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Christmas 1983 December 25, 2008

Posted by Wilhelm Arcturus in Ancient Gaming, entertainment.
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I don’t know exactly when the Apple IIe computer showed up at Gary’s house.  One day it was just there, set up on the dining room table.

Gary’s house was like that.  Cool, new, or interesting things would suddenly show up without ceremony.  His father was an engineer as well as a car and gadget aficionado, so his house was always an interesting place to be.  And his house was one of the centers of my late teens.  It was the place where we would hang out.  Gary was the guy with the really cool parents.

And one day during the winter in early 1983, that Apple IIe appeared.

It certainly wasn’t the first Apple II that I had ever seen.  Marianni Avenue ran behind my junior high school, and any school that close to Apple got computers handed to them.  My high school and several acquaintances were also so equipped.  So I had been poking at Apple computers for nearly five years when this particular unit showed up at Gary’s.

What was different was the amount of time I had access to it.  That was a rainy winter and Gary and his family saw me a lot. (For which, in hindsight, I apologize profusely.  They were very kind to put up with me.)  And while I knew in a vague way that computers and I needed to come together at some point (I was sold on that years before when I got to play Star Trek on a computer over at HP, a game a friend and I were so enraptured with we went an created a board game version of it), hours of playing Castle Wolfenstein, Epoch, Ultima II, Aztec, and other classics cemented the deal and set my course.

I had to get an Apple II.

The question was how.

Back in 1983 a typical Apple IIe setup could run to $2,500.

Going back to the Measuring Worth site shows that $2,500 in 1983 is the equivalent of $5,000-$7,500 in 2008.

Frankly, $2,500 still seems like a lot of money to me today.  And back in 1983 when I was bagging groceries for $4.50 an hour and paying for college… it was an impossible amount.  I was feeling flush when I had $400 in the bank back then.

And then Christmas came around.  Of course, I was 18 at this point and had no illusions about there being a repeat of the 1977 Christmas miracle that brought me an Atari 2600.  I couldn’t even imagine asking for something as expensive as a computer.  I needed a decent scientific calculator and a new ribbon for my Olivetti portable typewriter.

So when Christmas day came, I expected no happiness to come boxed up and placed under the tree.

And since, 25 years later, I cannot remember a single gift I received that year, I am sure my expectations were met.

But then, after all the presents were open, my grandmother handed out some envelopes.  She said she had received a large dividend payment from an investment and wanted to share it with us.  There was a check made out to me for $1,300.

I am sure my grandmother had any number of good uses in mind for that money when she gave it to me.  In fact, I am quite sure a replacement for my slant-6 powered 1974 Plymouth Duster, my first car, was high on her list.  While generally reliable, putting up with the abuse of a youthful male driver was asking a bit much of the Duster.  It ate starter motors, and somehow the tires wore out quickly.  Then there was the suspension work it needed, caused, I imagine, by driving down Barbara Avenue in Mountain View at high speed so as to get the car airborne over the high crowned cross streets.  I was told by those watching that the sparks off the pavement on landing were quite impressive.  The subsequent suspension issues might also have explained the rapid and rather odd front tire wear.

So when the first thing out of my mouth after “thank you” was “now I can buy a computer,” I could see on my grandmother’s face that this was not at all part of her plan.  Car, college, savings, or any number of other possible items were on her mental list of expected answers.  But a computer?  I might well have been proposing to buy drugs with the money.

Still, despite my reading of her face, she did not immediately grab the check back.  She suggested some of the possibilities I listed, but my mind was elsewhere.

Things were in motion.

Magic was happening at Christmas again.

The stars were in alignment.

First there was the money.

Then there was the connection.

My aunt was present and she had invited along one of her friends who just happened to work for Apple Computer.  And she just happened to have a co-worker who was looking to sell an Apple II+, information she offered up almost immediately.

That was Christmas Eve and before the New Year I was over at this co-worker’s home looking at the computer he had for sale.

He seemed to feel some duty to make sure I was buying the computer for the right reasons.  He wanted to know why I wanted to spend so much money to buy a personal computer.  I spoke about programming, which did not impress him.  I went somewhere with the idea of the future and computers.  I mumbled “it plays games.”  And to each of these statements he had an answer, a more reasonable use for my money that did not involve buying a computer.

And then I just said I was hooked on the whole thing, that I could not explain it, but there was something inside of me that just screamed that I must have a computer, an Apple computer, and that I wasn’t going to be able to silence that voice.

This made him smile.  Perhaps passion spoke to passion.  Whatever it was, it seemed to be the right answer because only a few minutes later I was headed home with $1,300 worth of computer in tow.

For my money I got an Apple II+ with 64K of RAM (it had the 16K language card plugged into slot 0, boosting it up from 48K) with dual floppy drives, an Apple III monitor, some 5.25″ floppy disks, and the ubiquitous (and almost useless, except for Little Brick Out) paddle controllers.

Once home, I set it up immediately, then took a picture.

Apple II+ on Day One

Apple II+ on Day One

After some fiddling, I ended up with a more standard desktop configuration that had the floppy drives stacked, the monitor set back a bit, a fan on the side of the computer to cool the power supply, and a CH Products joystick.

Apple II+ In It's Natural State

Apple II+ In It's Natural State

Eventually I upgraded the main unit to an Apple IIe. (I was promoted to food clerk at the grocery store and was making an astounding $13.48 an hour, fifty cents more between 7pm and 7am, and time and a half on Sunday!)  I remember being disgruntled at having to pay extra because the computer store only had the 80 column card with the extended 64K of RAM. What was I going to do with 128K or RAM?  I also remember I was able to trade in the Apple II+.  Used computers had some value.

An Apple Dot Matrix printer was added so I could print out papers for college, retiring my Olivetti forever.  A 3.5″ disk drive was attached, which stored 400K of data, a huge boost over the 143K of the standard 5.25″ floppy disks.  I even bought a Mockingboard sound card at one point, though I can only ever recall Ultima III supporting it.

And then I got that modem from Potshot.  He was not immune to the siren’s call and ended up with an Apple IIc not too long after I took the plunge.

The modem which, of course, hooked me up to GEnie and Stellar Warrior, Stellar Emperor, and Gemstone.  The modem that got me interested in modems and guided my career path, first to running a BBS (back when that meant a computer with a modem attached), then installing and configuring modems, then working for a company that made modems, then ISDN technology, which lead to telephony, speech recognition, call center applications, VoIP and the middle management cog I am today.  An amazing amount of influence for a beige box with a single green light on the front.

In my mind, the Apple II era was a huge part of my computing past, despite the fact I sold my Apple II setup just over four years later for the same $1,300 I paid for it.  Sure, I spent a lot more on it during the interim, but long gone are the days where a four year old computer will sell for anything.  I put an ad in the local paper and a guy who ran his accounting on Apple II’s came by and bought it without any hesitation.

The era is larger in my mind no doubt because it was my introduction to the technologies that would shape my career and my life.

I look back on the programs… the games of course, but also some of the more mundane applications… AppleWorks for the Apple II was a thing of beauty, though it managed to suck on the Mac… and I am still in awe of the depth and sophistication of so many of the applications created to run on that little 1MHz 6502 processor.

For years I have maintained some form of Apple II emulation so I can go back an revisit the classics of that era.  For all the technology and sophistication modern games have, they have lost some of the charm and, more importantly, the clarity of many of those early games.  Yes, there were stinkers in that era, as there are in any era, but I used to spend hours and hours with games like Autoduel, Seven Cities of Gold, or Wizardry, games that were rather simple, rather raw, but completely engaging.

Today as close as you can come to that early purity, when game play trumped all, is in browser based games.

So it is almost ironic that my friend Scott (of TorilMUD fame) sent me a link recently for a site that emulates the Apple II, where you can go and play some of those classic games.

At Virtual Apple you can see some of the classics that still influence gaming today.

And while I don’t wish for those days to return… I like a lot of modern games and I have grown used to multitasking operating systems and not having to type arcane commands like “PR#6″ in order get things running… I do think there is something still to be learned from the simplicity of the time.  Not to mention nostalgia to be mined.  Who owns the rights to Seven Cities of Gold?

For me, all of that started 25 years ago and set me on a path that, in hindsight, seems almost obvious.  But at the time, the future of computing was wild and unknown.  The only fact of which I was sure was that I was going to be a part of it somehow.

Comments»

1. UFTimmy - December 25, 2008

I lost my teen years to DragonRealms (another Simutronics game).

2. rkoster - December 25, 2008

EA owns Seven Cities of Gold, I think. Though maybe, like M.U.L.E., the rights are tied up with Dani Berry’s estate.

I have it running on my smartphone. :)

3. Kilanna - December 25, 2008

I still remember our first Apple II in school.

My favourite game was “Where in the World in Carmen Sandiego”

4. misc - December 25, 2008

My first computer experience was with the Apple II. I’d spend my junior high lunch breaks in the computer lab playing Zork, and messing around with rudimentary BASIC programming.

Yup, those were the days.

5. Wilhelm2451 - December 25, 2008

Notes on this essay:

I knew this was going to be the “other” Christmas story as I started writing Christmas 1977. I wrote it in my head at least a dozen times. I wish I had stopped to write each version down, as they were all slightly different. One of my bad habits is to sit and write something in my head while in the shower or the car, then not commit it to text.

Each and every time though it began with the same sentence, which itself is (in my mind) a paraphrasing of a line from the movie “Castle Keep” that I think I saw only once, and that was during the 1970s. Now I’m going to have to rent it and see if I just dreamed it or not.

@Kilanna: I tossed the box for that game in the recycle bin a few years back. I only had the box though, not the disks or the instructions. Those I would have kept.

@Raph: That is too cool. Technology is going keep so many things from just disappearing. I just worry that it is going to constantly point out that my misty water-colored memories are a lot better than the 280×192 pixel reality of the time.

6. p@tsh@t - December 26, 2008

Thanks for the memories. For those of us that have spent most of our lives focused on what comes next only to realized what just passed mattered the most, these snapshots are priceless.

In that same house, even before the Apple ][ was the TRS-80 with the cassette “drive” in a corner of the family room which was the only thing capable of tearing us away from tabletop D&D… Unless Mrs. C was making bao or there was something cool on hacked HBO.

Rare times indeed.

Merry Xmas

7. Eric - December 26, 2008

Very nice story :). For me it started off with a friend’s ZX81 !

8. Wilhelm2451 - December 26, 2008

@potshot – Well, you have to know that one of the pitfalls of writing this story was NOT inventorying Gary’s house to list out cool stuff or to spend several paragraphs praising Mrs. C’s cooking.

They had HBO, a VCR before anybody else, Mrs. C’s CP/M machine on which we played “Hunt the Wumpus” and other such early text games, bicycles, cameras, corvettes, excellent stereo equipment, that huge stack of car magazines, and a table that could transform cats. All it needed was a few more rooms, a stairway that lead nowhere, and some sort of ability to defy physics outside of Greg’s room and it might have become some sort of cultural mecca.

And the whole house was occupied by happy, smart, personable people who seemed to enjoy having us over. A unique experience in my life.


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