” Very frosty tone. Not a happy person. At all.

“Ma’am, let me get you a daisy-wheel printer ASAP. Will that help you for now?”

“Yes, that should.”

Okay. Now I need to find a daisy-wheel printer. We should have spares, right?³ I ask my ensign, who asks her chief. Short answer: no. Longer answer: my gang can put one together out of the remains of several other printers, but it will take a few days and might not be a robust answer. (Daisy-wheel printers were notoriously prone to breakage, yet another reason to shift to laser printers.) Crap crap crap… hey!

“Hi, senior chief, this is LT Herlocker at headquarters. Would you be interested in the name and number of someone who will send you their new laser printer if you send them your best daisy wheel printer?”

“Lieutenant, you wouldn’t bullsh*t a bullsh*tter, would you?”

I explain the background. The senior chief is willing. I call the XO. She is delighted. I put them in touch with each other. I follow up a couple days later, everybody has their new printers,⁴ the XO had her letters looking good going out and told me I was wonderful, the senior chief had his new laser printer and expressed the same sentiment to me in somewhat earthier vernacular.

A somewhat stressful job, but it had its moments.

Oh, and I got my boss fired at one point. Totally by accident.

But I had good people working for me. Although sometimes it felt like the other way around.

¹Executive Officer; #2 in the command structure.

²This was years before the concept of paper created specifically for laser printers and copiers. These days even “cheap paper” looks good.

³My department was tasked with PC training, phone support for PC problems, and nationwide maintenance after our previous contract with a major company had fallen through at the last minute because they had low-balled the price and tried to blackmail us. I had an ensign, two chiefs, 7–10 enlisted, and four rooms, one of which was packed with ready spares and shelves of broken equipment that my gang tried to turn into working equipment when they time to spare. A whole ‘nuther story!

⁴Yes, we had express delivery back then. No, it did not involve a string of fresh horses. Shush!



Jack Herlocker

Husband & retiree. Developer, tech writer, & IT geek. I fill what’s empty, empty what’s full, and scratch where it itches. Occasionally do weird & goofy things.