The cost of calling BBSes

I know I’m not the only one to have this happen, but I’d like to relate my experience of calling BBSes in the early ’90s.

I was late to the party as far as getting a modem. I had an Apple //c from mid 1984, but it wasn’t connected to a network in any way, unless you include “sneaker net.” At some point, I picked up a 2400 baud modem from one of the ads in the back of Incider, and things changed.

I already had my own phone line in my room, for which I paid 100% of the bill. I spent the first couple of days calling any local number that I could find. There was a list of Detroit area BBSes, and I had some phone numbers from the crack screens as well. Not all of them were BBSes. I recall one of the crack screens had a listing for the FBI with a 313 area code number. I assumed it was the number of a BBS called FBI. Imagine my surprise when the phone was answered by… you guessed it, the Detroit FBI field office.

Near the tail end of the BBS era, systems were harder and harder to come by, so I started to reach out a bit farther. I convinced myself that I could call the Byte Bastards BBS (in New York – 212 area code) on a limited basis. If I called in, just to check messages, and see if there were any interesting downloads, it would cost that much. Or so I thought.

Connecting to, and interacting with these systems was addictive. It didn’t help that sometimes, the sysop was around, and would break in, and you would be having a one on one chat with someone… over the computer.

In hindsight, I really was flying blindly. I don’t remember whether or not I even called Michigan Bell to find out what the long distance rate would be to call Byte Bastards.

I remember calling every evening, I’d read the boards, check for email, and then log off. I’m sure there were some downloads in there as well. The first bill after this started was larger, but manageable. I was still working a minimum wage job, and making a couple hundred dollars every two weeks.

The second bill was over the top. It was over FIVE HUNDRED dollars. That was more than I made in a month. I think I called, and tried to make some arrangements to split that bill over time, and I told myself I needed to cut back.

Even that didn’t help. I’m sure there was some lag between that second bill being sent, and me realizing the hole that I had dug. When the third bill arrived, it was also over $500. Here I was, just out of high school, with two phone bill in a row tat would take up 100% of my gross pay. I threw in the towel, let the phone get disconnected, and worked to pay it off as quickly as I could.

I don’t remember what warez I could have downloaded from that BBS, but I can guarantee that even that could not cover the cost of those telephone bills.

The real rub is that this was just months before I would get access to a local dialup from the university I attended, which would open up so many more possibilities for $0 / minute.

</TLDR> When I started to call an “elite” BBS that was long distance, I racked up over $1000 in telephone bills.

Humble Beginnings: The Apple IIe, //c.

My fascination with computers started in grade school. I’m not sure when, but at some point in 1983 St. Paul’s Lutheran School got at least one (but, I think it may have been two) Apple ][e computers.

My first memory of using the computer was our 5th-grade teacher showing us how he was using it to create Christmas wrapping paper. It was a rather simple program, it printed an ASCII Art Christmas Tree and the words Merry Christmas in a pattern. Being an all-or-nothing kind, when I bought a floppy disk so I could start saving programs, games, etc., I was given a copy of this program, and I remember changing it in later years to add color to the print out (alternating green and red.)

The computer was on a cart and available when a class needed it, and we would get to use it if we got our classwork done early. Those sessions were usually dominated by Lemonade Stand or Oregon Trail. In the afternoons, the computer was available for use in the latchkey program. Games were allowed, and I remember getting a copy of PuckMan any chance I got. I even remember one of the moms mentioning to the latchkey monitor that there was a new “hard” floppy disk coming on the new Apple Macintosh.

Apple ][ computers seemed to be ubiquitous to me. The high schools had them, local museums had them. To me, it seemed like they were everywhere. To me, Apple ][ computers were serious computers, and everything else was a toy.

I wanted a computer so badly, I’m sure it was all I talked about. When we would go to Northland Mall there was a computer area on the lower level. I still remember the cubicles they had set up in a cross pattern. By this point the Apple //c had been released (as had the original Macintosh.) The display computers were: 1) Apple ][e, 2) Apple //c, 3) Macintosh (128k), 4) IBM PCjr. I wanted the Apple ][e, because that’s what we had at school.

I dreamed of owning that computer for months, and then one day, after school, my mom said she had something to show me in my dad’s “office”. There it was, in all its glory, an Apple //c.

That Christmas (or maybe the next) saw a computer desk under the tree, and the computer was moved into my bedroom. This Apple //c was my main computer from that day (June 1984) through when I was given an Apple IIgs around 1993 or 1994. Every high school paper was written in AppleWorks. I had built databases of everything I “collected” – disks, music (CDs, and albums, etc).

This was the computer that I used to access local and long-distance BBSes, as well as GEnie and AOL. It’s hard to believe that I used to pay hourly for access to something like GEnie. I used to have a script that could be used to dial in during off-hours and download new messages. The next day, I would read any messages, type responses, and then let the script upload and download anything new.

All was well until I started calling BBSes that were in other area codes. I’ll save that story for another post, but I’m sure you can see where that is going.

Many hours were spent using (totally legit copies of) Copy ][ Plus and Locksmith to make “backups” of games, and other software. This was painful on a single floppy system, but it worked. I had a few people who would lend me a 2nd drive for a few days, and this seemed like heaven.

I clearly remember that this was the original firmware Apple //c because I wanted a Unidisk 3.5 drive, and did the tests to see if our //c needed a firmware update. It did, but unfortunately, we never got a Unidisk, and never got the firmware update.

These early experiences made me a lifetime fan of Apple. Even then the products seemed like they were whole systems and not disparate parts.