KANSAS CITY, Mo. – They say they travel to KansasFest to feel like kids again. Fest attendees stay up all night laughing, arguing and eating pizza. They program and play games on their Apple II machines and call each other nerd or geek.
Bullied and closeted as a boy, Martin Haye describes KansasFest as the childhood he wished he’d had.
“If I had this when I was 13, I would’ve been fine,” says Haye, 48, a programmer for the California Digital Library who lives in Santa Cruz. “I didn’t try to fit in but I was little, I carried a briefcase to school, I was a target. I have a good life now, but this week is the most intense, sustained, predictable happiness I’ve ever had.”
A cultural melting pot
The 86 people who registered for the 28th gathering of devotees of the seminal Apple II computer came from the four corners of the U.S, Canada and even Australia. There were teachers, doctors, gamers, knitters, computer scientists, a beekeeper, and a former semi-pro football player who also does acting gigs for Japanese television.
At KansasFest, you will find straight, gay and transgender people. Some are pro-Hillary and others are pro-Trump. That none of that matters here is intensely meaningful, especially for Haye, who would never have attended his first KansasFest in 2009 if it weren’t for the gentle prodding of his husband.
Haye had misgivings. He saw Missouri as part of the Bible Belt, a conservative region of the U.S. historically hostile to gays. The conference was also at Rockhurst University, a Jesuit school. Would he have to hide this part of himself?
But his husband reminded him how much he loved the Apple II. Haye discovered the computer the same year he realized he was gay at age 14. He stopped watching TV “eight hours” a day to play games on the computer and teach himself basic programming. Soon after, Haye dreamed of creating a game and publishing it.
So he went in 2009, figuring if the social scene was awkward, he’d stay in his dorm room all week programming on his Apple II.
He made fast friends and even found himself mentioning he was gay. It didn’t matter.
Geeking out with like minds
One of those friends is Bill Martens. He is an imposing figure, wearing a cowboy hat and gray beard. Martens is a hulking ex-football player and conservative in his politics.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re gay, straight, pink or purple,” Martens says. “We don’t give a (crap) about anything but the Apple II. We get to have fun geeking out with like-minded people.”
Martens, along with Brian Wiser, helped Nibble magazine founder Mike Harvey publish a book of his writings on the computer industry called Nibble Viewpoints. They also collaborated with Apple co-founder and Apple II creator Steve Wozniak to publish The WOZPAK, a now-famous collection of his handwritten notes and printouts about the Apple II computer.
Always looking for new projects, Martens and Wiser approached Haye with another idea. A game Haye built in 2012 was popular among Apple II users and Martens and Wiser wanted to help him bring the game to iPhone and iPad.
Haye’s game, Structris, is inspired by the game Tetris and drops different shaped blocks into a square space while the player avoids trying to get crushed. As the player conquers each level, the blocks fall faster into small places, making them increasingly difficult to dodge.
It took more than two years for Martens, Wiser and an iOS developer to convert the game and Structris recently became available for download on iTunes for $1.99.
Haye had finally become a published game developer.
“We are all unified by that one thing, the Apple II,” Haye says. “It seems so weird that this is what unifies us across all those boundaries.”