Retro as I was 11, maybe 12, at the time. It was Italy in the glittering 80’s. Maybe it was for a long and suffered adolescence about to come, but the worst decade ever in my life, I swear — except for computers.
Italy had just won its first soccer world cup in 50 years, a couple of years before, so somehow we could feel important again. Despite we have had every shade and taste of youth protesters bringing guerrilla warfare in the streets for years, and someone was already pouring tons of heroine over the heads of their generation to keep them finally quiet: because the 80’s, it was about time to cash in. Time for business.
A few kilometers from my home, a short man with a lot of money coming from who-knows-where was shifting his business from house-building to the first experiment of commercial tv. It was not legal to own a private TV channel at that time in Italy – but at that time, being legal wasn’t exactly the main focus in the Country. And legally or not, things were changing fast. It was in the air, and in my family we all hoped it would be for the better. You always do.
I guess I picked up the flyer at school. Computer programming classes, it said. In BASIC language. For children. In my small town.
10 minutes bycicling from home.
I don’t know if I could ever be able to explain how incredible this looked.
You all are reading me worldwide from a screen connected to the internet. It is another world nowadays.
But damn it was incredible.
So please daddy what would you say, can I go? can I?
Our living room walls were literally covered by dad’s sci-fi books collection. Just a handful of years before that flyer, he had brought me at the cinema for the first time in my life, for a movie together, and of course it was a scifi movie. We watched the trailers on summer in our brand-new color TVset, and then he asked me to go with him. The name was Star Wars.
And the same year of the world cup, 1982, we went togheter once more for another long-anticipated movie. The voice in the trailer said boldly: Harrison Ford is — Blade Runner.
Of course dad said yes to the BASIC classes.
Moreover, the classes were in a back room inside the new bookshop, opened by a couple of my former primary school teachers. The ones that used to organise alternative classes of theatre, music, drama, etc. at school during the afternoons, calling themselves the C Group, from the letter of their classrooms section.
But this is another story.
And it was happening before, back in the 70’s. They left the school after. And at that time, it was past already.
Even the child I was then, could feel that something was gone forever, changing to the new decade.
So when I first entered that back room for the computer class, I saw those 2 or 3 machines on the tables. Beige color, darker keyboards. Squared, black monitors with green writings. And that logo. It was a biten apple striped in full colors. Never heard nor seen: all we kids knew about computers at that time, was the first Commodore or Spectrum models advertised on children magazines or comic books. But those did not look like Vic20 nor C64 nor ZX Spectrum at all, definitely.
It was a spaceship deck to me, just as being in Space 1999, or Star Trek. Or even more: it simply was the future, unfolded to me in a back room of a bookshop, ready to be grasped to stay with me forever.
There was a whiteboard on the wall, few plastic chairs with few boys sitting there, more or less my age. Five, six persons I would say. Not more. Between them, a couple of known faces, the only ones I can still remember.
the little man.
The little man teaching was a kind of revered guru. Despite of his foot and leg stroken by polio — because if you were born in Italy during WWII, polio could definitely be an option — or maybe for that reason, he was a genius. He was working in the City Hall offices, and I knew from my father that he was the one trying to switch the huge production of public legal documents of my town from paper to computers. When it would happen to me to go in the City Hall house with some parents or relatives to get some paper, document, certificate, I could see him sitting in the back, in front of a huge monitor, writing, pushing keys, reading messages, while gentle — but rather ugly — ladies at the frontdesk would ask kindly to fill in and sign some form, to be handed to him. And then suddenly a huge printer machine would start, grinding ink on a continuous sheet of paper with the most akward noise ever, and our certificate would be finally ready.
That little great man, Luigi.
He could explain you everything so easily.
Class after class, a whole new concept of language entered our mind. Structures, syntax, subset of commands would become familiar.
How to print text on the screen. How to ask the user for input. The very sound of that word, input, it sounded so sci-fi to that little me, I could not stop repeating it at home.
And then variables: those little closets where you ask your computer to put something valuable, to be kept for future use. Still today, I could not find a better way to explain their meaning to kids.
But then, most important, the moment of hands on.
When Luigi would say, ok now try to code this yourselves — and we would literally teleport in front of those Apple IIs, without even imagining the kind of legendary machines we were learning to use, pushing those all-caps-only keyboards of those Apple II europlus models, or being so fast to end up sitting in front of the only Apple IIe, when it arrived later on the next year, with his duo-disk double 5.25″ floppy drive and that expansion card, enabling it to reach 80 columns of text and double-hi resolution graphics, that was 560 x 192, imagine that.
It ended as it should: while my school friends would get Commodore machines that Christmas, dad managed to buy an used Apple IIeuroplus with green screen and a 5.25″ floppy drive, for an insane amount of money, as my birthday present, later on next spring.
I have never thanked you enough for this, dad.
Either the classes and that gift happened thanks to our local Apple reseller, Computer Area. Located in our small, small town.
I still wonder how it could be possible to have a computer shop in the early 80s in my little place — selling only Apple machines!
And it actually was the only one in the radius of kilometers, because nobody would know Apple computers in Italy at that time.
Then a lot of glorious things happened.
Afternoons in my teenage room playing Karateka or The Goonies games with friends, evenings spent to solve my first adventure game ever, The Dallas Quest (based on the super popular TV serial of the time) with a portable English dictionary close to the keyboard, learning almost all the English I can read and write still now.
When I hear worried parents complaining about too much gaming of their children nowadays, I always have to keep a smile, thinking at those early teenage afternoons spent in attempts to defeat the evil samurai and save the princess. And realizing now that we were at that time more or less 30 years ahead, living so much forward in the future that we had a behaviour which is considered normal just now, for our children: spending time talking about games and solutions and hacks like an average teenager would do today — in the 80s.
Then the movie War games came out, and everything started to make sense. So we were not a bunch of weirdos. They would do movies on people like us. And oh boy, that device to connect your computer to another one on the phone!
But most of all… computer in school offices?! Come on, you are kidding me, can you imagine? this is never gonna happen!
GS. not retro anymore?
Later on, that old II europlus became a shiny new Apple IIGS once I got to high school, and there I started to edit some little magazine for my scout group, and later on for my high school, and then for the university group, and on and on. And meanwhile the net exploded, so I would go by bicycle to a next town riding for kilometers, to get new warez from some hacker friends which had a (illegal…) way to get connected to the first branches of the internet in Italy trough expired-but-still-working-for-few-days IBM offices’ accounts and passwords, and download it from there . And it was just the only way to get fresh software in Italy for Apple IIs those days, so nobody would even think about complaining — more, I can say now that my local Apple reseller, once they would sell a new Apple II to someone, would send their clients to me to get software — for free, of course. And it was that buzzing hackers’ scene, unlocked for me while most of my school mates were playing soccer in the fields, that put me in some larger group for the first time. I belonged somewhere. We knew we were the nerds. We knew the word from the movie, and we were kinda proud, to be part of something growing, changing, evolving.
And yes, it is all past. Retro, as someone would say.
Retro as in retro computing, but also as in, you look retro, it is time to look at nowadays. So let’s do it, let’s look at those retro times, let’s see what is left of those retro hardware and software.
We had no clue on how influential our stuff would become. And yet, it did. Back there, it was the time when it all was shaped for the first time, and it was shaped right, and we should still remember. In fact I do remember when I was brought by Luigi (me being maybe 12, 13 years old) to see the IBM mainframe of my Town Hall offices and code a few lines with him. And Dario, that programmer at the Apple reseller shop, the prototype of geek, with huge glasses and greasy hair and everything, who got to trust me enough to show me the code he was writing on his Lisa (or Macintosh XL… yes, that one), when I went there to try the Mac Test Drive, hoping to be so lucky to win a brand-new, just introduced 128kb Mac — which did not happen, obviously.
People cared — wanted, to share knowledge. To show, to teach. Outside, it was the 80’s in Italy: heroine and fashion, often mixed up. Being selfish, being successfull despite the others. Only curing and caring about yourself.
But not us. Not the antisocial, scattered group of weirdos in ther small computer rooms, exchanging knowledge and some blurry, fuzzy vision of a better time to come. I guess we were the only ones in youth, which could really think positive at that time.
When you could literally open up an Apple computer with two fingers, and add your own components inside, at your pleasure. Because you had paid good money to own it, damn.
When a new game was really, every time, something new. Creating a genre, defining a style. (Yes, Brøderbund arcades or Sierra On-Line adventure games, I am talking about you, for instance). Before retro was a genre, before retro was a concept. Before retro was a thing.
But really I do not want to mourn the good ol’time gone.
I want instead to celebrate that I was there. To underline that every time I put my eyes on some emulated old game, or my fingers on an old keyboard, I can reconnect with that spirit, and understand why I am still dealing with technology in the time of facebook and youtube comments, fake news and online hate. Why I am teaching to code and to be digitally creative to kids who are the same age as that little me.
That time isn’t retro at all. It is talking to me.
It is classical.