Radio Shack R.I.P

doomparty1The business news contained a story that wasn’t really surprising news: Radio Shack had declared bankruptcy and is going to sell between 1,500 and 2,400 of its 4,000 stores to eventually become Sprint outlets. The rest of them will go dark.

I needed some parts a few days ago and went to my favorite Rat Shack store a mile from the house. It was closed, closed, closed, without even a sign telling where the next nearest store lived.

We were a Tandy / Radio Shack family. Buddy Chuck Keefer sold me his Tandy Model 1 computer. It had 4K of RAM, and anything you wanted to run on it had to be typed in character by character. A single misspelled word or a comma in the wrong place would cause it to fail. Its memory was only as long as its power cord. When you turned the machine off (or the power flickered), the program was gone. If you REALLY wanted to save what you had entered, you could hook up a tape recorder and try to download it, but the odds that the download or the upload would go flawlessly were pretty slim.

I did manage to write a rudimentary spreadsheet that would help me do my photo department budget: you would input what you were going to spend for film, for example, in the upcoming year, and the program would spread that amount out monthly based on historic percentages.

The photo above was one of Son Adam’s Doom Parties in our living room. More about that later.

Tandy Model IV

doomparty2Just before I left on an out-of-town assignment, I ordered a Tandy Model IV. It was a computer with the keyboard and monitor all built in one unit. I paid extra to have a green screen instead of an amber one; upgraded the 64K of RAM to 128K and installed a second 5-1/4″ floppy disk drive.

On my way back from the job, I stopped at Radio Shack to load the huge, honking box in the backseat of my Mazda. When I got it unpacked, it dawned on me that I had a computer and a disk with the operating system on it, but no programs to run. That was seriously disappointing.

Buddy Keefer (remember him?) sold me his 300-baud modem, which meant that I could dial up computer bulletin boards and connect with other people, send messages and pirate software. One local Sysop (System Operator), Karl Myers, ran The Notebook, a site for writers, journalists, programmers and general adult-geeks. He would host a monthly BBQ where we could get together just for the heck of it.

Some local guys who frequented The Notebook wrote MS-DOS, an operating system for the Tandy that was better than anything Radio Shack sold. They also produced a suite of programs with a great terminal package, word processor and spreadsheet. Unfortunately, Lotus came out with 1-2-3 at about the same time, which dried up the market for them. I used their word processor for years.

About those Doom parties

doomparty5The Model IV was replaced with a Tandy 1000, which was an IBM PC clone, only better. My first upgrade was a 20 megabyte hard drive that cost $600. I carry a 32 gigabyte flash drive in my pocket today that cost about $32 (and falling).

Sons Matt and Adam, of course, grew up with computers. The first ones didn’t come with fancy mice and the like. If they wanted to play an adventure game, they had to type all the commands: “Go left;” “Pick up sword,” etc. If you wanted to survive, you had to learn how to type fast.

By the time Adam hit middle school, he and all his buddies had become serious nerds. We’d hear a knock on the door, and here would come half a dozen kids with computers under their arms to take over our living and dining rooms. This was in the days before networking as we know it today, so they would tie the machines together so they could play Doom and other action games.

Wife Lila and I would crank up the AC to handle the additional heat load, then retreat to our bedroom while the warriors battled all night.

“It’s the cops”

doomparty7One morning, just as the boys were staggering out of our house with all their computer gear, a West Palm Beach prowl car rolled down the street. The cop was SURE he was going to get a commendation for breaking up this high-tech burglary ring. Once we had explained that all we had lost was sleep (and the contents of our refrigerator), they were released in the custody of their parents.

So, what are we going to do when we need some oddball capacitor or connector or cable adapter in the future?

The store which was a leader in cheap technology – close to high-fidelity sound systems; CB radios; alarm systems; electronic toys and quirky gadgets was probably done in by demographics. I mean there’s a whole generation out there today that hears “Radio Shack” and wonders, “What the heck is a radio?”