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Online’s Olden Days

My old friend Smabulator sent me a link to a review of Canada, by Jeremy Clarkson, a UK columnist who usually writes about cars, but who recently vacationed in the Ottawa area. Here’s an excerpt:

“We’re told that no one in Canada is ever robbed, butchered, stabbed, murdered or blown up by a doctor. And I don’t doubt that all of this is true. But by the same token no one in Canada ever wins on the horses, or escapes from a knife fight with their life, or has an orgasm. It is Switzerland with wheat.” …read more

Smabulator grew up here in Ottawa, and I knew him from the local BBS scene. BBS stands for ‘bulletin board system,’ which was what ‘online’ was before the internet came along. This was before Freenet, before the web, before Google, before spam, before blogs, before any of this. This was the Olden Days.

I got my first computer in 1989. Then I bought a 300 baud modem. I wasn’t even sure what it was for, I just knew I wanted one. I messed around for days trying to get it installed and working properly (something about IRQ conflicts), and finally I got a dial tone.

A 300 baud modem is how we connected online in the late 80s, in conjunction with a phone line. It was replaced by a 1200 baud modem, then a 2400 baud, and so on. There was no such thing as high speed – everything happened at a snail’s pace. It didn’t seem slow at the time, but every time you got a newer and faster modem, man did it feel fast.

A BBS was typically someone else’s home computer. It was like a mini text-based internet on which people had to take turns, because only one person could be connected at a time. Usually there was a one-hour time limit. All of a BBS’s users would live within the same area code, because to call elsewhere meant long distance charges.

Popular BBS’s were busy all the time. I’d set up an auto-dial list of all my favourite BBS’s and tell my modem to keep dialing one after the other until it found one that wasn’t busy. Then my modem and the host modem would do a mating dance and make wonderful screeching noises and that BBS would be mine for an hour. All mine.

Since everything was text-only, the BBSs tended to attract writers. Because that’s what you did on a BBS: you wrote. You socialized in writing, you wrote on message boards, you contributed to collaborative never-ending stories, and you wrote email. (Oh, you could draw pictures too – but it was ascii art, ie art made out of keyboard characters. You wrote art.)

I was known as Dr. Sooze on the BBSs, and I socialized online with people like Crass Nirvana, Flog Sonata, Smabulator, Athena, Painkiller and Mel Pheasant, on systems like The Sanitarium, Another Roadside Attraction and Bob’s Back Room. I wish I could remember more of the names. It was such a long time ago. (Flog reads this blog; maybe he can remember more.)

Each BBS was its own little community. I participated in many, but my favourite was the Sanitarium. (The last time I saw Crass Nirvana, who was the Sanitarium’s sysop, he told me he still had backups of the whole system. If he could find an old computer, he could restore the Sanitarium, and all its discussions, to exactly where it left off all those years ago. It would be like time-warping back into a party that ended many years ago.)

By today’s standards the technology was incredibly primitive, but we really were on the cutting edge back then. BBSers were using home computers to communicate with each other. Hardly anybody was doing that. It was revolutionary.

Anyway, that’s how I met Smabulator, who has since sailed solo to Scotland and is living happily ever after with his Scottish bride and baby-in-progress. He still, however, keeps one eye on Canada. And he might start writing a blog soon. I’m looking forward to that; he’s an excellent writer.

21 comments to Online’s Olden Days

  • nik

    Loose Moose. Drinking at Irene’s. For some reason, we always ended up at Irene’s. My tortured love affair with Super Syl. My tortured love affair with Lady Stardust. My tortured love affair with myself. And so on.

    Painkiller was Piledriver until we teased the hell out of him — didn’t he know that was the name of a wrestling move? Eraserhead. Feral Ferret. Phanteem Logger.

    Beaver 8 was the adult site all the kids wanted access to for some reason. And when we got access, it became pretty obvious there was nothing sexy there.

    Those were the days.

  • Ahhh, it’s all coming back to me now. How could I forget Loose Moose and Phanteem Logger? (But Eraserhead and Feral Ferret aren’t ringing any bells yet…) If you can think of any more names, tack ’em on here.

    I think the reason we always ended up at Irene’s was because they didn’t check ID too often back then. That, and Irene’s has always had a certain magnetic quality.

    Beaver 8 – ha! (I was older than you guys though – some of the mysteries of life had already been revealed to me.)

    Those were the days. In some ways, the Internet doesn’t hold a candle to the BBS era.

  • Smabulator

    Thanks for the kind words Zoom.

    And what about the guy with the Earl Grey tea and tequila? Insane Rambler or something?

    Yeah, Irene’s. That was a good summer. Or was it two? Did you ever end up seeing Arachnophobia?


  • Rambler…yeah! I forget his first name, but I don’t think it was Insane. (I bet Flog remembers. And while we’re at it, I thought of two more: Richard Visage and Anal Cyste.)

    As for Arachnophobia…I never did see it, despite the good intentions and frequent attempts. Did you?

  • Whoa – haven’t used this moniker in several dog’s ages.

    As it turns out, I’m sure I still do have backups of the Sanitarium somewhere, otherwise known as the Writer’s Block (in its last incarnation). No doubt on the computing equivalent of an 8-track tape that would cost a fortune to convert into anything else. But sometimes I think I ought to dredge it out and have a look. Mind you, I’ve done that with old short stories, and haven’t liked what I’ve read – self indulgent, immature, often pointless, and everyone dies in the end… the redder the better. But I did recently read some old episodes of the Hades Cafe and still thought it was pretty funny.

    Ok, other reminiscences. Crazy guy Phoenix who always wanted to write porno scenes in Hades Cafe and we were constantly having to creatively erase his “contributions”. Richard Visage (who I once wrote a really cool short story called “Sunspots” with… my first published story!). Painkiller? Wasn’t he the man of many weird reptiles and strange smells?

    Irene’s. Yes, I remember Irene’s. I was on their dart team, and got drunk on Monday’s a lot. And there was also the James Street.

    I’m amazed how many long friendships I’ve had from the BBS era – Smab, of course. Nik too, who I saw last year in Ottawa. And how weird it is trying to explain to my wife how you ended up meeting these strange people and socializing, and how the outside social world tended to end up in the NES world. You try to use a Web site analogy, and it only conjures up images of sexual predators stalking the young uns. Meet someone in person you talked to on a Web site?! Are you insane?!

    Oh, yes, and don’t forget Death (aka Reg) and the thoroughly overused “Plot Closet”.

    Gosh, this feels like the old days… Only I don’t have to wait 23 hours for my computer to be free!!!

    Crass (from London, UK)

  • Welcome Crass! I’m impressed by the depth of your memory. I wish I could do that.

    I think you’re right about Painkiller’s reptiles. I never met any of them, but they were alluded to frequently.

    Phoenix – he published a zine called Spectral Visions, right? He was the first person I ever got into a flame war with.

    Did Death have a last name?

    One night I put out a distress call on the BBSs because there was a bat in my apartment and I was hiding in my bedroom with no phone. I couldn’t answer the door because the bat was out there, so I just gave my address and asked if someone – anyone – could come up my fire escape and climb through my bedroom window and deal with my bat. I’d never met the guy who came over – he was on a motorcycle, and a regular at the San. He found the bat behind the couch, picked it up with my salad tongs, and took it outside. (Unfortunately neither the bat nor the salad tongs survived the operation.) Do you remember who he was?

  • I remember BBS’! My experiences of them were in small town NS–we even ran one out of our basement in 1994. I met my first university friend (pre-university) on one when he moved into town and was killing time waiting for school to commence.

    Fun stuff. I met my husband on the internet just a few months after that–the online community was an entirely different place back then. I’m not sure I’d want to be as open and forthcoming now as I was then. 😉

  • Smabulator

    I remember the bat thing, but I don’t think I was your bat catcher. Might it have been Warren Pane? (He also had another pseudonym before that – forget what it was though. Painkiller?) He drove a bike. Rather vigorously too.


  • Smab, it wasn’t you and it wasn’t Painkiller. I don’t think it was Warren Pane. It wasn’t anybody I’d met before. I think I’d recognize the name if I heard it. (It might have been a Chris somebody, but that’s just a shot in the dark.)

    Melissa – I met my husband online too. I’m glad you had better luck with it than I did. 😉

  • Your batman is likely to be one of 2 people: Warren Pane (aka Chris J), or Uncle Stew (aka Stew). Both drove motorcycles, and I could see both being gallant in that particularly way. Stew was nearing his forties then, and Chris would have been in his early twenties. I suspect it was Chris, and I have his email – I’ll ask him sometime. Mystery solved!

    What a great story!

    Death did not have a last name, but danger was his middle name. Ok, I just made that up.

  • I remember Uncle Stew – it wasn’t him. If Warren Pane’s real name was Chris, maybe it WAS him. He was in his 20s. Did he have another pseudonym?

    Was there someone by the name Chaos? Chaos something? Something Chaos?

  • Have confirmed via email – It was Warren Pane who banished the bat. He now lives in Yellowknife – how strange is that? I think he may have used another pseudonym, but can’t recall what it might have been.

  • Good work Crass! Another mystery de-mystrified.

    What’s he doing in Yellowknife? I didn’t think they had bats that far north…

  • Nik

    The Rambler was not insane — he was Incoherent Rambler. He ended up marrying the woman I worked for as a nanny. His best friend was Conqueror Worm. I eventually learned to know them as the two Michaels.

  • Incoherent Rambler, yes, that’s it! And the Conqueror Worm too. Good remembering Nik, I’m impressed.

    You worked as a nanny? Really?

  • Warren Pane

    Painkiller was Steve, and ran the First Church of Irwin.

    Is this boo?

    So, time to start the BBS again?

  • Boo Who? Ha ha ha ha ha!

    Hi Warren Pane. This is Dr. Sooze. I don’t know if I ever properly thanked you for that act of gallantry in which you saved me from the bat. I’ve had many bat invasions over the year, but that one was my favourite.

    As for Painkiller…was he associated with Another Roadside Attraction, Athena, or Aubergine?

  • Warren Pane

    Hahahaha COUGH

    Hi Sooze! Nice to say hi after 1,2,3,4…nevermind how many years.

    The internet and us have changed a little bit, but not too much.

    I think Mr. Kunc was associated with pretty much everything. He and Athena were close, and he wrote furiously on his board and others.

    What’s new with you?

  • What’s new? Hmmm. That’s always such a hard question after 17 years. The last couple of years are pretty much spelled out right here on this blog. Before that? There were other bats. There was even a bat house, briefly. How about you? What’s new?

    Did you hear Smabulator’s news? He just had a baby last week!

  • Warren pane

    BABY? Wow. Good going Smab. I am going to hold a big fest in June this year. Coming? I look forward to seeing you.

  • Fest?! Where? When? Will there be wings?!