It got old pretty quickly, but that was before the days of personal computers and other nifty gadgets.
These days, however, a lot of people are back to watching the clock, and the midnight hour they are waiting for comes on Dec. 31, 1999, some 450-plus days from now.
When the clock strikes 12 that night, it will be the calendar that turns to zeroes, beginning a new millennium and triggering what some people fear will be a computer catastrophe.
Depending on who you listen to, the year 2000 (Y2K) computer problem is either the most overblown fantasy of our time, or a virtual tidal wave that can destroy our very way of life.
The truth lies in between, with no one able to say with absolute certainty what is going to happen. Still, it's important that consumers understand the problem and know what to do to protect themselves in advance.
Ironically, the entire glitch stems from firms that were trying to save money in the days when computers were new and memory was costly. To save memory space, date-sensitive material was listed with a two-digit year. Thus, for example, my father's birthdate was 12/1/24, the last two digits being shorthand for 1924.
Saving those two digits millions of times over freed up a lot of memory, which was a big deal in the days when using a laptop still meant letting a grandchild sit on your knee.
But the two-digit system also created a potential problem. On 1/1/00, for example, my father might not look to a computer like a 75-year-old man, but rather like someone who is almost 25 years shy of his first birthday.
And any computer interpreting the data that way would cancel his credit cards and Social Security checks, and void any number of other financial functions. In short, financial life as we know it could come screeching to a halt.
Yes, it's scary, because if left unchecked it could bring down much of the nation's financial system, power grids, utilities and telecommunications, and then some. It could throw the world economy into a near-instant recession, an event that several economists - guys who actually are respectable, not just yahoos looking for air time - have forecast.
Of course, the problem is right out in the open for people to see and solve, and the deadline is as clear as, well, New Year's Day. Still, the problem is ubiquitous; even if one investment company has everything figured out, a chip somewhere in the computer of a data supplier could lock up and crash some or all of the bigger company's systems.
Investment firms are practically obsessive in trying to kill this bug,
and [sic] the Securities Industry Association has set a goal of Y2K readiness by the end of 1998 to allow for a full year of testing.
The New York Stock Exchange is among the many financial institutions that already have turned the clock ahead to see what happens when the computers think the new century has arrived. No disasters have been reported.
That's not enough for the Chicken Littles of this situation, the doomsday forecasters who believe the sky, computers, and the stock market will crash simultaneously on New Year's Day 2000.
The doom-and-gloom set is countered by the ''Don't worry, be happy'' crowd, which takes the situation with a grain of salt.
The truth lies with the crowd that is both optimistic and realistic: the people trying to exterminate the year 2000 bug.
''No matter how much the industry does to get ready, no one can guarantee it will be problem-free,'' says Don Boteler, vice president for operations at the Investment Company Institute, the mutual fund trade association. ''What I would assume is that there will be some level of problems. They may be big or small, but what matters most is that you aren't caught up in them.''
Taking the middle ground and assuming this computer glitch is not the coming of the apocalypse, here are some steps to take to avoid having your finances bitten by the Y2K bug:
1) Ask your investment companies about their Y2K readiness.
The fact that no one can tell you for sure that they are bug-proof should not stop you from finding out what your banks and investment companies are doing to prepare, and how they will treat you in the event of a problem.
If they are not taking the problem seriously enough, consider taking your business elsewhere. While Y2K may turn into a nonevent, any company that gets cavalier about it would be subjecting your assets to significant risk.
2) Check your records. Get hard copies and patch holes.
The alarmist (but not the extremist) believes that monies will still be in place after the turn of the century, but that there may be a few days or weeks when everything is bogged down.
Just in case your financial services companies are the unlucky ones that go kaflooey, make sure you have up-to-date records, and a list of all account numbers and dollar amounts in a safe place (preferably a hard copy and not in your computer, just in case the bug gets you, too).
Your investment companies can help reconstruct any missing records. And while this is an easy job to let slide, it is also a job that is best done now, in advance of the anticipated rush.
The wrong time to find out that you haven't got your complete investment history will be when the bugs emerge on 1/1/00.
3) Don't leave all of your money with one company.
Because no one can be 100 percent certain there will not be problems, this might be a good time to consider diversifying with whom you do business. It may not be necessary, but it's good medicine if the Chicken Littles are right.
4) Consider cutting back on short-term risk.
At the very least, Y2K throws a little more uncertainty into the market. As we close in on the big day, markets could get more volatile based on expectations of what will happen next.
Remember, some experts are calling for market declines of 40 percent or more, triggered entirely by the new century.
''It may be just like any other downturn, but it's a factor no one has dealt with before,'' says Jerry B. Wade of Wade Financial Group in Minneapolis. ''People in their 30s, 40s, and 50s can feel fine that the problems will get fixed and that they will come through it. But anyone in their 60s to 80s probably is not too keen on the idea of a global recession and what it could do to their current income. If they fear a problem, they should plan for it.''
5) Pick up some cash.
While this problem probably will not approach Armageddon status, the idea that automated teller machines or bank accounts could be knocked out, or that investments will not be accessible for a short period of time, needs to be taken seriously.
The Federal Reserve already has noted that it will print more cash near the end of 1999, largely to meet the expected demand. Plan to be among the people picking up cash late next year.
Increasing your cash stash is a notably low-tech solution. No bank accounts or money markets for this emergency fund - because those instruments face potential computer problems, too - just mattresses, piggy banks, or mason jars.
Notes Wade: ''How much cash depends on your perspective, but whether it's enough to live on for a few days or a few months, you are going to want some cash ... just in case.''