The TRSDOS “rummy buzzard” release

written by Matthew Reed

Jim Pickett wrote with an interesting question:

I seem to remember that you could look through some of the early TRSDOS disks with SuperZap (a wonderful program) and in some of the blank spots, i.e., unused disk space not holding part of a program, and it had a message like “You rummy buzzard, you” or something like that. The “rummy buzzard” part was the only sure thing.

I did a Google search on “rummy buzzard” but didn’t get any hits. Does anyone remember this?

Many people encountered that “rummy buzzard” message in Model III TRSDOS and several explanations were devised to explain it.

Joe, you rummy buzzard

The best remembered explanation is the “Joe, you rummy buzzard” story. It was related as fact in magazines such as 80 Micro and several user group newsletters, but I don’t think it is true, for reasons explained later. Here is the overview:

A Radio Shack programmer, either as a practical joke or due to disgruntlement, made an unusual change to an early version of the Model III TRSDOS floppy disk formatter. The formatter filled empty space at the end of sectors with the message “Joe, you rummy buzzard.” (Depending on the version of the story, the message either appeared on every sector or just directory sectors.)

This unusual design decision remained unknown to Radio Shack engineers until Model III TRSDOS users began finding the message. Radio Shack rushed out a new TRSDOS version that patched the formatter to replace the message with a copyright notice.

At first glance, there seems to be some evidence to support the story. It is true that there are sixteen unused bytes at the end of every Model III TRSDOS directory sector and the Model III TRSDOS formatter does place the message “(c) 1980 Tandy” (with two trailing spaces) in that spot. It’s not hard to imagine that an earlier, corrupted version of the formatter inserted a very different message.

However, I don’t believe the story is true because of two problems:

  1. It isn’t plausible that no one at Radio Shack noticed this very obvious message. Far from being buried within the disk, it would have been on every sector! Model III TRSDOS was in rapid development at the time and many people, inside and outside of Radio Shack, would have noticed the messages long before home users ever saw it.

  2. A bigger problem is the fact that the section of unused directory space is sixteen bytes long. How could “Joe, you rummy buzzard”, a twenty-two character string, fit into that space? Even “You rummy buzzard” is seventeen characters. “Rummy buzzard”, at thirteen characters, could have fit, but this version of the story was very specific about the exact message.

So, if “Joe, you rummy buzzard” is an urban legend, what was the real story? What did people like Jim Pickett actually see? This is what I believe to be the true explanation, based on several separate accounts.

The (probably) true story

Early versions of Model III TRSDOS had an unfortunate bug: they would sometimes incorrectly extend files by one sector when updating the directory. This much complained about bug was eventually fixed by Radio Shack engineers who then verified the fix by creating test disks filled with sample files containing dummy text, and making sure the lengths of those files remained the same when the directory updated.

The fixed TRSDOS version was released for production after testing was finished. But then a crucial mistake was made: the release disks were sourced, not from pristine master disks, but from one of those test disks. That disk still contained remnants of deleted test files, including the dummy text that had never been intended for public consumption. Inquisitive users with disk editors soon found the text remnants on the TRSDOS disk.

Making it even worse, one of the files on the TRSDOS disk (probably HERZ50/BLD) had earlier been extended by one sector as a result of the file length bug. Listing that file to the screen displayed the deleted data after the real data, including the text “Hello, you rummy buzzard” (or possibly “You rummy buzzard”). Model III users could be forgiven for thinking their computer was insulting them.

Radio Shack quickly released a new update and “rummy buzzard” faded into history. It’s not even clear which version was affected; Radio Shack was notorious for releasing minor Model III TRSDOS updates with little regard to version numbering and dating. With no existing copy of the “rummy buzzard” release of Model III TRSDOS, there is no way to know for certain the full story.

Update

Ira Goldklang was kind enough to send me several unpatched Model III TRSDOS disks that still contained the “rummy buzzard” message. These disks confirm that the second explanation is the correct one. The 80 Micro account that the text was part of “a prototype format program’s verification utility and got inserted at the end of each sector” cannot be correct because (among other problems) the text appears at the beginning of the second sector of the file HERZ50/BLD (track 5, sector 11 of the disk). (It actually appears five times in that sector, but only the first is visible in the file.)

Displaying the message is surprisingly simple. Typing the command:

LIST HERZ50/BLD

will display the contents of that file on screen, ending with the text:

HELLO YOU RUMMY BUZZARD

displayed prominently in the middle of the screen.

Interestingly, there is also a “JOE:” message, but it appears near the end of the previous sector. It is easily viewed by using a disk editor, such as Super Utility. You can also see it by using the ASCII option in LIST (and many people patched their copy of TRSDOS to make ASCII the default):

LIST HERZ50/BLD (ASCII)

That command displays this message:

JOE:3HELLO YOU RUMMY BUZZARD
Categories: History