Josh? It’s Steve Jobs. We have a really big problem.

Steve JobsThe ashes of 9/11 were still falling across America three months later, in December 2001. Everyone was depressed and business was lousy in most corners of the world. Even in Silicon Valley, which had fueled the national optimism for so many years, technology companies—and worse, the entrepreneurs who powered them—were on the ropes.

I was just as depressed as everyone else, when my boss called: Steve Jobs wanted to give Time Magazine an exclusive look at his next big thing. Would I like to write the story? I was ambivalent. Despite having written about tech since the early 1990s, I was not a proper “computer guy.” I was an Internet guy! My interest in Steve Jobs ran mainly to the historical. And, like too many other idiots at the time, I had written Apple (s AAPL) off as little more than a (failed) hardware company that had totally missed the really important stuff, which was happening in the network, not the machines.

Still, I showed up in Cupertino, at 1 Infinite Loop, a few days later (it’s a living) and was brought into a conference room, where I met the legendary Steven P. Jobs. I am an ADD, fidgety kind of guy, and it was immediately and sadly clear to me that this was not going to be a fast, in-and-out kind of story. No, I was stuck here. A prisoner of the most controlling control freak the world had ever produced.

For the next three days, I was Steve’s personal project, and he orchestrated every second of my visit, right up until 10 a.m. of the morning of the last day, when I was frantic to catch a plane back to NY to write my story. My notebooks were full. I had 10 times as much as I needed for a cover story, and I was pretty cranky at having to come back to Steve’s office, yet again, for an exit interview. He was late — 15 minutes, and I was ready to walk. Just as I was gathering up my things he came in and, with all of his considerable charm, apologized. What had kept him? He was editing copy for some ads Apple was running around the new iMac computer that Apple was about to launch!

The guy paid attention and no detail was too trivial to escape his notice. And nothing was more important than Apple. Actually, that’s not true: The most important thing of all was secrecy. Steve REALLY cared about secrecy. He understood that keeping things secret had two enormous benefits to a great tech company: Secrets kept competitors at bay, and it kept your market crazy with anticipation.

I tell you all this to set up the enormity and horror of what happened next. I flew home and cranked out my story, toiling through much of the weekend to get it done. TIME had agreed to embargo the story, which wouldn’t be on newsstands until that Monday. That was when Steve was going to unveil the new product—it was the first, flat-panel iMac, which sat on a half-dome base—at the annual Macworld conference.

But at some point well after midnight Sunday in New York, my phone rang, rousing me from sleep: “Josh? It’s Steve Jobs. We have a really BIG problem,” he said.

I do not recommend this as a way to wake up. And it got worse: Apparently, the cover story had accidentally been published on Time Asia’s website. And now, of course, it had travelled around the world and back to Apple fans everywhere. We were able to pull down the story, but the damage had been done. Steve was pretty freaked out. For the first time, he wouldn’t be unveiling a new product—we had inadvertently done it for him.

Many years later, an Apple employee who was very close to the situation told me that Steve was so upset by the whole affair, he refused to go on stage at Macworld and show off his new creation. “What’s the point?” he reportedly complained. It was indeed a BIG problem—for his handlers, who had to convince him that the show must go on.

But here’s a side of Steve Jobs that you might not have heard about. He was actually a very sweet and stand-up guy and never held that awful escapade against me. In fact, a few months after Macworld, I was named editor of Business 2.0, a struggling magazine in San Francisco that was by no means on Apple’s radar. (They wouldn’t even talk to us for stories.) But one day shortly after I arrived, my publisher said that a neighbor of hers, a top-level executive at Pixar, had arranged for a number of us to take a tour. We all trundled out to nearby Emeryville to have a look around. Soon after the tour began, our guide said, “There’s someone here who wanted to see you guys,” and we were led into a small auditorium. There, seated in the middle, with his legs flopped up and over the seat in from of him, was Steve. “I wanted to say hello personally and welcome you to California, Josh,” he said. Then he graciously showed us around the place.

Josh Quittner is editorial director of Flipboard. Previously, he was the executive editor of Fortune and the editor of Business 2.0. Check out Flipboard’s tribute to Steve Jobs here.

Image courtesy of Flickr user acaben.