Kids have funny ideas about what’s cool, and about what’s cooler.
So-so looking girls get all the attention if they act like they’re pretty, and better than you.
Boys climb to the top of the social food chain with a blast of bluster and a dash of jerkface.
And toys — well, they often gain acclaim based on how forbidden they are.
In the late 1980s, the first wave of handheld video games hit the playground scene, and I was smitten. But I was also out of luck because my dad thought they were a) a fad, b) overpriced, c) a waste of time.
A couple of my friends scored the goods, though, and chief among the cherished beep-blippers was the Coleco Electronic Quarterback. Released in 1978, Quarterback allowed you to play football by moving a red dash around a screen full of other red dashes, aiming for the end zone, naturally.
It was crude, annoying to listen to if you weren’t playing, frustrating if you were playing because how did you get tackled if no one actually touched you?
And it was magical.
I mean, we all watched football on television every Sunday because there wasn’t much else on and because we were boys. Following the NFL was our birthright. Or birth expectation, maybe.
It was also hard to come by. Of all the handheld games dominating indoor recess that winter, only one kid had an actual Coleco.
Problem for me was that he was a jock.
See, your friends would usually let you get your hands on their new toys if you were real nice to them. And bribed them.
But if you were a nerd, there was no way to butter up or bribe a jock that didn’t result in mortification or partial dismemberment on the kickball field.
So I just watched, um, “Chuck” and his gorilla buddies play QB every day, and I ate my heart out.
That was OK, though, because I had my own circle. And about that time, we were deep into our Happy Days phase.
And, somehow, I had finagled my way into the role of Recess Fonz. OK, OK … it was because my parents bought me a switchblade comb. And when I whipped out that baby and flicked it open, then ran it through my hair with a rasp, “Ayyyyyy!” … who could resist?
Most kids, as it turned out, but not my crowd.
So I had my switchblade with me all the time, nestled in my back pocket, ready for action at any moment — at recess, during reading or math, in art class, on the bus.
As it turned out, it was “on the bus” that changed everything.
See, Chuck’s home life wasn’t all that stable, and his parents moved around a lot (within the community, though). And one day, Chuck showed up on my bus ride home.
Not just on my ride, but in my seat — the bus driver assigned us to sit together.
It was an uncomfortable pairing, him knowing I wasn’t cool, I knowing he was cool.
But then we started talking, about school and sports, since we both followed football. And then about toys.
Of course, I knew he had that beautiful Quarterback with him and, to my surprise, he knew about my Fonz comb.
“Wanna trade?” Chuck said. I was shocked, but …
Had to play cool. Couldn’t let him know I was about to puke from excitement.
Flipped open the switchblade. Closed it up. Flipped it open. Closed it up.
Looked at Chuck.
“What did you have in mind” I asked.
“You take the football game for tonight, and I’ll take the comb. We’ll switch back in the morning.”
Scratched my chin. Squinted my eyes. Flipped open the switchblade. Closed it up. Finally … nodded.
“Alright, Chuck,” I said. “But don’t break it.” As if my comb was the prize here.
“Deal,” he grinned, and we traded.
Oh, what a blissful night of football I had! And the next day, Chuck wanted to make the trade again.
And the next after that.
And the next after that.
In fact, we subscribed to the Toy Exchange Program for at least a couple of weeks, until his parents got suspicious that he’d lost or demolished his game.
Then the jig was up.
But I had learned a couple of important lessons.
First … cool is in the eye of the beholder.
And second, video games really are cooler than combs.
I even gained a new friend out of the deal, at least for a few weeks and when we were on the school bus.
Coolness has its limits, after all.