Newly Digital: Hack's Retreat

The following is my contribution to Newly Digital, a distributed writing project about early computing experiences started by Adam Kalsey. Read the other entries, and then write your own: Brad Choate, Steven Garrity, Anders Jacobsen, Dan James, Adam Kalsey, Cameron Marlow, Jeff Nichols, Chris Pirillo, Andre Torrez, and Bill Zeller.

Message # 27476.

Date: 05/31/03. Time: 13:20:11. Read 327 Times.

From : Wax Pancake

To : All

Subj : Newly Digital


Hack’s Retreat may have been the last great Bulletin Board System, a throwback to the days of bearded, smelly hackers and floppy disks the size of pizza boxes. Its software was built from scratch, a beautiful and bizarre kludge by an idiot-savant who went by HACK MAN.

Because of this, and the peculiar user base, the Retreat was unlike any other board in the 805 area code — adored by its users, and tolerated by everyone else. Most BBSes used colored ANSI graphics; the Retreat had “Obfuscatronix,” a weird set of high-ASCII control codes that allowed users to animate their posts and add limited if-else conditional programming. Many other BBSes had “doors” with popular text-based games like Tradewars; the Retreat let you Tip the Bell Captain (“THANK YOU ‘VERY MUCH!’ SAYS THE BELL CAPTAIN.”).

The Retreat reveled in its quirks. Some discussion forums, like The 3am Club, only showed up at particular times of the day. Another forum, The Weird Enterprises Unlt. Boardroom, was only accessible by opening a door marked “Do Something Weird,” which might also read you a random quote or disconnect you entirely. Others, like UnGnown and the Temple of Dillusion, were rumored to exist, but most users would never figure out how to read them. Moderators were encouraged to “BOg” off-topic messages to The BOg of Eternal Stench and to promote unusually great messages to The Hall of Fame. And anyone could add comments to any message (“HAHAHA=105 RASPBERRYS=1 BLOWS!=5 OBFUSCATED=1 HUH?=1 DOINK=1 WHO CARES=1 BRAVO!=3”).

When I first called the Retreat, I was confused. (A common reaction, I would learn.) I had to look up “obfuscation” in the dictionary, in order to understand the board’s mantra. (“To make so confused or opaque as to be difficult to perceive or understand.”) Other frequently-used words, like “doink” and “gnow” and “dillusion,” weren’t in there, but I’d figure it out in time.

I lurked for two years, quietly reading every post, hundreds of thousands of messages dating back to 1988. It was like reading an improvised, rambling screenplay with a cast of hundreds of brilliant weirdos. When I started posting, I felt like I was joining the ensemble and belonged to something bigger and more important than myself. The experiences I had online eventually evolved into offline friendships, which only gave the online experience more depth and meaning.

Hack’s Retreat would be the last BBS I ever called. In late 1994, I found the Internet and everything changed.

I’d read “Zen and the Art of the Internet” and the other textfiles that had trickled their way down to the other local boards, but it never seemed all that special until the head librarian at my junior college showed me NCSA Mosaic running on a library SLIP account. The Web was something new.

BBSes were a product of their own limitations, constrained by location and resources. Users are almost always local because of long-distance telephone fees, and the number of simultanously-connected users is limited to the number of phone lines connected to the BBS, usually only one or two. The Internet had infinite resources and was completely global; there were no constraints.

Every spare moment of 1995 was spent online, absorbing the culture of the developing Web. I had to drop my summer classes, because I spent every class in the librarian’s office. I was’s first fan letter and won a copy of OS/2 Warp in c|net’s launch contest. I “borrowed” the librarian’s username and password so I could connect from home. Telix, my DOS-based BBS dialer, must have started feeling lonely. I still routinely read the messages on the Retreat, but less frequently and with less passion. BBSes, even The Retreat, felt like nostalgia.

I transferred to UC Berkeley in December 1995. When I came back home for the summer of 1996, the BBS scene was dead. Almost every entry in my Telix phone book was a disconnected number, and the Retreat was gone. HACK MAN had unplugged the Retreat and moved away, taking a decade of memories and creative output with him.

In memory of Hack’s Retreat (1988-1996)

— Wax Pancake.





    I too, have fond memories of the BBS scene. Some boards I only would visit to play Risk. Others were for the conversation. One I only visited on Thursday mornings so I could find out where that night’s Laser Tag game was being played.

    I met my best friend at a MUPT (modem user’s pizza thingie). We were the only ones there over the age of 15. That’s when I started losign interest in the BBS scene.

    I remember finding some BBSs in my area when I was about 7. The internet came too soon for me to get too into it, though. Before I figured out BBS I would call friends’ telephones from the modem using the telix dialer. That didn’t work too well.

    I remember taking the DC metro out to Gaithersburg to meet someone to buy a used Hayes 300 smartmodem to use with my Atari 800XL. I found the modem in the Washington Post of course.

    I can remember waiting hours for programs to trickle down via xmodem over the hayes. There were lots of cool BBS around then (1990). The Atari BBS took advantage of the special characters and looked so cool at that time.

    I can’t remember the terminal app that I used on the Atari, it was really nice though.

    You were, I am afraid the second person to read the complete Retreat. I did it first, but in my own weird way, never mentioned it to anybody. TA!


    Ahhh the retreat, I remember it well. I first logged on either in 1989 or 1990 there. Nice system, good users, and most of all it was one of only a few BBSes who had administrators that compiled the BBS from the source code, and who modified their own source code. Ray’s, however, was even more unique in that it was completely his own creation.

    I didn’t embrace Mosaic the way you and most others did. My gut reaction was “what a waste of bandwidth” and that FTP and other services were far superior. Then again, at the time a lot of the content on port 80 (the ‘web’) WAS crap compared to what it is now.

    It was really annoying seeing “work hours” go from being the worst time to be on the ‘net to one of the better times to be on the net, as the unwashed masses stampeded online after getting home from their 9-to-5’s.

    Information Superhighway?!?!?

    They paved paradise, and put up a parking lot!!!

    I used to frequent the bbs scene when I was a young teenger. I was in the 805 area. Ventura County. I remember the good ol “user meets”, lazertag, bowling on Sunday nights, and dating many of the young men who were very active in the ANSI art scene.

    I miss you guys and gals! -=Guitar/Faith/God’s Child=-



    fred was a quasit

    I owe zaph a dimesack

    trilleth got buzzed from dr pepper

    psycho had vodka in his dr pepper

    fluffy was 21

    lynn was evil beard was not

    scribble vs yous

    Hack’s Retreat. Wow. Along with Down The Rabbit Hole and Appleholics, these were the second wave of BBS’s in the 805. Somehow Communicom-80, the first BBS I can remember in the 805, hung on much longer than it probably should have, probably because Mike Goodglick forgot to shut it off.

    What was it about Mikester’s pants that made us always include them when referring to him? How often did Tellura’s current drama make me log off for a day or two until it’d passed? I remember the whole gang fondly, and still keep in touch with a few of them on occasion.

    With the love only nostalgia can foster,

    Tommy T.

    Number Two, please bog this post.

    How VERY odd. I thought the world forgot about me. Much less spell my name correctly. I was just Googleing around, decided to type in my name, and I’ll be damned if I didn’t come across this article with my name on it. Well, greetings old friends… and I do mean OLD. Please feel free to e-mail me if you wish at: [email protected].. Please introduce yourself as I am sure my old mind is slipping.

    Oh, and I still have the archive of Communicom-80 on about 60 5 1/4 inch floppy’s. Was just going through them this weekend… Wondering if I should toss them out. Used FastBack.. anyone remember that? And yes… I still have my Vectrex…. and all the games….. and, it still works!!!

    Mike Goodglick

    ……random search whilst updatotronics and mangle-free multispace protection filters processed something that smells like the additive in gas……

    Memories (shoobiedoobiedoo)


    [email protected]

    (bOg it)

    The Retreat was the one BBS I was warned to stay away from. Of course that’s where I went and had an amazingly good time. I miss it! Hell, I was an Obfuscate! I’m an ex-member in disgrace at the moment, but it doesn’t bother me at all. I still have the good memories.

    What was it about Mikester’s pants that made us always include them when referring to him? How often did Tellura’s current drama make me log off for a day or two until it’d passed? I remember the whole gang fondly, and still keep in touch with a few of them on occasion.

    my boyfriend thinks I’m cool because I bbs’d. ha ha. I laugh because I came in at the tail-end. It still had a big influence on my life – I met such a diverse crowd– all different sizes, shapes, colors and creeds, sharing one thing in common: they knew how to use a modem and a computer.

    I googled Hack’s Retreat, looking for stranger’s archives to show my bf (and my one post in the Pi room), and happened upon this. so many of the ‘old school’ names… trip out.

    Here’s to the internet, with all its porn, 7337 warez, groupies and code monkies.


    And, Fink, you’re famous (in case you didn’t know)– my bf said you were referenced in Kingdom of Loathing as Baiowulf. Cheers!

    Lingering still the surburban block of the bbs, has all become famous and infamous. Though mostly forgotten. Seen in re-creation your characters. But mostly now are we but a shell of our former selves. Surrendering to the massness of stupidity and comfortable shoes.

    Here is a BBS name and some names that do spark a memory for me, so much got lost to me back in 2001 when I got injured and memory of years ago are not easy to recall or just fragmented but I’m happy that Rachel found me again on MySpace.

    I do remember going on the board a few times but wasn’t my cup of tea and with all the money I was spending on LD calls around the country it probably was for the best.

    Outside of Rachel and occasionally spotting Isis around Oxnard when I’m in town I dont’ know what happened to the rest but the last time I spoke to Isis a few years ago, Tellura is still having her dramas.

    Grey Wolf

    WOW does this bring back memories! I remember getting burned by Trilliths roaring flames a few times. I was dating Ghost at the time and living with her and Vampire down in Oxnard. They were my intro to the BBS scene. Man do I miss it!

    Adonis the Mouse? Don’t take this the wrong way, man, but we heard you were dead. Seriously, like, shot dead.

    And you were dating Ifni, not Ghost.


    I prefer to remember the good times and forget the drama. After all, 16 is a pretty dramatic age in and of itself.


    You “lurked for two years, quietly reading every post . . . dating back to 1998”, eh? Do you intend for your readers to infer that you stopped lurking and started posting around 1990 when you were 13 or 14 years-old? Yeah, that didn’t happen. Let me recount your formative online year(s). You discovered The Retreat around the same time as you discovered Internet. You lived in an Internet backwater that had a lively BBS community.

    A note on history: It can be presented in a way that’s interesting to someone that has little context, and sometimes the presenter, herself or himself, is short on context.

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