Quick: Which was the first computer online service available to Washingtonians? If you answered Prodigy, Genie, Compuserve, America Online, Microsoft Network, or the World Wide Web, give yourself 30 lashes with a printer cable. They’re all Johnny-come-latelys. Bulletin board systems, or BBSs, were the first dial-ups on the local scene by a long shot.

BBSs bear little resemblance to second-generation online services like America Online. These home-brewed boards are typically electronic fiefdoms run by one person out of a home computer, and have only one incoming phone line. Quite a few of the remaining BBSs offer free access, and because the majority are closed-loop systems, they are more about slumming than surfing.

As much as I enjoy the globalism and urgency of the web, BBSs are soothingly yesterday. Then again, I’m a sucker for outdated technology and small-guy operations. I still get a lump in my throat when Sheriff Andy Taylor twirls the dial on his phone and asks Mabel, the town’s trunk-line phone operator, to connect him with Helen, his main squeeze.

BBSs’ technology may be quaint—or, depending on your viewpoint, a slow keypunch through hell—but their content is no more Mayberry than the web’s. If you want to learn about bullet lubes, wrangle an invite to the next local gangbang, or pore over photos of mangled accident victims, you can find what you’re looking for on a D.C.-area BBS.

In spite of, or perhaps precisely because of, their creaky charms, the BBSs are losing their battle for survival against the online giants. Already, the bodies are piling up. In January 1996, more than 550 BBSs were operating in the D.C. area. By December, fewer than half were still standing. But there’s still time to log on before BBSs go the way of Pong, I visited three of the area’s surviving boards—Bottled Violence, Adult Fantasy, and Air ‘N Sun. Phone numbers and dialing instructions are on Page 23, in case you want to ring these dinosaurs yourself.

Just tell them Mabel sent you.

“Welcome to Bottled Violence,” says the text on your screen, when a modem connection is established. “What the U.S. Senate doesn’t want you to see.”

While some BBSs conjure images of musty bedrooms strewn with soiled undergarments, logging on to Bottled Violence feels more like entering a sadist’s basement, where cats hang stiff from the drainpipes, black-light posters darken the walls, and pink-eyed rabbits stare back at you from the icebox. After you type in your ID and password, this blood-and-guts BBS orders you to answer an eight-question online survey. If you dare bypass the questionnaire, Bottled Violence’s software is programmed to cattle-prod you until you relent. “Vote or be sodomised,” a blinking command promises.

The questionnaire is not about caller satisfaction, gathering information to be sold later to marketing experts, or fulfilling any other business goal. Its only function—much like that of Bottled Violence as a whole—is to give its suburban teen callers a chance to posture and to express their most anti-social thoughts and fantasies.

When you finally agree to answer the survey, typing “yes” on your keyboard, question No. 1 appears on your screen. The question is harmless, like a line delivered from straight man to comic: “Christian saying that has most influenced your life,” it reads. Listed beneath it are about 25 answers offered previously by other users. You can select one of them, or make up your own, which would become option No. 26 for the next user. “A family altar would alter a family,” reads one answer. “Barbie is the true example of how I should look and behave,” says another. “This is blasphemous! I love Jesus and have a strong faith.” That answer has received three user’s votes, tying it for third place with this one: “I want to fuck Jesus’ girl, 867-5309.”

You won’t find this underground BBS on Focke’s List, where local system operators (“sysops”) advertise their BBSs. Bottled Violence’s sysop is not interested in drawing outsiders to his teenage ghetto. His board, like a small cadre of others, has burrowed into the electronic margins of an already marginalized BBS world. BBSs like Bottled Violence come and go, relying only on word of mouth—in the case of Bottled Violence, a mouth that practically begs for a vigorous, soapy scrubbing.

Lest you think that Bottled Violence’s young, twisted minds never move beyond Jenny McCarthy or their favorite drink-and-puke stories, there is more than a little evidence of intelligent life on this board of the damned. In fact, in Bottled Violence’s hierarchy of cool, the person who can drop the names of 18th-century philosophers while simultaneously dropping his verbal trousers sits atop the social ladder.

This caustic marriage of gray matter and fecal matter is well displayed in another one of Bottled Violence’s survey questions. “Was Voltaire right in his views on Rousseau’s noble savage theory?” reads the question. A dozen or so thoughtful answers are ventured. “Zadig is really a much deeper work than Candide, you stupid cunt.” “Anyone who satirized hot passionate monkey cock must be a fool,” says another. One learned user muscles out a theory of his own. “Bearing in mind that Voltaire lived during the enlightenment, and the ‘noble savage’ theory was Romantic,” he argues sagely, “I’d have to blow you.”

Chris Martel, aka Killer Wombat, is the 16-year-old sysop of Bottled Violence. Like most of the board’s 80-odd users, he is a high-school student from the Virginia suburbs. “Basically, [Bottled Violence] was based on my love for punk rock and gory pictures of dead people,” says Martel, who recently represented his high school on the local TV quiz show It’s Academic. Inaugurated during spring break 1995, Bottled Violence closed one month later due to the sysop’s plunging grades, then reopened and closed once more before reopening in February 1996. Martel’s board has the puerile feel of a suburban rec room, a casual hangout for unlaid suburban teens looking to blow off steam, check in with comrades, and test the boundaries of their comfy anarchy. The only things missing are the barbecue-style tortilla chips and the bumper-pool table.

Like most hobbyist BBSs, Martel’s is a small operation. Bottled Violence runs off a 386SX—the equivalent of a tinker toy in today’s computer market, but more than enough machine for this task—located in his bedroom. The system has just one modem and therefore can handle only one caller at a time; about 15 calls come in per day. Use of the board is free, but few people know about it. It is probably best that way. One person’s funny bone is another’s last nerve. And some callers might consider a nice, healthy bludgeoning a fitting response to the sysop and his users.

Says sysop Wombat, “I’m not at all racist. I hate racism, but that doesn’t mean that I find racial slurs offensive.” In fact, he says, “I find it kind of humorous that a word like ‘nigger’ can carry so much weight.”

Occasionally, a user does get fed up. “You know,” writes Rip Fandando, a one-time regular user, “I left because of this racist shit. I myself am Caucasian, but my girlfriend is black.” Even so, the board’s first commandment—thou shalt be intolerant—obtains. “Why,” he pleads, without a trace of irony, “can’t you fags just accept one another for who we are: people.”

Once you’ve completed the eight-question survey, you can move on to the body of the board, which might as well be outlined in chalk. Click on B for Bulletins, and then select “highly entertaining reading material.” There you can enjoy interviews with punk rockers or anarchists, read satirical studies (an etymology of the word “fuck,” a physicist’s view on the existence of Santa Claus), or take a “nigger application for employment,” a document of South African origin that appears—and this is a very generous interpretation—to make fun of racist stereotypes. “It is not necessary to attach a photo,” the application begins, “because you all look alike.” Another line on the form asks the applicant to “Check off machines you can operate” and offers the following options: wheelbarrow, AK-47, petrol pump, crowbar, public telephone, boombox, spade.

“Bulletins” also contains a short story written by a Bottled Violence user who goes by the alias Donkalope Jackson. “The Day Timmy Lost His Socks” tells the charming tale of a child from a mythical “upper-class” Virginia suburb. The boy, who amuses himself by stuffing objects under his foreskin, forgetfully leaves a pair of dirty socks there for two days. The resulting infection causes his penis to fall off. Timmy’s mother, naturally, becomes aroused by the severed penis, devours it, and is promptly taken from behind by Dad. Timmy grows murderous and kills his parents. He celebrates by inserting his pet gerbil Gary rectally, and then later microwaves it. He is surprised to find that it tastes like “chicken.”

At this point in the story—which, by the way, I have toned down significantly—Jackson abandons his narrative to clarify something for the reader. “I decided to use this stupid fucking [chicken] cliché,” he writes, “because at first I was going to write that the gerbil tasted like something strange such as llama or wallaby, but this worked out better. Thank you.” Jackson would be hard-pressed to find another place where he could showcase his vile tale, let alone be praised for it. Likewise, if you are interested in the adolescent mind, you might not find a more fascinating laboratory than Bottled Violence. Just be sure to skip lunch before you show up at this BBS’s crawl-space door.

Like most bulletin boards, Bottled Violence offers files that users can download onto their hard drives. Several thousand files, many of them obtained from the Internet or other BBSs, are split into about 40 categories. “Pyrotechnics” includes files on how to make explosives, gunpowder, napalm, detonators, and ammonium nitrate, the explosive used to destroy the federal building in Oklahoma City. (The ammonium nitrate file has been downloaded just twice, which should be of some comfort to local law enforcement.)

“Petty Mischief” files teach users how to annoy a pizza delivery service, the art of “harmless terror,” how to rip off vending machines and pay phones, and strategies for pissing off teachers and parents. “Drugs” offers the finer points of bongmaking, ‘shroom identification, acid-trip simulators, and tips on getting a cheap high. “Utilities” offer hacker and phreaker programs, such as an autodialer designed to call a chosen number incessantly and a program to confuse America Online. “Sick Perverse Files” mostly contain photos of violent acts or their aftermath, plus other forms of physical degradation. Keep an eye out—pun intended—for the photographs of a limbless woman, infants with damaged penises, severed breasts, shotgun victims, gangrene, a slit throat, and beheadings. “Brainmsh.jpg,” for example, is a lovely pic of a dead kid whose smartball has tumbled out onto the pavement. Now, you won’t see that on AOL.

The file areas also include political essays, many of them on the subject of anarchy, and unsigned school papers on topics such as Belgium, Colin Powell, Fahrenheit 451, communism, hypnosis, the Ming dynasty, political action committees, and The Catcher in the Rye. A book report on Lord of the Flies is noticeably absent from the collection.

Bottled Violence has six message areas, a common feature of BBSs. They are ironically titled Love, Peace, Happiness, Laughter, Flowers, and The Movies. Dialogue here does not occur in real time. Instead, a user posts a message to a given area, and other users, who may see the note hours or even days later, post responses, and so on. “The advantage of the [forums],” says user Kams, “is that you can have your messages immortalized…and many people can respond to the same point, verbatim, without it being verbally distorted.”

Most conversation “threads” here are essentially pissing matches where users employ insult, idiocy, scatology, homosexual insinuation, and self-conscious street vernacular to establish superiority. “Basically,” says user Stoney, “it’s who can come up with the best cutdown.”

In one forum, user Phrequency complains about Bottled Violence users who “[post] meaningless shit that nobody really cares about.” Liquid Sky responds with a rebuke. “You miss the point entirely, gookboy. [Bottled Violence] posts, while fucking pointless and stupid, tend to be at least semi-amusing….You’ve got the stupid part down,” he continues, “but you’re simply not funny.”

“On this BBS,” says user Stoner, “you can talk about anything you want; racism and profanity are encouraged.” “However,” he adds, “it is all done in good fun, and the frequent users…vary of all different creeds and races.”

Martel, the sysop, is a quiet presence in the message areas. He commands respect and is rarely ridiculed, except in the most obvious and fawning ways. When he complains that his users aren’t posting enough messages, they snap to.

“Please keep the following in mind,” writes Martel in an online document titled “Rules of the BBS.” “Bottled Violence has one main purpose—to make me, Killer Wombat, the sysop, happy.”

A sysop is god of his or her own universe. As sysop, your BBS reflects you—your id, your superego, your concept of a perfect universe, your interests, turn-ons, piss-offs. You decide who will receive access to your universe and who won’t. You choose which categories of language and subject matter are protected speech, and which are not. You crack down on violators and issue punishments. You have the power to eavesdrop on conversations, to read users’ electronic mail. Whether you are a beaten-down bureaucrat or a powerless teenager, the attraction of creating and dominating your own universe is obvious.

That said, few sysops are so controlling. Martel, for one, hardly seems to fit the profile. But the possibility of becoming a dictator on the cheap is, for some, a strong part of the draw of BBSs. And anybody who becomes a sysop needs a good reason for becoming one, given that the typical sysop spends several hours per day managing his or her board.

Bottled Violence’s members describe their online community as a diverse one of “hackers and phreakers,” “artists,” “skinheads,” and people “unified in their differences.” Martel holds a less romantic view of his board’s callers. “The typical user is a rich, suburban white kid, who is fed up with school and life, and decides to come on and yell racial slurs at everyone.” One user, he says, is a National Merit Scholar who scored 1500 on his SATs and will be going to Columbia University on scholarship. Another is on scholarship at Johns Hopkins and “is a total genius. Yet,” says Martel, “he calls here to make fun of people and write stories about black people raping white girls.”

Wombat seems unusually clear about his own identity. “I’m not a skinhead and I don’t claim to be ‘punk.’ I’m a total cynic; I’m skeptical of everything, my sense of humor is completely off the wall, I’m erratic, spontaneous, and I don’t care about very many people.”

“In conclusion,” he writes via e-mail, “I’d just like to say that I’m an admittedly rich white suburbanite, [and] my daddy bought me a computer. I realize I could publish a ‘zine or something,” he says. “[I could] put up my own web site, or I could just keep a goddamn diary, but I’d rather run the BBS, simply because it’s so much more interactive than anything else.” In retrospect, he says, “it’s made me a few friends and tons of enemies.”

“I am always looking for a large group of men to fuck,” writes a 54-year-old woman in an Adult Fantasy BBS classified ad. “No holes barred.” Her wish, to be gangbanged by 20 or more men while her boyfriend videotapes, was granted twice this March, both times in a private home on Capitol Hill.

Not every woman or man who dials Adult Fantasy shares this particular fancy. Nor is every want-ad or snippet of dialogue so eye-popping. Sandwiched between the board’s kinkier classified notices, for example, are others hawking used sofas and laptops, rooms to rent, even financial services. But as BBSs go, this bastion of copulation is more meat market than flea market.

“Sex is the cocaine of the online world,” says Alan Bechtold, editor of a bimonthly BBS newspaper called Sysop News and Cyberworld Report. And boards like Adult Fantasy are dealing it. From saucy photos to cheeky chat, Adult Fantasy delivers the goods straight from the phone vein to your hard drive. Unlike freebie BBSs like Bottled Violence, Adult Fantasy’s sysops charge an access fee. You pay by the hour, not the orgasm.

Like other bulletin boards, Adult Fantasy has been buffeted by the Internet and major online services. “Curiosity has drawn a lot of people away from local hangouts such as ours,” says co-sysop Jeff Dooley, known online as Redhawk. To counter the threat of BBS-to-Internet flight, he and co-sysop Debbie Bradshaw now offer their members Internet and web access. Hundreds of less adaptable boards in the D.C. area have disappeared, leaving no trace beyond a disconnected phone number.

“I am a techie at heart and am fascinated by the system from a hardware/software standpoint,” says Dooley. With 75 phone lines, access to and from the Internet, and as many as 1,500 calls per day, his BBS is about as complex as they get.

Even more complicated are the relationships between Adult Fantasy’s callers. If you were to plot each member on a diagram and draw lines to denote the tête-à-têtes among them, the result might look like a Spirograph drawing. Affairs, romances, and online quickies are hatched every day among the board’s more libidinous users. “The net is a pretty neat place to check out,” explains a married 35-year-old female member of Adult Fantasy. “But I prefer a more local BBS sort of thing. That way, if I want to meet someone for any reason, I don’t have to travel to California to do it.”

And if meeting a fellow ménage-a-twit is your goal, this board gives you every opportunity. For starters, click M for Matchmaker on the main menu. Here you will fill out one or more of nine surveys. Once you have completed them, you can browse other users’ answers, and they yours. Or you can take advantage of Matchmaker’s search program. Punch in the desired age, sexual orientation, and marital status of your dream match, then indicate how closely you want his and/or her questionnaire answers to match yours. From this information, Matchmaker produces a hit list. Though the methodology may be no more effective than closing your eyes and randomly pointing your nipple into a phone book, at least Matchmaker feels scientific.

But not even the nosiest gynecologist could look you in the eye and ask the questions Matchmaker does:

Question 10.) Have you ever done any of the following? (select up to six)

1. sucked your partner’s toes

2. licked your partner’s asshole

3. engaged in water sports

4. had sex in the bathtub or shower

5. had a ménage à trois

6. group sex

7. have cum on your face

8. participated in an orgy

Question 11.) What is your marital status? (select up to two)

1. married, period

2. married, swing with spouse only

3. married, but cheat all the time

4. separated for now

5. divorced and free and loving it

6. single and loving it

If questionnaires aren’t your cup of tea, you can visit Adult Fantasy’s real-time group-chat room. The “Teleconference” is a chummy place where everybody knows your alias—and many want to know what you’re wearing. “In the old days,” complains Coppertop, a 48-year-old married male from Fort Washington, “we would be talking about pussy, fucking, and all sorts of things.” Not so today. When you enter the Teleconference, you’re greeted with a nauseating chorus of hellos and good cheer. Sex talk here, to the extent that it goes on, rarely extends beyond sophomoric innuendo about penis size. Coppertop blames strait-laced straights for doilying the dialogue, which he says was once ruled by smut-uttering gays. But whether or not his theory is historically correct, there’s no denying that public discourse on Adult Fantasy is about as ribald as a spin-the-bottle party.

Private discourse in the Teleconference, where users have the ability to send private messages or flirty, pre-programmed “gestures” (pinches, etc.) to another, is a much seamier story. So much one-to-one traffic goes on in the Teleconference that at times public chat comes to a halt. When two (or more) members really hit it off, they often retreat to a private room. There, they presumably type dirty with one hand and Pee-wee Herman with the other. Getting somebody into a private chat room is the rough equivalent of picking up someone at the bar and taking them home, but easier.

Sometimes the bar analogy becomes real. Like many BBS tribes, Adult Fantasy’s members like to escape the electronic realm once in a while and trade their digital barstools for real ones. On Saturday nights, dozens of the board’s denizens meet face-to-face (or “f2f,” in the online lexicon) at one or other suburban pub, most recently Alexandria’s Lonesome Dove. There they put a face to an alias, and digits to flesh.

Many callers describe the board as a home away from home. “I like the family atmosphere here,” says Badboy, a 47-year-old U.S. Army employee who met his fiancée on the BBS. But if Adult Fantasy is a family, therapy seems long overdue. Among female members, the most common gripe is about incessant, unwanted come-ons from men. “I like to be treated like a lady,” huffs Brandi, a 44-year-old soon-to-be-divorced lobbyist from Virginia, “and not some board slut.” A 35-year-old mom who asked to remain anonymous concurs: “The standard ‘Fuck me?’ or ‘What are you wearing?’ [messages] can be obnoxious at times.”

Helpfully, a member can tweak Adult Fantasy’s software so that she is shielded from unwanted propositions. By typing “=b” at any prompt, for example, a user instructs Adult Fantasy’s software to block all private messages before they reach her. Similarly, she can type “/hide,” which blocks out private messages from a particular member. Combined with moral support both from the sysops and other female members, Adult Fantasy’s privacy technology helps create what female member “hugs” calls “the safest, most sane and discreet BBS I know of.”

Adult Fantasy is not without its charms. While working on this story, I received a private message from a woman I’d interviewed earlier. The brief exchange went like this:

Joanne [not her real alias]: Joanne is hugging Scott Barancik tightly!

Scott : Hi.

Joanne: Hello what are you doing?

Scott: Lurking in the Teleconference.

Joanne: If you need anything just let me know ok

Scott: Thank you very much. I will.

Joanne: enjoy hmmm what you doing?? Heheheh

Scott: that sounded like a devilish laugh…I’m working, of course!

Joanne: it was and hmmm ok, I guess I’ll buy that

It felt strange, and oddly intimate, to be approached by this woman, this stranger. I’ve spent far too many nights alone in coffee houses and bookstores praying (unsuccessfully) for female attention not to be tickled purple by our brief exchange. There was little if any pretense to this woman’s flirtation—none of that Merchant-Ivory scarf-dropping crap. No long, excruciating unfolding of the relationship flower. Just instant gratification—a whiff of microwave sex.

As titillating as online chat can be, though, it lacks a visual component, and blast it, sometimes you just want to see a smutty picture. Unlike Bottled Violence, which has no adult files, Adult Fantasy offers thousands of photos that members can download. Our fathers may have drooled over girlie mags, but digitized photos are fast becoming the favored porn vehicle of my generation. Computer pics have several advantages over magazines: You don’t have to experience the public shame of asking the clerk for a copy, the pictures don’t stain, and Mom won’t find them under your mattress.

The “couples” photo library, for example, contains 886 pics of men and women coupling. Each pic is accompanied by a helpful description for the choosy consumer. “Young girl got cum all over her ass,” reads one. You’ll also find “great shot of a tittie fuck,” “poking her in the barracks,” and “just shut up and eat me.” Another library, “kinky stuff,” features sex shots of hermaphrodites and transsexuals. But Adult Fantasy members clearly prefer home cookin’. The 10 most popular shots, each downloaded in excess of 500 times, are self-portraits submitted by BBS members. All 10 feature white women.

African-American members have posted their pictures, too, but according to co-sysop Bradshaw, blacks are probably a small minority on the board. It figures, then, that only a small fraction of callers surveyed by the sysops—7 percent—reside in the District. Nearly half the callers are from Northern Virginia, while another 16 percent wave the Maryland flag. (The rest are believed to be Virginians calling from outside the 703 area code, and out-of-staters.) Callers in their 30s are the largest age group, followed by 20-29-year-olds and then those in their 40s. Professionally, the members cover a lot of ground. They include auto mechanics and auto-parts salesmen, military personnel, computer specialists, lobbyists, stay-at-home moms, benefits consultants, editors, and a retired D.C. policeman. The board’s relatively low prices—and its subject matter’s near-universal appeal—help draw callers from virtually every income level.

Like most of their peers, Dooley and Bradshaw don’t clear enough profit to live off their hot-blooded BBS, so both continue to work full-time. Dooley is a computer consultant currently employed by the federal government. Bradshaw is controller and office manager for a local builder. Their leadership style is relaxed. While some sysops create a BBS and install themselves as dictator, these fantasy purveyors are more chaperone than czar. “We are laid-back and pretty much leave people to do whatever they want to do,” says Dooley. Which is, in many cases, to lay back.

The sysops cannot avoid the topic of sex on their engorged BBS. Promiscuity strobes across their computer monitors like jets on an air-traffic controller’s display. Yet Bradshaw and Dooley have not abandoned their “quite conservative and vanilla” relationship. “Monogamous,” says Bradshaw’s online bio. “Closed relationship,” reads Dooley’s. Perhaps they are like some drug dealers, hawking a product they dare not consume themselves. Or maybe they just like to watch.

“Hi Scott,” says the onscreen greeting. “How are things in Washington, D.C.? C’mon in, siddown, make y’self comfy. Want some peeled grapes?” So opens a session on Air ‘N Sun, a BBS dedicated to intellectual parrying, the practice of Judaism, gunslinging, and medieval re-creation.

Dave Aronson (Air-‘N-Sun, get it?) is the eccentric, pleasant, and somewhat prudish sysop of a free, one-line BBS that runs out of his Alexandria home. A Mensa member, a National Rifle Association member, a Society for Creative Anachronism member, and a member of the (Jewish) tribe, the 33-year-old sysop began his board in 1988 as “TIDMADT,” an acronym for “these initials don’t mean a damn thing.”

“Tired of having to explain the punch line? Seeking intellectual stimulation…and an outlet for your sesquipedalian tendencies?” asks a promotional flyer Aronson hangs at Mensa events. “Come join us…at the Air ‘N Sun BBS.” Similar Aronson handbills target Air ‘N Sun’s other potential audiences. “Want to keep up on new products and techniques, stuff wanted or for sale, laws, events, and more?” asks a crudely illustrated flier he unloads at gun ranges. There’s also the handout he brings to Jewish functions: “Want to keep in touch with fellow Jews worldwide (even Israel!), learn Torah, and keep up on Jewish and world events, rabbinical decisions, and more?”

The diverse group of enthusiasts Aronson attracts makes for some strange BBS bedfellows. Imagine inviting Clint Eastwood, Menachem Schneerson, David Brinkley, and Joan of Arc to a cocktail party. “I don’t mind sharing a BBS with the libertarian gun nuts,” tweaks Mensan and Air ‘N Sun member Stephanie, a 39-year-old statistician from the District, “if they don’t mind sharing it with me.” John, a 40-year-old postal worker and NRA member from Burke, Va., feels differently: “[I’m a] conservative, educated, Vietnam veteran, redneck country boy surrounded by liberal idiots.”

While the sysops of Bottled Violence and Adult Fantasy encourage brutality and carnality, respectively, Aronson keeps his users on a puritanical leash. “This is not the smut [BBS],” he writes in an online document. And few of his callers are inclined to disobey. Paul, for example, prefers Air ‘N Sun’s message forums to Internet newsgroups, which he says have “pretty much been trashed” by postings “of a sexual or commercial or foul-mouthed nature.”

At times in this Mensan ghetto, you can almost hear the anuses contract. It’s an occasionally potent and engaging combination of geekiness and intellect.

On the telephone, Aronson peppers his otherwise precise speech with goof words and phrases like “anyhoo,” “on the other claw,” “automagically,” “ass-u-me,” and “coinkydink.” His strained creativity is a reminder of what might happen if you gave an intellectual a gun; the accumulation of power could lead to madness.

Each of Air ‘N Sun’s four main topics is reflected in one or more message areas, each of which has a unique feel. Imagine being back in a high-school lunchroom, traying your tuna on rye from the mathlete table to the jock table to the theater table. In the Mensa area, knowledge is trump. The following exchange of messages is part of a thread concerning creatures that live on the ocean floor:

Ivy: They can only be seen (with artificial light, for no sunlight penetrates to those depths) in very deep parts of the oceans…

Ian: There is light down there! May not be sunlight but there is light.

Ivy: True, there is bioluminescence. It is very dim, but it’s there. But…if you consider infrared (from the vents), there is significantly more, and if you extend the definition of “light” to include products of radioactive decay there is more still, though that would be limited to an area within a very short distance above the ocean floor, as water absorbs such radiation very quickly.

Mensans have their own set of files on Air ‘N Sun. They can amuse themselves with such files as a “mental workout,” an IQ minitest, and a document titled “27 Reasons to Have a Pet Mensan.” Or they can download the results of a 1926 study that attempted to estimate the IQs of historical figures. According to the analysis, George Sand, Thomas Jefferson, and Charles Darwin would be allowed to hang their hats on today’s Mensa rack. George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther, Copernicus, and Cervantes, alas, would not.

Few of the Mensa area’s dialogues are so informative. You are more likely to run into riddles than sagacity. “Complete this series of numbers,” writes one user, “with the second-most obvious answer: 3 1 4 1 5.” For some Mensans, getting the right answer to these mind-teasers is satisfaction enough. For others, nothing short of proving the questioner wrong will suffice. “I love being right!” writes one particularly competitive woman after disemboweling a riddler’s methodology. Intellectual humility does not exist on planet Air ‘N Sun.

A more horrifying yet quite common episode involves puns, the Mensan’s favorite form of recreation. Punning gives Mensans the chance to tap into their wild sides and brush the dust off their dingy right lobes. “What causes poleshift?” asks a user seriously. “Poor living conditions around the Baltic?” jests another member in response. “Shift happens,” adds sysop Aronson. Occasionally the wordplay devolves into the dreaded “pun run,” which can go on for days:

JS: Watch it, buddy. I’ve got a vegetable sharpener, and I know how to use it.

KS: This thread could mushroom…

JS: If it’s popular, maybe I could draw a celery.

KS: Well, let me just squash that notion right here.

JS: Peas be more tolerant.

KS: I would, but I really don’t carrot all.

JS: Well, don’t beet me over the head with it.

II: I’ve been watching this borscht…

JS: Slawful, idn’t it.

Occasionally, says Aronson, “some jackass stumbles into the Mensa echo and thinks he’ll show these people who think they’re so smart a thing or two.” Such interlopers “are verbally raked over the coals,” he says, “and sent yelping home with their tails between their legs.” Mensans even have an acronym for these jealous wannabes: WAATSPs, for “Where are all the smart people?” Looking through a month’s worth of Mensa messages, though, I found few WAATSPs, and none with any sign of a tail. Either Aronson is flattering his confederates, or I can’t tell a verbal whipping from whipped cream.

While it may be difficult to identify the victor in a scuffle of words, gunfights are another story. Air ‘N Sun features several forums concerning guns. The sysop’s favorite, the Firearms forum, is dedicated to technical issues—ammunition, cleaning, and shooting technique. Air ‘N Sun member Earnest is one of several resident experts who answer others’ questions, and he does so in a tone more Heloise than Rambo. When one gun owner writes about his troubles removing gun-cleaning residue from his pistol, Earnest ties a camouflage apron around his waist, grabs the keyboard, and types out a sensible, money-saving reply: “[D]ump the [lubricant]. Go to Petsmart or similar store, and ask for “bird litter.” It’s crushed walnut shells, same stuff as cleaning media. Except it’s 25 pounds for $8.00.”

In another message, a shooter wonders why he can’t seem to shoot an upright playing card without it bending out of the way. “I’ve gotta tell you the trick,” Ernie explains. “A bullet traveling fast enough to have a substantial ‘bow wave’ of air will push the card out of the way. A subsonic bullet can cut the card.

“Remember to use a light powder charge,” he adds helpfully, “and have fun.”

Some missives in the Firearms area veer off into related realms, like hunting. In one thread, users discuss whether cigar smoke spooks deer; in another they argue whether a deer’s eyes offer reliable evidence of whether the animal is dead or alive. You will also find some unintended firearms erotica, such as this note about the tender relationship between pistol and slinger: “With me, one of the nicest things about a 1911 is that…everything is automatic. The thumb comes down, the slide strokes back, sights align and grip settles in. Fire. Target falls. Lots of big holes in the middle of it.”

Gun-related political messages are kept in separate areas, like milk and meat. These Second Amendment forums are often referred to as “RKBA” forums, i.e., the “right to keep and bear arms.” Aronson, quite sure of his views, avoids gun-politics areas. “Sometimes,” he sniffs about the National Rifle Association, “I think they’ve actually gotten a little wimpy.”

Like other BBSs, Air ‘N Sun maintains a library of free files. Take the Firearms area, for example. Want to know the “straight scoop” on the .22 short? How to make your own bullet lubes? How to field-strip a 1911(a1)-style .45? You’re in the right place. You can even download a special target that helps assess your shooting accuracy.

With the click-click of a couple keystrokes, you can switch from guns to Rosens. Air ‘N Sun members interested in Judaism can download weekly Torah portions, take a quiz on the Old Testament, and determine sunrise and sunset times anywhere in the world. “Ask the rabbi” files help observant Jews navigate modern life. File No. 30, for example, addresses the question, “Is it permissible to use velcro on shabbat?”

The answer boils down to an interpretation of a religious law that prohibits Jews from ripping or tearing on the sabbath. Like many sabbath rules, this one aims to keep people from working on the day of rest. “Velcro is essentially the hooking of strands on the one piece through loops on the other,” writes the rabbi. “Even if some strands do in fact tear…they are not designed to….An analogy would be walking across a lawn on shabbat. Even though an occasional piece of grass may be uprooted when you walk over it, you certainly didn’t intend to uproot it.”

But even the allure of spending time among like-minded highbrows is not enough to keep Air ‘N Sun’s modem ringing. According to Aronson, members used to keep his board’s 486/66 computer in use 35-45 percent of the time. “Now,” he says, “it’s rare to break 20 percent.” Not surprisingly, all seven Air ‘N Sun users surveyed here maintain a separate Internet account. And that’s no coinkydink.

It may be high time to salute the low-tech bulletin board system, but it’s also time to pen its obituary.

Numberswise, the prognosis for D.C.’s boards is not good. “It’s been six weeks since a single new BBS announced itself,” says Mike Focke, who monitors the local scene. During that period, he says, more than 20 BBSs were put down: “You figure the math.” We did. At this pace, D.C.-area BBSs will be extinct in less than two years.

Not every sysop will give up as quickly or quietly as these statistics suggest. Aronson, for example, says he plans to expand Air ‘N Sun by 10 phone lines and offer cheap Internet access, even if it means a personal loss of several hundred dollars per month. After all, he says, “this is only a hobby.”

But if Aronson’s board survives, it will be because he embraced the new online reality, not dismissed it. Tomorrow’s sysops—especially those seeking profit—will bypass the BBS route entirely. In the future, anyone who wishes to become an online monarch will park his or her royal butt on a World Wide Web home page.

Can we blame AOL or the web for the BBS world’s blunt-force trauma? It’s tempting. The big’uns’ bloody fingerprints are all over the truncheon. Except that their only real crime is thinking big. The Dr. Frankensteins who stitched AOL together simply took the BBS concept out of the swamp, juiced it up several thousandfold, and pumped millions of dollars into advertising and marketing. AOL hasn’t crushed individuality or idiosyncrasy, just commodified it.

In a perfect online universe, BBSs and their brawny descendants would live side by side, peaceful-like: one offering polished graphics and predigested content, the other serving up raw thoughts via rough-edged technology. It isn’t gonna happen, though. Goliath has sat his big rump on David’s chest, and the little guy’s quickly running out of air.

You can practically hear the gasping. In the past 12 months, the Washington area has lost hundreds of BBSs. Many more local sysops will abdicate their rec-room thrones before the year is out. But digital justice demands that at least one new BBS be created before the lights go out.

In spirit, the area’s newest BBS would be no different from other boards. A small, loyal tribe would log on to post questions and answers, peruse the file library, play games, and bark and howl before sympathetic listeners.

But this bulletin board would not cater to horticulturists, ham-radio devotees, or amateur bee-keepers. It would, of course, be a gathering place for sysops to grieve over their death-bound BBS universe.CP

Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Charles Steck.