Monday, December 19, 2005

Cataloging Christmas

Psaur has posted a cool piece written by Mike O'Shaughnessy called The Twelve Pages of Christmas. In it, Mike recalls the manic, post-Thanksgiving Gen-X'er joy of hunting through the toy section of a 1979 Sears Catalog. The catalog was a talisman for 10-year olds, offering four-color photos of every gadget and game we could ever hope to unwrap at 6:15 on Christmas morning.

After I read Mike's piece, I tried to remember the pages that got my pulse pounding. The genius of the Sears Catalog was in its scope -- the sheer range and number of gift ideas turning individuals into nagging automatons by attrition. I would stare at those pages for hours, circling items with my Bic pen as I nervously chewed the cap. Things I wanted got one circle. Things I really wanted got eight or ten emphatic rings of ink.

You could trace my pre-pubescent flounderings toward teenhood simply by sampling the placement of ink circles on the backs of catalogs from '77-'82, beginning with the Six Million Dollar man action figure and ending with a Real Electric Guitar. (I got the action figure, but my parents balked at the guitar.)

I couldn't remember any of the stuff I coveted in the catalog until I did a Google search (my 12,753th). Lo and behold, some guy has posted a 1979 Sears Catalog up on Flickr.

We all had our favorite pages. Here, mine would be the Sears Video Arcade Cartridge System (who named this??), a licensed Atari knockoff, and the two subsequent pages of game cartridges. (Actual copy: "These Cartridges reprogram the Video Arcade give you a new set of games." The copy writer must have been 50 and very, very confused by it all. See pages 651-653.

Close behind the Console on my list of most heavily inked pages was probably the page featuring the Atari 400 home computer (p. 654). Headline: "Put an electronic genius to work." All 16K of genius. Actually 16K and a cassette tape drive provided game quality that was leaps and bounds over the 4K or so offered up by the Console. My friends and I used to play around with the Atari 400 at the Fairmount Fair Sears.

I'd type:

10 Print "Brian"
20 Goto 10

And smile as my name scrolled endlessly down the screen.

Also on display at Sears' new computer department: The useless 2K Timex Sinclair, the Texas Instruments TI-994 and, shortly after, the Atari 800. The 800 had 48K, an optional floppy disc drive and a real keyboard. Oh, the text-based, fantasy adventure bliss!

Note: Nerd that I am, I have recently download a complicated set of emulators just so I can relive computer classics like Tunnels of Doom, Exodus: Ultima III and almost every Atari 2600 game ever made.

Another great set of pages: RC cars and gliders (pages 648-649). What was it about the concept of radio control that made me lose control of myself? I imagined mounting spy cameras on the glider and snapping aerial pics of unsuspecting neighbors, or filling the assumed bomb hatch with firecrackers that could somehow be ignited and released with the touch of a button, to rain down upon the heads of my enemies.

I finally did get an RC glider and was so excited that I assembled it in early January. There it sat, awaiting an early spring on the brown shag of my bedroom floor, until my sister stumbled onto it and crushed one of the the Styrofoam wings. I can still recall the sudden guilt in her eyes as she started to cry, just as I'm sure she remembers the startled outrage in mine as I started to cry.

The glider was dead before it ever got off the ground.

Luckily, my friend Mike got the same glider for Christmas and, being more patient, waited until the snow melted before assembling it. His dad took us to our elementary school playground one Saturday in March to send it on its maiden flight. The glider launched by means of a 25-foot rubber band that you staked into the ground. You then hooked the other end onto the nose of the plane, walked backward about 100 feet or so and released. The incredible tension created by the thick rubber band would catapult the glider up to 200ft, according to the starburst on the box.

That particular Saturday was windy. I think Mike's dad even suggested that we wait for a nicer day. But we were in no mood to be fucked with. Mike staked the rubber band into the half-frozen stretch of grass that separated two adjacent baseball diamonds. Then he picked up the radio control as we paced backward with the plane.

It was over so fast that the experience existed only as a flash of excitement and a moment of dumb realization. The glider took off, shot straight up to a height of around 75 feet, then looped back upon itself and took a nose dive straight into the soggy grass of left field. Both wings snapped forward, dropping the amputated fuselage onto its decalled back.

The microscope (622-623) was another big one for me. The model I got was a reflecting microscope with a 300x max magnification. It came with a set of stained specimens: fly wings, parameciums, onion peels. But the real fun was in trapping all sorts of liquids and bits between the frosted slides and peering into another world. Plant cells were all square and neatly stacked, like bricks with little brown nuclei. Amoebas were blobby and shifting. Blood cells clumped like Cheerioes.

At the other end of the spectrum: the telescope (621). The idea of seeing the rings of Saturn was too much to bear. I had to have a telescope. Had to.


Dave said...

ho, ho, ho man, I just went back in time. The aptly named "Wishbook" was a favorite of mine every year. If you'd asked me then for a list of my favorite books, the "Wishbook" would've been number one.

I think I'll print this out and mark up a few pages.

MO'SH said...

Beautiful! It's amazing how much joy we used to get from 16k. 16GB hardly cuts it these days. The part about the remote controlled plane reminded me of a "Leave It to Beaver" episode I saw the other day, where the Beav took his box kite out for a flight before the glue set. And it broke.

I'm sure glad we're not as impatient as we were as kids!

Got to go! Time to download "KC Munchkin!"

Jon Clarke said...

Megos, the Millennium Falcon and cardboard playsets. Sigh.