1981 : Atari VCS Christmas

 In the fall of 1981, just after starting junior high school, my brother Jeff and I tried to convince our parents that we ‘needed’ an Atari VCS for Christmas. Our parents had never been very electronics or modern convenience friendly, so it was quite a tough sell.  Other than a color TV (Zenith console circa 1972), there was nothing in our house that would signify to, say a time traveler from the year 2181, that technology had progressed much since the end of World War II.  My mom washed the dishes by hand, threw her food garbage in a compost trash can, opened cans with two hands, a tool, and a twisting motion, popped popcorn on the stove in covered pot, ‘processed’ food with a knife and a cutting board, made coffee with a pan and a strainer on the stove, and heated all meals in a vintage O’Keefe And Merit built-in oven using gas only (never waves of any kind, micro, or otherwise).  Likewise My dad mowed the lawn with a push mower, paid for all purchases with cash (never credit), listened to A.M. radio exclusively, and refused any kind of telephonic upgrade beyond the, a single, flesh colored, wired, rotary telephone in  the living room.  For our entertainment our house received channels (2-13 and 28) and had a stereo system that could play a phonograph records only (no supports for tapes). 

The very idea that a video game system could invade this environment was beyond unthinkable: it was ludicrous. Our parents did not waste money on non-essentials or ‘fad’ products, and if they were going to make any kind of purchase they needed concrete proof that it would not be a wasted effort.   Even then, there were no guarantees.   Ever since we had played the Atari at our friend Carrie Lenihan’s house in 1978, we had hinted that a VCS would be the ultimate gift.  Several Christmases went by though, and there had been no movement in that direction at all.  At one point, a  Radio Shack TV Scoreboard Pong System made it’s way into our house by way of 75% clearance, but  it did not fit the bill and was quickly forgotten.

The problem was, things in the video game world were heating up considerably, and after 1981, there would be no turning back.  The past summer, while doing the laundry at a local laundromat, we convinced my mom to take us the adjacent HW Computers store to look around.   The store was an Atari dealer, so they had racks of Atari 8-bit computers games and stacks of Atari computer equipment.  They also sold Atari VCS games.    While we were prepared to see the same old stuff like Combat! , Adventure and Circus Atari, we were not prepared for the newest game in the case: Space Invaders.  I had suspected that Atari would start releasing popular coin-op games on their system, but the proof was right there in the store.  However, what we saw next sealed the deal.   Right next to Space Invaders was the box for Atari coin-op game Missile Command, and next to that a “coming soon” flyer for Asteroids.   Asteroids, to us at the time, was the best game ever made.  We spent countless quarters playing it.  To have it in our own home would be amazing.   All of a sudden, having an Atari VCS went from “nice to have” to “the most important thing in the world to an eleven year old .”  That said,  getting one would take careful planning and a coordinated effort.   My twin brother and I had never wanted anything that badly though, so we had to try everything we could think of.

After some discussions in our room, we decided that our  for attack was to prove to our parents that a video game system was a genuine product any kid would be required to have under the Christmas Tree.  While this would not guarantee a purchase, it would set the ground work of legitimacy, which for my parents, was very important.     

The first part of this ad-hoc plan, was to let our parents know how much we wanted an Atari by pointing it out to them in every store we could find.    It was a simple plan, based on the theory that if you repeated the same actions over and over again, they might get the point.  A few rounds of Combat in the TV section at Fed Mart on every visit,  begging to descend the stairs the basement Toy section of Sears to look at the Sears Tele-Game  behind the glass case,    making a bee-line into every electronics, toy, and music store in the mall just to get glimpse of Atari’s wood paneled wonder and the stack of games that were available.  We made it a point to salivate over the machine in any and every store we visited that had one.  We were obnoxious and relentless.

Our second front in the battle for an Atari VCS  was through Electronic Games magazine.   Electronic Games , the first ever magazine dedicated to video games, published its first issue in November of 1981, at almost the perfect time for our plan.  Jeff and I found it on the news stand at Luck’ys super market, convinced our mom to let us buy it (she didn’t want us to waste our money), and devoured every page over an entire weekend.  When we came-up for air on Sunday night, we both knew we had found a new angle.   Electronic Games  Magazine was the first legitimate, tangible concrete proof  that video games were not  just a passing fad.  Would a passing ‘fad’ have a dedicated magazine?   My dad loved magazines.  He himself subscribed to  enthusiast magazines dedicated to his own hobbies  (Dirt Bike. Shotgun News, Prevention).  This was “our” hobby.  He had to see that, right?   We showed him the magazine, and he seemed to agree.  It was not altogether remarkable reaction, but it was a solid start.

Our third front in this battle for an Atari VCS was the most complicated, but also the most important.   We needed  to appeal to their  innate sense of frugality, installed in them (in my opinion) by living through the Great Depression.  The Atari VCS was expensive.  At $139.99 (list price) in 1981, it was just about the same price as an Xbox One in 2014.  No one gift for any occasion (birthday, Christmas, anniversary, etc.) had every cost as much.  It would be an uphill battle.    My dad was  a very cost-conscious man (with everything but his own hobbies).  He loved the idea that his job at Hughes Aircraft afforded him all sorts of discounts on items for which ‘regular’ people had to pay full-price.  For instance, all of our movie tickets came from Hughes Employee Association.  However, the tickets had so many restrictions that we didn’t see any movies until they were 1 or 2 months into their run.  Sure, this rendered my brother and I socially retarded because we couldn’t join any pop-culture playground movie discussions, but hey, we saved $.25 per ticket.   Likewise, we only went to Disneyland on the ‘Open From 7:00 PM-1:00 AM Hughes Aircraft ‘Special Event’ nights,  and we did most our Christmas shopping at Gemco and Fedco, ‘club’ stores that allowed-in only union workers, government employees and government contractors (read: Hughes Aircraft employees).   It was on one of our trips to Gemco,  that we showed our dad the Atari VCS, and demonstrated the Combat! cartridge.  He was intrigued, but when he saw the price tag ($129.99), he almost had a heart attack.  There was no way he was going to spend so much money on any kind of toy.   It was a huge step backwards.

At just about the same time, Toy R’ Us was running a TV commercial in which they advertised the Atari VCS for a “discount” of  $139.84, roughly a $.15 cent off the list-price.  Our dad hated Toys R’ Us with a passion because they almost never had discounts.  Jeff and I made sure to show him this commercial whenever it was on.  Even though the Atari VCS cost a relative fortune (for the time) at Gemco, it was nearly $10 less than the hated Toys R. Us and their fake $.15 cent insult of a discount.  My dad dad’s innate ability to find bargains was ignited.   He knew his boys wanted one of those machines, and he knew how to get it at a discount.   At that very moment, I believe I heard a distinct clicking sound:  as if the frozen gears of our own little video game universe began to turn, ever so slightly.

The next line of attack on this front was the 1981 Sears Christmas Wish Book.   Every year since we were very little, my mom would break out the Wish Book and have us circle the stuff we wanted for Christmas.  For the past few years we had almost exclusively circled sports equipment, Legos, and Star Wars toys.  However, for Christmas 1981 Jeff and I pointedly circled the Sears Tele-Game (their officially branded version of the Atari VCS).  We really did not want a Sears Tele-Game.  No kid in their right-mind wanted one.  A Tele-Game was up there with Tough Skins and Hydrox cookies, Shasta Cola and Kinney Shoes as the least favored name brand substitutes in existence.   However, that would not matter.  Even though we circled stuff in the Wish Book, our parents hardly ever bought anything from it, they just used it as a guide.  Furthermore, if there was any store my dad hated more than Toys R Us, it was Sears.  He would complain constantly about their poor quality products, and what he called ‘built-in depreciation’ that forced people to use Sears’ product service centers prematurely.  All of this was probably little more than urban legend, but it served our purpose so we used it to our advantage.  We strategically placed the Wish Book in an area my dad could find it (on the kitchen table), and left it open to the Tele Game page for a few days. Our hope was that our dad would notice the Tele-Game and ask us about it.  However, this did not happen.  He hated Sears too much to give the Wish Book the necessary attention required to establish any sort of hatred towards a  cheap imitation product.

We had to step-up our attack to another level.

There are some significant areas of life that make being a twin completely lame: it’s very difficult establish your own identity, many of your birthday and Christmas presents are for ‘both of you’, you are never sure people are interested in you as a person or just because you seemingly have a doppelganger walking around with you, and you can easily become socially inept because you have a built-in buddy and you never have to learn to make friends on your own.  However all of these things are trumped in those rare moments when you mind-meld into an unstoppable single-headed force. Rare as they are, it’s those times that make being a twin one of the coolest things in the world.  At that moment in 1981, we had  to harness that power if we were to be successful in our VCS quest.

“Hey. Jeff.”, I said one morning in early December as I walked into the kitchen, looking at the strategically located Sears’ Wish Book conveniently located next to our dad who was eating homemade corn and blueberry pancakes for breakfast, “What. Is. That. In. the. Sears’. Wishbook?” 

Without missing a beat, Jeff replied  “Hey. Steve. It’s. An. Atari. 2600. Video. Game. System. The. Same. One. We. Showed. Dad. At. Gemco, Remember?”

As the first portion of our act completed, we both noticed no discernible reaction from our father.  We had to step it up a bit.

“Sears’, I replied, ‘Don’t. They. Have ‘Built-In. Depreciation?”  

My Dad’s ears perked up.  We had hit a nerve.  

“Yes,” Jeff replied, “Look. Closer.  It’s. Not. Actually. An. Atari. It. Is. A, Cheap, Sears’ Rip-Off!”  (Even though this was not technically true, my dad had no idea).

With that, my dad picked up the Wish Book and looked at the page.  ‘Damned Sears!’ he blurted out between bites of corn cake “Thank God for Gemco.”

Then he put down the catalog returned to eating. 

Mission.  Accomplished.

With most of the groundwork laid, Jeff and I continued our push into December.  We continued to point out the Atari VCS at every store that had one, we circled it in newspaper ads, got ‘overly’ excited when one came on the TV and parents were in the room.   As school let-out for Winter break, Jeff and I both felt an Atari might be within our grasp, but the ‘not knowing’ was killing us.   Not able to contain our desire to know ‘the truth’, we decided to ask our older sister Mari if she knew anything. 

Mari was always kind of an enigma to Jeff and me.  She watched us when we were little, but as she got older it was tough for Jeff and me to relate to her.  She started staying out very late on school nights, and was into the very first punk rock scene in L.A.  This meant she hung out with all sorts of odd, fascinating and sometimes downright scary characters.   We wanted to know what our sister was about, but it was difficult to get her attention away from the gritty ‘scene’ and back to her plain old geeky twin brothers.

However, Mari was also the most responsible young adult we knew.  She was paying her own way through Design School, had her own car, and appeared to have intimate knowledge of the inner working of the Fulton family.    If anyone knew anything about an Atari VCS secretly coming into the house via our parents, it would have been Mari.  As well, on the occasions we did spend time with Mari, she sometimes took Jeff and I to the Castle Golf and Aladdin’s Castle arcades to play Breakout and Asteroids, or played other games with us at Safeway and Pizza Hut, so she knew how much we liked video games, and probably had some idea about how much we wanted an Atari VCS.

  

Jeff and I cornered Mari just outside her room (a mother-in-law attachment to the garage) a few days before Christmas, and begged her for information.  However, what she told us was not what we wanted to hear.

“I have no idea if mom and dad bought you and VCS for us for Christmas” she said, “but it’s time you guys faced the cold hard reality of mom and dad.”

“What’s that?” I asked her.

” You don’t think mom and dad have heard your hints?  Don’t you think they WANT to get you an Atari?  The truth is, an Atari is expensive, and mom and dad just don’t have it this year.  Maybe if dad works some overtime, they can get you one next year.  Maybe, maybe not. “

My brother rand I just looked at her and she continued.

“I have to pay my way through school, and buy everything that I need.  Appreciate what you get, save your money, and maybe you can get one on your own.  That’s what I’d do.”

With that, she went back into her room, shut the door, and turned up The Clash on her stereo.

Mari’s words (and ‘Clampdown’) rang in my ears all day.

I went through many phases of emotion that day, but by the end I realized that Mari had to be right.  The truth was always there, but Jeff and I just did not want to see it.  There was a good reason why my mom did not want us to waste our money on video game magazines, a good reason why our parents were so frugal, always looked for bargains, were careful where they shopped, and did not buy modern appliances. 

They could not afford them.   Period.  

 A shattering feeling of complete disillusionment hit me at that moment.  For the first time I realized that merely ‘asking’ for something did not mean I would always ‘get’ it.  Simply put, I realized for the first time that I, was not in control of everything.   No manner of hints and cajoling could change the fact that, if the money wasn’t there, it was not there.

Christmas morning was always a rare, happy blur in the Fulton household.  For all the time our family spent ignoring and fighting each other during the other 364 days of year, we would try to make it up on Christmas.    Christmas morning was one of the only times you would see the following in our house:  people hugging, people thanking each other, people saying ‘I thought of you when”, my mom and dad smiling at each other, my sisters getting along, people asking my mom if she needed help with anything, and our entire family in the room together at the same time.  We might not have had much money, but collectively as a family we seemed to saved it all so we could wrap-up tons of stuff for each other for Christmas.    Present were usually  inexpensive: model kits, art supplies, books, household items, etc.   More emphasis was placed  on the thought than the value, and “surprises” were of utmost importance.    It was our only real happy “family” time of the year, so we wanted it to last as long as possible.   Our present opening lasted hours, with each person watching everyone else open their presents, ‘ooing’ and ‘awing’ over them, and then moving onto the next present.  We would break for breakfast, and sometimes even for lunch before all the present opening was complete.  None of us ever stated it, but I’m pretty sure the reason it lasted so long was because no one wanted it to end.  As soon as the last present dropped, we all would retire to our various rooms, and pretty much ignore each other  (save for Birthdays, Easter  4th Of July, and Thanksgiving) for another  year.

I do not remember much from Christmas 1981, except for the last two presents that Jeff and I opened.  It was late morning,  The Christmas tree lights had long-since gone from lighting-up a darkened room to blinking ineffectively against the day light.  It had been a good year, and even though there had not been an Atari VCS yet, I recall being satisfied with what our parents had given us.  Mari’s words, while difficult for my 11 year old mind to completely understand, had broken through.   I had moved from disillusionment to mere disappointment.  Jeff and I talked it over, and we decided that we would save any Christmas money we received (usually from relatives) until our birthday (in January) and see if we could afford an Atari VCS by then.  It was a thin plan, but it gave us the illusion that we could control our own destiny, which was a comforting feeling.

So when the wrapped box the size of an Atari VCS was taken from its’ hiding place behind the tree and was handed to Jeff and I to rip open, it came as an utter and complete surprise.  As the wrapping came flying off, there it was in our hands, a real ‘Atari Video Computer System’ complete with Combat! cartridge, two joysticks, two paddles, TV switch-box and AC adapter.

 Surprise.

Jeff and I were completely stunned.  

Before we could even fathom how it had actually happened, Mari handed us the present she had bought for us.  We opened it up to reveal the Breakout cartridge for the VCS.  Mari was in on the plan all along.    She had done a bit of convincing on her own to get my dad to buy the Atari VCS for us, and was instrumental in the process of getting it for us on Christmas morning 1981.   My dad did his part by working some extra overtime at Hughes so he could afford the purchase.   It was a rare moment when our family actually seemed to “work” the way I thought family should work.  The fact that I was lucky enough to end up with an Atari VCS as the result is something I will never forget.    

By the way, as it turned out, our Mom had not only ‘got’ our hints, but was concerned that we would not be sufficiently surprised on Christmas morning if they did indeed get us a VCS. She turned to Mari and had her try to throw us off the track.   In the end, all of our twin scheming almost worked too well, and could have back-fired completely if my mom had decided that there would be no surprise.

For sake of this story I’d like to pretend that we had an idyllic Christmas day playing the Atari VCS, and enjoying family time over Combat! And Breakout, but I can’t.  In reality the VCS didn’t work out of the box (the TV connection was broken), so we had to take it back to Gemco (of course) the next day to get a replacement.   Since we were already out of the house, we spent our Christmas money on Asteroids, Activision Tennis and Activision Laser Blast, cartridges then took the haul home and played the Atari VCS all-day and into the night on December 26th and all the way through Sunday January 3rd, the day before went back to School It probably seemed like a complete waste of time to anyone from the outside, but to Jeff and I, it was pure bliss.  

Mari played along with us most of the time too, which was cool, because we never really had anything at home prior that we all liked to do together.   The Atari VCS helped created actual “family time” among siblings that never really existed in our house before that day.    In the years that followed, Jeff and I and Mari formed camaraderie over video and computer games that has lasted until this Christmas.    Even though she was 9 years older and wiser than us, the medium of the video game leveled the playing field so we could compete on equal footing, and  helped create a an intangible sense of understanding between us that, while  wavering in the ensuing decades, has never broken.      Every year since, we have purchased each other at least one game for Christmas, and even though we don’t have as much time to play them with each other as we used to, we are always with each other in spirit.   This year I bought Mari (a female gamer at age 53) two PS2 games (Star Ocean and Kingdom Hearts 2).  Jeff bought her some computer games, and Jeff and I bought each other the the recently released AtGames ColecoVision and Intellivision plug and play consoles.   Our love of video games will never die.

On the other hand, our parents and our other sister Carol never really warmed-up to the Atari VCS like we hoped they would. I think my mom played Asteroids once, and my dad might have tried Combat! a couple times.  Our sister Carol, 16 at the time, probably just said ‘ewww, geeks’ and ran away from it.  I don’t think they have ever understood what we liked about video games or what the VCS meant to us, and to be honest, I’m not sure I could really explain it to them if I tried.  

All I know is this:  My brother and I  received an Atari VCS for Christmas in 1981, and it turned out to be one of the best Christmas surprises ever.  

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