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Why I’m not a Millionaire

February 6, 2012

When I was fifteen my friend J and I made a pact: we were going to be millionaires by the time we turned twenty-five. It was 1991. We were interning with a computer company called Vortronix. Our boss assured us the goal was feasible – the tech revolution was just beginning; our skills were going to be in high demand. If we stuck with it now we’d be set for life.

The year before, my mom had bought our first computer: a PC XT with a monochrome screen, 640K ram, and a 2400 bps modem with send-only fax capability. State of the art for the Hawaiian boondocks. She wrote a weekly food column for the local paper and was tired of the half hour trek to their office. And just like my daughter is doing these days, I took over the machine.

First I played around with the word processor. With the help of a family friend I learned to wander the corridors of DOS. I took a class in Basic and managed to write a text based adventure game. Then I heard about BBS’s. I couldn’t get CompuServe, but the same family friend gave me his password to DBED, Hawaii’s premier electronic bulletin board.

I was downloading before it was cool to download. The problem was, all the games I wanted to play needed a color monitor. Then I came across a CGA simulator: a small program that convinced my computer its screen was indeed color. Now I could play Tron!

Then my mom’s best friend brought her new boyfriend over for dinner. He watched me milking that (already) outdated XT for more than it was worth, and at the end of the night told me he could teach me how to build computers. He told me he could teach me how to do every step from physically assembling the units to writing programs to setting up networks and tutoring people. He told me I had the innate skills to do very well for myself with computers.

With a little parental encouragement, I called him a couple of days later and set up an interview. J invited himself along, and I’m glad he did. We met Duane in the upstairs office of the Dragon’s Den, a new-age apothecary in Makawao town. There Duane reiterated his offer and extended it to J. What he asked for in return was our dedication. We were to treat every day like a job, dress well, put in forty hours a week over the summer as well as do homework, and at all times act professionally.

It was a bit of a stretch for a hippie spawn, but such was my enthusiasm that I agreed without hesitation. J was game too. And so began the summer of “pack it back” and “beat ‘em and delete ‘em.”

Every day at 8:00 we’d show up at Duane’s termite-infested two-bedroom tech house tucked behind a Quonset hut at the edge of town. If he had a service call we’d go along and observe, but otherwise our days consisted of fixing old computers and scavenging parts from dead ones. For homework we learned how to use spreadsheets and databases. Duane cooked spaghetti with ghee for lunch, religiously. He’d set out three bowls and say, “Alright boys, pack it back.” And we would.

It was a strange time. During the week I’d work like a responsible adult, and during the weekend I’d party like the teenager I actually was. One Sunday night I was convinced to indulge in hallucinogens and walk the 11 mile trail through the Haleakala crater by moonlight. It was a beautiful hike. The sun rose just as we were trekking up the northern rim, and I was truly on top of the world. Then I drove to work.

Once Duane had to leave for two weeks to attend to business on the mainland. By then we were reasonably able to handle service calls, and he entrusted us with his keys. We were to come to work every day and continue our studies. What actually happened was we downloaded games and scanned pictures of Duane into the computer and gave him devil’s horns and a goatee. In a token attempt to avoid detection, we employed a “beat ‘em and delete ‘em” policy, where we dumped the games after victory. It might’ve worked if we hadn’t taped Duane’s picture to the wall.

Then real life intruded. J’s dad forced him to quit; he wasn’t making any money and would be better off mowing lawns, dad said. As for me, sport season was starting. After leaving work early to go to practice the third time Duane sat me down and told me that I needed to assess my priorities. In his opinion I would be smart to stick with computers and forego high school entirely. But if I didn’t, he needed a clear sense of what I was going to be able to commit to.

He was asking me to drop out of high school. To shatter the mold of expectation my parents and educational institution had shaped me in. Perhaps I should’ve leapt at the opportunity. Regarded it as a long term gamble. But on the face of it, how could a moldy shack compare with a Blue Ribbon Prep Academy? How could I believe it offered a brighter future?

That wasn’t why I walked away, though. It had more to do with the hike through the crater. Some inner part of me could tell the difference between the rush I got from exalting my spirit in nature and the rush I got from solving a difficult programming equation. After a long computer session my eyes would throb and my wrists would be so sore it hurt to move them. After a long hike my legs might hurt and my muscles might ache, but it was an uplifting pain.

I made the decision not to live my life in front of the screen and accepted the consequences. I don’t know how J did with his goal – but today I’m not a millionaire. That’s okay – a strange thing happened when I walked away from the tech world. I didn’t look for another way to amass a fortune. It’s as if I shed that desire along with the lifestyle. Knowing I could have done it is enough.

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