Deconstructing my first computer

My mom recently sent me a photograph. It depicts me, sitting in front of a computer, sometime in late 1984 or very early 1985. It was a Commodore 64, and I was playing a game called Micro League Baseball. The computer was a Christmas gift in 1984. A very expensive Christmas gift. But where did it come from? I figured it out.

Old Christmas catalogs are good for figuring out where gifts may have come from, especially when we have photographs to work from. Sometimes the photographs provide visual clues.

Unraveling a mystery

deconstructing my first computer
I was able to find everything in this photograph in a 1984 Christmas catalog.

In 1984, we lived in a small town. If you wanted electronics, your choices were Radio Shack and Wal-Mart. The school my sister and I attended had Commodore computers, and my mom was a big believer in using the same kind of computer at home that you had at school. But Radio Shack sold its own line of computers, and while Wal-Mart sold game consoles, they didn’t sell computers at the time. So my parents couldn’t source a Commodore computer locally.

St. Louis was the closest major city, and lots of stores in St. Louis sold Commodore computers. Kmart sold the 64 at below wholesale cost as a loss leader, but I don’t know that my parents knew that. Sears and Montgomery Ward also sold it, though not as a loss leader. Children’s Palace sold the 64, but maybe not that year. Commodore had a few dealers in St. Louis too, but nowhere that my parents would have known about, and their prices wouldn’t have been anything great.

I’m sure at one time I knew where it came from, but I’d long since forgotten. But a clue in the photograph triggered my memory.

Key to the mystery: the TV

We didn’t get the Commodore 1702 computer monitor that you always see with the 64. I remember hearing Dad brag about how he saved a hundred bucks by buying a 13-inch TV instead of a monitor. And he didn’t buy just any TV. He bought the cheapest TV he could find. In his mind, he was saving a bundle, and getting some versatility along with it. Every once in a while, he’d yank the TV off the computer desk, carry it into another room, and use it as a TV.

I’d forgotten the details about the TV, until I saw the picture. Then a long-forgotten detail popped into my memory. That TV said “Montgomery Ward” on the front.

So I pulled up the 1984 Montgomery Ward Christmas catalog. And there it was, on page 579, at the top. The cheapest 13-inch TV in the catalog, priced at $179. That’s laughably high today, but the cheapest name-brand TV was an RCA unit priced at $229, and on the next page there were nicer RCA and Panasonic 13-inch units priced at $349.

But now I knew the TV came from Montgomery Ward. My memory hadn’t failed me. What about everything else?

The desk

When my dad’s cousin saw the picture, he commented that everyone had that desk in 1984. He’s right, it seems like almost every picture of a 1980s computer setup shows a computer on that desk. I actually still have that very desk in my basement, but there are no identifying marks anywhere on it.

It didn’t matter much, though. On page 538 of the catalog, at the bottom, there it is, with an Atari computer awkwardly set up on it. The desk on the top of the page was nicer, but it cost $200. And I’ll bet that TV dad picked out wouldn’t fit on it. The desk on the bottom of the page cost $100 and it had room for the TV’s bigger footprint.

I would have done the same thing.

Now, it’s likely that lots of other stores also sold that desk. But Dad probably would have bought it all in one store. And Ward’s had both. Did Ward’s have the computer?

The computer, disk drive and printer

In 1984, disk drives were separate purchases. The Commodore 1541 disk drive is very famous. Er, infamous. Flipping backwards, on page 525, I found the good stuff. Computers. Commodore computers. Ward’s had the computer and the disk drive. And right there on the same page was the Commodore 1526 printer. We had that too. It broke just a few months out of warranty, as I recall. We ended up replacing it with a $39 special from Protecto Enterprises, a thermal printer they called the Big Blue, that was originally intended for the IBM PCjr. But that was a few months later.

Ward’s ran a special that year. If you bought the computer and peripherals, they knocked $20 off of each. So that computer, disk drive and printer cost $747 instead of $807.

I don’t think Dad went to a lot of different stores. I think he drove to Cape Girardeau, possibly the weekend before Christmas, bought everything at Ward’s, and stashed it in the garage for a day or two. There were Montgomery Ward locations in St. Louis too, but they were all on the north side, as I recall. Cape Girardeau would have been a shorter drive.

That computer’s eventual fate

We upgraded to a Commodore 128 in 1986 and donated that computer and disk drive to the school I attended. Where it went from there, I don’t know. I picked up a few 64s and 1541s at garage sales in the 2005-2009 timeframe, but none of the machines work. Getting one of them working is a long ongoing project for me. I can’t get that old computer back but I do eventually want to have one pretty much like it up and running. That’s the next best thing.

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