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Galaga Rising

When I was eight years old, I didn't play video games.  I simply didn't understand them.  Pinball was what appealed to me, with its physical playfield and real action.  Bells and lights and mechanical flippers and gravity.
That all changed during a camping trip one summer. 

This was before the era of minivans and SUVs.  Off we would drive, with a big square car-top carrier stuffed with tents, clothes, and other supplies strapped to the roof of a turquoise Volkswagen Rabbit.  My little brother and I sat in the back seat, separated by a big red Coleman cooler with a metal latch.  The cooler drastically cut down on punching, poking, and other brotherly feuds over seat space or nasty faces.  It also provided easy access to crackers, fruit snacks, and juice boxes during the drive.

Every summer, we would go somewhere for a whole week.  We would either rent a house near the beach, or take two tents to a campground.  Those were our standard vacations.  Not glamorous, rarely even out of state, but affordable and varied.  This particular year, they were combined; a forest campground near a beach.  The best of both worlds.

Midway through the week, I was waist deep in the ocean, just kind of hanging out with my father.  Small waves lapped against our bodies in the bright sun.  A few dozen other people milled around in the water or lay on the sand.  Suddenly, I spied a dollar, floating along on top of the water. I couldn't believe it. This was magic.  I don't think I had much of a concept of money at the time, but I knew what it was on the most basic level.  I looked around for someone approaching to retrieve it, but no such presence appeared.  I snatched it up and stared at it.  My father told me to be sure and hang on to it.

I don't know what we ate for dinner that night.  I can guess that it was Hamburger Helper.  It was certainly something that was cooked on the little propane stove, and served around a rough-hewn picnic table on the plastic sectioned plates that we used for many years' vacations.  

After dinner, I wandered over to the campground office.  I had money, and I was just old enough to go off on my own.  At least in this setting.  My brother was not, and besides, who wanted to hang out with him anyway?  I knew I had seen something in the office during our check-in; something fun, something that needed money to do.  I walked in.  There was only a ping pong table, an upright video game cabinet, and a split door to the back room where the campground manager spent the day.  No pinball.  The office was empty.  I was all alone, so ping pong was out.  So I looked at the video game.  I peered at the screen, where a rocket ship moved back and forth, dodging bullets dropped by big bugs.  It was strange to me.  I wished there was a pinball machine.  But short of other options, I decided to try out this abstract, spectral, yet imposing gadget with dangerous-looking text on the side.  Tentatively, I put my first ever very own dollar into the change machine, and received the four quarters that tumbled into the hopper.  I returned to the arcade cabinet, and dropped the first one in...

I don't remember how my first game went.  Of course, it must have been very short.  But I do know that I used all four quarters, one after the other.  I had to try again and again!  That night, in a small wood paneled room somewhere in the wilderness of the Pine Barrens, Galaga taught me the vagaries of the joystick.  The weird beauty of noises that simple oscillators can make.  The freedom of the video screen, and the rapture of its glow.  I suppose it could have been any game of the time.  Any game could have been there to open this world for me. But there was only one machine in that room.  There was no Burger Time, or Dig Dug, or Pacman.  No Space Invaders, no Joust, no Defender.  There was only Galaga.
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shakin steak Posted on Jun 26, 2014 at 01:34 PM

Thanks guys. vkimo that's pretty funny. Didn't you guys have Smokey the Bear over there?

echidna64 Posted on Jun 16, 2014 at 07:35 PM

Great title and I didn't even realize it until reading the comments below that the graphics were user created, awesome job!

vkimo Posted on Jun 16, 2014 at 06:48 PM

I really dig the custom art! Being stuffed in a Rabbit for any length of time is admirable. I remember one time we planned this vacation to Sacramento, about 3 hours away. It was a sweltering day. My parents had 3 cars at the time, all junkers. First we took the 88 Cutlass and were driving about 2 hours before it started to overheat. I remember my dad throwing his cigarette out the window and turning back. Then we got into the Buick and made it a little farther but it too started to overheat. We finally gave up and went home. On the way back the cigarette my dad threw out caused a small fire on the side of the highway and we saw firetrucks scrambling. That was about it.

shakin steak Posted on Jun 16, 2014 at 03:33 PM

I wanted to include more pictures, but I would have missed the deadline. Coloring takes [me] way longer than it seems like it should. Maybe next time, I'll use some black and white drawings if I get short on time. I'm so glad you like it. You should see it full size. Some of the character is lost here, like scaling a record cover down to CD size.

You feel you know what I experienced...really the best compliment I can receive. That is my goal as a writer. Thank you.

Vaporman87 Posted on Jun 16, 2014 at 03:08 AM

Oh yeah... and I love the drawing of the game room! ;)

Vaporman87 Posted on Jun 16, 2014 at 03:07 AM

One of my favorite "steak" memories, now finally told in the elegant form of an article. Yes!

I love this story, and have since you mentioned bits and pieces of it a year or more ago. Now though, I really feel like I know what you were experiencing during that trip and your first encounter with the digital world of video games. It's great to see your writing again my friend. You never disappoint!

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