As I grow older, Christmas becomes less about presents and more about the meaning of the season for me –which is mostly appreciating the birth of Jesus, and celebrating that with the people I love. At the same time, I have a bit of an inner conflict – in spite of the crass commercialism that’s made the holiday into something quite different from its intention, I admit, in addition to the joy of giving gifts, I enjoy getting them, too. I always have, and probably always will.
And like most of you, I suppose, Christmas brings back memories of childhood. Hopefully, those are good memories for you; they certainly are for me, and as someone who can be entirely too sentimental, part of the fun of the season is re-living those memories of those wonderful Christmases again. So in lieu of the normal sports blog, I thought I’d share them today.
First, a couple of words of preface: our family lived modestly 51 weeks out of the year. Dad worked a second job so mom could stay home with us. Except for one lone purchase of a van, we always drove used cars. There was almost no such thing as shopping or eating out without a coupon, and we even re-used wrapping paper most of the time (to this day, it’s difficult for me to rip open a gift and discard the paper).
But man, did we ever do up Christmas. It was always a Very Big Deal, and it’s no wonder that our youngest brother, Jeff, would often awake us at 3 in the morning to go view our gifts before we’d have to tell him to go back to bed. Whatever was under the tree that year, it was always quite a haul. Here are a few that stand out, and I hope you enjoy re-living those moments with me.
The pinball machine
Christmas as a kid is always great when you get those things you really wanted all year, but you know what’s even better? That time you get the so-out-of-this-world gift that’s so awesome, you never dreamed to ask for anything like it. That’s the best way to describe the Christmas morning that my two brothers and I wandered into our recreation room, where there before us stood a real-life pinball machine, lights ablaze and ready for action.
This was no scaled-down, tabletop model, or something real-life sized made of cheap materials. No, this was the real deal: the only thing missing was a slot for the quarters. It was even better than a Red Rider B-B gun (I never once shot my eye out!). If you could give this gift a grade, it would get an A-plus-plus-plus-plus-plus. Did you ever know another kid who had an actual pinball machine? No, I don’t, either.
On even the best of gifts, the coolness eventually wears off. That never, ever happened with the pinball machine. I remember getting off the bus from school, walking straight in the door, and heading straight to the neon glow over in the corner and playing for who-knows-how-long, rattling balls off bumpers and through tunnels until mom got home and ordered me to get a start on homework (mom went back to teaching when we were old enough to fend for ourselves at home).
The only bad thing about the pinball machine was that it had some sort of a recurring glitch that required it to go back to the store. I don’t remember what the glitch was or how bad it was; I just remember that after the second time back to the store, it never returned. A sad day in the Lee house it was – and it didn’t even get a proper funeral!
To this day, the only disappointment I had with that pinball machine is that it didn’t outlast my enjoyment for it. I think we only had it for a year, year-and-a-half tops – but man, what a glorious year it was!
(Late note: upon reading this, my brother Jon — who would frequently go years without missing school for any reason — admitted to skipping school one day solely to play pinball.)
Video game systems
Prior to the pinball machine, perhaps the coolest gift known to man that a boy could receive was the Atari 2600, which arrived under our tree on December 25, 1982. It was an instant hit, and probably my favorite of the three game systems we would eventually own, mostly because of Asteroids – which became the only video game I remember coming close to mastering on any level.
Jon caused me endless frustration by routinely beating me in just about any game we played; however, I owned Asteroids to the point that I remember one game that went on for at least an hour and a half before I had to quit due to severe hand cramps (I remember sitting and helplessly watching my little ship, stationary in the middle of the screen, get hit over and over, all those extra lives I had accumulated slipping away one by one.)
The next system was the old Coleco Adam system, which was actually one of the first home personal computers that actually doubled as a gaming system. Instead of a monitor, you actually hooked it up to a TV. I believe the Adam came the year after the sad demise of the pinball machine, so this would have put the date squarely in the middle of my junior high career.
The games actually resembled cassette tapes, and the graphics, though laughably primitive now, were significantly better than the Atari. I remember shooting down one flying saucer after another on the Buck Rodgers game (we called them “fried eggs” because that’s what they looked like), which beat anything that Atari offered with the exception of my sacred Asteroids.
However, the Adam had its flaws; Buck Rodgers often locked up, with my ship zooming aimlessly through space and unable to fire at anything time and time again. This was especially frustrating when one was on the verge of a high score. Sadly, the last year of its life, I probably used the PC more for homework than anything.
Finally came the Nintendo Entertainment System, which blew both the Atari and Adam out of the water in terms of graphics and games. What teenage boy did not spend dozens of hours at Mike Tyson’s Punch Out, or Techmo Bowl?
The latter game, however, still carries some negative connotation with me to this day. I thought I was pretty good at Techmo Bowl but Jon always managed to beat me by about a touchdown. The worst part about playing Jon was not just getting beaten, but getting it rubbed in my face every time – and yeah, I mean every time, because he knew how much I hated losing to him and that only made him rub it in more. I would manage to play Jon down to the wire just about every time, and late in the fourth quarter he’d always get a receiver behind my defensive back and hit a long pass.
What made it worse is that once his receiver caught the ball, Jon would just have him sit there in the middle of the screen and make me chase him down. I’d get within about a half-inch of catching his man and Jon would turn on the jets and just beat me into the end zone, mocking me endlessly with shouts of “Woah!” as my defender dove and whiffed on the tackle each time. (There may or may not have been brief, but powerful, punches aimed at my brother’s upper torso afterwards).
The Nintendo actually had a long life in the Lee house, as while I went away to college, Jon and Jeff (formerly, bitter enemies) bonded over video games as I went away to college. I don’t think I even attempted to play either in anything by this point; being humiliated by a brother two years your junior is enough, so I didn’t see the need to get whipped by a sixth-grade Jeff as well.
As a footnote — Jon and I shared an apartment, and as a way to bring back the good ole days (we were mostly over the sibling rivalry at that point) we bought a full-size, coin-operated Galaga that sat in our living room. A PlayStation also made a brief appearance in our apartment, with World Cup ’98 an Apartment R-7 favorite. Unfortunately, I think I got whipped in World Cup as well.
Dallas Cowboys uniforms (with helmets!)
The three of us spend a lot of time at our grandparents’ house when we were kids; they lived in Madison while we lived in Nashville, and after we moved to Hendersonville in ’77, they would eventually move next door two years later. While our parents certainly did not spoil us except for Christmas, the rules were quite different at Granny and Granddaddy’s – we drank soda from bottles (soda was mostly prohibited at home) and ate Fritos and Eskimo Pies like there was no tomorrow. There were also frequent trips to K-Mart to purchase baseball cards, sea monkeys, toy helicopters, wiffle balls and bats, and whatever other things an elementary-school kid required to get by.
There was also the Sears Catalog – ah, the glorious Sears Catalog! — that we’d browse through in those months leading up to Christmas. Granddaddy would ask us to look through and pick out the things we might want for Christmas. Christmas of third grade (first grade, for Jon), there was one and one only thing I remember us wanting, and that was a complete uniform of our favorite team at the time – the Dallas Cowboys, who in the pre-cable era were about the only team other than the Steelers that a boy could consistently see on TV.
I must have looked at that little picture in the pages of the catalog a hundred times, hoping beyond hope that I could own one – and sure enough, it appeared under the tree that Christmas. My present was a No. 33 jersey (Tony Dorsett), while Jon would be No. 12 (Roger Staubach). I don’t think it took five minutes before we were decked out in full uniforms and pads that day.
Our Christmas routine was always the same each year: play with our presents all morning before heading to our grandparents for lunch and more presents. I think mom wanted us in corduroys and sweaters so that the family pictures would look better, but that year the restriction was relaxed: once those uniforms went on, they weren’t coming off. That Christmas also came with an official NFL football, which was tossed and kicked all over my grandparents’ backyard that day, even though it was cold and rainy.
There were two things wrong with the uniforms: they weren’t “official” jerseys (they were generic nylon shirts that said “Cowboys” in block lettering across the front) and my helmet was slightly too big. This, however, did nothing to damper our excitement and we spent many an afternoon for the next couple of years popping pads and butting our (helmet-covered) heads in the backyard.
I would be remiss if I failed to mention several other spectacular gifts that appeared out our house through the years, each spectacular in their own right. The pool table we got around the time we moved to Hendersonville was quite on par with the pinball machine, and unlike video games, I was actually pretty good at pool.
I remember a particular family reunion at our house around Christmas about the time I was a second-grader, and my cousin (who was in college and considered himself a bit of a pool shark) challenging me to a game of pool. I remember whipping poor Mike in front of the whole family, with hoots and hollers as I sun the 8-ball into the corner pocket. (Eventually, though, pool got old and the table was used mostly to store and fold laundry it its last seven or eight years).
Of course, no kid ever goes without getting a bike for Christmas. My first one came in either kindergarten or first grade, a red, white and blue banana-seat model which would eventually be covered in racing stickers that came inside Cheerios boxes. That gave way to a 10-speed in junior high.
And, of course, there were tickets to Vanderbilt basketball games; these took the place of toys as the gift of choice each Christmas as we moved into high school. I saw the Commodores pull many an upset in Memorial Gymnasium on Santa’s dime, usually with Barry Goheen playing the hero’s role sinking a big shot down the stretch.