The Heart of COBOL

In October, 1990, after a routine meeting of the International COBOL Committee  (ISO/TC97/SC22/WG4) in Singelfingen Germany (just outside of Stuttgart), two of the members of that group,  Wim Ebbinkhuijsen (Albert Heijn & Co.) leading Dutch COBOL expert and Jerome Garfunkel (Micro Focus, Inc.), leading American COBOL expert,  embarked on an “adventure of mercy” to Bucharest Romania.   The other members of the COBOL Committee collected money (and other items) for Wim and Jerry to add to their already overloaded car.  The two left Germany after the meeting, loaded with toys, clothes, food,  vitamins, dolls, Polaroids, various other gifts and, as Garfunkel recalls vividly, lots of edam cheese.  They drove across 4 countries (Germany, Austria, Hungary, Romania - approximately 1800 kilometers)  in 2 days.  Garfunkel remembers how prepared Wim was with "gifts" of chocolate and cigarettes for the customs officials at the various border crossings they encountered.   "Just mentioning that we were on a charity mission to a children's home in Bucharest, and offering a small gesture of gratitude like a bar of chocolate, was enough to clear most of the red tape at each border stop."    En route, they visited a Romanian family in Sibiu, whom  Wim had befriended earlier, to bring greetings and gifts from friends in the West.  The organization and planning for this trip was begun by Wim more than 8 months earlier after a visit he made to Bucharest soon after the downfall of the brutal Romanian leader, Nicoli (and Elenor) Ceaucesco.  A trip report was promised at the next International COBOL meeting scheduled for San Diego in October 1991.

Garfunkel, who had been in China 12 years earlier, soon after the re-establishment of diplomatic relations between the US and China, said "I saw children in Bucharest and poor families living in the Romanian countryside reminding me of decrepit conditions in China a decade ago. It's a result of a society being isolated from the mainstream of civilization for too long.  Of course the ones who suffer most are the children.  Nowhere is this more visible than in Romania today,  where the public policies of the harsh (Ceaucesco) regime  institutionalized the horrible conditions that many children were born into, many today suffering from AIDS.  Only after Ceaucesco was overthrown was the outside world (and  many inside Romania as well) able to see just how horrible things were in the children's' orphanages scattered throughout Romania."  Garfunkel recounted stories of Romanian children running up to their western car (Citroen) begging for food or anything they could spare.  "We went through many packs of chewing gum on our way through the Romanian back country while driving to Bucharest.  Everyone was grateful for the slightest gesture of kindness we showed; and we showed it at every opportunity we had.    It was pretty difficult to stay unemotional.  For most of the people we passed on our drive in Romania, it is likely that Wim and I  were the first visitors from outside of Romania they had ever seen.

     As he did in China 12 years earlier, Garfunkel, who hales from Litchfield Connecticut,  brought with him to Romania a Polaroid camera.  For people who generally consider things like soap, shampoo and tissues a luxury, the Romanians (as the Chinese before) thought the "self-developing" Polaroid pictures were nothing short of "Connecticut Yankee" magic.  The children cherished their Polaroid pictures which Garfunkel gave them as gifts.  Today those pictures hang on the walls of the Casa de Copii Preskolari, in Bucharest, where Wim and Jerry visited.  Soon after returning to the United States, Jerry's wife Carol, who works with children of the same age as those Jerry visited in Romania, organized a "Pen Pal" exchange (or more precisely as Jerry likes to call it, a "Crayon Pal" exchange.)  The Children in Carol's pre-school class in Long Island exchanged drawings with the Romanian children.  These Romanian drawings are currently hanging on the walls of the Port Washington Flower Hill school on Long Island, New York.   Along with the drawings from the American children, additional supplies (crayons, papers, paints, paste, scissors, etc.) were sent to the Romanian children.

In Romania one could see indications everywhere of the revolution that had taken place only months earlier.  Garfunkel recalls sleeping in a Bucharest hotel under a wall riddled with bullets, not yet repaired.    A tour of some cities, where the Secreatata (Secret Police) had there strongholds, revealed burned out buildings (neighborhoods in some cases) and reminders of the blood that was shed less than a year earlier.  In one particularly chilling location Garfunkel says "...written on the wall of a University building near were I was staying in Bucharest, and where a few months earlier a student protester had been shot, was the phrase 'Tien en Men II'.  Having been in Tien en Men Square in  Beijing and having followed the bloody events there in recent years,  I was struck by the reference and stood motionless for some time.   It was a far cry from the COBOL business I had just left only a few days before."  Garfunkel was very nervous about returning to London where he was to give a speech on "COBOL in the 90's" to a group of about 300 people waiting for him there.  "When I look back at it now I realize how naive I was to rely on plane schedules out of Romania to get me to London just in time to give my speech.  Fortunately, everything did go alright and I made the last plane connection out of Romania.  I arrived at a banquet function in the evening with approximately 5 minutes to spare.  The contrast of where I had come from and where I had just arrived, left an indelible impression on me."    Wim on the other hand was not so lucky.  As he was driving out of Romania through Hungary to return to The Netherlands, he got caught in a political action strike; all border crossing roads leaving Hungary were blocked.  Wim too was fortunate that this resulted in nothing more than a (long) delay.

After of the success of their Romanian journey,  Wim began plans immediately for another charity mission to a children's home in mid July, 1991.  This time the destination was Dom Dziecka (children's home) in Skorogoszcz Poland.  Garfunkel was represented by his 22 year old Daughter, Angie, who joined Wim,  his two daughters, Ingrid and Karen,  and 12 other kind people from The Netherlands.    This time Wim organized a much larger shipment of goods to be sent to Poland from people and corporations in Holland who promised donations of all sorts.  Included among the many things Wim received promises for, was a gift of 6,000 kg of food donated by his employer Albert Heijn, for the children in Skorogoszcz Poland.  Besides the many gifts (food, clothes, etc.) they brought with them and had arranged to be delivered, they went to Poland to help rebuild the children's home which was in desparate need of building repairs - like installing toilets, repairing roofs and painting walls.

It's nice to think that COBOL is sometimes associated with other good things in the world beside good application development. 

for Compilations Magazine,    MF Palo Alto, California

© 2005 Jerry Garfunkel, 172 Tinker Street, Woodstock, NY 12498, +1 845 679 0121,,