Of all the columns I have written, this is the one for which I get the most requests. On Dec. 24, only a Grinch would run something different.
Every other Christmas, in the guise of Santa, my kindly father would place under the tree a game that held an oddly wondrous appeal both for him and for us. The game was called simply “Electric Football.”
I say “oddly” because Electric Football may well have been the single worst game ever created. The “every other year” was a necessary interval to help us forget just how bad the game really was.
The “us” in question were my brother Bob and I, “Irish twins,” born less than a year apart. This under-reported but agonizing condition climaxed for us each year at Christmas, as it was the two weeks from Dec.15 until Dec. 30 that “we were the same age,” a half-truth my mother never tired of repeating, much to our irritation, even to complete strangers.
Irish twinhood was particularly galling for my older, bigger and meaner brother. No longer having age to confirm his status a priori, Bob would have to prove it at every opportunity, electric football chief among them.
The game was simple enough. It consisted of a metallic board, painted green and striped in the configuration of a football field, with grandstands of mini-enthusiasts painted on either side. Beneath the playing field was a motor, which caused the board to vibrate noisily at the flip of a switch. The vibrations excited the 22 little molded plastic players and goosed them brainlessly forward.
There were complications, however, severe ones. The men, such as they were, could only move in one direction – unless of course their little Scotch-tape like gliders were bent, in which case they would wander aimlessly in circles.
The designated quarterback had a mechanical arm no stronger or more reliable than my baby sister’s. Worse, he had no one to throw to. All the other players were either crouching or throwing imaginary stiff-arms. No player was in any which way constructed to catch much of anything.
Given these limitations, a pass was considered a “reception” if it merely hit a player, which in itself would require a small miracle. Besides, the “ball” was a just a little bit of fuzz that resembled nothing so much as belly button lint and rarely ever survived to the 26th.
To pull off a single play, each of us “coaches” would have to line up all 11 of his players one at a time – initially at least in a standard football configuration – flick the switch, and watch helplessly as chaos ensued.
Video: Electric Football
The lint-ball carrier would invariably bump into the back of his own linemen – all caught in a mindless, noisy scrum–get turned sideways and head out of bounds. Often, the runner would get completely turned around and wobble cheerfully toward the opposite goal line. In either case, once the play was completed, we would then have to gather all the wandering players like so many stray sheep, line them up again, scold them for being so stupid, and start the mayhem anew.
Typically, it would take us only a play or two before Bob got impatient. He would start by merely nudging his guys in the right direction, but soon enough he would be picking up confused players and putting them down in the open field, knocking my guys over, and even throwing his own lint-ball passes. Of course, I had to do the same.
We were no longer coaches. We were gods – rival, irate, interventionist ones in the Greek tradition. Within half an hour, the game invariably ended in Armageddon, not quite as total as when Bob threw the hassock at my army men and called it an H-Bomb, but Armageddon nonetheless, the men all scattered and knocked asunder, the great god of war, Bob, angry and brooding, the great god of suffering, Jack, off whining to our always patient father.
“OK, so it wasn’t a perfect simulation of football,” comments an Electric Football website with charitable understatement. Indeed, had there been such a thing as class action law suits 50 years ago, Electric Football would not have made it to year two, and we would have been all the poorer for its demise.
What amazed me most at the time was that my father put up with all this. Dad was the unrivaled king of value, the great scourge of waste. Like most parents in that era, he had grown up in the Depression, but his depression started years before everyone else’s when, as an 8-year-old, his dipsomaniac old man headed for work one day and never returned, never to be heard from again, not one word.
Left alone with his carping, arthritic mother, my father lived an early life straight out of Dickens. When he wanted to play football as a boy, he would construct an ersatz ball out of a number 10 can that he wrapped in newspapers – or so he told us, often – and could never understand why we were not content to do the same.
I remember coming across his high school yearbook once and was surprised to see him in uniform in the football team picture. When I asked my father why he never talked about playing on the team, he said that it was because he never actually did. Always kind and self-sacrificing, he spent every Saturday doing chores for his crippled mom. Although a bruising 6-foot, 200-pounder, “Big Bill” could practice but never play.
His yearbook held another surprise. Under his class of 1936 picture (Newark Central, Junior Soprano’s alma mater) it listed as his choice of college “Georgia Tech.” If a pre-teen is capable of existential sadness, that is exactly what I felt at the moment. Even as a 12-year-old, I knew my father had no more hope of going to Georgia Tech than I had of going on the Mercury’s mission first sub-orbital flight. Maybe less. And just when America was pulling out of the Depression, just when my father could begin to dream just a little, Uncle Sam called and employed his vo-tech skills deep in the belly of a Pacific-bound LST.
But this was a new era. JFK was in the White House, Lombardi was in Green Bay, and Sputnik was in space. For my old man, a lover of football and things technical, Electric Football captured the essence of the age. He was in awe of it. Even he could not construct an Electric Football game out of old newspapers. And so he indulged us.
My father would not live to see the day when an electronic player could juke a defender out of his drawers. He died much too soon, on the final day of the Christmas season, in fact, Jan. 6, 1963, the day the tree came down, the last day my brother and I squabbled.
I imagine him now, though, in a finer place, one where all the sadness has lifted, one where all the players get to play on Saturday and all their fathers get to watch, and, at the end of the day, even poor kids get to go to Georgia Tech.
Jack Cahill’s brand new book illustrates how the neo-Puritan progressive movement came to mimic a religion in its structure but not at all in its spirit — order “Scarlet Letters: The Ever-Increasing Intolerance of the Cult of Liberalism”
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