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Sunday, July 21, 2013

My second computer story

My first computer was a Commodore VIC-20 which was given to me by a neighbor and friend of the family. His business was doing pretty well and he tended to buy nice things for his family. In that case, he upgraded his step-daughter to a C-64, and I got her VIC-20. That along with a TV interface (in place of a monitor) and a cassette tape for storage got me going. I've written about this before, but the point bears repeating: I got into this stuff through an unusual vector, and if not for that chance occurrence, it might not have happened at all.

My second computer also has a weird set of circumstances for how it came to be. I was up in the Northeast for about a week, visiting family, and on one afternoon we went for a drive to check out some part of the countryside. While we were out there, we happened to stop into a local gas station and convenience store type place that also hand-dipped ice cream.

As I stood there with my parents, waiting to get my cone, I noticed a sign high on the wall: SHERIFF'S SALE. It listed a bunch of things: a television, a stereo, and ... a Commodore computer. It looked like a really good price for a whole bunch of stuff, actually. There was a location listed, and it seemed to be that same day, so I convinced them to take me over, and so we went.

We rolled up to this house where this guy was basically in the process of having the Sheriff clean him out to pay for some settlement. I don't know if he was late on rent, or what, but it was one of those things where they seize assets and sell them off to make good on your debts. Anyway, we showed up and went looking for this guy and eventually found him. He told us that the computer stuff "had been sold already", but was kind of doing this nudge-nudge-wink-wink thing, and asked us to meet him early the next morning at this diner on the main road just outside of town.

I don't know why my parents went along with this, but they actually agreed to this, and so we came back out to that little town early the next morning, right around sunrise. Sure enough, in the parking lot, there he was. Apparently the Sheriff or one of his deputies was actually there when we had turned up, and he was supposed to have sold it off already (to pay off the debts), and lied to them about it. He actually hadn't managed to sell it yet, and instead had hidden it somewhere so they couldn't find it.

Anyway, he popped his trunk lid, and sure enough, there it was: a C-64, a floppy drive, a joystick, and a whole bunch of games and other programs (like GEOS). We handed over the cash, and he moved the stuff into our trunk, and thanked us for helping him out, and then disappeared. He went one way and we went the other, back to where we were staying at a relative's house.

So now I had this complete computer system with me in the middle of a vacation. What did I do? Well, I read the manual and tried to hook it up, naturally! We were in this 1930s house, and it had matching (original) electrical hookups. This meant very few outlets, and those outlets which did exist weren't even polarized. Somehow, I managed to stretch everything out so the computer and floppy drive could get power and could still reach the TV.

3-prong adapter How did I get around the polarized plug angle, you ask? That involves a little treachery on my part. Somehow, by this point in my life, I knew about those little adapters which let you plug in a three-prong device and connected to the screw that held on the wall plate for grounding. They were typically orange, so they were hard to miss. This house had a pair of them down in the basement for the washer and dryer, so, well, I "borrowed" them for a couple of hours.

Somehow, all of this worked out and I was able to play with my new computer right there, and nobody died from being shocked by the appliances in the basement, tripped over the cords, and the house didn't burn down due to my experimentation.

When it came time to go home, we took everything which was theoretically disposable and threw it out, like the boxes for all of the games and other parts. The computer, floppy drive, and everything else wound up crammed into our respective suitcases, using our clothes as padding. This was before the days of grabby-hands TSA people, so amazingly, it all made it through okay. Back at home, the components came back out of the luggage unscathed and were ready to run.

I have to hand it to Commodore for making their ports basically the same across those computer systems. I was able to unplug my VIC-20 and put it in a safe place and drop in the C-64. The modem, printer and joystick all plugged in and worked fine. I had to swap the power brick and switch up how the TV hookup worked (since this C-64 had its own built-in modulator), but that was it. It all just fit together.

This second system opened a bunch of doors to me. Now that I had a floppy drive and a 64, I could actually use the "Common Sense" terminal program which had come with my modem instead of writing a horrible hack by hand every time I wanted to "get online" (not what I called it then, but you get the idea). Common Sense was a pretty weird terminal for the time, but it supported Xmodem, and that was enough to let me download another terminal a little more my style, like TouchTerm or CCGMS. Those programs actually supported Punter and PETSCII mode, and thus made much more sense when calling the Commodore BBSes of the era.

It was a series of bootstrapping moves, and it introduced me to a great many new things and interesting people. It ultimately set the stage for running computer systems for other people, and a career in system administration.

Now, many years later, as my career continues to evolve in new and amazing directions, I still remember how it all came to be, and what a strange and unlikely road it has been. To my former neighbor, my parents, and to that weird guy who was down on his luck back east, thanks for going for those unusual choices and taking a few chances with me and for me.


Footnote: want to know what the "evil hack" was? I had to type something like this in any time I wanted to use my modem.

10 OPEN 2,2,2
20 GET A$
30 PRINT #2, A$;
40 GET #2, A$
50 PRINT A$;
60 GOTO 20

Translated into English, that opens the "user port" (where the modem was), tries to get a key from the keyboard, and pushes it at the modem if so. Then it tries to get a character from the modem and pushes it at the screen if so. Then it starts over.

This evil little scheme neglected to do all of the crazy CHR$(...) stuff required to set up the software (!) UART on the machine for higher speeds, so I wound up having to chug along at 300 bps. Actually making 1200 bps work would have involved getting the OPEN line right, and I never really figured that out.

If that last paragraph meant anything to you, I'm sorry. Come join me in celebrating the commitment of neurons to technical trivia which no longer has any practical value.