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WOSTER: The Dud Y2K New Year's Eve

Some months after I retired from full-time newspaper work, I decided to write a book about my four decades as a reporter in South Dakota. Actually, a friend who believed retirement was boring me out of my skull suggested I write the book. One way...

Terry Woster
Terry Woster

Some months after I retired from full-time newspaper work, I decided to write a book about my four decades as a reporter in South Dakota.

Actually, a friend who believed retirement was boring me out of my skull suggested I write the book. One way or another, he said, I had covered every governor from Nils Boe in the late 1960s to Mike Rounds. That made eight or nine governors, depending on how many times Bill Janklow was counted. I thought about it. I guess not many reporters last that long on the state government beat.

I went home from coffee prepared to become a superstar in long-form political reporting. Thinking about becoming a smash hit as an autobiographer led me to an online search of folks who had mastered that style of writing. One source told me Saint Augustine of Hippo wrote the first Western autobiography, a thing called "Confessions in Thirteen Books.'' The work, my source said, covered the saint's sinful youth and conversion to Christianity.

Well, if a guy from Hippo can toss together 13 volumes about his youth and conversion, I figured I could knock out a book about my experiences with eight or nine South Dakota governors. I threw myself into research. I cast a wide net - newspaper clippings, the state archives, online sources, personal recollections - for information on each of the governors I had covered. Then I began drafting. I roughed out a chapter or two before I realized it wasn't much fun. Worse, it wasn't very interesting. It was, truth be told, downright boring. I guess you had to have been there.

The other day, I came across some notes from that unfinished (barely begun) project. The notes I found were from part of Janklow's long career as chief executive. One thing that caught my eye was that right about this time of year in 1999, Janklow was sounding the alarm about the Y2K phenomenon. He went so far as to appoint a task force to make sure South Dakota was prepared for the possible catastrophe.

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Y2K, you might recall, is shorthand for "Year 2000,'' sometimes called the Y2K Bug or the Millenium Bug. The fear was that when 1999 became 2000 at midnight on December 31, computers everywhere would crash, disrupting the electrical grid, water services, food delivery, banking systems and public transportation of all types.

Sounds bad, even 20 years later with the knowledge that it fizzled, doesn't it? Sounds almost like "crossing the streams'' in the movie "Ghostbusters.'' Nobody had heard of "The Walking Dead'' television show, but the Y2K thing had all the makings of a zombie apocalypse.

The fear, if I remember correctly, was based on the notion that writers of computer code didn't use four digits for years. Instead of 1998 or 1999, they wrote 98 or 99. When 1999 became 2000, then, the roll-over from 99 to 00 might make computers think it was 1900 instead of 2000. Talk about a glitch, huh? It wasn't exactly dinosaurs roaming the Earth again, but it sounded bad.

I don't remember anyone suggesting, "Let's unplug South Dakota, wait 30 seconds and then plug it back in.'' That would have been the extent of my input. I recall reading about people who stockpiled food and weapons and gasoline. On reflection, we're lucky it was before social media. Imagine the panic that could have been spread with apocalyptic tweets and posts.

Well, the techies worked feverishly for months to create and install patches, a high-tech version of fixing a bicycle tube in your basement, I guess.

I spent midnight that New Year's Eve in a building across from the Capitol, where emergency managers, National Guard leaders and tech people watched the transition. As a state chronology describes it, "Despite months of preparation for Y2K problems, New Year's Day turned out to be so routine that South Dakota's emergency operations center closed six hours early.'' I left about 2 a.m. My news story was kind of a dud. That experience won't make it into a book - not my book, anyway - but I did get a free cup of coffee and a cookie. I've spent worse New Year's Eves.

Related Topics: TERRY WOSTER
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