Summer, 1979. My friend Tom Burns' birthday party, at what is now called Haunted Trails, but was a miniature golf course and arcade back then, in Bridgeview Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. That is when I discovered what I wanted to do with my life.
I don't remember very much about the party. It was a standard birthday party for an eleven year old. There was bad pizza, plastic cups filled with soda and a birthday cake. We all got a dollar in quarters for the arcade; probably part of the birthday party package. We didn't get to miniature golf, which was fine by me. I've never cared for it.
The parents were all at the reserved table doing parent things. All of us, the kids, were in the arcade. You have to realize this is 1979 though. The arcade consisted of mainly Skee Ball and Pinball machines. It wasn't like the arcades in the eighties that had music, lighting, hundreds of machines with teenagers hunched over them. Arcades in the mid to late seventies were actually pretty boring.
I wandered over to one of the pinball machines which gobbled up three of my quarters rather quickly. I was looking at the other pinball machines trying to decide which one to waste my last quarter on when I noticed Tom and the other kids were gathered around something new. It was a tall box with a weird green insect on the side. I could hear the other kids gasping at what they were seeing so I walked over to see what was going on.
This is what I saw. That's right. Galaxian.
My mouth dropped open. It was like nothing I'd ever seen before. I watched Tom as he played his game and I figured out how to operate the machine. Move the lever with the red ball left and the ship moved left, move it right and the ship moved right, press the red button to fire your laser at the enemy. So simple by today's standards, but it was like magic to me. I literally walked to the back of the machine to see if I could glean some kind of information about how the magic box worked.
I knew what to use my last quarter for now. All the other boys had called their turns so I had to wait. The time simultaneously dragged and flew by. I was mesmerized watching the other party goers play, seeing them figure out the controls, learn the rules of the game and eventually lose all their ships. I was also desperate to get my hands on the controls.
Finally it was my turn. I plopped my quarter in the coin slot, hit the single player button, and proceded to lose all of my ships in record time. Far faster than any of the others. It didn't matter though. I was hooked. I knew this was my future. I had to be a part of whatever it was that made this game work. I wasn't even really sure what it was yet.
Looking back at that moment now I can see the difference between me and the other boys at the party. They were all amazed at the graphics, (this was the first color video game any of us had seen) and the game play (the ships flew down at you in wild patterns unlike the boring Space Invader ships which just marched back and forth across the screen). I was amazed at those aspects too, but mostly I wanted to know how it worked. What was inside that case, how was it possible for me to control images on a television screen.
I'd heard about computers, mostly in movies and science fiction books, but they were room sized things in large buildings far away from where I lived. The concept of a personal computer had not yet entered the consciousness of the average person. I figured that Galaxian had to be controlled by some kind of computer and that controlling a computer meant you had to write a program for it but beyond that I knew absolutely nothing.
I kept my eyes open, learned whatever I could whenever I could. Over time I got access to computers. I read programming books, fumbled around at writing my own games. It was a slow process and I'm still working at it. The plan is to continue working at being the best programmer I can be, figuring out how things work and building interesting things for the rest of my life.
I was lucky. I know many people that never had a moment like this in their life. They never got that "AHA" moment that propelled them down a path that would define their life. I also know people who did get that moment and have turned their back on it for whatever reason. I'm not judging, I've turned my back on my dreams from time to time as well. It is HARD WORK. It is solitude, frustration, pain, terror, self-loathing and sometimes a whole lot of fun.
I hope you have found your path and have the strength to follow it. If you haven't, I hope you continue to look for it.