TRS-80: Thanks for the geek memories

The 20th anniversary of IBM's breakthrough PC conjures memories of such wonders as Radio Shack's Trash 80, says C.C. Holland.

COMMENTARY--I have a confession to make: I am not, technically, a computer geek.

Sure, I write about technology; it's my job. But my geekiness is to some extent a carefully constructed façade. Yes, I know HTML and can maneuver my way around a system registry. But at a barbecue or baseball game, I'd rather be chatting about my tennis backhand, George W. Bush's latest gaffe, or the state of print journalism than talking about microprocessors, storage media, or screen resolutions.

But yet...but yet...somewhere back in the dark reaches of time, I was--for a brief, shining few moments--a true geek. The impending 20th anniversary of the PC gives me cause to look back at those days.

The transformation from normal adolescence to geekhood occurred around Christmas 1982, when my father presented the family with a brand-spanking new computer: a top-of-the-line Tandy TRS-80 Color Computer. (Don't laugh. It was amazingly cool at the time.) My dad hooked it up to an old portable television, and we were off.

My brother Miki and I seized upon our new toy with great enthusiasm. We spent hours playing Berserk and Zaxxon. Somewhere along the way, we discovered Leisure Suit Larry. And we were initiated into the mysteries of programming in BASIC, courtesy of Mr. Porcelli at our junior high's optimistically named computer lab (a spare room hosting two or three machines).

Create sounds? Change the color of the screen? There was no stopping us now! We spent hours experimenting and backing up our work on the tape drive. We discovered how easily we could torment each other by recording a Bee Gees song over each other's most-prized work. (Yes, we each got grounded several times during our early computer years, and more than a few joint computer sessions ended with hair-pulling and fistfights.)

I discovered that our beloved TRS-80 also allowed my budding writing career to flourish. It was faster and easier to type my stories than to write in longhand, and I was hooked...that is, until one particularly lengthy epic sucked up all the machine's memory (a whopping 16K). My dad, persuaded by what he remembers as my "hysterical screaming fit," took pity on me and upgraded to 32K. Subsequent upgrades included a floppy drive, a "real" monitor, and a dot-matrix printer.

Over time, Miki became a true-blue computer geek, pulling apart old computers to analyze their innards, installing modems and associated hardware, and even building his own machines from scratch. He ended up with a degree in electrical engineering and is now a true professional geek (and makes a great living at it).

Meanwhile, I drifted away, lured by the siren song of journalism and using our computer mainly for word processing. When I got to college, I gave up computers completely and returned to my portable typewriter; it wasn't until 1993 that I bought my own computer (a PowerBook 145B, but that's another story) and got online for the first time.

Occasionally, I do commune with my childhood geek, especially when I'm doing coding for a Web site or learning a little about SQL. And it's then I often get nostalgic for the days when a little computer, hooked up to an even littler television set, represented a ship sailing forth on the ocean of cutting-edge technology...with me and my brother at the helm.