Growing up geek: hamfests, Apples and Junky John

For whatever the reason may be, I have sent the past week thinking about my past. Remembering when my first son was a baby, thinking about my late father in law and times spent with my Dad. Mostly, though, I’ve thought about the times I went with my father to Hamfests.

A Hamfest, for those who may not know, is like a flea market or swap meet for ham radio gear and other electronic hobbies. Those other hobbies include video and computers.

I was lucky to grow up when I did.  I saw the birth of home computers, home video and home video games. I can remember seeing the commercially available graphical user interface on the Apple Lisa and was totally amazed by it. 

That first GUI encounter was in Berryville, Virginia at a hamfest there. It was being demoed by an Apple fan club or retailer, I don’ recall which.  I do remember being totally amazed by the machine and really excited when the rep let me touch it even though it was obvious that I could not buy one.  I am not sure if they were for sale then or not.

After that, though, everything else I saw that day really paled in comparison.  And that included the video disc player I saw. Unfortunately, I do not remember which disc player it was, but I think it was a Magnavox LaserDisc. All I could think about was that Lisa. I did buy a couple of magazines that featured stories on the Lisa and the first mention of something called “Macintosh”, though I think that Macintosh was not what Apple actually released.

Other Hamfests introduced me to other computers, lots of games for those computers and dedicated game consoles. I cannot remember how many discontinued consoles I purchased-for nearly nothing-at those Hamfests. The Intertec VideoBrain, some goofy Commodore computer without a keyboard and marketed as a console, APF Imagination Machine and a few others.  That APF thing was very cool. It was a console and, like the Intellivision, had a keyboard console. It was both a computer and a game console. The flavor of Basic in this thing was similar to the ‘Extended Color Basic’ for the TRS-80 Color Computer. It was on this machine that I tried to write my own GUI. I was obsessed. The only  other obsession that came close was my desire to write my own high level language. Which, by the way, I did. Several times.

Throughout the years, I bought lots of computer parts and whole computers at the Hamfests.  Some of them worked, some didn’t. I also purchased a lot of software. Thinking back, I wish I still had some of that stuff.

Among the gems I had, and got rid of, were the first true notebook/tablet device: the Epson HX-20. I also had a Teletype Mod 33 with punch and reader, a Klienschmidt teletype, TRS-80 Micro Color Computer, an original Exabyte stringy floppy, and numerous Sinclair computers,  including the Spectrum and the 68k. I also bought a Cartrivision VCR.  So what, you say? Well, Cartrivision was THE first home video cassette recorder. Released in 1972, it was ahead of its time.  That company went bankrupt after three years, but only because of a flaw in the manufacture of the tapes: they disintegrated over a short time.  I must say, the dozen or so tapes I had were fine. I had several pre-recorded tapes (there were rental tapes) and several that I could record on as well. I wish I still had it.

Among the software I got, was something called Visi-On. Now, remember, back in the early 1980’s, Windows was just a project at Microsoft, Apple was ahead of the game with Lisa and Macintosh and GUI’s were still an interesting side note.  Visi-On, Personal Software’s attempt at both a GUI and integrated software, could have become the standard for IBM computers and their clones.  However, Visi-On required a hardware mouse interface and other goofy requirements that the  majority of IBM computers just could not handle.  I managed to get Visi-On working, mostly. The problem, though, was that I only had the graphical environment, no compatible software except for my bootleg copy of Visi-Calc. Shhh….don’t tell anyone.  Developing software for Visi-On was a costly endeavour too…a system costing upward of ten grand was needed. 

One thing that stands out the most, though, was ‘Junky John.’  Junk John was the name we called this fellow who would show up about half way through the Hamfest and unload a bunch of junk. He drove an early ‘60s Cadillac Hearse. The car was beat up, was multicolored, but mostly yellow and green. Junky John always smiled and had a great attitude. He always talked to  me, even when I asked him dumb questions. He would always have something really cool that caught my eye. After about a decade, however, we stopped seeing him. I don’ know what happened to him, but we did miss the jovial attitude and seeing that hearse pull up. Junky John, thanks.

Other characters I can recall include the Star Trek guy. I never did get his name. The guy was not very friendly, but tolerated the kids, like me, who were fascinated with his delivery van, which was painted white and sort of looked like a shuttlecraft from the Enterprise. One day, he opened his back door and there was R2-D2. Pretty cool, but what the hell was he doing in a STAR TREK themed van? Sacrilege!

Then there were the twins.  There was a guy who had a sprawling tailgate area. It took three to four tailgating lots. The guy had a lot of stuff. To help him, his wife and twin daughters would show up with him. I remember watching the two girls grow up.  We were about the same age and I always thought they were cute.  The last I saw them, they were about 16 and, boy, was I in love. Problems, though, like living two states away  (they  were from Pennsylvania) and my general chicken like persona prevented me from ever talking to them about anything other whatever item I pretended to be interested in…the few times I actually bought anything from the dude, the wife was the one I dealt with. She was probably as knowledgeable as the dude was, maybe more so. Hell, it could have been her setup and he was just helping.  Not sure.

Those were exciting times for me. Seeing the new computer gear, video stuff and meeting all of those interesting and cool people.  I got a head start on an entire industry.  All because of my Dad.

Thanks, Dad.

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