A Trusty Machine That Got the Job Done

WHEN your first true love becomes a collector's item, you feel almost at a collectible stage yourself. I'm speaking of my Kaypro II computer, of course, which I brought home 12 or 15 years ago, just when a New Yorker cartoon showed a husband welcoming guests with something like: ''This is my computer, and this is my wife.''

Now I read that the Kaypro, like a few other vintage machines, is ''hot'' in the collecting market. But I'm not putting mine in the Internet computer auction announced for May 22-26. And I bet Arthur C. (''2001'') Clarke and William F. (''Firing Line'') Buckley aren't going to either.

I remember the frisson when I discovered that such celebrities were in the universe of Kaypro users. As was a far-flung colleague, who shared his advanced methods of dealing with the amiable eccentricities of our pioneering portable (25 to 30 pounds in a combat-ready metal case carried like a toolbox by the perky young businesswoman in the picture).

Auctioning a fellow's Kaypro would be like auctioning a faithful cocker spaniel. I understood the expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who said a computer was like a dog -- you were so delighted when it did something you didn't know it could do. Like the time I tried the ''chapter headings'' program: After the headings marched down the screen, the disks whirred alarmingly on -- and an unannounced table of contents appeared complete with page numbers.

The Kaypro's evolving printed instructions increased the chances for happy and other surprises. When I called the store to say I couldn't make a certain key do what the book said, my user-friendly salesperson replied, ''Oh, I think they changed it on some machines; try so-and-so.'' And so-and-so worked.

''Do not use the procedure in the manual,'' warned a replacement page I received. The guide for business software noted that the effect of certain keys was ''unpredictable.'' What an epiphany to find that the exclamation key would cause an income tax spreadsheet to recalculate, flashing like a pinball game in ''Tommy'' and correcting all the things I thought I'd done wrong.

Surely computer critic Peter McWilliams meant me when he wrote in 1982 that the Kaypro II ''is all the personal computer many people will ever need.'' A stream of information came from a Kaypro Users Group (KUG) and a special magazine (''Profiles''). Dealers sent catalogs with all kinds of accessories, fitted canvas covers (I ordered navy with white piping), everything to nurture the brief blooming of a whole Kaypro culture.

Brief because, for one thing, the operating system was CP/M and soon the standard changed to DOS. In the Pentium/laptop era, tomorrow's collectible will probably be an antique from 1994.

I gave in and went DOS, buying a Ford Escort, so to speak, while keeping my Model A. Occasionally, I have to search for something stored on the Kaypro's floppy disks -- no hard disk in my collector's item! And it works as it always did, cool and quiet, too well-engineered or not powerful enough to need a fan.

Nice to pause from instant PC gratification and make that old dog do its old tricks.

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