Tuesday, July 8, 2014

The BBS Days

Before the internet, there were Bulletin Board Systems.  These were systems much like a modern day forum, where users could post messages, share e-mails, play games and swap files.  They used dial-up modems and the user called the other computer directly.  It was a different experience than the widespread nature of the internet.  Most users were local because long distance charges were steep back in those days.  BBS’s were popular in the 80’s and started to die out when Compuserve, GEnie, America Online and similar services set up national systems where users could reach through local numbers.  The internet as we know it was the next evolution.

For a teenage computer geek, which I was, BBS surfing late on summer nights was paradise.  High-traffic times meant there were lots of busy signals, so the wee hours were prime surfing.  Public domain software was a big thing, offering games and other wares for free.  Online games became pretty popular.  There were multi-user games based on various themes.  It was a blast.

My friend, James Stormes, was (and still is) the alpha computer geek.  We had always talked about a BBS, so one day Jim built one up.  It was based on Galacticomm software, which was a big deal.  Jim bought a multi-user system which was state-of-the-art compared to most of the shareware systems of the time.  He pieced together an IBM PC clone and replaced the original 8088 processor with a “V-20” upgrade.  I think the BBS operated at a smoking  10 megahertz.  I can’t remember the drive size, but I’m sure a modern day thumb drive would have backed the system up 10 times over.

Jim lived in town, and I lived between Midland and Odessa.  This was a prime situation because in those days people in my area could get a “561” exchange which allowed calls to or from Midland and Odessa without long-distance charges.   Yes, if you called Odessa in 1987 it was a long-distance call.  Jim set the system up, bought two lines, and we were rolling.  All we needed was a name.  After kicking around the possibilities, we settled on “Telegraph Road.”  It was a Dire Straits song from the time period.  We completed the act with business cards that were scattered about computer stores and software sections of bookstores.  Mike Spencer’s mother made us a batch of T-shirts with the album cover art.  Telegraph Road was on the air.

What followed was years of enjoyment in the geek community.  In those days, computers were expensive and less user friendly than today.  This made for an interesting social network of like-minded folks similar to amateur radio today.  Even back then we had to deal with porn uploads, endless online sex chats that tied up lines, and there were even a few relationships and marriages from meetings on “TR.”  Viruses weren't that common, but I remember an outbreak of the "Stoned" virus.  There were quite a few parties and friendships that made for great memories.

Jim went off to school in 1991 and I moved back to town, so the board was turned over to avid user Mark Smyth, who expanded it to twelve lines and added more games.  I remained a user until it finally folded up sometime in the 90’s.  According to Mark, the phone company designated him as a business and raised the rates to the point that he shut down.

There are a few sites out there that memorialize the old boards.  There were several in Midland, operated by individuals, some by churches, even one operated by the Ector County schools.  There were a couple of surreptitious boards known for porn, pirated software or stolen goods.  Porn back then consisted of poorly scanned images from girlie mags.  An image could take up to an hour to download.  I recall two monochrome videos that consisted of about ten frames looped.   Some unknown conspirators converted one to a virus-like PASCAL program and attempted to plug it into Lee High School's lab.  As an Explorer in the Sheriff’s Office, a move that spawned my 23+ year law enforcement career, I once helped detectives mole out some stolen gear from one of the sites.

The BBS system will always hold fond memories to me.  The internet has reminiscent offerings of those days, but nothing will compare to teen caffeine fueled red-eye nights spent in role-playing games at a blazing 2400 BPS with music blaring in the background.

Here's a site with some old BBS info:  http://bbslist.textfiles.com/915/

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