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Photos by Salty Palette

Put a few things aside in the attic I wanted to keep. It’s like a museum piece, a memorabilia, signifying my digital awakening. Apparently, I’d set it aside amongst all those items I’d purged from the house. At the time it must have seemed important.

The name plate says Commodore 1541. It’s the wildly popular computer system that took the world by storm.  Obsolete Technology  says it was  sold first in January 1982. For purists, mine was made in Japan. It’s medium brown with rainbow bars across the head. It has a door for a large floppy, which I was so proud to own back then. The floppy was loaded with DOS, and if I remember correctly I could swap floppies, and store text or play a game. Found this thing at the old house.

My daughter brought it to me with a handful of books, and some family pictures. She had a car load of her own stuff but she hauled it eight hundred miles, and presented it to me like a long lost trophy. “I knew you’d want this.” It was packaged in a white box with the words Commodore Computer, Single Disk Drive written in large letters on the front.

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I didn’t recognize it at first until I unboxed it. Let me first say that I belong to that inexplicable set of people known as the “cult of unboxers” who like to watch home videos of nerds opening new technology gadgets. So, whether I could place this bit of nerdology or not, it was an unboxing and I was too happily busy to record it.

The box was musty and it’s second unboxing made my head swimmy. I stared at it for a long time like a stranger who after a bit of looking materialized into someone I once knew. And then it clicked, the chunk of metal stored in its original card board sleeve wrapped in Styrofoam, in good shape with the exception of a minor scuff on the top was an old friend.

Where did I get this? When did I buy it. I can remember every desktop computer system I’ve ever bought or built, and only two were bought, not counting my laptops. It took me back to when bits were so precious that spaces were counted and sentences shortened to save space on the disk. I’d thrown the large program floppy away, the one that held the operating system. The keyboard is gone, only the fourteen inch floppy drive remains.

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I remember how I felt when I saw this thing that cost a pittance, three-hundred-fifty dollars. Disbelief, joy, hustle, impatience to buy; I was breathless, not an exaggeration. It was actually a portable device, maybe five pounds, it wasn’t a main frame, it didn’t cost in the thousands of dollars. I could afford it.

I could actually own a bona fide computer. The screen might have been green with a block cursor that made a noise when the keys were banged. It didn’t seem like much of a system years later after Windows 3.1 with DOS 7, but then . . oh my!

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The system I remember didn’t have a real mouse, and oh, how I yearned for a mouse. This incredible piece of art came between my leaving and my getting a job, the custody battle, and a whole lot of history in only a few years. This little jewel gave me the first hint of knowledge that later I’d need to make a living.

Did I buy this thing before or after the divorce? That’s important. I have trouble remembering the ’80s. I was writing and fighting for my independence. I’d won a trip to a writer’s conference. Snatches, glimpses, foggy inklings come back to me. It’s a black hole, those memories for good reason.

A memory edges in, furtive, here and there, like a dog that you’ve scolded. It’s not sure whether it’s welcome but it slinks in any way. Forgive me if I don’t get this memory exactly right but there were disruptive changes happening in the computer industry and in my life.

It was 1978, and in a few months I’d get hellacious waves of morning sickness all day long with my third child, now that my two other children were both in school, now that I could take basic classes toward a degree in journalism, and explore computer languages, which were all any one could talk about, I was pregnant.

It’d wouldn’t be easy, but with help I could do it — drive two hours to the closest college to become a journalist. In a little over six-weeks the plans I’d held for ten years, crashed and burned. The brutal commute, morning sickness and a child, I could navigate – the other stuff, well.

Another memory – was it winter 1983? I was sitting with dozen other folks at the local Votech taking a night class in C++ I think it. Mr. Z., a computer programmer, Italian descent, taught a class in code. Again it’s vague. But that cruelly cold night was my introduction to computer systems. Rusty, my computer mate, was a natural at programming. I hung to his coding coattail, as he patiently explained the steps.

The class overflowed with adult students like Randy who worked at a coal mine on shifts that left him on the verge of sleep when he got there. There were maybe a dozen computers stuck so close together that our backs touched if we turned a bit. I finished the class got a certificate.

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Ah, now I remember. Mr. Z. introduced me to my first ever computer, the Commodore 1541 from Japan. He had a small computer supply store. It took 45 minutes to drive there — mountains you know, two lane highways that should have been one lane, they were so narrow, and coal trucks who took the road, slopping pieces of coal at your windshield, daring you to hold your side of the road, and don’t get me started on the logging trucks which didn’t have enough power or speed to travel more than 15 mph loaded. There’s a cliff on one side and a drop off that’ll land a car in the river on the other, and lots of gravel to slide through the hairpin turns.

The Sears electric machine with digital correction was showing it’s age. My Commodore 1541 supplemented my digital word processor from Sears Roebuck & Co. I didn’t have a printer but I had a computer. I could write a journal on it or write drafts for papers. I could get my thoughts down faster, rearrange my ideas, check my spelling with a paper dictionary, then type it out on the Electric. The Commodore improved upon a typewriter as far as I was concerned, but I was a bit-head from the beginning.

The next system I owned was a Windows 3.1, 386 (maybe) that needed DOS to boot. I made a six hour trip to the nearest computer business, and the owner built my first Windows computer. I was divorced, I had custody of my daughter, the last child at home. I had a job in publishing, I had a new love. He asked do I want a diamond ring or a mink coat for my birthday. I said I want a Windows 95 computer and a printer, and of course it had to have a freakn’ mouse. He shipped a never-been-used Windows computer system and printer with a bona fide mouse, and I never looked back. At the time, they were both the love of my life. Since then it’s Linux all the way. Ubuntu lately.

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