Love, Vintage Nerd Style

I happened across this old modem in my garage the other day – it was one of the modems used by Trex, the BBS chat system in Mountain View, CA, that was responsible for introducing me to my wife. What better way to celebrate Valentine’s Day than with a look back at our nerd romance and the technology that enabled it?

The mid 1980′s were a time when home computers were somewhat of a rarity, and those who used modems to connect their computers to bulletin board systems were an eclectic group to say the least. The kind of focus and determination needed to understand how to get the new technologies to work correctly together was something that few people possessed – it seemed to self-select for the young, bright, and socially backwards. I was all of these things.

Around the time I was 15, my father had acquired an IBM PC clone to aid in the financial work of running a semiconductor equipment manufacturing company. I immediately gravitated to it, having been exposed to Atari 800 and Apple II systems through the gifted/talented program in my fifth and sixth grade classrooms. My father, on the other hand, interacted with the computer with substantial amounts of cursing involved – and still does to this day.

I spent a lot of time helping him work around problems, and upgrading the system to faster processors, better graphics, and higher-capacity hard drives (I was so excited when we got a 20MB drive to install on the system). My aptitude for the technology became one of my first real paying jobs, and I was enlisted as the resident computer genius to take on some projects at the office. I was compensated for one of my jobs with an internal modem card.

That first modem was a real dog – it used an alternate standard for an attention sequence (CTRL-E) instead of the Hayes command sequence of “AT” (for ATtention) – and if the modem was already in attention mode, sending an extra sequence caused it to go stupid for several seconds. This frustrated most attempts to macro-dial busy bulletin board systems, until further projects earned me a more worthy MultiTech external modem that supported the standard command set. I spent many late nights cruising around the various single-user BBS systems in the area – one particular favorite was a Waffle BBS called the Dark Side of the Moon, running software written by the older brother of one of my high school friends. That’s my geek version of almost knowing someone famous by nerd standards.

Around this time, Trex (The RElational eXchange) came online – January of 1987. I discovered it pretty quickly, and while it didn’t have much content – no files to download; no manuals for anarchistic behavior; it did have something entirely new to me – interactive chat. The owner of the BBS had multiple phone lines, and multiple modems, all connected up to a custom-built PC running his own software, that allowed people to type messages to one another either privately or to everyone logged in. The instant messaging capability that everyone takes for granted today was the latest hot new tech back then – and to a teenage boy looking for love (or something like it) the promise of real live geek women willing to talk to me was an irresistible attraction. The reality was that the board had originally been started by and for gay men, and they made up a substantial portion of the board’s membership. There might have been one woman for every ten men regularly connecting to the board. They never lacked for anyone to talk to, that’s for sure – any female logging in was immediately mobbed by every straight man online.

Another element that Trex brought to the table was the regular IRL (in-real-life) meeting – Sunday nights were pizza at Tony and Alba’s in Mountain View (until I got us thrown out of there when I accidentally opened a door too fast and broke the glass against a bench sitting right outside). In the summertime, they would have “Trexnics” at the area parks – Rengstorff Park in Mountain View and Steven Creek Park in Cupertino were favorite spots. We gravitated towards more secluded locations in later years because, frankly, we were not a family-friendly kind of group activity – there was a lot of outrageous behavior going on; and the keg that was obtained for the “adults” was frequently tapped by the less-adult.

It was at one of those Stevens Creek Park picnics that the relationship between myself (“nod”) and my wife (“Pebbles”) got started. We had each dated various other people from the system, but never formed a lasting connection with any of them – and we continued to flirt with one  another all the while. Finally, we both found ourselves unattached at the same time – and we started going out. I spent a substantial portion of my freshman year of college in San Jose at her house when I was supposed to be in Santa Cruz at my classes. I didn’t get very good grades that year; but I did get the girl. I just could not resist the way she shook it when she danced.

The modem was gifted to me sometime in the mid-1990′s at a Trexnic by the sysop of the bulletin board, Brette. He had upgraded to newer equipment and had a small collection of these vintage 1200 baud modems laying around gathering dust. As one of the ‘founding’ members of the community that had actually gone off and gotten married, he felt like it belonged with us.

You can still connect to Trex today via telnet to trex.org. The system has migrated to run on a Sparc 10 running Solaris and a rewritten application layer; they no longer have the multiple banks of modems but they keep one connected for old time’s sake.

I feel fortunate to have been there in the middle of that revolution. Today, it’s almost a cliche to hear that somebody met their significant other online. We did it 25 years ago before it was cool – and I like to think that since I got first pick, I got one of the best ones.

Of course, no profession of my undying love for my spouse would be complete without a song – so I present to you (with apologies to The Hollies) my cover of “Bus Stop” entitled “Chat Board”:

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