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Throwback Thursday: the Commodore 64

[WARNING: THIS BLOG POST CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR “TERMINATOR SALVATION” (2009).  (NO, SERIOUSLY.)]

Pictured below is the Commodore 64, which was the most popular brand of personal computer in the 1980’s.  My mother bought me one, and I still feel guilty about it.  Because it cost more than $600 and, frankly, I can’t remember successfully accomplishing any conceivable  purpose with it, ever.

Let me explain.  I think maybe a lot of people were in my position.  The advent of PC’s was a strange phenomenon among average American households.  Advertising promised us that computers represented “the future” or an opportunity to “discover new worlds.”

One of the greatest lessons life has taught me is that, when people employ only vague and abstract language when they speak, it usually means that they have no facts or concrete information to support their message.  And retrospect strongly suggests that at least some of those ads were simply false advertising.

Look at the one in the third picture below.  The ad ambitiously advises parents that if they want their “child” to “get into a good college,” the Commodore 64 could help them “rack up points on … the SAT test.”  And, for this actionable information, we could thank that trusted standby, “a recent study.”

Well, first of all, the copywriters for this ad sound pretty unfamiliar with “the SAT test,” because there was no “SAT test.”  It was simply the “Scholastic Aptitude Test,” or “SAT.”  If you called it “the SAT test,” that meant you were too stupid to recognize a simple redundancy, and that might actually prevent you from “getting into a good college.”

If you were wise, and did want to “rack up points” on “the SAT test,” you took the PSAT for practice.  Then you got a hold of that “Princeton Review” study guide.  Whether the “study guide” helped you to simply beat the test, or give you an unfair advantage, is a tangential issue that I won’t explore here.  I will tell you that it sure as hell boosted my score, and I was no goddam Copernicus, especially back in those days.  But never once did I hear about anyone using a home computer to boost their score.

So, in 1985 or so, this slightly befuddled junior high school student wasn’t too clear about what I was supposed to do with a computer.  I knew it was a status symbol in some circles, yet a social liability in others.  (“Nerd!”)  I knew that I should be thankful for being the recipient of such a pricey toy, and I was aware that its presence vaguely suggested that I would eventually be college bound, as my siblings had been.

Every kid back then wanted to know if computers could be used to change their grades remotely, as Matthew Broderick had done in 1983’s “War Games.”  Well, I certainly never approached the task, as we did not have a modem.  My far smarter friend on the next street, Keith Nagel, actually DID have a modem, but if he ever penetrated either the Longwood School District or the Defense Department, he never told me about it.  (Yes, kids, back then, modems, “monitors,” and “disk drives” were all things that were purchased separately — beyond that $600 you paid for the “computer,” which was housed in the bulky keyboard itself.)

I learned all of this in Mr. Anderson’s “Computer Literacy” class via the Longwood School District.  Forget website design or online marketing — when I was a kid, computers were so new that we endeavored merely to be “literate” about them.  The curriculum included helpful black and white illustrations of modems, monitors and disk drives, so that we knew the differences among them.  If you wanted to sound especially computer savvy, then you referred to a monitor as a “C.R.T.,” or “cathode ray tube.”  We were actually tested on such illustrations.

For some reason, the difference between ROM (Read Only Memory) and RAM (Random Access Memory) was considered crucial to “computer literacy.”  We also learned how to write a simple “loop” program in … Basic, I think.

True to form for teachers in the Longwood School District, Mr. Anderson was a terrific educator.  That didn’t stop various efforts by students to traumatize him and make him regret certain choices in life.

The “burnout kids” (metal-heads, in the more modern parlance) were a group I rarely mixed with, and they were a junior high subculture not known for academic excellence.  But when it came time to master the rudimentary 80’s-era text-to-speech program, they REALLY applied themselves.

Making a computer talk, and say whatever you wanted, was considered pretty cool back then. Turns out the burnouts were a hell of a lot smarter than anyone gave them credit for, because they mastered it quickly — far faster than I did.  Of course they programmed it to taunt the teacher.

“WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU’RE DOING, MR. ANDERSON?!”  I can still hear that electronic voice, and then the burnouts mimicking it ad infinitum.  Mr. Anderson got pissed and had to tell them to knock it off.  It was beautiful.  It is almost EXACTLY what the HAL 9000 said to Dave Bowman on the doomed Jupiter mission, even though I’m pretty sure nobody in that class (including me) had yet seen Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.”  Maybe those burnout kids made fun of me once in a while, but the nascent subversive in me just had to admire that handiwork.

Wait … I … might have succeeded in running a really cool PC game called “Impossible Mission” on the Commodore once.  (See the second photo.)  That was until I got dust on the disk or something, and the game malfunctioned.  (All the tunnels and elevators disappeared, and my guy kept running around in this gray … space or purgatory or something.)

By the time I entered college, I had swapped out my Commodore for an “electronic typewriter.”  That, kids, was a sort of hybrid between a computer and a typewriter.  Think of the the “Terminator Salvation” character, Marcus Wright.  (Or … y’know, think about Bryce Dallas Howareyadarlin’ as Kate Connor, because that’s far more pleasant.  Just don’t think about the movie’s script.)

You could carry an electronic typewriter.  Also … it felt right.  By the time I reached 18, I already dreamed of being the next Stephen King.  And a traditional typewriter seemed somehow emblematic of that.

I even took that typewriter with me to Mary Washington College’s Bushnell Hall in the Fall of 1990.  I kinda never used it, though.  I was having far too fine a time as a first-semester college freshman to turn in any typewritten papers, if memory serves.  My class attendance rate was maybe … 80 percent?  Eighty-five percent?

I wound up on “academic probation.”  My typewriter wound up at the bottom of my closet.

Oh, well.  At least I had gotten “into a good college.”

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