Thanks for all the helpful input folks. For the record, I'm just trying to get past keyboard issues at this point. I'll worry about the hard drive issues after that. I'm using a Dell laptop (e6500) however, I've run a fair amount of other emulators and VMs with no issues character mapping, and it's a standard qwerty keyboard. Windows 7, and I've tried both mess 0131 and 0137.
Here's an example. This is starting the generic pc-cga (the one I get the farthest with,) loading a DOS622 floppy with no hard drive. At the prompt, I'm typing "help me please!!!" I think this goes beyond mapping and into basic hw interpretation!
I should also mention that I've tried both natural and emulation keyboard modes, and the Input maps seem to match up as best they can. Also, the trash-80 (as my brother called them when we were kids) works just fine, so it seems to be limited to the IBM PCs. I'll try getting rid of some .cfg files, maybe give it a shot in XP as well.
Another question - could this be cause by having bad / incorrect ROMS? I've found two lists on the web that I've been grabbing from. I'm not sure if they're MESS version specific or not.
and for the record as far as copyrighting goes, my original IBM 5160 is sitting in my basement, albeit not working, but I own it nonetheless, so there!