Thom floated like a ghost over most of the production. Within a very short
time that I started on this project, I knew he had to be interviewed. But
every thing I could find about him online regarding his present-day life was
one of being either bitter or not wanting anything to do with a story about
BBSes. I'd written to him a few times over the course of the production
about the idea of interviewing him, and he came off as somewhat OK with it,
but not exactly delighted.
So in the final months of production, when I knew I had to have everything
on tape or I never would, I finally arranged a time to come see him at his
convenience. He was fine with most any time, and so I organized a flight
down to Baltimore to then drive down to Virginia's Eastern Shore, where the
Henderson family now lives. Since this would open me up for a whole weekend,
I quickly arranged three other interviews in the surrounding area for the
Sunday before I would elave Monday morning.
By this time I'd interviewed a lot of folks about the Fidonet story: Tom
Jennings, Ken Kaplan, Ben Baker, Ryugen Fischer, Bob Hartman, and even
Wynn Wagner. But it was actually Rick Siegel who had really convinced me
that not only was Thom Henderson important to the BBS story, he was
critical to it. While I knew that I had intended to interview him if I
could, I had learned by the time I'd finished interviewing Rick Siegel
that if Thom couldn't be interviewed, I'd be suffering a critical failure.
Thom's story is one of the most emotionally wrenching for me personally
because it's one of someone who did an awful lot of good for an awful lot
of people and who then, sum total, suffered and hurt for the 10 years
before he finally threw the whole thing out of his life. One of the
expected anomalies in this documentary is that almost to a person, the
result of the BBS era for people I interviewed were that it was "Good".
They had a good time, they met good people, the end feeling they have of
their time with BBSes is that they were enjoyable and full of good memories.
This is not the case with everyone who used BBSes. There were, in fact, a
number of people who would not agree to be interviewed because for them,
the BBS story is one they would rather forget forever. Some people lost
their livelihoods, their relationships, and even their freedoms because
of BBSes, and they'd rather never deal with that part of their lives
While I did find a lot of indication in messages and other historical data
that Thom's personality in the 1980's could be blunt or intense for folks
online, he backed up this gruff exterior with real, honest advances and
improvements for the whole of BBSing and home computer users. His work
with Fidonet made the whole organization run better, his ARC program was
in use everywhere (even though other programs to do the same existed before)
and he was a major force in providing other programs that made lives
better. In other words, it's hard now to look back at what he did for the
worlds he travelled in (computers, BBSes, Fido) and not see all the good
things he did. At the time, it's harder to see this for all the words
flying around in the echomail conferences and message boards about evil or
trickery or some sort of inherent subterfuge.
The Henderson family lives in a beautiful old home that has been around
for hundreds of years. The homes are very far apart from each other, so
there's a real sense of peacefulness and quiet.
I met Thom's family and we set up in the dining room of the house. While
talking with him, I made it quite clear that my objective research had
determined that yes, in fact, he was right, that he had not done wrong in
the whole battle between PKWARE and SEA. And I meant it. And I could see
the relief on his face.
The ARC-ZIP battle, or SEA vs. PKware, stands as one of the most contentious
battles that ever raged in the history of dial-up bulletin board systems.
I'm not exaggerating for some sort of dramatic sense here; it essentially
bore into the heart of the community for well over a year and echoes were
felt for years after that. It even echoed to me, a guy who only lightly
used the Fidonet and who basically cared about little other than making
his files smaller, however it made sense to. (I was about fifteen when
this battle broke out.)
There's an entire episode dedicated to this event, so I won't go into too
much about it here, other than to say that I was very worried about bringing
this all up with Thom. This is when I knew that I would never be cut out
for doing this sort of thing professionally; bringing up painful memories is
neither an enjoyable process for me, or something I think I'm doing for
the greater good. During our interview, while discussing Fidonet and other
triumphs in his history, we did have to go over painful ground, and he was
emotionally run through by the end; I felt terrible.
Irene, Thom's wife, was also around, and was giving me further details,
so I asked if she wanted to sit in for an interview. She agreed, so we
talked for another hour, with her covering even more of the same ground.
Irene is less sad about her history than disappointed and a bit angry
at some of what went on. And she is very protective of her husband, quite
understandibly so. We covered a lot of ground in a very short time and
I think got a very full story about the BBS era from her point of view.
I am very pleased that Thom opened up about this time in his life one
more time; I hope it brings some closure to him and his family.
The evening went very well and the weekend was a complete success regardless
of how the rest of the planned interviews would go. I said goodbye to the
Hendersons and drove off into the night, trying to find a good hotel to
stay at. I ended up staying at an unusual place close to Washington D.C.,
one of those massive hotels that look like a barn from the outside and house
many rooms, and look a little run down, even if they're recently built.
I made sure my camera bag was hidden behind one of the beds and my
regular suitcase was near the door, in case something untoward happened;