Memories of paddling the web on my first computer

I think it’s time to pull my glasses down to the bridge of my nose, squint, and not tell anyone in particular “Why, back then. . .” and talk about my first experiences with computers and the Internet.

My younger brothers Kelvin and Scott had been computer nerds since the 1980s and received magazines that showed them how to code their own games. I didn’t know anything about computers back then, but I loved playing those then high-tech, now embarrassing games with boxy graphics and pleasing beeps like “Jumpman Junior.”

Fast forward to the early 1990s and I remember reading the letters section of a Rolling Stone magazine and coming across a strange collection of numbers, letters and other keyboard symbols that the authors included in the end. I wondered what they were. Today they would be easily recognizable as website URLs, but back then they looked like hieroglyphs all over the world.

Tony Wade, Back in the Day

Around this time, I started to hear a lot about this “information highway” and my wife Beth and I bought our first computer, a 386, from a catalog. At the time, the monitor was sold separately, which would be like buying a car but buying the steering wheel separately. We have a used monitor from Kelvin.

We hooked it all up, fired that bad boy, and surfed the World Wide Web for the very first time. Well . . . surfed is not entirely accurate. I’m not a surfer, but I saw “Point Break” back then and I know they lay on their boards and paddled out to the waves, then brought them upright back to shore. What we were able to do on the 386 was more like the paddle part than the backboard part.

To access the web, we used one of the America Online discs that apparently arrived every other day in the mail at the time. Now, how do you describe the AOL dial-up process for those who are too young to have experienced it? Hmmm. . . Let me see . . . remember the scene from the original “Star Wars” movie where the main characters were stuck in a huge trash compactor on the Death Star and were saved at the last moment by R2D2 stopping it remotely? Well, imagine that R2 was instead in the trash compactor with them, so he couldn’t stop it and was emitting several seconds of horrible electronic death screams as he was crushed. Oh, and just before he left the ghost droid behind, he inexplicably said, “You’ve got mail!”

In fact, it’s kind of revisionist history because back then, that Nine Inch Nails AOL riff sound meant you were connected to the world in a way that was previously impossible. Now we routinely take for granted how great it was and it’s cool.

That said, the experience of the time was not without its challenges. The problem was that computers in sci-fi movies had totally spoiled us. I had seen the “Star Trek” computer do all sorts of cool things instantly and usually just using voice command.

The America Online experience with a computer doing things at a glacial pace was very different. I would click on something. . . and wait. . . and wait. . . and wait again. Websites took forever to load and worked on your patience.

The chat room experience? Meh. Here’s what most of them looked like: you introduce yourself, someone says “Hi” and asks “What’s going on here?” The answer was usually “Nothing”. Then someone would post A/S/L, which meant they asked for your age, gender, and where you live. I used to say that I was a 24 year old female from Portugal. Then someone else would come in and the whole boring cycle would repeat itself.

I started going to music quiz rooms where awkward greetings weren’t expected. You just introduce yourself and ask and answer trivial questions. Remember this was before Google and I’m sure Ask Jeeves wasn’t nearly as helpful. So people had to use their memories.

My brother Kelvin has always had a much more powerful computer than me and with the latest bells and whistles. I remember when he had the ability to rip and burn tracks to CDs and create digital mixtapes. He would often make bits of old metal tracks or songs I hadn’t heard in a long time and give them to me for Christmas. Yes, it was a stingy move, but I enjoyed it and still have them – even if they won’t be playing now.

I still have a few old floppies, not the old, old ones like Matthew Broderick used in “War Games”, but the other 3.5 inch ones. I have no way of seeing what’s in them now, but they keep my old projector reels and VHS tapes.

Now, although obsolete, the floppy lives (a bit) in 2022, but its purpose has changed. I saw a great T-shirt with one on the front that said, “THE DISK IS LIKE JESUS, IT DIED TO BECOME THE ICON OF RESCUE.”

Freelance Fairfield humor columnist and local accidental historian Tony Wade writes two weekly columns: “The Last Laugh” on Mondays and “Back in the Day” on Fridays. Wade is also the author of The History Press book “Growing Up In Fairfield, California”, published in 2021, and the upcoming History Press book “Lost Restaurants of Fairfield, California”, which will be published July 4, 2022.

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