For a brief, glorious moment, I was King of the Nerds.
When I was eleven years old, my parents bought me a Commodore 64, which at the time was the most amazing thing ever invented, built, or sold retail. It was also kind of pricey for my family, and I have no doubt they justified the expense by telling themselves it would help inspire me to become a computer programmer and thus be rich.
That never happened: Math is hard. Let it drift.
However, they hedged on the budget by opting to buy just the computer itself, with no storage device. That meant that I was limited to what I could do with the computer – I could type in a program, but with no way to save it the moment I turned off the computer it disappeared. After spending weeks typing in a program listed in a Commodore magazine, I successfully lobbied for a storage option, but we went for the cheapest option: Magnetic tape.
Tape worked, but it was slooooowwww. I had one game: Telengard, and it took about five minutes to be read in from tape. This was not a game that actually deserved five minutes of my time for loading, but it was all I had. And at least I had a place to store programs and other things, although if I’d been stuck with that tape drive I would likely have gotten very, very tired of my Commodore 64 very quickly.
Thankfully, we got robbed.
A No Good, Very Bad Day
My grandmother came to live with us when I was maybe ten or eleven; my memory, as always, is vague. Nanny was strict and somewhat mean-spirited, or so it seemed to us kids; she was always grousing that we were lazy and messy. Later in life she went through a bizarre period when she claimed to be unable to swallow food, and wasted away to the point where she couldn’t get out of bed despite the fact that doctors could find nothing wrong with her, at which point my Mother apparently went in, close the door, and told her she would be put in a nursing facility if this bullshit didn’t stop.
Nanny got better.
Anyways, when she did eventually pass away, we went to the funeral only to come home and discover our house had been robbed; thieves had obviously scanned the obituaries and noted the date of the funeral. Our neighbors had noticed the busted window but done nothing but stand around and cluck nervously, so it was up to us to call the cops.
The house was a mess. Drawers had been turned out, everything pushed out of place. They took some jewelry that wasn’t worth much, missed all the cash my mother had hidden around the house, and stole the Commodore 64.
My parents, exhibiting a crafty sort of self-serve justice I’d never seen before and never did see again in them, listed a disk drive on the insurance claim form instead of a tape drive. It was a little shocking, to be honest with you, to see them indulge in some minor insurance fraud. But I got my 1541 single 5.25” disk drive to go along with a new C64, and I was off to the races.
The 5.25” floppy disk was an amazing thing. It stored 170 kilobytes of data, but you could cut a notch into the side that would allow you to flip it over and so each disk was instantly doubled, although this did increase the wear and tear a bit.
A few weeks after getting one, a kid at school introduced me to a program called Copy Quick. This was an amazing moment, because it opened up the world of software piracy. From that moment on, I never bought another program, because there were kids at school to trade with. Want a copy of Beach Head? Go find Hector and offer him a copy of Blue Max for it. Get turned down, because no one wanted Blue Max.
It was a whole subculture. We all had lists of the software we owned and we would pore over them and cook up trades like real wheeler-dealers. When someone got their hands on a hot or rare program, it was chaos and excitement as everyone tried to pry it out of their undeserving hands.
None of us thought it was wrong, or illegal. None of us really understood any of it, either. We were early versions of what you might call Script Kiddies: The kids who don’t actually know much about programming but download software and use it. I had no idea how my 1541 disk drive worked. All I knew was that if I wanted to copy a game, I would try a succession of copy programs until I found one that worked: Copy Quick, Fast Hack’Em, dozens of others. They were themselves copied.
By the end of grammar school, I had thousands of games and utilities on floppies. And despite lots of reports that the 1541 disk drive was unreliable, mine worked like a charm and may still be in working condition today, who knows? I still don’t know how any of it actually works, really, despite sporadic attempts to read about programming and hardware and teach myself a few things. But I do sometimes wish I could play some of those old games on the original hardware, especially the mysterious games I never figured out.
Non Comprendo, Compadre
You see, when you copied a game (often from a copy of a copy already) you didn’t get the manuals, and every now and then I got a game in a trade that I simply couldn’t figure out. It would load and appear to work properly, but I would have no idea what to do, what the rules were, how the controls worked. Sometimes you could figure it out. Sometimes my innate idiocy and lack of brains would assert themselves, and the game would remain a mysterious presence, ominous and filled with potential. Combined with the Internet, I could look up those games and totally rock them today.
If I ever invent time travel, that is exactly what I’ll do.