Tuesday, September 4, 2012
The Internet was fresh and new when i was in 5th grade. I had a friend named Ryan who had a small 286 setup in his room in which he could connect to prodigy with. Prodigy, for those who knew about it, was America Online, but with less features. It had integrated email. They charged by the minute, so was closely monitored by parents. I do remember the email system had a major flaw: you could not pick you're own email. It was assigned to you and was just a mess of letters and numbers.
Ryan did nothing special on Prodigy. Thinking back, it was so limited, it had no choice but to be the biggest most expensive piece of shit out there. A 9800 baud modem can only do so much. Or can it?
We discovered the terminal program after we got to learn about how to use one at school. I should explain, but our school, which is in the very small city in Vermont named Winooski, had a super advanced computer program. I'm not sure why. I was involved with two after school programs to get my "Computer License", which was a made up thing the school system had devised so you could have unfettered access to the computer after school hours in the technology lab. (extension of the library) I learned how to fix computers, say correct terminology, use basic graphic design programs, and manipulate DOS. I was sent home with a book about modem commands that had sample phone numbers of local BBSes in the neighboring cities of Burlington. When i passed a written test, i was the third child in the program in the state of Vermont to receive my license that really meant nothing except one thing: i could enter and just about stay the night in the computer lab at school.
Our computer lab consisted of about 20 Macintosh apple IIe computers that all kids could use in the school. Separate from that were about 12 Macintosh LC computers running an ancient version of The Finder. I remember when the computers were brought in, we had to watch a video on how to use a visual operating system to store data on a hard drive instead of 5 1/4 inch floppies. A crude password system with an image of a knight holding a shield protected the computers from unwanted access so only those with the correct password which was written on the back of you're license, would allow you use the computer. The computer lab was open from 3pm after school, until about sundown. Often times, no one would be there and everything would be unlocked, which was better for us.
Using the LCom program on Ryan's computer, we called BBS systems all over Burlington. Often times it was busy, sometimes we would get in to a random system only to be kicked out. One BBS in particular seemed to have infinite nodes and was called The Dog Dish. I could be wrong about the name, but i googled the BBS list for around that time, and it sounds pretty accurate. After logging in, there were several text games you could play like L.O.R.D., which I've talked about before. You could chat with people, look at text files people have uploaded, and download small files. One of the files we downloaded was another list of BBS servers in the area that were not listed in any directory. One such server was called The Game Channel. It had maybe 2 nodes so you had to call all the time to connect. There was a timer of about one hour from the time you logged in to play games, download things, and get off. It used the Fido server, we found out later.
I would spend the night at my friends house and wait till the same time every night log on to Game Channel and play some shitty multiplayer games that were pretty horrible by today's standards with one exception: you played them against other people, and sometimes on a rare occasion, in real time with the person logged in to the other node. One hour was never enough to play all the games and have time to download something cool. ANSI graphics of playboy centerfolds, new games that we had no idea how to save and load. Too much information was available and we had no idea how to access it. Plans ran though my head, and no sooner did i devise a solid foundation for my lunacy did my technology-computer-owning-friend move away to somewhere in central Vermont. I teased him that he was moving so he could be closer to the new Ben & Jerry's factory in Stowe. (He was over weight at the time)
Plan A: Learn something new
My father was, I'm pretty sure, forced to obtain a degree in computer programming from the local university for his job at Champlain Water District. They were converting everything over to a new computer controlled setup, so they could open and close valves all over the state. I'm guessing they had to move water somewhere previously, they had to make a phone call, someone drove down to the tank, and opened the valve by hand for a certain measured amount of time, and thus the water was moved elsewhere. My father designed a program that visually showed an operator where water was, how much, and with a click, transfer it anywhere in the state. Advanced technology for it's time I'm sure. With him getting so in to computers, it was the perfect opportunity for me to learn something about terminals and communication.
Holiday's and weekends he took me to work with him. He let me transfer water, showed me the programming parts i was interested about, we even created a crude Golf game with Q-Basic that was pretty popular in the office. I enjoyed every day we spent playing with the computers and really learned the fundamentals of computer technology and how information systems work. Armed with my budding knowledge, i asked the computer lab teacher at school for a BBS program of my own. Not owning a computer, thinking i could just install it on a school computer, this seemed like pretty good idea at the time. My new dream was to own and operate a BBS.
I don't remember the computer teacher's name for the life of me, but he had a useless right arm in a sling that he would tuck disks into like another pocket. he typed bast with that right hand let me tell you. I begged for a BBS. He said no. I bothered him day after day. Once, i called him at home from a phone number i got from my neighbor the principal. No again. After a month of asking, he relented, letting me use his multi monitor personal computer in his personal office to log on to a BBS client. In no was was i allowed to install anything, but now i was back online without my friend with the 286. I could be on the computer without supervision for at least 4 hours every weekday. Four hours of downloading games, chatting with people in other cities, and learning how to tame Fido.
Plan B: Hijacking a node, not getting caught
I read a text file on a one-node BBS with some random crappy technology name about Fido commands. Like a modern day help file, but written by someone on just what they had read from a book, or figured out themselves. It had personal notations about canceling authorities, holding nodes open, and so on. It took me 3 hours to print the whole file at school that day to bring home and study. Within the week i was staying on random BBS servers for unlimited amounts of time, downloading protected files, knocking people offline, and just creating general havoc for system administrators in the 802 area code. Not that all servers were Fido, but most were at the time. It was an easy system to maintain, and could be run from any basic piece of junk computer.
People would often catch me causing a problem on their computer and would kick me off, then proceed to call the schools modem phone number. This is right around the time when *69 was advertised on TV for $1.75 each use, so you can imagine the people were pretty pissed. I could hear the warble of the modem picking up for a call, much like a fax, then someones horribly distorted mad voice coming through the small speaker on the modem under the desk. I had a little following in the computer lab, and my friends found this to be about the most funny thing they had seen in a while, so eventually word got around that i was up to no good. I lied my ass off when confronted by the computer lab teacher. I had a feeling he really did not care what i did. I imagined his house to be a blinking neon shit-house of technology, confusing outsiders like Japanese billboards in Bladerunner, eyes red and watery staring at no less than 200 hundred massive 15" CRT monitors, in their nightmarish, beige, plastic glory, as if to find some closely guarded international secret warehouse... full of Unicorn boners. I looked up to him. I needed him, his computers, and less importantly, his dwindling knowledge.
Part Two Tomorrow..