Friday, March 16, 2007

Summer 1988

My biggest vice when I was a kid was video games. I played every day. I took every report card to Pepperoni's Playhouse and they gave me a cupful of tokens. I made video game doodles at school. I got $20 for my 11th birthday and promptly blew it all on Ghosts and Goblins. Such was my obsession.

The crackhouse for my addiction was the good ol' L & M Quickstop just down the road. They kept an endless cycle of cabinets, bringing in a new one every few months whenever my friends and I would complete them (often) or give up (rarely). Double Dragon. Superman. Altered Beast. Choplifter. (The infamous) Ghosts and Goblins. Double Dragon II. Guerrilla War. Karnov. Mat Mania. 1942. Punch-Out. In the early days they had Donkey Kong and Galaga...one time somebody broke in overnight, cracking open the quarter buckets in the process. I spent hours there the next day getting free games by hitting the exposed coin toggle...so long that, considering the snow and cold weather that day, I was in no small amount of trouble when I finally made it back home.

It was during one of my countless runs to the store on my bike that I got myself into some trouble. There was a kid named Bobby who lived down the other end of the street from me. He was my age or maybe a year older, but he was big for his age and carried a scowl that matched his temper. Definitely more of an acquaintance than a friend, considering that he went to a different school and I didn't see him very much except for chance meetings out on my bike. Bobby was known to be a little imposing.

So I was on my way to play whatever the current game was. It took me about 1 minute to get to the store from my house on my bike, thanks to the mostly downhill route. The final descent was the steepest. A sensation as close to flying as a 12 year old can get.

So I was picking up speed, my pocketful of quarters eagerly awaiting their fate. There, about 300 feet ahead, was Bobby on his bike. He was stopped in the road when I saw him, positioned perpindicular to my path. It took me an extra half second to see him thanks to my mental state. I moved over to the right to pass him. He looked to his left, saw me coming, and took a couple of steps back, placing his back wheel squarely in my way. What does he want? I thought. I wasn't sure exactly what I should do at that moment. My momentary indecision turned to annoyance. What a punk. Does he think he owns this road? If he wants to talk to me he can get out of the way and wave me down like a normal person.

By that moment the time for thinking was over. My front tire made contact with his back wheel at a high rate of speed. There was a crash, but it wasn't me. A slight wobble, then the sound of crashing metal on asphalt somewhere behind. I didn't look back.

As my quarter supply dwindled, my thoughts gradually returned to the real world, and real world consequences. I started to get a gooey feeling in the pit of my stomach when I thought about having to go back home, crawling slowly uphill, past the very scene of the crime. Images of a road-burned 12 year old who was already well into puberty and a head taller than me made me realize that this time physics wouldn't be my ally. But it was all for naught. He was nowhere to be found. No blood on the pavement, either.

Many more trips to the store would follow that summer. Each corner turned on the route had me furtively scanning the road ahead for any sign of Bobby. And with each deserted road came a sigh of relief.

Part of the mythos of Ghosts and Goblins was the $500 reward. Supposedly, the designers had made the game so impossibly difficult that they had offered a $500 reward to anyone who could complete it. I required more hairline reflexes than I or any of my friends could muster. We didn't honestly think the $500 was anything we could ever hope to win, but that didn't stop us from feeding it the complete contents of our piggy banks and not batting an eye. Even if any one of us had won, he probably would have rapidly inserted the entire 2000 quarters into another game within 10 days.

But there was one guy we did think had a chance. An older guy, probably in his 30s, who possessed what we judged to be superhuman video game prowess. He could play Double Dragon all day on one quarter. Altered Beast was so boring to him any more that he didn't even bother. He could bend spoons with his mind. His name was Tom.

Before I ever saw the legend with my own eyes I saw the mark of his skill: the initials KAT at the top of every high score list of every game L & M Quick Stop ever had, there like a flag atop Everest. I surmised that I was ever in his presence I would do everything I could to convince him to take me as his disciple, residing in his secret mountain hideway until I mastered the hand-eye coordination of a cobra. Then I would live out the rest of my days not only on the $500, but also on the other prizes I would win on all the other games mortals were foolish enough to dub "impossible."

Such were my aspirations. But I had more pressing issues to worry about, namely getting back home for dinner. So I started the climb home. As I neared the turnoff for my road, what I saw made my blood run cold. There, cruising toward me from the other end of the street, was a group of about 3 kids on bikes. Upon seeing me, they spread out, covering the whole road. The one in the middle was taller than the others. He was scowling. Bobby.

"I knew I was going to have to kick somebody's (butt) today," I heard. Sorry dude, you're too late. I'm almost home. And I'm not going that way. I made the right turn onto my road, which is thankfully followed by a quick downhill. I lived to fight another day.

But something stayed in my mind as I sat down to my mashed potatoes: you can't do this all summer. You should be able to go to the store and back without having to worry about altercations. And you definitely can't run from this guy every time you see him.

The day of reckoning finally came, as I knew it would, on a sunny August day in 1988. I was on my way to the store. I was picking up speed when I saw Bobby on his bike heading in my direction. He stopped. I stopped. To be honest, I don't remember much of what we said. I do remember shaking his hand and telling him that we needed to let bygones be bygones. I also remember that I didn't have to worry any more about going to the store from then on.

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