The Commodore 64 (or C64) was my first computer. My best friend had a VIC-20 which was an earlier, precursor model to the C64 by the same company. The numbers represented the amount of RAM for each of the computers (as I recall). The C64 was notable in that it had 64K (yes, 64 Kilobytes) of RAM, a fairly large amount at the time. I got my C64 in either 1983 or 1984. I’m a bit fuzzy on the year because I got my first video game system, The Atari 2600 a year prior, so I think the dates were 1983 (Atari)/1984 (C64), but I could be off slightly–in any case, it was definitely in the 1983-1984 time period (1982 was the World’s Fair in Knoxville, TN where I first discovered “arcade” games and where my passion for gaming and all things video game related was born–it was only after that blossoming interest that my parents decided to spend the money on–what at that time might only have been a “fad”).
The “Educational” Machine
I got my computer for Christmas, although I got to go to the Hills Department Store (there’s a blast from the past that’s no longer around) and picked it out. I also got a Datasette tape machine to go with it–to load and save programs (the datasette was a cassette tape recorder which could save programs or could load them as well). It was abysmally slow–taking upwards of 5-10 minutes to load even the most basic of programs–these were after all 30 minute cassette tapes that were being read just like a music cassette tape. My parents sprung for a C64 Floppy Disk drive the next year.
I was given the computer with the stern caveat that it was only for use for education and any “games” that I might get for it could only be educational. This actually lasted for a good while–well up into the beginning of high school (1987-1988), although even before that time, my parents had begun to relax that restriction. I also began to find “creative” ways of stretching the definition of “educational.” At first, I stuck fairly close with “edutainment” titles like In Search of the Most Amazing Thing, but later I began to be more creative, such as justifying the purchase of the text adventure game The Tracer Sanction and the road racing game Great American Cross Country Road Race.
Learning BASIC, Yearning for More
One of the things that I really got to do was learn the programming language BASIC really well. My elementary school also had a C64 and I was able to use it very well and became the defacto computer guru of the school. I wrote a small program that “interacted” with parents on a “Parents’ night” we had at the school. I was able to do that because the C64 users manual had the basics (pardon the pun) of BASIC and there were plenty of resources (magazines and new computer books in the Children’s Department of the library) devoted to learning BASIC. And basic could do some impressive things–In Search of the Most Amazing Thing was written in BASIC on the C64 (and so was Temple of Apshai–I know because I “peeked” at the code to try to decipher what those two games were doing “under the hood.”
However, the games that I really wanted to do (high graphics games and projects) were written in machine language. The C64 manual didn’t really cover this, offloading it onto another (fairly expensive) book. I couldn’t really afford it on my paltry allowance–but I really did want it. My uncle finally found a low-cost substitute at RadioShack, but by then, the whole machine language craze had pretty gone by the way side (Apple IIs, IBM PCs and the beginning of MacOs/DOS was taking over–I saw & used my first Mac and Apple computers in high school, but it would be several years yet before I saw my first true PC). Not including some sort of “machine language” programming book was truly a mistake as it kept kids like me, who couldn’t afford the true programming “tome” from really cracking the intricacies of the machine and getting into the guts of programming (although I’ve since learned that Commodore–the company–made a lot of egregious mistakes, but as a child, I knew none of this).
Not Without Its Problems
The C64, while being one of the most popular computers of its era, still had its share of issue. One major one being the power supply. My C64’s power supply died after 3 years–on Christmas day, no less, just as we were playing some of the new games on it. F15 Strike Eagle by Microprose was the offending game as I recall (I’d managed to snag that one by arguing that it was a “simulation” and I was learning about flight and flight models through playing it–I’m sure they saw through it, but they let me get it, so hey, I’m not complaining. It took a while for us to find a repair shop–in the strip malls above Northgate Mall here in Chattanooga.
We took it there and it took about a month (maybe less, two-three weeks?) to repair–probably just to order and ship in a new power supply. This one lasted for a several years and then it too died. However, this time the computer market had moved on, so computers weren’t prohibitively expensive (at least not Commodores). While most of the world moved on to Apples and PC clones, we decided to replace the C64 and did so with a C64c, a redesigned variant of the original C64. This one lasted until I quite a while, but as I couldn’t really do anything on it (too limited–it could on run GEOS, the Commodore answer to MacOs, but not well and I didn’t have a printer to print out school papers, nor could any of the school computers read the GEOS files even if they could have used the 5.25 floppies, which they couldn’t because the standard by then were the smaller 3.5 floppies.
The End of an Era
My grandmother had to buy me a new computer over Christmas Break of my first year in college. She bought an IBM PC clone (a 386sx Packard Bell on sale at Sears) and a Dot Matrix Printer. While not nearly as great as my C64–let me tell you, I have some things to say about Packard Bell computers, and none of them very nice–it still did the job in terms of allowing me to get my papers and school work done.
It also, luckily, had a modem. So I was able to experience BBSs and more importantly, use that experience to navigate the new burgeoning “online” world and navigate onto the “World Wide Web” for the first time (thus, becoming a savvy internet user in its infancy–for the public, at least). The C64 suffered as I rarely used it anymore and only my uncle would occasionally use it to play the “Gold Box” Advanced Dungeons and Dragons RPGs that I “convinced” them to let me buy. He got our respective parties to the “final” boss fight, ready to challenge the evil minions for the last time before he succumbed to cancer.
Although the C64 holds some of the greatest memories of my life (from carrying the box out of the Hills Department Store to the car on one joyful Saturday afternoon, to being considered a tech guru because I could load up my friends’ favorite games on the system at school, to finding a hidden love of databases and relational data through creating a miniature computer catalog with a database program and looking for hours at graphs, charts, and breakdowns of the books that I owned, my C64 was companion that I will never forget, yet I have not been able to shake its final memories for me of my uncle and his last days with the system. I’ve not been able to take back out since (it is still up in the attic in its box along with the Disk drive). Maybe one day, I’ll be able to associate it with good memories again–but right now, all I can think of are the two teams waiting at the edge of the doorway, waiting for a battle that will never come.
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