punkwalrus (punkwalrus) wrote,

How I Ended Up in Computerland: Part 5 - FanTek and the unemployed years

Throughout high school, the only contact I had with computers was one at Kate's house where I made D&D character sheets using a crude word processor on her TRS-80. That and my HP 11c, which was considered "weird." There was a computer club, but it just didn't appeal to me. I am not sure why. I thought computers were "neat" and all.

Then, in 1987, my mother took her own life, I had to live in a foster situation, and then was back with my dad for a short time before he threw me out to start a new life. My life had been jump started from the comforting blanket of ennui and depression to the harsh light of a real world. I needed a place to live, and thankfully, the previous year I had gotten to know Bruce Evry, head of FanTek. He hooked up with a girl named Cheryl Abrams, who later became his wife. They got a place in Hyattsville with three other roommates, Diane, Wendell, and Liska. And their Radio Shack Coco computer which served as their word processor and database for the Castle Fanzine in the very beginning. By the summer of 1987, they wanted a newer, bigger place, so they got a place in Mount Vernon, Alexandria. Wendell and Diane didn't move with them, so they needed roommates. I needed a place to live, and had money thanks to a job and some social security money I got from my mother's death. This was a mutually beneficial environment.

By the time we all got settled into Mount Vernon, Bruce and Liska had gotten Atari 1040ST computers. Because of my previous Mac experience, along with understanding some Atari, I grokked the ST quickly. Due to a small financial windfall of a land deal and some cash from my grandmother...

Okay, let me state for the record that my maternal grandmother thought I should have *always* gone into computers. She said it practically every call we had together. And try as I might, I could not convince her computers were for smart people, and not losers like me. And she was right. There. Happy, grandma? Rest in peace.

So I got an Atari 1040ST. The MAIN reason I wanted one was for "Wordwriter," a word processing program with automatic spell checker. Hooray! Some of my first real, published works came from this computer, including much of what would become my first published book, "The Saga of Punk Walrus." But it was more than a typewriter to me. It was a tool. It could play games, yes, but it could also draw. Degas Elite and Spectrum 512 could command up to 512 colors and do color cycling, making basic animations. My rudimentary drawing skills were heightened with this machine. There was another set of programs from a suite called "The Cyber Studio," where a crude scripting language could be used to draw models and animate them. I started to program yet again. I made some movies, drew, and enhanced by artistic nature.

I joined "ARMUDIC," a local Atari enthusiast group, which got its name because ARMUDIC spelled their first BBS phone number. I met many DC Atari Enthusiast, and exchanged a lot of German software. Why German? Because the ST was BIG in Germany, much bigger than it ever got here.

When I moved out of the FanTek house in 1988, I lived with Tim and Anita, a bohemian couple. They were completely computer illiterate, which wasn't that odd for anybody in 1988, but to give you an idea, here's how I hid the fact I had a microwave oven in my room: I put a keyboard in front of it. They thought I had 2 computers.

Anyway, I got married in 1989 and moved into an apartment where Christine and I started a family. It was around this time I discovered dialup BBSs. My first was ARMUDIC with a 1200 baud modem. Then I went to others, and was a sysop of Starlight Trading Post for a while. It was here I found the BBS Crunchland, a name that I would live to regret almost 10 years later.

I helped found the FanTek BBS with Bruce in 1990. At first, it was 1 line, but Bruce quickly expanded it to 6. The FanTek BBS was run on an Atari 1040ST with NiteLite software and hardware by Paul Swanson. Port 0 was the home port, Ports 1-5 are run on ViVa 2400m Modems, (Port 6's phone line got commandeered for a voice line,) and Port 7 is a null modem connected to another 1040ST.

I still have one of those Viva modems. It had a super-heavy lead base, and makes a fine bookend. When we used to disconnect someone, we called it "to Green Button" them, because the power switch on thse modems were green. When you had a 2400 baud connection, a little green LED rabbit would light up behind the smoky plastic panel.

We had many sysops. There was me ("Punk Walrus"), webqatch (aka. "Sas"), Allon ("Skum"), Suzi ("Rosa Mercedes"), albedoblue ("Albedo")and seer_eridanus ("Darryl"). And of course, Bruce and Cheryl. It was on this BBS I met and made long lasting friends with ninjacooter, Suzi, albedoblue and most of Prune Bran.

Out of the sysops, two turned out to be the most influential to my career: Allon, a former Prune, who got me working at the University of Maryland at Bessel labs, and Suzi, who was the one pushing to get a job at AOL.

And good thing, too. In 1991, I was laid off from my retail job, and apart from a smattering of part time jobs and my book, I would be unemployed for the next two years. So I did what I could to pass the time, and my Atari ST computer, along with a used IBM XT, spent much of the day on the modem, blocking the swarms of bill collectors after us.

The server at Bessel was my first exposure to the Internet and UNIX. It was a Sun box, System V, I think. It was here I learned UNIX, got my foot in as far as my computer education which was a "lark" for me most of the time. I spent many years there, helping maintain the Bessel MUD, posting on Usenet, and underhandedly getting a computer education with one the east coast's top universities. I never got a degree there, and they have no records of my presence (if I did it right), but my heart is partially owned by the Home of the Terrapins. I spent some time on the campus, and I won't exactly describe why, but all I can say is that some professors have NO idea who is in their class... let's just leave it there. Thanks to Brad, albedoblue, Gadams, Allon, dptwisted, dglenn, and a few people who I probably shouldn't mention. You really pulled some strings, or helped in ways you'll never know. It was at Bessel I got addicted to E-mail and Gopher. IRC never really was my favorite, because I found them either too crowded or to empty. My instant messaging was Ytalk. You frequently saw me as walrus@bessel.umd.edu, or was we called, it, "Bessel dot um-dee-doo."

But all things must come to an end. When Allon graduated, his professor repurposed the Bessel server, TerrapinMUD was shut down, and I was without Internet for a while. Like two years. Imagine now, all of you, having no Internet for TWO YEARS??

Later, in 1994, I would get onto Capaccess and continue my limited Internet experience there. My IBM had died, but I was able to connect using an old DT80 Dumb terminal and a modem. I found out how to hack URLs to I could get Webcrawler, and I discovered the web as a text version for the next few years.

I saw the web for the first time in 1995 when takalya brought home a borrowed laptop from work, a Powerbook 540, I think. It was in black and white, but I could now see the web. We got a free AOL account, and STILL have those AOL accounts to this day (although I never check mine). Later, brad helped me put together a frankenputer, a barely-running 386/DX2, with some parts that he had, a hard drive and some RAM Suzi and Cambion gave me, and a sound card from albedoblue. My first post-IBM XT computer barely lasted a few months, but I got to see the web in 8-bit color with an old 256kb video card. I wrote my first website, thanks to Brad giving me a Digex account and the option, "View source."

But it was Suzi who really took my scattered skills and turned my "hobby" into a career.

She got me a job at AOL.
Tags: allon, aoi, bessel, brad, bruce, capaccess, cherly, computer, computerhistory, dglenn, fantek, gadams, suzi, umd, web
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