Atari 65XE

The first computer I saw was at my cousins place when I was about 9 or maybe 10 years old, I belive. It had to be around 1988. He was the first person I knew to ever get a computer. I’d heard of them before, but had never thought I would be so lucky to see one with my own eyes, let go play with one. We were poor, probably not much poorer than greater part of Poland’s population at that time, but, and by living in the countryside, far from the nearest “city” (a small town called Polanow, with about 3000 inhabitants, not much of a town, really) we also lacked the basis for comparison. We didn’t know we were poor, and so didn’t quite many Poles.

It was an Atari 65XE. It was still the time when computers came with  printed user’s manual. Atari had a decent Basic-interpreter built in, and I started my IT-career in the age of 10-ish by painstakingly typing in the programs from the manual, then searching for typos, correcting errors, searching for typos, and so on, until it finally worked. In the beginning I didn’t know a word English either… At that time I barely knew there were other languages than Polish. Oh, of course, that’s an exaggeration, I knew about Russian, German and English. The first two mainly from the movies and TV-series’ emitted by the Polish state television, that was flooding the viewers with post-war propaganda. Still, after 45 years, we were to be constantly reminded of our oppression under the German occupation, cheer for our heroes and show gratitude to our saviours, the Great Nation of Soviet Union. Both TV-channels we had was Polish state TV, and they emitted the same cherished war-related movies and series’ over and over again. War presented sadly one day, a war adventure movie the next day, the war from Soviet-propaganda’s-documentary-point of view the other. So I’d heard quite much German and Russian soldier’s phrases in my childhood – the brave Soviet soldiers: “Davay, davay!” (Come on, quickly!) and “Ohgonh!” (Fire!)  while they stormed the enemy’s positions, and the cruel German soldiers’: “Hände hoch!“(Hands up!) while taking innocent civilians into hostage,

“Four tankmen and a dog” – an evergreen adventure TV series for children, about… war.

“Schnell!” (Quickly!) while leading them to prison, and “An die Wand” (To the wall!) when they intended to shoot all of them, and then “Nicht schiessen!” (Don’t shoot!) as they were giving themselves up and to the brave Russians… We used those phrases a lot when we played war in the woods, with sticks for rifles, hiding and attacking from the trenches. We used them so much, that when my uncle got some relatives from (West) Germany, i decided to impress them with my knowledge of their language. I’m still uncertain if they were impressed or rather abashed, when they realised what kind of vocabulary I mastered and commanded them to give up…

Later, in 5th grade (I was 11 years old then, in 1989) the school accepted their responsibility to teach me a foreign language. The political reform climate had been spreading all over the country for quite some time, white spots in the glorious history of communism were being filled, and suddenly the Russians were not any longer our Friends and Saviours from WW2. Stalin’s and the communist party’s crimes against Poles and Poland were revealed and investigated. All things Russian became suddenly openly uncomfortable and hated, not just secretly detested, like before. So did their language – all the schools that could afford hiring English or German teachers began to teach these languages instead of Russian. But our school did not, for some reason. So i learned Russian for 3 years in ground school, because our school in the back of Poland couldn’t get ahold of a teacher of any other language. I did not see it as an inconvenience then though, and I still don’t. I think Russian is a beautiful language, and Russians are a proud nation with great traditions, sadly among them also a tradition of being oppressed by their own rulers. The Russians I know are great people as well. But back in 1989 they suddenly turned from being our best friends to being our worst enemies. A recollection I’ve got from the very first Russian lesson at school, that still makes me feel uncomfortable: the teacher asked “What do you know about Soviet Union?” (which still existed in 1989). I reached up my hand, a top student as I always was, and answered by “the book”: “They were our best friends during the War”. Nothing more, nothing less. “The book” in question was obviously a Soviet propaganda pamphlet thrown at the Polish people through 50 years, and I was well indoctrinated by it. The teacher was somehow abashed by my answer, and said something about Soviet Union being our closest neighbour to the east, and a big country and numerous nation, but this whole friends-thing, she wasn’t so sure of that anymore. That’s when I first understood that not everything my young mind had been fed with was right. And regardless of how many times it was repeated, it wasn’t going to be more right. It was a lesson for life – young minds are so receptive for input – who knows what political system, what leaders and heroes I’d be praising today if the communism hadn’t come to an end in our part of the world the same year. I reflect over this sometimes and can’t help but point out to myself on how many levels and how many arenas this still is actual and true.

And, You see, I hadn’t found out how to save the programs I typed on the Atari to the tape drive yet, so if I didn’t finish the whole process, with typing and testing and searching for errors in a sea of to me cryptic code, before my bedtime, I had to repeat it all over again the next time… Most of the programs were simple and short, but I can remember sitting there for hours and hours at a time, typing in the 4 pages long code that was supposed to print a rainbow on the screen… for several days in a row… But I finally got it working! Then my cousin got some games and a couple og joysticks, and I began to play instead (Decathlon, yay!), but the seed had been planted – my passion for computers and my beginning knowledge of the English language, and languages in general. So, as the revolution went on, I was typing 10 PRINT “Hello World” and 20 GOTO 10 and playing Decathlon.

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