Thanks for the help so far.
Unless someone has some ideas fast I think that I'm going to reinstall 98SE (until I can buy an upgrade to XP.)
I've now gone into dos command mode and used the text editor (sure wish it was vi as I'm a Unix guy at work) to edit system.ini. In here I changed shell=explorer.exe for progman.exe.
I also uninstalled my sound card drivers as they were causing the box to prompt for directx 5.0 setup files to pop up. so now only I get the explorer caused an invalid page fault.
I luckily found through a lot of surfing a microsoft support help page for the explorer caused an invalid page fault in module explorer.exe. it actually was titled for causing the fault in browseui.dll but in the text also referred to being in explorer.exe also.
It had me run "control appwiz.ctl" from the program manager which brings up the add/remove programs utility. it was supposed to allow me to get to IE6 and repair it but nothing showed up in the utility window to add/remove. So I then found on the Microsoft web site information on manually running the IE repair tool. It said that IE couldn't be repaired.
So now I'm pretty much out of options. I've changed the system.ini file around 20 times between progman and explorer checking changes to see if I can get explorer going.
I also ran msconfig from the progman run line and it did have a strange "command" selected to startup, y32prxc6q which I never rememebered installing anything like that (it refers to dllmrt16.exe) so i unchecked it so it wouldn't sun at startup - nothing "good" happened.
so if i try to reinstall windows 98se from my installation disks how bad off will i be? I'm guessing pretty hosed since i've installed every service pack and hotfix for the last 4 1/2 years since I first installed it and have gone through 3 printers, a bunch of cameras, a usb hub, scanner and god knows how much software. The real concern is the software that I've purchased online and paid for keys so there's no hardcopy.
Any idea if a fresh win98se install will mess with any files besides the ones in the c:windows directory?