Christmas Eve at Mema’s

It’s Christmas Eve and I am five years old. I am at Mema and Pepa’s house for a big Christmas Eve party. Packed into the small sunroom at the back of the house are Aunt Karen and Cousin Nick, Aunt Jeneane and Uncle George, Aunt Chris, Great Aunt Marian, and of course Mema and Pepa, my parents, and my baby sister Valerie.  The picture windows reveal fresh-falling snow against the nighttime sky while the wood burning stove keeps the room all toasty and warm.

Presents are being handed to us kids faster than we can open them. Mom asks me who that Thundercat action figure is from, trying to formulate a thank-you card list in her head. It’s too late, Mom, that was three presents ago and I don’t even remember who gave me the one I am opening right now.

Christmas music plays softly in the background, just beneath the sound of ripping wrapping paper, the click-clack-flash of cameras, the clinking of glasses, and of course the sounds of laughter. I swear I just heard a “Ho Ho Ho!” from the other room. I think it was Pepa, but it honestly wouldn’t surprise me if Santa himself couldn’t resist making a brief cameo at this shindig.

The food that is laid out on the dining room table looks like it could feed a group ten times this size. Turkey, ham, mashed potatoes, stuffing, gravy, salad, biscuits, green bean casserole, cranberry sauce. Of course I’m too picky to appreciate half of it at age five, but even I can’t deny that the aroma in the air is enough to make your stomach growl.

Nick and I stage an epic fight between my Silverhawks and his Ninja Turtles, ducking behind piles of presents that form the battlefield. The floor is covered with cookies, Muscle Men, Ghostbuster Cereal, Pee-Wee colorforms, and trucks that go wheelies. We play and giggle until we are exhausted.

Finally the time comes to trek back out into the snow and pile into the car. It’s freezing cold in the back seat and my mom wraps a blanket around me. As we drive home I look at my little sister asleep in her carseat. I look out the window at the snow, still falling so gently down from the pitch-black sky. I stare in wonder at each house that is lit up with Christmas lights as my eyelids start to get heavy. I think about the fact that tomorrow morning is Christmas, and there will be even more presents and fun to be had.

I drift off to sleep in the back seat feeling warm, safe, and content. That feeling is what Christmas Eve is to me.

Media Play Nights & Pizza Hut Buffet

If you don’t remember the store Media Play, you missed out on what was probably the coolest store of all time (“all time” meaning if you were a teenager growing up in the 90s). Looking for a new CD or DVD? Maybe the latest video game? How about a poster for your bedroom wall? Perhaps a book or magazine? A t-shirt of your favorite band, or a bumper sticker, or an action figure? Pretty much everything that my siblings and I were into circa 1999.

My younger sister Val and I were members of Media Play’s illustrious Rewards Club. It’s not an uncommon idea now, but at the time it was a bit more innovative: you get a club card that keeps track of your purchases and racks up points every time you buy something. Once you get X number of points, you can get coupons for free stuff. The best part? Once every few months Media Play would host a V.I.P. night where the store stayed open late for members only and you earned triple points on everything you bought. They also had free snacks and drinks, and they even brought in a live band a couple of times to really make it feel like a big deal.

These V.I.P. nights debuted right as three other stars happened to align: I had my driver’s license, I got my own car, and I was able to drive after 9:00 p.m. This opened up the whole new world of possibilities that came with not having to ask Mom and Dad for a ride anymore. Any time a letter came in the mail informing us of an upcoming V.I.P. night (that’s right, they notified you by mail – nowadays it would surely be an email or a text alert sent to your phone), we would clear our schedules and start making a list of what we wanted to shop for.

I’m not sure when the first time was that we invited our little brother Josh to come along as a “special guest,” but he quickly became a staple of our MP outings as well. Being able to be out somewhere, just the three kids, no adult supervision – at night, no less! – was a real thrill. Sometimes we didn’t even buy anything if money was tight or nothing caught our interest that night (it was rare, but it happened). Just the fun of going out and doing something was enough to make it exciting.

Media Play just happened to be right next to Friendly’s, so the tradition of getting ice cream for the ride home was quickly added to the routine.

The other recurring outing for the Dimino kids was Pizza Hut Lunch Buffet. This one was harder to coordinate because they do not do the buffet on weekends, so it would have to be done on a day off or half day from school. We took Pizza Hut Buffet very seriously. All the pizza, pasta, and breadsticks you could eat (and salad, but let’s not kid ourselves, we weren’t there to eat salad) for like five bucks? This was not just a good deal, this was an opportunity we had to take full advantage of.

Timing was critical. You wanted to get there right at the start of the buffet so the freshest pizza would be available and you would have the maximum amount of time to eat. Pacing yourself was key, though. Down too much food right out of the gate and you were bound to hit the wall too fast. We would often remind each other to take breaks, using the downtime as an opportunity to scope out what new pizzas may have come out in the last few minutes. We had to keep a special watchful eye out for the elusive “plain cheese,” as that was the one and only pizza that Josh would eat. On the ride home we would compare notes on who had eaten the most, tallying up our total slices consumed. (By the time we got home the triumph had usually turned to regret as we all began to question why we had eaten so much, but that last part was forgotten by the time the next PHB outing rolled around.)

I look back on this era of MP Nights and Pizza Hut Buffets fondly. In many ways, this was when Val, Josh, and I stopped being just siblings, and started to really become friends.

Murder At The Convent: The True Story Revealed

Every year on Easter we have a big family reunion at my Great Aunt Marian’s convent. Relatives come from all over, many flying in from out of state to attend the annual gathering and share in a good meal, visit with family and catch up with everyone.

Well one year (circa 1999) I brought my video camera, and my cousin Nick and I thought it would be a fun idea to shoot a murder mystery during the family reunion.

It was kind of carrying on a tradition in a weird sort of way.  When Nick and I were little kids we used to have sleepovers at the convent sometimes (that sounds a little strange now that I am typing it here, but trust me, it’s cool), and we would always come up with some kind of play or skit to perform in the courtyard for Aunt Marian and any other nuns that might be lucky enough to be around to attend.  This was just an extension of that, only with a video camera this time.

The convent was a place that truly captured our imaginations when we were little.  It was so huge to us as kids, with long hallways that seemed to stretch on for miles, dozens of rooms, and a small chapel at the end of one hallway.  Spending the night there was like the setting for some kind of Narnia-esque adventure tale.

So that Easter, while most of our relatives were contemplating a second plate of ham and talking about how much the kids had grown over the last year, we were planning out our murder mystery movie.  “Murder At The Convent” would feature Nick and myself as two police detectives investigating a homicide at a convent.  The victim, one of the nuns, was killed by a young orphan in her care (played by my brother Josh), but we would need to do some detective work to figure that out of course.  Here was the fun twist that we came up with – our relatives were going to be in the movie without knowing what it was.  We would interview them, in character as police detectives investigating the people who knew the murdered sister, without our loved ones knowing we were throwing them into the middle of a murder scene.

Nick was brilliant.  He never broke character.  Every question he asked to an aunt or cousin seemed like he was talking about our dear Aunt Marian, but it also worked in the context of a detective investigating a murder.  No one seemed to pick up on the fact that he kept talking in the past tense somehow.  “So she WAS” this, or “So she DID” that… At one point he had to clarify that “I even find myself referring to her as Aunt Marian” to explain why his detective character would be calling the deceased his aunt.

Through the course of these interviews we ended up getting some pretty heartfelt responses from relatives who thought we were interviewing them about Aunt Marian.  Aunt Virginia talked about how Aunt Marian helped Aunt Penny learn to play the piano and inspired her to play at a level far beyond other girls her age.  Cousin Martie talked about how Aunt Marian always seemed to be able to find the perfect Christmas present for everyone.  Some of the little kid cousins raved about the egg hunt that she organized as part of the Easter gathering every year (they were also apparently under the impression that she hand-made all the candy).

And because of this, the rumor got out that we were making a tribute video to Aunt Marian.  And the rumor made its way back to us, because now everyone wanted to know when we were going to show the tribute video.

That was pretty much when we realized how horrible this was going to be, when a room full of our relatives from all over the country gathered together to watch a loving tribute video to our great aunt, a nun, the woman who tirelessly organized and hosted a gigantic family reunion for everyone year after year… only to find that they are watching a movie where we have seemingly killed that dear sweet woman off.

The last few minutes of the video are a hastily recorded apology, where Nick and I sheepishly say that we never meant for it to go this far and that we really love Aunt Marian and meant no disrespect, and then we pull about a dozen of the little kid cousins into the room and everyone says in unison “We love you, Aunt Marian!”

Even so, we could not bring ourselves to show the video.  We did debate it for awhile.  Could we get away with it, maybe if we issued some type of disclaimer before we started it, explaining all of this?  Well, considering the opening scene is my cousin Nick, wearing a sheet like a habit, kneeling in front of the altar in the chapel, when you hear a loud BANG sound effect…  no, we could not show this video.  We had made a horrible mistake.  This video could never be shown to anyone, ever.

We put the camera away.  Anyone who asked about the tribute was told that we were not able to finish it and that we would have to show it some other time. 

A select few have seen it since then.  They know the story and they think it’s hilarious.  Some of it actually is quite funny.  As I said before, Nick’s ad-libbed, dual-meaning interview questions are truly something to behold.  And the unprompted thoughts and feelings of the relatives who really are sharing true stories about Aunt Marian are touching. 

(But even now, 15 years later, I wouldn’t show that thing at the Easter reunion if you paid me to!)

The Glory Days of Chuck E. Cheese

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The Chuck E. Cheese restaurants of today bear little resemblance to the one I knew from my childhood in the 1980s.  Today the inside of a Chuck E. Cheese is wide open so you can easily see everyone and everything from wall to wall.  The tables where you eat your pizza, the video games, the rides, and the tiny little stage with one single animatronic singing Chuck E. are well within anyone’s view no matter where you are.

In the 1980s Chuck E. Cheese was the kid equivalent of the wild west.  As a parent it was a nightmare because it was nearly impossible to keep an eye on your kid at all times.  As a kid it was awesome because it was nearly impossible for your parents to keep an eye on you.

The Chuck E. Cheese of the 1980s was split up into three or four different rooms or areas.  There was the main dining room where you could sit down, eat pizza, and watch as six or seven animatronic characters sang and danced for your entertainment (each one appeared in their own little “window” – Chuck E. was one of them of course, along with a bird, a dog, a purple monster, and an Italian chef who I presume was the one who allegedly made the pizza you were eating). Then there was another, smaller dining room that featured a full size animatronic character that was some kind of Elvis knockoff cat or something.  Outside that dining room was a hallway with row upon row of arcade-style video games that led into an even bigger game room, with more arcade games, some small rides, and then the big train that you could ride on as well (into a tunnel, where, again, your parents couldn’t see you).  So if you were a parent out with a group of kids, unless there was a 1 adult to 1 kid ratio in your group you were pretty much guaranteed to lose track of someone at some point.

As a kid it was pretty much the most exciting place you could possibly go.  It seemed huge, and the multiple rooms just added to the sense of mystery and wonder about it.  As much fun as your were having, you were always kind of wondering if maybe there was something even more fun you could be doing elsewhere.  It was the only place you could sit down with the absolute best kid-food in the world – pizza – right in front of you, and you barely even cared about it because you were so eager to go dive into the ball crawl or ride the little Chuck E. merry-go-round.  So you inhaled your pizza, guzzled down a glass or two of sugary soda, then darted off at full speed into a world of fun and games.

There was always kind of a feeling like you shouldn’t be there.  It was dark, it was loud, there were flashing lights, and those robots that were so cool were also at least a little bit scary.  It was like you were on Pleasure Island from Pinocchio.  If you stayed there long enough you were probably going to turn into a jackass.

At one point, in one of the most ill-conceived ideas ever, there was a small “mouse hole” under the stage in the main dining room.  I know I have said several times already in this blog that one of the thrills of Chuck E. Cheese was losing your parents, but this took it to the extreme.  The mouse hole was a little crawl-space area that was only big enough for kids to enter.  Not only could your parents not see you, but they couldn’t get to you if your life depended on it.  And one time, for me and my cousin Nick, it wasn’t far off.  We couldn’t have been more than 4 or 5 years old when we crawled into the mouse hole one time to find that two other little kids were already inside holding sharp sticks.  They told us that this was their mouse hole, and if we didn’t get out of there right now they were going to stab us.  (I am dead serious about this, and it is probably one of my earliest clear memories.  I remember being scared and wanting to get out right away, and I remember Nick with a really angry and determined look on his face.  I think if it had come down to it Nick would have opted to fight for the mouse hole, but I probably convinced him we should run away and tell our parents.)  The next time we came to Chuck E. Cheese the mouse hole was closed up.

That Chuck E. Cheese closed down sometime in the 1990s.  Years later they tore down most of that plaza and then built a Lowe’s on that spot.  Then, just a year or two after that, they tore down the old Cine 8 movie theater and built one of the new-style, lame Chuck E. Cheese’s where you can see everyone and everything.

But during those years when the original Chuck E. Cheese was closed down but still standing, I would often drive past it and wonder what it would be like if you could go inside.  Suppose you could break the locks off the door and sneak into that closed down Chuck E. Cheese.  How much had they cleaned the place out, and how much was still standing?  Were the old animatronic robots still there, frozen and lifeless in their darkened windows?  What about the giant Elvis cat?  Would there be balls in the ball crawl, or would it just be a big empty mesh cage?  Was the big train still there, or would you just find empty tracks leading into that dark tunnel?  The strange, skeletal remains of the wondrous childhood Pleasure Island, the 1980s Chuck E. Cheese.

The Thrill of “Note Hide-and-Seek”

Every kid played Hide-and-Seek growing up.  It was a requisite childhood game.  The concept couldn’t be simpler, and the name said it all; someone hides and then you try to find them.  Well, at some point when we were kids we decided to throw a twist on the game and add a new element, and “Note Hide-and-Seek” was born.

Instead of just trying to find someone who could be hiding anywhere, you had to follow a series of written notes that pointed you to different areas to look.  The final clue would basically tell you where the person was hiding.  (To be clear, you weren’t exactly trying to crack the DaVinci Code here.  A note might say something like “I could go for a glass of milk,” and then you’d find the next note in the refrigerator.   You didn’t need to be Sherlock Holmes to interpret these clues.)

The planning was what took the longest.  From the moment we decided to play a game of Note Hide-and-Seek to the time anyone actually hid would sometimes take a good 45 minutes to an hour as we each planned not just our hiding spot, but also mapped out our path of clues and filled out post-it note after post-it note.  Then, depending on who was going first, you might not even get to put your plan into action until much later.  Hopefully by the time your turn came around you still remembered what you had in mind!

When it was your turn to hide you would designate a room as “the counting room.”  Everyone else (usually the players were me, Val, Josh, and Dad) would wait there while you ran around and hid all of your notes.  Then you would return and tell everyone to count to 30 as well as where to find the first note, and then go hide.  Then the other players would embark in their journey to find each of your notes, and then, ultimately, you.

If you did your planning very carefully you could pull off some tricky maneuvers.  Since you knew the sequence of your notes, you would know exactly where the “seekers” were going to be at any given time.  Let’s say I made my room the “counting room,” and I knew that my first note would send everyone downstairs.  As soon as they were gone I could then go into my room and hide, having the game end where it began.  Or, as long as you were careful, you could continue hiding notes as you went and have the trail double back, re-using rooms the “seekers” had already been in and creating a real feeling of being one step ahead of your pursuers.  It’s like you were the freaking Riddler trying to stay a step ahead of Batman.

As the games went on they got gradually more elaborate, and we would try to find ways to keep it fresh and do things that hadn’t been done before.  A note might refer to a book, and then the next note would be hidden between the pages.  You might have to go outside and get a clue out of the car.  One time I even recorded one of the clues on my taperecorder and then left it out with a note that said “Play Me.”  

Since the last clue would lead you right to where the person was hiding, finding the person wasn’t really the challenge of the game.  The real thrill and the real fun of Note Hide-and-Seek was when you got to put your plan into action, knowing that everyone else would be following the trail that you had set up.

The World Of G.I.S.

I was going to write a blog post about games that my siblings and I used to play when we were kids.  But, I have a lot to say about this one so it wound up getting its own edition.

When we were kids growing up, three letters – G.I.S. – meant that you would not see me or my younger brother for the rest of the afternoon.  It meant we were about to haul the three overflowing storage bins chock full of action figures out from under our bunk beds and disappear into a world heroes, villains, and epic battles for the fate of the universe that would last at least until dinnertime. 

The name came from something my brother said.  We originally called it “playing guys.”  Then one day my brother, trying to be clever and spell it out, said, “Hey Russ, wanna play G… I… S?”  The name instantly stuck, and “playing guys” had now been re-christened “playing G.I.S.”

The mish-mash of characters in those bins allowed us to create a strange shared universe where Superman and Batman could join forces with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, where Spider-Man could be found web-slinging alongside the Thundercats, where He-Man could become a member of the Justice League.  And if there was a character we wanted to include that we didn’t have, we improvised – like when Dr. Smith from the Lost In Space toy line subbed in for Alfred the butler.  We even had some figures that we had no idea who they were, so we re-imagined them as new characters that we made up, or sometimes pretended it was one of our real-life friends, neighbors, or family members who apparently also existed in the G.I.S. universe.

The best games though were when my dad would join us for a game. Dad, no doubt exhausted from working late night shifts on the assembly line, could still be persuaded to join his sons for a game of action figures on the floor of our small bedroom on a Saturday afternoon.  Although if Dad was laying on the floor and the scene suddenly shifted to a life-or-death battle atop my brother’s dresser, Dad would just hold up his figure and say “Just pretend I’m up there,” which would cause my brother to fly into a fit of rage.

Dad introduced probably the most memorable character into the G.I.S. universe when he re-dubbed the Splinter figure from Ninja Turtles as Templeton, a ruder, cruder version of the rat from Charlotte’s Web.  Templeton became a staple of all G.I.S. games going forward.

The plots from each game would usually continue.  If Batman quit the Justice League one week, he would still be off the team when we played again.  If last week’s game ended with the Joker going to jail, he would need to bust out before he could plague Gotham again.  But every once in awhile a curve would come out of nowhere that just did not jibe with what we’d established before – usually a major character dying and/or coming back to life – which would prompt my brother to say, “Pretend this is an unaired pilot.”  I have no idea where he picked that terminology up, and I burst out laughing the first time he said it.  But I knew what he meant.  The rules are out the window for this one, anything can happen and we’ll just ignore it next week.  Hollywood “reboots” things all the time now, we were doing it in the mid-90s. 

There were some strange events in those games.  One time we used a Ryu figure from Street Fighter as Charles from “Charles In Charge.”  We killed him off, and played the “Charles In Charge” theme as he floated up to Heaven (I had a CD full of TV show theme songs).  In homage to that moment, any time a character was killed off after that we played the “Charles In Charge” theme.  In another episode, Templeton got really bad diarrhea and flooded the toilets in Wayne Manor (I don’t think my dad was in on that game, Josh and I had taken the character to new lows at that point).  There are actually a handful of G.I.S. videos that we made that survived to this day – one where Batman and Robin fight the Oreo Cookie Man, and one where the Kingpin of Crime flushes Spider-Man down a giant toilet (a lot of toilet humor in those days, what can I say). 

Those action figure bins are all in my parents’ basement now. On Thanksgiving my dad and I took my 17-month-old son, Dominic, downstairs to run around.  I got out one of the bins of action figures just for fun, and started showing them to him.  He was especially interested in Spider-Man (not the one that we threw in the toilet, at least I don’t think so) and the Flash.  And it made me think about all the games I will play with him someday. 

In just a few days, my brother will welcome his firstborn son into the world as well.  I look forward to the day that Dominic and his cousin can haul a box of toys out and escape into a world of imagination.  Maybe they will ask their dads to join in, and Josh and I can return to the world of G.I.S. with them, although now we’ll be the ones saying “Just pretend we’re up there” when the action shifts locations a bit too quickly.  I can’t wait to watch our kids create their own stories, their own universes.  I can’t wait to see what their imaginations come up with.  And I can’t wait for the moment that Dominic says (most likely not in these exact words), “Dad, pretend this is an unaired pilot.”  The rules are off this time, anything goes.