Armagideon Time

Unsteady Layer Dumb

July 25th, 2017

(being an excerpt from my forthcoming bestselling novel and big budget movie adaptation)

When it came to my research, I didn’t take any shortcuts. Over the past five years, I’d worked my way down the entire recommended reading list. Danielle Steel, V.C. Andrews, John Jakes, Robert Ludlum, Herman Wouk, James Clavell. Michner. Krantz. Forsyth. L’Amour. Collins. I read every novel that could be found on an airport newsstand spinner rack in 1984.

And I didn’t stop there.

I watched every single one of the celluloid titans of the age. If it got an Oscar nom, like Out of Africa, Chariots of Fire, and Terms of Endearment, I rewatched it until I knew every scene by heart.

I devoured Steel Magnolias, gazed longingly at Hardbodies, and fell in love Murphy’s Romance.

Merchant and Ivory were my main dudes. I rode cinematic shotgun with Attenborough and hung with Greydon Clark.

I spent three months studying every Sally Field movie and memorizing all the key lines of dialogue.

Possum, put that up now.

You could say I covered all the bases.

I studied The Facts of Life, not just the later seasons when it found its stride but the early one with the billion cast members and goofy headmaster dude.

I wasn’t going to cut any corners.

I may in fact started to go a little insane.

I watched every episode of Hart to Hart, Remington Steele, Trapper John MD, and Lou Grant.

What about Gimme a Break, you ask?

I knew more about Nell Carter than I did about my own mother.

Happy Days? Oh, I did my homework. Laverne and Shirley, Mork and Mindy, Joanie Loves Chachi, even Blansky’s Beauties and Out of the Blue.

I learned the name of every last Popple and member of the Hugga Bunch.

I wasn’t some dilettante.

I wasn’t screwing around.

I remembered every last Jeff Altman stand-up routine.

Music wasn’t easy, but I put in the effort to learn all the key genres — adult contemporary, pop country, soft rock, quiet storm.

From Ashford & Simpson to Lou Gramm to Peter Cetera, I learned them all. I burned through the entire Christopher Cross discography in three weeks. Michael MacDonald took longer.

I bought a pink satin baseball jacket like the one Rod Stewart wore in the “Tonight I’m Yours” video and accessorized it with a terrycloth headband copied from Mike Reno.

I watched a lot of videos of women with severe make-up and huge shoulder pads pouting while some AOR power ballad played. It wasn’t technically research but I have an objectification fetish.

I kept at it.

It was the sweetest thing I’ve ever known.

Did you know “The Sweetest Thing (I’ve Ever Known)” was a 1982 crossover hit for country artist Juice Newton?

(Of course you did, that’s the presumption of this extended exercise in performative nostalgia.)

I started this feature without having a coherent plan,just a nostalgia-tinted swirl of memories unearthed after flipping through some periodicals from the year in question. Now that the project is done, I’m still not sure what I was trying to accomplish, much less whether or not I succeeded in doing so.

1983 was the year when my cultural awareness experienced a major awakening. It was the year I hit the pre-teen “sweet spot” that has come to wield tremendous influence on geek culture in general — the wellspring of “ruined” childhoods and thinkpieces extolling everything from shitty toy cartoons to the Backstreet Boys to Rob Liefeld comics. My enduring affection for 1983 may be rooted in a quirk of developmental psychology and some fortuitous timing, but I’m things shook out the way they did. I shudder to think what would’ve happened if I’d been born a couple of years later, where my irrational enjoyment I have for Toto’s “Africa” could’ve fallen on a Howard Jones cut instead.

Synthpop, nuclear dread, videogames, a deep and abiding love of Roy Thomas’s All-Star Squadron — so much from 1983 has been incorporated into my being that the reasons why have become moot at this point.

1983 was the rare year when the “great times” tag was recognized in the now, not applied in a moment of after-the-fact reverie. While I’m instinctively leery about nostalgia’s deceptive snares, revisiting those moments has been a therapeutic experience. In trying to contextualize and articulate those memories, I’ve also had to confront certain truths — about my family, myself, and other things — in between the wistful moments of self-indulgent navel-gazing.

It was a helpful exercise in keeping things in perspective, a long-overdue bit of personal inventory taking. I’m not sure of its value outside my headspace, but I don’t regret undertaking it.

Even as my fifth-grade classmates rushed to put childish things behind them, 1983 saw me still enthralled by the plastic treasures of the toy aisle. It’s something I’d hold onto up until my final year of junior high, for a cluster of related reasons.

One, I was a shy and awkward nerd who wasn’t in any hurry to embrace the “grown-up” world.

Two, Lil Bro was four years younger than me and was a near constant companion and playmate.

Three, I used toys as a proxies and props for my creative imagination, staging scenarios and narratives that would end up as crude comics stories or derivative sci-fi epics. It’s no coincidence that my toy-buying dropped off almost entirely after I purchased a copy of the Dungeons & Dragons Basic set in 1985, as pen ‘n’ paper roleplaying games provided a more satisfying — and marginally more socially acceptable — canvas for those world-building impulses.

In 1983, however, it was all about the articulated plastic. Star Wars — rising high on the Return of the Jedi hype — was still the reigning king of the action figure realm. My most favored figure for most of the year was the Biker Scout, purchased during a trip with my grandparents.

I bought the figure before I’d even seen the movie. He just looked so damn cool, sporting a set of armor that seemed so uncharacteristically “Eighties” compared to his Imperial cannon fodder peers. And though I was reluctant about spending my meager pennies on vehicles or playsets, I did scrape enough cash together to pick up an push-button “explodable” speeder bike for the figure to tool around on during his adventures. He was joined by an also-very-Eighties Rebel Commando and a group of Ewoks who, contrary to the hate-in-hindsight crowd, were popular as hell among my childhood peers.

Yet while Star Wars loomed large, it was facing increasingly stiff competition from a couple of more contemporary-minded fronts backed by the power of media degregulation. There were the Masters of the Universe, backed by a comics crossover with Superman and a shitty Filmation advertoon. My brother and I had a few of the figures and playsets, but their larger scale relegated them to roles as monsters and supervillains in our playroom universe.

The three-and-three-quarter inch reinvention of GI Joe, on the other hand, was a different story. The first wave of Joe figures caught our attention mostly because of the televised ads for the Marvel tie-in funnybook. The figures themselves weren’t too impressive, appearing both flimsy and fugly compared to the solidly constructed and well-sculpted standards set by the Star Wars line.

That changed with the second wave of figures, as Hasbro ditched cost-conscious identikit aesthetics for a more individual approach to figure design. Even better, the new figures came with a bewildering array of accessories from scuba flippers to a pair of skis to a pet eagle. They also added “swivel arm” articulation to the line, which further added to the range of poses that put the Star Wars toys to shame. It wasn’t long before my poor Biker Scout was dethroned by the disturbingly frog-faced Tripwire…

…whose armored bodysuit and set of gear helped sell a generation on the indiscriminatory virtues of anti-personnel mines.

(I also sent away for the exclusive Duke figure, but was a bit horrified when I opened the long-awaiting package and was greeted by what appeared to be a paramilitary Liberace with a blonde crewcut.)

Besides action figures, my 1983 included a modest share of Lego playsets. “Modest” because the local department store didn’t stock Lego stuff and the places that did tended to price all but the smallest sets beyond my reach.

What I did pick up were mostly space sets, and mostly for the minifigs alone. I do have some vague memories of a crazy quilt space hero I assembled from blue, white and gray astronaut minifig components. His name was “Colonel Ultra” and a wielded a raygun against a set of plastic orcs and demons given to me by an aunt for my birthday. I wish I remembered more, because I could probably spin a comic series out of it.

Of all the playthings that occupied me during 1983, the ones I truly wish I’d held onto were my set of boardgames based on popular arcade offerings. The concept reeked of panic-driven desperation on Milton Bradley’s part, but it wasn’t an entirely stupid idea. Videogames were expensive. Console ports of arcade games fell far short of the source material. Kids can be an easy mark for tactical branding.

There was a theoretical opportunity there. One that apparently failed to manifest, because I picked up the entire line from a Caldor’s clearance aisle for a buck a pop. The three in particular I remember were Turbo, Zaxxon, and Berserk. The games were pretty cursory affairs involving spinners and dice, choosing to rely on highly toyetic plastic game pieces as the main draw.

The human player piece in Berzerk featured a finger-flicking action where a pair of blaster-holding plastic arms would swing up and knock over any adjacent robot pieces. Turbo had a fleet of plastic race cars and a weird movement grid. Zaxxon, my favorite of the lot, had walls, turrets, ships, and all the other trappings of the original’s isometric playfield.

I don’t recall playing any of the games by the official rules, except maybe one or two sessions of Berserk. Lil Bro and I would take them down from my grandmother’s closet and improvise something on the fly, typically ending with us hitting and calling each other names.

Every so often, I’ll check the asking prices for the Zaxxon board game on eBay, but I’ve yet to pull the trigger. Lil Bro hits much harder now than he did when he was seven.

The above covers the most memorable articles of my 1983 toy experience, but there were plenty of faintly remembered playthings that also passed through my grubby eleven year old fingers around that time. I recall a Hot Wheels Shelby Cobra with genuine rubber tires and a vintage fire engine. I can also envision a number of remarkably fragile toy swords and guns, back when realism was a chased-after asset rather than the prelude to a police-related tragedy. I remember a variety of arts and crafts sets whose initial novelty faded into tubes of dried paint and unfulfilled ambitions.

There was a time when I would aggressively chase this shit down through antique stores or online vendors. It was partly driven by memories of my mom’s death and the notion that I could reconstruct some sense of wholeness from these fragments of childhood nostalgia. What I ended up with were hollow echoes, artifacts to wistfully turn over in my hands a couple of times before getting consigned to a storage crate in my attic.

We’re down to the last couple of bolts in this particular quiver, so let’s start wrapping things up with a look at the literature that shaped the most formative year of my childhood.

The top of that particular heap was Twilight Zone Magazine, purchased with scrounged pocket change at the convenience store across from Ferullo Field in North Woburn. I’ve written before about the profound impact that publication had on me, but an abbreviated recap is still in order.

In the beginning, my interest lay in the fantasy and horror short fiction pieces which ran in each issue, which tended to be scarier and less subdued than the creaky M.R. James riffs featured in official “horror” anthologies for the kiddie set. Over time, however, I began to dive into the magazine’s other features — historical essays on the evolution of genre fiction and film-making, author interviews, and critical reviews of books and movies (conducted by Gahan Wilson and Tom Disch, respectively).

Much of it went well above my blonde bowl-cut head, assuming familiarity with certain works, authors, or traditions that I’d never encountered, yet what did register reshaped the way I viewed genre material going forward. When a TZM reviewer savaged something, it wasn’t a blanket dismissal of a genre in general but of a specific work that failed to live up to its potential. The reviewers were invested in the scene, but did not allow their loyalties to become the basis for weak justifications of crap.

“Just because it has dragons or superheroes or aliens in it, doesn’t mean its worth your attention” is such an obvious message, but one that had eluded my pre-teen self the way it apparently continues to elude large segments of fandom. It didn’t trigger an overnight transformation of my tastes, but it did irrevocably alter my approach to fandom in the years to come.

The other major literary player of my 1983 was a cheap Vintage paperback collection of Ray Bradbury’s short stories, picked up at the Booksmith in the Woburn Mall. A another geeky classmate had lent me his copy to read during an indoor recess session, and those fifteen minutes with the book were enough to convince me to buy my own copy. My opinions about Bradbury’s work have varied over the years (and currently reside at “like the short fiction, hate the nostalgic and allegorical stuff”) but stories like “There Will Come Soft Rains” and “The October Game” hit the sweet spot where beautifully readable prose met lingering chills.

(“Fever Dream” particularly resonated with me, as I spent both the February and April vacation of 1983 laid up with severe bouts of the flu, and the notion of getting assimilated by a sentient virus did not seem so far fetched to my trembling, spasm-wracked self.)

On the school library front, my two favorite reads were the very Seventies, very dystopian YA sci-fi anthology The Other Side of Tomorrow and a hardcover retelling of The Iliad and The Odyssey with illustrations done in the style of ancient Grecian vase paintings. As much I as adored them, and was apparently the only person ever to check them out, I was too much of a goody two shoes to swipe them before I moved onto to junior high. I regretted my righteousness immensely when some idiot teens burned down the school building a couple of years later.

I did manage to score a cheap copy of the anthology on eBay about a decade ago. The mythology book is something of a highly sought rarity which commands more than I’m willing to spend on the secondary market.

Apart from these, there were other books that caught my fancy for an afternoon or occasionally a lifetime. There were Mad Magazine paperbacks full of dated references and amazing art. There was the Interplanetary Spy series, whose videogame-inspired aesthetic and puzzle book elements gave them a leg up over the more staid Choose Your Own Adventure line of interactive fiction. There were the Books of Lists and the People’s Almanac, jam-packed with fascinating factoids (and whose “naughty” chapters would be the closest thing I’d ever have to a sex-ed class). There was a cheapjack Scholastic horror collection that contained the first Lovecraft tale I ever read (“The Dunwich Horror”) and several “How to Beat Videogames” digests bought without having ever played most of the games featured.

I have fond memories of all of these, yet those still pale in comparison to a mortally injured Wolverine slashing his way through swarms of Brood warriors in X-Men #166. If I close my eyes, I can still visualize the Cheeto dust fingerprints in the gutters of my original copy of the issue.

The notion that I’m an asocial recluse has been a recurring gag since Armagideon Time’s inception, and it’s certainly based in reality to a fair degree. I don’t like to travel, for various reasons I’d rather not get into or feel capable of articulating at this time.

It’s not that I didn’t enjoy visiting Gettysburg or Montreal or Charlotte these past few years, but that I enjoyed getting back to familiar environs that much more. From 1992 up until Maura needed a ride to roller derby recruitment event in Nashua in 2009, I didn’t set so much as a foot outside the borders of my fairly small state. It wasn’t anything intentional, just how things happened to shake out.

1983 was a significant year of my life because it included not one, but several voyages outside the boundaries of Boston’s northwest suburbs.

The first of these was a spring excursion to Mount Cardigan in New Hampshire. It was the event that soured me on the whole Boy Scout experience, which had been losing luster since the Cub-level days of making lanyards with other neighborhood kids around the den mother’s kitchen. I don’t know why I didn’t fall away from the organization when most of my friends did, apart from my parents’ strategy of forcing me to stick with things long after my initial wave of interest had guttered out.

Their idea, I suppose, was to instill a stronger sense of self-discipline but it only exacerbated the traits that they were trying to shake out of me. All it did was foster an even greater aversion to committing myself to things, lest I get trapped in something that takes a turn for the shitty down the road.

Mount Cardigan was where things turned shitty on the scouting front. This was not a campfire jamboree at some fenced-off patch of exurban wilderness. This was an actual mountain climb which I was physically and materially unprepared to undertake.

It started off promisingly enough — with a bunch of rowdy boys swapping dirty jokes and listening to Top 40 radio in the back of a Scout Dad’s custom van conversion. It ended with me pretending to throw an ankle in order to get the fuck out of there and back to my stack of comics, Atari 2600, and warm bed by any means necessary.

I felt guilty about it at the time, but now I just feel pride in my younger self’s attempt at self-preservation through transparent deception.

That summer vacation saw me embark of two extended trips away from home. The first was a road trip with my maternal grandparents down the length of the Appalachians from western Massachusetts to Asheville, North Carolina.

It was my grandfather’s idea and entirely by his many eccentricities. Everything I saw, I witnessed either through the rear passenger window of his oversized Chevy, the vantage point of a rest stop parking lot, or from a motel window. Most of the trip was spent avoiding his wrath as he white-knuckled the steering wheel and accused other drivers of being “pinko traitors.” The only non-essential stop we made was at a roadside fireworks stand in eastern Tennessee, where I stared in horror at a taxidermied rattlesnake exhibit as my grandpa dropped a hundred bucks on recreational pyrotechnics. After spending a night at a HoJo’s in Asheville, my grandpa turned the car around and headed back along the exact route in which we came.

The experience was beyond weird, but it was memorable and mostly enjoyable. I found a Biker Scout action figure in a dingy department store by our hotel in Wilkes-Barre and the conclusion of so many of the previous year’s big comic events in polybagged three packs at a Dutch Country Stuckey’s.

Even from a car window, the sights were awe-inspiring, from banks of fog winding through the Blue Ridge Mountains to the massive auto graveyard in Scranton to the strip-mine scarred landscapes of West Virginia. It stuck deeply enough that when the Three Weiss Men retraced the first half of the route on our 2011 trip to Gettysburg, I kept getting hit with recurring bouts of decades-delayed deja vu.

My brother and I only had a couple of weeks to recharge from that trip before we were hauled off to spend a week at my great-gran’s cottage on Cape Cod. It was well away from the ocean but across an unpaved lane from a freshwater water pond where my mother attempted to teach me to swim by holding my face under the water for extended periods of time. (I still don’t know how to swim and also abhor having my face covered or submerged in any manner, so good work, Mom!)

Most of our time was spent in the garden while my mother worked on an oil painting and I tried to come up with excuses why I should be allowed to go down to my cot in the finished basement and read Bowdlerized retellings of Greek myths and dated articles about prehistoric life in the volume of the 1959 Book of Knowledge I brought with me. I can also remember getting slapped because I yelled too loud after getting stung by a bee, my uncle and father arguing over the Woburn’s toxic waste contamination, and a lone copy of the “Rock the Casbah” 7-inch sitting the window of a Hyannis department store.

Mostly what I remember was the food, my great-gran’s combination of mid-century American and Gilded Age Scandinavian cuisines with a heavy emphasis on vegetable-laced gelatin concoctions — minced beets and raspberry jello drowned in lakes of ranch dressing in the vain hope of making them even marginally edible. That shit still haunts my dreams.

My final excursion of the year took place in the autumn of 1983, when we piled the entire family — mother, father, two sons, teenage aunt, disabled grandma — into my dad’s Cordoba and drove down to Washington, DC for a long weekend.

We spent a couple of days visiting the various branches of the Smithsonian (The Hope Diamond! The Spirit of St. Louis! Archie Bunker’s chair!). My dad got to see a fallen squadmate’s name on the then-new-and-somewhat-controversial Vietnam Memorial. My brother and I had our picture taken in front of the Lincoln Memorial. I got a splinter in my ass cheek after sitting on a bench near the Jefferson Memorial.

Our last night in the Washington happened to be the night The Day After aired on ABC. My brother and I were sharing a motel room with my aunt, who insisted on watching it. Fearing the nightmares I knew it would cause, I begged my parents to let me sleep in their room. They agreed, but I could tell they were disappointed by my squeamish anxiety.

I never got around to seeing the film until a decade later, during a retro-armageddon VHS rental binge. I was amazed to discover it was made-for-TV cheese on par with a lesser Iwrin Allen joint, but that was a product of age and hindsight. It would’ve traumatized the hell out of me if I had watched it when I was eleven…though the same can be said of the X-Men’s “Brood War” arc, which quite definitely did.

1983 was the year of the Great Videogame Crash, when the flood of overproduced and undercooked product forced a severe market correction that effectively killed the home console market until the NES started gaining traction a couple of years later. The savvier developers shifted their focus to home computers, which offered more functionality and perceived value than dedicated game hardware. Most either went belly up or divested themselves from the industry, dumping their remaindered overstock at fire sale prices.

Being a hungry-eyed eleven year old, I knew next to nothing about the mechanics of this economic implosion. I was too busy marveling at the sudden affordability and availability of 2600 cartridges which had previously been restricted to the narrow window of birthday or Christmas presents. Five bucks was the new normal. Between my allowance and what I could cajole from my indulgent maternal grandparents, that meant enough to buy a new game every weekend and still have enough left over to pick up a GI Joe or Star Wars action figure.

Over the course of 1983, my Atari 2600 game library went from a half-dozen titles to upwards of forty, conveniently stored in partitioned cardboard boxes for stereo components that my mom brought home from the factory and were perfect suited for their new role. Most of the games were utter crap, but that was mitigated by the low price and the fact that there’d be a new game to play the following weekend.

(A more detailed discussion of the subject can be found in the Growing Up 2600 feature I did a few years ago.)

The 2600 was undeniably the centerpiece of my gaming experiences in 1983, but it was still only one facet of the nigh ubiquitous popcult phenomenon gaming had become. The industry may have been on the verge of economic freefall, but the cultural footprint of the videogame fad was at its peak. There were stickers, novelty songs, t-shirts, toys, cartoons, and game shows. Gaming references popped up amidst the canned laughter of middle-of-the-road sitcoms, and ads for gaming paraphenalia were all over comics books and other youth-centric publications.

It was the only reason I begged my parents keep up my subscription to Boys Life, even though I’d soured on the whole scouting experience by then.

It got me chewed out during “lab class,” in which the “most promising” elementary school students in Woburn were brought together once a week. There we would listen to the wingnut teacher’s weirdly racist tirades before spending the rest of the day acting out Scholastic Magazine‘s abridged scripts of current movies. I was so enraptured by an ad for Choplifter that I lost my place and forgot I was supposed to be reading Donald Sutherland’s part in Max Dugan Returns.

As you grow older, you realize that your teachers were just human beings doing a job, and thus prone to human failings. Sometimes a nutjob manages to make it through the vetting process. Sometimes circumstances tip a previously balanced soul into the realm of teeth-gnashing eccentricity.

I know this now. I did not know this then, when the lab class instructor fell on me with a rage I hadn’t seen outside of my father’s worst drunken benders. All for flubbing a line because I was daydreaming over the ad copy of a helicopter themed shoot ’em up. To this day, I can’t boot up the Master System version of the game without experiencing a fleeting pang of unease.

Beyond the childhood traumas and Pac-Man bubblegum stickers and Zaxxon boardgames on Caldor’s clearance aisle, there were other avenues besides home consoles for getting one’s game on in 1983. Handheld and tabletop LED games were the rage, an endless supply of licensed and unlicensed ports of popular offerings. We played them with gusto, until the initial set of batteries died and our parents wouldn’t spring for more.

My maternal grandfather, an odd duck of an radar engineer who gave Lil Bro and me our 2600, used to spend his downtime chasing high scores on a Tomy Pac-Man handheld while cursing the Democrats and chainsmoking cigarillos. His preferred gaming spot was the far end chair of my grandma’s kitchen table. It was where he had the stroke that — following four years in a semi-vegetative state — would eventually kill him. He was a couple weeks from retirement when it happened, abnormally chatty about all the things he was going to accomplish with all that free time.

I wasn’t what you’d call a self-starter before my grandpa had his stroke, but seeing what happened to him made me extra-determined not to defer life’s pleasures for the sake of a job.

At the top of the 1983 gaming hierarchy were the gloriously loud and lurid arcade cabinets. Their allure was heightened among my circle because of their limited accessibility. Woburn didn’t have an arcade, and my friends and I wouldn’t discover one in biking distance (Trains & Games in neighboring Wilmington) until the spring of 1984.

The local Boys’ Club had Pac-Man and Donkey Kong Jr cabinets, but was also populated by semi-feral pre-teens who combined Lief Garrett’s wardrobe with Caligula’s sense of human empathy. The public service spots made the place seem like a confidence-building utopia rather than the Lord of the Latchkey Flies scenario it actually was. Opportunities to blow through your lunch money in fifteen minutes trying to learn the basics of the games had to be weighed against discovering new and painful ways your arm could be twisted backwards until you confessed to being a “total gaylord spaz.”

The multiplex and the Bowladrome both hosted a small number of frequently rotated machines, but neither place was open territory for unaccompanied kids uninterested in the central attractions. Gaming in those places was more of an incidental added value to playing a few frames or catching a movie. The multiplex was the first and only time I’d ever see a Looping cabinet in the wild. I couldn’t not get the hang of the flight-stick styles controls with the single quarter and five minutes of experience I had with the game, but I was mesmerized the minimalist, kinetic sculpture aesthetic shown during its attract mode. Looping would be the first arcade game I sought out via emulation, by which point my hazy childhood nostalgia had utterly outstripped the pretty lackluster reality, as these things tend to do.

There were other, more transient places for a North Woburn kid to experience cabinets. Class trips to Canobie Lake Park in Salem, NH invariably involved sneaking off to one of the park’s two arcades, if only to gawp at some older kid work his way through Dragon’s Lair while we tried to figure out how the game actually worked. The carnival held every spring on the Northeast Trade Center grounds (now a huge commercial-retail complex) brought with it an old military tent full of battered pinball tables and videogame cabinets. Stern’s Berzerk was the big draw there, as I dug the run ‘n’ gun simplicity, even if the machine’s voice module had long since shit the bed.

Any other arcade gaming I did in that year came from short sessions during family trips, as every service area or tourist trap typically sported at least one game machine.

As a result of this limited access, I never managed to get particularly good at any of these old arcade games. I enjoy playing them and they hold a historic and nostalgic allure, but I’m lucky if I can clear the first wave of Space Invaders or get past the third board in Pac-Man. The only exceptions to this are Mr. Do and Dig Dug, as I apparently have an innate mastery of the “garden-themed maze-digging mascot” microgenre.

So if if the fate of the world should ever require dropping a heavy object of a cute cartoon character, you know where to find me.

I didn’t set foot into a proper movie theater until I was eight years old, when my aunt took my brother and I to see The Black Stallion at the multiplex across the highway from the North Woburn shopping plaza.

Up until (and even for a few years after) then, the entirety of my big screen viewing experiences took place in the back of my parents’ gas-guzzling domestic dinosaurs at the Billerica drive-in. That’s where I saw Star Wars, Superman, and the cinematic release of the Battlestar Galactica pliot. It was also the first place I ever saw a real live videogame machine (a battered Night Driver cabinet in the snackbar lobby) and heard my first Blondie song (“Heart of Glass,” pumped through a tinny drive-in speaker).

It’s not difficult to figure out why my dad preferred the drive-in to the multiplex. It offered a degree of privacy, which made it easier to cuff the ear of his unruly children and allowed him to knock back a few cold ones from a strategically placed Styrofoam cooler.

1983 would mark the end of my drive-in years, but not before I got a chance to see damaged and poorly spliced prints of D.C. Cab and Rocky III on a double bill branded “T’n’T.” I pity the fool who brainstormed that one, but also admire his trend-chasing gusto.

Gotta gather those gold chains while ye may, sucker. And that’s no jibber-jabber.

(This was the likely genesis of the Mr. T psuedo-fandom — as in “friends and classmates assumed I was a huge fan and give me Mr. T ephemera out of the blue” — that would hang over me until high school, and I would end up leaning into at the dawn of the eBay era.)

Falling between the local cineplex the drive-in on the distribution hierarchy, the Redstone off of Route 28 in neighboring Stoneham was the other main movie venue during my formative years. A model of sleek Space Age opulence when it originally opened, it had gone budget-conscious seamy by the time the early 1980s rolled around. The cheapness made it my mom’s venue of choice when my dad was doing his National Guard thing and she wanted to get my brother and I out of the house.

It was where I saw Clash of the Titans in 1981 and Megaforce in 1982 — both of which my mom mocked relentlessly — and where I dragged to see Superman III the year after that.

I’d already hit that stage in my fandom where my childhood adoration of Superman had started losing ground to the bad-ass broodiness of Wolverine and the adolescent melodrama of the New Mutants, but I hadn’t quite written the character off…until I spent two hours fidgeting through a cinematic misfire so blatant that even a crap-devouring eleven year old geek couldn’t justify the trainwreck unfolding onscreen. It was a “be sure to drink your Ovaltine” moment, and brunt of my disappointment (unfairly) fell on poor Kal-El’s broad shoulders.

1983 was also a watershed in my cinematic experiences because it was the year that my friends and I were first granted the privilege of attending movies without adult supervision. We celebrated this newly won freedom by diving headfirst into the cinematic drek that trailed in the wake of the era’s brief 3-D revival.

Oh, Metalstorm: The Destruction of Jared-Syn

You’ve heard the jokes, made the references, perhaps even caught the actual project on basic cable some afternoon.

I saw it on the big screen. In 3-D. With my pal Scotty and a couple of the neighborhood girls.

For a kid who hadn’t yet seen The Road Warrior and whose quality parameters for action sequences were still calibrated to a Glen Larson made-for-TV baseline, Metalstorm…was still pretty shitty. I was much more interested in the “free” pair of polarized glasses and joining in when the girls made fun of Scotty for dramatically ducking during the pretty lackluster 3-D effects.

I went to see Amityville 3-D with my best pal Artie and a kid named Jason. Jason only lived in the neighborhood for a short time. The area’s abundance of vacant “mother-in-law” apartments and cheap rooms to rent made it a stopover point for recently divorced women and their kids. They’d stick around long enough to finalize the legal business, then take off for a fresh start in Florida or California. Jason wasn’t the first of these transient faces to drift in and out of our circle, nor would he be the last.

The original Amityville Horror flick (caught on HBO during the month my family had cable) was a traumatic milestone in my love of spooky stuff. It gave me nightmares, which my dad would exploit for laughs, which gave me even nastier nightmares. The original “true story” novel was probably the first (and most certainly the thickest) grown-up book I read from cover to cover.

That blind terror mellowed in the three years leading up to the release of Amityville 3-D, but there were still bits residual dread as we walked to the theater. This would be the first “real” (if PG-rated) horror film I’d see on a big screen. Could I take it? Would I panic? Would the other guys call me a wuss?

I needn’t have worried. Some grody FX aside, it could’ve been run as a Dan Curtis direct-to-TV production. I felt pretty good about being able to ride out the flick’s mild horrors, enough to take a perverse glee in later using my aunt’s Ouija board to freak the shit of out of the actually-spooked-by-the-film Artie.

The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, I guess.

Strange Brew, the cinematic spinoff of Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas’s “McKenzie Brothers” SCTV bits, was the third and final of 1983’s “kids only” outings to the multiplex.

It was the funniest movie I had ever seen, though a lot of that had to do with being an eleven year old boy watching it with three other eleven year old boys in the front row of an otherwise empty theater.

It was also responsible for my pals calling each other “hoser” and ending every single one of their sentences with “eh?” for at least a month.

Finally, no discussion of an early adolescent geek’s 1983 in movies would be complete without a few words about Return of the Jedi.

I saw it a few weeks after it premiered. My mom took my brother and I to see it while my dad was doing his “two weeks a year” for the Guard. We caught a weekday evening screening at the multiplex, not the Redstone. I wasn’t expecting it at all, and was as touched by my mom’s generosity as I was excited to finally see the conclusion of something that had been a part of my life since kindergarten.

When I was in the theater, in the moment, caught up in the spectacle, I enjoyed every second of it. When I stepped out the theater into the parking lot afterward, though, I just felt a bit empty.

In truth, the movie itself was an anticlimactic afterthought to the avalanche of comics, photo-mags, toys, and other merchandise which was the real engine powering the franchise by that stage. Every “OH WOW” moment on screen was mentally followed with a “I hope they make a action figure/vehicle/playset of it” and even that toyetic allure was offset by the fact that the increasingly sophisticated and articulated G.I. Joe line had usurped the King of the Toybox crown.

Within a few months, every Star Wars figure my brother and I had would be demoted to extras in our fantasy play pageants, their trusty rides remanded to Cobra or some Real American Heroes.
Even the biggest fans in our circle began talking of the franchise in the past tense as they moved on to other more novel distractions. By the time the following summer rolled around, it was all but forgotten.

Nostalgia is all about counting the hits while ignoring the misses. This is especially true with childhood nostalgia, where youthful affections gain intensity over the temporal distance and blot out less pleasant memories.

The gap between “what was” and “what we choose to remember” has been a recurring theme over AT’s decade of posts. My relationship with the subject has been complicated and sometimes contradictory, with historical curiosity and nostalgic wistfulness existing in a self-perpetuating feedback loop. Come for the old videogame ads, stay to piece together a case study in the dysfunctions of consumer capitalism.

In spotlighting a year as significant as 1983 was for me, there’s a real risk of falling into the nostalgia trap, of letting selective memories of material culture paint a skewed image devoid of the host of horrors that accompanied those flashes of joy — and there were horrors, a’plenty.

For starters, I was eleven years old. When adults celebrate youthful freedom from responsibility, they tend to ignore the agonies of limited agency that are the flip-side of that “blessed” state. I’m talking about the tyrannies — however mild or benevolent — imposed by school, adult authority figures, and other socio-economic factors absolutely beyond a child’s control.

That’s just a universal baseline. The specifics of each individual childhood can be, and too often are, far more harrowing.

In 1983, I lived in a two room apartment with my parents, my little brother, my disabled paternal grandmother, and my teenage aunt. The inherent stresses in such a dynamic were further amplified by economic concerns, with my mother having to take a full-time job after my dad was laid off for a good stretch of time.

The situation also escalated my parents’ ongoing mental health issues, leading to strange and terrifying outbursts which fell on my head with greater frequency — my mom’s weird tendency to violently lash out in response to some random trigger (such as a kid asking for a glass of milk or making irritating noises with his mouth) or my dad’s alcoholic rampages of mental cruelty. Avoiding them in such cramped quarters was nigh impossible.

This was my 1983, as was the mad afterschool rush past the intersection of School and Merrimac Streets, the point at which my elementary school tormentors would give up the chase. Most of the time.

Geekdom’s heroic journey narrative is fond of spinning these horrors into a persecution based on tastes. “The jocks” mocking “the nerd” for liking Star Wars or Spider-Man. These (suspiciously similiar) experiences are in turn used to justify gatekeeping and exclusionary hierarchies of fandom, where the bullied become the bullies.

None of that jibes with my experiences. I was never picked on or called “fag” or physically attacked because I liked comicbooks or videogames. I was picked on because kids can be cruel and spiteful and will instinctively seek out a perceived “weak pigeon” to stand that the bottom of the pecking order.

Maybe it was because of my clothes or my ineptness at kickball or awkward socialization skills. It doesn’t matter, because it was going to be something. if the mark didn’t fall on me, it would’ve fallen on someone..and I’d probably would’ve joined in while thanking the Baby Jesus it wasn’t me.

1983 was when I had the pre-adolescent realization that my childhood friends were on separate life trajectories. Bonds formed through geographic proximity were giving away to ones formed out of shared interests. I was the meek A+ student in a crowd of proto-heshers shifting from childhood hi-jinx to adult criminal behaviors. There was no S.E. Hinton-esque painful moral stands to be made, just an agonizing struggle between the fear of getting dragged along or the fear of being left behind.

All the small-scale personal horrors of 1983 unfolded under the looming dread of the Mother of All Nightmares…

…global thermonuclear annihilation.

It kept me awake at night, wondering if the “birds were in the air” at that very moment. Every siren, every test of the emergency broadcasting system, every new report of global tensions or close calls brought me close to absolute panic.

The terror was even more acute in my household because my father was a defense contractor who also did post-armageddon prep exercises as a sergeant in the National Guard. He didn’t hide any of this from me, and would let me read his leaflets about proper body disposal methods and the effects of radiation exposure.

I was absolutely convinced the world would be engulfed in atomic fire before I saw my teen years. While I don’t buy into that anxiety being the core plank of the Gen X “slacker” pathology, it most certainly inflicted enduring scars on my impressionably youthful psyche.

Going back over those times, I find myself wondering if my embrace of 1983’s high points (relatively and personally speaking) was in direct proportion to the horrors I experienced — points of light in the darkness, and all that.

Up until 1983, the vast majority of the comics I read were back issues or bundled remainders picked up via flea markets or in polybagged three-packs sold at the supermarket checkout aisle. The few new releases that filtered down to me were wild card outliers passed on as gifts or picked up in trades with some incredibly fortunate friend whose out-of-state grandparents happened to live right next to a fully stocked funnybook shop.

Occasionally some almost-new release would turn up in amidst the Ford Era quarter bin overstock — typically some newsprinted proof that the “New DC” wasn’t as unstoppable as advertised — but otherwise my childhood comics fandom involved resigning myself to reading catch-as-catch-can fragments from yesteryear. It affected my tastes and my buying habits. Uncertainty about ever getting to read the conclusion of a multi-issue story meant that I picked up stuff that gave the most bang for my fourth-of-a-buck — guest appearances, giant-size issues, team-ups, or any other cover-level hook that promised to mitigate the frustration of getting stuck with a cliffhanger ending.

That situation began to change in 1983, when my buddy Brian discovered that a local newsvendor had a spinner rack stocked with current funnybook releases. The “local” was somewhat relative, as the place was in the heart of Woburn Center and a good two miles away from the neighborhood where we lived. Getting there as an eleven year old was a major expedition, one that involved a long-ass bike ride and a good deal of deception aimed at disapproving parental units. (My parents were less strict than most, but even they weren’t thrilled with the idea of their eldest crossing the nightmarish Route 128/38 rotary to buy a ‘fucking SU-PER-MAN comic.”)

Brian and I did it, though. Not regularly, but happily. This was also the first time when I had a leg up over my friendly rival on the collecting front. My maternal grandparents lived only a half-dozen blocks from the newsvendor, and the Saturdays I spent at their duplex meant more opportunities to pick up the good shit before Brian could. What I didn’t want could then be used as leverage in trades for stuff of his that I did covet.

While the newsstand was a mostly reliable place to acquire new releases, it didn’t stock double-sized issues or annuals for some reason. Those had to be scored either through the trading grapevine or from the neckbearded dude who used to sell polybagged recent back issues during one of the frequent “collector shows” hosted by the Woburn Mall. It was from him that I picked up the epic finale of the X-Men‘s “Brood Saga” (gorgeously illustrated by Paul Smith) and the tail end of the original Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe‘s run. I devoured both with rapt adoration that would deeply affect my fandom in the years to come.

Even with these increased levels of consumer access, my buying habits hewed closely to those of the guest-star-and-novelty-driven ones of the flea market days. Getting excited about an Air Wave appearance might be a difficult to wrap one’s head around, but it was something new and different to a kid with little knowledge of the cynically speculative side of the industry. After all, why would they team Air Wave up with SUPERMAN if DC didn’t have confidence in the character’s star power? (Yes, I know the question answers itself, but that realization wouldn’t come for another few years and many painful experiences.)

There was a 1983 debut that grabbed me enough that it became the first series I followed from the start and the first series I followed on a regular basis, full stop —

— the New Mutants.

The teen mutant melodrama was a big deal at the time, being the first ongoing spinoff from the speculator-and-fan-favorite X-Men series. As befitting a “big event,” the team made their debut in a prestige format graphic novel. I was given a copy of it (which a still own as loose pages gathered in a tatted cover) as an eleventh birthday gift by my uncle. He also gave me a copy of the first issue of the 1982 Wolverine miniseries signed “All the best, Andy!” by Chris Claremont himself, but it couldn’t top the oversized intro of “the next generation of Marvel mutants.”

The concept hooked me on multiple levels. From a collector’s standpoint, there was something compelling about getting in on the ground floor of what was pitched as the next big thing. From the perspective of a kid hitting the cusp of adolescence, the on-the-nose allegory between pubescent angst and mutant melodrama resonated on a deeply personal level. It was in the same vein as the early Spider-Man stories, but Claremont brought a bit more sensitivity and verisimilitude to the subject matter than Stan the Man could ever muster…while Bob McLeod’s art was more in synch with contemporary teendom than Ditko’s style ever was. (It’s not an absolute question of “who is better,” but rather one of “who was better for that particular moment.”)

And I’m not going to lie — I had a massive crush on Wolfsbane.

After finding the first issue of the ongoing on the spinner rack, I made a dedicated effort to keep up with the series, right down to memorizing the release dates and planning my trips to the shop accordingly. I managed to keep up with it (with a few missed issues) right on up though the bizarre Bill Sienkiewicz run, which I wasn’t crazy about at the time but have since grown to appreciate.

As I got in the habit of following a current series on a regular basis, I started to follow other series as well in the months that followed. All-Star Squadron was a early add, alongside Atari Force, Justice League, and Iron Man. Around the same time, CVS and the Christy’s chain of convenience stores started adding comics to their magazine aisles, making it even easier to keep up with old favorites and try out new (Big Two) things.

By the time I discovered a full-fledged direct market shop within biking distance in late 1984, the new phase of my comics was already in full swing.

1983 is where it began, though, and it continues to color the material for me in odd way to the present day. I’ve collected complete runs around many of the isolated single issues I read back in those days. Whenever I read them en masse, those later purchases are “just comics” to me. The ads and references might elicit small flashes of nostalgia, but the comics are just parts of a narrative stream — until I get to one of the issues I owned back in the day, at which point I get hit with a multimegaton blast of Proustian melancholy. It completely transforms my reading experience, turning dormant memories into lucid flashbacks for eighteen to twenty-two pages. Then it’s back to business as usual.

I guess what I’m saying is that Starfox joining the Avengers is my own personal “episode of the madeleine.”

As a kid, pop music was something I passively encountered rather than actively sought out. The twin vectors of exposure were my parents’ record collection (the Easy Rider OST, the Doors, Neil Diamond) or my elementary school classmates (AC/DC, the Bay City Rollers, the Grease movie soundtrack). Apart from occasionally environmental wild cards — such as getting spooked by Supertramp’s “Logical Song” at a drive-in’s snack bar — these defined the boundaries of my listening experiences.

Things changed up a little after my teenage aunt moved in with us in 1980. While not a dedicated new waver, she alternated the suburban hesher standards of Zep and the Stones with spins of the first Clash LP, early Adam Ant, and the Blues Brothers, inadvertently shaping my tastes in ways that would only become apparent years later.

Mostly I just went along with the flow, paying note to certain songs only if they lent themselves to some satirically scatological interpretation.

Between “Jerkin’ Back ‘n’ Forth” and Greg Kinh’s “The Breakup Song,” my pals and I got a lot belly laughs performing the “jack off” gesture in time with the saliently prurient parts of the songs. If only my current audience was so easy to please.

My aunt’s youthward shift of our domestic incidental music was kicked into overdrive after a cluster of events which took place towards the end of 1982.

1. To help make ends meet after my dad was laid off, my mother took a job at stereo component factory staffed by a motley bunch of wannabe musicians and audiophiles.

2. My family bought a Chrysler Cordoba with an 8-track player, and my mom took advantage of that by picking up a half-dozen recent K-Tel compilations to listen to while driving.

3. My dad got himself a Panasonic boom box to provide tunes when he was out working on his leathery tan.

4. Boston’s 103.3 FM station switched to a “hot hits” format under the WHTT callsign.

5. I hit an age when having specific musical tastes and interests became an essentially part of my pre-adolescent identity.

All of the above also happened to coincide with the high-water mark of the “new music” phenomenon. Though the sounds of the post punk diaspora failed to gel into a full blown fad during the period immediately following disco’s demise, it was given a new lease on life thanks to MTV and the bands’ forward-thinking embrace of the music video format. The paucity of material (abetted by MTV’s whitewashed playlist) and popularity of the format allowed many otherwise “outlandish” acts to go head-to-head — in the public consciousness if not the charts — with the AOR establishment.

Yet while the video aspect was important from an exposure standpoint, it was working in tandem with the equally significant fallout of punk rock’s imperfect paradigm shift which allowed scores of offbeat subgenres to nibble at the fringes of the mainstream. As they disproportionately came to dominate the discourse, they set the tone for unaffiliated acts seeking a slice of that pie.

The dominiance of AOR, soft rock, and smooth R&B wasn’t toppled, but they were forced to share space with artists that, in many cases, qualified as novelty acts. The trend only lasted until the industry could adapt to the new videogenic status quo, but its brief moment arrived the most effective point of personal impact.

It was the soundtrack for a new decade, of pixel-abstracted videogames and chrome-sheened futurism and nuclear dread. It was bizarre and otherworldly, in ways that dovetailed perfectly with an eleven year old geek’s obsession with funnybooks, sci-fi, and the apocalyptic promises of the coming digital era.

It was the awakening of my generational awareness, the sense that these were songs specifically speaking to me.

And so I’d camp out at my mother’s sewing table in our cramped kitchen-slash-dining-room, parked in front of my dad’s boom box, dial turned to WHTT, waiting eagerly for each hourly rotation of my favorite tracks.

It’s shocking how much power these songs still wield over me, even thirty-odd years later. It’s not just limited to the “cooler” stuff that I sought out on used vinyl once my punk puritanism began to slacken in the early 1990s, either.

The slick, the cheesy, the haunting, and the cheesy — they’re all part of that nostalgic tapestry, whether I’d like to admit it or not.

Each time I queue up the Billboard Hot 100 for 1983 as an at work playlist, the number of skip-aheads shrinks in direct proportion to the number of fucks I have left to give.

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