Richard Harter’s World
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February 2010

The march of the decades

I am fond of remarking that over the years my life has taken many strange and curious turns. Then again, I am known to be fond of remarking all sorts of things. Some of them may even be true. This being the start of yet another decade, I thought it would be fun to say a little about what I was doing in each turn of the decades in my life. Don’t complain about what I’ve omitted – be grateful.


In 1940 I was 5 years old. My world was a small patch of prairie in central South Dakota. That world included the ranch house, a wood shed, an outhouse, a combination granary/machine shed, another granary, a barn, a defunct windmill, and a fascinating grove of trees. By then I already was riding horses.

The world beyond was a big unknown place. Even the occasional visit to Highmore (then population 1100 with 11 churches, 2 drugstores, two hotels, a department store, and a movie theatre) must have been awe inspiring. At this remove I simply don’t remember. However I do have a fragmentary memory of a trip to Oklahoma City – I remember street lights and the sound of a trolley.


In 1950 I was attending Highmore High School. I did first and second grade in Highmore. I stayed with my grandparents, which wasn’t entirely satisfactory. The next five grades (I skipped one grade) were spent at North Eagle country school. Maybe some day I will write about those days. If not, I can commend an article by Dale Wurts and Carol Jennings nee Wurts about East Eagle township country school.

My school record was a harbinger of things to come – brilliance mixed with irregularity. I went on to graduate at age 16; I am told that I was the youngest high school graduate in the history of the school. I could have graduated even younger, but they wouldn’t let me. I suppose I was incredibly bright when I was young. The science teacher loaned me a calculus text, which I used to teach myself calculus. I even took a pass at learning the calculus of variations from an encyclopedia. If my memories are right, I simply didn’t have the background for it.

My understanding of the larger world around me was still quite limited. A twenty five mile trip to a neighbouring town was a major expedition.

By then I had discovered science fiction. In those days the drugstores carried a wide variety of pulp magazines, detective stories, general fiction, and a variety of science fiction. I doubt that they really told me anything meaningful about the real world, but I became addicted. Science Fiction and I were made for each other.


The 1950-1960 decade was varied. In 1952 I graduated from high school. I spent a year and some at the SD School of Mines and Technology where I studied Bridge, Poker, and Chess, much to the displeasure of my parents. After a brief stint of farming – an occupation I was never cut for – I joined the Marine Corps (1954-1957) and became a radar technician. When I got out I traipsed out to Massachusetts (one of my lieutenants had told me I should go to MIT) and discovered the delights of Harvard Square. I worked as an environmental test technician at Raytheon, found the Boston Chess Club and the duplicate bridge circuit, and realized that Boston winters weren’t any better than South Dakota winters.

So it was that I went down to the Bahamas to be a radar technician on the Atlantic missile test range. In a year I made enough money playing poker in the C barracks day room to support going back to college, so I headed back to Brookings, SD, to pick up my college career. This time I took it seriously. I had transferred in a raft of incompletes and bad grades which put me on academic probation. In my first quarter at Brookings I got straight A’s. I may be the only student in the history of SDSU to be on Academic Probation with straight A’s.

I rather liked college life. I was active in theater, wrote poetry, and studied advanced math texts. I even played cards now and then. Oddly enough, I don’t recall that I even read any SF during college. I suppose I must have, but I have no memory of it.

My academic career had a curious dichotomy. I was taking undergraduate math courses on my own while studying advanced texts on my own. That’s part of the story of my life – I’m a compulsive auto-didact.

Oh, yes, 1960 SDSU (then SD State College) acquired a computer, an IBM 1620, that sat in the basement of an engineering building while they figured out what to do with it. I knew. I immediately discovered the delights of writing computer programs.


In 1961 I wrote my first program for money. In 1962 I left SDSU one quarter short of a degree and returned to Boston. These two events are not connected.

Back in Boston I got a job at the Air Force Cambridge Research Laboratory (AFCRL) where I wrote Fortran programs for research scientists.

In early 1963 I discovered the MIT Science Fiction Society (MITSFS). In theory MITSFS was an MIT undergraduate SF club. In actuality it was a focal point for science fiction enthusiasts. It included MIT grad students, coeds from Boston University, and Cliffies from Radcliffe, as well as a few odd hangers on such as yours truly. It was there that Tony Lewis and I invented the game of Insanity.

Somewhere along the way I stopped writing poetry. When I discovered MITSFS (and later SF fandom) I must have substituted a social life for poetry. Now there’s an odd thought. Make of it what you will.

In 1964 my father, Morris Wilson Harter, died young at the age of 52.

In 1965 I went back to SDSU to finish my degree. I returned to take a job at the NASA Electronics Research Center (ERC) in Cambridge where I was in charge of a programming group. I was a civil servant, a GS 12. I probably could have had a very comfortable career as a civil servant if I had stayed with it. NASA ERC was a bit of political pork, Johnson making peace with the Kennedys. The building was later turned over to the department of transportation.

By 1967 people associated with MITSFS had discovered SF fandom and starting doing fanac. (Fanac is fan speak for SF fan activities, namely publishing fanzines, attending conventions, belonging to SF clubs, etc.) After some fumbling around we organized the New England Science Fiction Association (NESFA). NESFA and SF fandom became a major focal point of my life for the next dozen or so years.

Also in that time period I quit my job at NASA and made a pass at getting a PhD in Math. That came to naught. Instead I got a job a chief scientist (I think that was my title) at a company called Geoscience. This was a company founded by some Geophysics professors from MIT that did contract research for oil and mining companies.

It was thenabouts that I rented an apartment at 5 Chauncy St. in Cambridge. I lived in a lot of different apartments over the years but 5 Chauncy St. was special. To begin with it was within short walking distance of Harvard Square, a truly wonderful place for someone like me. I occupied the second floor of a three story house. The apartment had a balcony and a huge living room that had a bay window and a wonderful fireplace. The kitchen wasn’t much and the dining area was small. However it was well laid out for throwing really great parties.


And throw parties I did. I hosted an annual new years party with friends from widely different circles. Several people commented to me about the odd people that showed up at the parties. Not surprisingly they were talking about each other. On New Year’s day I was usually greeted by sundry bodies scattered about the living room. When Geoscience folded we held a wake for the company at my apartment. The wake featured a fake casket made out cardboard painted black. The casket was strewn with fake flowers .

This was the era of the Christmas trees. The apartment at 5 Chauncy St. had high ceilings which left room for nice tall Xmas trees. Each year I got a huge tree and held a tree decorating party. The decorating principle was simple: Gaudy is good. Gaudier is better. The trees were decorated with a wide variety of ornaments including a kitchen sink.

I held several jobs during this period – I worked briefly at AFCRL, I worked on a radar project at MIT Lincoln Laboratory, and I worked in the Geomarine division of Bolt, Beranek, and Newman. The radar project was an implementation of the ABM system design. One of the benefits of that project were two trips to Kwajelein with vacaction stops in Hawaii.

From 1974-1978 I was doing quite a bit of serious horseback riding. Back in the saddle again narrates that bit of horsing around.

In 1975 NESFA was wracked with a rather nasty feud. I was the head of the rules committee which meant that I had to make peace, more or less. I continued to be active in the club but my enthusiasm faded.

In 1976 I bought a house in historic Concord MA – Walden Pond was within long walking distance. Buying a house always seems to involve remodeling. I ended up working at MIT Lincoln Laboratories in another radar group.

During this period I became more and more interested in designing tools to make the process of constructing software easier. I explored a lot of different ideas and made several pitches for funding that went nowhere.

Boston won the bid for putting on the World Science Fiction convention in 1980. Most of the active NESFA members were heavily involved with putting on the convention. I agreed to become President with the understanding that it would be a caretaker presidency. My year as president was more or less my swan song as an active member of NESFA.

In 1980 our radar group went to Fort Sill, Oklahoma to do live tests. (We were there when J.R. Ewing was killed in the TV program, Dallas.) There wasn’t much to do so we started playing volleyball in our spare time. It was strictly jungle ball, but we enjoyed it.


Life went off in new directions in the 1980-1990 years.

For some reason the radar group became fanatic about playing volleyball. We set up a net and a dirt court near our work building. Every day at noon time and after work we would be out there playing volleyball. Eventually the fad faded. However I was hooked. I ended up playing in rec games, in leagues, and in tournaments. From 1980-1998 I usually played volleyball two evenings a week. I have a shelf full of trophies and a lot of memories. The tale of my volley ball years is at

In my spare time I kept working on my ideas for software to make creating software easier. I had a lot of different ideas but I eventually settled on software configuration management as a core concept. I finally decided to go ahead and create a product and eventually a company. In 1982 I started writing code in my spare time. I wrote a lot of code. For a while in 1983 I worked part time in the radar group, and then finally went full time on my own. At the end of 1983 I sold the first copy. The period from 1984-1987 was pretty grim and pretty marginal. I was single handedly creating an entire product. We pulled it off. We got enough sales to be viable. In turn this let us get our first offices and hire some people.

The company name was Software Maintenance and Development Systems. It’s a mouthful but it described what the company did and what it was selling.

That is about it – life was about the company, playing volleyball, and hanging out at coffee shops. Oh yes, somewhere along the line I discovered usenet. Quite a few articles on my web site are refurbished usenet postings.


In the early 90’s we were doing fairly well. We got new offices and hired more people. In 1995 I brought in some financing, a new board of directors, and a new president. I stayed on with the company on a consulting basis, keeping a big block of stock and a large note. This turned out to be a mistake. The company expanded and undertook creating a new product that never worked. I made a good income from the company until it went belly up. The software I created is still in use and is sold by a company named McCabe. I suppose it is something that software I wrote 25 years ago is still in use.

Turning the company over to others meant that I had some free time to do new things. I had to make choices what I was going to do with the rest of my life. I didn’t think there was any rush.

One new thing was the creation of a web site. This was in 1996 when the world wide web was still new and fresh. Back in the 70’s I had published a fanzine called Personal Notes. My thought was that I would revive it in the form of a web site. I happily dug up old material and put it in web pages. The wonderful thing about a web site is that you don’t have to run reams and reams of paper through a mimeo.

I spent more time following various usenet groups, including a group called rec.arts.books. This revived my literary interests. I began writing short stories and poetry. I have a page with links to my fiction and another to my poetry pages. I also wrote a number of book reviews, some of them of actual books.

I reconnected a bit with the SF world. I visited the NESFA clubhouse and went to a few conventions. It was fun and it was good to see old friends, but SF fandom was a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.

Early in 1999 my mother got pneumonia and was very ill. Sisters and daughters and even a son made trips to South Dakota to help take care of her. Eventually it was clear that she would have to go into a nursing home. Since I was retired I decided to move back to South Dakota to take care of her affairs. This was not a simple process. I had the house in Concord to sell and I had to move my possessions to South Dakota. The first step was to winter over in South Dakota in the family home. I had forgotten what South Dakota winters could be like …


The 2000-2010 has been a radical restructuring of my life. Everyone, particularly my mother, expected that she had a short time to live. She told people not to give her a year 2000 calendar because she wasn’t going to be around that long. I commuted back and forth from Concord to Highmore, hauling stuff in my car, packaging books up into shipping boxes to send to SD, and preparing the Concord house for sale.

Returning to South Dakota was a real culture shock. The nearest movie theater was 50 miles away. The nearest large book store was 190 miles away. The nearest discount home remodelling supply place was 120 miles away.

I had to make the house livable. In her last dozen or so years she simply fell behind on keeping up with house keeping and repairs. There were racks filled with twenty year old canned goods and medicine cabinets filled with long out date medicines. She was a very intelligent woman with many interests. The house was filled with the residues of her efforts. There was mold. There a room where a bit of ceiling had fallen in. There were two godawful window air conditioners that were relics of the early sixties. The bathroom plumbing suffered from terminal tree root infestation. The furnace hadn’t been cleaned for a decade or two. And so on.

One good thing was that she had arranged her affairs well – she had a family trust with her four children as equal beneficiaries. We had the time to find good homes for everything.

My mother, June Harter died on January 25, 2002. She did get to see the coming of the new millenium after all.

My original plan had been to move to a university town where I would have access to a university library. I had settled in, though, and I decided it would be simply to stay where I was. I bought the house from the estate.

I arranged the sale of the family ranch to US Fish and Wildlife, who transformed it into the June Harter Waterfowl Production Area. My mother was an ardent conservationist and ornithologist,as are some of my sisters. She would have been very pleased.

In 2002 I decided to do something about my weight. I had been slender most of my life but without noticing I had put on a significant number of pounds in the last decade or two. I devised a highly effective personal weight loss program. My diet consisted of things like carrots, celery, brocolli slaw, low cal TV dinners, plenty of fruit, and protein bars. In addition I walked several miles a day and did plenty of yard work. It worked quite well. In seven months I took off fifty pounds. Since then it has fluctuated a bit but is basically stable. I fuss about weight and food a bit. Deb calls me a food fascist.

Deb, you ask. Deb is Deborah Rinehart. She was a class mate of my sister Lois. Deb has a son, Nicholas, who is a lawyer in Des Moines. She runs the Highmore real estate office. Talk to her if you want to buy a house in Highmore. She and I became a couple in 2002. I introduced her to the Science Fiction world; she introduced me to the Rodeo world. The Rineharts are rodeo people. She has three nephews and on nephew-in-law who are world class steer wrestlers. We go to major rodeos and watch the boys lay steers on the ground in a few seconds.

We’ve travelled a bit and have remodelled houses. (I remodel houses every 25 or 30 years. It takes that long for me to forget why I shouldn’t.) She has her own place which we called the fixer-upper from hell. We tore apart and put it together again. My place, the family house, has gotten the treatment too. The kitchen was torn out and replaced. The bathroom was redone. The entire floor (when it finally gets done) has been tiled with porcelain tile. I put in a three panel sliding patio door with a little patio area outside. I put in energy efficient windows and new air conditioning. I built 12 feet of floor to ceiling stained oak book cases. Etc.

2006-2008 revealed some chinks in my immortal armor. I take diovan for high blood pressure and warfarin (rat poison) for atrial fibrillation. Other than that I am in excellent shape for somebody in my condition.

In 2009 I started driving vans for a rural transit system. There is a good reason for doing this.

In short, life is good.






All hell breaks loose.

This page was last updated February 1, 2010.

Richard Harter’s World
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February 2010