At his age, there wasn’t a whole lot going on the night before Christmas. His brothers had both gone out to hang out with friends and discuss what they would be getting for Christmas and drinking rum and cokes. In their eyes, a fine Christmas morning would be to find a new Stratocaster, or Holley Double Pumper carburetor under the tree.
But it wasn’t Max Headroom or Back to the Future cast across the screen – it was the user interface to TUFF Hacker by The Underground Fone Federation, and it was running on his Atari 800XL computer complete with disk drive. TUFF Hacker was a code scanner – a program that would dial a long distance carrier number, wait for a dial tone and then enter a code followed by a known carrier number. If the program detected carrier then it knew that the code was good and it would log it to file to be (ab)used later.
The only problem was that he had no modem.
He would download all of the various term programs, BBS softwares, and hacker modem utilities, but his parents had not yet given him a modem so the programs were all but useless. It was like having the Blondie hottie at school sitting there naked in front of you, but not being able to perform when the time was right.
His sister had made countless fun at him over his begging for a modem. She thought she knew everything and that he was wanting the modem so he could visit the “sex BBS’s” that had been talked about one night on the local news channel. She had embarrassed him in front of his mom and dad and one of her friends about it and he swore he would get revenge somehow.
Just then the phone rang — though he had broken the wire on the inside of his one piece handset so that it wouldn’t truly ring. Whenever someone would call all he would see would be a pulsing red light. This was useful and needed for the late night calls that he would get, that his parents forbade.
It was another friend. A friend who celebrated Christmas on the night before and who had just gotten an Atari 1030 modem and was calling to report that there was a new “warez BBS” up in their local area code.
“Holy shit”, he thought – “I wouldn’t even need to use an LD Code for that!!!”
“And its got a hack/phreak section with utils and shit..”, the friend continued – obviously checking the system out while he was on the phone – some of his friends were lucky enough to have two lines in their house.
Several other friends called throughout the course of the evening – one was a Commodore owner who told of a program he found called “Phone Man” that not only produced box tones and was a war-dialer, but was also a code scanner and file transfer system.
“Woah..”, was all he could say… While there had been talk of similar programs for his Atari, none had come to fruition yet.
There was a *boom* against his bedroom door and the laughter of his sister and one of her friends as they giggled over the idea of “scaring” him.
“He just sits in there on that computer.. I’m sure he’s looking at porno..”, she would say, her friends eyes growing wide and the shriek of giggles coming from their mouths over the idea of it.
Soon though, the only noise in the house was the rustling of the young oak tree branches against the window – a telltale sign of the winter month. He looked at the red LED alarm clock on the floor next to his bed and decided they were probably all in bed by now.
He crept from his room as stealth as any ninja he read about.
The den was quiet and dark – the TV tube still glowing faintly as he crouched down under the Christmas tree with is penlight and began his search. Several times he thought he heard something in the hallway and he froze – holding the penlight tightly against himself as he tried to muffle the “click” as he turned it off.
But it was noone – just the sound of a house built in the early 70’s groaning from the cold.
“Maybe..”, he said quietly as he saw a package that was obviously a shoebox that had his name on it. He carefully lifted the tape at each seal until he was able to quietly unwrap the gift and opened it up. Inside was only a pair of Nike cleats – a pair he had wanted for football.
“Crap..”, he said a little louder than he meant to as he hurried to rewrap the present as best he could. Noone would notice that it tore slightly in the haste of unwrapping the next morning.
Slumped shoulders framed him as he crept back to his bedroom – bumping into his sisters door and smiling when he heard a “what was that” in a panicked tone from his sisters friend. He held the doorknob and twisted it as he closed the door – not making a sound as he heard his sister swing the door open, surely expecting to find her brother at the door but then closing it almost as soon as she had opened it.
He still had hope though – there had been times that his father would place gifts somewhere else and pull them out at the last minute. Usually these were special or big gifts, so it was possible that he would still get his modem after all.
Sleep didn’t come easy and he lay there with his eyes closed and the image of the blue and white ATASCII graphics screen of TUFF Hacker in his mind and thoughts of how cool “Phone Man” must look for the C64.. He thought about how cool it would be to own both machines, but then fell back into depression over the fact that even getting a stupid modem for his Atari seemed like the building of the pyramids, much less owning a whole other computer system.
But then his depression turned to anger as it rose like bile in his throat over the fact that his sister got *everything* she wanted. So what if she made good grades.
Finally, as it always did – slept came.
Morning came quickly though and he was out of his bed when he saw that it was already 7am. He met his parents who were already drinking their coffee and smells of rolls cooking for the lunch they would have later filled the house as he sat by the fire and waited for his siblings to wake up.
As always – they took turns. Some of his friends told about “free for all” on Christmas mornings and he had begged his parents but they were stuck with tradition and nothing was different about that this morning.
He unwrapped presents and as the pile under the tree grew smaller he tried his best to hide his discontent. This was not missed by his sister and she would give him evil looks any time she could catch his eye. Finally he blurted out “give me one more look and I’m going to slap you..”, to which his parents quickly intervened – not understanding his aggressiveness on such a fun morning.
But they didn’t know.. They weren’t hackers or phreakers, and they didn’t have access to any piece of software they wanted like he did – if only he had a modem.
When the family finally stood he looked at his father – hoping it would be one of those “Whoops I forgot” Christmas mornings and the beige Atari 1030 would appear out of nowhere.
But it was not to be this Christmas, and he gathered up his shoes, and the other things he had gotten – of which not a single one was computer related, and shuffled off to his room to put it away.
Sitting on his bed he somehow couldn’t get out of his mind that it was all his sisters fault.
He stared at the computer sitting on the fake wood grain desk across from him. It looked so barren and felt so incomplete lately when he used it – because more often than not he was loading programs that required a modem and just sat and drooled over the features that he would love to use within them, wax romantic over the callers he would get if he were to run his own BBS.
In the kitchen his parents spoke in whispered tones about how badly they felt that the local computer store had been sold out of the modems and that they hadn’t had the money to get another brand that they had found.
“He’ll be fine honey, his birthday is just around the corner and I already ordered the modem. It should be in two weeks before his birthday..”, and with that both parents relaxed and accepted that they had done all they could.
But this was no consolation to him even if he knew he would be getting a modem in two short months. The entire 8-bit landscape could change by then and who knows what he might miss.
He had hoped for a 300 baud Christmas, but it would have to wait.
You may read this little piece and wonder why I would write something that has somewhat of a gloomy ending… Truth be told, this is pretty close to Autobiographical of several Holiday seasons I went through in which I asked for and hoped I would get either my first modem or one of several upgrades. Christmas during the 8-bit era was always a time of a huge surge of newbs in the scene and while at the time it was annoying those newbs would (usually) “grow up” to become decent users among us in the scene.
With that said – the Holidays always remind me of those times when I was just getting into the warez/phreaking scene and my head was filled with “what if’s” about what it was going to be like to finally immerse myself into it which I obviously finally got to do.
All I can say is that the wait was more than worth it and leaves with excellent memories and a big smile on my face.
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to you all!