The year was 1981. And, oh man, was it ever a great year to be a 10-year-old kid. Pac-Man had invaded popular culture. Raiders of the Lost Ark had plundered theaters. All of the local, Philadelphia sports teams were doing rather well. And, of course, the Atari Video Computer System (soon to be rebranded as the 2600) was in its heyday. That rectangular, black-and-wood-grain box was the crowning jewel of most living rooms of that era. It was a status symbol of sorts—a status symbol of never ending fun!
Unfortunately, I didn’t own an Atari VCS for the majority of that year. Being 10, I couldn’t do much about that fact except nag my parents incessantly and beg my friends to hang out at their houses to play. And I shamelessly did a good amount of both, truth be told. Hey, I needed my Space Invaders fix. So sue me.
Atari VCS Fervor
Suddenly there seemed to be a way to get my very own Atari VCS. My school was raffling off a system at the beginning of December, right after Thanksgiving break. I had about $10 of allowance money squirrelled away, so I bought 10 tickets at a dollar a pop. Cue the “Big Spender” song from “Sweet Charity,” if you please.
I was a shoo-in, I naively thought. Who the heck would be insane enough to buy more than 10 tickets? The answer was no one. No one in their right mind would buy more than 10 tickets. Except me. It was going to be winner, winner (highly pixelated) chicken dinner time at the Bonner household soon enough.
The day finally came for the announcement of the raffle winner. My heart was racing the moment my eyes opened that morning. I mean, I was going to win. There was just no doubt about it.
The intercom came to life with an electro-static hum at exactly 10 a.m. Every nerve-ending in my body was immediately at attention. Our principal was a foreboding storm trooper of God who was blessed with the unassuming moniker of Sister Rosemary. I can assure you that there was nothing “rosy” about this woman. But that day she was in fine form. Her voice had an almost magical lilt as she announced that it was time to reveal the winner of the Atari VCS.
With much aplomb, she said the name. And it wasn’t mine. I knew person whose name she called. He only lived a few blocks away from me, so I knew that his family already owned an Atari VCS! Mere nanoseconds later (or so it seemed), I saw him bounding through the corridors to claim his prize. It was an odd feeling that struck 10-year-old Jer right then; it was akin to something out of a macabre Poe tale of angst and woe. I sincerely wanted to dash out into the hallway to strangle the life out of this kid, this usurper of the prize that was so clearly mine. I didn’t do that, of course, because this was a Catholic school, and I would have had to stand against the wall for a million recess periods for such a heinous infraction.
Asking the Parents for Atari VCS
So, I didn’t win the stupid raffle. What recourse did I have now? Well, I guess I would actually have to ask my parents for the Atari for Christmas. Being a big man of 10, I had given up the ghost on Santa a good two or three years prior, and asking my parents was the only viable option I had left.
So I asked. And I waited. When you are a child, that period between Thanksgiving and Christmas seems to last for untold eons, but Christmas morning did finally arrive before my head exploded with giddy anticipation.
My parents liked to unbox the toys, put them together and set them up for us under the tree. Yeah, they went all out. It was a nice touch that made that special day just a bit more special. But it also enabled a greedy young lad such as myself to do a quick scan of the haul to see if that year’s “big ticket item” was tucked under the tree.
Alas, the Atari VCS was not waiting there for me on this crisp December morning. I was dejected, sure, but there was a ton of other cool stuff under that tree for my younger brothers and me, so I merrily took to checking out the all other gifts that “Santa” had brought for us.
After about a half hour of play-testing and gawking, I noticed a rather large, wrapped present leaning against the back wall, almost behind the tree. As I mentioned, my parents didn’t wrap our presents, so this was rather odd.
“What’s that there?” I hopefully queried.
“Open it and find out,” my mother said rather flatly as she shared a furtive, sheepish glance with my father.
My immediate thought upon grabbing the box was that it was my Atari, and my cruel parents were playing a trick on me. My uncle and aunt had done a similar thing to my cousin the last year. He badly wanted Space Invaders for his Atari. The game was all he could talk about. They bought it for him, but they wrapped it in a massive box filled with newspaper and the Space Invaders cart was in another wrapped shoebox at the bottom of that much bigger box. He was very happy he got the game, but was quite vexed throughout that whole unwrapping ordeal.
I ripped off the wrapping paper in a blink. Yes, it was indeed the Atari VCS I wanted so desperately. I started to gleefully scream as only a 10-year-old boy can, but my father held up his hand to put an end to my youthful ebullience.
“It doesn’t work,” were the sad words that came out of this mouth.
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Was this all part of the elaborate ruse they had concocted? Did my parents hate me? They had to hate me to continue this nasty, unfunny prank for so long.
My mother continued: “I bought it back in October and it’s been hidden in the garage since then. When dad went to set it up last night, it wouldn’t turn on.”
This wasn’t real. This couldn’t be happening. I felt faint. It wasn’t my parents who hated me; it was Santa and Jesus who hated me. They conspired and collaborated against me to make this happen on their shared holiday because I didn’t believe in either of them any longer. That was certainly it!
“We’ll exchange it at the store tomorrow…after your game.”
The rest of the day was a blur, punctuated by the arrival of my grandparents for Christmas dinner. Two of the presents they bought for me were Atari games (Pele’s Championship Soccer and Adventure) that I couldn’t play. But I sure stared at those boxes real hard.
The next day was something of a blur as well, but I did have a (real) championship soccer game to play in before we could go to the store to procure my new, functioning Atari. We lost the game 2 to 1 on a bitterly cold morning. I didn’t care—they could have scored 47 goals on me (I was the team’s goalkeeper) while I was naked and it wouldn’t have mattered in the least to me. Atari fever had possessed my brain.
We drove directly to the store after the game. It was a large chain department store that is now out of business. The frazzled dude behind the customer-service counter (who looked a good deal like Mike “Meathead” Stivic from “All in the Family”) began to rattle off return policy and procedure to my father as we approached him, but he stopped suddenly as he saw me standing next to my dad. He must have seen the palpable Atari-mania on my face and decided in that moment that his company’s policies and procedures weren’t all that important.
“You know what, it doesn’t matter,” the Meathead clone said as he scooped up the box containing the broken Atari, then vanished through a large swinging door behind him. He quickly returned with another Atari box that (hopefully) had a functioning VCS in it. My dad filled out a few forms and we were out the door. It worked.
Joy and rapture! A (belated) Christmas miracle! And let me tell you, I played that machine into the ground…until I got a Commodore 64 for Christmas a couple of years later.
A Word of Advice
Parents, if you take anything away from this little story let it be this: If you buy your kids a video game console for a holiday or birthday, test it out as soon as you get home. There’s almost nothing worse than giving a kid a broken, non-functioning present. Ten-year-old Jer would tell you that for sure. Because of what happened to me in 1981, I still check every console as soon as I get it home. I even did it this last Christmas when I bought my 10-year-old daughter a Wii U.
Better safe than sorry.