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  LIFE AS A LOSER #170: "OREGON TRAIL."  
   
   
 

You know what I loved the most about going back to school in 1990? Computer class.

If you’re around the age of 25-30, what you think of as computer class is radically different than computer class is today. OK, to be fair, I don’t know what computer class is today. I seriously doubt they even have computer class anymore. Kids have their own AOL accounts at five, their own chat room handles at eight and their first weblog at 10. (I mean, kids are sending text messages rather than passing notes now. What’s happening? I’m sure some enterprising youngster has already programmed a java applet for live, real-time stat tracking on answers to the "Do you like me, Yes or No, circle one" question.)

But when I was a kid, the notion of computers-as-learning-devices was a new one, and was held, like all innovations, with a considerable amount of skepticism from the

 
 

secondary schooling establishment. Our school received a moderate grant, or some such, so they filled an abandoned classroom with creaky "computers" powered by gerbils on pinwheels. It was called "Computers," and it was my first class after lunch, my freshman year of high school.

Now, The Leitches were woefully late to the computer world. I had a typewriter in my room until I was a senior in high school, with vats of White-Out standing nearby. When we finally did get a computer, it barely worked and still took those huge big floppy disks, the ones made of paper maiche. If you tried to open two documents at the same time, my grandfather’s pacemaker would start opening up the garage door. And connecting to the Internet? Ha! I hadn’t even heard of the Web until I was a sophomore in college. That was less than 10 years ago. Strange.

But in computer class, you were supposed to learn, and they would sit us down and show us how to use BASIC, which, obviously, was the computer language we would all use years down the line. We would write little programs, of which, to this day, I remember only one.

10 PRINT "ANDY KUHNS IS A BIG NERD WITH A SMALL WIENER AND HAS A HUGE CRUSH ON NICCI FRITTS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"

20 GOTO 10

RUN

This would, of course, print this across my screen indefinitely, until I CNTL-ALT-DEL to stop it:

ANDY KUHNS IS A BIG NERD WITH A SMALL WIENER AND HAS A HUGE CRUSH ON NICCI FRITTS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

ANDY KUHNS IS A BIG NERD WITH A SMALL WIENER AND HAS A HUGE CRUSH ON NICCI FRITTS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

ANDY KUHNS IS A BIG NERD WITH A SMALL WIENER AND HAS A HUGE CRUSH ON NICCI FRITTS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

ANDY KUHNS IS A BIG NERD WITH A SMALL WIENER AND HAS A HUGE CRUSH ON NICCI FRITTS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

ANDY KUHNS IS A BIG NERD WITH A SMALL WIENER AND HAS A HUGE CRUSH ON NICCI FRITTS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

ANDY KUHNS IS A BIG NERD WITH A SMALL WIENER AND HAS A HUGE CRUSH ON NICCI FRITTS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

ANDY KUHNS IS A BIG NERD WITH A SMALL WIENER AND HAS A HUGE CRUSH ON NICCI FRITTS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Then Andy, who was sitting at the computer next to mine, would slug me and write something about Will Leitch touching himself and thinking of Mrs. Thurn. It was programming at its highest level. They would try to teach us in that class, but no one could pay any attention, not with each of us having a station to ourselves. I think the class only lasted one year. They tried everything, including bringing a computer "expert" to come in and tell us how computers were going to change our lives. But we were too busy producing syntax errors in rapid succession. Every game they tried to give us, we would just ignore and type "poop" and "penis" in repeating fashion. Every game, that is, except for one.

What I loved most about computer class was the Oregon Trail. You remember the Oregon Trail, don’t you? You must have had it at your school. The Oregon Trail was a computer game where you had to navigate your family across the country to settle in uncharted lands in the west. You started out in Philadelphia, maybe, or New York, I don’t remember exactly. You had a little BASIC-programmed covered wagon that plodded across a map of the 48 contiguous states. (The entire country would actually blink as you moved from one spot to another. One time Oregon Trail overloaded our school’s computer so severely that the lights went out.) You would start the game with a set amount of food, water, cattle, medicine, clothing, so on, and you would work your way to various trading posts, stopping to reload on supplies, until you either made it to the promised land, or everyone in your wagon had died. It was, like all great computer games, extremely simple. You had to keep your family fed and clothed and healthy during the long trip, or, you know, everybody died.

The best part about the game was that five people went on the trip with you, and you could give them the names of your classmates. Typically, I would name myself head of the family and whatever four girls happened to be sitting around the computer my "harem." (I’d learned the word on an episode of Nova my parents made me watch.) "We’re all mormons!" I’d say, mixing and matching religions to my whims. And we would plod across the country, stopping in St. Louis ("Go Cardinals!") to trade for goods and services. And we’d watch while each of them died. Emily was the first to go, from "exhaustion," a disease we would giggly decipher as code for "too much masturbating." Others would die along the line, until eventually the head of the family would die, and the game was over.

A cursory web search reveals that the Oregon Trail video game is still on the market. I haven’t played it, but I’d say it’s a safe bet that they’ve completely ruined it. It probably has state-of-the-art graphics, and a whole convoluted storyline, and the capability to play it online and compete with kids in India and China and Montana, in real time, of course. It is just one of the thousands of distractions for kids out there, one more reason for them to stay out of the sun, likely, even with the "upgrades," not as sexy and violent to do anything much more than sit on the back of the shelf, an obligation gift from a nostalgic uncle who doesn’t realize how much cooler Resident Evil and Lara Croft are.

I know that I’m being crotchety. Every generation says the ones that come after them are somehow more shiftless and pampered than ours were. (For the record, instead of playing PlayStation 2 as a kid, I watched As The World Turns and played Strat-o-Matic in my room. So, you know, I was pretty active.) But technology has exploded in the 15, 20 years since we were kids and just trying out this stuff. I miss the quaint notion that you could have an entire class devoted to computers rather than have one sitting at every desk, the idea that a computer game would be something novel and educational and new rather than one with crappier graphics than the ones you’re used to. Do kids even go outside in the summer anymore except to play in soccer leagues their parents make them join?

I miss the idea of going back to school, and having new experiences, and seeing new things. You would lament the end of the summer, but the fall’s rhythm had its own charms. Maybe there would be another new computer class, or maybe that girl from homeroom had filled out her bra and then some in the last three months, or maybe you’d finally kiss a girl this year. You never knew. September, and a new school year, had limitless possibilities. It’s impossible not to miss it.

But mostly, I just miss being a kid. I miss that excitement of not knowing what was going to happen next. These days, I always know what’s going to happen next: the same thing that happened yesterday. These days, September isn’t a time to refresh and renew; it’s just like the summer, work, work, sleep, sleep, lather, rinse, repeat. It’s enough to make a guy die of exhaustion.

 

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