It was Mario’s fault, in the end, or the Princess finally being found in the right castle. Either way, in 1989, my Dad split his head open and needed half a dozen stitches the night before he and my Mom were to fly to Rome, Italy as a celebration gift for the Los Angeles Dodgers winning the World Series. How, you may be asking, is any of this Mario's, or the Princess, or Bowser’s fault at all? Simple, really. Back then, times were simpler, things were better, and joy was easier to come by. Probably not, but I’m saying it was because nostalgia is a warm fuzzy drug of a thing, and I like the haze it fogs my eyes with, slow mist over the seas of them, I like the way it feels to remember. I digress. Here’s the scoop: We finally got a Nintendo Entertainment System (NES for short, from here on out) for Christmas that year, the marquee gift of all marquee gifts, the show stopper, the mouth dropper, the scream maker. It was the last thing we opened, we three kids of Gregson lore, and we opened it together. It came with Super Mario Brothers, and it came with Duck Hunt, bundled together with a little fake gun and more magic than I even know how to describe to anyone born after the year 2000. Plain and simple, we were kings and queens now, we were the pinnacle of technological advancement, we were the recipients of an alien-like gift from the gods of Christmas. Santa, plain and simple, won.
Fast forward a few weeks, and picture the scene: We’re all huddled around a tiny television set, the archaic cube without a remote, and a sweaty-palmed 11-year-old version of my sister Rian is clutching the two-buttons and a D-Pad controller, frantic and feverish, on level 8-4 of the original Super Mario Brothers game. After 7 prior levels of defeating Bowser’s minions only to be thanked and told that our princess was in another castle, we knew we were on the doorstep of greatness, and of rescue. Bowser came, and came again, eroding the extra lives we’d stockpiled along the way, and after a clever and crafty series of jumps, sprints, and dodges, Mario, by way of Rian’s greatness, landed on the final axe, cutting the rope, dropping Bowser into the lava pits of hell he belonged in. Here, friends, before sad Bowser’s body fell, before the reunion with the princess could even occur, is when the head-splitting occurred. In a fit of hysterical joy at Mario’s scoot under Bowser’s massive dragon-dino feet, my Dad let out a yawp of epic proportions, and jumped higher than a Harlem Globetrotter on a pogo stick…directly into the low-hanging beam that separated the living room and his baseball room. Blood, kids, blood instantly, and that yawp transformed to a shout and a Home Alone, Harry from the Wet Bandits conglomeration of curse words and grumbles, that jump transformed into a hustle to the Emergency Room, some quick stitches, and then before I even knew what happened, they were off the next morning to Italy for 10 days. I stayed behind with my sisters and my grandmother, and was forced to scrape all the popcorn texture off the ceilings in the kitchen while they were gone, but that’s a story for a different day, and no, I’m not still bitter. Yes I am.
So, why the story hour, you may be asking? What is the point of this dip back into the annals of my history? Because dammit, we’re shaped by the things we remember from our simpler times, and unfortunately for all you born after the 80s, I’m sorry to say, your times were just not as simple as those of us born in them, or before them. I know, I know, all you older than me (I’ll be 41 this Summer, which is insane to me, as I feel like I’m stuck at 12 in so many ways) will say that your times were even simpler, and that may be, but I’ll be damned if they were as Rad as mine. The 80s, the 90s, oof baby, they were the epitome of cool. This is an ode to those times, those pre-smartphone/pre-internet days where people actually had to talk to one another, shaking like a leaf when they had to call their crush to invite them to a dance, the 20 foot long curly phone cord bouncing in rhythm with our heartbeats, flying like hummingbird wings into the unknown mystery that was the 10 seconds between the ask, and the answer. This is an ode to the packs of Gushers that you crossed your fingers until bruised hoping for in your brown-bag lunch, to the side-eyed jealous glances at the kids who were rich enough to afford REAL Lunchables, while you ate a PB&J that got squished in the middle by your apple. This is to how Jolt Cola was the booze of our adolescence, the dangerous drink only certain parents would allow at a birthday party, those brave souls battling through sugar-highed-caffeine-crazed-teenagers squealing like banshees at the great everything that surrounded them. This is to the Hypercolor shirts, and the random huffing on the shoulder of them by people you hardly knew, just to see the slightly darker shade of purple it’d turn. Mouthprints left for those strange lingering moments before it returned to pink again. This is to Dawson’s Creek, and the way we all wished we spoke like they did, loved like they did, dressed like they did, to Saved By The Bell and the hard-earned lessons in popularity, sex, and getting in copious amounts of trouble at school. Yes, I did get in trouble, yes a lot. Autism + Montana + 80s and 90s did not equal proper understanding or care.
This is to the revolution that was the Gameboy, a world of silly video games in our fingertips, to the little light they sold that had to slide on so you could play in the dark. This is to Tetris, to the acid-trip that was Super Mario Brothers 2. This is to Zelda, and how Zelda was the princess not the main dude, despite forgetting that every time. This is to the sleepovers with scary movies, the dirt clod fights outside on a Spring day, to kick-the-can and red rover red rover send Tyler right over, to the brace against the tidal wave that was your friend that probably started puberty earlier than the rest of you and felt like a battering ram against your arms linked with a classmates. A nod, if you will, to the spinning metal merry-go-rounds that snapped more arms than Jean Claude Van Damme, toddlers hooked to those whirling dervishes and spinning around at 3,000 rpms by their little jackets, here’s to the monkey bars still 11 feet off the ground, despite being placed on the kindergarten playground. Times were simpler, we were perfectly pleased with Dunkaroos and Rollerblades, Fruit by the Foot and Chef Boyardee, and we only needed 8bit soundtracks to our video games, only pixels instead of 4K clarity.
Really, this is just my way of saying I miss those times, and I am sad for all the kids coming up today that won’t know the pure freedom and unbridled mystery and magic before the internets swopped in and ruined all things. In lieu of alarm sounds and reminder apps, we had our mothers standing on the front porch, screaming loud enough that our ears could hear the dinner call all the way to the borders of the “don't go beyond zone,” in place of Find Friends, we had the trust that we’d sort it out on our own, and we’d use street lights flickering their way back to life as the signal that it was probably time to start heading home, probably filthy, probably bleeding, and probably filled with memories of such magnitude we would swear we were the stars of our own cinematic victories, be they as superheroes or Tour De France winners, Michael Jordan hitting the last three pointer as the clock counted down 3, 2, 1 bzzzzzz. This is to the sandlot, to the water balloon fights, to the municipal pool and the lying on your stomach on the scalding sidewalk to warm yourself from the frozen pool water. To the empty houses we walked our tired asses back to every day after school, to those 2 hours of total solitude, the wild wild West of the day when anything could happen, before our folks returned from work. We were the latch-key kids, and we’d have it no other way.
I think often back to those days, and the only word I keep coming back to is a word I’ve repeated in this Signal Fire probably 15 times already…Simplicity. I am sure every member of every generation looks back on their own youth with the same rose colored hue, and that’s fine, but I’ll stand by and fight for the viewpoint that there’s been a shift since then, that my generation is the last best generation before the World Wide Web shrunk the planet, convinced us all things were a lot more dangerous than they really are, and replaced true connection with social medias, nerve-wracking beautiful phone calls with “You’ve Got Mail” sent out on enough CD-ROM disks to build an island. We never worried about the best filters to put on our shitty sunset photos, because we weren’t taking shitty sunset photos, we were watching them, with dripping Otter Pop juice all over our hands, we weren’t misunderstanding some silly Facebook post, because our Facebook was a yearbook, and we were telling people to have fun in the sun and get laid in the shade. We actually knew our neighbors, and as kids we knew every house that was a MacGruff house, we played outside instead of VR’d our way through some phony landscape, we filled the twilight with sounds of hide and seek, the rhythm of a Skip-It clicking over cement, basketballs dribbling on the blacktop. We’re the last, and it breaks my heart, because I know we are shaped by the times we fill our youth with, and so I look with backwards glance and heavy heart knowing that no one will ever have it that way again, knowing that as much as I float away in my own silly memory and imagination, I too, can never go back, never have it that way again.
Thirty years from now, some 40 year old writer will be writing something just like this, speaking of the lost artifacts of their youth, the PS5s and the kombucha, about Euphoria on HBO and how Zendaya was the idol of all idols, and that’s just fine. For me, I’ll take my Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio Romeo and Juliet, my Joey Potter and Pacey Witter, my Jordan Catalano and whatever Claire Dane’s character was named, Angela I think. I’ll take the 3D Doritos and the Pepsi Challenge, the Starter jackets and how Bubblicious was black market currency in the halls of our middle school. I’ll take the simplicity, I’ll take that last perfect blip of absolute freedom. I’ll take it, and I’ll remember it all, like I’m locking it inside my brain, like I’m stitching it up and stitching it in after some blissful elation that rose up like a fever in my Dad the moment Rian helped conquer Mario Brothers for the first time.
With a backwards glance
I look at all that shaped us,