It was the greatest video game of its time. Created in 1981 by the great pretender Pacific Novelty, its simplicity belied its beautiful, kid-friendly genius. You are a shark. The ocean is yours. And you’d be free to swim and take in the sights, were it not for those damned scuba divers. More than getting in your way, the bastards are armed with spear guns. But you’re a shark. A Great White, of all things, and you’re not about to be stopped. Hence the appeal. All you do is eat. It’s right there on the buttons, which are conveniently labeled “thrust” and “munch.” You move about, eat scuba divers, and move some more. There are different levels, but the concept never changes. Swim and devour, devour and swim. But it’s the inclusion of blood-curdling screams that sends Shark Attack into the stratosphere of my Reagan Boyhood. Pac-Man ate, but his victims were dots and ghosts. Ladybug also nibbled, but weren’t those eggplants, onions, and shit? These were men, all with stories, hopes, and dreams, and you were killing them graveyard dead. Wanting to protect their beach, or perhaps collect a reward, you were making their last moments miserable and filled with pain. It was an awesome time to be alive.
While I spent many an afternoon dropping quarters at my neighborhood arcade (which was soon closed after some dude died of a drug overdose near the Battlezone machine, or so the rumor went), I was first introduced to Shark Attack at Denver’s infamous Casa Bonita. Yes, that Casa Bonita. While cliff divers stupidly swooped and Black Bart’s Cave allegedly terrified, I was playing that wonderfully sadistic game. You mean, I get to swallow people alive, hear them roar, and no one’s the wiser? All this for twenty-five cents? I couldn’t even be pulled away to enjoy the world’s worst Mexican food, even though my palate was easily pacified by whatever swill I was expected to inhale. If memory serves, I hadn’t even seen the original Jaws by this time, but was quite familiar with its underrated sequel, so the video game helped generate sympathy for the shark’s unjust electrocution at movie’s end. I’m fairly certain I played no other game for several months at a stretch, even though it was even more monotonous and predictable than a game of Asteroids. But I was in charge. And this was genuine, unvarnished death. Sure, the shark wasn’t to scale and my ass that’s an ocean, but for a second grader, it was the thrill of a lifetime.
Once my parents divorced, there were few reasons to spend any amount of time at my dad’s house, and I’m fairly sure he knew it. He was grouchy, mean, and smoked so much that a visit was like having a front row seat at a round-the-clock forest fire. So he purchased a VCR. A Betamax, to be exact, and while not enough to overcome his brutal disinterest in anyone’s life save his own, it got me to come over just enough for all parties concerned to pretend life was proceeding as normal. As with everything he did, touched, or was rumored to have in the works, there was a catch. A VCR is yours, son, but you’ll only have one movie. No rentals, no options, and no choices. Just a single title to watch so many times you’ll have it memorized by Reagan’s second term. Fortunately, the film was Creepshow, which I had already seen in the theater and loved more than life itself. And hey, give it up for the old man; home videos cost around $75 in those days, and he never did return the gargantuan slab of electronica, despite every expectation that he would do so, especially after he knew it wasn’t enough to secure my allegiance.
Predictably, I was obsessed with Creepshow. I had no choice, but could not have had a better choice chosen for me. The movie was sick, depraved, and unexpectedly pro-kid, as every adult in the thing was a complete and total asshole. I loved every story, of course, but none quite so much as “The Crate.” What was that Tasmanian Devil thing under the stairs, and why did it hate janitors so much? So much blood, sharp teeth, and unquenchable appetites. I memorized every word, every scene, and despite having seen it four dozen times, I never let loose with less than a cackle when that dippy college student with the glasses went in for a peek and got a devoured neck for his trouble. But the movie rises and falls on Wilma. Played as the snottiest bitch in cinema history by Adrienne Barbeau, she has all the best dialogue, and we just know she’ll get hers in the end. Fine, I was not yet ten, but surely I had some insight when I laughed uproariously at her quip, “When was the last time you got it up, Henry?” Got what up, exactly? Who cares? Henry seemed upset, so I came to his side. And, “When was the last time you were a man in our bed?” Okay, I somewhat got that, even though the phrase would come to haunt me in later years like I never could have imagined.
The fantasy sequences were of particular interest to me, as Henry “killed” Wilma twice, once with a brutal strangulation, and the other a large-caliber bullet to the head. I felt Henry’s pain, even if I could not quite articulate why. He just seemed like a good and decent chap, and I felt redeemed when he escaped unpunished for essentially covering up three horrible deaths. Wilma’s, arguably, was calculated murder. But Creepshow was filled with spectacular deaths. Ed Harris was crushed beneath a massive headstone (the squish!) and Sylvia lost her head in “Father’s Day.” Sam Malone was buried up to his neck in sand, only to come back as a seaweed zombie and kill Frank Drebin in “Something to Tide You Over.” Stephen King himself turns into a slab of moss and blows his head off with a shotgun in “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill.” And the cockroaches from “They’re Creeping Up on You!” That final scene, when Upson Pratt’s robe shakes and quakes, only to explode with thousands of the little critters, never failed to bring me to my feet. His body cracked open like a bloody egg, the bugs crawling about like an unchecked plague. Just delightful for a young boy on the cusp of hating humanity.
Natalie Green’s Rape
Eight-year-olds aren’t supposed to know about rape. And if they must, surely we can all agree that they shouldn’t come face to face with its implications on a bloody sitcom. But it’s more than that. Rape on Cheers, that I understand. Hell, even Small Wonder, if we’re being honest. Not The Facts of Life, however, which was frivolous and trite even by the standards of a television era that all but patented the concepts. But we all know about the smoke-filled rooms that brought us the Very Special Episode, so on that long ago night when I had yet to come down from the dizzying high of the Drummond family just minutes before, I was forced to hear about forced sex, even if I had no idea why anyone would want to have sex with Natalie, of all people. You mean, if there are people who rape, they wouldn’t rape Blair? Even Jo was presentable when she let her hair down. But rape is about power and violence, as we’ve come to know, and this was the first time anywhere people came to understand that fact. If the fattest, least appealing character on a show wasn’t safe, no one was. Almost without trying, The Facts of Life changed America.
It made even less sense to me at the time that Natalie would be raped while dressed as Charlie Chaplin, but them’s the breaks for an ignorant mind. I knew that my own penis could express its desired state without cause, but surely I couldn’t actually use the thing unless I had an attraction to the woman at the other end of the bargain. So untrue. I felt shattered. How could we ever laugh again? Natalie seemed forever destroyed, and for a time (ten minutes or so) she wouldn’t look up, talk, or even leave the dorm. But how are we to perceive the preceding events when this so-called victim returned to her sassy, self-deprecating self the very next episode? No one told us we could assume years had passed, and from my end, every character looked the same. But if Natalie acts as if she hadn’t been raped a mere one week later, why should we care? So at the same time a sitcom introduced the word “rape” to a whole new generation, it ended up telling these same boys and girls that being attacked, beaten, and forcibly penetrated is not something to stay angry about. Brush it off, keep your chin up, and forgive. Better yet, forget. What else could we expect from a medium that said Dudley from Diff’rent Strokes would be sane and whole and ready for laughs within hours of being sodomized by Gordon Jump?
Centennial Race Track
There’s no degenerate quite like the gambler. More specifically, there’s no degenerate gambler quite like the horse racing fanatic. To a man – and it’s always a man, unlike the mixed gender reality of modern Vegas – he is over 50, weathered, unkempt, and smokes like a fiend. His hands crack with age and disrepair, and it’s likely he hasn’t showered since he last paid child support, which is somewhere between who the fuck knows and never. He’s in a perpetual state of just drunk enough, and when he’s not shuffling and mumbling from the pari-mutuel wagering window with yet another pipe dream disguised as a daily double, he’s staggering over to you, an impressionable boy of eight, with breath so hot and sticky that it threatens to give you a skin rash. How’s it going, he slurps, and how’d I get so big since he saw me last, even though I can’t remember having ever met him at all. He slaps my father’s back, winks, and moves on, likely to the next stop that offers a cold beer for an ever colder soul. Such was each and every time I spent a long day (and evening) at Centennial Race Track, Denver’s home for premium thoroughbred racing from 1950 until its sad decline and eventual closing in November of 1983.
If I spent a day at Centennial, I spent fifty, but as the track was but ten minutes from my grandparents’ house, it seems miraculous the number wasn’t much higher. It was a second home, a respite; a haven in a heartless world that only seemed to make things worse. For this was where money went to die, crumpled and discarded with every losing ticket. The impossibly complex wagers with terminology more akin to a geometry proof were more than mere frustrations and near-misses; they were school clothes and college funds disappearing into the ether of a sweaty, must-filled afternoon. Lacking the legal ability to waste my own cash, which I didn’t have in spades, I was forced to watch, staring at an ever-changing tote board that, per race, featured at least several hundred slips of greenery that were not ending up for my benefit. I made my program selections, of course, giving me the slightest sliver of skin in the game, though I not-so-secretly hoped none of them would actually hit, lest I be forced to ponder what I might have done with the winnings that were not forthcoming. And whenever I was the recipient of a bet by proxy, an occasion so rare as to inspire trumpets, I similarly hoped for a loss, as I felt certain my meager winnings would be taken from me as quickly as they had been bestowed.
One day, and I’ll never know the actual date for certain, I won. A trifecta box, to be exact, and the feelings remain as fresh now as they were 30+ years ago. It wasn’t a large prize, mind you, but it was money to be spent; money I rarely had that wasn’t earmarked for school lunches. The bills, now wrapped snugly within my pocket, seemed impossibly thick, a heft that secured my place in a pantheon unseen in childhood annals. And while the money went for the usual trinkets of youth – candy, football cards, perhaps a record or two – it made the years of forced attendance seem worth it. I wouldn’t hit anything similar until decades later, of course, but I’d always have that first time, a broken maiden of wagering wonder that would forever be associated with a Mile High landmark now reduced to the ashes of memory. Sure, I still loathed much of what passed for a day’s entertainment – the appallingly filthy restrooms, the marauding scum passing for humanity, the singular atrocity that was the horse track hot dog – but I had beaten the odds, just that once.