The Season 2 finale of Into The Vertical Blank. In this episode we pull out all the stops and explain exactly why Atari means so much to us. This honest, naked, all-cards-on-the-table, frank episode includes an Eponymous Story named “The Best #*@! Christmas Ever” that tells all. There is also discussion and a remix that incorporates the entirety of Season 2. This is probably not the final episode ever of Into The Vertical Blank, but if it was, we’d be satisfied that we achieved what we set out to do: exorcise the demons of our past and discover why we are here in the first place.
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The Best #*@! Christmas Ever
Part 1: The Future Calls
The first time I touched a computer I was 10 years old in 1980, at my friend Eric’s house who lived down the street.
Eric’s dad was manager at Hughes Aircraft, the same place my dad was a draftsman. They knew each other, but there was an obvious white collar/blue collar divide between them. My dad said Eric’s was “kicked upstairs” which I think implied he was incompentent (so they promoted him?) It always sounded like sour grapes on mydad’s part..
My dad was into dirt bikes and fixing cars. Eric’s dad was into technology, sci-fi and building his wife a kiln and his son a 2-story clubhouse.. My dad showed me how to fix a roof, do a brake job on Datsun 710 station , shoot guns, and how to set off fireworks without blowing my hand off. He never built my mom anything I recall, but he did once hang a tire from a tree so we could swing on it. My dad was into the Civil War, cowboys, ghost towns and discovering the past.
Eric’s dad showed me the future.
I can’t imagine why now, but Eric’s dad let my brother and I, a grimy set of twins with rat’s nest hair and thread-bare clothes, touch his shiny, brand-new Apple II computer. He let us play games like Ceiling Zero and Aztec, but he did something more. It was Eric’s dad who showed how to enter and execute our first real honest to God Apple BASIC code executing on its’ MOS technologies 6502 based-processor. It went something like this.
10 Print “Hello World”
20 goto 10
When the program ran, the rippling green phosphorescent text scrolled on the black background of the Apple II monitor.
It went on and on forever.
And It appeared to be the stuff of Gods to me.
By writing the code Eric’s dad showed us, then typing “run” hitting the [enter] key, we had, essentially, created what appeared to be, life itself.
And just like those same Gods, Eric’s dad showed us how to smite that life down with a simple CTRL+C.key press.
I was gobsmacked.
I was hooked.
Like a young blue whale that breached the water’s surface for the first time, my eyes instantly opened to world I had no concept of even existing before.
A world I never wanted to leave.
But a world I rarely got the chance to enter.
“You are going to end up on skid row”
My dad was serious.
My brother and I were 11 years old, listening to my dad as he drove the Datsun 710 station wagon to the Motel 6 in Escondido California. This type of weekend trip to Motel 6 would constitute our family summer vacations in totality for the next several years.
“If you don’t find a decent job, you will be living on the streets”
It was a scary thought, living on the streets. The hot, sticky vinyl of the Datsun seats that I hated so much, felt like a dream compared to how I imagine sleeping on a concrete sidewalk might feel.
In the summer of 1981, my brother and were video game obsessed twins who lived in a household that avoided or could not afford most modern technology and conveniences. My dad’s job at Hughes Aircraft was shaky, and we made ends meet based on how many overtime hours he was awarded there. This meant most luxuries were off the table.
It was lucky then, that my brother and I both loved arcade arcade games that we could play for 25 cents each. However, we also coveted the Atari VCS, a machine on which we could play unlimited video games, but was so far, not within our grasp. When we had money, we spent most of it at the arcade or in shop fronts, playing those coin operated video games. Most of the time those games were made by one company: the aforementioned VCS creator, Atari. We taught ourselves to make a single credit of an open-ended game like Atari Asteroids last as long as possible. When we were not in the arcade, we were on the lookout for any kind of video games, favoring the Atari VCS systems set-up in the TV departments of various stores like Fedmart, Gemco and Sears. When we found one, we could play a few rounds before the salesmen ran us off.
He would usually oblige.
“You can’t make the same mistakes I made” my dad continued. We had listened to his conversations enough to know exactly what he was talking about.
Our father had a degree in Fine Art from Syracuse University, and after spending 25 years trying to land acting roles in TV, he now held a job doing drafting work for an Aerospace company. , If anyone did, my dad knew the value of not wasting a college education.
But he also constantly complained about his job, and warned us about getting into a bad work situation
“Most of your work lives will be spent dealing with boredom” he told us.
He hated his work, that much was obvious. It certainly wasn’t what he dreamed of doing when he imagined himself running away to join the French Foreign Legion as a boy, or played the bad guy on the TV show “Captain Z-Ro” in the 50s.
His warnings always stayed with me. Would I be able to find a job I “loved” not be “bored”, and avoid ending up on “skid row”? It was a lot for an 11 year old to contemplate.
Not too long after we returned from our weekend away, my brother and I stumbled across a computer store named HW Computers next to new laundromat my mom was trying out for the first time. HW was part of a chain established among the first wave of computer stores. The shop was a mish-mash of t-shirted techies, business-suited sales guys, IBM clones, Apple IIs, and walls filled with elaborately shaped boxes of software and games. When we saw the Atari logo on the front of the store we begged my mom to take us there while the clothes were in the washer..
Our mission that day, as it had been for months, was to look for for Atari VCS games and see if we could play them: and we did find some VCS games, albeit in a glass case. They were not playable, but it was still exciting to find “our thing” in the wild. However, we also found something far better…something amazing to me at the time. In a different glass case at HW computers we saw a display of one of the most beautiful creations I had ever witnessed in my 11 years on earth: an Atari 800 computer and 810 Disk Drive.
“ Atari made computers?” I said
“ I had no idea!” Jeff replied.
As the computer store salesman explained the machines and how much more powerful they were than the Atari VCS and how much cheaper they were than an Apple II, I was dumbfounded by their beauty. The sleek curves of the Atari computers reminded me of the cars from the movie American Graffiti. I felt a charge in my gut when I looked at them, as if they were something I needed to possess as soon as possible. I’m not sure why exactly the name “Atari” attached to computer made them seem more accessible than Apple, but it just did. I already had an innate love for anything Atari because I loved playing the Asteroids coin-op so much, and I’d wanted an Atari VCS for several years after falling in-love with Breakout in 1978. . Maybe in my head, expensive “Apple” computers were for kids of engineering managers and math geniuses like Eric. while Atari computers were made for kids like us who might one day end up on skid row? I can’t really explain it other than the name “Atari” attached to a computer made my brother andI both think it would one day be possible to own one.
We left the store that day with a catalog listing all the Atari computer software available at HW computers and a sneaking suspicion it would not be the last time we crossed the path of Atari computing machines.
Admittingly, a big draw I had towards computers was the fact they could play the in-depth and exciting games we saw in the store and described in the software catalog. After using Eric’s Apple II. I was enamoured by the process of booting the machine, inserting a disk in the floppy drive, typing a command, and running a game. The sound of the whirring disk drive, and the audible clicks as each sector of bits bits was loaded from a floppy drive was thrilling.
But equally as thrilling was the BASIC programming language Eric’s dad showed us how to use.. With seemingly the same commands and interface used to play games, a person could write these magical lines of text cpaba;le of making games as well. The difference between playing software and creating software appeared to be a mere matter of context. A magical flick of wrist that could take a person from shooting aliens to breathing life into them.
All those years we spent trying to make home-made pinball games in garage with mechanical parts and lights my dad pilfered from work, designing my our own driveway driveway sports and hacking our analog toys into interactive experiences were leading to something, and a programmable home computer felt like, maybe, an answer.
Furthermore, if my brother and I could only get our hands on an Atari computer, and learn to program one, then there was a good chance we could one day get a job making video games. At least, that is how we saw it. And if we did learn to program and make video games my dad would never had to worry about us ending up on skid row.
*I* would never have to worry about ending up on skid row.
That was the dream anyway.
But dreams, by my parents example, dreams were not always an achievable reality. Both of them lived with the constant knowledge that their own ambitions of becoming professional actors would never come to fruition. We only heard snatches of their lives before us kids came along, but all of it sounded so fascinating. They met by chance in San Francisco in the 50’s, and acted together in plays at places like the S.F. State Little Theater. After my dad got roles on a couple TV shows, they chased their dreams to New York City to study “the method” under Paul Mann. Upon graduation, from acting school, they moved back to 1950’s Hollywood to chase the TV dream once more.
It all evaporated.
To make ends meet, my dad took a job drawing for an aerospace company, and my mom worked as a typist for Rand corporation. When the first baby came not soon after, the acting was put on hold indefinitely. My dad found things to keep himself busy, but my mom…she never really did. She just sat at one side of the kitchen table, playing solitaire for hours on end. The same version of klondike, over and over: klondike for my entire childhood and beyond.
Her dreams died hard.
So to me, having a big “dream” for your life just seemed like a terrible idea. You’d end up on skid row, in a job you hate, or just sitting by yourself wondering “what could have been”. I never really imagined being “anything” beyond my then current position: a kid who loved Star Wars and video games.
But this Atari computer thing, it seemed like it was a dream worth having. It was short-term. It was achievable…maybe. Sure computers, even cheap Atari computer, were expensive, but there had to be a way to make it happen.
Part 2: Video Games Arrive
For most of the 1970’s, my dad road desert motocross as his past-time and hobby. He joined a club for desert motocross racers named “The Dusters”, and spent many of his free weekends in the Mojave desert. We accompanied him a couple times, but there was little for us to do, I always secretly wanted to be a “Duster”. They had their own custom Jerseys, and they gave out trophies to their members. My dad proudly displayed his club awarded “First Place aged 50+” trophy next to his bed. Next to that was an action photo of him racing in the desert.
When an accident forced my dad to quit motocross racing, he picked up a new hobby collecting military artifacts. Specifically, forage caps from the American Civil war. It wasn’t exactly “new” hobby, as he had been interested in them since the 1950’s when he saw one in store window for $5 and passed it up. The forage caps from the American Civil War looked very much like hats worn by the French Foreign Legion, and my dad connected the two from his own childhood aspirations to run away from boarding school and fight foriegn wars.
In a matter of months he purchased several hats, either from the local Gun Shows or from Shotgun News magazine, a publication for gun enthusiasts that doubled as a classified ads for military memorabilia.. He even wore one of the hats as he coached our soccer team, sticking out like a sore thumb among the young beach dads in our home town.
A couple months after seeing the Atari 800 in the glass case, the first issue of Electronic Games Magazine was published, and made its way into the hands of my brother and I. Even though we still had computers on our minds, the Atari VCS was never forgotten and that first issue of Electronic Games brought it right back into the forefront. We poured over the entire magazine for weeks, geeking out at the images and descriptions of all the cartridges coming out for the VCS. The visceral nature of the magazine made the prospect of getting an Atari VCS feel more real than ever.
We talked about the VCS constantly and made it obvious to our parents that we could wait no longer, so when Christmas 1981 rolled by,. somehow, our parents managed to get us an Atari VCS. To this day, I still don’t really understand how. Civil War forage caps cost several hundred dollars so maybe my mom convinced my dad to postpone the purchase of a hat or two and help get us an Atari? More likely though it was made possible by or mom’s then recent re-joining of the workforce as a near-minimum wage teacher’s aid.
No matter how we got the VCS, it was amazing to have! We were finally Atari “owners” and not just Atari “players”, and for awhile, the dreams of owning an Atari computer were pushed aside, as we went full bore into playing the VCS and getting the new games reviewed and advertised in Electronic Games magazine. This was our true video game golden age. We spent all of our money on Electronic Games magazine, arcade tokens, and Atari cartridges. We really tried to get make that VCS the best it could be, to embrace it as the future. We subscribed to Atari Age magazine, and acquired copies of Night Driver, Missile Command and Adventure for our 12th birthday. However, the excitement though, was short-lived.
It might have been amazing to *have* an Atari VCS, but it was not necessarily amazing to *play* an Atari VCS.
While we were wowed by games like Asteroids and Missile Command, we were left disappointed by many others. The blockiness of Adventure and the sheer hollowness of Pac-Man for example, made us take pause. When the next generation Colecovision and Atari 5200 were announced in Electronic Games Magazine in 1982, the VCS felt old and tired. What was cool when I was in 3rd grade in 1978, felt outdated and underpowered in an era of MTV and Tron. We watched as our friends got these newer machines, and we were stuck with a device designed when Nixon jokes still echoed on late night TV. We so desperately wanted to be on the “cutting edge” of technology, but in reality, our family situation meant we would always be coming from behind, trying to catch-up to the modern world.
Computers on the other hand, still seemed new and exciting. When I wasn’t playing the VCS, I was usually in my room, lying on my bed reading the Computer Playland section of Electronic Games magazine or paging through that Atari software catalog from HW computers. As the months and years wore on, the games in that catalog took on a mythic quality.; their tantalizing names and descriptions felt so much deeper and more exciting than the mostly one-note game-play on the Atari VCS. Energy Czar, Eastern Front, Temple Of Apshai, Rescue At Rigel. Caverns Of Mars, Scott Adams Adventures, and Zork, just to name a few. All of those games sounded like the types of deep and engrossing experiences I wanted from the VCS but were so hard to find. It was around that time that somehow, some way, using our twin powers, my brother and I decided in unspoken terms, that we both wanted…no, needed to somehow, someway, rekindle the dream, and get an Atari computer in any way possible.
So, Over the next two years we schemed and scouted all avenues possible to obtain what was fast becoming the pinnacle of our childhood dreams. Knowing how expensive computers were at the time (The salesman had told us an Atari 800 and Disk Drive would set us back at least $1000 dollars) , we knew we were going to have to be mighty creative in our endeavors if we were ever going to see our plans come to fruition. Sure, my dad did not want us to end up on skid row, but he also did not want to end up on skid row himself trying to pay for a computer. To be successful, We would have to present the computer as a device so necessary for our collective futures, that there was no way he could pass up the opportunity to get one for us.
The first thing we did was educate ourselves. For a couple kids who did fine in school, but would rather read Encyclopedia Brown, Three Investigators, and Choose Your Own Adventure books, this was quite a startling change of direction.We checked-out books on BASIC programming from the library, and taught ourselves the main tenets of the BASIC language from the seeds Mr. Barth had planted years before.: line numbers, loops, gotos, gosubs, plot and color statements. Soon we were fashioning our own analog programs on notebook and graph paper, designing games and graphics, and anything else we could think of.
We did these things out in the open, where our parents could see our work. Sitting across the kitchen table from my mom while she played another losing game of one-person cards, we copied code from books and discussed outloud how we might create the coding ideas in our heads. Among the supplies my dad brought home from work at Hughes Aircraft were a few pages of ⅛ inch graph paper. To us, the boxes on that graph paper looked just like the pixels on a 8-bit Apple II screen.. We asked to use some of the paper, and the next day he brought us a whole stack he “borrowed” from the Hughes supply closet. (“Nobody was using it” he told us) On that paper we designed the space ships and characters we planned to use in the games we wrote for our future Atari computer. We even inserted “plot” statements directly on the graph paper, so when we eventually did get a computer, we could easily replicate the graphics we designed. We had no way to test-out our ideas, but that didn’t stop us from imagining the possibilities of what a computer could do. Along the way, the unspoken agreement among my brother and I evolved. We didn’t just want to get a computer to program video games, we both hoped this all would one day lead to our ultimate goal: working at *ATARI* making video games because they were, hands down, the world’s greatest video game company.
Skid Row? It was no-where in the picture.
However, time continued to march on, and as with BMX bikes, skateboards, and video game systems before them, we, again, watched the years pass by as our friends in the neighborhood all obtained the same things we wanted so badly but seemed so far out of our reach. First, Eric’s dad upgraded to an Apple IIe, Then Wesley’s dad bought him an IBM PC compatible, Next Kenny’s mom, who was single parent, managed to get him an Atari 400, followed by Scott’s parents who scored him a TRS-80. I was happy for those guys, but frustrated too. It Just seemed like the more I wanted something, the better chance someone else would get it.
The reality was, being familiar with how to program a computer did not mean we would ever own one. If our plan was going to work, we would have to start really working on getting a machine into our house.
Our first solid chance came in the summer of 1982. That year MacDonald’s had an Atari Video Game ‘Scratch And Win’ contest, giving away 1000’s of Atari products, including Atari 5200 Super Systems and Atari 400 and 800 computers.
We resigned ourselves that summer to win the contest by any means necessary.
In between stints at the arcade that offered ‘8-tokens for a dollar’, we would walk up to local Mcdonalds looking for discarded game-cards on the ground, on the tables, and on the floors inside the restaurant. When that left us empty handed, we braved discarded Big Macs and soggy fries as we searched through the trash cans in and outside the restaurant. We did this for a few hours a day, a few days a week for at least half the summer.
To this day, the scent of lettuce and tomatoes mixed with special sauce together conjure memories of picking through garbage in me.
Luke-warm,. Mcdonald’s garbage.
Out of the dozens of game-cards we eventually found, none of them were Atari winners. The best we did was to win fries and a coke or two, but we were (almost) too disgusted by MacDonald’s food trash by that time to eat any of it. As the summer passed, so did those Atari computer dreams, and by the time we were back in school in the 7th grade, the idea was pushed-back, but not forgotten.
That year I quit Spanish class after one trimester, and found myself working in the school computer lab. For an hour a day I was allowed to explore a room filled with Apple IIe computers, and pretty much do whatever I wanted with them.
It was the next revelation.
I played expansive computer games, programmed in Apple BASIC, drew pictures with a Koala art tablet, and wrote poems with Bank Street Writer. It became obvious to me in that lab that computers were not just another unattainable “thing” I was obsessed with, but that they were the future. Not just my future, not just the future Eric’s dad had given us a glimpse of, but the future for everyone.
This realization only made my desire for a computer burn even more brightly. If only I could get my hands on one, in my own room and learn how to program it, I’d be set for life.
Christmas 1982 came and went. We received a couple great Atari VCS games, River Raid and Vanguard, but much of our household, especially my dad, was distracted by moving my grandmother out of her house and into a retirement home.
Early in 1983, my brother and I managed to save-up and purchase a Starpath Supercharger for our Atari VCS. The Supercharger added about 6K of RAM to the VCS, and loaded games from cassettes, like many home computers did. This meant the VCS could play more elaborate games loaded from tape in multiple segments. The games were also cheap, running about $15.00 each. For a hot minute, I believed that the Supercharger might be a reasonable stand-in for an actual computer. The games it played, especially the first console RPG Dragonstomper and the 3D maze puzzle game Escape From The Mindmaster were mind-blowingly great! However, that idea was short-lived. We still could not program the Supercharger, and very soon after we purchased it, the company who made it, Arcadia/Starpath, went out of business. In fact, Atari was losing money hand-over-fist in 1983, and it felt like the entire video game business was going to crumble. We needed to figure out how to get a computer fast, or there was a good chance we’d never get to work making video games at all.
Part 3: Time
By mid 1983 and my brother and I had been obsessing about owning a computers for almost three full years. I don’t know if it’s a scientific fact that 3 years in kid time is at least 30 years of adult time, but it sure felt like it.
Bill Bryson said it most eloquently in his memoir “The Life And Times Of The Thunderbolt Kid” like this:
“time moves more slowly in Kid World … it goes on for decades when measured in adult terms. It is adult life that is over in a twinkling”
It was about that time when Atari announced a brand new line of low-cost computers. The XL line consisted of the 600XL and 800XL replacements for the Atari 400 and 800 respectively. had sleek new designs, (straight-edges replaced the space-age curves of the older machines) with 64K ram and BASIC built-in.
In mid 1983, our dad was working overtime at Hughes Aircraft with a new computerized CAD/CAM system. Without any real acknowledgement of the computer obsession we’d been trying show him for years, he started coming home and bestowing upon us his wisdom about the virtues of this new computer system, and how computers were going to change everything. He sounded a bit like Erics’ dad did a few years back. This was new. As well, with his overtime work, he seemed to have a bit more cash on-hand than usual, even if we never saw much of it.
My dad had been going full-bore into his new hobby collecting “Civil War headgear”. We had attended several gun shows helping with his search, and he was obsessive about the classified ads in Shotgun news, searching them for hours looking for hats, buttons, belts, ammo holders, and other period items from the 1860s that would satisfy his collecting hobby. His book shelves were filled with antique books that described Civil War uniforms in detail, and first hand accounts written by the soldiers themselves. He also imagined himself in a business making reproduction Civil War Kepis and Bummers (the names of his favorite forage caps) and his walls were filled with drawings and designs of the different parts of the hats and how he might go about recreating them. All of these antiques he purchased ate heavily into the household income. Even though my mom took as many hours at her Teacher’s Aid job as she could, we were still left buying most of our clothes at discount shops and shoes at the local Swap Meet. This made made it very hard for us to fit-in with expensive surf-clothes wearing kids at our Junior High.
We were nerds, but we didn’t even realize it. We just knew we wanted a computer.
My brother and I decided it was finally time to tell our dad about the Atari we had been coveting. With my dad openly talking about computers, it felt like we had some common ground to start a discussion.
Unconsciously I believe, our goal was to appeal to his sense own obsessions. We needed to try to make our desire for an Atari computer look and feel like his own hobbies. Those hobbies appeared legitimate because they had dedicated magazines, clubs, books and trade shows where enthusiasts could gather and explore together.
I still recall us taking our stacks of books, magazines, catalogs, and notebooks filled with hand-written BASIC code into his room. He was on his bed, as usual, watching the black and white TV he repaired after going to night school. This was when my mom still slept there, so her things still occupied ½ the room. Her hair brush and mirror still on their shared dresser, next to the giant mirror with the enormous crack in the upper-left corner.
“Hey pop” one of us said, “can we show you something…?”
Didn’t just show him something, We showed him everything, especially focusing on the magazines and their pictures and ads for Atari, which only now I realize was a parallel to how he focused on Shotgun News for his hobby. We pointed out the new, lower-cost Atari computers that had been announced that year. He watched us as we paged through the books we’d checked-out, the programs we had written, and displayed our code and pixels drawings, plus the catalogs and magazines we had about Atari.
Our dad was blown-away by our enthusiasm on the subject but he was just not sure Atari was a company that were serious about making computers.
The one thing that he did do, at least for a short time anyway, was stop talking about skid row. It was a small thing, but just noticeable enough to encourage us to keep trying for an Atari 800xl.
So we stepped up the pressure another notch. We had to somehow get him to understand that not only did Atari make the best computers in the world and that they played the best games, but just having one could be our ticket to never worrying about having a job or being laid off, something he worried about constantly.
Soon after we begged our dad to take us to computer show at the LA Convention center. We saw an ad for it in the LA Times and we imagined it would be like the CES or COMDEX shows we read about in magazines. It was also the closest cousin to the Gun Shows to which we accompanied my dad when he was looking for Civil War artifacts, By taking us to those Gun Shows, he opened our eyes to the fact that these types of events existed. We planned to explore the Atari booth at the show, and make sure he knew that Atari made serious computers and were a serious player in the industry, and not just the video game system we had hooked-up to the TV. We didn’t know much about computer shows at the time, and it turned out the one we chose was “serious” all right, and covered IBM PC compatibles only. Atari was nowhere to be found. I still recall my brother and I walking through the tables on the show floor desperate to see any Atari machine anywhere so my dad could see they were serious and real. But none were found.
My dad was livid. He spent money on tickets, parking, gas, and we came away with nothing. It was a huge blow to our dreams, and it was the first time I realized that while I might have high regard for Atari computers, there was a whole industry that didn’t even acknowledge their existence.
Maybe we were wrong about Atari?
It was near this time that my dad came home from work completely frustrated. He relayed a story to us about how his computer at work had “turned” on him. Whatever system he was using apparently did not have “back-space” which was either an actual back-spece, or his way of describing “undo”.
“When i’m drafting by hand I can just erase with pencil, but with this fucking computer I have to start all over again. I hate these fucking computers” It was yet another blow to our efforts. We thought our dad had embraced the future, but it looked like he was quickly slipping into the past
We needed to find something else to send things in the other direction, and in the summer of 1983 we found it. SBACE, the South Bay Atari Computer Enthusiasts was an Atari computer club that held monthly meetings a few miles from our house. Jeff and I found out about them in an Atari computer magazine, Antic or Analog, both of which we bought regularly. We showed our dad the date and time for the meeting, and he agreed to take us.
I was nervous going the SBACE meeting. I felt like a kid entering an adult world. The last time we accompanied my dad to an “adult” affair, it was when he took up acting again as a hobby a few years prior. He took us down to the stage where they were preparing their sets, and gave us jobs to help. My brother and I were on our hands and knees scraping old paint off the floor, when an angry woman in some kind of charge saw us and yelled “who are these kids and why are they here!!” The pit of my stomach filled with bile when I heard this. I froze and could not look-up. My ears turned red. My eyes started getting wet. My dad quickly came over, apologized to the woman, and took us home. I never found out why we posed such an affront to her, but I never forgot it. We had invaded an adult world that did not want us. I certainly hoped the SBACE meeting would not turn out like that.
We paid our dues and sat down in folding chairs in room about 50 feet long and 25 feet wide. We were about 15 minutes early, so I watched as the other attendees arrived. I was relieved to see that most of them looked similar to my dad. Still, I tried to make myself small and invisible in the chair, just in-case. When one of the arrivals stopped next to us, and turned to my dad, I was scared crapless about what he was going to say. Were we going to get kicked out of here too?
The man leaned over to my dad, pointed at us and said “I see you got a couple Atari computers fans there! Welcome!”
My dad nodded, and the man nodded back. And that was that.
We were good.
The rest of the meeting was breathtakingly brilliant. There was talk of Atari BBS systems coming online, where to buy Atari Computers, demos of games and programs written by the members, and much more. All of these adults (and few kids) talking about Atari Computers as if they were the most important computers in the world.
When it was over, I was not sure how my dad felt about the meeting. He got up, and immediately went to the back of the room. I thought he was trying to leave, but instead he headed straight to the membership table and bought us each a year’s membership to SBACE. Sure, it wasn’t like being a member of a cool 70’s desert motocross club named “The Dusters”, but it was the closest we were ever going to get.
On the way home, it felt like my dad was just as excited about Atari computers as we were.
Our joyful conversation in the cab of the 4-door International Pick-up truck travelled from computers, to our futures as adults.
“With computers and soccer you could be set for life” I recall him telling us, “your mind and body fulfilled”
We swept him up in our computer dream, telling him about how we could grow-up to be programmers (a sellable skill) and not be bored with work (because computers were cool!). And not end up on Skid Row (because we could get paid)
He seemed to buy every word. By the time we made it home he was sold. That night, he joined us in our quest to make the ‘Atari Computer Dream’ a reality, and even better, he wanted to do it by Christmas 1983.
I felt then that the upcoming Christmas was going to be The Best $%*! Christmas ever.
Part 4: The run-Up
In the months that led-up to Christmas 1983 we made attack plans on just how we would make the Atari Computer plan a success. We listed all the things we would need: An shiny new Atari 800XL, 1050 Double Sided Disk Drive, a box of 10 blank disks, and a color TV for output and a proper computer desk for our room My dad took care of the color TV by setting us up with a refurbished one he repaired from someone else’s garbage.
Jeff and I loved the all-wood computer desk that Erics’ dad had for his Apple IIe, and the giant, fancy office desk Wesley had in his room for the IBM PC. We showed my dad pictures of computer desks from the Sears catalog, but he had his own ideas. He did the best he could for us given his other priorities He found an old discarded desk on the side of the road, and took it home with him one night, hauling several pieces in the back of the pickup truck. . He salvaged the metal desk drawers, and added a table-top from some discarded boards in the garage, then he fashioned a set of legs for the side opposite the drawers to keep it upright. It was not pretty, but it would certainly not stand-out in our house filled mostly with other discards, side-of-road specials, make-shift beds, etc.
In fact, it was right at home.
Now we just needed to find a computer that could sit on top of it.
Throughout the fall, We kept looking for the best prices on the Atari machines. Every week we would check the ads in the LA Times, and take a trip to Fedco and Gemco to see if a shipment of 800XL’s had arrived.
Our fellow members of SBACE relayed their own stories of difficulty locating the new Atari line too, and at one of the meetings in late 1983, we found out why. One of the speakers informed the attendees that Atari was having some kind of production problems and their computers were slow to arrive in the USA.
What we didn’t know was that in 1983 Atari tried to cut costs and move all their manufacturing to Asia. They also got a new CEO, who halted all production for a short time so he could make sense of the mess the previous CEO left behind. Both of these events left the store shelves bare of Atari computers products in the run-up towards Christmas.
It couldn’t have come at a worse time.
Even though my dad was ready to make a purchase, simply finding an Atari 800XL computer anywhere became a huge problem. As the weeks before Christmas turned into mere days, the outlook became bleaker and bleaker. There were none to be found in any local stores.
On Christmas Eve, we still had no computer purchased, but we took one last trip to Fedco, just for the hell-of-it. It was Saturday December 24th, and it just-so-happened to be the same day that Fedco finally received their first shipment of Atari 800XL computers. The store shelves were packed to the rafters! We were amazed, and dazed. Our dream of almost 4 years was coming true, and on Christmas Eve!
My brother and I ran around the aisles, gleefully picking out everything we needed. I still recall that joy we felt when we finally saw the boxes for the 800XL and 1050 disk drive.
It felt like a Christmas miracle.
I still recall what happened next, as if it was slow motion. The movement of my dad, the expression on his face, the surprise of what he was seeing. I can see it now and will never forget it.
Because It was not joy he was expressing.
My father was not as enthusiastic about finally finding Atari computers at all.
He looked quite shocked actually that the store had anything in stock, almost like he had planned to find nothing there. As we dashed around the store, he finally got up the nerve to give us the news he had been holding back.
“Boys”, “I can’t buy this Atari 800XL this year. I did not get enough overtime-pay to afford one. We have to do it next year”
And that was that.
In a word, my brother and I were : devastated.
We went home and sulked. Christmas was ruined, and there was nothing we could do. I wished our dad had never latched-onto our plan, as it only raised our hopes to dash them in the worst way possible. Why had he just gone through the motions of pretending to want this for us?
I’d never been more angry at him.
Like every year, We went to Catholic Church with my mom that Christmas Eve, and as we exited to the verses of Joy To The World, the feeling of Christamas of old swept over me. By the time we got home, I felt warm and happy. It was nice to be at our house and nice to know Christmas was just a few hours away.
My Grannie and sisters were home when we got back, and soon we got caught-up in the evening. It was Christmas by God, and it would still be fun, as it always was. My mom, my wonderful mom, could not help but make it nice. Her little traditions were the heart and soul of our Christmas any way. There would be no computer, but there would be Christmas stockings filled with thoughtful goodies from her paycheck. There would be biscuits for breakfast, and a turkey for dinner.
Since the holiday fell on a Sunday that year, we would have two full weeks to play with whatever we received. Even without a computer coming, we still might get some Atari VCS or Vectrex games, and that couldn’t be all bad. Maybe a ColecoVision was in our future?
Sleep that night though, was tough. It was not the usual Christmas Eve jitters from when I was little, but something more. All the pent-up energy and feelings from years of hoping, planning, scheming to get that Atari computer were poured into twisted dreams about the Atari Christmas gone-awry. Asleep, awake, asleep, awake, with dreams in- between about what could-have-been. More thoughts came. Darker thoughts.
I was angry when I thought about my dad’s hobbies. There were still four motorcycles in the garage that he didn’t rde any more. His room was stuffed with artifacts he had purchased to feed his Civil War habit, yet our lives were still mostly make-shift. We rode make-shift bikes, slept on make-shift beds, wore make-shift clothes, had a make-shift TV that sat on an empty, makeshift computer desk. The plumbing, electricity, windows, floors, and paint in our house were bandaged with make-shift patches, but never really ever fixed. Yet my dad’s hobbles were always fully funded. Why couldn’t he just put aside some of that stuff, and once, just this once, to help achieve this Atari computer dream?
His hobbies seemed to be his priority. When would *we* be his priority? Even when he coached our soccer team it felt sometimes like the strategy of putting together line-ups was more important to him than spending time with my brother and I. Like he’d still be doing it even if we never showed up any more for practice or games. .
To say that I was never sure my dad “loved” me is pretty accurate statement. It was always a mystery as to just how how felt about anything or anyone. He neither conveyed his emotions as the thoughtfulness of a romantic (which he was not) nor the overwrought bigness of an alcoholic (which he also was not). Instead he showed that he cared with the subtle gestures of a prestidigitator: so small as to be merely experienced out of thin air.
Getting that Atari computer, and more specifically, my dad giving it to us ON Christmas had become, in my mind, the proof I needed that I was okay. That my brother was okay. It would be the absent hug I always wanted from him wrapped-up neatly with a bow and placed under our Christmas tree. It would have proven, once and for all that he didn’t actually think I would ever end up on skid row, that the future really was here, and he believed, truly in his heart, that I would be part of it.
But that can was kicked down the road for another time.
I’d have to live with it. And by the time I finally drifted off to sleep that night a sense of restless peace came over me. Maybe we could get an Atari computer for our birthday, which was less than a month away?
Dreams don’t die I guess. They have a way of morphing, and adjusting to the realities of life. I still planned to learn to program a real computer. And still planned to one day work for Atari, and I still planned to never end up homeless. I just didn’t want this dream to die like I saw mom’s acting dreams die. If it did, what would be my “solitaire at the kitchen table”? What would be the thing I wasted my days away doing because I never got the chance to do what I felt was my destiny to do?
Part 5: This Is The End
The morning of Christmas 1983 and the next two weeks are a complete blur in my mind. For how precisely I remember the events that led-up to Christmas 1983, the events afterwards live in a state of suspended animation, where all memories seem to rest on-top of one another as if they all happened in tandem. Some scientists theorize that time never actually passes, but simply folds over and over unto itself. If there was ever any anecdotal evidence to support this idea, it would be my Christmas 1983.
My brother and I awoke that morning, and things were just as my father had said. There was no new Atari 800 XL computer, nor was there an Atari 1050 disk drive. There was no shiny new computer software in elaborately shaped packages or brand new books and manuals for us to read about our new computer.
Instead there was something else entirely.
There were two giant, old style 1970’s Atari Computer boxes: one for an Atari 800, and another for an Atari 810 disk drive. Next to those boxes was another plain brown cardboard box. None of it was wrapped, just hurriedly placed on the table for us to find.
My brother and I were in complete shock.
Our father had not lied to us.
It was true, he could not afford a new Atari 800 XL,1050 disk drive or brand new computer games.
Instead he got us this old Atari 800?
“He got the wrong one” I said aloud.
I tried to smile, but it was tough. Was it was another one of my dad’s cheap fake outs instead of the real thing? Another bargain. Another make-shift way to solve a problem. Another situation that left us behind the times instead of with them?
I examined the Atari 800 box. It looked fairly new, but the side said it had only “16K” of memory. That meant it was a 1979 vintage Atari 800. The new sleeker Atari 800XL had four times a much memory, 64K. It also had the new GTIA graphics chip that was lacking in the original models. Next to the Atari 800 box was a box for the 810 disk drive. The drive was built like a tank, and almost as big as one. The 810 was okay, but it was only a single sided, single density so it could only store 90k on a disk. The newer 1050 XL Drive was a superior enhanced density for more storage.
My brother and I had studied enough magazines and heard enough at the SBACE meetings to know how much better the new XL computers were supposed to be than the old 400 and 800.
However, it was not all bad. The cardboard box behind the Atari boxes appeared to be filled with all kinds of “extras” like books and disks. Now THAT was intriguing. Even though we were both puzzled by the gift, when my dad came out of his room about an hour later, we put on our happy faces, and thanked him profusely.
Then he told us what had happened.
His told his buddy at work Dave Elwood about The Atari we wanted, and Mr. Elwood informed him that he had one already, and wanted to upgrade to an IBM PC. So Elwood had sold him the older model Atari 800 computer, an older model 810 disk drive, and all the software he had collected for three years.
“It was a *very good* price” my dad said
“Yep, a fucking bargain” I thought to myself
I do not recall anything else at all from that Christmas morning except the building anticipation that I could not wait for all the present opening to complete, so we could get to those computer boxes and see if the day could be salvaged.
The exact moment the last piece of wrapping paper was thrown into the green trash bag, and my dad fired-up the Pioneer receiver to put on Christmas music, my brother and I whisked that Atari 800 back to our room to check it out.
We approached the computer with a trepidation. The boxes were dusty and showed the wear of being in storage for a while. They were a far cry from the brand new Shiny Atari XL boxes we saw at Fedco the day before. When we took out the equipment and cables, instead of the fresh smell of new plastic, they had the distinct, sweet odor of old leather and cigar smoke. The machines were mostly clean though, and Mr. Elwood had upgraded the memory to 48K, and the CTIA chip to a GTIA chip, so that was good. We placed the computer on our make-shift computer desk, hooked it up to our make-shift TV and, never, ever looked back.
It turned out, rather unexpectedly, that buying Elwood’s 2nd hand Atari was a brilliant idea. In the extra cardboard box came the spoils of Mr. Elwood’s own foray into home computing that was now passed onto us. It contained disks and cartridges and joysticks and books and manuals and catalogs. There was so much stuff, it was overwhelming. It would take us weeks, or even months to discover it all.
Over the first couple hours of testing the machine, our excitement built rapidly. In fact, there was something very special about the Atari computer system my dad got for us. Far from being the poor substitution for a shiny new machine like we feared, it was, quite possibly, the greatest idea my dad ever had. The second-hand Atari 800 was like an instant starter set into the world of home computing.
It was honestly, the best gift a couple 13 year Atari obsessed computer twins in 1983 could ever hope for. If we had received a new Atari 800XL, I’m not sure it would have had the same ultimate, effect on us. Instead of starting new, with just a few programs games for our computer, we quite literally dove into the middle, with so much available to explore it felt like an actual gold mine. Like all the listings and descriptions in that HW computers catalog, the one we read over and over until it fell apart, those had become real, materizing right before our eyes on Christmas morning.
My dad had come through.
He had finally came through.
His bargain hunting and frugal nature, in this case, turned out to be the lynch pin. It was the very thing that made the Atari computer he gave us on Christmas 1983 so damned wonderful.
We dove into that computer and all the riches it held and did not come-up for air until two weeks later when we had to go back to school. We fired up DOS, read through the book Your Atari Computer, and typed in many BASIC programs. Mr. Elwood collected dozens of games, and we tried them all. Every Zork adventure, every Scott Adams Adventure, all the Atari created arcade translations, Star Raiders, and tons of others. We even explored financial programs, graphics demos, the realms of the public domain, and everything in-between.
Days passed quickly into nights and nights into days. Meals were skipped or forgotten. Bathing was left to the vain Anything that would take us away from that Atari computer for more than a short time was pushed off as long as humanly possible. The two weeks of vacation felt like a single, long, amazing day.
We discovered everything we ever wanted to know about owning our own computer because we now had one. In our own room. It was unthinkable. It was unfathomable. Yet there we were. Our hopes had been fulfilled. It was the last pure moment I ever knew as a child: the joy of complete intellectual and sensory discovery. The computer held the promise as a device that would entertain us as much as we could control it. We could mold it into whatever we needed and wanted. It was a seemingly an unlimited tool for playing, learning and creating.
The best part was, my dad had got it for us. And to me, that meant he must have loved us, right? Even though he never actually said it, his intentions were obvious. And He didn’t mention “skid row” for many years after that. Seeing that Atari computer sitting on my computer desk when I woke up the day after Christmas 1983 and realizing it was all real, and the dream had been fulfilled, was one of the most indescribable feelings of elation I have ever experienced . It was only bested by falling in love with my wife for the first time, and having my first child.
Decades later, I still feel the same way: The discoveries and life lessons of that Christmas stand out. I look back on that Christmas to remind me of the reasons why I still play games and program computers for a living. There is always the hope of the next great discovery just around the corner. The idea that I will unearth something so engrossing, so intellectually stimulating, that I will dive-into it’s all encompassing void, only to lift my head-up when I’ve found the riches inside.
And then I think of my parents. Our love of computers, no matter how much it burned in us, never rubbed off on them. My mom still played analog games of solitaire at the same place at the kitchen table well in her 80’s until she could no longer see the cards. She never, ever, not even once, touched a computer, no matter how hard we tried to her to do it.
My dad did try, but it was not for him. The physical world of his Civil War cum French Foriegn Legion obsession never abated. He longed to find and understand the “vibes” he felt for the past. The future, honestly, did not interest him. My dad still wore a Civil War hat on his head, every day until the moment he died in his living room.
But none of that stopped us, and none of it would ever make me forget the most important moment of Christmas Day 1983. The one moment in blur of memories I recall precisely. It’s an image that sticks in my mind and never goes away. It was in the evening time. Darkness had flooded the inside, and as always, the minimal lighting from the sketchy electricity in our house was trying to hold it at bay. My stomach was full of mom’s food, and the house was warm and cozy from the forced air heater plus the smells of leftovers and French apple pie. Everyone in our house had retired to their happy places, another Christmas over and in the books. Our family on their best behaviour for a single day out of the year, now allowed to mostly ignore each other for the next 364 days.
In our tiny, cramped room, my brother and I sat side by side, and booted up that Atari 800 with the BASIC cartridge inside. We tried mostly games in the morning, but now wanted to get serious and try some code. The blue glow of the Atari BASIC screen lit up our faces in our darkened bedroom. I typed our first Atari BASIC code from one of Elwood’s books and “Hello World” filled up the screen. Then we edited the program to make our own version. It was just small change really, but it was our change. All those years of writing code in notebooks, and stealing time from friends computers and the computers in the lab at school were over. The code we wrote was a simple message that said everything: “Hello Steve and Jeff, I’m your Atari computer”. Jeff typed “run”, and the message filled the screen. We saved to the program to a 90k single sided single density disk on the 810 drive so we could keep it forever, and that was it. We had done it. Our plans had worked. We were computer programmers, or at least we had the tools and desire to become computer programmers. I instinctively knew at that moment nothing, and I mean nothing in life would ever be the same again. The power sat on my desk that day, to forge my own destiny. It was an amazing moment when I truly believed, with a computer in my hands, and a dream in his my head, anything was within my grasp..
Looking back on the past 36 years, that Christmas made every other Christmas that followed possible. It helped give me a direction in life and put me on track to a livelihood I would have never found any other way. And that’s why I believe, Christmas 1983, the Atari Computer Christmas, was the best &$*! Christmas ever.