Not all gaming stories occur in front of the television. In fact, many of the best ones take place "outside the box", quite literally! In "Extended Play", Rob "Flack" O'Hara tells us his tales where gaming meets real life, and vice versa.

Ed Harris was a kindred spirit and a fellow collector. Like many of us at Digital Press, Ed spent a lot of his free time collecting, sorting, and playing games. Ed’s personal love was the TI 99/4A, but this story could just have easily been about the Atari 2600, the NES, or whatever your favorite console is. This story isn’t about Texas Instruments computers; it’s about a universal passion for collecting that we can all relate to. Ed was a lot like me and a lot like all of us, which makes it kind of sad that that the first time I saw Ed’s massive game collection was a couple of months after his death.
This is just some of the Texas Instruments items I was given by Ed's brother Bill. We ate on TV trays for a couple of days after this photo was taken.

In June of 2004 my game collection and I were featured in an AP News article that appeared in hundreds of newspapers and on even more websites across the globe. The moment that article appeared, I began receiving dozens of phone calls and e-mails from both old friends and new acquaintances. Some tried buying things from me, some tried selling me things, and some just called to let me know they had seen me in the paper. In fact, just this past week I received a letter from a lady I’ve never met who saw the article in her local newspaper, clipped it out, looked up my address on the Internet and mailed the article to me. These are the things I had in mind when my phone rang on the evening of July the 5th.

Earlier that day, I had driven from Yukon, Oklahoma to Hutchinson, Kansas to pick up an arcade game. After eleven hours on the road round trip, my final task of the day was to unload the game and move it into my game room. A friend and I had just finished doing that when my phone rang. Fully exhausted and somewhat cranky, I answered the phone.

The caller introduced himself as Bill and asked to speak with “Robert” (a dead giveaway that whoever was calling didn’t know me personally -- it’s “Rob”). He then asked if I was the same Rob O’Hara that had recently appeared in the newspaper with my game collection. When I said it was, he immediately launched into a long story about his brother Ed and how much he loved videogames. After a couple of sentences, Bill asked me if I had time for a story and I told him rather curtly, “not really.” I explained to him that I was right in the middle of moving a 300lb arcade game into my game room. He said he understood, and urged me to call him back when I had some free time.

After I hung up, my friend and I tossed out possible scenarios. Bill sounded pretty old to me on the phone. Did he want money? Did he want me to donate a game to his church? Did he need something fixed? Did he want something priced? Did he want something sold on eBay? We kicked around all the possibilities we could think of. I put off calling Bill back for a couple of hours, fearing the worst. Around 9PM, I went ahead and called him back.

The first thing Bill told me was that he was really glad I had returned his call. Then, he began tell me about his brother, Ed.

Ed died on May 1st of leukemia at the age of 83. In the early 1980’s, Ed fell in love with the TI 99/4A personal computer – so much so, that he bought one from a personal contact of his who worked at Texas Instruments the minute he heard about it. Then he bought another. And another. And another. Pretty soon, Ed had so many Texas Instruments computers that he didn’t know what to do with them all. Bill told me he would occasionally buy them and send them to family members. Once Ed bought a Texas Instruments computer for his sister and sent her a bill for the money along with the computer. Bill told me she had sent him a check but had never even opened the computer. For years, Ed scoured thrift stores and garage sales, looking for TI 99/4A games, programs and random parts, constantly working on building his collection.

In early 2004, Ed was diagnosed with leukemia and was given three months to live. One of the things Bill and Ed discussed before his death was what to do with Ed’s rather large TI 99/4A collection. Initially, Ed’s plan was to donate all of it back to the thrift stores he had collected so much of it from. The problem the two of them found (as many of us have also discovered) was that many of the things he considered treasures were not as highly regarded by others. Bill told me at one point the two of them had checked TI 99/4A prices on eBay. Ed was disappointed to see several computers listed for only a dollar or two, most with no bids. Ed’s backup plan was to pass his collection on to his grandkids, but in a world of 128 bit game consoles they simply weren’t interested in the older, classic hardware. Bill said that the two of them even tracked down a former member of a national TI user’s group. They weren’t interested in the collection either.

Before Ed passed away, the final agreement between the brothers was to find someone who would appreciate Ed’s computer collection and simply give it to them for free. Bill had been on the search for that person when his sister ran across the AP article that I had been featured in. Based on that article, Bill and his sister decided that I was the person that would inherit Ed’s collection. As luck would have it, it turned out Bill lived about five miles from me. Although I offered to come pick the computers up, he insisted on delivering them. We agreed to meet at my house the following day at 6PM.

True to his word, the following day at precisely 6PM my doorbell rang. On my front porch stood Bill, and older man dressed in casual slacks and a white sleeveless t-shirt like my grandpa used to wear. We made small talk for a moment in the doorway before heading out to his car to carry in the goods.

These are just a few of the sealed games that came in the collection. Texas Instruments worked hard to balance their software releases between games, applications, and educational programs.

Bill handed me a box of assorted games, while he carried in three complete TI 99/4A’s – a complete silver one in the box, a complete white one still new in the box (unopened), and a silver one which was obviously regularly used by Ed.

As I began to thank him, Bill said, “Wait – there’s more.”

I followed Bill back out to his car. In the back seat were two or three paper grocery bags filled with wires, connectors, joysticks and parts. Next to those sat plastic grocery bags stuffed with assorted odds and ends. We each grabbed several sacks and made our way into the house. We tossed everything onto the kitchen table, which now housed a fairly substantial pile of Texas Instrument computer odds and ends.

“Thanks for …” I began to say, but Bill interrupted me. “There’s more,” he said.

Back to the car we went. Bill’s trunk was filled with Xerox boxes full of cartridges, cassettes, cassette players, speech modules, and all kinds of stuff. After a couple more trips, we had moved the entire collection into my kitchen. Boxes and bags filled the entire top of my table. More boxes sat on the floor, next to the table.

I stood there, dumbfounded, looking at the pile of hardware that was now covering my entire kitchen table. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure, but I still wasn’t sure which I had just received.

While talking about Ed’s collection, Bill told me that whenever his brother would see anything TI 99/4A related in a thrift store or flea market, he would pick it up “just in case someone else needed it.” I laughed, and then Bill said, “Funny, isn’t it?”

“Kind of,” I said. “It’s funny because I do the exact same thing, just with different stuff. I always feel like it’s my responsibility to ‘rescue’ items from those kinds of places. Every time I see a cheap Atari 2600 I’ll buy it with the intention of giving it away to someone who wants one. I have a stack of Genesis units just in case someone ever wants one.”

“What do the people say when you give them one?” Bill asked.

“That’s just it. They never want it. I have half a dozen Atari 2600’s sitting out in the garage that I can’t give away, and I still buy them because … well, it’s kind of hard to explain …” I said.

I noticed Bill was looking at me with a comforted but confused smile. I could tell that Bill never quite understood Ed’s infatuation with collecting Texas Instruments computers, but I think he began to realize that even though I had never met him, I did. Whatever he thought, I’m pretty sure he felt that he had found the right guy to pass the collection down to.

Bill and I made chatted for a few more minutes before he said finally goodbye and left for home. I waited a few hours to even begin looking through the mountain of sacks, boxes and piles of treasure. The amount of hardware I had been given was overwhelming. After my wife and son went to bed, I began going through every container, sorting, labeling, inventorying and photographing the entire collection.

In one box I found five or six copies of the game Alpiner. Another held five copies of the not-so-popular cartridge, “Addition and Subtraction Level 2”. In all, there ended up being over a hundred loose carts, and at least fifty that were unopened, still new in their boxes. Two grocery sacks held ten cassette recorders – two labeled as “good”, four marked “bad”, and four not labeled at all. There were books. There were manuals. There were magazines and there were newsletters. There were at least three boxes of joysticks still new in the box, and three or four more pair of opened ones. A leather pouch held over 100 loose game manuals.

There were also notes; lots and lots of handwritten notes, stashed away in the bottom of one of the boxes, including handmade lists of all his games written multiple times. Some pages held bits of BASIC programs. Others cataloged which cassette tapes held which programs.

To be perfectly honest it seemed wrong to be digging through all this stuff. I felt like I was raiding a man’s private collection. It made me wonder what someone was going to think about me after I’m dead and they’re forced to sort through my collection. Will all my arcade games be kept, sold, given away or turned into firewood? Some of my console copiers cost me hundreds of dollars – what if no one even knows what they’re used for or how to operate them after I’m gone?

When I began writing this article, I didn’t know how it was going to end. To be honest, the original ending was a bit depressing. As I stood in my garage looking at Ed’s Texas Instruments collection, I realized it was already beginning to collect dust as it sat there stacked directly next to the Atari 2600’s I couldn’t get rid of either. It kind of bothered me that the final resting place for Ed’s years of collecting was going to be a corner of my garage, hidden away in cardboard boxes and grocery sacks. I didn’t want to sell it and I didn’t want to keep it, I just didn’t know what the hell to do with it!

But then, something pretty cool happened. I met k8track, who was looking for some TI 99/4A game manuals. And wouldn’t you know, I just happened to have them, so I gave them to him. For free. And you know what? It felt right. I told my story to Phosphor Dot Fossils, who said there were some common TI carts he was looking for – and you know what? I have those too, and he’s getting them at OKGE this year. That feels right too; and more than that, it feels like what Ed would have wanted.

One by one, I’ve begun finding homes for Ed’s treasures, giving small items to people who will truly appreciate them. Instead of trying to find one single person to “unload” Ed’s collection on to, I’ve begun looking for specific homes for each item.

Suddenly, my calling (at least with this project) seems to have emerged. While both Ed and Bill’s Texas Instruments missions are now over, my journey seems to be just beginning.

A new Extended Play can be found here quarterly!

For "back issues" of this column, click HERE.

Go to Digital Press HQ
Return to Digital Press Home

Last updated: Monday, July 04, 2005 10:03 PM