Thanks for all the suggestions on a distro. First I have a simple problem, and I think the solution is probably simple.
Seems the first step should be to get lilo to boot a live distro from a CD. How do I set up lilo to do this? Does it know how to control a CDROM? Maybe I'm missing something obvious?
I have previously tried GRUB-which did not work. Then I tried PLOP, which was a FLOP. It hung up and I had to reboot, fortunately the MBR was still intact.