A few months after my time in The Sunshine Factory, I was cast in some national commercials. This, coupled with other assorted TV and modeling gigs, brought me enough money that I could realistically fantasize about owning a computer, which was inconceivable for my parents on two levels. The first level was of course the money. I didn’t just want any computer, which could be gotten for less than $1,000 — and which still made my parents choke — but I wanted an Apple computer, which at the time started out around $2,600. This was more money than my parents had together been able to save in the first years of their marriage. The second level was in wondering what a child would actually do with a computer.
I assured them that I knew exactly what I would do with a computer.
It took nearly a year, but eventually around the time of my birthday I spent half of the money I’d saved and, leveraging my mother’s educational discount, we bought one of the newly released Apple IIe computers, green-screen, floppy drive, and all.
The computer was the biggest piece of the puzzle, but it wasn’t the only piece.
Around the time I turned four years old, my parents moved into the house where we would live until the time I left home for college, in Austin. I remember running in the backyard one time when we were visiting the house after it had been built, just before actually moving in. We were in one of the many suburban communities going up then and still today growing out along the perimeter of Fort Worth, Texas. The house was set on a slight hill, tall oak trees thinly scattered around. The neighbors hadn’t moved in yet either, so they hadn’t yet put up the fences that would soon define the true perimeter of our backyard, but right then it was open. I could look up and down along the rolling land behind the block’s houses. It was interesting. It looked really big. I liked it.
In the far back corner of what was marked out as our yard, I found a thin metal case, about three feet high, ten inches across, ten inches deep. It was looked like a sun-desaturated light green with what I remember as a yellow symbol of it, in the shape of a bell.
“That’s from the phone company,” my dad told me. I walked around and didn’t see any other telephone posts around my height. “Maybe that’s the only one for all these houses,” he said.
Later, when I was checking out the inside of the house, which looked cool without any furniture, but finished, I saw a round, tan, plastic disc stuck to the wall. Molded into the plastic was the same bell symbol.
“Do I have a phone in my room?” I asked. But no, that only meant that there was a wire there, in case you wanted a phone. But what if I wanted a phone? You can’t have a phone, you’re too young. When can I have a phone? Fourteen. When you’re fourteen. You have to pay for it yourself, though.
For ten years, I kept my eyes on fourteen. I always reminded my parents that they’d said that and I held them to it. For years, I tracked how much the least-expensive phone plan was, since it did change every one in a while. On my fourteenth birthday I got my one phone, with my own phone number.
First, of course, I spent a lot of time talking on the phone, I remember. I could get into runs on the phone where I wasn’t stuttering at all, just rattling back and forth in free-flowing language. I’d been doing this for years with some of my closest friends, but only when my parents didn’t need to use the phone, or weren’t expecting a call. A lot of my early phone experience was before call-waiting was available; if someone called and you were on the phone, the caller got a busy signal. But finally I had phone access that would never need to be interrupted by anyone else. It cost me about $15 a month, but during the summer I got about that much in a week for mowing the yard, so I stayed on top of it and still had enough spare cash to take the occasional short walk through my neighborhood in a Texas summer sun, which bordered on a spiritually cleansing experience, to the closest 7-11 convenience store and the comic books they sold there.
Not coincidentally, the same summer that I got a phone was the summer that I got a computer. Still, I didn’t yet have all the pieces. I needed a modem, to connect my computer to the phone line.
For several months before I got my computer, I’d often been hanging around with one of the computer-wielding kids in my extended neighborhood — before me, there were three — and at the exact right moment for me he did the most incredibly stupid thing you could imagine. Unlike me, his parents had enough money that they could afford a computer without thinking too terribly much about it, so I think he didn’t respect it the way I did mine. Also unlike me, he had gotten a modem with his computer. I was a little jealous, even if it was a crappy modem.
Believe me, I’d borrowed a Wizardry, an early computer game largely modeled after Dungeons & Dragons, from the two much-older German boys down the street from me, fully exploiting my computer’s capability as the most expensive gaming platforms available. It was the first time I’d ever stayed up all night. I used my dungeon-mapping skills to explore the game, drawing room after room of explorations out on graph paper. You could find secret doors that way, sometimes. I fought monsters, I collected treasure. But it wasn’t like having a modem.
I could have gotten a crappy modem like that other kid and struggled through, but just like I’d done the research to know what computer I wanted, I knew what modem I wanted and it was nearly $300. There was no way my parents would let me spend any more money. It would be lawn-mowing money, or nothing. So even for a few weeks after I got my computer, I spent a good many afternoons watching over this neighborhood kid’s shoulder, along with two or three other kids, as text trickled across his computer’s screen from remote systems we found to dial.
The modem was a long green card, maybe half-an-inch thick, eight inches long, and four inches tall. You it slotted into the green board that was the actual computer. A thick metal enclosure around the green motherboard kept out troublesome things like dust and water, though the more cards you hooked up inside your computer, the hotter it would get in there.
Concerned about the heat being generated by his modem along with two floppy disk controllers — he had two disk drives; I nearly hated him — the other kid had popped off his computer’s lid and placed the monitor carefully on top, its rubber feet resting firmly on both sides of the computer enclosure. This left a venting area about three inches by ten inches between the top row of keys on the keyboard and the bottom edge of the heavy monitor.
I wasn’t there on the fateful day that he leaned forward to more closely check out something on the screen and, forgetting what he had in his hand, accidentally poured an icy glass of Coke into the vent and across the computer’s main board. Still, the news spread quickly. I waited a couple of days before dropping by to deliver my condolences — Sure, your parents are mad, but they are going to fix it? How, that’s cool; you’re so lucky. How long will it take? Man, that’s a while.
Say, the modem was okay, though, wasn’t it? Wow, that’s good news. Hey: it just occurred to me: could I borrow it while your machine is getting fixed?
I got home quickly, leaping from tree shadow to tree shadow, trying to stay out of the sun, careful not to jostle the modem too much in its plastic bag. Home, in the sudden, sharp cold and dark, I walked slowly to my room, sweat cooling and evaporating from my hands as I rounded the corner and closed the door.
The procedure was simple, I knew. I had put my own computer together in the first place. (I remember my dad, backing away, “He knows what he’s doing,” he said, meaning, “It’s your fault if you break it.”) Pop the top, unscrew and remove a dummy back plate to make room for the phone jack, slide the card carefully in — hold it along its edges; do not touch anything else, especially anything metal — then screw the back plate in place. Close the lid. Plug in the phone cable.
The computer came on fine, and when I started up the dialing program and made that first connection from my computer to another computer, something deep and rebellious inside of me flared, showering my heart with the coldest of sparks amid bright, happy feelings, as I considered what to do first.