"The battles reached a climax at dinner one night when Bill Gates was around 12. Over the table, he shouted at his mother, in what today he describes as "utter, total sarcastic, smart-a** kid rudeness."

That's when Mr. Gates Sr., in a rare blast of temper, threw the glass of water in his son's face.

He and Mary brought their son to a therapist. "I'm at war with my parents over who is in control," Bill Gates recalls telling the counselor. Reporting back, the counselor told his parents that their son would ultimately win the battle for independence, and their best course of action was to ease up on him.

Mr. Gates Sr. understood that counsel because of his own childhood, an hour's ferry ride from Seattle in the working-class town of Bremerton. "There wasn't a lot of structure to my growing up," he says. "I had an awful lot of discretion about where I went, what I did, who I did it with."

His mother was doting and easygoing. His sister, his only sibling, was seven years older. And his father was a workaholic who sacrificed child-rearing to work at a furniture store he owned with a partner. "His complete focus was on the store," Bill Sr. says.

Mr. Gates Sr. early on built a life outside of his home. Next door, the Braman family had two boys for him to play with and a father who would become his most important role model.

That man, Dorm Braman, had built his business and would later become a Naval officer, mayor of Seattle and a U.S. assistant secretary of transportation. In the late 1930s, Mr. Braman brought Bill Sr. on family road trips across the country. He was scoutmaster of Bill Sr.'s Boy Scout troop, leading the boys on hikes through the Olympic Mountains and driving them in a beat-up bus to Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks. The troop spent two years building a log house from Douglas firs they felled themselves. Mr. Braman had "no sense of personal limitations whatsoever," says Mr. Gates Sr.

Bill Sr. and Mary ultimately took a page from that upbringing: They backed off. They enrolled their son in a school that they thought would give him more freedom. That was the private Lakeside School, now known as the place where Bill Gates discovered computers.

Mr. Gates says he began to realize, "'Hey, I don't have to prove my position relative to my parents. I just have to figure out what I'm doing relative to the world.'"
A Rare Independence

From age 13, he was given rare independence. He took off some nights to enjoy free use of the computers at the University of Washington. He spent chunks of time away from home -- much as his dad had done as a kid. He lived for a time in Olympia, where he was a page in the state legislature, and in Washington, D.C. as a Congressional page. During his senior year, he took a break from school to work as a programmer at a power plant in southern Washington. And in what would become his first major collaboration with Paul Allen, his future Microsoft cofounder, Mr. Gates designed the "Traf-O-Data", a device for counting cars traveling over a section of road"