Back in the early nineties, I was in the third or fourth grade, and my family got our first computer. It wasn’t new, it was something my uncle was getting rid of. It didn’t really do much. There was no mouse. I don’t even think it had Microsoft Windows. I’m actually trying to remember how we used it, but I don’t think anybody did. It kind of just sat there as we all stared at it, longingly.
“Please mom,” I’d beg my mother, “Can we play with the computer?” and I remember my mom would call up her brother as he took her on a step-by-step tutorial on how to launch the solitaire app. They didn’t call them apps back then, they called them games, not like solitaire was much of a game, really.
That machine lasted like a month or two until my parents decided that maybe home computing was the inevitability everyone kept promising it would be. They tossed my uncle’s hand-me-down in the trash and bought a real computer. This PC had Windows, some old version of it anyway, something named after a number, way before Windows 95. But even though it was brand new, it was still old. Or maybe I’m just remembering it as old, because everything was so much slower.
But it was pretty old. When you turned it on, you had to wait like ten minutes before it took you to the DOS prompt. And you’d have to actually enter computer commands, just like in a cheesy 80s movie. You’d write something like, “Computer, run Windows.” And then you’d have to wait another hour or so while the operating system loaded. When it was all said and done, finally you could use its state of the art graphic user interface to click on the window that said, “Games.” And yeah, it was mostly just solitaire.
But then a few years after that we got a real machine, a Gateway 2000. I can’t even conceive of how my mom went about buying the computer, because I think about how I’d buy a computer today: I’d go on the Internet and pick something out. But we didn’t have the Internet yet. Our current computer wasn’t capable of handling the web.
The Gateway was everything that I wanted a computer to be. It booted right to Windows, which was awesome, and it was Windows 95, which was even more awesome. Now I could finally play with that Windows 95 startup CD, the one that all of my friends talked about at school. It had the video to Weezer’s “Buddy Holly.” And there were games, actual games: Minesweeper, Chip’s Challenge, Ski Free.
Everything was right in the world. My life had finally started to feel like the future I’d always imagined for myself. We had the Internet. I had an AOL screen name. But there was a problem. Instead of throwing out the old computer like they did that antique passed down from my uncle, my parents just moved it to the other side of the room.
“Now we have two computers,” was the idea, but it was a flawed idea, because while technically, yes, they were both computers, only one of them had anything worth using. I’d be waiting for my brother to finish up on AOL so I could take a turn on the Internet. I’d complain that he was taking too long, “You can always use the other computer,” my mom would offer, which was a joke, because it didn’t have the Internet, it was totally useless.
The only one of us who used it was my brother Joe. He had some trial version of a shareware game that one of his classmates gave to him on a stupid floppy disc. And he’d pop it in and play the same minute and a half of sixteen-bit action, over and over and over again. “He likes it!” would be the reply if we complained about having to watch him loop through the same screen on repeat for hours.
And that’s how life went for a while, waiting for my brother to finish up with the computer so I could use it, picking up the phone line every once in a while so as to interrupt the Internet connection, waiting by the door as he tried futilely to reconnect through the never ending chorus of busy signals.
I remember around that time telling all of my computer woes to one of my dad’s cousins at a funeral. This was a guy that I’d never seen at any family parties. He lived far away or something, I don’t know his story, my dad has like a thousand family members. But this cousin, nobody else was talking to him, and once I had his ear about computers, man, I was locked into that conversation.
This guy knew everything about computers. “You know,” he gave me some advice regarding that old PC that took up space in the computer room, “You could always wipe the memory.”
“How would I do that?”
“Easy. You wait for the DOS prompt to load up, and you type in ‘del *.*’”
I remember exactly how he said it, “D-E-L space star dot star,” and I repeated it to myself over and over again for the rest of the night, making sure that I’d be able to commit it to memory.
But once I had it in there, I couldn’t figure out what to do with it. Obviously I wanted to use it, to see if it would actually work. But destroying a computer? I wasn’t a bad kid or anything. Annoying, maybe, but not capable of actually ruining something big, like a computer.
I couldn’t get it out of my head though. I just kept hearing it on repeat in my head, del *.*. Part of me wished that my dad’s weird cousin never told me about the command in the first place. It started to encroach upon more and more of my daily thoughts. Sometimes I’d boot the machine up and start typing it out, not pressing enter, but holding my finger just above, not even an inch away. I felt powerful, with the tiniest of movements, I was capable of utter annihilation.
And then one day, I don’t know what came over me, but in a momentary lapse of judgment, I did it, I pulled the trigger. Del *.*, enter. And all of these characters started flying across the screen. The hard drive made audible clicking sounds, a sure enough sign that something was going on inside.
That’s when I regained my senses, realized exactly what I was doing. And I freaked out, I wanted to undo it. I pulled the plug, hoped that if I just gave it a minute, we could forget anything had happened, let bygones be bygones. But it was too late. While the power light showed signs of electric current, there was nothing on the screen, no signs of computing activity whatsoever.
So I turned it off and left the room. A few days later, I heard Joseph ask my mom to help him with something on the computer, “my computer,” as he was fond of calling it, seeing as how he was the only one who used it at all. A little while after that, my mom asked me if I knew what was wrong. “With the computer?” I pretended to act all shocked, running to the new computer, making up what I thought was an elaborate ruse, like I didn’t even know about the old computer.
“Oh, the old one?” I acted relieved after my mom told me what she meant. “I have no idea. I never use that thing.”
And that was that. It sat there for a few months, and then one day my dad hauled it outside and left it on the curb for trash pickup. I’ve always felt bad about it, lying to my parents, ruining the computer that for some reason brought my little brother such a simple joy. I guess, mom, if you’re reading this, I’m sorry? Is that good enough? I’m sorry I broke the old computer, on purpose. But mostly I’d like to blame my dad’s cousin, because why would you think it was a good idea to give a little kid his own computer self-destruct button? Not cool man, you might as well have given me a knife, or a bottle of spray paint, with strict instructions never to use them. Of course I’m going to use them. Don’t you know anything about little kids? So if anything, it’s really that guy’s fault, not my fault. Thanks for ruining my little brother’s computer.