Growing Up Commodore
The year was 1981, give or take (I'll try to remember dates as best I can, but we're talking 20+ years ago!), and I was in 3rd grade. My school district had decided to test-pilot a new program in school teaching something called "computers". It wasn't any more specific than that. The four students with the highest marks were asked if they would like to participate. Three of us said yes (ironically, the other one went on to graduate two years early from high school, went to MIT shortly thereafter, and is now making a ton of money in Silicon Valley!)
I remember the summer before being amazed down at the local Sears when some uber-cool teenager, or so it seemed to me anyway, had made his name appear all over screen on an Atari 400 that was set up. I was amazed! That memory stuck with me, still does to this day, so it was a no-brainer to say yes to the class.
I remember it well... the Commodore PET. Not even the "singing" variety, not even the one with the built-in cassette drive. No, this was one of the plain Jane models with none of the frills. My wife hates it, but I recently picked one up at a garage sale... and to my utter amazement, it still works!
I remember the class very vividly. The first problem we were given was to write a program to solve for the area of a triangle. I remember it well because I didn't understand one bit of the math! Even all these years later, I am no math wizard. I also remember that at that point none of us knew what a "program" was! But, we muddled through, comprehended just barely enough to try and write it, with lots of help from the teacher (who I later learned barely knew more than us about computers!).
I also remember that only about two months into the class, I was the only student left. The others had decided it was too hard, or boring, I'm not really sure, but they had asked to not go any more, and since it was a trial, the school obliged. Fortunately for me, there was one kid in I think probably 6th grade who, while not in the class, was apparently very well-versed in computers already (relatively speaking anyway) and spent a lot of time in the computer lab (which was a small room with two Pet's in it!). I remember discovering him one day writing a program that drew a guy on the screen doing jumping jacks. I know, it doesn't sound like much now, but it was one of those moments, one of those experiences, that change your entire world-view.
From that moment on, I was hopelessly hooked on these things called computers.
I remember begging my parents for a computer, but at the time they were a bit more expensive than we could generally afford. I remember my dad forcing me to read a book from Radio Shack, Intro to Microprocessors, or something to that effect. I remember him then quizzing me, asking "What is RAM?" to which I dutifully replied: "Random Access Memory!" just as I had memorized from the book. I was very proud of myself until he said "Ok, that's good, now what does that MEAN?" D'oh! Back to reading! (As it turns out, I now know he didn't know either answer, but he forced me to read, and more importantly, to comprehend what I was reading, which is what mattered to him).
I remember that Christmas, my parents broke the bank and got me my first computer: a Timex Sinclair 1000. It had a stunning 2K of memory, no sound capabilities, and the only way to save anything was to hook up a standard tape recorder (it had basically a headphone jack that you hooked to the MIC-jack of the tape recorder). And at first I didn't even have the tape recorder! Hey, they were $20, and that was a lot! I did however get the 16K expansion module with it, but it never quite worked right, never made solid contact in the expansion port so just tended to cause the computer to lock up more times than not... in the end, my dad made sure it would never work by trying to solder it in, not understanding that heat on a contact leading to an integrated circuit is, shall we say, not too healthy for it?
I remember staying up until all hours of the night just hacking away at code. It was of course the BASIC language back then, the Timex dialect of it, but it was great. I remember writing a program that was essentially a database containing all of the movies playing in all the theaters on Long Island, taken from Newsday that week that I could search. The amazing thing in retrospect is that I figured out Run Length Encoding (a method of data compression) without realizing what it was; it was just the only way to cram all that data into this thing, plus the program to search it!
Shortly thereafter, I remember reading about something called an "ML monitor" in the PET. There was something called "machine language", and this was apparently what was needed to write in it. This was a revelation because I discovered that you could do much more with machine language than BASIC, things at a much lower level to the hardware. I remember shortly after that discovering that I could do the same thing with the Timex, and that by carefully manipulating the graphics that appeared on the screen, I could actually make a crude form of music with the hums that accompanied the switching of those graphics (The Timex hooked up to a TV, not a monitor. I had an old decrepit 27" black and white monstrosity that I picked up at a garage sale, so any change in what was on the screen altered the noise of the electronics, the high voltage components more specifically).
Now, before I continue this story, I want to make one thing perfectly clear: I do not believe I was smarter than anyone else to be doing all that at a young age. I've always been a geek, I have no problem admitting that, but I was never Wesley Crusher. I was smart, but not Einstein smart. The simple fact though is that I was just intensely interested in the technology, and spent ridiculous amounts of time exploring it. This is a trend that continues to this day, a fact my wife is none too happy about!
Anyway... the following Christmas, I really moved up in the world: an Atari 800XL. Now that was a gargantuan leap in technology: multimedia capabilities (16 colors if memory serves), 64K of memory, a real keyboard (the Timex had a "chicklet" keyboard, meaning it was flat with pressure-sensitive areas for keys), cartridges, etc. I still only had the tape drive, I never could afford to buy the floppy drive, but it was fine, at least it was a real peripheral! It was good, until that weekend I spent in 4th grade, practically non-stop from Friday to Sunday, writing a program that mapped the human brain and simulated neurons firing, only to have the tape get eaten early Sunday morning... I then spent all of Sunday very frantically rewriting the whole thing as best I could recall (I still believe I didn't win the science fair that year because the final program was not as good as what it was before the tape got eaten!)
Another friend of mine and I used to do a bit of programming back then. I remember at one point we decided to start a software company. Our first product was a simple game of Tron Lightcycles. We sold it for something in the neighborhood of $5, and as an added bonus, we gave people a program called The End, which was nothing but a program that drew a rainbow on the screen (I have no idea what we were thinking, but we did make a habit of taking old, stale chocolate chip cookies and putting them in this new-fangled thing called a microwave oven to soften them up again... I'm guessing maybe that releases some psychotropic compound or something... we also listened to his brother's collection of King Crimson, so obviously psychedelic concepts were nothing new to us!)
We also used to pull a little scam back then... we would go to the local mall, the KB Toy Store specifically, and buy games on cassette. We would then go home, copy them, put a few little scratches on the tape, and return them as defective. This, to the best of my recollection, was the first bit of "software piracy" I ever committed!
I also remember entering huge program listings from magazines. We're talking like 20 pages of nothing but numbers (it was a string of hexadecimal numbers that was converted to assembly, if memory serves). I remember entering the code for a parachute game among other things. I also remember at the time programming my first "real" game (the Tron ripoff I don't count): The A-Team! Yes, it was a text-based version of the famous TV show! I also remember doing Global Thermonuclear War (the WarGames influence there), which was the first time I did a graphical game (again, ignoring Lightcycles, because what we did could only just barely be called a game anyway!).
But the Atari wasn't the be-all and end-all of my early computer experience. There was something lurking just around the corner that would represent an even bigger paradigm shift than that guy doing jumping jacks in the computer lab.
The following year, 1983 I think it was, I finally stepped up to the big-time: the Commodore 64. Life would never be the same again, and that is a major understatement!
The C64 is to this day a fabulous piece of engineering. It was simple, yet extremely powerful (not Cray supercomputer powerful of course, but powerful in its own way). It didn't have a ton of memory like today's systems, and of course the speed was far less (1 MHz... 2,000 times slower than an average laptop these days!), but for some reason, people really became attached to it. Far more importantly is that there grew up around the C64 a community the world had never seen before. Sure, there were user groups before then. Sure, there were Bulletin Board Systems (BBS) before them. You can go all the way back to the computer club Bill Gates was a member of, in the 70's, for a far earlier example of a community developing around a computer. What the C64 ushered in though was much bigger.
The C64 was the first computer that I can recall that had widespread use of telecommunications. The Atari line too had modems, but more people had them with their C64's, and this is what made all the difference. The rise of BBS's came about as a result of all the modem usage, and BBS's are what gave rise to the "underground", or "the scene", as it is called.
What is a BBS you ask? Simply put, someone would set their computer up to automatically answer incoming calls, and if it was from another computer, the calling system was allowed to interact with the called computer using special software, BBS software. Through this software, the caller could read and leave messages for other users in both private form and public forums; could upload and download files; could play rudimentary games, and so on. In short, it was essentially a strictly one-to-one Internet. Later on, the capability to hook up multiple modems to a single computer and allow multiple calls to connect at the same time and interact with one another became popular, but by and large, BBS's in their heyday were one-user-at-a-time affairs (4 simultaneous users was the most I ever recall seeing). You can probably imagine the long hours of constantly re-dialing the same number to finally get into a popular BBS!
Let's jump backwards just a hair though.
Shortly after I got my C64, I was looking for people who knew more than me to learn from. I remember one guy who worked in a little computer/video game/video rental store in the middle of the local mall who sure seemed like a wiz to me. He seemed to know all about things that were amazing to me: how to program cool stuff, how to somehow get games for the computer without paying for them, how to hook up with other like-minded people. In short, he was as close to a God as I had ever met to that point!
He introduced me to some people who ran a computer store named Micro Hut on Main St. in Bay Shore, Long Island. I attended a couple of user meetings there, and with each one I was introduced to a few more people who seemed to know how to get all the good games. I remember each person bringing boxes full of floppy disks with all sorts of games and such on them, and swapping with one another.
As an aside, some of my all-time favorite games were created in this era. If any of these names rings a bell, you certainly know what I'm talking about: Shamus, Impossible Mission, Spelunker, Hover Bover, One On One, Telengard, Ultima IV (still the best Ultima game of all time if you ask me!), Temple Of Apshai, Jumpman, Beach Head, Raid Over Moscow, Ghosts And Goblins, Summer Games, Winter Games, The Great American Road Race, GI Joe, Hotwheels, Bruce Lee, Tapper, Barbarian II (that little green guy kicking the severed heads has got to be one of the all-time greatest video game characters!), Realm Of Impossibility, Alternate Reality, Bard's Tale, Bump'n'Jump, Hardball and Space Taxi. Even after all these years, with all the advanced technology we have, you know what I do? On my PocketPC I have a C64 emulator, and with me at all times are all of the above, plus a few more, and that's virtually all I play (other than Halo when I'm at home). I'm probably the only person on Earth with more than 10 no-hitters to my credit in Hardball! But I digress...
I finally learned where they got all this good stuff from: BBS's. So, I got a few numbers, learned how to determine which were within my parents' "unlimited local" calling area, and jumped on (of course, I screwed up more than a few times and got yelled at for $200 phone bills... I think I still have the calluses from mowing the neighbors' lawns to pay them off!)
The world of the BBS was a strange place. Many people try to equate it to the web today, but it's really not quite the same. For one thing, the average age of the people on BBS's was probably around 18. I know I met people anywhere from 14 to 26 (one guy was around 32, that was the oldest). Most of us tended to be in high school, or early college years. Another difference is that nearly everyone on BBS's was what people would now call a "hacker". There were very few "casual" users, and there was really none on the "elite" BBS's (anything "elite" usually denotes piracy, hacking, or other such activities). Most people were involved in software piracy to some degree, or phreaking (obtaining and using calling card numbers, which for a long time was the preferred way to interact with people outside your local calling area), or hacking as it used to mean (i.e., breaking into unknown systems) or carding (obtaining credit card numbers and using them to purchase items, nearly always more computer gear). None of this has gone away obviously, it's all still done to some degree, but back then, these types of activities was almost the sole reason BBS's existed.
That's not to say everyone was a criminal of course, but I dare say the vast majority where, even though we didn't know, or maybe didn't care, that we were basically committing crimes. To us, it was just pushing the boundaries of these new technologies we were being exposed to.
It was more than that though. It was a community. I can't even venture a guess as to how many people I at some point considered a "friend" who I never actually met or even saw. That's an amazing fact when you consider a large percentage of them lived pretty close by.
If you are fortunate enough to never have had the experience of a 300-baud modem, let me try and describe it... imagine this previous three paragraphs appearing letter by letter so slowly that you could probably read it fast enough to not fall behind. You would literally be watching the screen being drawn! It's hard to imagine with all the 70fps first-person shooters we're all exposed to today. Put it this way... it took something like 10 seconds for an entire screen to be drawn. That basically means it was .1fps! One tenth of a frame per second! You could probably duplicate that now by trying to play Doom 3 on an original Pentium system at 133 MHz, and I'm not sure THAT wouldn't be faster anyway!
It wasn't even just BBS's either... at that time, the party line was popular. This is basically a giant chat room that you called with your phone. I can remember my typical day in 9th grade: wake up about 6:30am, go to school, get home around 4pm, jump on the computer programming until about 11pm or so, then jump on a party line until about 3am or so... 3 hours sleep was plenty back then! If you are old enough then you probably remember TV ads for party lines. I guess there are even still some today. However, these party lines weren't the ones advertised on TV. These were basically "underground" lines; usually set up by someone in their early 20's who happened to work at the phone company. Or, someone had found a way to hack the system that ran the legitimate party lines and basically set up their own chat room, so to speak, on the line, which was then distributed on BBS's. So, meeting other geeks, hackers, pirates, and others along those lines was perfectly ordinary!
Anyway... one BBS in particular got me involved in the underground, so to speak, more than any other: The Lost Caverns. By this time I was roughly 13, round about 1986. This BBS was run by a girl, about 16 at the time, named The Flying Dutchman. Her real name though was Heidi (it took me weeks to remember that!). It turns out she lived about two miles away from me, and we eventually met up at her house to do some trading (swapping software). Now, just to explain clearly just how into the whole underground I was, how enthralled I was with computers: it never even dawned on me to pursue her in the sexual sense! And I wasn't exactly a stranger to that sort of thing... it just never crossed my mind because I was far more interested in getting into her software archives than I was in getting into her pants! She wasn't especially attractive as I recall, but of course we all know that makes precisely zero difference to a teenage boy! In any case, it had nothing to do with my lack of interest in that respect.
As a quick aside, The Lost Caverns, as with most BBS's, had its share of assholes too. Two in particular, Airborne and The Incubus, got under the skin of myself and my best friend at the time who was going by the name of The Green Beret (we were both big into war because both his father and mine were veterans who made sure we heard all the good war stories). The four of us had an "incident", shall we say, and I remember the root cause of it very clearly: they claimed that Luke Skywalker would have kicked Han Solo's ass, pre-Return Of the Jedi. Now, that is CLEARLY a ridiculous assertion, we all know Han would wipe the floor with the kid, at least before he hooked up with Yoda, and even after that I'm not so sure. I kid you not, that was the reason it all started! We argued on the message forums for quite a while, and then a line was crossed at one point and it had to be settled the only way it could: a good old-fashioned fist fight! So, we set up a day and time where we would meet them at Argyle Lake, a little park in Babylon on Long Island. Well, one thing our dads had taught us was never go into a battle with less resources than you need to decisively win. So, not only did the two of us show up, but we brought along three of our friends! Now, The Green Beret and I were fairly intimidating physically at that time anyway, so seeing us, flanked by three other guys, was a pretty frightening sight. The two guys we were meeting saw us, we saw them, and they turned and high-tailed it out of there. Even though we were actually looking forward to the fight (and even intended it to be two on two, at least initially), we got a good laugh out of how it turned out, and those two were never seen on any local BBS again, at least not under their original names. Incidents like that were not exactly rare back in the day either!
Back to the leeching... over the course of a few weeks, she and I swapped software, although it was a fairly one-way deal: I was the leech. The term "leech" did (and still does in some circles) refer to a person who took software without giving anything back. In other words, it is a one-sided deal. Back in the days of 300-1200 baud modems and downloads that took the better part of a day to complete; leeching was something that was greatly frowned upon. In fact, the only things I really gave her were some demos I had written, which were pretty crappy at that point, but as it turns out, that (read: programming ability) was the best kind of currency I could have had to trade.
You see, getting involved in "the scene", that part of the underground involved in software piracy (there where and still are other scenes, like the demo scene for instance, but at that point in time, the scene really referred to pirates) involved having one of three things: the ability to code and/or crack, the ability to supply new or even unreleased software (nearly always games) or a lot of stuff to trade. I didn't have the second option, but the first I did, and the third I acquired as a result of my dealings with The Flying Dutchman.
So, armed with a few hundred 5.25" floppies stuffed with all the latest games, I was on my way to getting into the good graces of the right people. The programming ability, although I didn't realize it at the time, was the far more valuable asset in my repertoire. The software though, that would allow me to make connections, network with the right people, so that my programming skills could be shown and eventually gain me entrance into the community of pirates.
Let me be clear that I did not have a master plan here... I didn't know what I was getting into! I knew that I liked having all the latest games, not so much to play because in fact there were only a handful of games I played on a regular basis, but more because it frankly allowed me to appear "cool" to others: people wanted to trade with me all of a sudden! *I* was the one with the archives that the leeches wanted to raid, *I* was the one people were coming to in order to ingratiate themselves with someone they perceived as being a player. At that point though, I most certainly was not! I had simply had the fortune to live near someone who herself had contacts, and who for whatever reason decided to "throw me a bone" essentially. Beyond wanting to appear cool though, I didn't understand the pirate scene. I wasn't actually interested in pirating anything, and at that time I didn't even understand the consequences of what I was doing... so what if I had a copy of Impossible Mission I didn't pay for? What harm could that possibly do?!? Things have changed though... although I do look back fondly on that time for many reasons, I am not proud of some of the things I did because I now realize they were wrong.
Around this time I joined a group called WSOW, which stood for We Sharez Our Warez. Yeah, it's pretty silly! Just in case you aren't aware, the term "warez" is the term which, still to this day, is applied to illicit software. This group, as the name suggests, was all about trading warez between its members. It was run by, to the best of my memory anyway, a user under the name Ladyhawk, who was in fact the SysOp of one of the bigger BBS's on Long Island. I recall meeting her around that time at a picnic she organized for the group... as I hope you can see on your own, things were different in terms of socialization then. How many picnics have you been to that were organized by your friends on MySpace? Back then though, this sort of thing was not out of the ordinary (given some of the things that have gone on with MySpace that is probably a very good thing!)
Anyway, I did an "intro for WSOW, which was the first true intro I ever did (the first one that was actually used and distributed anyway). An intro was, and actually still is, a short program that announces who cracked the software, and/or distributed it. It was truly a piece of crap, but it did the job... it was just a big picture of the starship Enterprise (NCC-1701, the original) with a scroller underneath, which actually was pushed down mostly out of view because I coded it wrong!
But, it did get me recognized by a few people, which is what mattered.
Around this time a few friends at school started to have the same interests as me. I was pretty clearly the top of the food chain though, and I don't say that as a boast, it was just obviously the case. For instance, I was the one everyone came to when they wanted the latest game. I was leaps and bounds ahead of anyone else coding-wise (it's interesting in retrospect that until the day I graduated high school, only two or three other students in the entire school showed any real interest in programming, and they were simply not on my level... I wonder what they're doing today??) But, a couple of us got together and started our very own pirate group called The CPCC, The Computer Program Countermeasure Crackers. At this time I was calling myself Syntax 2010. If you by chance remember the group The Dynamic Duo, you may recall that in most of the credit scrolls they greeted someone named Syntax 2001. Well, that wasn't me! But, I thought that was about the coolest name I ever heard, so ripping it off seemed the obvious course. I figured I would be better than that guy in the end though, so I should have a higher number! And so, Syntax 2010 was born. Of course, I can't deny that I knew some people wouldn't recognize the different between 2001 and 2010 in a scroller and would think the Dynamic Duo was greeting me, and I'd get a bit of a rub from that.
Remember, I said I didn't have a plan early on, but I started to form one after a while!
CPCC meant nothing obviously, we just put some words together that we thought sounded kind of cool and went with it. What's even funnier though is we released exactly two games, neither of which actually required any cracking! One was Nuclear War, a neat little game where you fly your nuclear bomber deep into Soviet territory and strike targets (it was a word game actually, with just some sparse graphics, but it was really pretty intense if you role-played it). The other I don't recall, but it had no copy protection, so we in fact cracked nothing! And to boot, it wasn't distributed very far outside our own little circle anyway, maybe a handful of people outside school got a copy of either. A pretty pointless exercise ultimately, but it was my first true exposure to a pirate group (WSOW was just a trading group remember, something totally different).
Around that time I started running my own BBS, for a few months anyway. Most BBS's had dedicated phone lines, but a few ran only certain hours of the day. Mine was of the later variety. It ran on software called C-Net BBS 10.0. C-Net was far and away the most popular BBS of all time. Version 10.0 always had a special place in my heart because it was incredibly easy to modify and make unique. Many people like 12.0 better because some capabilities were introduced that allowed you to do a bit more customization through options, but I preferred 10.0 because you could get in there and twiddle bits a lot easier (more of it was written in BASIC). The problem with my BBS though was that it was supposed to be up from 6pm to 6pm, Monday through Friday. Unfortunately, if one person posts the number on another BBS, and neglects to post the hours and days, your mom tended to get rather angry at picking up call after call where the squealing of a modem on the other end killed her ear. It took me a few months to get all mention of my BBS removed from all the other BBS's, but we still got the occasional modem call for probably two years after that anyway!
A short while after this I met some guys on a local BBS called The Zimmerman Note. One of those people was a guy named Zukof from a group called UCF, United Cracker Force. This was a group based in London, England who had a supplier at a software store who would give them copies of software shortly before they went on the shelves. Zukof and his group would crack them and distribute them. But, for a long time, they were only active in London. They needed someone in the United States to "import" their warez. Importing was another activity that after a while became probably the more dominant thing for pirate groups in the U.S. to do. At least, that was my impression at the time.
I hooked up with Zukof to be the importer for UCF warez, but I knew I couldn't do it alone, so I enlisted the help of another guy I had met on the boards (BBS's) named Infiltrator. He lived just a few towns over from me and we actually become rather good friends in general, but I'll get to him a bit more later! Infiltrator and I, along with another guy named Comrex, formed a group called Newage. I felt a name change was in order at this point as well, so I started going by the handle Fantasy at this point, and that's what I was known as for the rest of my days on the scene.
Newage became the exclusive U.S. imported of UCF warez. However, there was a bit of a problem... Zukof was the only member of UCF who had a modem (they were apparently rather hard to come by across the pond) and it was an (even at that time!) ancient 300-baud model. For a few months it was very slow going as Zukof and I connected so he could send new releases to me. We were using calling card numbers obtained from various boards, so the phone calls were free (well, sort of... I'll get to that too!)
As you can imagine, we finally got rather sick of the long downloads, frequent disconnections in the middle, and all those sorts of problems. I somehow managed to save enough money to buy the brand-new 2400-baud modem, so my 1200-baud model was freed up. So, a three-mile bike ride down to the post office in the middle of sweltering summer heat, and Zukof had himself a new modem! Trading went a lot better after that.
It wasn't without its problems though... remember I said we were using calling card numbers (phreaking) to talk to each other? Well, unfortunately for me, I wasn't always as smart about it as I could have been. I was never really into the whole "hacker" scene... I didn't spend much time trying to break into systems (although I did get into a few early on), I was never big into hacking (although I did write a popular program called The Hack Pack, which was just a collection of various utility programs like tone generators, a war dialer, an automated crank calling program, and more), and I wasn't one of the people who pulled the old "abandoned house" trick... if you don't know what that is, basically, you get a credit card number, whether you use a program to generate them or just get them off certain forums on a BBS where you could get such things, and you ordered stuff. At that time you couldn't just go newegg.com or dell.com and order stuff, it was all over the phone or mail order. What you would do is find yourself an abandoned house somewhere... it took some doing, and it helped if you were old enough to drive, or had an accomplice who was old enough. Sometimes you might use the house of someone you didn't like when you knew their family would be on vacation, but that was considerably trickier to get away with, so an abandoned house was what you really wanted. Anyway, you would tell the company you bought from that you would be out of town for a while and please have the items left under the stairs, or in a shed out back, or something of that nature. I know some people that did this rather frequently and actually went through the trouble of fixing up the exterior of the house just enough to make it look more legitimate! In any case, you checked every day for your items, and that's how many people got all the computer gear they had back then! I was personally always too nervous to try this, which is why I never had the best gear.
But I was talking about phreaking, so let's get back to that. One night, about two in the morning, I was talking to Zukof, when the connection was disconnected. So, I hung up for a few seconds, and the phone rang. Odd, since I was the one who always initiated the call. I picked it up and was shocked to hear someone other than Zukof on the line. Understand that at 2am, in my parents' house, no one else would be calling, so I immediately knew something was wrong. I don't recall exactly what the voice said, but I remember that it only took a few seconds of listening to realize it was someone I didn't want to be talking to: some sort of law enforcement agent! A few seconds later the phone rang again, and I very quickly picked up, hung up, and then frantically ran around the house disconnecting all the phones, all the while hoping my parents wouldn't wake up. They fortunately didn't, so I was able to move on to step two: a "hacker bonfire".
You see, hackers, or anyone doing something they know they shouldn't be doing, tend to leave themselves a way out. Remember that digital storage back then wasn't what it was today, so you tended to print out a lot more stuff. Things like your current list of still active calling card numbers, names and numbers of your contacts, all sorts of things like that, you usually had a folder or two in a draw somewhere with that stuff on it, and you did that for one important reason: so that in a pinch, you could quickly burn it all. So, into the back yard I went, lighter and lighter fluid in hand, and I torched everything I had.
The next day, my mother got a phone call. I had a bit of an intuition about the call; as soon as it rang I "sensed" what it was. Eh, it was pretty much inevitable anyway I suppose! I remember my mother's side of the conversation pretty well... "Yes, my son was home last night". (I'm waving my arms at this point trying to get her to say no) "Yes, he has a computer" (me frantically mouthing "No!!" "No!!") "Yes, he has a modem". Bzzt. I knew that was the end of it. I also remember an exasperated yell from my mother of "$96,000 dollars?!?" At that point, my life flashed before my eyes. As it ultimately turned out, a couple of the calling cards I had been using were owned by corporate executives of a company in Manhattan. Fortunately for me, those numbers were being used by a ton of people for a few weeks before anyone noticed, and they rang up a $96,000 phone bill. Ouch! Thankfully, I was one of the smallest offenders, and the person my mother had talked to, who wound up being someone from the security department of MCI, said because I was a minor they wouldn't press charges as long as the portion of the bill that was traced to my parents' phone number was paid: $728. Whew, big sigh of relief! Of course, I got my ass kicked anyway, and it took a while to repay my parents, but it could have been so much worse.
Actually, it was a bit worse because I lost quite a fair amount of contact info in the bonfire, and it took me a while to regain most of it. I'll tell you this though, from that point on I never, used a calling card again! But, even though I didn't directly do the "bad" stuff after that (well, except for one incident that I'll get to shortly), it didn't stop my involvement in various groups. In fact, I wound up doing a bit of "group-hoping" for a while shortly after that.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. One story that has to be told is the one I alluded to a moment ago. I was 16 years old around this time, and I got a part-time job in the computer section of Sears in the local mall. A friend of the family's sister was a manager in the department, so she got me in. It was a really good gig at the time. The hourly pay wasn't great, but I was commissioned, so I pulled down some good change sometimes. It was far better than delivering newspapers, or mowing the lawn at the Cadillac dealership with The Green Beret (his dad was the shop manager there and had been giving us some weekend work for a while). However, the lure of the software was too great! For a while I was in the habit of taking any software that was returned, and making copies of it before restocking it. After a while though, I moved on to actually opening packages and making copies. Hey, it was an easy way to supply the group with some warez to release! But, as a 16-year old you're pretty stupid frankly, and it didn't occur to me that security might just be watching me. One day I get called down to the security office, with the store manager there. He has in his hands some floppies that I quickly recognized as some I had copied and hid in the back to take with me when I left that night. He asked me what they were. I tried to talk my way out of it with some lame story about how they were utilities I used to test returned software. They play me the video tape they had recorded over the security cameras, and it was more than obvious what I was doing: the frequent swapping of floppies that was required to copy games with Fast Hack'em back them was unmistakable, and the manager wasn't entirely uneducated in the ways of the pirate I think! Anyway, needless to say, that was my last day of work at Sears. They were nice enough to not press any charges, just being fired was sufficient. And in fact it was: that was the last time I ever even thought about doing anything but writing intros for groups. That incident, plus the phone bill incident, was more than enough to, more or less, set me straight.
As a matter of fact, that single incident, with the phone bill incident still fresh in my mind too, I think in a way saved me because after that, and to this day, I haven't engaged in any sort of activity like that. Even though I had probably cracked less than 10 games in my life to that point, supplied a handful and imported a bunch, I never cracked another one after that, and I never personally imported any more warez. I was basically just an intro/demo coder after that (which I suppose is still aiding and abetting technically, but it never seemed wrong to me). I'm not sure what I would have been doing had these two incidents not taken place, so in a very real sense, I'm glad they happened.
Back to the importing scene though... about that time, Comrex made some contacts with some other famous groups of the day: Fairlight and Triad. We began to import warez from them as well (although not exclusively as with UCF). This was a big boost, but even still we were a relatively small-time group. Even still, we managed to get into a scuffle with one of the larger groups, NPN, which stood for National Pirates Network. It was a relatively minor scuffle, and I couldn't even guess what it was about after all these years! The irony though is that a year or two later, I actually joined NPN for a little while!
One scuffle that was quite a bit larger though was with a group called RCI, and I'm not sure I *ever* knew what that stood for! I remember spending an entire weekend though putting together a frankly pretty killer demo that just raged on them mercilessly. In this case though, I actually do recall the reason for the scuffle: they ripped off one of my intros, and to make it worse, claimed that I didn't write my own raster bar code!
Raster bars was a way of generating bands of color, normally rotating in some fashion, by carefully manipulating the background and/or border colors of the screen. The timing had to be just right so that you actually changed only the colors of certain lines on the screen as the raster beam scanned the picture onto the phosphor of the screen, hence the name raster bars.
Now, I knew full well I had written my own code, and I knew this because a guy by the name of Changeling (yes, the one from FBR) had taught me a lot of what I knew about coding, and the way he did it was to never actually give me code, no matter how much I begged for it! He would give me tips, point me in the right direction, and then tell me to go experiment for a while. At the time it annoyed me, but it was the best thing he could have done for me! I finally did manage to write my own code, and I understood it inside and out. The guys at RCI couldn't say the same thing, and they blatantly ripped off my intro. It was very obvious just by looking at it, but examining the code removed any doubt whatsoever. It was literally byte for byte the same for large portions of it. Not at all a cool thing to do, and it degenerated into quite the pissing match on the boards. The RCI Sucks demo that I threw together was also pretty harsh, and was a suitably impressive piece of coding that no one questioned who was in the right. Newage gained quite a following from that incident, and for a while we were on top of the world... not in the sense of being the biggest group, but we enjoyed an excellent reputation and definitely seemed to be growing. A few other members joined, and we were working with a few other groups...
...but, like a good rock band, we found a way to tear ourselves apart in the end.
Keeping in mind that this is something like 20 years ago (it's amazingly difficult to believe I just typed that!), please excuse me when I say I have no recollection of why the group split up. In fact, I know that Infiltrator and I were still great friends for years after that (although we both went on to other groups and other activities, I continued programming while he got more into the admin and security role), and I don't recall actually having a falling out with anyone. It may well have been that we each just explored other opportunities for ourselves, much like the guitar player that starts devoting more of their time to their solo project. I'm not sure. But in any case, we all in fact did move on to other things.
Speaking of Infiltrator... let me tell you a little more about him, since I said I would! Infiltrator had a sister who we always made fun of. I don't know why, we just did. This is relevant for exactly no reason whatsoever, but I wanted to mention it anyway. What is somewhat relevant is the fact that we used to have "weird nights". This was where one of us would sleep over the others' house, usually me over his because I was a little older than him and had my permit, so I could get to his house. I feel compelled at this point to mention that neither of us were (or are!) homosexual... not that there's anything wrong with that. Of course not! But we weren't, and still are not. Anyway... we would then go rent the very oddest movies we could find at the video store (which was some neighborhood store back then)... just to give you some examples that I remember: Liquid Sky, Naked Lunch, Eraserhead, Videodrome, movies like that We would buy a ton of Coke and Chocodiles and Doritos. We would then log on to a good distro BBS where we had unlimited credits, because back then, you usually had to upload before you could download, and your upload size determined how many download credits you got... all of which was an attempt to discourage leeching and keep any one person from hogging the line to the BBS for too long, and proceeded to leech anyway!
You see, one of the ways you knew who was "elite" was who had unlimited credits to certain BBS's. If you were able to log on to some of the bigger name BBS's, like The Lost Caverns, Colorgard, The Darkness Beyond The Light, and others, and have unlimited credits, you were elite in most peoples' eyes. You usually got unlimited credits either (a) through name recognition, or (b) physically meeting someone, usually a SysOp (System Operator, one who runs a BBS) and allowing them to leech off of you. Remember early on when the SysOp of The Lost Caverns cut me a break and let me leech all her warez? Well, that was a stepping stone... I was then able to let another SysOp of another BBS leech off me, and they repaid me by giving me unlimited credits on their board. So, they posted all that cool software, which got people to upload more, which of course I got leech since I never had to upload. Then you go do the same with the SysOp of another BBS, and so on, and that's how you wound up being able to download whatever you want from wherever you want. Name recognition worked a little better later on... we would both be able to usually go on any BBS we wanted and just request unlimited credits and get it. Even still, that trade game is what was used most of the time.
Anyway, before the movies and junk food started, we got logged on to a good distro site, and basically checked off just about every new bit of warez that was posted. Infiltrator's family was a little better off than mine because he had himself a kick-ass 4800-baud v.42bis Zoom modem. Now, those mean nothing to most of you youngun's, but trust me, that was the equivalent of having a T1 in your house today! It was absolutely killer speed. Even still, it took hours to download all those warez, hence the reason "weird nights" began in the first place: we needed something to do while our long downloads went on, and as I mentioned we weren't homosexuals, so we needed something to occupy our time with! Well, aside from making fun of his sister that is.
Anyway, back to what was going on at the time...
I moved between a few groups after that. Lethal (LTL) was one. America's Most Wanted (AMW) was another. As I previously mentioned, NPN for a little while. BMI was another (although I don't remember what that stood for, and it was for a very short time). SFI and TEA were two others. I also was one of the founding members of Exodus, which is something that kind of annoyed me because myself and two guys named Vector and Powerforce (Powerforce was one of the later members of Newage as well) founded the group, put everything in place for it, and just generally got the ball rolling. However, after a few weeks, those guys suddenly stopped calling me (yes, I said calling... back then, telephone was still probably the most common way to communicate with your group mates). I never knew why, but Exodus started releasing quite a bit of warez, using intros by Freddy Krueger, instead of the three I had written (and which were frankly quite a bit better), and I was dropped from the member list. I remember that pissed me off for a while... I was largely responsible for putting the group together after all! Such was life back then: backstabbing was as much a part of it all as friendship was, as usually the people doing the backstabbing WERE your friends!
But, that passed pretty quickly because around this time I began playing with PC's, and started to fade from the C64 scene entirely. The last thing I recall doing was a neat little demo called Aura with Infiltrator.
By the way, if you want to have a fun little scavenger hunt, try and dig up that demo, as well as the others I did: Fantasy World, Stetsa and RCI Sucks (and I think there was one more, but even *I* don't remember it at this point!). Fantasy World has one scroller where I more or less give play-by-play of a 14-inning game between the Mets and Phillies (the Mets won!). Stetsa is kind of interesting because the last page of it was actually one the first, and maybe even *the* first, example of 3D programming in a demo. There was plenty after that, and plenty that blows it away, but I don't recall seeing anything like it before, so I'm sticking to my story! Oh and how's this for the biggest tangent ever? The name Stetsa I got from the rap group Stetsasonic. Yes, I was big into rap in the 80's. Also a breakdancer. I was also a fairly accomplished DJ, all of which my parents couldn't stand.
The scene, the underground, whatever name you attach to it, there will never be anything like it again. There was a certain degree of innocence about it all, even though the activities were largely illegal. No one really understood that because most of us were still living at home trying to get through primary school! We had no larger world view to place the activities in context, no moral compass to tell us it was wrong. It was just fund, and that's all we cared about!
The relationships you formed, which really was at the core of it all, is something you simply don't get nowadays. Oh, the technology now is light-years ahead of what we had back then, and because of it you meet a lot more people in places much further then before, and it's all so easy... but there is a certain intimacy that existed back then that is just plain missing most of the time today. What is it they say? The world is so much smaller than it used to be, yet there is more distance between people then ever before.
But, the interesting thing is that much of what existed back then still exists today, but in a morphed form. The whole idea of pushing the boundaries of the technology is one such thing. I remember the first time I discovered a BBS that had more than a single phone line connected to it! Wow! You could actually chat with one or two other people live! The only person you could chat live with before then was the SysOp. It was a revelation! The modems got faster and faster, but ironically the computer remained basically the same through all that time.
The Commodore 64, and the community it spawned, has never since been duplicated, only imitated, and usually only a pale imitation at that. It was all about people. Not the abstract representations of people we all deal with on the Internet these days. It's so easy to forget there is a real person behind the words you read nowadays. Back then though, chances are you met at least some of the people you dealt with.
Did you notice how many individuals I mentioned here? And did you notice how many of them I actually new personally and called friend? That right there is the key to what was different then. It wasn't just eMails between you and someone in Malaysia that you would never meet. These were people you went to school with, people you met at various user group meetings, people you wound up hanging out with entirely outside the realm of computers.
For instance, at one point I became a Co-SysOp of The Darkness beyond the Light BBS. I remember a few nights the SysOp, Dr. Pepper, and I, spent all night working on modifications for the BBS. Then, the next day, after getting very little sleep, we walked about five miles to the next town over and met up with two girls we had met on the BBS. We would up dating these girls for a few weeks, and I don't think we once talked about computers after the first time we met them.
For those of us that lived that life all those years ago, it played a part in defining who we are today. Most of us have moved on long ago from the illicit activities, but the curiosity remains, the love of the technology remains. We now know that there are ways to push the boundaries without doing "bad" things. Some haven't learned that of course, which is sad, but such is life. The cogent point is that if you recall those days, if any of what I have written brings back even a single memory, then you know full-well that what we had was unique, and will never exist again. It lives only in us.
...but only in our Recollections.