There was no event during my tenure at Humboldt Elementary School that excited me more than Thursday, as that was the day Mrs. Heckel and the district “computer bus” arrived at the small circle of school.
And it was there that Judi Heckel, still one of my favorite teachers, held court in front of two rows of Apple IIe on a modernized Blue Bird bus, and taught us the immutable laws of computers as they existed in the era: the backspace button was the “boo-boo corrector”, caulk the wagon in Oregon Trail was a death wish, never touch the exposed magnetic tape at the bottom of a floppy disk, and there was no boo-boo corrector with enough power to obliterate the crime of stuffing Chewels gum wrappers through the vents where the power switch was.
Our family’s first home PC had no brand name printed on it, just a blue square with a wavy “M,” and here’s the clincher, no Windows operating system. Yes, we’re talking about DOS, although we had a menu screen that, once started, we could program ahead of time, saving us from having to type in all those pesky C-colon-backslash prompts.
THE RETURN MACHINE: Turn around and face the strange…ch-ch-change
I’m pretty sure my parents may have used the computer to pay some bills, and maybe a regular spreadsheet here and there. Personally, I don’t even remember using WordPerfect until a few years later, when I’m sure I was the only one in the class of 1996 responsible for an essay in Mrs. Nolan’s class that referenced the both to Slayer and to Tipper Gore. Hey, I was 16. Of course, I was against censorship.
So for the first two years the only thing I used this computer for was, as you might have guessed, gaming. Back in the 90s, PC gaming was the Cadillac of these things; so much more elegant, so much more polished, than going to Broadway Video trying to rent Castlevania before someone else gets there on a Friday night.
I’m sure others who had PCs might remember some of the popular, uh… “software” games of that era: like Wing Commander, essentially Star Wars meets Top Gun, where you piloted various starfighters against an army of space cats while giving your own call sign for the “exit board” yourself, ensuring every time I would fly into the fray of space battle my wingman would say ” I have your six, Commander Poop”.
THE THROWBACK MACHINE: it’s the 300th spectacular throwback!
I also had Bill Elliot’s NASCAR Challenge, which let you experience the thrilling adrenaline rush of adjusting spoiler angles and gear ratios; Darkseed, a point-and-click mystery game that I never got to complete because I didn’t know I was supposed to lure the evil monster from the bridge into the chasm by throwing a stick; and of course, Life and Death, the infamous simulation game where you could live out your teenage dream of being an abdominal surgeon by palpating the abdomen, scheduling x-rays, referring patients and, in a patient on 10, performing an appendectomy, lovingly rendered gore step by step in the best graphics a computer of that era could muster.
This particular video game task was so legendaryly difficult that somewhere around my freshman year of high school, a girl with curly hair and a lisp from my geometry class who I won’t name here was so monumentally stunned by my claims to be able playing at life or death appendectomy, even managing to cut a straight line through the peritoneum using the mouse to control the scalpel, that she just had to know how to do it herself , which led her to slip me her phone number so that I could actually explain the procedure to her over the phone. Worth practicing, I would say.
Where is the computer bus now? Well, you might be as surprised as I was to discover, in a May 27, 2006 article by Krista Lewin, that Mrs. Heckel was still teaching children computer science throughout the new millennium, probably skipping things over floppy disks, but always keeping an eye out for any clever mouths trying to stuff a crumpled Fruit-Stripe wrapper into the CD-ROM drive.
I learned a lot from this article, written about her then impending retirement: that her fascination with computers came from an experience with a Radio Shack Brand TRS-80, that she had to obtain a Class D license to be able to drive the bus from school to school, that she herself had to unwind and wind the giant electrical cord used to plug the bus into the mains, and that her last lesson to students before her retirement was about PowerPoint, a program with which I I’m sort of copped never having to use until I have to create and narrate a “Pecha Kucha” presentation for Dr. Lania Knight’s students as part of my graduate tutoring. I still memorized it. Most.
And yet… no mention of the exact fate that ultimately befell the computer bus after Heckel’s switch to classroom teaching. Sad, because I could really use that bus now; like finally got a smart phone, only about 15 years late, i could really use a few tips to figure out how it still plays all my collected Yacht Rock tracks when i’m not home and haven’t downloaded them and told repeatedly not to use my cellular data for music.
But then again, who needs a big bus for that when I could just ask any random kid walking out of the gas station who has a Mountain Dew in one hand, their phone in the other, and who is undoubtedly chewing gum at the same time.
“The Throwback Machine” is a weekly feature that looks back on items of interest found in JG-TC’s online archives. For questions, comments, suggestions, or his “Song of the Day” recommendation, contact him at [email protected]