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Twenty years online

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on March 30, 2007
(Issue 2513, Blog Away)

I got an e-mail yesterday that reminded me it's been two decades since I ventured into cyberspace to stay.

It was the spring of 1987, about eight months after I graduated from San Diego State. Andy Rathbone was looking for a new roomie, and my roommate at the time was moving – so I ended up sharing a two-bedroom townhouse in O.B. with Andy (renting from then Deputy D.A. and now Superior Court Judge Howard Shore!).

Andy and I were not only both heavy into the blues and bourbon, but also shared a passion for computers. He had a Kaypro, I an Atari 400. He also had a 300 baud modem, which he let me borrow.

I'd used modems before - taking a Fortran class at SDSU (hello, first F in my life ...) we used the VT 100 dumb terminals in the basement of the Business Administration building to log into the mainframe computers. You'd dial the number listed on the acoustic coupler next to the keyboard, wait for the harsh tone that indicated the modem on the other end had answered, then quickly jam the handset into the coupler. After a few seconds, you'd see the welcome prompt on your monitor.

And my Dad had been a beta subscriber to a very early (i.e., 1980 or '81) online service from Cox Cable in which you could play bridge and other games on the TV with a special controller, as well as read news, check weather, etc.

So the concept of being online wasn't foreign to me.

Still, watching Andy (Ray to those of us who knew him in college, but it'll cost you a beer to find out why) log into a local bulletin board system, or BBS, one day in the spring of '87 was like nothing I was really prepared for.

A whole new world

The BBS he was visiting that day was PdBMS, successor to the early Peoples Message System, founded by Bill Blue and programmed by Morgan Davis. PMS was surprisingly unsuccessful as an acronym for an online service (although I still have my PMS Commandoes t-shirt around here somewhere), and the next iteration of Morgan's software was renamed to PdBMS, which I doubt anyone but Morgan knows the meaning of.

But watching Andy navigating the board, it was cleare that it was an incredibly alive community – a community of people who only interacted via this online environment.

The heart of PdBMS was the message boards. chatter/general in particular. That was a no-holds-barred, bring your A-game smack-talking doing-the-dozens bit of give and take right there. Better have thick skin when you ventured there.

What a group of characters Andy and I discovered. Dan Gookin was a regular – not yet the best-selling author of "DOS for Dummies," he was already the editor of Byte Buyer Magazine – today known as ComputorEdge. Victor O'Rear. Bob Forsythe. Lyle Davis. Ryan Gale. Brock Meeks. Brice Fleckenstein.

I was hooked. Couldn't wait to get home from work to log in and see what new comments had been posted. Made friends I still treasure today.

And because your BBSs back then were all dial-up, everybody on the PMS/PdBMS/P-NET system lived in San Diego County. Sure, we stretched from the border to North County, the beaches to the mountains, but twice a year we got together at for Jerry Hewitt's and Bruce Webster's Time Change parties (held the weekends that Daylight Saving Time began and ended).

Just last year, we had a mini-reunion poker game at Forsythe's. (I want my jar of pennies back, Bob!) A couple years ago, another mini-reunion was held at Fallbrook Golf Club. Ryan passed years ago, but his son James keeps in touch. And Brock's son, Torrey, has been kind enough to allow me to publish some of his short fiction on, the online literary 'zine I publish.

Interestingly, we don't really keep in touch all that much, not even via e-mail – and nobody's built a Web site with forum software and invited the old gang back.

I suppose PMS/PdBMS/P-Net was simply a product of its time. Certainly the technology exists to allow the surviving members to reunite and hang out.

We're all in different places in life, though. Heck, I remember thinking Lyle was so dang old at the time – but I'm older now than he was then!

A shared passion

The one thing we all do seem to still share is a passion for online life and computers. We were all in on the ground floor of the personal computer revolution, and then pre-Internet cyberspace, and we're all still smitten. Andy, of course, was a longtime editor of this magazine and has been writing the "Windows for Dummies" books the past decade and a half. Jerry and Bruce are involved in the computer industry in stuff that goes right over my head. Brock went on to become the Washington, D.C. correspondent for the MSNBC online news outlet. Morgan runs his own Web-hosting company,

The letter

Which brings us back to the e-mail that sparked all this. One Joe Roessler, the IT guy on an NOAA research vessel, was Googling or Yahooing PdBMS the other day (the ship has satellite Internet access 24/7) and found my column on Ryan Gale from the summer of '05. While we never crossed paths, as he had left town – and thus left PMS/PdBMS – before I came on, he recognized a lot of the names of the regulars.

Wanted everyone to know he says hi. He's living part-time in Samoa – but even there says he gets to the Internet café a couple times a week.

If any of the old gang want to get in touch with him, drop me a line and I'll forward your particulars to him.

And if any of you see Gookin, tell him to organize another PMS Commandoes paintball Saturday. It's been too long.