This is a continuation of my article about growing up in the 80’s in a small town. I’m writing it to showcase how much better things are today for nerds as well as to touch on some memories I have for the past (and why I love the things I do). If you’re from the same time period I’m from, then prepare for a blast of nostalgia. If you’re younger then I hope maybe you take an interest in some of this stuff and check it out for yourself.
Books / Comics
I had a fair amount more luck getting books than comics as a kid. But this was mostly regulated to what was at my school or the public library (or, early on, what they had at the little book fair that went through the public school system every year). The librarians apparently did really like mythology and ghost stories and so I definitely got my fill of those – even in grade school.
I ended up being a mythology buff from just all the borrowing/reading of books from the library. I swear my middle school even had some basic witchcraft books – complete with chants/spells (I’m not making that up either), as well as folk tales of Chinese mythology. My high-school had the Bulfinch books and Edith Hamilton – as well as a plethora of awesome folklore and ghost story books. There were also – of course – fantasy like the Tolkien books (although I didn’t really get into those until nearly the end of high school).
There was also the more adolescent comics of the time – like Wolverine and the X-Men. It seems like right after I had read some of the comics, the Fox X-Men cartoon came out and I was hooked.
(The Marvel Comic Presents Wolverine above was my first-ever comic.. the Archangel one is my second)
(Also got my first comic card around the same time.)
Even though I really liked them, I basically just owned two comic books – having acquired them in middle school by trading some kid my ice cream money. I read the Wolverine comic cover to cover until it fell apart and my mom threw it away in one of our yearly spring cleaning sessions (which, sadly, is also how I lost my He-Man action figures).
It wasn’t until high school that our grocery store actually started carrying comics in the magazine section. And, even then, it was very frustrating to be trying to read a story and then them just not carry the series the next month. This was – sadly – also during the comic boom of the 90’s and so whenever I was able to go to the mall 50 miles away, the prices on back-issues were insane.
Even though everyone I knew had limited access to comics, eventually in high-school a few comic graphic novels were passed around until everyone read them (i.e. the Crow). At least with those you could finish a story instead of just getting a glimpse from a single issue.
We also shared paperbacks of fantasy books (like Weiss and Hickman, Ed. Greenwood, and Salvatore). Fantasy books were always cheap used (still are), but just not locally available.
Role-playing books were even more scarce than comics (and, like comics, they cost a fortune back then). I had an acquaintance in high school that would loan out his D&D manuals (which I quite enjoyed reading). I’m pretty sure he was shoplifting them from that mall 50 miles away though (which is kind of ironic if he actually took the Thieves Handbook – I guess he passed the test?). I wasn’t able to play the game with anyone, so RPG books were really just interesting reading material.
I just didn’t have transportation outside of school so I didn’t get to hang around with friends and actually play D&D. So instead I just read the books in my bedroom at home after completing homework. I read every item in the Encyclopedia Magica (green book above is one volume) multiple times before I had ever played a single game of AD&D with people.
As a middle-schooler, I did have a PC luckily – several over those years in fact. My first was a 25 MHz IBM that my mom bought me for Christmas one year – and I think she spent a thousand bucks on it – which was a huge amount and I love her for doing that. And – even at a grand (which was really insane for her since she was a single mom working as a substitute teacher) – this was a hand-me-down computer from someone that was really into building them.
Early on I used DOS with a Q-Basic kind of shell on it to let you launch games, etc. I remember, as a kid, reading this big DOS manual and roaming around in the file system trying to figure things out (yes I deleted files accidentally on several occasions and had to have help restoring my OS).
Besides corrupting your OS (yep.. I deleted the autoexec.bat file), it was actually pretty cool to intuitively figure out what files are and how things worked. I had enough time and patience and just picked it up by trial and error. Installing and playing games was a great motivational tool.
The early gaming experience on the PC was comprised of Duke Nukem (not 3D), Commander Keen, some sort of weird flight game (that I don’t remember the name of), Lord of the Rings (on 3.5 inch disks and which I bought at a discount store), etc. I actually played around with Printshop more than anything – making pixel art and banners then printing it out on a line printer.
(Made a lot of banners on an old line printer with this program – designing graphics dot by dot.)
Our middle school had some Apple II’s and I remember playing Oregon trail (and reading those Choose your Own Adventure books) while in 5th grade after school (because I had to stay there with my mom until she was done with her work.
(When I think Apple IIs, I think choose your own adventure books. This was because of all the evenings I spent playing Oregon Trail and reading these while my mom graded papers. And yeah.. I cheated and read all the endings.)
And when I was over at my Dad’s I read the Jules Verne books I got from the library (no computer over there unfortunately).
I eventually upgraded/inherited a 486 running at whopping 50 MHz – which was just under what was needed to run DOOM/Blood/etc (which.. no I didn’t let my mom know about them).
(This is the type of game I played in 5th grade. By high school it was Quake and Blood.)
Friends at school ended up getting/sharing random DOS games to and from friends (read: illegally copy disks).
(ID games were unlockable off the shareware disc – I seem to remember a floppy drive component – and this got passed around a lot.)
I remember when there was that shareware Quake CD that got passed around with the unlock codes, but I wasn’t able to run any of the games on it besides Heretic. I had the old IBM clone machine for quite a while until I was nearly in high school and we got a new electronics store to build a 300 MHz PC (which the guy in the shop did on the side). Somewhere along the way we had a friend that went to a state university and had access to a CD burner there.
(The MechWarrior 2 soundtrack is amazing and is right there on the disc.)
He made us all copies of MechWarrior 2 (which I think one of his friends had stolen from a mall and then took to NC state university to copy). Outside of taped audio tapes, I listened to MW2 as an audio CD more than actually played it. I didn’t know about Warcraft or Warcraft II until I was mid-way through High School (again.. burned CD copies for everyone).
(We turned the educational lab into a bloody frag-fest many afternoons before ball games.)
The last few years of high school were interesting – PC-wise (what with the library offering a compliment of Pentium II’s running Windows 95). I was staying after school for band practice and ball games and so I was able to finally socialize with fellow students (well.. the ones that stayed after school). We had a really cool Civics teacher on campus that let us set up Doom on PCs and play those after hours while we waited for evening events. We also played Warcraft II in school after hours in the Spanish teacher’s classroom (her son was really into it). They moved to Guatemala, but we still kept up the gaming sessions at school without him.
(Warcraft II still remains one of my favorite-looking old-school games. Just look at how vibrant the colors are and they looked amazing on a CRT.)
I also hacked and tinkered on PCs up through college – overclocking my 300 MHz AMD to 350 and eventually setting up a whole computer lab in my parent’s basement from a bunch of parts and machines I bought from a hospital while working there as an intern. I actually blew a CRT tube by tweaking the refresh rate (there was no safety mode on monitors back in those days).
With the parts I got from a hospital I worked at, I ended up installing and setting up a semi-permanent LAN party at a friend’s card shop (who charged some admission fees to cover power and parts). The machines were all around 300-700 mhz and had a variety of video cards in them (TNT, TNT-2, etc).
We played lots of old games over there like Quake 3, Unreal Tournament, Warcraft II, Diablo II, etc. When I had to leave for school again, I gave everything to a local friend and he kept things working as long as he could.
My Dad also helped me out when I could get him to with soldering and the like (I would print out wiring diagrams and download drivers onto floppies at the public library). I found a wiring diagram to turn a SNES arcade stick into a PC joystick using a serial port and a driver and he wired it up for me. Another time Dad cut a hole in my old 300 MHz PC case and we tried putting in a fan for overclocking purposes (which ended up causing too much magnetic problems with the monitor.. it was a very bad idea).
One time he also “repaired” a power supply on my machine with a new fuse and when I took it upstairs and plugged it in, if failed spectacularly with a shower of sparks (I’m guessing now that the chose a fuse with too high an amperage and the real problem continued to destroy the power unit). When I was younger I also had him install mod chips for me in my PlayStation. We made a pretty good duo – me on the early web looking up specs, parts, and diagrams and him having the the know-how and the tools. I’m at the age now where I enjoy all the soldering and dremelling myself. And I always think of my Dad when I start a project.
Well that covers a lot of my childhood up through adolescence. Hope you enjoy reading. Let me know some of your experiences down in the comments below.