Saturday, December 19, 2020

My last Christmas list

Never asked for it, but received it anyway
So I wrote here about how, for much of my childhood, I really didn't ask for things at Christmas.  I took what was there, and that became my favorite toy for the year.  That changed my sixth grade year when a surprise gift in the form of a Micronauts toy line surprised me and captured my imagination.  By sixth grade, it was all Micronauts.  For both my birthday and Christmas that's what I wanted - and nothing else. 

I wondered as I reflected on that post if it became a trend. If, after that, the following Christmases became a list of 'give me'.  I realized it didn't.  In fact, by the following year, my interest in Micronauts was fading.  I was in seventh grade, and my Dad made it clear it was time to put childish toys and games behind me.  My Mom actually bought me one more of the Micronauts toy line for Christmas, and I remember him telling her that Christmas morning that it was time for that to be a thing of the past. 

Therefore I clearly didn't ask for Micronauts anymore.  But did I ever have another BB-Gun Christmas?  Was there another Christmas where I really, really, really wanted something?   Why yes, there was.  In fact, it was the very next Christmas, when I was in eighth grade, that I had what may have been a more anticipated gift than my Micronauts two years earlier.

It was 1980, the year that ushered in the Reagan Revolution.  I was in eighth grade, one of those all important grades.   It was important because that meant we were the grade on top of the food chain in that part of schooling.  Third grade, fifth grade, sixth grade, eighth grade and of course our senior year - these were the grades in which our class was at the top of the heap. There was a certain comfort and feeling of security that came with that. 

It was also approaching the apex of that period I call The Great Fantasy Renaissance.  That was the era kicked off by the release of Star Wars.  Sci-fi and fantasy, genres that had been reduced to Grade D level movie fare, were suddenly everywhere.  Top line bock office budgets were given to anything with spaceships or wizards.  Though, to be honest, fantasy wasn't quite as big in the cinema, owing to the fact that George Lucas's special effects revolution was great for outer space and aliens, less so for dragons and knights on horseback.  

Nonetheless, the genres had a massive boost, and if you wanted to make money, you made sure that space was being invaded or damsels were being rescued.  On the former subject, one thing that exploded onto the pop culture mindset was a video game that took pixels and monotony, and followed the above formula.  Rather than simply 'pixel shoot'em up', the arcade game in question slapped some imaginative artwork on the cabinet, and gave the game a name: Space Invaders.  Instead of just a typical arcade firing range, you now had a story, and one that fit with the spirit of the time: aliens from space on the march!

It was a monster hit.  It also put arcade games into the forefront of the cultural mindset.  They had been around for awhile, but mostly as a novelty.   I remember some friends of the family who owned the old game Pong.  That was something that quickly lost its appeal, at least from my perspective.  But on the whole, the video arcade game came into its own with Space Invaders, and immediately a floodgate was opened and within a couple years, dozens if not hundreds of variations on the theme were found in arcades across the country.

In a brilliant marketing move, and one that has more details behind it than I care to research, the home video game maker Atari managed to get licensing to do an Atari home version of Space Invaders and, combined with a deal through Sears, release it just in time for Christmas, 1980.  

Boy was that what everyone wanted.  I was hardly alone, but I imagine my zeal was second to none when it came to reminding my parents on a thrice-daily basis of just how much I wanted that game.  It was even more for me, since my family had moved into a house about three miles behind the pyramids in terms of remote locations.  For reasons I'll never quite understand, at the end of my sixth grade year, my parents relocated to a house we didn't need that was a million miles from anywhere.  

Though I had friends who could come over - when their parents or mine brought them - and there were school activities, during the summer and other down times I didn't have much to do.  The people we bought the house from had included a teacher, and she left quite a little library behind.  They also left a piano.  So in the subsequent years I taught myself to plunk out a few songs on the piano, and began to enjoy reading as something done outside of school.  I also had my Dad's record collection, consisting of classical music, Big Band era, jazz, and of course ol'Blue Eyes (Sinatra) and his generation of crooners.  In fact, my tendency to mix Van Halen or Billy Joel with Mozart or Andy Williams was why I was never allowed to choose the music when my friends and I went 'cruising for girls.'  

The lines in the stores watching this played were epic
But all of that only goes so far.  By the summer after my seventh grade year, my exile from everywhere was beginning to tell.  I still had friends who came over, and sometimes kids would visit their grandparents across the highway.  But it was getting pretty lonely in those pre-computer, VCR, cable and smartphone days.

The thought of having that game - THE game - at home gave me new hope in life.  I was still a couple years from a drivers license, so I knew I would need something to fill the gaps.  Perry Como was a fine singer after all, but there is a limit.  

So it was that year I once again reverted to my sixth grade Ralphie mentality and pestered, and pestered, and pestered some more.  I thought about Space Invaders.  I tried to replicate Space Invaders.  I continually brought Space Invaders into any conversation.   And once again, I wasn't disappointed.  My Mom and Dad (I have a feeling Dad especially) came through with flying colors.  We not only got Atari and Space Invaders, but a new color television on which to play it all.  And a bean bag chair to boot!

In a strange, ironic twist, that was also the year I got hit with the flu.  When it comes to the flu, I'm not aware of anyone not having symptoms.  You get the flu, you know you have the flu.  My best friend who I've written about came over that day to enjoy the new Space Invaders game.  He had started coming over to my house on Christmas Day the year of the Micronauts, and it was a tradition that continued until I moved to Florida after college.  But sitting there zapping aliens I began feeling a bit down.  By that night, after my friend left, I had a 104 degree fever.  I would have been happy to die.  My parents called the local drug store owner and he opened up so they could get some medicines our family doctor suggested.  Ah, pre-computer days. 

Nonetheless, what a year.  The next year I wanted to add to my video game collection by getting the game Adventure for Atari.  I do believe that was the last year I really asked for or really wanted anything.  Over the years I've certainly mentioned this or that.  When people have asked what I'd like, I've usually come up with something.   But how often did I approach Christmas with a 'must have this' mentality?   In looking back and reflecting, not often at all.  In fact, two Christmases in particular, and perhaps a third (if you count wanting the Adventure Atari game), were it.  Every other Christmas of my 54 years that I can recall saw me more or less asking for little, or general things when pressed, and more or less content with the receiving.  Call me countercultural I suppose.  

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