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Dirk Ellingson

By Dirk Ellingson, Life Columnist

I enjoyed the Cydni’s School of Dance annual dance recital at Bossier City Airline High last month. The Minden studio always treats the audience with splendid costumes and talented young dancers like my granddaughter Harleigh. Her brother Maddox was less tempted by the spectacle and spent most of the evening pecking on his handheld electronic game.

I was a teen when video games made their initial incursion into our society. There was Pong featuring rectangles as tennis rackets scooting along a Y axis to bat a floating square representing a tennis ball. You could play singles or doubles. Atari spawned games increasing in complexity yet keeping the simple polygon motif representing tank battles and outer space battles with asteroids.

The graphics grew more sophisticated as the arcades transitioned from pinball machines to Galaga (nee Galaxian), Donkey Kong, and Pac-Man. The yellow animated circle gobbling dots was so tempting a pastime in 1981 my stepdaughter Amanda’s dad missed her birth because he left the delivery room to play. I saw my first Pac-Man machine the same month in faraway Raytown, Missouri. We stopped at Funhouse Pizza on our way to a Kansas City Royals baseball game. Reluctant to embrace the new decade, I was stuck in the 1970s with my preference for pinball and foosball.

The toys of my childhood were objects of desire and acquisition but required interaction with others and not just a screen. G.I. Joe in his years before Kung Fu grip had a trigger pointing plastic right hand and a left for grasping. The hard plastic paws were not malleable. Hasbro next added Kung Fu grip rubber hands. This was an improvement until the fingers bent and split off from frequent use. Then it was just Kung Fu thumb.  And Joe’s lifelike hair started falling out in clumps. The doll had things to be self-conscious about besides his trademark cheek scar.

The Apollo moon missions fostered astronaut toy popularity. G.I. Joe went to space with a single doll capsule. My favorite action figure was Major Matt Mason. He and his men had a moon base they called a space station. And there was a cool alien with a transparent green head named Callisto. He fired a shoulder mounted ray gun. The ray was a retractable yellow string.

Metal Matchbox cars were charming and represented working trucks and vehicles. But they weren’t as fast or sleek as Hot Wheels from Mattel. The orange track pieces for Hot Wheels cars were assembled together in different configurations, usually a steep slope to gain speed enough to navigate track curled in a loop. They were popular but dependent on gravity until Hot Wheels introduced the Sizzlers you fueled up with a battery charge.  They sped around a circle course like slot cars. Sizzlers used the same orange track as Hot Wheels. It hurt when kids whipped you across the back with that bendy plastic.

Incredible Edibles and Sooper Gooper ovens cooked up creepy crawlies on a dangerous hot plate. It was like giving children a waffle iron to play with. Giant lawn darts called Jarts were the quintessential danger accessory of my youth. As were the original Clackers when the spheres on a string you banged together were made of dense glass.

The Kenner Give-A-Show projector let kids project silent cartoons. View-Master offered 3-dimensional stills from popular shows. We could view stereoscopic images like our ancestors in their parlors. The VertiBird was a tethered helicopter that hovered in circles and let you test your skills rescuing a plastic man with a dangling hook. Silly Putty was a rubbery substance you rolled compactly into a sphere and bounced like a poor man’s super ball. You could press it flat against the newspaper comics and lift off a mirror image of Dagwood Bumstead, Dick Tracy, or Charlie Brown.

The oddest toy was Stretch Armstrong. The blonde doll was dressed in pro wrestler short trunks and you could stretch his arms and legs to freakish proportions. He was like a scantily clad Reed Richards of the Fantastic Four. Once a leg or arm split and began leaking red goo, Stretch was no longer fun to stretch. Even after attempted repair with the patch kit, the toy was never really the same.

American football offered American kids compelling toy versions. Electric football was a hassle to set up. The vibrating board made the little plastic men on metal stands move about. You could hook the arms of players and have a square dance. The best sets had NFL team uniforms. Mine featured an orange team and a green team. I painted them to resemble the Kansas City Chiefs and Los Angeles Rams with Testors model paint. But the plastic bent and the paint cracked off, particularly on the players knees. So, I ordered a division of NFL teams to play on my generic board.

Super Toe was a plastic football kicker you hit on the head and his foot kicked a colossal football through goal posts set up across the room. Super Touch the basketball version was more challenging.

Mattel’s Talking Football offered aspiring coaches a finite amount of gridiron adventure.  You placed a small record in a portable player. First one player picked an offensive play record. Then the second player spun the other side of the record to a defense. Neither could see his opponent’s selection. The most crushing (to offense) and most exciting (to defense) playback announced, “A leaping interception! He’s going to go all the way!  Touchdown!”

The first handheld game of great popularity was Mattel’s Electronic Football. School kids were scolded for furtively playing the game. It beeped loudly so it really wasn’t furtive. I have the basketball version, its simple red blip graphics still beeping 43 years later as long as I put in a fresh 9-volt battery. It kept me occupied but I was never obsessed.

There was a shoot ‘em up game on Apple computers I played thirty years ago that was a brief adult addiction. I don’t remember the name but one day I played so many hours I dreamed of the images at night. I knew that was a problem.  

My daughter Claire had a SEGA console. Cartridges included a major league baseball game. After playing the entire Kansas City Royals 162 games season over a few months, I grew so skilled I could coast into the playoffs contrary to the actual 1993 season. In my SEGA World Series it wasn’t the Toronto Blue Jays defeating the Philadelphia Phillies on a Joe Carter home run but rather the SEGA universe Royals beating the Pittsburgh Pirates in my basement.

During the May dance recital, Maddox finally looked up from his game during the Walt Disney film Moana song We Know the Way. He launched into a spirited arm dance, as animated as one can be while staying seated. It was my favorite of the night too, as much for the girls on the stage performance as the boy sitting next to me. For his sister Harleigh and friend Presley, Maddox was finally willing to pause his game.