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
“Of course not! Pa doesn’t want to play video
games. Don’t bother Pa… and stop asking him for
“I didn’t ask him for the money. He gave it to
“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
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
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
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,
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,
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
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
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.