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An RMS recollection

Posted: 6 May 2015 at 04:17:34

Written by Chadd VanZanten about an incident in 1999

Concerning "The RMS Run." I've forgotten a lot about that night. On purpose. I'll tell you what I remember. It will probably contain hyperbole and inaccuracies. I take that back. Not probably. Certainly.

What I remember best is that RMS was simply unpleasant, supercilious, judgmental and, worst of all, oblivious to his own behavior. Basically, he was a jackass.

At the time, Doran and I were excited about the Free Software movement. I was under the impression that RMS was sort of the Yoda of Free Software, and so I was eager to make a good impression. I tried to be as friendly and charming as I could be. Doran was doing the same. We helped RMS carry his baggage. We opened doors for him. We made everything as easy as possible.

But all these efforts were utterly wasted. RMS regarded us in the same way he regarded Doran's car — we were merely background utilities necessary for conveying the priceless treasure of his intellect from place to place. He was a textbook messiah. If we'd genuflected at his feet and kissed the hem of his raiment, he would not have even flinched.

RMS moved about cautiously, as though he knew he was very fragile and that something close by could easily injure him. He couldn't do anything swiftly. He walked, sat down, and spoke only after a slow flurry of sighing, eye-blinking, and hand-waving. His beard was thin and wispy back then, and his skin was pallid, like he'd never been exposed to sunshine, ever. His hands were pudgy, creamy, and as soft as a baby's, but his fingernails were long and yellow. He never made eye contact, not that I remember. Instead, he was always gazing into the middle distance with a heavy-lidded, semi-dazed expression, as though he were receiving continuous revelation from God.

He did not speak. He intoned. He orated in a prophetic, messianic way. This worked okay when he said things like, “The problem with selling things is that you have to ask for money,” but it was less impressive when he said things like, “I urgently need to go to the bathroom,” or, “I like Skittles.”

He reminded me of a softer, shorter, paler version of Jesus Christ.

We placed RMS in Doran's car and gingerly arranged him so that he seemed satisfied that nothing in the vehicle would puncture or otherwise disturb him, and then we started on our way to Logan.

Doran and I tried valiantly to be sociable with RMS. We are/were both versed in a variety of conversation topics relevant and obscure, and we are quick to laugh. No one could have asked for more pleasant company on a 90-minute car ride. But, again, we were practically beneath his notice. He tolerated us as one might suffer a dog licking himself in a corner of the room, and so the conversation in the car was at first largely between Doran and I only.

Yes, he lectured Doran for using a credit card. I can't even remember the reason. Privacy or something. The funny thing is, he also claimed that he didn't have any cash with him, so I paid for him to get a bottle of water to drink, whereupon he lectured me on the evils of bottled water. And he never paid me back. Richard Stallman still owes me a dollar and eighty cents.

When we got back in the car, RMS produced a cassette tape and ordered Doran to play it. He handed it to Doran and said, “Play this.” Even I had started using CDs and mp3 players by that time, but the Digital Yoda pulls out a cassette that appeared to have been around since the advent of magnetic tape. It was the beforementioned Ukrainian folk music, which sounded like a cat fight set to music and then played at two times the normal speed. Both sides of the tape were just one unceasing song, bu there were certain passages of it that RMS evidently found quite moving. You knew when he was getting into his jam because he tilted his head back and he waved his hands dreamily. He had no compunction over cutting someone off midsentence to draw attention to the ghastly strains of his music, but he wouldn't be caught dead doing something as primeval and mindless as working the knobs of an automobile stereo — that's what the troglodyte humanoids all around him were for. So yeah, he'd gesture at the stereo and insist that Doran “Make this — louder. Increase — the volume.” And he acted the same with respect to the car heater and other things. “My body has become cold. Can something be done to raise the ambient temperature within this vehicle?”

He also killed conversation by making these finalistic, irrefutable statements. So, Doran might be in the middle of a claim about server networking speeds when RMS would suddenly silence him with a statement about how copyrights were contributing to the problem of noise pollution. I'd mention the term “open source,” and he'd say, “No. Free software.” Then another time I'd say “free software,” and he'd say, “You mean open source.” Every exchange ended with RMS correcting our opinions or word choice.

From time to time, RMS did ask us questions, especially when he observed things he did not approve of, and he approved of almost nothing. There were aspects of the Salt Lake Airport he wasn't too happy about, for example. I don't remember what, exactly, but he seemed to think that Doran and I were there to forward all of his complaints to the State of Utah.

At one point, we drove past a huge gravel quarry in the side of the mountains on the north side of Salt Lake City. This was late at night, and yet there was a swarm of earthmoving equipment working in the pit under the harsh glare of sodium-arc lighting. RMS apparently found this offensive for some reason, because he raised his plump and silky hands to make an annoyed, perplexed gesture in that direction and said, “What is this? What is happening there?”

“They're doing a huge overhaul of the Interstate right now,” I said. “They're working on it around the clock.”

“Why is that?” RMS asked.

“I dunno,” I said. “I guess no one's told them they could move the clock.”

I thought that was pretty clever. I think Doran chuckled. RMS thought about it for few seconds. Then he smiled and nodded his head and said, “Ha. Ha.” It was like he was not actually a human but had been briefed by one on how to react to the primitive custom of humor. He killed most of our other attempts at humor that way. “Ah, I see,” he'd say. “Double meaning on the word 'boob.' Quite ‘amusing’.”

The funny thing is, RMS himself made a few attempts at humor, but the punchlines were so abstract and insular, we had no idea what he was talking about, so we too had to respond with mechanical smiles and hollow laughter.

After awhile, the stereo volume and the heater were running at more or less maximum output, and we drove along without speaking while RMS swayed to his folk music.

We reached Logan and went to the apartment of this kid named Ray, whose great honor it was to have RMS lodge with him. Ray was even more worshipful of RMS than Doran and I had been. RMS was Ray's hero, I guess. So, when we pulled up, Ray was waiting out in the front yard. It was the middle of the night by then, and Ray was literally jumping up and down with excitement.

Of course, RMS greeted Ray in the same way he might greet a mailbox or shrub — he looked in Ray's direction. He may have nodded. But that was it. Then RMS intoned, to no one specifically, “I require a room with a door and one vacuum cleaner with a long hose.” And then he walked off in the direction of the Ray's apartment.

At the time, the request struck me as hilarious, because I was trying unsuccessfully to picture the rest of his evening. Like maybe he vacuumed himself off every night instead of showering? Or something weirder? Turns our RMS always traveled with an air mattress that he could inflate with a vacuum cleaner.

Ray must have detected that Doran and I were anxious to get shut of RMS, because he shrugged questioningly to ask us what the matter was. We only rolled our eyes at Ray and waved him off, as if to say, “He's your problem now.” Then we got the hell out of there.

Next time I saw Ray, he looked so defeated that I might have otherwise guessed he'd been repeatedly sodomized. But I knew what had actually happened. I'd spent only a couple hours being questioned, corrected, and lectured at by RMS — Ray got that treatment for a couple days.

That is how just about everyone on campus who came into contact with RMS acted, too. Everyone just wanted him to go home and never come back.

The attached photo represents my best memory of what RMS looked like at the time. Vaguely unkempt, distinctly pear-shaped, and having the overall continence of an under-inflated balloon, who was intensely interested in Ukrainian folk music.