Previously, I ended this story with my desire to obtain more time on a “better computer.” My father was running his own small business (a Pool Service, Handy Man services – like fixing garages, or trying to sell jacuzzi or satellite service installations). He did work hard for all of us, I remember admiring all the rich houses he cleaned pools at (as well as apartment pools). I fell into one of those pools once, while gawking at a quarter I saw at the bottom. It wouldn’t have been so bad, except that it was the middle of winter.
Anyhow, my father used his computer, making it mostly unavailable to me. He had moved onto Lotus 1-2-3 and that dot matrix printer was busy-busy-busy printing invoices. And my father ran an honest business, with tax software to keep track of things, forever complaining on why the Government itself never had to balance books. I could use his Tandy 1000SX once in awhile, but I had mostly learned all I could from the old TRS-80 CoCo2. So I had a “quest” of sorts to obtain a better computer for myself, to use full time.
I recall in this year (1988), my paternal grandmother visited for a few weeks. She was a retired English teacher, and I remember she had requested to sit in my class for a few days just to observe how elementary classes were going in those days. I don’t know what her final assessment was, but I do remember being a little embarrassed by peers teasing me when my grandmother dozed off a few times at her chair in the classroom. I also remember at our apartment, my grandmother hadn’t locked the bathroom door. And that evening, I went to the restroom without knocking, and walked in her taking a bath. It was quite an embarrassing (yet harmless) moment for us both.
But another thing I remember is, my grandmother was interested in learning about these 3D animated games that I was so obsessed about. My Christmas gift for that year was the brand new released King’s Quest IV. I do admit being slightly disappointed at first, because the main character was female, and I absolutely had that “I have to play as a girl?” reaction. But it did turn out to be a very wonderful game, I think most especially because of the multi-voice music that the Tandy system offered. It also was one of the last “type your commands” variety of Sierra games. I was already well familiar with Sierra games, and had a feel for what kinds of commands that game would accept. So I recall being slightly frustrated, when my grandmother who had never seen such a thing, she wanted to try various complicated commands. Despite this, I also enjoyed that it was something we were doing together as a family during our evenings.
But then another interesting thing happened in 5th grade. At this point, my parents had rented an apartment next to our school. This was a K-12 school that both my sisters were also in. Still being in elementary, I did have to walk further to the other end of the school property. I would walk along a dirt road at the back of the school to reach my 5th grade classrooms. I always enjoyed this walk, passing the school library, and over Tumblin Creek.
So here is what happened: While walking home, during the last of school, I noticed a computer in a dumpster (the location is marked in the image above). No one else was around. I didn’t know what kind of computer, it wasn’t familiar to me, but there was a screen and a keyboard. What was odd to me was that it was all one unit. Which meant, it was also heavy. I had to run back to the normal parking lot area, where everyone else was getting picked up by their parents. I saw James Wing, who recall had gifted me the Turbo Pascal 3.0. I ran over and asked him: can you ask your dad to help me drive a computer home? And then I explained what I had found.
I’m so very thankful that Mr. Wing took the time to help me. He found a cart of some sort, and helped wheel the computer from the dumpster over to his car. He also pointed out that there was a cassette deck and a programming book that went along with it, so we rescued those from the dumpster as well (which fortunately was mostly full of cardboard and not actual trash).
As mentioned, we lived in the apartments next to the school. So after a brief drive, I then sprinted up to our apartment, dashed in, grabbed the phone. I called my mother at work, to ask “Mom, I found a computer! Can I keep it?” After explaining a bit more about the situation, she said Yes – after all, who could refuse a free computer!
BELOW: These are photos of the PET that I had found, taken a decade later using my first digital camera.
That computer ended up being a Commodore PET 4016 from 1978, already a decade old. We never bothered to track down who had put it in the dumpster or why. I always wondered if maybe it was Mr. Hartman, who I had briefly mentioned earlier, an early advocate of the “computers are coming our way” sentiment in 1984. Whatever the case, the Commodore still worked, and so did the tape recorder. While I was shocked such a thing would be simply “tossed out,” this is of course very typical of computing: equipment after 5 years is effectively obsolete. Even my TRS-80 CoCo2 was past that threshold, and with only 64K, was indeed obsolete by 1988.
So I hadn’t found a “newer” computer per se, and in fact had a much older computer. I spent that summer digesting “the red book” (PET/CBM Personal Computer Guide) which taught about assembly programming, which led to learning about binary/hex/decimal conversions, PEEK/POKE, exploring memory maps, and also that Tandy wasn’t the only type of computer in the world.
I had been to local Computerland stores, that had Amiga’s and Apple’s. I remember being impressed with their graphical resolution and sound capabilities. But we never stayed in that store long, likely the equipment was just beyond what my father could afford.
SIDE STORY: I also remember my father spent quite a bit of time at the Video Barn, located at a busy intersection near the University of Florida. This was like a pre-Blockbusters store that sold and rented VHS tapes, but also sometimes software. Whenever my father stayed more than 10 minutes, I knew the place was more like a hangout (he was into Scuba Diving and we spent hours in that store as well). He would chat with the employees, and talk about all kinds of topics. I remember once a long discussion about the possibility of time travel. Then one day, at the Video Barn – I remember a group of them had chatted a while, having all kinds of fun while I read my RAINBOW magazine. A young lady was in the group had to leave (she had a class to go to). A few minutes later, there was a loud crash at the intersection, and the lady came running back in with blood on the side of her face – she had been in a car accident, hit from the side. I felt quite bad for her, and the event made me realize how quickly a situation can change. They were all previously chill and gossiping, and then just a moment later this lady almost lost her life. Although I was young at the time, for some reason I remember the following detail: the accident was during a yellow light, and it was a case of one person expecting the approaching car to stop, so they proceeded to complete their mid-intersection turn during the yellow. But the approaching car did not stop on the yellow light..
SIDE STORY: My father could make conversation with anyone. At all the hangouts he took me, he was always making conversation with the people who worked there. Hardware stores, banks, pool supply stores, Scout supply store, and an arcade store we stopped at every few months. My father enjoyed arcade games. I’m not sure why, and I don’t think it was just to entertain me as his son. Maybe it was just his way of having “me time.” One of his favorite sayings was “GGGeeee OOOohhh” (Game Over, typically shown at the end of arcade games). Two of his favorite games were Joust and Gravatar. Some of my favorites were Pole Position and Zookeeper. But the hey-day of classic arcades was clearly past by 1988, as there was rarely any other people there. I like to think that my father and I were one of the last “arcaders.” (in terms of the “traditional” arcade style box machines of the late 1970s).
So, to continue on with the story… Even then, this Commodore PET was “old-tech.” But learning about it gave me insight into more fundamentals of how a computer worked. The TRS-80 CoCo2 wasn’t very suited to just opening it up and exploring the parts, whereas the PET invited such a thing. That machine had it’s own “hood-prop” like a car, to keep the case opened while working inside.
In 6th grade, the school had only an aging fleet of TRS-80 Model 3 systems. Those were even older than my CoCo2 at home. Our particular grade had the bad luck of coming along when the school was saving up and preparing to transition from the TRS-80’s over to the newer IBM PCs. Although, I do recall in our math class we were introduced to the Apple IIgs. We would leave lunch early to go to the classroom, to play games like Crystal Quest, Prince of Persia, or Where in the World is Carmen San Diego. Or as a reward for doing well on assignments, one teacher would let us play Tetris.
We never did much with those TRS-80s, but they did “boot”/startup to BASIC. So I could do a few casual programs, mostly the simple “guess my number” (where I showed classmates if you “divide and conquer” your guess and are given high/low results, you can optimally find the number in 6-8 tries). Then I had an idea: I asked the Science teacher if I could bring my PET to class. Mrs. Young was quite a teacher, she beat all the boys at arm-wrestling, and told us she learned the skill while being a Truck Driver in the past. I explained the PET was actually a computer, and so she said “Sure!”
I forget exactly how I managed it, as the PET is quite a bulky machine to carry for even a quarter mile. Probably I borrowed a cart of some sort (recall we lived in the apartment next to the school), which means the process did involve carting an already antique computer down a dirt road. But here’s the real fun part: in preparation for this, at home I had written a “spoof” program in BASIC and saved it on cassette. This program “simulated” connecting to a BBS that was military complex front end. For the first few days, my classmates fell for it and were amazed. But eventually it was Evan (who I mentioned earlier) that caught on that I had no modem nor any other cables besides the power cord (and WiFi or Wireless wasn’t even a possibility then). The jig was up.
But then there was another interesting development that year: my father sprung for an 80486 system. Through my mothers work, my father was in contact with various doctors who were also just learning about computers. Since my father had been using a computer for his self-employed business records for years, he was a go-to expert. Through these contacts, he found a deal on an 80486DX50 system. It wasn’t a mainstream brand, but a locally assembled PC clone. Meanwhile, the doctors were all into their PS/2 systems and Windows 1.0 / 2.0.
NOTE: Recall earlier I mentioned my father helping Jennifer’s father setup his computer, it was around this time she told me about that. My father didn’t know who Jennifer was, but he had gone on a lot of field trips and school activities with us over the years – everyone (at school) knew who my father was, he video recorded our musical recitals every year. So Jennifer recognized him when he was at their house.
The upshot here for me was that I finally inherited the Tandy 1000SX system. My yearlong study of the Commodore PET was finally at an end, as well as my days fiddling around with the TRS-80 cartridges and 64K. I relate this transition like going from a 150cc motorcycle to a 250cc: much greater performance. 640K, dual 5.25″ 360KB floppy drives, and a 20MB “hard card.” I could exercise Turbo Pascal full time now,
SIDE STORY: Also in this year, the rebellious nature of my older sister came to a head. She was in trouble for attempting to stab her boyfriend with a knife in his car. And one day, while I was home at our apartment, I was there by the door the moment she ran away. People at school were asking me about all this, I had no idea what was going on. One evening later, I had a “good cry” with my 2nd sister, since I told her it was being mentioned at school. “What did Heather do?” I asked. She tried to explain things, but I can’t recall any specific rationale. For a couple years my parents had taken my older sister to a counseling (outside of school). I went with them now and then, but I just stayed in the lobby reading HIGHLIGHT magazine and playing with blocks. A decision was eventually made to send my older half-sister to live with our grandparents.
NOTE: 6th and 7th grade were also “my year” of Dungeons and Dragons. I had become both a SysOp and a Dungeon Master within the same year. I never used a locker, and brought two backpacks to school: one with my class textbooks, the other with all my D&D books. John and Ezra were my two best friends. Kelly, another new student that year, was my new girl crush. She was the first girl I was going to ask out. But as things turned out, Evan one day gave me fair warning “if you don’t ask her out, I will!” I told him, “Go ahead, I think Sarah likes me.” To which he replied, “Well, ok. But I think you could do better man!” Sarah was trying a new hairstyle then, and let’s just say she got nicknamed “Sheepdog.” Cheryl still had my heart, but I always felt she was out of my league. Sarah was tall and smart (I learned later her mother worked at the school). I was told she liked me, by her friends. But, as it turned out, I was just too busy to pursue things further at that time.
SIDE STORY: There was another competing “clique” that also played D&D, who had their own Dungeon Master. I recall once there was a major rivalry between us based on the following principle: in my group, we rolled our characters (dice) and stuck with what we rolled. We felt that was the honest and intended way to play. But one day a bunch of peers came running over, “Hey man, Michael is letting all his people just make up characters, they put whatever stats they want!” I recall thinking that wasn’t a big deal, let people play how they want. But it seemed a lot of my group wanted to write letters to TSR or start a fight, like some huge injustice was happening that needed correcting. If my team wanted Immortals, they had to keep their characters alive long enough through campaigns. But for Mike’s team, they could jump right into Immortal content with their hastily created character sheets. It was a difference in philosophy, in how to approach the game. But I will say, the Dungeon Master Rulebooks I read never mentioned anything along the lines of “just makeup stats as you like.” 🙂 That’s like not evening rolling during a campaign. We gripped about it all year, but that’s all it came to.
SIDE STORY: Around this time, on my BBS a local fireman called often, Fireman Ken was his user name (he really was a fireman, I met him at his station in town once). He hosted several D&D campaigns, that he coordinated through our message board system. Several users and myself participated, and kept it going for several years. He would describe a scene, then we would post characters’ responses on what to do next (which he gave us about a week to do). He would then note down dice rolls and subsequent results of the action, leading to the next scene.
SIDE STORY: A couple years later, my cousins had gotten out of school a few weeks earlier than our county. So they came down to visit, and picked me up on the last day of my school. My older female cousin was quite hot (attractive), I remember a lot of cat calls from classmates about that. People were asking for my home number, thinking she was my older sister. So I went around explaining that no, she was from out of town and wouldn’t be staying in the area very long. They were heartbroken. However, during that distraction also on that last day of school, someone had stolen my backpack with all the D&D books. I realized perhaps someone had picked it up by mistake (black Jansports backpacks were common), and it was just my back luck being the last day of school. I never bothered with any Lost and Found. But that ended my D&D days.