Wellington writer John Summers on the mysteries of sex and ancient technology (the Commodore computer)
As a boy, I was friends with two brothers, Paul and Cameron, harum-scarum types whose play held the threat of the emergency room. They fell out of trees, flipped themselves at the springs on the trampoline and, worst of all, played hamster with an old corrugated iron water tank. One would climb on top, dancing to keep balance, while the other ran inside. I once saw Paul lose his footing and slip beneath, flattened out but miraculously unscathed when the tank rolled over him. The reward for all these risks was their computer, a Commodore 64. The Commodore was a collection of beige parts: a keyboard, joy stick, and several plastic-coated lumps. Thick cords snaked from piece to piece, and connected to a portable TV. After playing at danger we would retreat to their dim sleepout, switch on the Commodore and wait for the blue glow of the screen. They had dozens of games on floppy disc, each a black square in a white paper sleeve. There was car racing and sports, a game where you delivered newspapers, and Ghostbusters, which was made Sisyphean and, in hindsight, a bit like an actual job, by the fact that we never figured out how to get beyond its first, most basic level. All we did was buy the ghostbusting supplies we had budget for and then drive around the streets of New York, stopping every so often to trap a ghost. We played it for hours.
But best by far was The Pharaoh’s Curse. You moved a pith-helmeted explorer through a subterranean tomb. This contained adventure – you dodged traps and shot mummies – but also the dark secrets of ancient Egypt. An eerie arpeggio prefaced each descent. At any time, you might be grabbed by the winged avenger – Horus, the falcon-like sky god – and carried off to another zone. One day my brother and I played it with both Paul and Cameron, as well as a friend of Cameron’s who was older and dismissive of us. We hooted and cheered as Cameron ran from cave to burial chamber, collecting treasure. He jumped onto a rising platform, and was riding it to the top of the screen when a mummy fell onto it too. Mummies were doomed to spend eternity walking back and forth, and so it butted into the explorer. But for some strange reason, this time its touch didn’t mean game over. They shared that tiny space, bumping at each other as the platform carried them up.
“Whoah,” said that friend of Cameron’s. “Sex elevator.”
Cameron laughed. The others watched the screen. Only I turned to stare at that boy. His words were a poke to the brain. Calmly, knowingly, he had added sex to this world of death and sand. Someone I knew, who played on the Commodore and sometimes the trampoline had said that.
The game went on, the explorer dying and dying again. It invoked the warning said to be inscribed at the door to Tutankhamen’s tomb: “Death comes on wings to he who enters the tomb of a pharaoh.” When Lord Carnarvon succumbed to blood poisoning only days after walking beneath this message, all the lights in Cairo went out. In England, his dog howled for its master and then it too dropped dead. I had read several books from our local library on this subject, and once confronted our family doctor with these facts. I felt that only he, a man of science, could help me to understand the truth of the curse.
“Ha!” he said. “Ancient Egyptian cot death.” He turned back to Mum, and they continued to talk about my asthma.
Tutankhamen’s curse was only one of many mysteries to have a hold on me back then. I read about the Sasquatch, ESP and ghosts. When I was recently reacquainted with a childhood friend, he reminded me of all the hours I’d spent drawing the ships we would take to explore the Bermuda Triangle. And I can still recall the impatience that gripped me when I came to the end of a description of the Oak Island mystery. A speck in Nova Scotia, this island was thought to be the site of buried pirate treasure. An excavation was planned, the book said. The mystery would soon be solved. It gave a date somewhere beyond that looming, far off future of 2000. I waited desperately for the news. I wandered the school yard gripped by impatience. Gradually though the feeling began to dull, and eventually I forgot. It was one day this century, that the words Oak Island jumped back into my head. This time though I had the internet at my disposal. I clicked and clicked, and saw that attempts to dig up the treasure continued, foiled each time when the so-called money pit flooded. While some have suggested the Aztecs were responsible, or that the pit holds proof that Francis Bacon wrote Shakespeare’s plays, these days I’m more convinced that it’s just a plain old sinkhole.
In this way, slow days and Google have been the death of every one of those old obsessions. To remember a childhood mystery is to solve it. Over time, Wikipedia has quickly told me the Bermuda Triangle has no more incidents than any comparable body of water, and Tutankhamen’s Curse was a myth. There was no message above the tomb, and while Carnavon did die of blood poisoning, it was from a shaving nick. Harold Carter, the archaeologist who actually chiselled open the tomb door, died decades later from Hodgkin’s Disease.
These dispelled, it is the Commodore itself that held its secrets the longest. An adult life saturated with computers and besieged by commands to update my software or repair my ‘flash plug-in’ has made it easy to forget how potent it once seemed. “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” declared Arthur C Clarke, a science fiction author but also an expert on the paranormal – in 1980 he hosted a television show on everything from ball lightening to the Loch Ness monster. His claim was true of the Commodore, although its magic was the kind that involves cards or plastic cups, mesmerising if a little creaky. It summoned images, but they appeared to be made of Lego blocks. There was noise and music only within a narrow range of chirps. Games shuddered to a stop until you changed discs, and whole parts of it grew alarmingly hot. Perhaps better to compare it to a torch at night: a small weak circle of light, the surrounding darkness that much darker for it. As players we lived in that darkness, we favoured the shadows. Sunlight cast a mean glare on the TV screen, and we shirked technicolour days for the gloom of the sleepout.
I remember one day that was especially hot and bright, and still we descended into the Pharaoh’s tomb. Paul, my brother and I were playing when the sleepout door swung open. Cameron and his friend rushed in. “Get out,” they said.
Paul fought back, unsuccessfully and we found ourselves outside, blinking in the daylight. We heard the snick of the lock and so we ran to the window and peered through a gap in the curtains. We saw our game wrenched from the disc drive and instead, on the screen, there was a pink blob. We had heard rumours of this, but had never seen it before: The X-Rated Game. Something black – a pair of sunglasses? – was removed from the pink. We squinted. Actually it was a bra! And now on screen appeared a woman’s body rendered with the Commodore’s 160 by 200 pixels. A nude in Lego. We didn’t watch the screen as much as we watched them watch it. One waggled the keyboard, the other gave him directions. They moved that bra away. But before they went further they spotted us. Cameron rushed to the window and tightened the curtain.
Back then sex was vague, a disgusting rumour to be avoided at all costs. Once in PAK’nSAVE, I noticed a couple pushing a pram and was horrified, suddenly struck that I knew what they had to have done. Much of this knowledge came from Usborne Publishing’s How Your Body Works, which depicted the act with a pair of wheeled robots. If confronted by any mention of sex, the agreed response was cringing laughter and flight, and yet there were those two, Cameron and his friend, summoning it on the Commodore. They were only a couple of years older than us, but they had an interest. They were on another level, while the rest of us remained in the pit below the pyramid, rushing every which way, knowing that at any point, we might be carried elsewhere by the winged avenger.
Desperately I wanted a Commodore of my own. This want was an ache, the sort of longing that doesn’t come to me anymore, or if it does gets given different, nobler names like love or ambition. I didn’t know then that the Commodore had already been surpassed by faster, more powerful machines. It was the only computer I knew and I needed one, yet to learn that each would only be a partial step, needing to be updated and upgraded after a few years use (recently I bought a new cellphone, stepping out of the store I turned it on and read the screen: “an update is available”). I did know they were expensive though. My mother had told us that, like the GI Joe Command Centre or Tip Top trumpets, a Commodore cost far more than she could afford (actually, she told us Trumpets were off limits because we’d choke on the nuts. It was later she revealed their price was the real reason). But while Paul and Cameron were better off, they weren’t rich either. Their dad was a postie, their mum a nurse. Surely the Commodore wasn’t completely out of our reach.
I have since learnt the Commodore was designed to be cheap, accessible. “Computers for the masses not the classes,” was the motto of Commodore’s founder, Jack Tramiel – it rhymes if you say it with the tough guy accent of a Bronx businessman. And it was a strategy that paid off. The Commodore 64 remains the best-selling computer of all time. They were mass produced, sold in Kmarts and toy stores. That computer in the sleepout was one of millions, a piece of the base metal debris of a comet, falling to St Martins, Christchurch to be worshipped as a gem by the locals.
Tramiel was no altruist. “Business is war,” was another favourite expression of his. There’s nothing to suggest his strategy was designed to do anything more than to grow his company and make a packet. Born in Poland, he’d survived the Warsaw Ghetto, Auschwitz and the bitumen mines of Anhelm Labour Camp before immigrating to the States, where he would rise from cab driver to business man. Nothing would be difficult after the camps, he said. He was tough; a caricature of a capitalist, portly and cigar chomping, an antidote to all those stories about T-shirted tech dudes out to change the world, but who have proved to be as self-interested as next the billionaire. Learning of Tramiel, I find my nostalgia stretching beyond the Commodore itself to him and his brand of capitalism. From here, it seems transparent in contrast, even democratic in its outcome – he never claimed to be anything but a businessman. His skill, he said, was purely in recognising what people want.
Eventually, I got what I wanted. My mother had seen how eagerly we ran to the sleepout, how hard it was to take us home when a disc was whirring. I even tried recreating some of the games at home, drawing black blobs on pieces of paper and leaving them on the carpet to simulate the oil slicks that made one of the car racing games particularly tricky. I’m sure too that Mum thought there were things we would learn from the Commodore, knowledge that would set us up as the first white collar workers in the family. She scoured the Buy, Sell and Exchange, and sought advice from Paul and Cameron’s parents. And one day, there it was, our own collection of beige parts and cords, second-hand maybe, but still ours. I would no longer need to brave the water tank to play on the Commodore. Although, because we only had the one TV, we would need to wait till the news had finished and then retrieve the parts from a box and try to remember what plugged where. It came with games, but sadly lacked The Pharaoh’s Curse. Nor were there any X-rated games. We did have Ghostbusters, at least we did until the day I mucked around with something called Filing Master and accidentally deleted it. That should have been a tragedy. Our best game gone, but I didn’t react. By then I’d made a friend who introduced me to new machines, not computers, but sleek, black consoles with names that made Commodore sound quaint: the Master System, the Megadrive, and games where people fought and bled. After all that hope and longing, I soon learnt just how inferior that old beige thing was, how quickly each technology would be replaced by something better and beyond my reach. It like the discovery I made on joining sports teams – I had signed up for soccer and tennis, enthusiastic and keen to learn these games, certain that each was an essential, so-far missing piece of my life, only to arrive at my first practice session and find that everyone already knew how to play, that they had their own rackets and balls, and these teams were a matter of honing a skill that was mysteriously already possessed. I avoid sports still, and I have Luddite status among my friends now, mostly because it is easier to play that role, to be vaguely hostile about each new must-have gadget or app than risk living those left-behind days all over again.
I once mentioned those new machines and games at Paul and Cameron’s, and must have explained where I saw them, because I remember Cameron asking me my friend’s name. “I know him,” he said when I told him. “He’s a dick.”
He didn’t know him, I knew that. I was old enough by then to see through his tactics at maintaining superiority. It made me grateful for my new friend, a boy less death-defying than those two, and gradually I saw less and less of them. I saw less of the Commodore too. By the time I started high school, dust had gathered on the beige keyboard. I had other preoccupations – it was an overwhelming time. High school was enormous, acres of concrete and bland pre-fabs. There were uniforms and hulking seventh formers, and I had the chance to choose some of my own classes. I signed up for woodwork, thinking of the fun I had mucking around in my grandfather’s workshop. It was with daydreams of travel that I took French. To balance these, to learn skills that seemed appropriate for a job, I took something called keyboarding. For this I sat three times a week in a fluorescent-lit classroom filled with row after row of computers. Each had their own monitor, not a TV, and on them we worked in Microsoft Word. The best part of this was the way it began, the programme opening with a picture of a fountain pen casually strewn across some papers. It was more realistic than any image the Commodore could have produced, and suggested a donnish life of letters. But it soon disappeared and in its place was the blank white of Document1. There was a gentle clacking of keys as we filled it with the sentences our teacher had set. Word processing is what she called this.
My classmates then included some who had come from my primary school, but many more who had been to intermediates, ante rooms to teenagehood. These kids had already discarded our childish talk and gags. They talked about clothes and rock music and, most strikingly, boyfriends and girlfriends. Knowingness was in, reeling in horror was out. Some of those old primary schoolmates quickly joined in all of this, casting off their old personas. Others found a neutral territory in sports, which they discussed with a new seriousness, as no longer just play. And then there was another group again who spoke of computers. This was not neutral territory; they were nerds. Their interests were derided. Feeling lost, out of place, I gravitated to them and their innocence. I had little to add to their conversations about Pentiums and Warcraft, but still I lingered, having nowhere else to go. In their company I waited for the bell, and for class to be over. One day, one of them, a boy who knew me at primary school, noticed my quiet. He looked at me, remembering something. “Don’t you have a computer?” he said.
I shook my head.
“I’m sure you did.”
At home the Commodore hummed. It grew hot.
“No,” I said.
Taken from the superb new collection of personal essays The Commercial Hotel by John Summers (Victoria University Press, $35), available in bookstores nationwide.