Growing up, my family got its first personal computer (a boxy, off-white Epson machine) around 1990. I remember the excruciating wait for it to be delivered. After we ordered it and before it arrived, my dad took me to the home of a dude who sold pirated software on floppy disks. I scooped up King’s Quest III, Bard’s Tale, Ultima IV, and a number of other gems, all for pennies on the dollar. My primary interest in using the Epson, really my only interest, was to play these games.
Unfortunately, my previous experience with computers had been with Apples and Commodores, and I was unfamiliar with MS-DOS. I didn’t understand that simply putting a floppy in the disk drive and turning on the power switch wouldn’t fly with a DOS machine.
And so after all that anticipation, I sat in front of the artless, boxy sprawl, fury and heartbreak mounting as I couldn’t get any of the games to work. Fumbling through one of the DOS manuals that came with the computer, I saw an entry about “formatting disks.” “Ah-ha!” I thought. Maybe that was the key!
Needless to say, after formatting my pile of games, they not only weren’t working post boot-up, but I’d deleted all the data off the disks as well.
Eventually I figured out what was up with MS-DOS and the concept of entering commands at the C:\ prompt, but by then, without games, I’d lost interest in the machine.
A few days later though I was lying on the couch in our living room, leafing through a fanzine dedicated to Robert Aspirin’s farcical “Myth Adventures” fantasy series. At the back of the zine was an ad for a “Myth Adventures Bulletin Board System” and a 707 area code phone number.
Living in the 707 area, the ad caught my eye. It must have included details about using a computer and a modem to connect to the system, because even though I had no idea what a Bulletin Board System (BBS) or modem was, I remembered seeing mention of a “modem” in our computer’s manual and decided to check it out.
Back in front of the Epson for round two, and now knowing how to load software, I started up the program that came with the modem, entered the Myth Adventures BBS phone number, listened to a dialing sound following by a weird screechy, crackling noise, and saw text streaming across the monitor announcing that I was connected to the Myth Adventures BBS.
I still wasn’t quite sure what I’d stumbled across, but it was amazing. Sitting in my parents’ room, without going to a store or ordering anything by mail or over the phone, I was receiving Myth Adventures content on my screen.
I navigated the menu, found some text files to read, but then more interestingly found a command that would allow me to “page a system operator (sysop).”
This was too good. In my mind, I’d come across a fully-staffed Myth Adventures themed wonderland. The “sysop” was probably someone you could page to talk with about the awesomeness of the series! And so I paged him or her. And I paged him or her again. And again. And again. All to no effect.
At some point I got disconnected. This is when I discovered that the modem needed our home phone line to call out, and couldn’t handle a voice call being made somewhere else in the house at the same time.
I waited for my mom to get off the phone in the kitchen and called the Myth Adventures BBS yet again. I kept paging the sysop for awhile, until I found another command to send an “email” to this person. I carefully composed an email (my first!), explaining who I was and that I’d been unable to successfully page a sysop. Then I paged a few more times before moving on to something else.
Later that day I called back. I had a reply to my email! It was a curt admonishment informing me that the Myth Adventures BBS was a volunteer run operation, that the sysop was just a person with a PC and modem like myself, was not always available when paged, and by the way, could I please try to spend less time on the BBS, because only one person was able to call in at a time and I was making it impossible for other users to get on.
I felt a hormonal, pre-teen mixture of humiliation, rage, indignation, and mortification at this response. I’d show them! They’d be sorry! And I never frequented the Myth Adventures BBS again. I had, however, printed out a directory of other local BBSes that I’d found on the Myth Adventures board, and so this time, with a better understanding of what a BBS was, I licked my wounds and started calling around.
As the weeks went by I got the lay of the 707-area-code-BBS land. Our local BBSes ranged from those totally dedicated to the tech side of modems and computing (which didn’t interest me at all), to those dedicated to discussion boards (which interested me somewhat), to those that hosted text adventure games and borderline porn (which interested me quite a bit), and finally to one in particular dedicated to “interactive fiction” (which interested me the most).
This interactive fiction BBS, MetropoliS, became the focal point for the rest of my BBS-frequenting career. It was run on an Atari computer and operated out of an apartment by a father and his teenage son. The traditional BBS message board areas were here different neighborhoods of a fictional city, MetropoliS, that housed everything from sci-fi to fantasy to cartoonish comedy to comic book superheroes and all points in between.
Each user created a fictional character and made posts describing their actions in MetropoliS as story arcs evolved, and basically the best game of D&D-meets-the Marvel Super Heroes RPG-meets-Teenagers From Outer Space ever (sans any pesky rules or dice) went down for several years.
During the course of my “modeming,” I read that a group called MORE (Modem Users of the Redwood Empire) met once a month at a local Round Table Pizza. By this time some of my friends had also started modeming, and we decided to go to a meeting to check it out.
What we found in the smoke-filled Round Table Pizza party room was an eclectic group of both adults and kids our own age, united by a pastime of using computers to talk with one another about the things that interested them. This pastime brought people together who might not have met otherwise, and established commonalities between people who on the surface had nothing in common at all. In the end, it was one of the most formative learning experiences of my then-young life.
It’s been over twenty years since I’ve seen most of the people from those MORE meetings, but I still remember them vividly. A couple remain lifelong friends. And, one of the few girls my age who attended the meetings, who I greeted the first time I met by making fun of her and joining her brother in dumping parmesan cheese in her hair, well, we’re married.
As the 1990’s moved on, the rag-tag group of local sites being run on a smattering of different BBS software began to give way to boards run with the program WWIV. Eventually these WWIV boards began to network with one another. This then gave way to Prodigy and AOL, while in the meantime I discovered punk rock music and decided the whole online/modeming thing had run its course. Apparently I wasn’t a very good prognosticator.
Still, in the midst of our contemporary online world of selfies and relfies and tl;dr, and the inevitable argument that virtual interaction is inherently vapid and impersonal, I always think back to my days with a 2400 baud modem and a list of 707 phone numbers to remind myself that our quality of life with others, online or face to face, is most often what we choose to make of it.