I (sort of) keep this list running in my head all the time. It changes often, and usually one of the most recent games I've played moves up higher (see Torchlight 2). These games come from every platform I've ever owned or played (arcade, Atari 2600, Atari 800, Vectrex, Atari ST, Sega Master System, Sega Genesis, PS1, PS2, GBA, Wii, DS, XBox 360, PC). It's weighed down haevily by RPGs and arcade games. It turns out, as I look at 40 years in gaming, that's what I like to play. (this was inspired by a discussion on http://www.quartertothree.com)
- Dungeon Master (ST)
- MULE (800)
- Escape From The Mind Master (VCS)
- Ultima IV (800)
- Fallout (PC)
- Torchlight 2 (PC)
- Final Fantasy I (GBA)
- Food Fight (7800)
- Star Castle (arcade)
- Roller Coaster Tycoon (PC)
- Dune 2 (PC)
- Xenon 2 : Megablast (ST)
- River Raid (2600)
- Temple Of Apshai Trilogy (800)
- Desert Strike (Genesis)
- Lost Dutchman Mine (ST)
- Oids (ST)
- Wolfenstein 3D (PC)
- Wing Commander (PC)
- Skyrim (360)
- Medal Of Honor (PS1)
- Crash Bandicoot (PS1)
- Galaga (arcade)
- Phantasie II (ST)
- 7 Cities Of Gold (800)
- Star Wars : Rogue Squadron (PC)
- Time Pilot (arcade)
- Dragon Stomper (VCS)
- Pinball Construction Set (800)
- Outlaws (PC)
- Anco Player Manager (ST)
- Boom Blocks (Wii)
- Sly Cooper (PS2)
- Baldur's Gate Dark Alliance (PS2)
- Red Dead Redemption (360)
- Battletech: The Crescent Hawk's Inception (PC)
- Excalibur (800)
- Zolar Mercenary (Lynx)
- Battlehawks 1942 (ST)
- Swimmer (arcade)
- Threshhold (800)
- Asteroids (arcade)
- Super Breakout (2600)
- Stanley Parable (PC)
- Star Wars Jedi Knight (PC)
- Might And Magic III (PC)
- Peggle (PC)
- Bookworm Adventures (PC)
- FIFA 2014 (Xbox One)
- Wii Sports Resort (Wii)
- Bosconian (arcade)
- Paper Mario : 1000 Year Door (GameCube)
- Midtown Madness (PC)
- Motorcross Madness (PC)
- Lego Star Wars (PS2)
- Scribblenauts (DS)
- Microleague Baseball (800)
- Full Throttle (PC)
- Interstate '76 (PC)
- Pinball Arcade (PC)
- Blue Max (800)
- Archon (800)
- Arkanoid (ST)
- Castle Wolfenstein (Apple II)
- Phantasy Star (Master System)
- Tetris (arcade)
- Star Wars The Arcade Game (arcade)
- The New Super Mario Bros. (DS)
- Namco Museum Vol. 1 (PS1)
- Ali Baba And The 40 Thieves (800)
- Gates Of Zendocon (Lynx)
- Wizard's Crown (ST)
- Legend Of Grimrock 2 (PC)
- Mine Storm! (Vectrex)
- Pinball Hall Of Fame: Willams Collection (Wii)
- Katamari Damacy (PS2)
- Miracle Warriors (Master System)
- Puzzle Quest (DS)
- Airborne Ranger (ST)
- Bit. Trip. Beat. (Wii)
- Guitar Hero (Wii)
- Scott Adam's Adventutres (800)
- Wargame Construction Set (800)
- Demon's Winter (ST)
- Command And Conquer (PC)
- Might And Magic VI (PC)
- Gamestar Baseball (800)
- The Dragons Of Hong Kong (Apple II)
- Crush Crumble And Chomp (800)
- Burnout 3 (PS2)
- FIFA International Soccer (Genesis)
- Simpson's Hit And Run (PS2)
- Twlilight 2000 (PC)
- Half Life 2 (PC)
- Road War 2000 (ST)
- Bard's Tale (ST)
- Pac-Man Championship Edition (360)
- Crimson Skies (PC)
- Warcraft (PC)
- Behind Jaggi Lines/Rescue On Fractalus (800)
Note: In the light of some more recent events in the gaming world, this seems even more relevant today than when I posted it in 2011. So here it goes again.
I was looking through my old copies of Electronic Games, and I happened upon an editorial by Arnie Katz from the March 1983 issue. It lists the "standards" that the publication had decided to employ to make sure that they were creating the best magazine for their audience. IMHO, I believe these became the defacto standards for game journalism until the "preview" era of the 1990's turned everything on it's head. It did not get much at the turn of the 21st century, when the web made everyone "a game journalist". (By the way, for this exercise, the first three items, while interesting, are not as important as the last three).
By the was, we here at 8bitrocket.com are going to try to live by these standards from now on as well.
February 12th, 1985. That's the day Nintendo won everything.
It was the day the 2nd to last issue of Electronic Games magazine was published in the USA. Electronic Games had been, since 1981, the defacto standard for video game news and information for the Golden Age of video games. The creators of Electronic Games Magazine, Arnie Katz, Bill Kunkel, and Joyce Worley pioneered video game journalism. In the pages of their magazine, the rise and fall of the first great video game age was chronicled and recorded.
However, by the end of 1984, a huge shift was occurring in the gaming world. Video game companies were going of of business at an astonishing rate, and the zeitgeist at the time held that consumers were all moving to low-cost computers like the Commdore 64 and Atari 800XL. Because of this, the publisher of Electronic Games Magazine decided that the services of Katz, Kunkel and Worley were no longer needed. Even though the team were a trusted group of journalists who had built hard-won credibility with the gaming public, they were shown the door. Their expertise in video games was no longer necessary.
The last few issues of Electronic games published in 1985 (February, March and April) were used to burn-off a backlog of stories written by the original creators, while prepping the magazine to shift full-time to computers with new publication named "Computer Entertainment." Even though magazine started as a dedicated publication for video games, the March 1985 issue had very little coverage of gaming consoles. Besides a handful of "clearing the plate" style reviews for inconsequential end of life video games like Congo Bongo (Colecovision), Beamrider (5200), and Frogger II: Threedeep (2600), there was only a single news item about video games named "Nintendo's Final Solution."
Besides having an amazingly insensitive and, as history would show, totally ironic title, the story was about the imminent release of the Nintendo "AVS" (Advanced Video Entertainment System..an early name for the NES). The new editors of Electronic Games felt that this might be a "miscalculation" because the "video game market in America has virtually disappeared." Obviously, using all available information, this is the only story they could have written about the "AVS". They had recently fired the only people involved with the magazine that knew anything about video games. Would Katz, Kunkel and Worley have treated the story in a different way? The trio always heralded the arrival of new console with a sense of awe and wonder that matched their gaming enthusiast readership. Would they have dug into the story, found out about the Famicom in Japan and followed-up the story with an interview and in-depth report about the console? We may never know, but we also know they were never given a chance.
Personally, I don't recall reading this news item about Nintendo. I had my subscription to Electronic Games at the time, and I was still reading every issue, but maybe not as thoroughly as I had in the past. I too was seduced by the power home computers, and I believed they were the key to my future. Even though I had grown up with arcade and console video games, by 1985, I spent nearly all my time playing games and writing programs in BASIC on my Atari 800. I probably skipped the news section of Electronic Games that issue to jump directly the Bill Kunkel's in-depth report on computer software piracy (the last in-depth story of his every published in Electronic Games) or the Strategy Session coverage of computer action RPG Gateway To Apshai.
There was one more issue of "Electronic Games," published in March of 1985 (the April issue), but it was effectively the first issue of "Computer Entertainment". The last vestiges of the original Electronic Games had been wiped away. The focus of the magazine at that historic moment was the home computer revolution. Any story about console video games was just an unfortunate distraction to their goal of re-launching a magazine for a new era.
And that was that. That little story about Nintendo became the last of 1000's of stories Electronic Games Magazine published about video games. It just so happened to also be a report about the video game system that would one day take over the world. The release of "AVS" , arguably the most important event in the history of video games, was brushed-off as inconsequential also-ran, not even worth investigating further. The pioneering voices of the video game revolution had been silenced. It would be many years before another mainstream publication dedicated to video games would arrive on the news stands in the USA In the absence of an independent magazine dedicated to video games, in-depth and investigative journalism was replaced by magazines published directly by console manufacturers. All the information was controlled. The enthusiasts had no voice. The war was over before it even started.
I've always been a huge fan of Jordon Mechner's Karateka. Released in late 1984, it was one of the major games that bridged the gap between the pure arcade games of "Golden Age of Atari" and the richer story telling of the "Nintendo Age." Written for the Apple II, the game became a #1 hit, was released on every platform available at the time, and has since been re-released on iOS, Android plus re-imagined on XBLA and PSN. While I always found the game fairly difficult, I loved the cinematics, the animation, and the challenge the game offered. It was head and shoulders (plus a second head and shoulders) above nearly any game of the type I played at the time, and is one of the true classics from that era.
Since the game was released by Broderbund, a well-known game company, I was never especially curious about how it was made, how it was programmed, or the story behind's its' creation. At the time, I was a 14 year-old aspiring game programmer when Karateka was released. I loved reading stories about people who made their own games, put them in baggies, and sold them to computer stores all by themselves. I was just getting started, writing public domain games in BASIC for my Atari 800 and uploading them to BBS systems as manner of distribution, pretty much as indie as you could get. I could not be bothered with the origins of a game from major company like Broderbund.
Since it came from a big software house, I just figured Karateka was one of a slate of like-games Broderbund had in production pipe-line. Also, I knew the game was made for Apple II and Commodore 64 first. Since I was an Atari fan through and through, it was difficult for me to get my head around the fact that this amazing game was not an Atari-first product. Eventually it was released for the Atari 7800, Atari 800, and Atari ST, but I don't think I could ever forgive the fact that it was was written for Apple and Commdore computers first.
That's the hell of being a life-long Atari fan.
It took me 30 years, but I finally got around to finding out the origin story the game by reading Jordon Mechner's book "The Making Of Karateka." Now I wish I had studied this game and its' story a long time ago, as I found it an essential narrative for indie game developers.
Presented in diary format, the story does not start in the glass and wood paneled halls of a successful Marin County software company as I expected, but instead, in dorm room behind the CRT glow of an Apple II monitor. Jordon Mechner was a college student at Yale in 1982, trying his hand at writing computer games in assembly language for the Apple II. Since this is purportedly Mechner's actual diary (and there is no reason to disbelieve him), we don't get a full back story of how he got to this point in his life. It starts abruptly, as the reader is dropped into his thoughts about game development from the very start. When we meet him, he's toiling away programming an arcade game named Deathbounce for the Apple II, attempting to apply lipstick to his pig in any way possible, hoping to shape it into the game he always hoped it would be. It's not that Deathbounce is bad game, it's just a game whose time has passed. By 1982, the arcade game era was over. "Arcaders" (as "gamers" were called back then) had seen and played almost every combination of single-screen action games. They were looking for more, and so it seems, was Jordon Mechner. Eventually he gives-up on Deathbounce, as a better idea takes over: a karate fighting game with movie-style story-telling.
From the very beginning of the story, I was struck by the universality of Mechner's plight. I don't want to give away too much of the story, but the ending is never in doubt. Anyone who knows the history of computer games knows that Karateka was an institution in the 80's. It was the type of game that computer owners booted-up to make their game console owning friends green with envy. However, Mechner's journey is the real star of the show here, and there are tons of great lessons within the text for indie game developers. I personally took away a lot of inspiration and validation of my own experiences. Mechner's Deathbounce story is great example. He puts so much work into the game, but eventually cuts his losses with it, and puts it aside for good. Any game developer that has a stack of unfinshed ideas on their hard drive will instantly recognize the experience.
Mechner is obviously a smart and artistic guy with the advantage of attending an Ivy League School, but even for him, Karateka becomes quite an achievement. The way he describes using every resource at his disposal to create the game play, graphics, and sounds for Karateka is inspiring and not unlike the methods that many successful one or two-person game shops employ today. Mechner also describes in detail, the struggle between programming a game on contract, and finishing his work on Karateka. Anyone who has tried to run an indie game shop, attempting to bring their ideas to life while funding them with outside work will instantly recognize the situation. At the same time, Mechner's struggles with self-doubt, insecurity, and the feeling that he has somehow "missed the golden era" should ring true with anyone who has ever made game in the ever-changing technology landscape.
Eventually Mechner does join-up with the "big game company" Broderbund, after many months of working on his own, but even that experience mirrors the modern world. The in-house programmers Mechner meets at Broderbund feel over-worked and unappreciated. Everyone seems to be looking for a way out and a chance to make it on their own. However, Mechner loves the camaraderie of making games with a team, and nicely juxtaposes his life as a dorm-room coder to his life meeting fellow developers and coming out of his shell at while trying to finish Karateka at Broderbund.
Karateka was not a game made overnight, and this is another great lesson for indie game developers in the mobile/digital age. At first, Mechner believes it will take just a few months to develop, but as he gets further and further into the project, he realizes just how much work is involved in creating such an epic contest. If he produced only the basic Karate game he planned at the outset, and then sold it to a publisher, he would have made a little money, but the game could (and would) have been easily copied by other programmers and made for other systems. Instead, he poured 2 years of hard work into a game that was so advanced for the time in every possible way, it was almost impossible to clone without great effort.
While the story is more than 30 years old, the parallels in The Making Of Karateka to developing indie games today are uncanny. For me, reading it was an experience of universal truth, validation, and exhilaration at the unfolding story of struggle and success. Technology always changes. Platforms rise and fall. Companies go in and put of business. However, the drive of a single person with a unique vision is at the heart of making great games. Reading about Jordon Mechner's struggle to bring Karateka to life is at once both inspirational and cathartic. It should be required reading for any developer currently toiling in the modern game industry.
The book is available at Amazon.
In an alternate universe, Atari released the 7800 in 1984
In an alternate universe, Warner Brothers did not sell the Atari consumer division in 1984, but stuck with it.
In an alternate universe Atari battled with Nintendo throughout the 80's and 90's
In that alternate universe, some amazing games were released for the Atari 7800
In that alternate universe, these are some of the game I would have loved to play on my Atari 7800
The Best Role Playing Games (that pre-date Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy by several years)
The Best Strategy Games
The Best Games From Synapse Software
The Best Games From The Atari Lynx
The Best Licensed Arcade Games
By Jeff Fulton (8bitjeff) - CTO Producto Studios
Producto Studios provides a mobile makeover to Orbeezone.com.
Orbeez, Maya Group’s best-selling product line are the cool fun orbs that grow and change when you add them to water. The Maya Group called in Producto Studios to grow and change Orbeez website with a metamorphosis of its own – mobile metamorphosis. With a keen eye for responsive design, skilled insights into mobile and Producto’s long history of developing promotions for kids the mobile makeover was almost as easy as adding water. See the change here www.orbeezone.com and contact Producto Studios for your own mobile makeover needs.
8bitjeff (Jeff Fulton)
This time I do mean CRAP. While other things from my attic have been true gaming or music treasures, this game, while being quite possibly the first interactive gaming experience for the Strawberry Short Cake brand, is awful to play. That doesn't mean that hard work didn't go into the making of this cartridge, because it took a literal rocket scientist to code for the VCS (2600), but the game play and music is awful, and lacks any of the "Fun" that should be associated with a GAME.
(click on image for a more detailed photo)
This game did not receive any really positive reviews, and is down-right annoying to even watch. On that note:
See video here (or don't at your own risk):
This relatively Rare Atari 2600 Cart was produced by Parker Brothers and released in 1983. I'm pretty sure the idea is to match mixed up character pieces while listening to droning tunes, but I can't really tell. This was the state of children's games in 1983. Even though it is rare, and not very fun, it is not for sale. I received it as a gift from someone who was trying to get a cool Atari movie completed. I was working on a 2600 style HTML5 game Adventure game to go as a prize for the Kickstarter, but it was never funded.
Here are some more images I took. (click on each for a more detailed photo - at your own risk!)
Next time I hope to find a much better game in box. I have a whole bunch 7800, Atari ST, and and a few more 2600 games some place in this attic of mine.
By 8bitjeff (Jeff Fulton)
When Husker Du went "KAPUT" in the late 80's, both Bob Mould (lead guitar, song writer and vocals) and Grant Hart (drums, song writer and vocals) went their separate ways, each going on to create intriguing new musical projects. Both Hart's solo effort, Intolerance and Mould's Workbook were excellent albums but very much a departure from the "wall of sound" that had defined the Minneapolis Hardcore (pop-core to a great extent) band's previous sonic pallet.
(clicking on all images will result in larger, more detailed versions)
Bob Mould's excellent first single, released in 1989 on Virgin America Records, was "racked" as a 12", 7", CD, and mini CD as well as this gem, a Cassette Single or "Cassingle" as we called them when I worked at a record store in the late 80's. The reverse side of this acoustic-based song was "All Those People Know", a little bit faster and harder edged song.
The B side of this single was a song called All Those People Know:
Here a couple more images from the single:
All in all, this was a great single, and showed what kind of quality was to come from Bob Mould in the next few years, and even today.
(Note: My dad died 3 years ago today. This is story I've written reminds me of everything my dad stood for in life, and in death. I apologize for its' length. )
Claw Hammer by Steve Fulton
When I was 7 years old my dad gave me a claw hammer.
It was summertime, just after a particularly wet spring. So wet in fact, that the roof of our garage leaked in several places. My dad decided to fix it himself.
It was a Saturday morning. I was on the couch watching The Superfriends.
“We are going to Builder’s Emporium” my dad declared.
He was in the kitchen, going through his normal routine before he left the house.
He finished his coffee.
He opened the vitamin cupboard, and took out a handful of pills to supplement his day.
He grabbed a handful of raw pecans, a banana, and headed out the screen door.
My brother and I followed behind him.
We climbed into my dad’s white, 4-door, International pickup truck, and headed out on whatever quest he had in mind.
As we drove, my dad told us the plan.
“We need to fix the garage roof, and you two are going to help me.”
My brother and I stayed silent, listening to hear what this meant.
“Before I met your mom, I was worked on roofing job in Seattle. We can fix the entire garage roof ourselves.”
I had no idea what this plan entailed, but if my dad was into it, then I was going along with it, no questions asked.
We drove a couple of miles, down to the corner of Inglewood and Manhattan Beach Blvd, and parked in the Builder’s Emporium parking lot.
At the store, my dad filled a cart with all the things we needed for the job: rolls of roofing tile, tar paper, and a huge box of roofing nails.
As he pushed the cart towards checkout, he said “wait, one more thing.”
He took a detour down the tool aisle, and stopped in the hammer section. He looked around a bit, and then chose two identical hammers from the racks. They both had iron claws painted black, with solid wood handles. He gave one to my brother, and one to me.
“Tools of the trade” he said, “There is nothing more useful, than a good claw hammer.”
He turned the cart around, and we headed to the checkout lanes. My brother and I each carried our new claw hammers to the checkout.
“I’ll pay you each 50 cents an hour, but you have to do everything I say.” My dad told us.
My brother and I were standing in the back-back, behind the garage, next to a pile of roofing supplies, listening.
“First thing, get your hammers”
My brother and I both went for the supplies at the same time. I reached for my hammer, but my brother was sure it was his. We were 7 year old twin brothers who shared everything. Sometimes we just wanted to stake claim to something of our own.
We started to argue.
“That’s mine!” I said.
“No, it’s mine!” my brother responded.
I grabbed the handle, and my brother grabbed the claw, each pulling in the opposite direction.
“Stop!” I said.
“No!” my brother said.
My dad quietly watched this for a bit, then he spoke.
“Do you want me to get you two girls a couple purses so you can fight this one out?”
It was inappropriate.
It was not politically correct in the least.
It was totally my dad.
And It worked.
I stopped in my tracks and let go of the hammer. My brother took it, and I picked up the identical one next to it. We both stood at attention and listened to what my dad said next..
He started-up like nothing had happened.
“First, we need to remove the existing tiles from the garage. You do it like this...”
My dad climbed onto the roof of the garage. It was a very short climb, as the back-back was about 8 feet higher in elevation, than the ground the garage stood upon. This meant you could easily access the roof from there. Even 7 year old boys could do it with the help of a step stool. My dad stood up on the roof, and walked over to a row of tiles, sat down, and started pulling-up on one of the rectangular pieces. The tile gave-way just enough to pull the end of the existing nails out. He then slipped the claw of his hammer underneath them, and pulled them out. Then he grabbed the tile with a gloved hand, yanked it out, and tossed it in the brush of the back-back. He put the old nails in an empty Folger’s coffee can.
“One down, a thousand to go!” he said. “Now, get up here and get started”.
Besides a hammer, my dad supplied us both with a pair of gloves, and a pair of goggles, just in case something got near our eyes. My brother and I both climbed up on the roof using a step stool, and started working.
The first tiles were difficult, but after a few, we got the hang of it.
I jammed the claw of the hammer underneath a tile, and twisted it down, pushing the handle towards the garage roof. The tile sprang up, exposing the nails that had once held it in place. I removed the naisl with my gloved hand, and put them in the coffee can, just like my dad showed me.
What would have been impossible for a 7 year old kid without without the tool, became a simple task, repeatable task with a claw hammer.
After an hour, my dad announced “You each just earned 50 cents!”
The idea of getting 50 cents and hour was as much motivation as my brother and I needed. Even though the sun was hot and beading down on us, we kept going for at least another three hours before we stopped for lunch.
After lunch we spent the rest of the day up on the roof with my dad, pulling up tiles with the claw side of the hammer, removing the nails and putting them into the Folger’s can, and throwing the tiles into the back yard.
As we worked, my dad told my brother and I stories about his childhood.
“Your grannie and gramps sent my brother John and I to a boarding school named Manumit when we were kids. “ he started.
“Why did they send you there?” I asked.
My dad took a long pause before he answered. He pulled out the tile he was working on, and tossed it off the roof. It hit the ground a bit harder than the ones he had previously thrown.
“Umm, because it was the Great Depression and they didn’t have any money to keep us around. The school was on a farm in New York state. It was like an orphanage for kids whose parents had to work in the city. As long as we worked on the farm, we could go to the school for free.”
“What did you do there?” my brother asked?
“Well, we farmed, we camped, we fished, we even got to ride horses sometimes. There was a movie theater and a store in town where we could buy 6 pieces of candy for a penny.“
“It sounds like fun” I said.
“I hated every minute of it.” My dad said. “They sent me there when I was four years old. One day My mom, dad, John, I, and Poochie my dog were a happy family, and the next day my mom drove us out to the end of a road and dropped us off. She never told us what was happening. She just drove away and the people at the school took us in. “
“How long were you there?” my brother asked.
“Eight years. Until I went to high school. I never saw Poochie again. My parents moved to a small apartment in New York, so there was no room for us. We were allowed to come home just a couple days a year. “
I could not imagine this. I’d lived in the same house with my twin brother, two sisters. mom, dad, and two cats for 7 years. It had always been that way, and would always be that way.
“I recall, the first winter, when I realized we would not be going home for Christmas. I begged my mom to send me my ice skates, so at the very least, I could skate on the pond at the school. She never sent them. In the summer we didn’t go home either. Instead we were sent to live with family friends in Pennsylvania. My brother hated me for it.”
“Your brother hated you?” I asked. I looked over at my brother. We argued sometimes, but we never hated each other.
“Oh yeah. He was older than me. He blamed me for having to go away. He said ‘everything was fine until you came along.’ He beat the crap out of me any chance he got. “
My dad stopped pulling up nails and looked up at my brother and I. We had both stopped using our hammers so we could hear what he had to say.
“I told myself at the time” he started “ if I ever had kids of my own, I would never send them away and I would never make them go to boarding school. “
He continued his pause, and then he reached down pulled up a fresh tile, removing the nails.
That conversation was over.
My brother started back up too. We worked the rest of the afternoon. We managed to pull all the tiles off the roof by about 5:30 that evening.
“Time to knock off. “ my dad said to us.
“ Good work men. That was 10 hours today, so you each earned $5.00. Let’s get out early tomorrow so we can get up here and finish the job”
My brother and I went into the house and ate a dinner of chili and hot dogs, our usual Saturday meal. By 7:00 that night, both my brother and I were tired and sore and ready for bed. We went into our room and got out our Stat-O-Matic baseball game.
“Five dollars each!” I said as I pulled the first batter from my stack of player discs.
I layed down Babe Ruth on the spinner, and flicked the arrow.
“Yeah!” my brother said, “what should we do?”
“Hmm. Maybe we can go to Toys R’ Us? tomorrow” I said.
“Toys R US!, yeah!” My brother replied.
The spinner stopped on “Strikeout”. Babe Ruth hit a lot of home runs in his days, but struck out even more.
“Ok!” I said, “We’ll see if mom will take us tomorrow afternoon. And don’t forget, If we work hard enough, we can make even more money.”
As always, I went to sleep in my own bed that night. It was not much of bed mind you, as it it was just a ½ a piece of a foam mattress laid on-top of a piece of plywood. My brother had the same. Yet sleep felt comfortable, and nice. I was in my own house, with my brother, sisters, cats, and my parents. It was not the Great Depression and I was not at some boarding school in New York, away from everything I knew and loved.
We woke up Sunday morning, and both jumped out of bed ready for the work day.
It was still early when we went out to the kitchen to see what was going on. My mom was at her seat at the kitchen table, sipping coffee and playing solitaire. My dad was at the the counter, grinding corn to make his own corn cakes. Next to the grinder was bowl of my dad’s most infamous health concoction: grape juice, egg whites and pecans. We kids affectionately called it “Dad’s Pink Party Puke.”
“We will start working in an hour boys” my dad said.
This gave my brother and I just enough time to get dressed, eat a couple corn cakes, and watch the a ½ hour or of Tom Hatten’s Popeye show on Channel 5. My dad made corn cakes with blueberries that time, which meant I spent a lot of that time eating around them, as the texture was a bit like biting into a dead spider on piece of cardboard.
Just after an episode of Super Chicken, my dad announced that it was time get back out and finish the job.
My dad spent the first 1/2 hour preparing the tar paper for the roofing job. We watched him roll out the the tar paper to approximately the length of the roof, then then cut it. He did this several times until he had enough to cover the whole thing.
My brother and I climbed up onto the now bare roof from the back-back, and helped my dad lay down the tar paper in long strips, then nail it into place. After starting each nail with a few taps, my dad showed us how to swing the hammer down with the whole of our forearms, instead of just bending the swing at the wrist. By using the whole forearm to swing, we could knock most nails in with a single hit.
As we worked, it was hard to think of anything else, but what we might buy at Toys R Us that afternoon with the money we made from the job. What could we get? Would there be any toys from that new movie “Star Wars” everyone was talking about? What about some new dominoes so we could build an even longer trail to knock down? The possibilities seemed endless.
As we worked, my dad started his stories again, after some prompting from my brother and I.
“What was it like to live at a boarding school dad?”
“We played lots of games like hide and go seek and kick the can. I loved those games, but my brother hated them. “ He said.
“Why did he hate them?” I asked?
“I don’t know why John hated them. He just did. I always felt that if he liked those games more, and played them with us, he would not have gotten killed in World War II”
“Uncle John was killed in World War II?” My brother asked.
We were nailing the ends of the tar paper down, making sure to pull it straight so that it left no creases where rain water could slip inside.
“In Belgium” My dad said, “In 1944. He was killed by sniper. He won a Silver Star for bravery. ”
I stopped to think about think about that. I had an uncle named John. He was my dad’s brother. He died 33 years before I ever had a chance to meet him.
We finished laying down the tar paper in a couple hours, and it was time to roll out the the actual roofing tile, and nail it down. My dad rolled out the long strips of tile on the driveway, and measured them. He cut them with a large pair of shears, rolled them back up,and had my brother and I carry them up the stairs to the back back. My dad then laid them long ways across the garage roof, and we all helped nailed them down. We made sure to overlap them to so any water rolling down the roof would not fall through the cracks.
“Did you fight in World War II dad?” I asked him.
“No, no. I was in the army, but I did not fight. I was only 17, so I lied about my age to join-up. I was in the 11th Mountain Division. We were sent to Italy. Our troops were getting mowed down in the mountains, and our turn was coming. The night before they were going to send our entire unit to the front, I snuck out with some guys and we got caught. They sent us back behind the lines, and I never saw any action.”
“Oh.” I replied. It was the only thing I could get out.
My dad showed us how to line up the nails and space them out to get just enough coverage, while also making them look uniform. Since the tiles was thicker than the tar paper, hammering the nails took two or three tries with my new hammer, but after I got the hang of it, it became a two step process: start the nail with tap while holding it, let go and slam the nail in with a good wallop using the forearm approach. The feeling of the nails going through the tile, paper and and into the wood was intensely satisfying. Each one felt like little accomplishment, like real work was getting done.
As I hammered, I tried to fathom my dad’s last burst of information. This is what it sounded like to me at 7 years old:
My dad was one day away from dying in World War II, and then by some random chance, he was saved, and that’s the only reason I exist right now, up on this roof, hammering nails with him and my brother on this very day. Any slight change in what had occurred, an order that came a day late, a stray bullet, a torpedo from submarine, and my dad would have ended up dead like his brother. None of this, not the hammer, the roofing tiles, my family, nor me would be here right now.
The whole of the universe felt like it was suffocating me at that moment. The world felt fragile, yet vast and lonely. Big things were out of my control and I wanted to scream.
But before I could get out a sound, I felt the hammer in my hand. I looked at the roof we had spent the weekend fixing. The image helped me calm down. I hammered in the the nail I was holding in my hand, then reached for another.
We finished-up the roof by 4:00 in the afternoon that Sunday.
My dad did not say anything directly to us, but I could tell he was happy with our work. We put in 6 more hours that day, which meant we had worked a total of 16 hours that weekend. At $.50 an hour that meant we each made $8.00.
We put our tools in the garage, and my dad took us directly to his room, and paid my brother and I immediately. He gave us each the $8.00 in Bicentennial quarters.
“Mom is going to take us to Toy’s ‘R Us” now!” my brother told my dad in an excited voice.
My dad gave us both a concerned look.
“You worked hard for that money,” he said”, “but don’t let it burn a hole in your pocket.”
My brother and I didn’t respond, but just stood there and looked at him. After a moment, he spoke.
“I have a migraine”.
That was our cue to leave his room.
He laid down on his bed and closed his eyes.
“Turn off the light and shut the door when you leave” he instructed us.
And so I did.
Soon were in my mom’s Datsun 710 station wagon, on our way to Toys R. Us. I felt the stack of quarters in my pocket. I’d never had that much money in my entire life. It felt good and hefty. I slipped my hand between the quarters, and let them fall between the spaces in my fingers.
I’d never been to Toys R Us before with my own money to spend. I imagined all the wonderful things I could buy with my money. Money I had earned working with my dad and my brother.
When we got to Toys R Us, I was overwhelmed by all the things on the shelves,
The aisles were crammed to the ceiling with amazing looking boxes and packages. All of them made promises of the joy and fun they held inside. As I walked down each aisles, I kept my hand in my pocket, making sure the quarters were still there. Making sure it was all real.
Thoughts swirled through my head:
Did I really work all weekend and earn all this money?
Did we really just re-tile the entire garage roof?
We zig-zagged down the aisles, up one, and down the other, looking at everything. The shelves were stacked with things I’d only ever seen before in a Sear’s catalog: art kits, wood-working sets, erector sets, chemistry sets, rows and rows and rows of die-cast cars, play sets, GI Joe, plastic soldiers, stacks and stacks of board games, and too many other things to fathom. We turned down the sporting goods aisle looking at the bikes, and fiber glass skateboards. Most everything was more expensive than the $8.00 I had in my pocket, but the possibility of it all was still thrilling. Then, next to the roller skates I saw a pair of ice skates, on clearance because they were far out of season.
The ice skates reminded me of the pond at Manumit school, and how my dad probably never had $8.00 in his pocket when he was a kid, how he probably never worked all weekend with his dad and brother, and how he probably never took a trip to a store like Toys R Us with his mom.
More thoughts swirled through my head.
My dad really did live at a boarding school when he was four years old.
My uncle John really did die from a German sniper in World War II.
I found myself getting less and less enthusiastic about spending my money.
But I couldn’t leave empty handed.
In the back of Toys R Us, we found the bargain aisle. Lots of old toys, with their orange Toys R Us prices tages slashed with a red marker, and new prices scribbled on.
My dad had a love for bargains. He told us all the time to search for quality things at good prices. The bargain aisle in a toy store was his type of place.
My brother and I looked up and down that aisles until we found found a couple pretty cool toys for cheap: a cardboard Planet Of The Apes play set, and a 8” Wild Bill Hickock cowboy action action figure. Together they cost $1.50 plus tax.
They were also both things I thought my dad would like and approve of. We had watched “Planet Of The Apes” together on TV, and he loved cowboys.
We showed them to my mom and she agreed that the toys looked good for their price.
My brother and I bought one of each, and left the store.
When we got home, my dad was asleep with migraine in his room. My brother and I opened our toys on the living room floor, and played with them for the rest of Sunday until it was time to take a bath, and watch Mutual Of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom.
When my dad emerged from his room, just before bedtime we showed him the action figures and playsets we had bought with the money we had earned over the weekend.
His migraine had broken, and I saw a rare smile on his face as my brother and I showed him our purchases.
“It’s from the Planet Of The Apes! and it only cost fifty cents!” My brother told him as he looked over the cardboard apes fortress.
“Not bad…” he said, nodding his head, and pushing his lower-lip out to show that he approved.
“And this is ‘Wild Bill Hickok’” I said as I raised my new action action figure in the air, “he only cost a dollar”
“Very good purchases boys” he told us, “and the best part is, you have most of your money left-over for another day”
Within a couple years those cardboard playsets and 8” actions figures were just a memory. The Planet Of The Apes fortress got mixed in with Hot Wheels, Tinker Toys, Erector Set pieces, and beams from a Girder and Panel set. The apes got lost or broken, and the cardboard snaps that held the walls together stopped connecting. Wild Bill Hickok (who was joined shortly after by “Cochise” and “Davy Crockett”, also from the bargain bin), lost his weapons, and then lost his place in my heart, which soon had room only for Star Wars, LEGO and Atari.
The Builder’s Emporium is gone now, sent to Chapter 11 many years ago by the likes of Home Depot and Lowes.
The Toy’s R’ Us is also gone, closed many years ago to make way for a mall expansion. An expansion for a mall that no now longer exists either.
The tile roof on the garage is gone too, replaced, 20 years later when the roof began leaking again.
And my dad is gone, but I still have the stories of his youth, his brother, and World War II and still find myself thinking about them every day.
But that hammer, it’s still with me.
It hangs in my garage as I write this, waiting to be used on my next project.
The same hammer my dad bought for me one summer day so we could fix the garage roof together over a long, hot, and unforgettable weekend in 1977.
The claw hammer my dad gave me when I was 7 years old.