Short Story Title: It's Just an Expensive Toy

Story Type: Fiction


This Short Story is Chapter Six of "Early Microcomputer Experiences"

Date Written: July 4, 2019

Written By: Joel T. Kant

Copyright (c) July 4, 2019


Our sizeable group occupied most of the chairs around the table in the cafeteria of Cornfield University, but the table was large with strangers seated at the far end. Our group consisted of Josh Cistern, Albert Rose, Tom Anderson, Bruce Brown, Darnell William, Gerald Jacobson, and myself.

Robert paused in his eating to say to Albert, "I was surprised that karate kick to the head didn't just knock somebody out, but was fatal."

Albert replied, "I wish it hadn't happened."

Tim said, "You might as well have carried a gun instead of relying on karate with that outcome."

The strangers at the far end although barely having started their meals got up to move to another table. They looked at us with what appeared to be fear!

Josh started laughing and then told us, "They didn't realize we were talking about a fantasy-role-playing game!"

The rest of our group joined in the laughing, including me.

Gerald remarked, "We've often talked about D&D at the supper table, but that reaction never happened."

Tom said, "Given how you and Darnell like to play characters with an evil alignment, it is a good thing that eavesdroppers think your D&D adventures are fantasy! You two would probably end up arrested if eavesdroppers thought you really did those evil acts!"

Darnell suggested, "Discussing D&D tends to include swords, dragons, dwarves, elves, magic, and so forth, so it is easy to figure out it is not the real-world. Karate and guns seems more plausible."

Bruce countered, "Swords are not that unusual. I have a sword, but it's only decorative."

"I have a decorative sword as well," Josh said. "I tried hitting a plastic crate with it for fun, and the handle bent. It turned out a thin and flimsy threaded rod held the handle with the pummel screwed on. I modified the sword by shortening the blade about six inches so a strong tang extends through the handle."

Robert declared, "All plastic crates should tremble with fear of Josh's new and improved sword!"

Simon and Lori were not here because they lived off campus so were not on the campus meal plan, but Tim mentioned them, "I don't own a sword, but Simon and Lori both own swords. Not just decorations, but nice ones."

Darnell said, "I don't have a sword. If I had the money for one, then I'd rather by a couple boxes of disks rather than a sword."

Albert remarked, "I don't have a sword, but when I graduate and have money, I'm going to get a katana from Japan."

Tim remarked, "Lori's sword is a katana, but not from Japan. Simon has a long sword and a short sword."

I reached in my pocket and pulled something out, "I have here a Buck pocket knife with a blade a little over an inch long!"

That got a laugh as I put the tiny implement away. It was fine for stripping plastic insulation off of wires, opening envelopes, taking out staples, and sharpening pencils, but not much of a weapon.

Robert asked, "Josh, have you written the Champions game as a fiction story yet like you said you would?"

Josh replied, "I've been too busy. Hey, we could all write it together in a round robin style. None of us would have to write much that way."

Robert half-heartedly agreed, "I suppose."

Nobody else at the table had even close to the half-hearted enthusiasm as Robert for this joint writing idea.

I put in, "I have to type up a final paper for Freshman Composition II. That's the only writing I plan on doing until this semester is over. Your round-writing idea might be fun for next semester, Josh."

Josh complained, "All of us will have forgotten the details of the game by then."

Apparently not wanting to get roped into a round-writing exercise, Tim asked, "Whose running games this weekend?"

Robert answered, "I'm running my D&D game on Friday, and Josh is running Champions on Saturday. Simon has lost enthusiasm for running games ever since he got that cease-and-desist letter as if it applied to his simply DM-ing games rather than just to his software."

Josh said, "I have a new software idea to try out on Saturday in my game. I've gotten quite a library of sound effect routines for my Vic-20."

Darnell wondered, "What sort?"

Bruce said, "Josh has used some of these to jazz up those games I typed in from the David Ahl book."

Craig wondered, "Like explosion sounds?"

Josh responded, "Yes, I have three different types of explosions. I also have rocket launching, gunshots, falling bomb, a car motor, a roaring wind, a police siren, ringing telephone, laser?"

Bruce interrupted, "Dr. Domain showed me a helium-neon laser, which he calls a he-ne. It doesn't make any noise, but just silently makes a red dot far away."

Tom asked, "Can you see the beam in the air?"

Josh replied, "I'm sure you can't. I've seen he-ne lasers, and the beam is invisible."

Bruce countered, "Normally it's not visible, but Dr. Domain grabbed a couple erasers from the chalk board. He slapped them together. Then, we could see the thin red beam. He said that he doesn't like to that too often because it gets chalk dust all over his lab equipment."

Josh said, "I don't mean the sound of a real laser, but the type of sound effect for a science fiction movie when a laser is shown, of course! I greatly reduced the size of the code for my mapping program, so I can fit in these sound effects. I will play sound effects at the appropriate time in the game."

Robert said, "That might liven up a Champions game, but none of those sounds seem appropriate for my upcoming D&D game. What if you wrote up the Champions game as an audio play and used those sound effects?"

Josh got excited. I recalled he loved radio audio plays on National Public Radio (NPR), like Mind Webs, a version of Star Wars, and Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. He loved the last the most.

Josh suggested, "We could all voice act our Champions characters in an audio play!"

I skeptically noted, "I hate the way my voice sounds when recorded."

Bruce said, "I don't like mine either."

Albert remarked, "That's a common effect. Your own voice sounds different than you expect when recorded. Your voice resonates in the nasal cavities changing how you think it sounds. Your voice generally doesn't sound all that bad to others, just different than you think it does until a recording reveals the truth."

Josh said, "We should record the Champions game as an audio play!"

Albert remarked, "If it is done that way, then it shouldn't be done with just a consumer-grade stereo cassette recorder. We should have proper equipment with multi-track recording and high-end microphones. Over in Pioneer Tower, there's equipment like that."

Tim asked, "Cornfield University has that stuff?"

Albert said, "Sure. Student disk jockeys do the campus radio station, and campus cable has a news show every weekday. There is lots of great sound and video equipment over there."

I said, "I watched the campus TV news being made once. The reporter interviewed the football coach outdoors in the stadium. The microphone the reporter was holding clearly wasn't connected properly, but there was another mike on the videocamera. Since a light wind was blowing, a roaring sound made it seem a hurricane was blowing with very few words understandable. It was good for a laugh."

Albert remarked, "Joel, that happened at the start of the school year. The reporters, camera operators, and disk jockeys studying here do a much better job now as the school year draws to a close. That's the point of their education, after all. If we talked to the right professor and called this an educational project, then we might get to use the professional recording equipment!"

Rather than enthusiasm to what I thought was an excellent suggestion, Josh said, "It was just an idea that I had. Skip it."

I tiredly put in, "Josh, why are you coming up with ideas like making our own audio plays when it's only two weeks until Finals Week? I'd really like to see you use the sound effects in your Champions game, but I have to beg off on both Robert's D&D game and your Champion's game. I need the time to study. This is a bad time, but all of us will have more free time next semester."

Tim, Bruce, Darnell, and Gerald assured Robert and Josh they would play in both games. this weekend, but Albert did not join in.

Albert said, "I'll have spare time during the summer, but we're heading off in different directions. I have a summer job unloading trucks at the company Dad works for."

I replied, "I'm back in the papermill village located next to the papermill city for the summer. I'll work at the same village swimming pool that I worked at the last three summers."

Josh said, "I'll earn money working at Sears in Irate City. I make keys, plastic badges, and so forth."

Tim, Bruce, Darnell, Gerald, and Robert also had summer jobs, but in very different places across the state.

To my surprise, Albert said after the discussion of summer jobs was over, "I'll have to skip both games this weekend as well. Same reason as Joel."

The others seemed surprised when Albert announced this, although nobody seemed surprised when I had done it.

Albert remarked, "Bruce, you should understand. When I dropped Calculus, that leaves me with exactly thirteen credits. Thirteen is still a full load, but I cannot afford to get lower than a C in even one class. I don't want to get put onto Academic Probation like you have been this semester."

Bruce said, "I think putting students on that is mostly a scare tactic. I'm doing just fine this semester in all my classes. Dr. Domain loves my programming work. Yet, I still have time for both the games this weekend. I just work my tail off the rest of the week."

Josh declared, "I'm not going to run or play in any games the weekend after this. Saturday's my last game of the semester. I need to study in the weekend before Finals Week."

Robert said, "Then I'll run my D&D game this Friday, and also on both Friday and Saturday next week."

Tim enthusiastically announced, "I'll be there, Robert!"

Nobody else but Tim would commit for Robert's games next week since that was the weekend before Finals Week, although all except Albert and myself said they would attend Robert's game this Friday and Josh's game on Saturday.

After the weekend was over, I was told that I missed some of the best D&D and Champions games of the semester, but I barely paid attention. Soon enough, the next weekend was over as well and I never found out how games went that last weekend or who played in them. Only days later, all my final exams were over. I felt I good about them, but I would have to wait for my report card in the mail to find out if I really had done well.

I was only back in the papermill village next to the papermill city for a few days when I got a long-distance phone call from Josh Cistern. He told me that there was an ad for a used Vic-20 computer system down where he lived in Irate City. The important part was that it included a printer! At that time, the Vic-20 computer itself sold for three hundred dollars, but the printer cost four hundred! That was the reason very few Vic-20 owners had a printer!

The village swimming pool did not open until June 1st. So, I had free time as this was around May 18 or so. I borrowed my Mom's Chevy Suburban, and drove about eighty miles to Irate City.

In Irate City, I got to see Josh's parents house when I picked him up. We then went to see the man selling his Vic-20 system. For $425, it had a Vic-20 computer, a Commodore tape recorder, the Commodore 1515 dot-matrix printer, a couple books and magazines, an Atari joystick, and some assorted cassette tapes and a spare ribbon. It did not have a memory expansion of any sort. It also did not include a monitor.

I then made what was both one of the smartest and the most foolish purchases I ever made in my life. I bought the system.

With the system purchased, Josh and I went over to a computer store. Irate City had those, but Cornfield City and the papermill city next to the papermill village that I lived in had none whatsoever. The papermill village had no stores at all. It had one once that looked like something out of the Walton's TV show in a converted house for groceries, but it had closed.

I spent around $110 to get a sixteen-kilobyte memory expansion at the computer store in Irate City. Until I had that, I did not consider the Vic-20 a serious computer, but with it, it was. I was judging it based on my mainframe computer experiences during the just-completed schoolyear. I also bought a stack of cassette tapes of the sixty-minute type, three for a dollar. Josh informed me the ninety-minute tapes were too stretchy since so thin, but sixty-minute tapes worked fine as computer tapes.

Josh and I spent most of the day copying cassettes. I ended up with quite a stack of programs from him. Finally, I drove back to the papermill village with my purchase.

The next day, I had the Vic-20 hooked to the TV in the living room. My siblings and their friends came over. In May 1982, seeing an actual working microcomputer in this small village was something highly unusual and amazing.

I loaded the games that Josh had written like Battleship and the 3D maze, as well as the pirated game of Blitz where a little airplane knocked down buildings. The kids loved the games! They even liked Tic-Tac-Toe when I loaded that! A crowd was gathered around the computer taking turns at the videogames when Dad came home.

Dad took me aside and angrily demanded, "What have you just done?"

I replied, "What do you mean?"

He said, "You just wasted your college savings buying a video game system!"

I countered, "It's a real computer! It will help me in college."

Dad gestured at the kids gathered around the Vic-20 hooked to the TV and said, "Just look at that! It's just an expensive toy! It's not much different than that Magnavox Pong game in the basement."

Within a few days, some of my siblings wanted to watch the TV as a TV because their favorite shows were on instead of it being a computer monitor. There was the nineteen-inch black-and-white TV in the basement, but that was too large to bring to college with me in the fall. Plus, when my younger siblings wanted to watch different shows that aired at the same time, one got to watch the color set in the living room and the other had to go to the basement to watch it in black-and-white. I could not have that black-and-white TV set.

A store called Woolco was going out of business. I went and bought a portable twelve-inch black-and-white transistorized TV for 40% off. I think the list price was $100, so about $60. That little TV completed my computer system.

While visiting kids wanted to play videogames, when they weren't around, I got started on real work. I had a word processing program that I had gotten from Josh. As I had anticipated, writing was so much easier with insert, delete, cut-and-paste, save-to-tape, and load-to-tape! It was such a pleasure when done editing to have the document come out the printer rather than using a typewriter and putting White-Out on the paper when a mistake was made! I doubt anybody reading this will have the slightest confusion of what a word processor on a microcomputer can do, but this was an entirely new concept for most people back then! I tried showing Dad the amazing things a word processor and printer could do compared to using my Royal typewriter, but he was still angry about my expensive toy and wouldn't come see my demonstration. While I had never thought of Mom as a technical person, she came to see what I meant. Very quickly, I could tell she "got it" for the huge difference between a typewriter and a word processor with printer, but winning her over wasn't going to change Dad's attitude about the stupidity of my purchase.

As it got closer to the opening date, I went to the village swimming pool.

The manager was there, and called me into his office.

He said, "I'm sorry to have to do this, but I can't use you this summer."

I was shocked as I thought this was practically a guaranteed job.

I stammered, "Didn't I do a good job the last three years?"

He replied, "You did a fine job. I can do a recommendation letter if you want. It has nothing to do with your job performance."

I asked, "What's the problem?"

He explained, "The pool is open from June first through Monday of Labor Day weekend. You attend Cornfield University, and it starts the last week of August. I know that because you were gone that week when you started your Freshman year last summer."

I protested, "Three people working here attend Bill-of-Rights University! That starts the same time. Are you letting them go too?"

He responded, "No, they still have jobs."

"That's not fair," I complained.

He said, "You don't understand how Bill-of-Rights University differs from Cornfield University. Tell me what happened to you the last week of August last summer."

I nervously answered, "My parents drove me to Cornfield University on Sunday. On Monday, I had to be at the fieldhouse at nine am. That's what is called Registration Day. I went from table to table, each representing a department, finding classes that I needed and weren't full until I had my schedule worked out. That completed that day."

He requested more information, "When did your first official day of class start?"

I replied, "The very next day, Tuesday."

He responded, "I thought so. Classes kept you gone that entire week. Bill-of-Rights University has a Registration Week instead. Seniors do what you described on Monday, only that place is too big to have it be done in the fieldhouse. The students go building to building to sign up for classes, and it takes all day. Juniors do it on Tuesday. Sophomores on Wednesday. Freshman on Thursday. Then, Friday is either for fixing problems or a free day. After that, it's Labor Day weekend with their courses not actually starting until the Tuesday after it. The head lifeguard is starting his Senior year, so he'll be gone Monday, but back on Tuesday."

He went on to explain how the others working for the pool and attending Bill-of-Rights University were in different years, so gone just one day and not all gone on the same day.

He spread out his hands and declared, "I have a swimming pool that I have to run through the end of Labor Day Weekend. I can't use you or anybody attending Cornfield University, but attending Bill-of-Rights University is fine. I can make a schedule around those gone just one day."

At home, I dreaded telling Dad the bad news about not having the summer job.

Dad firmly said, "You'd still have a reasonable sum of money if you hadn't wasted it on that toy videogame. I'll continue to pay your room and board, but not a dime more. If you can't come up with the rest of the money, then you'll have to consider something other than college."

About half of my high school graduating class had not gone to college right after graduating. Instead, about a third had joined some branch of the military. The rest had gotten full-time jobs right out of high school other than a very few who were unemployed and not students so at loose ends. In that time and place, parents paying for college was NOT an expectation! The common expression was eighteen and out! I was better off than many of my high school peers with room, board, and tuition! By the way, this did not mean those of my peers who went immediately into the military would not eventually go to college. Many would through programs like the G.I. Bill.

I went to the county's job placement service the next day. I applied for job after job after job. Other than a few one-day jobs that I did do but earned hardly more than twenty dollars for any of them like helping somebody sweep a chimney one day, mowing a lawn another, all other interviewers demanded being there through the end of Labor Day Weekend.

I talked to a friend also attending Cornfield University. He was not in Engineering nor in Computer Science, so I have not mentioned him yet. He had just landed a summer job. I had applied for that same job, and not gotten it.

I told him what had happened at the swimming pool, then asked him, "How'd you get the job?"

He replied, "You've got to lie about being available throughout all of August and through Labor Day Weekend! Not everybody knows what your pool manager knows about Cornfield University! Most people think all universities work like Bill-of-Rights University. One day out in the end of August seems tolerated, but it is common to lie even about that with claiming it as a sick day. Tell employers that college starts the Tuesday after Labor Day Weekend, and you'll get a job like me!"

I said, "The first week of classes at Cornfield University is incredibly intense! I think the professors do that on purpose."

He said, "Of course I can't actually skip classes that week! I agree, the intensity in the first week seems done on purpose. The profs do that at Cornfield University just to prove they're different from Bill-of-Rights University. However, it's not like an employer will sue me to get my summer wages back! The worst that will happen is I won't get a job there next summer because by then they'll know the truth. If I do a good enough job when there, even that might not happen. However, you've got to get the job first! Trust me, as a Cornfield University student, the only way to get a summer job in this city is to LIE! It isn't even like an actual lie, but merely an expression of commitment! Employers expect it, and don't think you are serious about wanting the job unless you tell the lie. If you admit you have to attend classes in the last week of August, there's no summer job to be had!"

I could not bring myself to tell such a lie, though. That meant no summer job other than a few one-day odd jobs.

I wondered of the wisdom of the employers if they had the claimed attitude. It seemed to me if their summer employees found ways to steal their companies blind, then they should partially blame themselves by requiring a lie to get employed for any students attending Cornfield University! That seemed to guarantee they only hired liars!

Unemployed and frustrated, I went to my room where I had my Vic-20 system set up. It felt more like a curse than a blessing. Yet, I might sell if for around what I paid for it if I got Josh Cistern's help. I think few in this papermill city would have any clue what this system even was as this entire city and the village next to it were very technically backward compared to Irate City! I could not sell it here for what it was worth, most likely. I could probably get my money back in Irate City, though, where the meaning would be better understood.

On the other hand, I still firmly believed this Vic-20 system could greatly help me academically despite Dad's insistence it was just a toy! I got out the manuals, one a slender book called a Users Guide and the other a fat book called a Reference Guide. I started reading and coding. If I was actually correct that this Vic-20 system could serve as a real computer, then this unexpected free time this summer might help me accomplish great things with it. If Dad was right that it was could do no more than function as an expensive toy, then I might have just doomed my college education!


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