I recently discovered the site How I Met Your Motherboard, which features stories of first computer experiences. Interestingly, one of the stories mirrors my own.
Seems like perfect fodder for my own blog post, no?
People occasionally ask me why I’m so nutty for Apple products. I think part of it is because of when I got my first Mac: just as I was leaving the corporate world, becoming a father, starting down the path as a stay-at-home parent, etc. I was in the midst of several major life changes. At the same time, I purchased a new consumer electronic device that has a devoted following. As I educated myself on how to use my Mac, I got sucked into the Cult as a way of finding meaning and comfort in my strange new life.
But there’s more to it than that. A college roommate had a mid-90s Mac, on which I discovered the Internet. He dropped a few thousand on it for architecture projects and I probably spent more time on it than him once I discovered America Online and e-mail. Earlier in college, a friend down the hall had a Mac SE, and he allowed us to spend hours playing Tetris on it.
Most importantly, though, was my first ever computer experience, on an Apple ][ Plus in middle school.
Through some wrinkle in the system, I got into my school district’s gifted and talented program. The program was once every two weeks: on those days, we’d go to school, then get on a different bus and go to the old junior high, where the program had carved out three rooms full of stuff to keep us occupied for five hours. For me, the highlight were the two Apple ][ Plus computers that we worked on during each session.
In the morning, we had a programming lesson, in which we learned a series of BASIC commands. Then, we signed up for computer time and had to write our own program based on that lesson. That was all super cool, but I also enjoyed jumping on the computers at lunchtime and playing Lemonade Stand, Oregon Trail, or Midway. I was thoroughly enamored with these cool new toys.
Somewhere along the way I picked up a guide to programming in BASIC. I poured through it, imagining all the cool things I could do with my own computer. I wrote simple, text-based adventure games in a notebook. I would check out computer books from the gifted class’ library and dutifully copy down hundreds of lines of code for cool games that I would enter into my own machine some day. If I came across a magazine article or TV show about computers, I watched it. At the time I was crazy about sports, the Kansas City Royals in particular. Slowly but surely computers were creeping up on sports as my favorite interest.
I begged my mother to buy me an Apple ][ for Christmas in 1982. I’m pretty sure I cried and kicked and screamed. I explained how I would use it to design my own video games. I would learn all the latest programing techniques. I would launch myself on a path that would end with me writing games for Atari in Sunnyvale, CA after college.
I did not understand that an Apple ][ ran about $2000 at the time. Throw in more money for disk drives, etc. and we’re talking $2500. In 1982 dollars. If I’ve done the math correctly, that’s roughly $5000 today. Back in ’82, my mom was working two and sometimes three jobs to keep us afloat. I obviously had no understanding of how much the Apple ][ cost, or how little my mom was making at the time.
I tried to talk her down to an Atari 400 or 800, but the answer remained the same.
A year later, when our financial situation had improved slightly, I got an Atari 2600 game system for Christmas. While that was one of my all-time favorite Christmas gifts, I was left playing other people’s games rather than making my own. I did get my own computer, eventually. In 1996, to be exact.
What could have been.
As I recall, I did fine on the entrance test, but my teachers were worried that I wouldn’t take it seriously. In fact, they left the decision to me. “If you think you can stay focused and be serious about this, we’ll let you sign up. But if you don’t want to, you don’t have to.” Or something like that.