Scramble

I was addicted to video games in the 80s and I would play incessantly on summer vacations in the campgrounds that we visited.

I was actually very good and could beat those around me that wanted to play. Unfortunately, there weren’t that many I knew that wanted to compete. Either they thought those particular games were annoying or I had previously bested them.

So when I had the chance to compete against a stranger, I would take the chance. Sometimes these arcades only had a few of these great games that were more of a challenge. It was easier to play against one another.

The game in particular that I loved at this campground was one called Scramble. A company called Stern made it, which gives an idea of the type of their games. All of their products had a harder edge than most other games. There were ten consecutive levels and each one was harder than the next. It consumed a lot of my quarters that summer and beyond.

Very shortly after arriving, I would run through my allotment of funds, at least in quarters. I would linger hungrily at the edge of the arcade, watching others play, my mouth dry and my hands wanting to wrest the controls away from them, but knowing it was impolite. Instead I would stare at their playing, convinced that watching others play worse was as much fun as mastering the game myself.

My grandfather would see this and would secretly slide money to me under the table or into my pocket. He would call me over in his gruff voice, saying “Danny! Here, take this for those games.” Before he even finished, he’d start to giggle hoarsely under his breath at how my eyes lit up at the money and how I couldn’t wait to get out of the room and back to the arcade. He would do this in spite of my parents, especially my Mom. He’d encourage their negative reactions, too, by getting their attention and telling them to notice the change in my mood. “See how happy he is? He’s got money for his games!”

“Where did you get that money?”

“Pa gave it to me.”

Immediately I was told to thank him, which I had done. In our family, it was ingrained to thank your elders, even if you were made to suffer because of their generosity. For instance, in Pa’s case, the teasing would go along with the transaction. If you weren’t getting teased in a conversation with Pa, you can believe that the wheels were turning in his head and he was only warming up. The teasing was also subtly weaved into the reward, like a hook on a tasty-looking lure. By the time you realized what you had done, Pa was reeling you in.

Pa turned to me, tapping me on the shoulder. “Hey, you want to go play those games now?” He knew that lunch hadn’t started yet and that I wanted to eat first, but he was testing me to see how much I’d break the rules for my habit. “Come on, let’s sneak out of here.”

He could see how I was torn between wanting to eat and do the right thing or getting up to spend this money which hadn’t even reached my pocket. I was caressing it in my hands like a gambler fumbling with a chip. I swallowed a few times to ease the dryness and I said that we should probably stay through lunch. I could play games after lunch.

He said, “We just ordered. We’ve got at least five minutes. What do you say? Ask your mother.” The laughter could be heard in his voice now. He got my mother’s attention. “Danny’s got something to ask you.”

“Can Pa and I go and play video games before lunch gets here?”

“Of course not! Pa doesn’t want to play video games. Don’t bother Pa… and stop asking him for money.”

“I didn’t ask him for the money. He gave it to me!”

“Well you’d better thank him. Did you thank him?”

“Of course I thanked him!”

Shortly lunch arrived and soon after, we finished. Pa continued to bait me about sneaking out and playing and I continued to be coaxed by money, early dismissal from lunch and generally being teased about how much I actually wanted to play. We might talk about what I wanted more, a bite from my lunch or another quarter. I’d always choose the lunch, but eventually I really wanted that quarter, even though I had accumulated about 75 cents, a good slice of arcade time, if I could make it last.

I couldn’t wait to get out of there. It was agonizing (though delicious) to wait for lunch to be over as well as to be talking to my grandfather about the very game I wanted to play.

Then came the moment when I plugged the first quarter in the machine. It was pretty warm by now and it felt a little heavy. There’s nothing like that first electronic chunk sound that a quarter makes when it registers in the machine. I’ve heard it thousands of times since then and it’s like a sunrise, like the start of a fresh new day. There are no mistakes and the past is completely erased. All that is in front of you is fresh promise of great things and a tingle of anticipation.

I was doing pretty well and when I started, the arcade wasn’t that crowded. By the time I had gotten to the 2nd level, more kids had arrived and a few had gathered around the game I was playing, Scramble. It was the hardest game in this arcade and gave you the most play for your credit. It was easy to be intimidated by its more vibrant colors and the sounds of destruction emanating from the game.

I wasn’t good at sports as a kid, and was almost always the last picked. But in the arcade, I achieved the notoriety that I couldn’t get playing with other kids in a physical setting. It didn’t matter that I was short or that my bones and my glasses were fragile. In the arcade, I had the faster reflexes, the speed and the control.

Soon after the 6th level, my game ended, but I was pleased. My game had drawn a crowd in the arcade. I had monopolized the machine with one quarter and others were now eager to play. Another player next to me admired my game and offered to play me in the next game. I was on a roll (and had some cash), so I agreed. I had seen him around the arcade and his name was Tony.

We bet a quarter on the game’s outcome. It’s not much, but for a teenager in an arcade, that meant one more game.

He went first and he did OK, but he crashed in the 2nd level, hit by a stray rocket. It was my turn and I started this game off well, getting to the 3rd level. Tony sneered at me as he took his turn. I was confused. I had done better than he had, yet he wasn’t giving me the respect that I deserved. I figured he was a sore loser.

The next round went even better for me and I started to sense Tony’s irritation. He was losing, and I could tell that he didn’t have any more money than that. He’d have to end his time playing if he lost. Or he’d suffer the lowest fate of a broke teen, which was to watch other players play, checking the coin slots in secret, hoping for just one more game.

When Tony lost the game, he didn’t take it well, slamming the controller. “Stupid thing! I know I moved up and it moved the other way!” A likely story, I thought.

“Nice try, Tony.” He just scowled and said that he had to go, mumbling something about not having it now, but paying me later. I really didn’t care about the quarters. I still had some more change.

The next day, I saw Tony in the arcade with another kid I didn’t know. He didn’t say anything about the quarter, even though we said “Hi” to each other. I went up to him and told him to forget about it. I just wanted to play the games.

He kept watching his buddy play. It was like he didn’t hear me. So I repeated it. “Forget about the quarter, Tony.”

Then he started to grin. I thought that he and his buddy were sharing a joke about the game. He turned to me, mocking in a high voice, “Forget about the quarter, Tony! Forget about the quarter, Tony! Give it a rest!”

I was stunned. I get no respect because I was older than he was (I still held onto this idea that because I was older, I deserved to be looked up to. I had a lot of lessons to live through.) I shrugged and just ignored him. I had learned to walk away from trouble, not to seek it out.

Later, I was with my sister, Gina. She was three years younger than me and did treat me with respect. I had told her about what happened, winning the game the day before and we kind of laughed about Tony now. I figured that he was a sore loser and I just wouldn’t play him again. I had convinced myself that he had shamed some kind of arcade honor and that others would see my side of things.

So when we ran into him in the hall, we were in high spirits, giggling about something silly. It was summer and we were on vacation. What did we have to worry about?

Tony and his buddy passed us by, snickering. As they passed, I heard him mocking me again. “Forget about the quarter, Tony!”

I seethed, but did nothing. Gina, however, turned around in anger. “What did you say?”

Tony gulped. Even though Gina was younger, she wasn’t showing her fear and her voice was confident and accusatory. Perhaps, looking back, he had an older sister or cousin that didn’t take his attitude. In any case, he shriveled in front of Gina. I was proud.

“I heard what happened and that you backed down on your bet. You’re not worth talking to, let alone the price of a quarter, so you leave me and my brother alone!”

It was fantastic! Tony couldn’t get away fast enough. I was elated! We laughed at them through the halls, back to our room.

I proudly told the family what had happened, how my sister Gina had stood up for me and told Tony off.

My father’s anger was unexpected. Normally we were able to anticipate this and brace for it. It’s actually a beautiful thing when it is watched from a distance, his anger. Things happen when he gets upset. Messages get received finally, through the thick skulls of his children. It’s not the only way, of course, but it is my father’s way, just as it is our way to provoke and antagonize him.

He wasn’t that angry with me and I could immediately see that. That was very confusing. I finally realized that he felt that he had failed me and not taught me to stand up for myself. But everyone in my life had treated me like the fragile child, short for my age and not good at physical activity. I had a protective older brother and the rest of my family to answer the world for me. No wonder I didn’t know how to respond to Tony!

Even though a lot of this was beyond me at this young age, I knew by my father’s reaction that I should begin speaking up for myself. I said that this had taught me a lesson and that I’d do my own standing up for the future. My father didn’t look very convinced, but he did see that I didn’t want to go through this again. After telling me to thank my sister, the lecture was over. I still had two more quarters in my pocket, but the afternoon was still sunny and hot and we decided to go swimming instead. I knew that later after dinner, when it was dark, I’d want to be back in that arcade.

Plus, I knew that I’d see Pa again at dinner. I figured I might as well benefit in keeping my grandfather amused. I knew that I did it well. I suspected that he enjoyed laughing at his relatives far more than arguing with them, at least while on vacation.

 

 
 
 
   
     

 

 

 

@ 2005 Dan Speziale