Previously, Part 1 finished at beginning my path towards moving past BASIC programming. This occurred due to converges of coincidences (or were they!?).
The first thing was that I had met James Wing, who was new to the school during my 5th grade year (1988 to 1989). Being a new students, and also being half Indonesian, nobody liked James. Classmates jokingly called him “Tushar Run-Far” since we actually thought he was Indian, and he could run really fast.
Meanwhile, I still very much liked Cheryl (from 3rd grade), but sadly she got placed in “the other” 5th grade class from me. So my new crushes became both Kim and Jennifer (and it later turned out my father did some work for Jennifer’s father, in setting up a computer). Kim was new to the school and gorgeous, I liked her smile and personality. And Jennifer was a short red head, very cute because she had a loud voice and spoke her mind – she asked me to dance with her at our Class Dance. Now, I didn’t have a problem with James, but I knew it was wise to keep my distance to avoid being outcast by other classmates. Then as the year progressed, I learned James was into computers as well.
I forget exactly how it happened, but it came about that James brought me a copy of (Borland) Turbo Pascal 3.0 on a 5.25″ disks. And when I say copy, I actually mean one with an original label.
Now, two sidebar things to know: For a couple of years, my father and I had been attending the Alachua County Computer Users Group (ACCUG). And, I was also a Boy Scout. While we had stopped attending regular Sunday church services, many Boy Scout activities were at the church. One evening, our Scout Master introduced us to an Acoustic Coupler, and made a 300bps connection with a modem. I didn’t fully understand it all at the time, but through the ACCUG meetings we learned more about modems and several local Bulletin Board Systems that we could connect to. The largest local system was Dragon’s Keep, which had at least eight lines.
My little TRS-80 CoCo2 didn’t have a modem. But my father got one for the Tandy 1000SX. I’ll come back to this in a moment, since first I wanted to point out some other aspects here: the Transformers cartoon series had ended in 1987, which freed up my after-school time. Also, my friend John had a NES (Nintendo Entertainment System). John had a great family, my parents trusted them a lot, and so I did a lot of sleepovers where we played hours and hours of SMB and Zelda, swimming, and playing with Legos. What I didn’t realize at the time was, my older sister was starting to go through some problems. I don’t think it was drug-related problems, but I think it was a bit of an extreme case of teenage rebellion (perhaps related to being a half sister, she had a different father than me). She’d do things like drive the spare car when my parents weren’t home, invite (boy)friends over (when our parents weren’t home). I will confess, my sisters’ boyfriends did hook me up with copies of Sierra games (sorry Ken and Roberta! but I did buy a lot of Hint Books).
Still, my sisters did continue their hobby of 4-H. When not at John’s house playing Zelda or SMB, I split time between BASIC and games on the TRS-80 and borrowing my fathers Tandy 1000SX. In particular, I learned about QModem! My father knew databases and the value of contact lists, so he had a good catalog of BBS contacts in QModem. With just a little “how to connect to a BBS” orientation from my father, I ended spending a lot of time on BBSs, playing multi-player text games, multi-user chats, and downloading small games. At the same time, I was learning how to install programs and adjust MS-DOS as needed to run them (device drivers, like ANSI.SYS). I had my first online-crush, a lady named Seymore who claimed to be 7 years older than me (of course, neither attribute ever being verified, but I think the notion sealed my interest in “older women”, which we will come back to later). The (text-based) conversations with a dozen people connected on Dragons Keep were a hoot, especially when a classmate also joined in (Evan and Daniel).
But there were (online) dramas also even back then, as users argued and had shattered relationships. On a multi-line BBS, you would be in a “public chat room” with other users in that same channel (much like an IRC). However, you could also enter “private chat” with one other person, which made a direct connection just between those two participants. In this mode, you saw the person type exactly as they typed – each individual character, each backspace. You could interrupt them with your own typing, but it would be rude (and confusing) to do so, since it should appear intermixed with their own typing (but you could also use this to say “stop stop, I know what you’re saying” and start your own response). So you took turns, while in “private chat.” Then you would exit that, and be back in regular chat it was the typical mode where your text wasn’t sent until pressing ENTER.
Another thing to keep in mind here is that, back then, there was no COPY AND PASTE. And while there was a “print screen” button, it literally sent the contents of the screen at that moment to the printer. As a single-application operating system, there were no background services to do screen captures or video recording. At 4-8 MHz, the PCs then just weren’t capable enough to support those concepts. This meant everything you did was “fleeting,” all conversations were implicitly private since they were gone as soon as they rolled off the screen.
Online, I was known as Dad. My father was handy and clever at his work, but not particularly creative – at least in regards to login names. BBSs had accounts, and he just called himself Dad. And he didn’t mind me borrowing his account. For this reason, other online folks probably just assumed I was older than I actually was. At a public BBS fair in town one summer, I once did meet the two SysOps of Dragons Keep, which was when I bought one of their T-shirts that is shown above. They had a good laugh realizing that their online user “Dad” really was just a kid.
Time passed, and I had made a friend online named Marimaxx (Bryan Slatner). Bryan was about five years older than me (confirmed when I met him later). With BBSs, we were all calling the local area code (904 in our case), and so you knew that the folks online were (physically) approximately within the same county (i.e. not that far away). Conversation came about that I had the Turbo Pascal 3.0 software (remember, from James), but I was struggling to learn it since I had no book about it. So, Bryan offered to give me his old Pascal book. And, he did. With my parents permission, I gave him our address. He came out, and gave me his old programming book. The front cover was torn in half and it reeked of smoke, but I did read it cover to cover.
Marimaxx was a good mentor to me. I once begged him to tell me how to just shell commands out to DOS from Turbo Pascal (like to delete a file, you could just execute a “del abc.exe” as a shell command). He emphasized that this was bad practice and would lead to bad habits, and said whatever it is I wanted to do, I needed to learn the proper way to do it (in code). i.e. learn how to implement the “del” command itself, don’t be so highly dependent on the OS. And I think that’s an early sentiment that has always stuck with me, I understood his point. Nevertheless, I did eventually learn the SwapVector’s and Exec “trick” of Borland Pascal. But I also did realize why it was bad practice, and respect that it should only be used as a temporary placeholder for proper code later.
Then through one of the BBSs, I found the Pascal source code to a BBS program (Forum BBS). I’m not sure what motivated me to do it, maybe it was from all the BASIC practice where I was already comfortable with projects that were 1000’s of lines. Eventually I did get it to compile under my gifted copy of Turbo Pascal 3.0 (as I recall, it also used overlays to reduce the memory footprint — which was the only time I ever used overlays, OVL files). The Turbo Pascal book from Bryan walked me all through this.
So, I was on may way to learning Turbo Pascal. I had the compiler and I had a huge 500+ page book full of samples and guidance. I recall scheming ways to sell my TRS-80 CoCo2 and other things (cartridges), to get my own “better computer.” I had no allowance, my only cash was birthday and Christmas gifts from my grandparents. I considering selling things through the BBS, since I wasn’t quite familiar with how the local papers worked (I was just 10 years old).
But as things turned out, I didn’t sell anything because another miraculous pair of events sealed my fate as Computer Aficionado.