The year was 1983. Personal computers were just coming onto the scene. Crude video games, and to a lesser extent, pc’s, were around but i didn’t know anyone who had such a thing. Our first brush with this technology was in the form of quarter gobbling arcade games, which were popping up all over the bowling alleys and pizza joints. I never was too excited about such games, with their pretend spacecraft, blinking lights and all. Plus, I was rather attached to my quarters. I threw them around with the same ease as throwing around manhole covers. Then, between the excitement of rolling a heavy ball at some pins, I saw some people playing something on a flat glass table that you could eat your pizza on. Where were the lights? Where were the buzzers? It was a rather simple maze full of dots, and a little dude that looked like a pie with a slice missing, gobbling up the dots.

Now of course, everyone knows that I am talking about Pac-Man. I found it to be rather entertaining with its straightforward nature.

The teacher at my rather underfunded, Catholic high school was doing his best. He was a middle-aged man who taught history much of his life. Suddenly, he was charged with being the expert and passing on his knowledge of programming computers. To his credit, he actually did know all of the commands but his imagination of how they can be put together to make much bigger things happen was fairly limited.

These machines, in the form of TRS80’s, showed up just one year prior. They were fairly large and bulky, with the keyboard and glass monitor all in one piece. They were hard wired with the programming language called BASIC. Having no data or program storage capacity of their own, the only way to make it do anything beyond being a giant and expensive paperweight, was to type the entire program instructions on the keyboard, each time it was turned on, or hook it up to a standard cassette tape recorder. The error rate when saving your work was abysmal. Apparently, one could buy these machines with 5 ¼ inch floppy disk drives, making them somewhat modern, but I can imagine how the budgeting committee meeting might have gone: BOB: “Wow, these things are expensive. I’m sure we don’t need the floppy, whatever they are, upsell. We need to buy new typewriters, you know.” COMMITTEE: “Oh, good idea Bob, yes, the typewriters are getting pretty old. Motion carried, no floppy thingies.”

Most of the students in his class sailed through with ease, as his expectations matched his own imagination… except for three of us, and the class split into two separate experiences, the command memorizers, and us… Chris Zinkle, Ted Doltar and me. We saw the power of nested loops, IF-THEN-ELSE’s, and how one could keep building and building. In this start-from-scratch setting, there really wasn’t much to learn in the form of facts. We quickly had the tools. Now it was just logic, and how to put it together.

A TRS 80 that actually has those disk thingies

To the teacher’s credit, he recognized our enthusiasm and growing skill. He left us alone, didn’t require us to turn in tedious homework assignments that would have simply wasted our time, and even let us isolate ourselves from boring class at times, whilst we chattered about the programs we were making. I suppose that he was actually a very good teacher, just an expert in a different subject.

There was a major project due at the end of the year. One could select what the program would accomplish and submit a rough plan detailing the logic of how it would work. It could be quite simple, but of course that would lower the potential grade. In this class, the grade became completely meaningless to me; I’m going to recreate the Pac-Man game from scratch became my goal.

The teacher was skeptical, but after reading my ideas of how, gave his approval.

It quickly became all consuming. There is surprisingly little to write down on paper in this endeavor. It’s mostly a thinking project. Some people sit quietly at a desk, some people doodle, I pace. I spent evenings and large parts of weekends ambling around our field in random patterns. Wondering and pondering, this was the most mentally intense thing that I’ve ever done. Sometimes I would allow my bicycle to cruise our long driveway between our house and grandma and Luke‘s house, slowly flowing about in the most random patterns, the world faded into the background. Somehow this seems to be conducive to the thinking process, though it might be difficult to employ in a corporate setting, perhaps even a little unnerving to visiting prospective clients.

It became clear that my time in class was not going to be nearly enough to enter, test and debug my thoughts generated while wandering aimlessly around a field. Being a rather underfunded Catholic high school, the dozen computers that the school owned were guarded pretty closely. I was surprised that my request to take one home for the weekends was granted. I would carefully put the seat belt around it for the drive home.

I succeeded in finishing the game. It wasn’t as pretty, but it played well and reasonably accurately compared to the commercial version. After completion, there wasn’t much of any celebration. The completion itself was amazingly anticlimactic. The getting there was it. While I was proud of what I had done, it had consumed me, and I was quite done with that.


PS. An unfinished writing of my thoughts, during a medically challenging time, was accidentally published about a week after the actual occurrence. I plan to finish it sometime.