Washington Post columnist Gene Weingarten has announced a new book project with the working title 12.28.86: One Day. For the next two years, he’ll research stories about what happened all around the United States on that date, whose numbers he drew from a hat.
Gene is currently collecting stories and research leads on the project’s Facebook page; one can also email stories privately to an address found in that page’s description. He states openness to anything from headline-making news down to personal narratives.
The date held immediate resonance with me, and so last night I wrote up a little remembrance. It crosses over with games (and the roots of my lasting interest in games) enough that I feel like sharing it here as well.
On this day in 1986 I was 12 years old, and just days before this I had received a Nintendo Entertainment System for Christmas. It was the kind with the ridiculous toy robot in the box, included because in 1986 videogames were seen by American retailers to be a fad that had come and gone years before. Thus, Nintendo sold it as a robotic toy that played TV games somehow, in order to entice wary toy stores to stock the systems. Nobody except videogame historians remembers that weird, clunky robot now, because kids got bored of it after 20 minutes and stuck to playing this crazy new Super Mario Bros. game instead.
Many parents referred to an instance of the system as “a Nintendo” but my father honestly thought it was called “an Intendo”. He also thought that one insulted an awkwardly bookish person by calling them “an erd”, or perhaps “urd”; I don’t know how he imagined this was spelled. “Jason, don’t be an uuuuuhd,” he’d say in his rich Downeast Maine accent, on days when I’d play too much Intendo. Did you know that the word for an arbiter of certain sporting events was originally “numpire”, but the n got lopped off due to misattaching it to the indefinite article, an example of what linguists call “juncture loss”? It wasn’t just my dad is what I’m saying.
On the evening of December 28 my oldest brother Ricky showed up at the Florida beachside condominium my family wintered in — quite unexpectedly, because the last I knew he was supposed to be in stationed at a U.S. Army base in Panama. He was stinking drunk, some days into a bender, though I didn’t realize that at the time. He wasn’t interested in playing any of my cool new videogames with me. When my parents came home later that night it got sorted out that he’d been discharged, honorably but not voluntarily, following events I remain not entirely certain about.
Several days after his return, he’d crack his skull open on some underwater rocks while trying to impress my friend’s mom with a standing swan dive into the shallow beach surf like a jackass. This would be the beginning of a very difficult time for my family. The next Christmas I would receive The Legend of Zelda for my Nintendo, and I would beat up cartoon wizards on TV while Ricky, who now had to live with us, punched holes into walls and windows upstairs, frustrated into fury at the handicaps his brain injury had saddled him with, though he still had the youth and physique of an Army officer in his prime. It would be many years before some combination of therapy, medicine and the mellowing of middle age allowed him to live independently again.
Earlier this year — 2013, that is — we buried our dad, who was a Korean War veteran, and so earned himself a spot in a veterans’ cemetery and had a color guard show up for the funeral and all of that. Ricky and I spent some time meandering the new cemetery in Augusta, Maine, actually quite beautiful with rolling green paths among the stones and memorials. Pondering these, he predicted that there will never be a memorial for soldiers like him, broken during the Cold War.
I will note two simplifications I made for the sake of a smoother telling.
First, I know damn well that R.O.B. and Super Mario Bros. shipped in separate retail SKUs. R.O.B. came as part of the “Deluxe System”, packaged with the memorable Duck Hunt and the sleepy Gyromite, one of only two games Nintendo would produce for use with the robot. I didn’t mind very much, because by this time I felt I already had my fill of Super Mario through my membership that past summer in an ad-hoc group of kids who would gather daily at a drugstore in Ellsworth, Maine to play it together. But that is a story for another time.
Secondly, I don’t actually know what night Ricky came home. It was sometime between Christmas day and the day my friend (Noah? Joel? something like that) flew back home with his mom, my brother’s unwitting siren, so December 28th seems as likely as any.
If you’d like to hear about much more recent (and less tragic) adventures involving Ricky and videogames, there is the Mass Effect episode of Play of the Light.