Monday, December 21, 2009

The Ghost of Christmas Presents

As far back as I can remember, Christmas has been a magical time of year, where we celebrate the joy of crowded shopping malls, the Yuletide glow of sky-rocketing Visa bills, and the youthful choir of children's voices singing out, "I didn't get what I REEEEEALLY wanted!"

As I reflect upon the Christmases of my childhood, I remember with fondness the presents I received under our family's Christmas tree.  While our holiday was always filled with gifts and stockings full of candy (as well as socks, walnuts, and oranges, yes Mom, I remember) there are a few presents that stand out in my mind.

When I was about six, Santa brought me a Spirograph.  It was basically a pad of paper, a package of colored pens, and lots of plastic disks.  Using this high-tech graphic arts equipment, I was able to draw swirls of all shapes and sizes.  I think I spent about an hour on Christmas morning working on these designs, and never touched the thing again.  Well, that's not entirely true.  My brothers and I used the plastic Spiro-disks as weapons, chucking them at each other and leaving them on the floor for my barefoot dad to step on in the middle of the night.  Dad hated Spiro-disks, Legos, and plastic army men for that very reason.

A couple years later, I got my first full set of Hot Wheels cars and tracks.  Now this is something that got a lot of use around my house.  I'd set up a series of loops, curves, and hills, and send my Hot Wheels cars zooming around the track for hours on end.  One of the sets had a station where you could press a button to propel your car every lap around the track.  We'd have tournaments, stunt shows, we'd even race for imaginary "pink slips" where the winner would keep the loser's car.  Oh, the merriment!

But there was a dark side to our Hot Wheels sets.  It didn't take long for my mom to discover that an orange Hot Wheels track makes a damn fine weapon for beating a kid's bottom.  One night, my brother Eric and I were in our room racing for "pinks", and he'd just won the rights to my candy apple red 1967 Ford Mustang.  I wasn't happy about it, so I grabbed the car back from him.  He pitched a fit, hollering something about "winning it fair and square", and Mom came upstairs to see what the problem was.  By the time she got there, Eric and I were throwing cars at each other and wrestling around on the floor..

Without a word, Mom disassembled the front straightaway and whipped me across my pajama-clad butt with it.  A new day had dawned in punishment-land.

Every Christmas, we'd get new "add-ons" for our Hot Wheels collection.  While we loved the cars and tracks, there were always mixed emotions when we unwrapped them.  Sort of a "wow, that's gonna be fun . . . but the banked corner is gonna HURT!"

One Christmas, I got a Joe Namath football uniform, complete with jersey, pants, shoulder pads, and helmet.  Sadly, it did not come with the Joe Namath-approved accessories -- a bottle of Jack Daniels and two gorgeous up-and-coming actresses.

I liked the present anyway.

I wore the complete outfit all day on Christmas, including the helmet.  It wasn't easy to eat dinner that evening, but I managed to get the fork between the bars of the facemask without making too much of a mess.

Incidentally, this is the very same "not a protective helmet" that rose to fame the following spring when my friend Mike the Whip wore it while doing his best Evel Knievel imitation.

I outgrew the Jets uniform rather quickly, so a couple years later my Dad bought Eric and me brand new football gear.  I got a Redskins helmet and jersey, and Eric got the Steelers.  While I liked the colors, I never was a 'Skins fan, so I peeled the logo off the helmet after a week or so and had my dad paint the number 23 on it instead (matching the number on the jersey).  It ended up looking like the Alabama Crimson Tide uniform.  My brother Eric, on the other hand, instantly became a Pittsburgh Steelers fan and remains one to this very day.

In the 1970's, there was one game that every boy between the ages of 7 and 16 had to have: Electric Football.  This classic included a vibrating metal football field and two teams of tiny players affixed to miniature plastic bases.  We set up our teams for each play, turned on the field, and away they went.  The play ended when the ball-carrier's base was touched by a defender's base.  The format of Electric Football really emphasized the running game.  Each team came with a separate quarterback/kicker, so you could try a pass, but it was almost impossible to fling the felt football from the quarterback's plastic hand with any accuracy at all.

Also, you couldn't really control the direction that your players ran.  More often than not, my running back would head straight for the sideline and bump against the metal frame.  Or just spin around in circles.  Or fall over.

Still, it was a lot of fun, and that game stuck around for years.

Which brings us to my family's very first video game.

It was called Odyssey, and its main feature was a version of the classic arcade game Pong  You remember Pong, right?  Each player controlled a white rectangular "paddle" and attempted to hit the blip/ball back and forth.  Well, not only did Odyssey have Pong, you could also play Haunted House, roulette, hockey, and even football.

Sounds amazing, right?

Uh, not so much.

You see, every Odyssey game had the same basic "look" to it -- a white square moving around or a white paddle hitting some sort of blip.  To play the different games, you had to tape a cellophane sheet over your TV screen.  There was a haunted house sheet, a football field sheet, a hockey rink sheet, etc.  They were pretty lame, so my brothers and I simply played Pong all the time.

And to think, nowadays kids complain if the Playstation image of Peyton Manning has a bigger nose than the actual Peyton Manning.  In my day, Peyton Manning would've been a white square.  Which, come to think of it, he kinda is.

There are a few other toys I need to give a nod to here, kind of like a list of "honorable mentions".  In no specific order, these would be Rock 'em Sock 'em Robots, Simon, Slinky, Lite Brite, and Trouble.  Remember those?

I can't help but look at the gifts I've gotten for my kids and wonder, will they look back at their Nintendo Wii the same way I remember our Odyssey?  Will their Madden Football games seem as cheesy as Electric Football?  Of course, even forty years later, there's one present that has remained constant.

The Hot Wheels sets.

Because you can't spank a kid with a Playstation.


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nonamedufus said...

Fun memories, Knucklehead. I was a child of the 50s so let me add the amazing Etch-a-Sketch and Play Dough. And who can forget hoola-hoops. My kids loved Hot Wheels but I never used it against them.

Jenn Thorson said...

Ah, I remember when we got an Atari. We had Tank and Pong to start with, and then got Breakout. I LOVED Breakout. I can still hear the bweepp! bwwwwop! sound it made as the square ball bounced through the rainbow brick wall.

Good times!

Play-Doh, Lite Brite and Spirograph were also good fun. Being a girl, I also had Fashion Plates, which was a fave toy of mine.

pgbowler2 said...

I remember the Odyssey!

Wow that's an old electric football with the goal posts on the goal line.

Eva Gallant said...

I'm older than dirt, so most of the games you mentioned didn't exist in my childhood. I was a great fan of Lincoln Logs, and dolls, and stuffed animals. Around the age of 10, board games became my favorites: Parcheesi, Chinese Checkers, Scrabble, Finance, and Big Business. Then eventually, Monopoly. And I loved card games like Canasta, Sixty-three, Crazy Eights, and Cribbage. I still love Cribbage, but my husband doesn't like card games, so I don't play it much.
That was a great post. I enjoyed it!

Jessica said...

I loved this post. I had the pre-DS handheld electronic game, Merlin. Basically, you could play tic-tac-toe on it and I think I persuaded it to play some songs. I thought I was very cool and hi-tech.

Jules said...

Peyton Manning is a white square, true that! After reading this, I sincerely regret not keeping a few of my son's Hot Wheels tracks around after the set fell apart. Excellent walk down memory lane!

Sex'n'Fries said...

Well now I just feel old..thanks a lot. Did anyone ever have "little people" or "weeble wobbles" or was it just me that received the weird stuff?

Surfie said...

Oh, I loved Spirograph! With all those pretty colored pens... I've never heard of Odyssey, but we had an Atari. Great post!

Jeff said...

Spirograph! Having a flashback here...

Good post, sir.

ReformingGeek said...

Ah, yes, nice memories from this post. I loved Christmas morning as a child and I remember getting a Spirograph. My brother played with hot wheels but didn't really get into it.

I remember Pong and my parents wouldn't let me have Trouble. It was too noisy.

Thanks for the memories!

The Good Cook said...

Thanks for the trip down memory lane. My brothers had all that stuff too!

Nanny Goats In Panties said...

Oh, "the things you can do with a Spirograph!"

Peyton Manning is a white square, I love it!

Thanks for that walk down memory lane. Our first video game wasn't the Odyssey, but we had some sort of Pong contraption where that was the only option available.

CatLadyLarew said...

My son just told me two days ago that he wants a Playstation 3 for Christmas. Good luck getting one of those at this late date. (At least he won't have to worry about getting hit with it.)

I actually got an A on a high school geometry project that I did using a Spirograph... so they do come in handy for something after all!

Grumpy, M.D. said...

I had an Odyssey.

I STILL have my Atari 2600. And about 50 cartridges.

I remember GI JOE with "KUNG FU GRIP!" which were flexible plastic fingers that fell off in a few days.

Brian Miller said...

lol. i had electronic football too...with about the same results. thanks for the become the base for legos and then came the earthquake...

Janna said...

I loved Spirograph!
And I vaguely remember having some pong-esque sort of game too. It might have been an Atari something-or-other. It had a solitaire version called "handball", which I had to use because I was an only child.

Beth said...

I used to get spanked with the Hot Wheels track, too! Weird how they figured that out.

Because I was such a tomboy, I loved Hot Wheels. Also, I loved te show Emergency and I still have my Emergency truck and men.

Fun memories!

Jason, as himself said...

Great trip down memory lane!

otin said...

Dear God, you just kill me!!! I had all of those! Pong!HAHAHA!!!

Those vibrating football games were so stupid. My ball carrier always ended up going in the wrong direction.

My mom was like a jedi warrior with a hot wheel track!

Merry Christmas!!! (and if you play Rock em Sock em robots, make sure that you choose the robot whose head never seems to get knocked off)

Moooooog35 said...

Helpful tip:

Spirograph + LSD = crazy good times.

Or awful, spider riddled times.

Either way, really.

lime said...

dang! i am sooo glad my mother never discovered the spank potential of the hot wheels track!

fortunately you can't be spanked with an easy bake oven either but you can burn yourself pretty nicely on it.

Pearl said...

Wait -- you had a Lite Brite?! MAN I wanted one of those. No doing, though.

We grew up in pretty much the same era. :-) Excellent memories.


Kate said...

I don't remember barely any of these. I was a child of My Little Pony and Carebears.

Kate xx said...

I'll never question your NY fandom ever again. I had the same type Football present but mine was a Raiders starter jacket (different era)...they were cool. But even as I wore that jacket because Public Enemy made them cool, I felt dirty as it wasn't a eagles fan. Great blog and trip down memory lane.

KD from Waltsense.

Mr. Condescending said...

I actually had a spirograph!
My mom was always too poor to buy anything good, so my grandparents were the main gift givers.

Probably why I got a spirograph. And a book on how to write shorthand, hah!

Isabella said...

Oh the memories. We also had Ping. Then we graduated to Atari. Do you remember Space Invaders?
Merry Christmas.

Isabella said...

On more thing... do you remember Stretch Armstrong. We...looooved him right in to the garbage when his arm broke and goo came out on the carpet.

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Happy Holidays!


~jill said...

oh the hours spent playing with the football game....such wonderful memories. =D

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