For nearly six weeks, just after turning fourteen, I had a phone line and a modem and a computer — a combination of things that a world of people much younger than fourteen years will commonly walk around with in their pockets all day, every day. But in my world, I was special.
I don’t remember going outside much, those weeks. I remember Eddy Grant’s “Electric Avenue,” and I remember Human League’s “(Keep Feeling) Fascination,” but not a whole lot else that didn’t come in the form of Coke in a can or as green, glowing letters on a matte-black background. After long years of planning, I had the most fascinating thing I’d ever heard of in my whole life in my bedroom. No one else in the house wanted even to be in the same room with it, and no one minded that I spent all my time with it. How could things get better?
One thing I had learned in my time looking over the shoulder of the kid who’d owned the modem was that the list of bulletin-board systems in the back of the monthly local computer magazine was only the tip of the iceberg. Systems constantly popped up and vanished overnight, launched by kids who didn’t realize that by connecting their computers to their house’s phone line they were blocking their parents from receiving phone calls. These were always fun, for the days or hours they lasted. Then there began to emerge, on the scribbled list of numbers I’d collected, a tier of slightly more persistent boards, ones that lasted weeks or months until either the system’s operator got bored or it decided it didn’t want to take on any new users and went private, access by invitation only. Those boards flew under the radar, either because they were hosting text files that the general public either didn’t care about or probably wouldn’t like, or because people sometimes had conversations that might not have been strictly legal. Some sites were private because they would let you download games, which definitely crossed the legal line at the time. The other software was also interesting, especially the programs that could copy disks and otherwise to crack the kinds of copy-protection used on computer games at the time.
Me, I loved all of those all boards. I thought they were great. And the more you went on, the more you found out about. The people were funny, or rude, or crazy, or normal stick-in-the-mud people, and I read everything everyone wrote, mostly because it didn’t stick around very long. And taking part in the conversation, having people who I suspected were adults listen to me and respond to me like I was any other person, was the greatest thrill. While I was not a bad stage or screen actor, once I knew my lines, in everyday life my stutter made interpersonal interactions difficult for me, and had been for years. I don’t remember talking much at all in second grade, for example. But it wasn’t hard to get decent at typing on a computer keyboard, and in those tiny islands of isolated online worlds I found a voice that seemed to work even when I wasn’t simply reciting something I’d memorized, or quoting what I’d heard someone say in a movie. I was writing, and it felt more natural than speaking, even better than singing.
Even today, there are plenty of times that I’d rather type than talk. On a lot of days, it feels more like my real voice.
I hadn’t stopped playing Wizardry, the dungeon-exploration game, though not simply because it was proving to be harder to get to the tenth and final level than I’d thought but also because it seemed impossible to copy. I couldn’t copy it myself — and oh, did I try — and I never one time saw a cracked copy floating around. So because I couldn’t copy the game, I had to beat it before the much older boys down the street wanted it back.
One day, flipping idly through my scraps of graph paper I’d filled with geometric dungeon shapes through hours of playing the game, I remembered the map I’d drawn of the Southern Baptist Radio & TV Commission, and the number of the bulletin-board system that they ran. I’d never seen the number published elsewhere, but I’d carried that worn piece of paper in my blue velcro-sealed wallet for more than a year until I realized I could finally use it.
Setting fantasy dungeons aside, I had my computer dial the number. Their system answered, and even let me create my own user account — I didn’t recognize the software, though I’d gotten good at being able to pick them out; there were maybe four or five super-common ones. After creating my account, I found myself in what looked like something I’d never previously imagined: a digital ghost town. Now, it was true that my newly created account had limited access, but everywhere else when a system let you in it would also let you look around at basic things, even if you couldn’t see the bulk of whatever cool stuff they were hosting. This system looked like it was never used. It felt eerie. I called back several times over a number of weeks, but never saw any sign that other users were logging in. The general board was empty, the system’s welcome message was never updated, and all the other timestamps continued to age. If I was supposed to believe what I saw, it had been more than six months since anyone else had touched the thing.
Beating Wizardry should have made me feel better than it eventually did, but by the time I got to the end it was little more than a simple math exercise. The final battle was over quickly, and there wasn’t anything to do afterwards. It began to feel as empty as the Southern Baptists bulletin-board system. I didn’t want to stare into a screen, interacting only with a computer. I wanted to thrum with life.
After returning the game to the older boys down the street, I had one of those rare opportunities in life to do something very stupid without any repercussions. The welcome message on the Southern Baptist’s system said to send an email if you needed anything, I remembered. So I logged in and I wrote to the sysop that I had figured out how to destroy their system. However, if they would make me a system operator, and post a copy of the bulletin board software for me to download, then I wouldn’t tear the place down. I’m sure I expressed myself poorly, though thankfully it didn’t matter. In the weeks to come as I checked back to see what would result from my note, I still never saw any sign of other logins, much less any updates of any kind.
Since I never saw any sign that anyone ever even read my message, I got two things out of that final flare of rebellion against the Southern Baptists. The first thing was an understanding of the scale of waste in the world, even in relatively modest organizations. That they let a computer sit there, with a modem, plugged into a phone line, for probably more than a year without using it for anything, was unfathomable to me at the time. The second thing, which had never crossed my mind until I’d stopped to wonder what I should ask them to give me, was the idea that I should run my own bulletin-board system.
Something else had happened, though. After years of being a super-good kid, actively resisting rebellious urges, I discovered a dark gate in my heart. It was very pretty in there.
I had been talking with — more like writing to — people for long enough, building a kind of reputation, that I was starting to gain access to some interesting places online. Some of the things you could find in these places were short-lived cultivations of interesting numbers. Some of these numbers were access codes for long-distance phone services.
In the 1980s, long-distance phone calls were unfeasibly expensive, though they were required for doing most forms of business. Business people could call the local number of one of these new long-distance companies that were springing up, punch in their access code, and then freely make a long-distance call, which would be billed to the access code’s account instead of showing up on your monthly phone bill. As far as your phone company knew, you’d only made a local call.
I had seen War Games earlier that summer, and I’d noted, dumbstruck in the theater with the simplicity of the idea, how the young hacker character had simply set his computer up calling number after number after number, checking to see if a computer answered. After verifying, to my delight, that the numbers shared with me actually did work — I passed a happy weekend creating accounts on pirate bulletin-board systems in Chicago, in Los Angeles, typing back and forth with people in cities I wouldn’t visit in person for more than ten years — I realized that relying on other people for long-distance access codes was not smart. And using access codes that had probably been leaned on heavily already by other kids was actually pretty dumb. I was against dumb things.
One Sunday before we drove out to the country to see my dad’s parents, I had my computer begin calling a local long-distance provider number, trying a different access code each time. When we got home at the end of the day, I ran home to find that I’d mined a handful of good access codes. I told myself that I wouldn’t use the same one more than a few times. I told myself that these probably belonged to large companies, and probably no one tracked these things, and probably a couple of calls on any one bill would probably be shrugged off in any case.
It’s not like I was stealing, I also told myself, because that wouldn’t be like me. Even though stealing was exactly what I also did that summer on an open-house night at the local college, when I saw what looked like a username and password for an account that I’d seen written on a piece of paper. I didn’t have to write it down; I remembered it. A friend’s father worked for the university, and he used a computer with a modem to call in to the mainframe there, so I already had access to a phone number. Putting the both of them together, in a world where accounts did not get locked out after some number of invalid login attempts, gave me remote access to the college mainframe as some kind of administrator. And I didn’t even have to steal long distance access to get there.
The problem was that I couldn’t understand what I was seeing. There was a basic menu system that served as a launch point, with maybe eight different options. Some of the options spooled out long and boring text files, though a few of them dropped me into little worlds where I recognized few words and fewer symbols. I had the sense that I was somewhere that was alive, distinctly not like the Southern Baptists’ system, but what the university had to offer was well advanced from anything I’d ever seen. It was as though I’d been happily buzzing jungle natives in a bi-plane, mocking their primitive lives, only to look up and find myself in the shadow of a featureless, seamless flying saucer. It was probably the most frightening thing that happened to me that summer.
I dropped the connection before I caused any real damage. For a little while, I lived in fear of the police showing up. Every time I saw a swollen phone bill come in from the mailbox, I dreaded my mom showing me how all the charges for all the calls I’d been making had been reversed to our home number. Why it wouldn’t show up on my personal bill, I couldn’t say. You can’t reason with paranoia, and you can’t reason with a fourteen-year-old boy, so you should tread lightly around a paranoid fourteen-year-old boy.
Eventually, my friend’s parents did pay to have his Apple repaired, and I eventually if reluctantly returned his modem to him. I was offline for about six months, most of my freshman year in high school. I wasn’t happy about it, but even in Texas the grass only grows so quickly, affecting the rate at which I collected lawn-mowing money. I even had to back off on buying comics, to save more money. Besides, I’d already downloaded enough software that I didn’t quite understand. It would hold me for a little while. I wasn’t out of the game. In my spare time, I worked on little skills, like reading upside-down text quickly, which I suspected would come in handy at some point.
Then I read a book called True Names, and my horizon really opened up. It had been so obvious the whole time, really.