Finding California

On a sunny, Tuesday afternoon in June of 2006, my sixteen-year-old self logged online to lurk around the multitude of forum communities I participated in at the time. It was my natural spot: planted at the computer, typing, laughing at jokes, finding and hotlinking low-resolution GIFs as bulletin board replies. Even having some serious discussions around coding. Forum signatures with graphics were all the rage. I'd discovered PHP and had given myself the ability to serve a random signature file from a single URL.

Naturally, I went to go show off this newfound power to my coding forum comrades in one of the communities I'd been part of for a few years, SoCal Codes. It was run by someone who had taken me under his wing, mentored me, and encouraged my interest in coding and technology. As I logged on that afternoon to brag about my new signature feature, I found that one of the main moderators posted an announcement to the entire community:

We really don’t know how to tell you all this, but unfortunately there never is an easy way to say what we're about to say.  We have some unfortunate and tragic news to report to SoCal and the entire community. We sincerely regret to inform you that on May 19th, our dear friend, Admin, and coding guru, Cody, who is best known as "California", has passed on.

We hadn't heard anything from California for nearly a month. My friend and mentor, Cody (aka California) was 19 years old, and he had died.

Not a lot of other parents were as technology-forward as my mother. Once upon a time in her college years, she was a computer science major, but switched to nursing because of the shortage in the 80s. In the early 90s, my mom invested in a computer for our house before I could even walk. As we got older, she'd continuously upgrade the computers and purchase interactive programs to help my sister and I learn to use the mouse and type correctly on the keyboard. Within a week of dialup Internet being available in our area, she had a modem installed and internet running. She knew that computers were the future, and she wanted to ensure her kids were able to get ahead. She didn't realize it would be technology that saved me.

I had very few, if any, friends growing up. Among a multitude of external circumstances, I've struggled with ADHD and an early childhood diagnosis of major depression since I was eight years old. Growing up in a small town in Indiana, there were few others who were even remotely interested in the technology-focused hobbies of which I had embraced and learned to derive some semblance of joy.

As the years went by, technology became a respite from my depression and lack of close friendships. I found online communities of people who were as excited as I was about building things on the Internet--even people my own age. Connecting with others online helped me feel less alone, and I was able to interact with people from around the world with commonalities I couldn't find around me: especially code! I joined forums, chat rooms, and I became friendly with and known to a lot of different people (by a username, of course). Finally, I felt like I was part of a community that accepted my interests; that I'd found a group of people with whom I belonged. And then around 2003 or 2004, I met California.

Our initial interactions were strictly business. I'd ask code questions, he'd reply concisely. Over time as we interacted on the forums and in direct chat, he revealed to me that his first name was Cody. Of course, we bonded over having the same first name. He was about four years older than me, so we were close enough in age to have similar interests and experiences. I believe he was senior in high school, I was an incoming freshmen. And we both incredibly loved developing on the web.

The Internet was a lot more anonymous back then. Social media hadn't really proliferated into the standard of notability and parasocial concepts that we have today. You could join a forum, participate for a day or years, and simply disappear. No one would know who you were, where you lived, or what you even looked like. There are, of course, spaces to be anonymous in modern times, but it's certainly not the norm at this point. I assumed Cody lived in California based on his username, california, he never corrected me or anyone else about these assumptions. He was a rather private person, and he didn't reveal nearly any personal details to me or to anyone else I know of with whom we mutually interacted.

Cody and I crossed paths in multiple forum communities. I got to know him more as he talked about games, music, and technology--many of the typical things you'd find on a message board filled with a bunch of nerds in the early 2000s era. Funnily enough, it's a lot of the same things I and many others talk about now on Twitter.

Over the years, Cody has come across my thoughts a few times. Every time I'd think of him, I'd end up spending twenty or thirty minutes in a forlorn Google search rabbit hole, peering through news articles and obituaries looking for him; searching for California.

I wanted to know who he was. I wanted to know about him, and I wanted to know about the life of this person who was a notable part of my journey with technology. My Google search history would end up littered with overly targeted and continuously vague queries, like:

  • "california man" "car crash" "cody"
  • "cody" "died" "2006" "california" "coder"
  • "2006 car crash california" "19 year old"

Of course, there were rumours about what happened, and some of those impacted how I was searching for information (e.g. car crash). The first time I went on a search for Cody, I questioned why I was looking. I didn't even know what Cody looked like. We'd never shared photos of each other.

It wasn't even an obsession. I was a teenager trying to find some semblance of closure after losing my first mentor. Sometimes I questioned that even if I did find a photo or information about him, whether it would be accurate or even the correct person. Would the person I found be worthy of the mentor I admired?

Cody was brilliant with code. Brilliant. I have a gut feeling he knew other programming languages than HTML/CSS/JavaScript, but he wrote beautiful vanilla JavaScript that could manipulate and add incredible, interactive features to the front-end of the forum software that ran our communities. He pioneered increasingly clever ways for us to hijack existing forms with textarea fields, save data in plain text, and capture and reuse that data on the front-end. It allowed us and the people who consumed our plugins to have stateful data and simple interfaces for non-coding users. Of course, these are all things we'd never be able to do with modern web security practices and proper input sanitation.

Cody was not only a gifted coder, he was also an incredible teacher and mentor to everyone he came into contact with. At that time, changing anything on a web page with JavaScript meant one had to manually loop through the entire DOM, run conditional matches on every returned element, and manipulate those elements. Creating highly customized experiences meant complicated, confusing code. We shared code with everyone so they could use it as well. And Cody would patiently help and encourage others with the bugs, tweaks, and fixes for their code. He was gifted to the point that it seemed like anything he would touch was magic.

He was also very opinionated about code, but he held those opinions weakly. Cody could visualize and identify bugs and logical errors before it would even be run. He'd point out ways to optimize code and provide that feedback to every developer and script he came across. His forum had a curated directory of his and others' code. It was simultaneously a directory and learning resource for every script kiddie and web master running on that forum system. Cody personally reviewed and approved every single script included in his directory. He was incredibly dedicated.

I distinctly remember one time he helped me learn a way to avoid requiring users to include a second <script> in a customization I built. He accepted my code into his directory, but he said I should revise, improve, and submit an updated version as soon as possible. Of course, my updated version without the second tag was eventually reviewed and added, but his mentorship went above and beyond the actual code.

Cody spouted once that writing and running code was the simple part, but that reading, understanding, and--well--feeling the code was maybe even more important. He operated like this mentor for everyone. And he did it seemingly effortlessly. I don't think I could muster even half the patience Cody had for other people's attempts at developing code for the web.

Another one of those familiar but haunting moments hit me again today. Like all the times before, it was a calling to go searching for California.

This time I succeeded.

I finally know his full name. I'm not going to share it here. He valued his privacy after all. But it is empowering to be able to speak his name--the name of my esteemed, early coding mentor--out loud. I even found a small, black-and-white, low-resolution photo of him: a smiling, teenager with up-off-the-ear hair with long bangs nearly in his bright eyes. It's the only photo of him I've ever seen, and probably the only photo of California I will ever see.

As I sit here lurking the old forums on the Wayback Machine, I'm looking at what's left of the old pages and conversations, remembering usernames and the people behind them that I'd long forgotten. I'm reminiscently steeping in the wonderful memories I have of that community; of how close we were as a band of early web and JavaScript developers; of the friends I once had; of the powerful and positive effects it had on my life.

It took me fifteen years, but I finally found California.