Autobiography excerpt: the Commodore Vic-20 years

November 23, 2007

Like many computer geeks from my generation, my first computer was a Commodore Vic-20, bought second-hand in August of 1983 with money saved from a weekly paper route. For an 11-year-old paperboy trying to get by on such a meager income, it took about six months to accumulate the $200 I needed for this purchase. The resulting joy, however, cannot be measured in dollar value.

At first the Vic-20 was a merely a gaming machine to which I lost countless hours. It didn’t matter at the time how crude the graphics were, the games were simply a hell of a lot of fun. (As a contrast, I recently picked up a demo disk of the latest Playstation games, and found myself feeling bored and unimpressed very quickly. And that’s despite the leading edge graphics and first-person interface.)

Before long, however, I was writing my own programs in BASIC. Whether it was coming up with some simple routine from scratch, or punching in a program listing from a computer magazine and then changing and modifying it into something much wackier than intended, the overall feeling was one of total empowerment. The ability to imagine something and then just go ahead and create it was downright intoxicating.

When I look at my present fixations through the lens of the past, it’s easy to see how the Vic-20 years have shaped my computing biases. I’m a steadfast FreeBSD user, and an advocate of free software. And whether I’m using FreeBSD (at home) or Windows (at the office), I usually try to find ways to do things from the command line wherever possible. Today’s mouse-driven computing experience is one of simply using other people’s applications, as opposed to interacting directly with the machine itself.

About 10 years ago, my Vic-20 was sold at a yard sale by a well-meaning family member — without my knowledge or consent. I was enraged and heartbroken. It was like a long-lost friend had been abducted and spirited away in the middle of the night. (If only I had kept in touch, maybe I could have done something…) The offending family member thought they were just getting rid of a dusty old machine that was going on many years of neglect. To me, however, they were blithely disregarding a piece of my childhood.

I still think about my old Vic-20 every now and then, and I wonder whatever became of it. I’d like to think it didn’t meet its Waterloo in a trash compactor behind Value Village, though I can’t think of any reason why a child of the iPod age would be anything other than embarrassed by it. I guess kids today have more advanced toys in mind as they slog through their paper routes.

©2007 by James Deagle. All rights reserved