Stories about John Ponte
I got word this evening that my friend from college, and later colleague at Sun, John Ponte has died. Being stuck in a Seattle hotel room with nothing to do but ruminate, I thought I'd share a few stories about him. Given that most of our circle of friends have been online since the 80's, I hope some others will find this page and add theirs.
I met John in 1986 when I was a freshman at UMass. We were both part of a community of extremely eccentric individuals that used the Cyber mainframe there. It was a community bound together by primitive local newsgroups called "notesfiles" and a proto-irc called "Confer". And by the fact that the terminal room closed for cleaning on Thursday nights, so everyone would gather in the campus coffee shop for "coffee break" - and to scare the mundanes with whatever bizarre behavior we could muster, including showing up in costume, more than two people making out together, musical interludes and anything else anyone could dream of that could make people think we were all crazy. It was easy - we all were.
John was one of the administrators of the system. You could get online from the dorms, but whenever conversation on Confer got heated and interesting, the buffer pushing data to your 300 baud acousticouple modem would be flooded and you'd be timed out and miss everything. So the terminal room was the gathering place.
One of the other admins of the system was the gatekeeper to the community via a simple technique: he would mercilessly hit on anyone who logged in for the first time, be they male or female, with lots of S&M overtones. If you couldn't handle that, you'd probably never dare to log in again. This was to scare the mundanes away. It worked. My first-ever electronic chat began with a man I didn't know announcing to me "I am a bottom." I think I replied that I was a left-side. Apparently I passed the test.
I really got to know John the summer of 1988 - my girlfriend Mara rented a room in the house he lived in. John had had severe problems with depression at a young age. He was quite matter of fact about it being biological and simply something he had to live with and take medication for. Aside from meds which imposed severe dietary restrictions, he had a unique and memorable way of dealing with it: Do anything that looked like fun, no matter how ridiculous. "Anything" tended to heavily biased toward physical comedy and practical jokes.
I Really Need a Shower
One morning I staggered downstairs, and was rinsing a coffee cup at the kitchen sink. I muttered to no one in particular "I really need a shower." Seconds later I am drenched from head to toe with icy water. John had gone out the back door, and come back in with the garden hose, and hosed down me and the rest of the kitchen. I wasn't too happy at that moment, but someone choosing to use the garden hose indoors was so totally unexpected that I was laughing in spite of myself.
This led to a host of other ingenious indoor uses for the garden hose...which eventually came to an end after the linoleum in the kitchen started coming up - the floorboards had to dry out enough to glue it back down.
We're Not Drunk Enough to Work on an Italian Car!
John had a Fiat, aka The Galileo (his online handle was Spock), from the early seventies. He had an idea that if he could get it past one million miles of travel, he could convince Fiat to give him a new one. It was close to half way there.
It was in constant urgent need of attention; that summer he was setting up an inventory system for International Auto Parts in Florence, Massachusetts - I suspect the work there helped slake The Galileo's never-ending thirst for parts.
John did his once a year off-the-meds month that summer, which was a bacchanal of pizza, beer and other normally forbidden foods. On another morning that July I got up at seven AM or so. I was working mornings at Augie's Tobacco Shop in Amherst (a truly surreal bit of employment - but that's a story for another day). This was a Saturday and I was not working.
I sit down at the kitchen table with my coffee, and John takes the coffee, pours it out and replaces it with an 18oz beer. "We're not drunk enough to work on an Italian car," he says. Well, drunk we got and work we did. I don't remember Mara being too happy when she got up at ten to find us reeking of beer and WD-40. I also don't know that anything got fixed. But it sure was fun.
The Flour Cannon
This is a story I didn't witness - but it is so typically John, and I heard it so many times, that it is etched in my memory as if I'd been there.
Returning from a trip to the grocery, it occurred to John that it would be fun to empty a bag of flour over our friend Andy's head. This, of course, left a huge pile of flour on the kitchen floor (not to mention on Andy). Naturally, it needed to be cleaned up. That only led to another opportunity for mayhem: An upright Hoover vacuum will clean up flour. But it's much more interesting if you remove the bag. Thus was born The Flour Cannon. I don't know that the results were ever completely cleaned up.
John was the one person I knew from our little online community in the 80's who kept in touch with everyone - I couldn't believe how many people I'd lost touch with whose lives he could tell me about when I saw him last year.
We got together a few times after college, whenever I was passing through Colorado on one of my between-contracts road-trips. He had dropped all the meds sometime in the early nineties, and as he told it, drove nonstop from Massachusetts to Colorado with a box of Wheat Thins for sustenance. When NetBeans was acquired by Sun in 1999, I did some name searches, figuring that one or two of our very peculiar group from the Cyber at UMass must be working here. And sure enough, John was working for Sun in Colorado. And was doing well - as funny as ever, and as smart as ever, and working as a sysadmin in Sun's Broomfield office. I last saw him a bit over a year ago; he was in great shape, happy with his job at a startup there and doing well. We talked for hours later by phone - he was planning the world's most obnoxious baby shower gifts for Mara and Neal, and making sure everyone from Cyber was part of the conspiracy. Captain Underpants figured heavily in the plans.
I can't really imagine a world without him in it.
If you knew John Ponte, and have a story you'd like to tell about him, you're welcome to share it or a link to it below. I'm sure others of us would enjoy reading them, and perhaps they can be gathered together for his family, if that seems appropriate.