Some of my best family memories were going "Down to Connecticut" to visit my grandparents. Video games were always part of the equation. Here is a chapter of my book called Pitfall that commemorates these trips.
When the Dallas Cowboys played on Thanksgiving Day, my brother and I had to be quiet in the living room. My uncle sat in his brown recliner, swearing after every play. Every play. My grandfather – my mother’s dad – sat on the couch. He smiled at us. My grandmother cooked in the kitchen. Dinner would at least give us a break from Dallas.
The second-most prominent location on my map besides my own home was Bridgeport, Connecticut. My brother and I were stuffed into the backseat, and ride was infused with the smell of my pillow. I fell asleep immediately on any car ride, my neck in different contortions against the window through the ride down 95 South. My brother might sleep or play with action figures and cars exploring the terrain. For my parents, the ride was divided into two parts. These were the parts of the drive with traffic (Providence, New Haven), and the parts of the drive without traffic. Also, for some reason, my mom did not like that there were “trucks” on the road. “Trucks” referred to those vehicles that had some sort of trailer. Between the experience of traffic and the reality of trucks, this was the first conversation that occurred when we arrived in Bridgeport:
Grandma: “How was the traffic?”
Mom: “Traffic was terrible. There were so many trucks in New Haven.”
Grandma: “Those trucks shouldn’t be allowed on the road.”
Uncle Richard was ten years younger than my mom. He lived with my grandparents. I have pictures of him as a kid during a visit helping Ken and me stack Pamper boxes when my brother still needed them. Uncle Richard, like my mom, graduated from the local Bridgeport, Connecticut high school called Harding. Afterwards, he went to work in a factory. When my parents, Ken and I visited for Thanksgiving Day, Uncle Richard had to work the day after Thanksgiving. He left before we got up, and arrived back at 5pm, sinking immediately into the brown recliner for the night. He moved only to order fast food for dinner.
We travelled “Down to Connecticut” on holidays, and a couple times during the summer. My parents, Ken and I would start out about 9am and arrive around 12, with my grandma always greeting us outside before we came in, giving us all her hugs and kisses. Once inside, grandpa and Uncle Richard would come forward for a hug as well, and we would bring our bags and pillows into the back room, where we stayed overnight. This room was technically "grandma and grandpa's room," but now grandpa usually slept downstairs, and grandma typically fell asleep on one of the living room couches in front of the TV "watching movies."
We loved to go out to eat together for seafood, or to make hamburgers and salad and sit out on the porch in back. We watched movies and played video games. We spent a lot of time in the basement, which was made into a recreation room. My uncle and grandfather loved cats and took in strays or adopted kittens from friends. Rosebud, my uncles’ favorite cat who was adopted as a kitten from someone he knew, was brown and white, and she became my uncle’s favorite. When she died, he buried her in the backyard, and bought her a gravestone. One stray that my uncle let in to live with them came out of a pizza box, so he was named Pizza. He grew to be the biggest of their cats, and he roamed their home day and night.
When we travelled down to Bridgeport for Thanksgiving, my grandparents had gotten new living room furniture - a blue combination this time. My grandma Beatrice Gaddis always spent her time in the kitchen before our meal, while my grandpa and Uncle Richard sat in front of the TV - grandpa on the couch, Uncle Richard in the recliner. My mom stayed in the kitchen, my brother and father stayed in the living room, and I went back and forth between the two rooms.
My grandfather, Warren Gaddis, had many names - specifically five - not including his last name. Walter Warren John Joseph Erving Gaddis. His last name came from a family who adopted him in Lewiston, Maine from Catholic Charities. He told me that one day, in his late teens, he was driving and saw a woman walking home in the rain without an umbrella. He picked her up to give her a ride home. That woman was my grandmother. My grandmother had worked in a local donut shop, and later for General Electric on an assembly line putting knobs on toasters from 3pm to midnight. My grandfather managed a laundromat. When I knew them, they lived on Granfield Avenue.
"Oh, COME ON! GEEZ!" Uncle Richard yelled. Apparently, the Dallas Cowboys had screwed up. Grandpa slept while the food cooked.
We would eat dinner between one and two. Each year, the table was filled with green beans, yams, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, my great-grandmother Helen's homemade horseradish, turkey, and various Coca-Cola products. We would arrange ourselves the same way around the table, with me in the back under the window, my brother and grandpa to the right of me, grandma and mom to the left of me near the refrigerator and the door to the back porch, and Uncle Richard closest to the living room. My father sat next to Uncle Richard and grandpa.
Grandma wouldn't sit down until my mom asked her three times to join us. "I forgot the rolls!" she would say as the rest of us had already started eating. "Ma, sit down!" my mom would say. Once seated, my grandma started her yearly litany of everything about the meal that was wrong. "The turkey! Terrible! Dry! And I'm sorry about the lumps in the mashed potatoes!" We always tried to reassure her. After that, grandma and mom would talk about my brother and me, and then grandma would ask us about how school was (or later, what I was still doing in school). Grandpa would nod and smile at us. At some point during the conversation, Uncle Richard would get up, put his plate down on the counter with a bang, and leave. Family chit-chat was not his thing. Rejoining the Dallas Cowboys on TV, he would resume swearing. At this point, my grandma would bite her lip, and start cleaning the table, even if we were still eating. Mom would join her in cleaning. My father, brother and grandfather would finish eating and then chat for a little while in the living room, and I would remain at the table. I would have tea with my mom and grandma.
As night came, things changed. If the game was not over by 7pm or so, my grandma and mom would step in. "Come on, Rich. The kids want to play video games. You have been watching all day. It's their turn."
The first thing that would happen after this request is Uncle Richard would stomp into his room and slam the door. After we waited, he would come out with the Atari (or later Intelevision, or Nintendo). This time, the new Atari game he had was called Pitfall.
It usually took about an hour for my grandfather, father, Uncle Richard and mom to figure out (once again) how to hook up the video game to the TV. This activity was accompanied by muttering, such as "I thought this was what we did last time!" and "No that's not it!" This continued until Channel Three showed a small brownish-green man running across the screen with grass, trees, and a sky with scattered clouds. The character, named Pitfall Harry, shared the screen with alligators and scorpions.
The holiday evening ritual had started. Everyone took turns. We all sat on the floor except grandma, grandpa, and Uncle Richard. Uncle Richard played from his chair while my grandparents watched. On this turn, my brother had one of the controls, my father had another.
Pitfall Harry leaped over the scorpions in a tunnel. He swung across a swamp on a vine. He searched in an underground tunnel. The quality of the entertainment did not depend on how realistic the jungle adventure appeared.
"Look alligators!" Ken said. Little green lines emerged from the blue swamp, opening and closing mouths. On this screen, there were alligators, but no vines. This part of the adventure proved to be the most difficult. Harry tried to balance on the eyes of the green mouths as they opened and closed. Everyone failed as Harry fell straight down into the water as reptile food. No one could maneuver across.
"Wait, try this," my mom offered. She tried to run quickly across the closed mouths. They opened before Harry succeeded in his attempt. The character again fell into the mouth.
Grandma made some coffee and brought out our regular dessert - Italian cookies from the bakery up the street. Pink, yellow and green cookies got gobbled off the plate. Uncle Richard meanwhile reported that he had gotten past the alligators only once. We all laughed as Harry was repeatedly eaten by one of the three mouths opening and closing in unison.
Crocodiles were not the only pixels that united my family. Years before, my father had taken out an Odyssey on a holiday evening in Bridgeport. Odyssey afforded us hours of fun even though it only comprised of one white dot and two white paddles on either side of the screen. To us, it was amazing. To spice up the game, you could adhere different covers with static electricity to the screen. My favorite - a haunted house. I played with the haunted house screen and the white dot repeatedly. I felt thrilled each time without even understanding what constituted "winning" the haunted house game. There was also a tennis court and a racetrack cover.
At 10pm, Ken and I would start kisses around the group, usually ending with my Uncle Richard. That night, no one had figured out how to jump across the alligator, but the next morning, somehow Ken skipped across the gators on their eyes. He showed everyone the achievement the next night before we all watched a movie. My grandma always claimed she had seen the movie, even if it was just released. "No, I fell asleep to that one three weeks ago," she would say. No one argued with her. Logic did not hold a high priority with my family, and this fact did not affect our happiness.