Category Archives: Childhood Memories

Staying Sane at Chuck E. Cheese’s

Remember childhood birthday parties?

I do.

My most memorable childhood birthday party was venued at a kid’s party place called Chuck E. Cheese’s.  It was tagged as “a place where a kid can be a kid.”  They could have added, “and where a parent should be on Xanax.”

Chuck E. Cheese’s, like Gaul, was divided into three parts: the video arcade, the restaurant, and the pit of plastic balls.  For a brief period of time in my life, it was the place to be.  Nintendo was still a few years away, and a room full of video games was a fantasy that most kids had only heard about in books.  There was also skee-ball, and a mechanical seat that spun vertically on an eight-foot disc, just so that no parent would be deprived of the anxiety that a kid would fall on their watch.  There were no windows, and the dim lighting punctuated by glowing neon beckoned children as they ran from game to game, their little pockets filled with tokens that bore the visage of Mr. Cheese.  It was a lot like a casino.

The restaurant area was next to the arcade.  I don’t remember them serving anything other than pizza.  Even then, it was not so much pizza as a child’s conception of pizza.  It was as if someone had taken an already baked crust, poured on tomato sauce straight from a jar, threw on a few individually wrapped slices of cheese, and placed it in a microwave that said “Fisher Price” in the top right corner.  A pie of this toy pizza cost only $15, with an additional $3 for Maalox.

Whilst dining, the children were entertained by band of robots dressed to look like Chuck E. Cheese and his entourage.  When the music played, the robots would jerk their heads and shoulders around, and their arms would hold up instruments.  If you ate enough pizza, you could pretend you were seeing Joe Cocker dressed as a mouse.

The best part of hosting a birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese’s was that the kids were constantly running around and screaming.  In the melee it was hard to keep track of which kids had been picked up by their parents, and which ones might be still be snorkeling in the ball pit.

My father went looking for the missing, but he was told that you had to be under 4 feet tall to enter the pit.  So he had to rent an ocean-floor sonar scanner to find the rest of my guests.  While the machine was on someone thought it was a video game and lodged a token in the circuits, and my father couldn’t get his deposit back.

Finally, the guests had either left or the search ended, and my parents and I sat amidst a pile of wrapping paper, pizza crusts, and a cake that an aspiring acupuncturist had poked with a thousand stabs of a plastic fork.  I don’t remember blowing out the candles, and I don’t remember unwrapping the gifts.  But the look of relief on my parents’ faces as we walked to the car will stay with me forever.

Did you have a memorable birthday party as a child?  Did you ever throw your child a birthday party and survive?

Inspired by “The Birthday Party, by the numbers,” by Leanne Shirtliffe at IronicMom.com.

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Remember Playing Board Games?

Remember playing board games?

I do.

When I was a child we did not have HBO or video games or a computer, so if I wanted to have fun I had to either set something on fire or play a board game.

Candy Land was where I matched my wits against other members of my family.  The object was to advance your piece along the path until you reached the gum drop castle or you got up and quit in a huff because it looked like your little brother was going to get there first.  There was a stack of cards, each with the picture of another sweet food like a candy cane, peanut brittle, or an ice cream bar, and whichever card you pulled, that was the space on the board you advanced to.  The ice cream bar space was the closest to the end, so one time I fixed the cards so that I would pick the card with the ice cream bar.  My plan was foolproof.  But it was not momproof.  My mother made me go first and I ended up pulling the card for soy chips, automatically losing the game.

When I got a little older my father taught me how to play chess.  I had thought he said “chest” and that the felt on the bottom of the pieces would be used to stick the pieces to our chests.  I was disappointed when the pieces stayed on the board, but my disappointment turned to glee when I beat my father my very first time playing.  I bragged about it for the next twenty years until my father told me in an email that he let me win.

In the late 1980s my family succumbed to a massive TV ad campaign for Mouse Trap.  The point of Mouse Trap was to go around a board collecting pieces of cheese and assembling plastic pieces into a complex mechanism where at the end someone would turn a crank and set the little plastic pieces in motion that culminated in a plastic cage that looked like a small overturned laundry basket falling down on the little mouse-pieces, “trapping” them.  The game would have been great if the mechanism worked.  But it only worked on the commercial.  In real life you had prod each component of the game until it did what it was supposed to do.  Only a mouse that was already dead or had given up on life would have gotten caught in Mouse Trap.

There was Monopoly, where my strategy was to collect the cheap properties and jack up the rents like a slum lord.  And Trivial Pursuit, where I always answered the questions in the form of a question, like Jeopardy, until someone flicked a small plastic wedge at my eye.  And the Game of Life, which required so little strategy that it must have been designed by a Calvinist.

Scrabble was a game changer.  I would comb the dictionary for obscure words that were short and contained the letter “e” to use on my opponents.  The word “en” was my favorite, even though it was a prefix.  Nobody called me out on it, and I was reigning champion until someone told the authorities that I was forming words diagonally.

The board games for adults are very different.  There is a lot more dependence on TV trivia or awkward topics or devices that make noise.  One time I was at a party where I was forced into playing a game that had a digital timer that started beeping loudly if you took too much time to think of movies starring Kevin Bacon.  The noise was so irritating that when everyone else got up to look at a YouTube video of a stranger falling down the stairs, I tossed the device out the fifth-story window into the alley below.  I played dumb when they asked what happened to it, but I don’t think they believed me.

I was visiting my ancestral home last weekend, and during the time of the visit where my mother sends me to the basement to throw out more of my “junk” I came across Candy Land.  I wanted to take out the board, fix the order of the cards, and challenge my brother to a rematch.  But I knew it would not be the same as I remembered.  I was too mature to play games.  So I put the box down, covered it with old issues of Highlights, and told my mother that I’d thrown it out.

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Remember Playing Hangman?

Remember playing hangman?

I do.

Sometime in the last century they stopped hanging people for real (at least in most States) and converted the activity into a word game. The game was played by two people. One person would think of a word and draw a row of blank spaces, one space for each letter of the word. Above the blanks would go a little picture of a gallows. The other player would guess one letter of the mystery word at a time. If a letter was part of the word, the first player would fill in the appropriate blank. If the letter was not part of the word, the first player would draw in the hanged man, one piece at a time. Guess wrong once and a straight line would come down from the gallows, representing the noose. Guess wrong again and a circle would be drawn for the head. Enough bad guesses and there would be a hanged stick figure on the page and the game would be lost.

I never understood why the hanged man was necessary. The game was just Wheel of Fortune but without the wheel and and without the fortune. But this was in the time before portable devices that held video games and media players. Kids just today just don’t understand – back then, if we wanted to goof off during class, we had to play hangman. I guess even back then our games had to have a violent component.

Most of my hangman memories are from Hebrew School. I don’t know why I would have chosen to play this inane word game instead of learning about Moses and Matzoh and how to light the Sabbath candles. There must have been a lot of peer pressure.

I just found on online site where you can play hangman. I wanted to see what it like, just one more time. The topic was “countries” and the word turned out to be Switzerland. I figured it out in five seconds and not one piece of the hanged man appeared. When I had guessed all the letters the stick body formed all at once and the gallows collapsed behind it, freeing the stick body. I wanted to gloat and cheer, to bask in the glow of victory over my opponent and over the classroom wall clock.

But I was alone. And the only time I had wasted wasted was my own.

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