What Have I done? – My First BBS

Photo By Ruben de Rijcke – Own work, CC BY 3.0 – source
This is the first part in a series of posts I’m writing to document some of my accomplishments in computers/programming. It’s partly to have a little history and partly to remind myself just how much I know. I struggle with imposter syndrome and tend to think everyone in the business is better than me and that they just get everything instantly. Deep down I know that’s not true so I hope taking this little trip through memory lane will help me remember just how far I’ve come.

I grew up in a pretty big family. My immediate family had 8 people in our house. It was always chaos and even though both my parents worked, money was tight. I got my license a little late (17 ish I think) and about a year later it was time to get a car. Don’t worry, this is getting to computers soon, I promise! I had been saving up and had close to a 1000. This was like 1990/91 so that was pretty good for a crappy used car.

I was geeky even as a teen. I loved comics, role playing (the pen & paper kind), science fiction and a lot of the typical geek stuff. I was not cool. But I always dreamed of having a cool car and that it would change all that. I wanted a 65 Mustang or a wicked Camaro. One day my stop mom comes to me and says they found a car for me and wanted to take me to see it. It was a primer gray 68 Camaro!! My parents told me they were going to buy it for me. I was about to be one of the cool kids!!

A few days later, the car was mine. I was still learning to drive it. It was a beast. Too much power for a teenager like me but I was starting to get the hang of it. One of my best friends, Adam, told me I should use the money I had saved to buy a computer. At this point my only experience with computers was my uncles Commodore, the school Apple and a painfully slow TRS-80 which took 30 minutes to load a text game like Hangman. I was like, no thanks, I can play games on my Nintendo. But he kept pestering me about it and wanted to show me how cool it was so I went to his place to check out his computer.

He had a 300 baud modem at the time. They didn’t have a lot of money either and he was a bit behind in the modem department. The 1200 baud modem had for a while and if I remember correctly, the 2400 baud had just come out or had been out for a little bit. His computer didn’t even have a hard drive in it, just 2 floppy drives (5.25″) and everything ran off those. There were no windows based programs like Microsoft Windows or Mac OS at the time, everything was command line based. That would change in a couple of years but at this point, he was running DOS. He loaded up a couple of things like a word processor and some games and it was faster than that old TRS-80 I had used. Still, I didn’t see the point of spending all my money on a computer setup, what would I use it for?

But then he logged into a BBS. He showed me the message boards and showed me that real people, people in our area, were discussing all sorts of stuff on there. He showed me some messages, add some of his own and then showed me Trade Wars. One of the most popular games at the time. You were given a certain amount of turns per day and other people could play the game with you and even attack you! He logged off for a bit and we chilled for a while and then logged back on and he showed me that people had replied to his posts and other players had made moves in the game. This was my first “Holy Shit” moment. I knew right then how much potential computers had. The killer feature was how it allowed people to connect.

So he helped me find a good first computer. He new a guy who ran a BBS in his basement and the guy had recently upgraded his computer and was selling the old one that used to run his BBS. So we arrange to meet the guy at his house and check it out. It was a pretty dingy basement but it looked like what you would want it to if you are into computers like I am. Just parts laying around, a messy desk with two computers on it. This guy looked like some sort of tech wizard to me at the time.

The computer he had for sale was an old IBM 8088. Pretty much the first real consumer desktop PC. It had 2 floppy drives and a 30 meg hard drive and and amber chrome monitor. My iPhone is about a billion times more powerful than this but still, this beast of a computer was all mine. I gave him my money and Adam helped me load the thing in my car and get it home and setup.

I messed around with it most of the afternoon and then that evening I got it all hooked up to the phone line and called my first BBS. Adam had given me a list of BBS’s to check out and the first one I logged into had customized their “wait” prompt to say “Hurry up, I don’t have all day”. I was shook. I thought the sysop was sitting there and being impatient with me. I put in a username and then the prompt for the password was there and again, the wait bar that said “Hurry up”. I was nervous and I had to pick my very first password and decided on “juice” because I had a bottle of OJ right beside me. I still use juice as a throw away password to this day. After that, I was online!!

I wish I could describe the feeling adequately to you but I don’t think I have the words. My minds eye is blind so I don’t “visualize” things like most people (it’s called Aphantasia) so when I describe the experience for me, it’s more what it felt like. And it felt like the world around me melted away and the glow from my amber chrome monitor was a portal, a wormhole to another world. And it was awesome! And as if on queue, the sysop of that BBS broke into chat with me. Which I didn’t even know was possible but there I was, chatting with another human being in real time from my computer. I knew right then I wanted to run my own BBS once I knew how.

I was still in High School and I had a part time job at J Gregory’s Pizza place where most of my friends also worked. It was about a week or so after I got the computer and I had to go to work. I don’t remember why but I didn’t drive my awesome Camaro that day and when I got home, it was gone. My parents had sold it because they needed the money. I was devastated. I was so close to being one of the cool kids. But this is why the car was so crucial to the story. When my parents sold my car I had already spent the money I had saved for one on a computer and now I was stuck. I had to walk/run back and forth to work quite often but beyond that, it left me stuck with my computer. I was a bit bitter at the time but now I’m glad it played out the way it did.

Summer came and I spent all summer playing on my computer and by the time summer was over I had my own phone line and started running my own BBS called Midian (named after the mythical city in Nightbreed). And eventually, a second BBS called The Stone Temple, named after STP! I even started writing mods/hacks for the bbs system I ran called VBBS. The very first code I ever wrote was a random signature script. Just like on forums today, users could have a signature attached to each post. My mod created a system so that each user had a text file that would let you have 5 signatures that you could either pick from, randomize or just manually type in a new one. I released it on VNET and it was pretty widely used for a long time. That was my first taste of coding and I loved it.

Eventually, my modem died and I had to get a new one and that’s when I learned that it was $125/hr for a guy to fix it, plus the cost of the modem. And that’s why I decided to learn to do it myself. I bought a brand new 2400 baud modem (the computer came with a 1200 baud) and got it installed and I still miss the wonderful screeching sound it would make when connecting. I eventually had to turn that off because it drove everyone crazy because people connected to my computer 24/7.

A little while later my 8088 was getting a little slow so I decided to upgrade it. Again, no idea how to do this but my friend Adam helped me and we got it upgraded to a 286! And another year later, I built my first computer, a screaming fast 386 dx2 66. It had a turbo button! I listened to STP’s first album on repeat while I built it and to this day anytime I hear a song from that album I remember sitting in my floor trying to figure out how to build a computer.

In those early BBS days I didn’t just discover computers, I found a major part of myself. Computers and technology are a big part of my life and who I am as a person. And I also met some friends through the ANSI art scene that I’m still friends with today like Gary, ED, Andy, Justin and Pinguino, among others. Adam and I spent lots of time spelunking through muds by connecting to the local university through a friends account and getting the whole campus banned from various systems. I learned about things like wais, gopher, IRC and so much more. I eventually even had multiple phone lines for my bbs. Some of the best times ever, sitting at home “alone” in the dark with nothing but the glow of my monitor and the company of hundreds of people I talked to regularly because of my computer. I felt connected in a way I never had before and I’m grateful to this day for my parents selling that car and basically forcing me to spend time with my computer. I don’t think I would have been a very good “cool kid” anyway.

Computers let me find other people like me who enjoyed the same things as me at a time when it was definitely not cool to be a geek like I was. I got picked in for liking comic books and yet today, comic book movies make more money than any other kind of movie. It’s a great time to be a geek but I wouldn’t trade those early days for anything in the world. I still miss it.

I eventually scarped up enough to get a shitty first car that most definitely did not make me one of the cool kids. But it was mine and I was happy with it. It got me to where I needed to go: school, work, the comic shop and to see my friends. But this was just the beginning of my journey. I even met my wife because of computers! But I have a few more stories between BBS’s and meeting Erin so you’ll have to wait a little while for that one.

More “What Have I done?” stories coming soon.

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