Back in the Day
By Darlene Parker
By Darlene Parker
The year was 1984. Ronald Reagan was making a run for the White House again. Communism and the Evil Empire were still alive and well. Madonna hit the pop music scene, and Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA" took the country by storm. Everyone was still glued to the nighttime soaps - "Dallas" and "Dynasty," while some new shows were going to give them a run for their money - "The Cosby Show," "Who's the Boss?," and "Miami Vice." Remember Don Johnson with his jacket sleeves pushed up? What a fashion statement.
However, for me it was a year that began with feelings of despair. The cause of my despair was my career. It had become too physically challenging for me to continue. I prayed for an answer. Little did I know that my salvation was to become part of an industry that would help millions of people. It seemed too good to be true, that I could help myself and others at the same time.
I had just completed 10 years of "hard labor" as an official at the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. The reason it had become so challenging for me is because in 1977, at the age of 23, I was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a modified radical mastectomy. Normally, recovery is not a problem - really -- unless you're pounding on a steno machine all day long in a high-volume court. Once I was reconstructed 15 months later, my chest ached, in addition to my arm, which was minus its axillary lymph nodes.
I was so sure that my career as a court reporter would soon be over that I went back to school at the University of Maryland and was about to complete a paralegal program. I didn't really want to be a paralegal. The prospect of working even more closely with attorneys than I had been was not very appealing! At least it would be a decent living, but I would always miss writing on my steno machine, which was the fun part.
Then my prayers were answered. Tammie Shedd and I worked together at D.C. Superior Court. Just the year before, in 1983, she left to become a realtime captioner with the National Captioning Institute. Whenever she came by the courthouse to turn in transcripts, I would bombard her with questions about realtime captioning. I was in awe that she was confident enough to make this quantum leap. I thought to myself, I don't think I could ever do that! Then in March the call came. Tammie told me that NCI was going to start captioning a new program in the fall and that they were hiring realtime captioners. She asked me if I was interested in applying. I had mixed emotions. The thought of captioning live television was exhilarating, but also terrifying. I wasn't "on the computer" yet. I wasn't the most accurate or the least accurate reporter. I wasn't the fastest, and I wasn't the slowest, but I was intrigued and wanted to pursue it in spite of my fear. I couldn't believe that a kid who grew up watching way too much television and was a walking TV guide (easy to be when we only had four channels) would now get paid for watching television!
With the assurance of my supervisor that if I fell flat on my face at NCI, he would take me back, I took a leap of faith across the Potomac River and began working at NCI in close by Northern Virginia in June of 1984.
There were only three realtime captioners at NCI when I started working there. Tammie Shedd and Katie Jane Teel came onboard in 1983. Karen Finkelstein was hired just two months before I was, and Janet Cassidy came onboard a few weeks after I started. We didn't have any training manuals to speak of. Tammie and Katie guided us through our mountains of conflicts and taught us everything they knew about captioning. We often felt overwhelmed and thought that we would never get on the air. Nonetheless, we were excited to come to work every day and even more excited at the prospect of using our skills to help people, instead of writing the same old lame defense arguments day in and day out.
And how appreciative the deaf and hard-of-hearing community was! We received letters from viewers who were ecstatic that they were finally included in the political process. One letter said, "I'm so happy that I don't have to wait until the next day to read about the debate in the newspaper. I can receive the information at the same time as everyone else and participate in the debates as they are being broadcast."
It's hard to believe that until the fall of 1984 the only regularly scheduled program that was realtime captioned was ABC's "World News Tonight" - only a half-hour newscast. It was just two years earlier in 1982 that the first realtime captions appeared.
Prep was problematic, at best. It was more like a shot in the dark. A cabbie would drive to ABC in downtown Washington, D.C. and pick up the rundown. Then he would drive to NCI in Northern Virginia and deliver the rundown to us at about 5:00 p.m.. Our support staff would then comb the "Washington Post," the U.P.I. and A.P. wires to see if they could find any corresponding stories. We were on our own when it came to the human-interest stories that were at the end of almost every newscast.
Armed with tons of names, which may never come up, prep feverishly began. Back then we had huge Pertec hard drives that were about two feet by three feet and two feet high. Huge "platters" about 15-18 inches in diameter stored our data. Each captioner had two platters. One platter was used only for making dictionary entries. The second platter was used only for translation. Never the two shall meet, which made life difficult.
We had to have our systems up a half-hour in advance for troubleshooting purposes, and it took about 10 minutes to swap out the platters. That meant we had to stop prepping at 5:50 p.m., 40 minutes before the newscast. (Can we make this process any more challenging?) If we received additional prep after 5:50, we were able to enter only 10 "change commands" - for example, AAA= Al Qaeda. When we entered an 11th "change command," it would kick out the first one! Boy have we come a long way - having gained the ability to make dictionary entries right up until airtime (and during commercial breaks), fax machines, email, the Internet, etc.! I better stop. I'm beginning to sound like grandma who walked to school barefoot in the snow uphill both ways!
In 1985 we began realtime captioning Monday Night Football. I was a huge Redskins fan, and I couldn't believe I was going to be paid to caption football. I studied the "Sporting News" to become acquainted with all the players and coaches. Before I had only been a Redskins fan; now I was becoming a football fan and could "talk" football with anybody. It came in very handy when I was single! I was thrilled when I was scheduled to caption the World Series and then a few months later the Super Bowl. I thought I had died and gone to heaven!
That was then, and this is now. I've been married to a wonderful man for 10 years, who happens to have Redskins tickets - purely a coincidence, I assure you! Our 4-year-old son Evan learned to read at an exceptionally early age thanks in part to watching only captioned videos. It has now been 27 ½ years since my breast cancer and mastectomy. I've lived more years post-op than pre-op. Nice stats! I consider myself extremely blessed to have reached my 50th birthday, to be healthy, and in good enough shape to climb jungle gyms with my energetic preschooler!
I feel equally fortunate in my professional life. NCI and the captioning industry have grown exponentially since back in the day. June 4, 2004 marks my 20th anniversary with NCI. Now I am a trainer, I help manage our large number of captioners, and I'm on call 24/7 to respond to emergencies.
How lucky for me that I found salvation in my own back yard in a rewarding career that helps others. I feel so fortunate that fate brought me here because there is no question that I would have been absolutely miserable as a paralegal!
About the Author
Darlene Parker is a captioning trainer at the National Captioning Institute in Vienna, VA