Thursday, September 25, 2008


In Which We Play the Game...

My Big Brother turned 43 this week. His birthday was Tuesday.

By now, BB's pretty ambivalent about birthdays (At least, I assume so, owing to the fact that he completely forgot his own brother's 40th birthday this year. Ahem). But kids have a different opinion, and when Thomas took a look at the calendar on our fridge and saw the 23rd marked as BB's B-day, he insisted that he and his sister call their uncle bright and early Tuesday morning and sing "Happy Birthday" over the phone.

It was about 5:45 A.M., which is when my son, the consummate Early Bird, usually gets up. I knew BB had worked a late shift the night previous and was probably still in bed--just like I was when Thomas ran into my room to tell me his plan--so naturally I told my kids that their idea was an excellent one, and within moments, we had my brother on the speakerphone, muttering "Whafuck?" thickly into the receiver.

When the kids finished singing, I half-expected to hear a dial tone, but my brother was now sufficiently roused to have a chat with Thomas who, after a gentle reminder that he himself has a birthday in a little over a month, began rattling off his want list for presents.

"I want a protective cover for my DS, and some Pokemon cards from the Legends Awakened series. Oh! And I really want the Ahsoka Tano figure from the new Clone Wars set. She's really cool, but all the scalpers are buying her and selling her on eBay."

(Which reminds me--if any readers out there happen to see this figure on sale for its retail price of $7-8 or so, your harried pal MM will cheerfully reimburse you for it, plus shipping, plus a piece of original Art Lad art, plus a box of genuine CRAP from my basement.)

Thomas rambled on for a bit, then paused to take a breath. "What do you want for your birthday, uncle BB?"

"A woman, a new job, and a toilet I don't have to plunge after every dump I take," came the gruff reply. There was a pause, perhaps indicating a moment's reflection at the other end of the line. "And, er, I guess I want that new Star Wars video game," BB added lamely, trying to pull the conversation back to an E for Everyone rating.

"Oh!" Thomas cried excitedly. "We just got that! It's the coolest. You've really gotta get it, uncle BB, but, uh, only if you're better than Dad." Here, my son dropped his voice to hoarse whisper, in consideration of me, who was only standing about two feet away. "Dad is really bad at the game. He just runs in circles and then kills himself."

Instantly, the speakerphone crackled with feedback from my brother's stupendous guffaws. Ah, humor at his little brother's expense; few things in life please BB more. So you might be surprised, gentle reader, to learn that once he recovered from his laughing fit, BB was more interested in talking about the game than in pumping his nephew for more details about Daddy's latest bout of self-injury.

You have to understand: BB is rather fond of video games himself--much as a twitching heroin addict is rather fond of his drug of choice. When BB visited us last Christmas, he was constantly stealing Thomas' Nintendo DS and playing games on it. When he wasn't doing that, he was trouncing any comers foolish enough to play him in a shooting-gallery game on the Wii.

Almost as soon as he got home, BB sold off a few of his guns (of which he has a startling plenitude, locked in a safe somewhere in the house) and used the cash to buy an Xbox 360, a Wii, and a crapload of games for both. Most of those games, ironically enough, involved shooting opponents with the digital equivalents of the very same guns he'd just sold.

"Well, I had to unplug my XBox and the Wii. I got something else hooked up to the TV right now, so maybe I'll wait and buy the game for myself as a Christmas present," BB said. "But I guess I won't play against your Dad, next time he visits. He always did suck at videogames, even when we were kids," BB said.

"You had video games in the olden days?" Thomas asked, looking from the phone back to me, to see if he was being tricked.

"Oh yeah," snorted BB. And he proceeded to tell Thomas a little story, which I will include here. Mark well, I had to modify the story to make room for the truth, rather than allow BB's heavily slanted version to stand unchallenged. But it's essentially the same story.


BB truly was maniacal about video games, and it all came to a head in the summer leading up to his 13th birthday, back in 1978. At that point, BB was engaged in an almost daily campaign to get a video game system for a present, although he didn't call it "a video game system." No, whenever we sat down to have supper, no matter what topic was under discussion, BB managed to turn it back to getting "a console." If our parents could just see their way clear to getting him a console, BB insisted, they wouldn't need to get him anything else for his birthday or even for Christmas.

"What's a console?" I always asked, but was always ignored. All I could imagine when I heard the word was some type of large panel full of blinking lights and buttons, the kind of accessory super-villains always had in their lairs. What can I say? I was barely 10 at the time and wasn't really up on the latest technology.

"Well, we'll see," my mom said, trying to deflect the latest console assault.

"They ain't cheap, you know," my father said, pointing a fork at my brother. "I seen 'em in the department store. Just about shit when I saw the price tag. You know how much money I used to make when you was a baby? These goddamn consoles cost more than I made in one week back then."

BB nodded excitedly. "I know, I know! That's why you wouldn't have to get me anything else. Not for my birthday, not for Christmas."

"Well, we'll see," Mom said again, but then looked at me. "Of course, something like this should be more of a family present. If you got one--and I'm not saying you will--would you share with your brother?"

Well, that brought BB up short. BB would sooner share an internal organ with me than let me play with his toys. His reasoning was always very vague--something about me being careless and breaking his things, or losing important accessories. All baseless accusations, of course, but there you are.

BB stared at me for a moment longer. Then, with what I can only imagine was a supreme effort of will, turned back to my parents and said, "Yeah. Sure. I'll play with him. I'll teach him to play and everything." I realized then that, whatever the hell a console was, it must be pretty damn cool for BB to be willing to overcome his long-held hatred of sharing toys, just so he could have one.

I begged one more time to know what a console was, and this time BB obliged me by excusing himself. He came back to the table bearing what I thought was a phone book, but which was actually the Sears catalog. He dropped it in my lap and it fell open to a specific and well-thumbed page full of pictures of video game consoles sitting next to television screens displaying the latest in high-tech entertainment. Full of instant wonder, I began reading the descriptions of each console, and then noticed the price of one unit. "Wow!" I cried, unable to help myself. "These really ARE expensive!"

BB shot me a fierce look, the kind that promised instant death if I didn't shut my mouth there and then. He snatched the catalog from me and scowled at the page. Then his face brightened. "See?" he said, swinging the catalog around so our parents could see. "That's the deluxe model with all these attachments and things, so it's the most expensive. I don't want that--I just want the basic console, see?"

"Okay, that's enough for now," said my mom, with a finality that assured us this conversation was over (at least until tomorrow). "Your father and I will look at this and decide."

Well, despite my parents' best efforts, BB didn't get a console for his birthday. It turned out that all but the most expensive consoles were sold out and on backorder until November, or possibly even December. BB's disappointment was crushing, and by then, so was mine.

Luckily, about a week after BB's birthday that year, we got a surprise that took our minds off of the sad, deprived life we were living: My grandfather, Papa Jim, announced that he was coming for a visit.

We were living in Kansas then and Papa had flown into Topeka from Boston. He stayed for two weeks and hated almost every minute of it. Oh, he loved us and was glad to see us, but Papa was a city boy after all, and didn't know what to do with himself out there on the prairie, where he was appalled to find he was 40 miles from the nearest movie theater, and 20 miles from the nearest drug store or even a proper restaurant. So he spent most of his visit walking from our house to the one bar in town, then back again. On the weekend, he'd had enough. He borrowed my mom's car and drove me and my brother to the nearest shopping mall--again it was 40 or 50 miles away. He took us to lunch at a restaurant there, found a liquor store where he could stock up on martini supplies. Later, as we walked the corridors of the mall, we went into Sears and spent a long while gawking in the toy department.

Of course, one whole aisle was filled with original, first-generation Star Wars toys. I loved Star Wars then as much as my son does now. Papa, who could refuse us nothing, let us pick out a few figures and one larger toy. I got myself some stormtroopers and a spiff T.I.E. fighter. I don't recall what BB chose. It hardly matters because, as we walked around the store to find a checkout counter that was open, we passed by the electronics department. And that changed everything.

A crowd was gathered over by a TV, one that had the volume turned up, so that I could hear a sound that would come to be as familiar to me as a horn honking or a telephone ringing. But back then, I couldn't figure out what it was--just a random collection of beeping and booping noises. BB could, though, and when he heard the sound, he gasped and dropped all the Star Wars toys he was holding. He pushed himself through the crowds and got a peek at the screen. Eventually, even weighted down by my toys, I managed to follow my brother and see what he saw: On the screen were a couple of small white vertical bars, separated by a long vertical line that bisected the whole screen. A single white square floated across this long white line. As it did, the short white bar zipped up the screen and blocked the progress of the square. The square hit the bar, making a strangely satisfying "bee-boop" noise and rebounding across the long white line.

For the first time, I was watching the wonder that was Pong.

I saw two teenaged kids in front of us, staring intently at the TV. They both seemed strangely tense and occasionally made swift, jerky moves with their shoulders. I craned my neck around and saw that each one had his hand on a dial on a small console, labeled "Telstar." Right next to the TV was a display of boxes, Coleco consoles stacked about 5 or 6 high. Nearby, a store clerk was unpacking yet more consoles from a large cardboard container resting on a dolly. While BB and even my grandfather were distracted by the visual spectacle on the screen in front of them, I read about all the wondrous features of this game console.

For one thing, I realized with some excitement, this console--the Telstar Alpha--was the same one BB had shown me in the Sears catalog, only apparently no longer on back order (if indeed they had ever been. Not that we thought our parents would lie to our faces or anything. Hey, it was an honest mistake. Probably.) I was thrilled to read that it played four games. You could have your choice of Pong, Hockey (basically the same game as Pong, only you got to control a few more short bars), Handball, and Jai Alai (these last two, you got one bar and you had to bounce the square dot off the edge of the screen). You could also pick three skill levels--beginner, intermediate, or really fucking fast.

As I stood there studying the box, a steady stream of people came by, grabbed a console and proceeded to checkout. At length, a big guy gallumphed over to me, flanked by two hopeful kids of his own. "Awright, we'll just see..." he said grudgingly. He picked up the box next to mine and turned it this way and that. His kids were holding their breaths and I realized the Dad was checking the price. But the next second, he squawked. "Shee-it! HOW much?!? You have GOT to be puttin' me on!" he cried, then looked around, embarrassed at his own outburst. He set the console back down on the pile and stormed off in a huff, as if the price of the game had been a personal affront to him, as I suppose it had. I cringed and set the box down myself. I started to slink away, but just then, BB came over, Papa right behind him. More and more people were crowding around us, helping themselves to the consoles--the one I had been holding a moment ago had already been grabbed and take away for purchase. BB instinctively picked up one of the dwindling supply of boxes and clutched it to his chest.

"Isn't that something, dear?" Papa asked me in his thick Boston accent, pointing to the TV screen (my grandfather always called me and my brother "dear," although it was dead embarrassing when he did it in public). "Who knows what they'll think of next," he said.

"Ooh, it plays four games, not just tennis!" BB bleated, stabbing at the box, then handing it to Papa, so he could have a look. Not to buy it, of course, no, no, not that, but just to satisfy his curiosity about this new product. Papa dutifully looked at the box. "Hockey too? Well, I nevah," he said, tilting the box on one side, looking for the price tag. Before he could find it, BB made his move, telling Papa that he had begged our parents to get it for him, but only as a combined birthday and Christmas present. You wouldn't think it would be possible for a kid to sound remotely noble for making this kind of sacrifice--giving up all his usual presents just to get one!--but somehow my brother managed to hit just the right note.

Papa looked up from his reading. "Will ya share with ya bruthah?" he asked. BB gave him a look of surprise and mild consternation: What the heck? he must have thought. That was exactly what Mom had said. Geez, it's almost like these two are related or something. But BB nodded anyway, so Papa reached into his front pocket, where he kept his money clip, peeled off some 20s, and handed them to my brother. "Awright, you go and buy one of these. Just bring me back the change," he said, winking. My brother winched his jaw back up off the carpet--mine was right next to it--then he grabbed both game and cash out of Papa's hand and was bolting for the nearest register before my grandfather could change his mind.

I was stunned. "Oh, Papa," I began. "Whoa, that's--are you really sure? I mean--wow," I gabbled. I was beyond excited, but I also knew what kind of shit was going to hit the fan when my brother and I showed up at home with a bag of Star Wars toys and a brand-new videogame console. "Are you sure?" I asked again.

Papa looked down at me, a trace of mock irritation in his voice. "What? Ya don' wanna play tennis on ya TV?" he asked.

"No! No! I mean, yes! I mean--" I sputtered. "It's just, Mom might not like it, and--"

Papa bent down to me then, leaned in close, and whispered conspiratorially. "Please, MM. For the luvva Christ, please let yer old grandfathah get this for BB. Call it an early Christmas present, or whatevah ya wanna call it, but I'm squirrelly with boredom and if we don’t go back to the house without somethin' to distract us, I swear ta Christ I'm gonna go outta my fackin' mind!"

I nodded solemnly then. "Okay," I said.

"Good boy," he said, then stood up and patted me on the head.

When we got home, my mother didn't freak out like I expected. Instead, she just emitted a long, freighted sigh, the very echo of the one I so often hear from my own wife, and usually under similar circumstances. And that was that.


Back in the present, BB continued to relate an extremely truncated version of these events, as well as heavily editing his recollection of our many years with the Telstar console. For example, he utterly failed to mention how selfish and covetous he became after our grandfather left. How he would shove me away any time I asked to play tennis with him, or thrash me violently if he caught me playing with--or even looking at--the console.

"That's mine and you know it!" he hissed.

"But Papa and Mom said you have to--"

"I don't care what they said. It's MY game." And then he would throw something at me as an inducement to leave.

Things reached a breaking point one rainy weekend, when I, like my grandfather before me, was bored out of my mind and begging to play tennis or hockey. BB and I got into a heated shouting match in the family room, where the console was hooked up to the TV. Our fighting forced my father to intervene. "What the hell is going on in here?!?" he demanded.

"BB's being selfish!" I cried. "All he does is sit in here and play with himself!"

For some reason, my father thought this was funny; BB not so much. But he let me play video games with him--grudgingly--after that.

So it went. A few years later, I managed to purchase a second-hand Atari 2600 game console for myself, putting me forever beyond the reach of BB's antagonism when it came to video games. Eventually, because I am kind and decent and in all ways a superior human being (and also because my mom struck a deal with me that was too good to ignore), I deigned to let BB play on the Atari too. That was the death-knell of the Telstar. It vanished soon after, presumed lost forever.

But in my family, crap is never truly lost. Sooner or later, it always turns up, and in the unlikeliest of places. Which explains why, on our second day of cleaning out my parents' barn in New Hampshire some weeks back, I chanced upon an old metal Coleman cooler, its bottom nearly rusted out, so that you could see the basin of the cooler inside. The latch was welded shut by pure oxidation, but I rapped it a couple of times with the head of an old shovel I found in a corner. The lock fell off and I opened the lid, revealing a cardboard box.

And in the cardboard box was the Telstar video game console.

"You don't think--?" my brother asked.

"Only one way to find out," I answered.

We carried the thing, cooler and all, into the house, where I took out the console--smelled vaguely of mouse pee and rusted metal--attached its power cord to it, and plugged it in. I switched it on, then remembered there was no power light or anything on the unit to indicate that it was up and running. I shut it off and looked in the box some more, until I found another cable, this one terminating in a small box with a switch and two pronged wires coming out. These attached to the old UHF/VHF antenna lead. BB's TV had coaxial-cable and digital inputs, but no antenna leads. But after some rummaging in the various junk drawers throughout the house, we found an adapter that let us plug the thing in through the TV's cable connection. Then we turned the TV to channel 3 (it was all coming back to me how to do this) and I hit the on switch again.

Almost immediately, a sweet sickly smell of something burning filled the air. But we ignored it because, onscreen, was an image neither BB nor I had seen in years. It was the Pong playing field.

I put my hand out to grab a control dial when BB put his arm out. "Hey! Whoa! The fuck you think you're doing? That's MINE!" he cried.

I looked up to give my brother my most withering look--along with a profanity-laden telling off--when he burst into laughter. "Gotcha! Your serve, ass-wipe," he said.

" that's what's plugged into the TV right now," BB concluded.

"No way!" said Thomas, in a kind of awe. "The game still works after all those years of being in the barn?"

"Well, yeah," said BB. "Of course, sometimes it overheats. Then the screen goes wibbly and the whole room smells like burned hair. But otherwise, it works fine. Next time you come visit, you can try it out."

But Thomas didn't have to wait that long. Later in the day, long after we'd let BB go to enjoy his birthday, my son found several Web sites that offer playable versions of Pong. He was excited to try it out.

(And if you're longing to do the same, there's a solo version you can play here.)

About 27 seconds in, Thomas glanced over at me (we were both hunched over, each of us trying to control his paddle using the same keyboard). "Um, Dad?" he said tentatively. "Is this it?"

"What do you mean?" I asked, trying not to let another ball go past me.

"Well, I mean, is this all it does?"

"Well, sure. It's called tennis. You use your paddle to hit the ball across the net--"

"But there's no paddle--it's just a rectangle that moves only up or down so you can knock a square over a white line. Uncle BB really has this hooked up to his TV right now? And plays it? When does it get good?"

I tried to explain the value in appreciating the simple things in life, the importance of reveling in one's youth and occasionally picking up the things you once put aside so you can be in touch with your inner child, or use them to get closer to others in your family.

But in response to this, all Thomas said was, "I think we better go buy that new Star Wars game for uncle BB."

So we did that instead.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

It looks like Ahsoka is available here for $14.99. It comes bundled with something called a "Huttlet," which sounds like a skin condition.
ah, Pong. I do remember how addictive it can be...
My grandparents had one of those consoles! I remember playing pong all night long with my brother and sisters! That was so fun. We got an Atari 2600 years and years later, and I can still remember hearing space invaders in my nightmares as Mom and Dad snuck a game or two after we kids went to bed.

I am old (matching your age this year, MM). I still love those old games better than all the fancy bells and whistles of the game out there for kids today. We don't have a PS or Wii or even a Nintendo at home. Maybe we'll get something soon, but I'll probably never play them.

Have fun with BB!
I should have read the comments before searching for an Ahsoka as well. Was hoping that a Canadian toy store might have some, but they don't seem to be common at all. Hopefully cobwebs' tip works out for you!

While I was teaching a group of new employees about some HP products a few years ago, one of the students showed me this:

Call me a nerd, but I think's it's
funny :)
Remember "Odyssey" ca. 1975?

You'd tape mylar prints of colored graphics over the TV screen and your monocolor blobs would chase behind the "scenery."

You tell that to today's dagvergammen frickersnitten youth with their virtual reality helmets.

Yep, I've offically hit oldfartdom.


there is one on ebay Item number: 120309354929 - buy it now for $8.99 w/$6.99 shipping

Ah, Pong! My bro and I had a portable version of it. Not so fancy as yours.

The tech item my bro coveted most was the Timex Sinclair. He got up at 3 or 4 am on xmas to see if he'd gotten it and we joined him as he read through the manual. Coolest program I recall it having was one that told you how long to cut pipes of various materials and where to drill holes to make your own windchime.
The only game I wasd ever good at was the arcade game Crazy Climber. I'd miss it even if it didn't have Godzilla.
I remember the first video game console I was from Radio Shack, and similar to the one your brother had...played 4 variations of "Pong" style games. (I think the others were hockey, squash, and...oh well, I don't remember.) I never did get a 2600 though.
we had an atari 2600 and LOVED it.

happy birthday, bb. :-)

and melinda, that pong thing - laughed 'till i cried. thanks!
I was born in 1967, and got my first console in 1980 or so. I can't remember the manufacturer, but it was pong oriented, many months before we got our Atari console.

Bearing that in mind, I'll confess that I wept when I read this essay. Not just because of my own reminiscence, but also for the writing, the heart-felt depth of your writing. You have a great skill, one that I am ever thankful for.
We had the Telstar Ranger that came with a gun that was wired to the console. So not only did we get the four pong games, we got 4 shooting games (that were basically all the same). At our house, my dad is the lucky one who wins raffles, gets picked for door prizes, etc. So even though we didn't have much money, we had the Telstar, a microwave, and a FRONT load VCR - all the cool stuff! Ahh to be as lucky as pops - MarkR
we had a pong that we got 3rd or 4th hand. later we got a similar hand me down Atari.

I really miss Moon patrol, Frogger and whatever tha jungle/alligator/quicksand one was
"BB's being selfish!" I cried. "All he does is sit in here and play with himself!"


We had Pong, too, but it was long after it had existed for awhile. It was my mom's first tentative foray into video games. The next thing we got was the original NES, and then the Sega Master System.

Now my husband and I have a PS3 and a Wii...and we play ports of vintage games on them sometimes ;)
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