For my 12th birthday, my godfather "Mad" Tony gifted me with an Applied Engineering DataLink 1200 modem.
I started calling into BBSes regularly, using their message boards, playing turn-based text games, and downloading small files. I found and used recipes for making fireworks with black powder and other simple chemicals around our house. I exchanged tips with others in the copy-protection hacking scene.
I found this list of school dialups and with some paper copies of 2600 magazine learned to phrack well enough to make the long-distance calls without my parents or Southwestern Bell noticing while I experimented with hacking into them. I was able to experiment with some early ARPANET telnet and FTP but I didn’t see the point. The telco network and some security holes in BBN’s Telenet already allowed me to access remote systems, and the systems reachable that way were more interesting.
Everyone in the BBS community used aliases even for mundane social interaction. Mine was originally “Maxwell Smart” but quickly became “SAMHAIN NIVHWVS” because I was fascinated by the pagan origins of our Catholic mythology and ambigrams are cool.
It was many years later that I found that the Washington University library had an open dial-in Gopher client and allowed me to create a UUCP account for ARPANET email (my first email address was
wupost.wustl.edu!sempco!hgerwitz). I could also browse to a UMich space that included a menu item for telnet to Nyx at the University of Denver. Nyx offered free shell accounts and NSFNET was well established, so my attention gradually shifted from BBSes to the Internet.
By the time I left home in 1991 being online was so important to me that I scavenged an old VT100 dumb terminal and acoustic-coupler modem so I could dial in.