Ah the games of childhood. Did they screw you up, too?
From my earliest years, my parents – heck, even my grandparents – pushed games on us like a drug dealer. Cards, dice, and board games were dealt like dime bags to occupy our time. This was before video games had fully hooked mainstream culture except for the most basic, but addictive, Atari Asteroids or Space Invaders. Bless their hearts, our families always had the best intentions.
Or did they? Did my parents have a greater insight into childhood that only now I can truly appreciate? Had they learned through age-formed wisdom that they needed to create distractions to contain the chaos brewing within children?
Having now raised my daughters into practicable adulthood, I can comment with certainty that children are inherently evil. There is no end to their feral cruelty, especially when running in packs. The pernicious will of the group transforms the will of even the best-reared child. Absent some form of imposed societal moral compass, there is no limit to their reckless, unhinged barbarism.
Little did my parents and grandparents know the unintended damage they caused by forcing these socially acceptable, misguidedly innocent games on us. The train was on the tracks toward derailment. These early games set the table and were just an appetizer for the deranged meals to come.
- Pinochle. My grandparents taught my sister and me to play this complex partner card game at a very young age. What did I learn? Mostly learned that my grandpa was a sore loser. He hated how good we were at pinochle. When my sister and I would beat my grandmother and him, he would slam the table, stand up and scream, “Goddamn it! You little shits are cheaters!” Grandpa had a delectable penchant for vulgarity around children. And he was not incorrect. My sister and I had developed an elaborate system of hand signals and eye movements to communicate our cards to each other. We almost always won. And grandpa never failed to disappoint in cultivating our developing cache of cusses.
- Chess. I know when you all think of me, you think, “This guy is so cool. Maybe the coolest person ever. I wish I could be like him.” And I understand that thinking… today. But if you only knew me in my developing years – say, sixth or seventh grade? Nerd. When I got bored with being a self-described mathlete, I joined the chess club in search of a deeper hole to bury myself, far away from the prying eyes (and lips) of pretty pre-teen girls. What did I learn? I learned to keep nerdy things secret and act cool on the outside. Soon after quitting chess club, pining for social acceptance, I joined a wood shop class where I was subsequently beaten with a metal chair by a lesbian after blowing some wood dust in her face. Thought I was flirting. She just wanted to beat up a dork.
- Operation. I have always possessed a delicate constitution when it comes to being surprised by loud, sudden noises. Not sure what drew me to this godforsaken game. I did want to be a doctor while I was growing up, so I am sure my parents – secretly posing as Santa, by the way – brought me this gift to thoughtfully encourage my expanding intellectual curiosities. What did I learn? That wacky doctor’s game gave me PTSD. God help anyone in my house to this day if they drop a metal pan on the hardwoods or some loud Snapchat blares from their phone. My startle reaction is embarrassingly dramatic. Having learned from my grandfather’s tutelage, I leap from the chair, yelling in a borderline insane voice, “What the goddamn shit on a suck hole dick nibbler?!” The expletives do not need to make sense. Sometimes the sheer random enthusiasm is half the fun.
- Yahtzee. This game is the marijuana of childhood games, a virtual gateway drug to the crack cocaine that is Las Vegas. What did I learn? Aside from developing an addictive adult affinity for craps, Yahtzee also taught me basic poker concepts – three of a kind, full house, etc. To exacerbate things, my grandfather had a secret society of seniors who all met at The Center, a recreation center in their retirement community, for afternoon games of low-stakes penny poker. He was working under the auspices of “painting” with my grandmother so he could sneak out with other elderly folks sporting noms de guerre like Shifty, Weasel, Schlepp, and Minx. He would regretfully bring me on occasion. They all thought I was so darn adorable. Until I cleaned them out of every penny in their mason jars. My nicknames were endless – Shithead. Lil’ Bastard. Satan’s Spawn. Cheating Prick.
- Twister. Certain games should come with a warning label: Not suitable for children between eleven and fifteen years old. At least I would have had a heads up. While attempting a uniquely flexible Twister move, I got a boner from rubbing up against my pretty older cousin. What did I learn? Incest is generally looked down upon, particularly when playing a game. Erections really are an inappropriate response to family fun, regardless if you are thirteen years old with raging hormones. Also, getting punched in the nut sack by an offended cousin, falling off the board in the fetal position, then running away crying in shame creates limitless fodder for future mockery that still occurs from her brothers to this day.
With that initial psychological damage done, I found myself bored in short order. While establishing a baseline, these games only occupied an hour or two of our frenetic, Machiavellian energy. In cahoots with my brother, sister, and cousins, this led to the creation of our own, more childhood-relevant games. Games without so many rules and niceties. Games that fed the beast within. Games without frontiers.
- Booger Baby. My brother is the youngest sibling. My sister is four years older than him, and I am six years older. Our cousins were almost all older than me. As a child, my brother was on the receiving end of constant teasing, manipulation and abuse by his elders. One such abuse was being the “Booger Baby.” After a summer trip to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, we all received Louisville Sluggers for Christmas. My brother, likely three or four years old at the time, had a penchant for picking his nose. The genesis of Booger Baby came to us when we noticed boogers on his Louisville Slugger. What if we hid, while he hunted us with the “Booger Bat” and then beat us with it when he found us? Wouldn’t that be fun? Made perfect sense, and my baby brother embraced his role with malevolent delight. In his little mind, this was his opportunity for revenge. It was terrifying. We would hide in the far reaches of our cousin’s home, and he would count to twenty. Like Jack Torrance in The Shining, you could hear my brother shuffling down the hall, muttering to himself, and then the distant, horrified screams for help when he found someone and started wailing on them. We never felt so alive from the adrenaline rush. Many of us are still in therapy today, thanks to our family discount.
- Death in the Dark. The same group of cousins came to our house every Christmas. We were very close with them growing up, but we hated this visit each year because they would ritualistically destroy our Christmas presents. While our parents drank to excess in the kitchen, we would be sequestered to the basement playroom, an unfinished dank room with no windows, bare concrete floor, and cheaply paneled walls. More of a dungeon than a playroom. And like inmates during a prison break, we would watch in horror as our cousins would smash our toys against the floor and walls, until the remaining detritus was unrecognizable from its original form. One year, a long strip of plastic Mattel racetrack jutted out of the debris field. And Death in the Dark was born. My brother – yes, Booger Baby – was handed the whip-like length of racetrack, the lights were turned off, plunging us into absolute blackness. One person would yell Attack! And then we would all quietly crawl into corners to hide, terrified because the room was wide open and no more than 300 square feet. True to character, my brother would slowly walk through the blackness, hunting, swinging the racetrack with a whoosh whoosh, sadistically giggling as his weapon found purchase. It hurt! And as we squealed in pain, he would laugh harder. The game always ended when someone got whipped across the face and started crying. Then we would all hug them, rock them, shush them, and whisper, “Don’t tell. Don’t tell.”
- Run for Your Life, summer and winter versions. My cousins lived on a rural lake, and we spent a lot of time at their house growing up. They had the coolest stuff – dirt bikes, snowmobiles, BB guns, and so much more. The surrounding miles of woods, trails, and fields isolated their waterfront home, providing the perfect fodder for the scariest, most dangerous game of all – Run for Your Life. The summer version involved dirt bikes, and the winter version involved snowmobiles. Otherwise the game was the same. Everyone received a Daisy Air Rifle and a pocket full of BBs. Coins were flipped for who got to start the game riding the two dirt bikes or two snowmobiles. Everyone else had to run for their life, defend themselves with their own BB gun, and had ten minutes to hide before the hunt began. The rules were not well defined from there. Who was the hunter? Sometimes having the dirt bike or snowmobile was a disadvantage, and you could be violently unseated, and have your vehicle commandeered. I have such vivid memories of being pursued in an open field by my cousin on a dirt bike, the BBs whistling over my head as I flee, the sound of the motor getting closer as my cousin attempted to either shoot me or run me down. Like John Wayne in True Grit, he steered the bike with one hand as the other hand fired the air rifle. I feigned injury, fake stumbled, and as he rode up on me, I leapt in the air knocking him off the dirt bike. In this victorious moment, I gained my footing first, stood over him, and shot him in the face. As the blood spilled from the BB lodged in his forehead, I realized the game had run its course, forever, and I was going to get an ass whooping beyond reckoning when we got back to the lake house.
While Booger Baby, Death in the Dark, and Run for Your Life stand out prominently, we had an endless list of original masterpieces such as Surviving Elephant’s Foot, Sled to Your Doom, One Went Over the Waterfall, Daddy or Danger, and Autumn Comes Early, that were childhood mainstays as well.
I would be remiss to acknowledge that many of you may be reacting in disgust at the sadistic nature of our creations – these barbaric games. Where were your parents? Do you all have mental problems? Were you dropped as babies? Are your cousins in jail? How is Booger Baby today? Was he institutionalized? All reasonable questions.
And while I understand that instinctive, parental need to judge the behavior of seemingly psychotic children, suffice to say, my siblings, cousins, and I all survived the unfettered, animal drives of childhood and emerged as functional adults – raising families, holding jobs, and contributing to a better society… for the most part.
And isn’t that really the larger point? Society. It tames us as adults. We trade some of our cherubic joy for safety and security. Society compels us to bury that childhood id that drives so many of our most base, natural instincts. By its very construct, society removes the danger that we unknowingly craved as children because, completely unaware of the consequences of our insane actions, we were having so much damn fun. And we grown-ups are left with a longing for that rapturous rush, realizing we will never quite feel that same way again.
Comments? Thoughts? Feedback? Scroll down to LEAVE A REPLY. Thanks!