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IRWIN: Backward Compatibility
Andy Irwin

And now, another curmudgeon report.

My first car was a 1956 U.S. Navy Willys Jeep. It came with neither top nor doors. I paid $400 ($200 too much) for this teeny flat-fendered vehicle that was probably no bigger or heavier than a contemporary John Deere Gator. My Jeep came with a homemade roll cage and featured that slap-up-or-down windshield which was kept perpendicular with picture-hanging wire tied to said roll cage. At some point, I came across a discarded avocado-green refrigerator from which I removed one of the sheet metal sides. This fit elegantly across the roll cage to form my Jeep’s top. When I drove in the winter, I wore a full-faced motorcycle helmet for warmth. In inclement weather, I donned an old-school yellow rain slicker. Think Gorton’s Frozen Fisherman meets NASCAR driver. 

One night I was returning from Atlanta to Milledgeville where I was a student at Georgia College. I had just attended a show at a club called The Moonshadow. There, I got to hear my favorite three-sister singing group, The Roches.  It was cold that night and the rain was loudly pattering on my Frigidaire Jeep-top, but I was warm in the glow of the music, and cozy in my driving apparel.

The wiper at the top of the windshield (yes, just one) was operated by a vacuum hose attached to the engine’s intake manifold, so the speed of the wiper was proportional to the compression of the engine. If that’s too much mechanic-y talk for you, just know that sometimes the windshield wiper went real fast, and sometimes it went real slow. 

I had just gone through Monticello, about two-thirds of my 100-mile drive, when I gunned my engine to traverse a hill and my windshield wiper stopped. “Hmmm,” I said to myself. “I reckon the pressure has made my vacuum hose dislodge from a nipple, either at the windshield motor or the manifold.” (I had no radio, so I talked to myself to keep myself company.)

Not to worry. For, inside the windshield was a little handle that was a just bit smaller than the turning-handle of a pencil sharpener; it connected directly to the wiper. I felt around and found it. (It was dark, remember.) I completed my journey back to Milledgeville safely with my human-powered windshield wiper (although I had to shift the gears with my teeth).

Yes, the next day I discovered that I had surmised correctly. The hose was dry-rotted and split at the end where it should adhere to the manifold. It was fixed with 65¢-worth of fuel line purchased from Milledgeville’s old auto parts store. Mr. Jenkins cut that hose from a reel, kind of like buying rope.  His parts store had a counter and stools so old men could loiter and give unsolicited advice to younger shade-tree mechanics such as myself. 

Now, my point is…

That handy handle on my windshield wiper saved me that night.  I have come to learn that there’s a term for such a thing: “backward compatibility.”

Backward compatibility provides old solutions to newer problems. My son has a 2003 Honda Civic Hybrid. The same electric motor that helps propel the car, starts the internal combustion engine. But if that fancy electric motor should fail, there’s still an old fashioned starter. I mean, that’s cool. 

And Backward compatibility is what allows older devices to function with newer systems –  like what has kept “dial” telephones working. (Young people, a “dial” is that wheel on Great-Meemaw’s telephone with holes in it that have corresponding numbers that you stick your finger in and turn.) The signal from such a phone to the network is called “pulse.” But recently phone companies have done away with their ability to interpret “pulse.” They have eliminated that backward compatibility because it was too much of a mechanical bother. 

I don’t want to oversimplify this, but it hit my head a few weeks back when the Colonial Pipeline was hacked with ransomware. I mean, I get it: the North-South petroleum artery that serves the entire East Coast is a conduit that’s a bit larger — and the solutions more complex — than my long-gone windshield wiper vacuum tube. 

But maybe our utter dependence on relatively young technology needs to be rethought. 

I mean…

Once upon a time, railroads functioned because people agreed to synchronize their courthouse clocks and wind-up watches. If something was amiss with the trains, a telegraph was sent. Of course, even with the advanced technology of that day, it was human initiated communication.

One more and I’ll go away. 

Earlier this month, the operation system for The Steamship Authority that provides ferry services for Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard, and Nantucket was also hit with a ransomware attack. I was listening to a report about it on the radio. The correspondent said, “People are lining up for the boats, but there’s a delay because the system is down. Obviously, the Authority can’t take credit cards.”


Yes, when I am on the road I take credit cards for CD sales. (Mostly from old people who drive old cars that still have CD players.) Nowadays, I have a card reader for my smartphone. But before I had a smartphone, I had a credit card machine, what some people used to call a “knuckle-buster.”

You know. You take the credit card that’s embossed — that means that all the numerals and letters are 3-D-pokey-outy.  You slip the card onto the tray of your little mechanical printer, and lay there upon three attached slips of carbon paper. Then you have to hold your tongue correctly while you rip the press back-and-forth and it prints the card and the information onto the slips. Back in the olden days the customer would sign it with something called a pen. 

A couple of years ago I got an email from my CD distributor telling me they would no longer take credit card slips.

Shortly after that, my renewed credit card arrived. I could pay by tapping with it.  And it had a chip. And a magnetic strip.

But the letters and numerals were flat and lifeless. It was no longer embossed.


Andy Offutt Irwin is an American storyteller, singer-songwriter, and humorist. He was born and raised in Covington. He may be reached at