8bitrocket Diatribe: Fathers’ Day 2011: The Adventure Freak and his Little Atari Freaks

It has been a little over two weeks since our dad passed away. I have found it difficult to focus on any one thing for an extended amount of time since, and while  the fog is certainly lifting a little, I have not found the motivation to dig deep into my HTML5 Centipede game, do game reviews, or mash-up interesting topics on the web. That stuff may come back to the site soon, or it might not come back at all. That’s cool though, and change or no change; evolution, stasis or devolution; entropy or wither, there will always be something new or interesting going on to cover or accomplish. It just isn’t happening right here, right this moment, but it could start up any minute, or not. There certainly are other directions we can go in or not go in. We could create a Who’s Next 2, or we could create a Who Are You?. Either would be cool, but maybe it is the journey that will be the best part and not the final product. That being said…

Here’s a little Father’s Day Diatribe

The Adventure Freak and his little Atari Freaks
Way back in 1981 our dad set us on the track to become what ever it is we have become when he showed us an ad for the Atari 800 computer in a local newspaper. A friend of his at work had one and he had piqued dad’s interest with stories of virtual cave exploration and battles with bears and other wild beasts. I assume the game he was describing was Zork I, but we didn’t know it then. The game didn’t matter, what mattered was that the emerging technology and my dad’s need for adventure had converged right at a that moment in time.

Dad’s entire life was filled with a juxtaposition of adventure and boredom.  His early passions were in mountaineering and rock mining gave way to enduro desert motocross racing and off the beaten path gold panning / ghost town site exploration. The boredom was focused around his desk jobs at Litton, TRW, and Hughes Aircraft where he parlayed his Master Of Fine Arts degree into a respectable career as en electro-optical designer and engineer. While he was not very interested in the actual work, he loved to draw and design.  So, his job, while boring to him in subject matter and rote machinations, provided him the ability to get paid to do something he liked…drawing.

But what dad really loved was to be outside. He set up a sort of mechanical workshop / laboratory in the garage where he spent most of his rare free time tinkering with this or that.   The garage was filled with his adventure gear, motorcycles and other assorted instruments  to fight boredom. He always had fire crackers or an air-gun ready for a little extra-curricular fun and he was always planning out his next adventure. His vacations were to take Steve and I out desert motorcycling riding or on wild camping trips along Northern California rivers where we would meet a host of odd, sometimes scary, but always interesting characters and places.

None of the things my dad wanted to do were in any normal tourist magazine or book. He ordered government topographical maps and painstakingly researched locations for exploration down to the exact quarter mile by quarter mile quadrant where a historical sight might have existed in the past. Our trips always had an old mining camp, mill, or ghost town involved, and the adventure was always mapped out in the greatest of detail. Hikes or drives along rugged roads always ended at some exciting abandoned site that dad had read about.  The trip lengths were generally far too short to accomplish everything dad had planned, but we always had a blast before going back to boredom of real life.

When Steve and I started our own families and could not devote as much of our time to his adventures, dad found a group of enthusiastic miners and outdoors-men to go 4x4ing with (he was in his 70’s at the time). They visited even more outlaying desert ghost towns and old mining camps.  He always told us that we were going to have to deal with A LOT of Boredom in our lives and we could tell that he was talking from experience. Dad knew exactly what fought his boredom – planning and then executing his outdoor adventures.

So, why would a guy like this be so taken with a description of a computer text adventure in 1981? I think to dad video games were pretty boring, but the ability to have the virtual adventure, described to him by a fellow adventurer motorcycle buddy,  must have really sparked his interest.  This adventure  was completely different than the simple tank and pong games he saw us playing on the TV.  An adventure in the computer that could be even better than his own planned excursions must of seemed like Nirvana to him at the time.

The Atari 800 computer was pretty expensive back then. A fully outfitted machine was close to $1500 and not really in his budget.  Steve and I became very enthused about the computer though and put it high on our list of priorities. We started to check Atari programming books out from the library and design our own games on paper before we ever had a machine. It would be at least 3 years before that expensive machine would come into our home, and during that time we envisioned our own computer adventures that were every bit as real as the ones dad was taking us on in the wild.  Not to say that we were designing actual adventure games (I’m sure we did so some of that), but we were putting the same painstaking, boredom-fighting time into planning what we would do with the Atari computer, when we obtained one,  that dad put into planning out his next set of real-life adventures.

Eventually he would buy a used Atari 800 and a full set of gear for cash deal from a co-worker. The funny thing is, he never once touched the machine. I think Steve and I did demo it for him a number of times and show him games, but as computers were starting to enter his work-place, he began to see them as boredom creators not the awesome boredom fighter  / adventure-in-a-box that his mind envisioned upon hearing tales of cave exploring, monster fighting computer sessions from his work buddies.  He was an adventure freak and he had created two Atari Freaks with his early passion and support of our computing dream. He saw that passion in us and bought the computer even though he no longer felt the same way about it. While Steve and I absolutely loved going on Dad’s real-life adventures, we were always sure to being along an Atari computer magazine or book to entertain us when the adventures came to a lull.  It was all fun to us, so we didn’t realize it then, but we were subtly merging both types of adventures in ways that dad never expected or maybe intended.

Pop’s skill at planning and executing rubbed off on us in the unexpected way of giving us the example of the passion we would need to be successful in the computer generation we were about to enter. He never once asked us why we wanted to explore the computer as much or more than we wanted to go on his adventures. He could see that his enthusiasm had been the spark that ignited a full blown computer freakdom in his boys.  I think he was both awed by the technology and happy that even though he found it to be a boredom creator, he knew that that the mastery of it would be important for us in the future.  He used to call us “Atari Freaks” as a genuine term of endearment.

In the mid-80’s I found him in his room one day studying a large binder that his work had given him. In it was a full description of a new CAD drawing program that they wanted him to learn. His eyes looked glazed over as he told me that most of the designers were having their physical drawing boards taken away to be replaced by computers and software CAD programs. While the sound of this excited Steve and I, dad was pretty upset about it.  I didn’t understand it then, but now I can see that the last remaining fun part of dad’s job was being driven away from him by the very same technology he thought would open up new adventures for him just a few years before.  The same technology that excited us and gave us a direction and purpose for our own computer adventures was strangling the last breath of interest from his day job.

A few weeks later, Dad came home with an Atari 800XL of his own in what I assume was an attempt to find that passion he once briefly had for the computer. Steve and I gave him Zork I, II, and III, as well as a chess game. He must have tried them all a few times, but eventually the computer became covered with books on gold mining, ghost towns, and California / Nevada maps. He was literally covering up the symbol of his boredom boredom with something that really excited him.  Dad would retire a few years later and only touch a computer a few times at Steve or my house to play motocross games on the PC or Playstation. We would buy him a few PC computers over the years, but  they all would end up just like the  Atari, covered in his real boredom fighters.

After the final, barely used, machine was put into the garage in about 1999, he never owned another computer.  He never went on the internet and never read one of our web sites or played any of our games.  He had no desire for these types of adventures as the real ones he had experienced and hoped to experience were the source of his passion and excitement. In the last 10 years, while dad’s heath had been failing, he would have found an adventure planning treasure trove on the internet. If he was still able to plan and go on adventures, the computer systems of today might have proven to be the absolute best boredom fighter he could have found. Or would they? Dad loved the tactile feel of the books and maps, so would the virtual version have been as interesting to him? Maybe so, maybe not.  In any case, he was able to instill in us the need for adventure and the need to not stay satisfied with boredom.  He had an outsider spirit and drive that we have taken to heart and will always take to heart.  His passion helped fuel ours and it was the best gift he could have ever given.

I wonder what affect my passion for planning and making computer games, writing books, and spewing all of it out on the infobaun will have on my two boys. I can only hope that I can have the same impact that my pop had on Steve and I. He loved to experience everything first hand and was not satisfied with a 3rd party account. Dad’s hatred of being behind that desk and his love of planning and executing his out door adventures made him an adventure freak and he spawned two little Atari Freaks. I think all three of us were happy with the way things turned out.  Whatever types of little freaks I help create, I’m sure I will be happy with the way things will turn out too.

Happy Fathers’ day to all the fathers out there, and especially to those who have lost a father, son or daughter.  Hopefully you have been inspired by your father or will, as a father, inspire your sons and daughters with your passion what ever it might be.

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