My Nerdy Origins in Lock Haven

Remembering all the things from 1981-1986 that made me the nerd I am today.
February 12, 2010
There's nothing special about Lock Haven Pennsylvania. It's a small town in the North-Central region of the state. There are hundreds just like it all across the country. Still, it was my home from 1981-1986 and ultimately the birthplace of all that is nerdy in me today.

My father was in the military and between the ages of 0-6 we lived in Belgium, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia. Needless to say I never formed much of a connection with any of those locales. Well, that and I was young and oblivious then. In 1981 he was stationed in Lock Haven. Now for those dozen readers who've heard of Lock Haven I know what you're thinking - "there's no military base in Lock Haven!" True, but there is Lock Haven College (which I hear has been upgraded to University status) which has an ROTC program. He did something there but being a kid I didn't really know what. If you asked me then, "Army stuff" would have been my answer.

Lock Haven would be the first place I really remembered living in. Like most small towns it had a Main St. with all the expected proprietors - McDonalds, Burger King, thrift store, bookstore, a dumpy local restaurant called The Texas, genuine 1980s arcades, and a single screen movie theater called The Roxy.

Our house was nowhere near all this "action" though. We were an uphill drive on the outskirts of town. The location was quite secluded. We had few neighbors with even fewer kids.

That little house became the boiling pot for all the geeky tendencies I have today. Nearly everything I obsess over now started on the side of that hill.

My father wasn't stationed in Lock Haven very long. Seemed like our house was for sale within a year of moving in. At that point my parents weren't getting along so they didn't seem to be in a rush to sell the house and reunite. My Mom soon got a job to help make ends meet which turned me into a latchkey kid. This was the kind of town where it wouldn't occur to anyone that maybe it wasn't safe to leave children home alone. Luckily my parents kept the house stocked with all kinds of shiny objects to help me pass the time.

Anyway, enough about my family soap opera and on to the retro goodness.


I'll never forget my first night in Lock Haven. The movers stacked all the boxes in their respective rooms and we were too exhausted from the drive to start unpacking. We didn't even set up the beds, I slept in a sleeping bag on the floor of my new bedroom.

There across from me were boxes labeled "Boys Toys". I spent hours staring at them. It felt like Christmas Eve. Sure, everything in those boxes was something I already owned but in my little head it all seemed new. "What ever could be in there?" I wondered all night.

Of course it was mostly my Star Wars collection that started back in Virginia.

The thing was, I didn't really know who half the characters I owned were. These were the days before VCRs and TBS movie marathons. You saw the movie once, twice if you were really lucky, and that was it. I remember getting a new Greedo figure but not really knowing who he was. It didn't matter, he was in Star Wars and that was good enough.

Star Wars wouldn't be the focus of my attention much longer though. Oh no, something even cooler usurped Luke 'n pals - the Transformers.

A toy that combines the best qualities of both robot and car, what young male could resist? Over the years in Lock Haven I amassed quite a pile of Transformers toys. I'd pick up a few He-Man and G.I. Joe figures over the next five years but the Transformers were always my favorite.

Video Games

Lock Haven had a single grocery store. Well, I suppose it could have had a dozen but we always went to the same one. On one fateful trip I spotted a distant glow illuminating from a tall dark box. I followed the light and saw an arcade game for the first time. It was Donkey Kong and I was immediately hooked.

When December rolled around I assumed full nag mode - "Mom, all I want for Christmas is Donkey Kong". At the time I was talking about those miniature tabletop toys but my Mom delivered one better - an Intellivision system and the home version of Donkey Kong.

No, this was not a great version of Donkey Kong but at that age it was perfect. Another game waiting under the tree that year was something called Lock 'n Chase. Lacking a Pac-Man port at the time, the Intellivision had to settle for an imitator.

My Mom ended-up getting hooked on Lock n Chase for while, it was a game we played together a lot making it very memorable today. I spent countless hours on the Intellivision over the years, until the NES finally kicked it to the curb.

Despite having a home system I still longed to play arcade games. In downtown Lock Haven there were two arcades but we were never allowed to go in either. They were perceived as too shady or something. Luckily in that day arcade cabinets were as common as gumball machines, seemed the lobby of every building had one.

One such lobby was the Lock Haven YMCA which sported Kangaroo and Donkey Kong Jr.

I took swim classes there and had to loiter around after waiting for my ride home. On a good day I'd have a quarter with me so I could play them for 3 minutes. Usually I just pathetically watched the attract modes and hoped a passer-by would accidentally drop some change on their way out.

The only formal arcade I was allowed in was a half-hour away. The nearest shopping mall to Lock Haven was Lycoming Mall and we trekked out there about once a month. In the mall was a massive arcade called The Fun Factory.

This place was like a paradise to me then, and still would be now I guess. Every visit was like going for the first time because there were always new games. I can't do all those incredible Fun Factory memories justice here so I'll save them for later.

Video games would remain an obsession for the rest of my life - and it all started in that grocery store in Lock Haven.


For most the phrase "summer camp" evokes memories of sleeping in cabins, swimming in icky ponds, roasting marshmallows, and being chased by undead psychopaths in hockey masks. Not me though because I went to computer camp. It was a day camp held at Lock Haven College that taught computer basics on shiny new Apple ][es.

Most of the time was spent learning Terrapin Logo. It was a gateway to the general concepts of computer programming. Teaching that little turtle how to draw boxes and whatnot was secretly introducing how to build reusable functions, a concept that's essential to real programing.

Seeing how much I enjoyed working on the computer, my parents plunked down more than I want to think about to buy an Apple ][ clone. We never bought many games for it outside of educational stuff like Oregon Trail. OK, OK, I don't think we *bought* a single program for that computer. We did however have two disk drives and friends who had copies of copies of copies of the original programs.

Along the way I learned how to program BASIC. It wasn't covered in the computer camp, or at least I don't remember it. Either way, I primarily learned it though examples in computer magazines and good ol' trial and error.

So I wrote a couple really dorky text games - Choose Your Own Adventure type stuff. Things that would thoroughly embarrass me if I saw them today.

All those hours staring at the green screen eventually paid off. Computer programming would go on to be career for me. Nah, I didn't manage to cash out during the dot-com boom but it pays the bills. Almost two decades after going to that nerdy camp I even finished a Masters degree in computer science. I guess the idea of sitting in a college computer lab was conditioned into me early.


When we first moved to Lock Haven we relied on the antenna for our televised entertainment. Being smack in the middle of nowhere we didn't get too many stations. Current residents who are clinging to their antennas have a whopping one station to chose from.


There wasn't much more variety in the early 80s. Luckily the fine folks at Cox were starting to sell this fancy new "cable television" in the area. We ordered it and soon a man with a box arrived to install it.

Just like the TVs of the time, the channel on this cable box was controlled by a knob. There were under 20 stations to choose from but the selection was better than 100+ I have today.

One show that became an instant favorite around 1984-1985 was the BBC import Doctor Who which aired on a PBS affiliate.

Little did I know but we were watching severely dated episodes. We were witnessing the Tom Baker era oblivious to the fact that not only was he no longer the Doctor, but his successor had retired from the role too.

We were getting an entire Doctor Who serial every week - 4 episodes, usually Monday-Thursday. It was PBS though and they always reserve the right to shake-up the schedule without warning. Instead of years, we got through the entire Tom Baker era in months. When he regenerated into Peter Davison it was borderline traumatic for me. I got over it after a couple episodes and enjoyed his run too.

When this PBS affiliate finally caught-up to the Colin Baker rendition they stopped airing it. Now current with the BBC they could no longer run it nightly. I hoped they'd start over from the beginning but instead some other British show was put in it's place.

I tried to follow Doctor Who over the next decade but it was almost impossible until this "internet" thing came around. Science fiction magazines seemed to have no interest whatsoever in the show. I didn't watch it again until the Chicago PBS affiliate started airing the Sylvester McCoy episodes in the late 80s/early 90s at an obscenely late hour. They did it marathon style, running an entire serial from something like 11:00 PM to 1:00 AM. When the show returned in 2005 I was delighted and have followed it ever since.

We also got our first VCR while in Lock Haven. One of those old top loader ones without a remote control. Well, it had a wired remote control with a single pause button which was completely pointless. It became a tradition to lug that heavy rectangular box over to friend's houses to bootleg movies. You never forget your first bootleg movie, mine was Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. It was absolutely amazing to have a movie from the theaters in your home that you could watch any time. My kids will never understand that thrill.

Of course VCR+cable box+kids=mountains of recorded cartoons.

I taped a lot of Transformers episodes which were great for Sunday mornings when lively televised entertainment was scarce. My little sister taped Flashbeagle and watched it at least 1,000 times, the soundtrack to that movie is permanently chiseled in my memory.


To really truly qualify as an 80s nerd you have to check pencil and paper role-playing off your list. In my last summer in Lock Haven I started getting into Dungeons & Dragons. Not that complicated "Advanced" kind, just plain D&D.

My only exposure up until then were the Intellivision games carrying the brand.

Those D&D Intellivision games were great, way ahead of their time in many ways. I was curious what the original books were like and since my parents weren't freaked out at the idea they happily obliged in buying them. The whole D&D thing was pretty harmless despite the scare stories and urban legends that surrounded it.

Did I mention there weren't a lot of other kids around? I could only find one other interested in trying D&D. Of course with only two of us it was kinda lame. That was until we discovered the D&D spinoff gamebook series called "1 on 1 Adventure Books" [insert obvious "1 on 1" joke here]. They were an amalgamation of the Choose Your Own Adventure books and D&D; a turn-based race to beat your opponent at some grand objective. My friend David and I played through every single one they had at the local bookstore. My original collection is long lost but I've been on quest to replace them in recent years.

I tried D&D a couple times again in junior high but it never stuck. The whole group aspect is a pain to coordinate and just isn't something I enjoy that much. I still have a blast pouring over those old manuals and firing-up a D&D game on the PC though.

Shortly thereafter I started the Lone Wolf gamebook series. It was a single-player adventure with some elements reminiscent of D&D. They told the story of an ancient order of warriors called the Kai who were ambushed with only a single member surviving. They kept me company on the long drive to Illinois...


Lock Haven and I weren't meant to stay together. In the spring of 1986 we finally sold our house and it was time to head for the Chicago suburbs. My father had been stationed at Fort Sheridan for a while and we were reuniting. My first memory of Illinois is seeing Bears banners and decor plastered everywhere. I remembered seeing the Super Bowl Shuffle video on TV but didn't make the connection that I was moving there.

The timing of the move wasn't perfect. We sold our house in Lock Haven more than a month before closing on the new one. So we had to seek temporary lodging in an apartment directly across from Lakehurst Mall in Waukegan. Imagine my delight, something that required an hour long round-trip was now footsteps away. For the next 10 years it would be my favorite mall until...

You know what? I think I'll save Lakehurst Mall for next time.

Hugues Johnson

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