Atari Nerd Chronicles: Trek To The Asteroids Zone

By 1980, the Fulton household was wearing at the seams.  Almost over-night, our little happy family imploded.   First our aunt and cousin were killed by a drunk driver in car accident.  Then our grandfather contracted lung cancer from smoking a pipe for 50 years.   At the same time, our oldest sister was getting into the burgeoning local punk scene.  She was staying out later and later on week nights, and our parents were not happy about it.  All of this stuff combined to make our house a very uncomfortable place to be most of the time. Of course, being 10 years old, none of this really affected us the way one would expect.  We knew weird stuff was going on, but instead of thinking about it too much, Jeff I and dove further into our growing passion for video games.   We did not have access to anything at home, and the closest arcades were miles away.  However, we did have one outlet for our video game madness: the grocery store shopping center located roughly 1-mile from our house.   It was positioned on the border of  Hermosa Beach, just off of the virtual good/bad dividing line of Manhattan Beach: Sepulveda Blvd.  Since this was still the 70’s, our parents felt very comfortable letting us roam the neighborhood alone.  Plus, they were preoccupied those days anyway, so it was pretty easy to slip-out and do our own thing.   Since Jeff and I did not have bikes that could reasonably take us anywhere further than out own driveway, we made the trek from our house to this video game Mecca on foot.   

The trek started at our house on First Street.  We’d start walking up our hill towards Peck Avenue, passing over acorn infested semi-sidewalk, under the Eucalyptus awning created by the forest of trees that lined the south side of the street.   As we walked, we never failed to marvel at the ‘rich family’ mansion that took up almost ‘ of the block.  We rarely saw the people who owned the property, but the pools, tennis courts, European cars, and giant house belied a level of wealth and sophistication that was simply out of place in those days.  This was not the type of 50’x 150’ McMansions that fill most of  Manhattan Beach today, but a true estate that took up the space of  four huge houses.   The fact that is was located right next door to the two-dozen 50’s era suburban boxes on the street made it even more impressive.  The important part of this leg of the adventure were the tennis courts.  Finding an abandoned tennis ball was sure way to add a little extra entertainment to the hike.  

At the top of the hill, we crossed the street over to Pennekamp, our elementary school.    At the east playground entrance, we had to make a choice as to which way to go.  Across the playground was quickest route, but it also had it perils.  We were never sure who might be on the playground, and since it was at least 300 yards in length of blacktop and grass,   we might be left in the open with no real option for escape if a problem might arise.   Usually, those problems came from one source, and one source only:  Curtis.  He lived at the end of our block and was the bane of my existence.  Curtis lived with his grandmother, and his lack of parental supervision was displayed in everything he did.    My first introduction to Curtis was on my 5th birthday, when he came into our front yard and, for reasons known only to Curtis, threw a bicycle tire at my head, splitting open my right ear.  Curtis tried to run down kids on his bike if they dared cross his path on the playground, pushed  kids down in the street to prove his dominance, stole anything he could get his hands on, etc..  He was a complete clich’ of bully and would have been a joke if he was not such a real threat.   If Curtis was around, going across the playground  was not a good choice.  However, finding him in the halls of the school was not a great option either.  The best way to avoid a confrontation with Curtis was to take the back route, behind the school.   There was an old cement path just south of the Pennekamp school library that led past the community garden then up over a steep hill.  About 100 feet up the hill, the cracked asphalt the path ended at chained and locked fence. However, the lock and fence were so old and had been climbed through so many times, that any 10 year old could easily slip through the gap and be on their way.  Once through the fence, we  walked into a virtual wilderness, up past an overgrown volleyball court, and then past what looked like an abandoned corn field, before the path dipped down again into a steep incline.  It ended at an ice plant hill that spilled out behind the school cafetorium.   From there it was a short walk through the school parking lot to the street and relative safety on the other side.   Since Curtis mainly confined his menace to the school grounds, we took a bit of cautious comfort as we turned south towards the high school.

Next we walked down a long hill  towards a grown-over vacant lot that known in the neighborhood as ‘pollywog’  because of the small swamp in it created from neighborhood run-off rain water.  When we got to the entrance to pollywog, we had to make another quick decision.  The path through pollywog cut-off about 10 minutes of walking time, but it also held the possibility of more danger. Sometimes the pond overflowed, the rickety bridges were vandalized, homeless people were hiding out, or stoners were smoking fatties in the bushes.   Curtis was rarely there, but that was another distinct possibility.   The other direction was a few long blocks through suburban neighborhood: safe, but many blocks out of the way.  Most days, we took our chances walking through pollywog.   Yes, it was the dangerous choice, but there was an alternative reason for making the trek as long as possible through less-traveled areas: finding returnable bottles.   We always kept our eyes peeled for 7-Up, Bubble-Up, or any other returnable bottles we could find.  A couple bottles would equal enough money for one more play of a video game than the original contents of our pockets would allow. 

The dirt path through ‘pollywog’ winded through some bushes, then took a turn towards the swamp.   At that point, the first major Pollywog obstacle laid in-wait for us.  The run-off stream from the street created a 5-foot, sludgy gap in the path.  If the make-shift wood bridge was in-place, crossing was easy, but if not (and usually it was not) , a ‘leap of faith” was required.   The area surrounding the gap was covered with fallen and dirty Eucalyptus leaves.  It was not easy to tell where the leaves ended, and the water began. Even more distressing was the bed of mud that the leaves rested upon.     A badly timed jump meant both our Vans shoes and striped-white tube-socks would be covered in toxic sludge from the sewer run-off.

A successful leap led back onto the dirt path that wound around another corner, and into the ‘exercise yard’ (a sand pit and old basketball hoop)  of the local secondary school, Pacific Shores.  ‘Shores’ as it was known, was the place that all the fuck-ups ended-up if they could not hack regular high school’and I say that in the nicest possible way.   It was part of the regular school system and designed as a safety net for kids with problems.   It had very relaxed rules about smoking, bell schedules, etc.  It was a great asset to the community, but to 10-year old kid it was scary as shit.  We did not want to run into any Shore’s students on the trek.  Who knew what the hell they would be capable of?

At the end of the pollywog path, we had to climb a 30′, 45-degree-angle dirt hill that deposited us on the pole vault training run of the Mira Costa High School track.   From there, we walked across the abandoned volleyball courts, just to the south of another large community garden.. This was another stoner hang-out, so we had to be extra careful as we trudged across to the relative safety of the baseball practice field.  We’d hike across that field to old basketball courts, and then down a cement path the baseball stadium.   The baseball field was another place to be extra careful.  The dugouts were notorious make-out spots, and the teenagers that inhabited them were not very happy to see 10 year-old kids disturbing their activities.  However, the path through the bleachers and by the dugouts was a great spot to look for more returnable bottles, so we took the chance anyway.  From there we walked to the Little League field, and took note of the joker who spray painted ‘Adam And The Ants’ on every conceivable flat surface.  Why no one ever cleaned it up was beyond me.  

After exiting the baseball field onto the street on the other side of the school, we crossed through the Lutheran Church grounds, and then crossed another street to the alley behind McDonalds.   We walked up through the alley, passed behind McDonalds and into the strip-mall just beyond, At this point, we breathed a sign of relief.  For all intents and purposes, we had arrived at our destination.   If we had found any returnable bottles, we sold them back to the guys in Manhattan Liquors for tidy little profit.  Upon exiting the store, we took note of the ‘Tempest’ machine in the front.   ‘Tempest’ was  a cool game,  but it was always monopolized by a couple heavy metal dudes who insisted on filling the high score list with initials that spelled-out ‘IRON MAIDEN’ down the screen.  They threatened anyone else who played to not mess-up their work.  We avoided Tempest for this reason, and continued west through the strip-mall, past the Guild Drug (which would one day hold another game that utterly fascinated me: Wizard Of Wor), and crossed the parking lot to our final destination: Safeway Supermarket, and the Asteroids machine contained within.

Just to the right as we entered through automatic door of the Safeway supermarket stood the jet-black arcade machine with a red, blue, white and yellow depiction of a space battle emblazoned on the side, with a top marquee that read ‘Asteroids’ in large letters, with the word ‘Atari’ in tiny type just below.  If there was another kid playing the game at the time, a quick check of the marquee to see if there were any ‘quarters in waiting’ stuffed between the metal border and the glass backing gave some idea of just how long we might be watching and not playing.   After waiting our turn (if indeed we had to wait), Jeff would slip the first quarter in the machine, as I fished out mine for a 2-player game.  The red two-player button would start flashing, one of us pressed it, and we were off.

The menacing backing music started almost immediately.  Its tempo slow, but still foreboding.   It warned of danger to come, first in the form of asteroids, but later as faceless UFOs with one mission: wipe you out.  Space rocks emerged from the sides of the screen, as the gods of this in-escapable black-hole gave some serious thought as to when to let your ship appear, and not have you die instantly.  Your appearance was sudden, and if  you were not born out of the womb of space warp firing immediately, you had little chance to survive.  

Jeff was always the better player, and he started nearly every game the same way.  He watched as the rocks moved slowly across the screen.  He timed the shots from his little space-wedge just right so that the Asteroids would explode just after passing his ship.  When he used the thrust button, it was careful, and deliberate.  He’d apply a bit of thrust, and then turn to side to blast some rocks, apply a bit more and turn again.   In this way, he cleared the screen down to a few small rocks, waiting for the UFOs to appear.  The lumbering large UFOs were very easy to pick-off.  A few well timed shots would take them out netting 100’s of points, and a good boost towards an extra ship at 10,000.   The tough part came when the small UFOs appeared.  The bounty on their lethal little heads was a staggering 1000 points.  However, without a good strategy, their quick movements and killer marksman skills were hard to avoid.  Most times, No matter how hard Jeff tried, he inevitably hit a rock, or was blasted into space debris by one the UFOs pinpoint shots. 

My playing style was much simpler than Jeff’s: don’t move. Ever   Turn, fire, turn, fire, turn, fire, turn.  Movement meant the semi-realistic physics of 2D-space would take-over, making control almost impossible for me.   However, movement was a much better choice than the button of last resort: Hyperspace.   Hyperspace was an evil option, which sent you to a random place in the black void, with a very good chance you would simple blow-up in re-entry.  When most of the rocks were destroyed, I might venture out a bit, applying thrust, but attempting to keep control of my ship.  However, most times I simply lost control , smashing into an asteroid and losing my turn.

What Jeff and I longed to achieve entry into the ‘Asteroids Zone’, a place we had only seen in the eyes of master Asteroids players, but rarely visited it ourselves.  In that zone, players could wrack-up huge scores by flying up the screen at a rapid pace, blasting small UFOs for 1000 points, earning droves of extra ships, and then ‘turn the game over’ at 100,000 points multiple times.   The guys (and it was ALWAYS guys) who were able to achieve this were inevitably were much older than us.  So much older it seemed, that we would never be able to make it on our own.   However, after many trips to Safeway, and many quarters placed in anticipation up on the Asteroids marquee, we slowly gained the ability to play at a fair, if not respectable level.

The few times either of us did get into any type Asteroids zone, it was a wonder to behold.  Personally, I can feel those moments as if they were happening right now.  With one lonely rock moving (hopefully) vertically through space, and the ship traveling at blinding speed up the screen, leaving a satisfying phosphorescent glow in its wake, I hunted for any saucers that might make the mistake of entering my small area of closed-off space.   The soundtrack pounded in the background, as the anticipation mounted.   Periodically, slight adjustments to the horizontal position of the ship were made as to avoid a disastrous collision with the last space rock on the screen.   All of a sudden, the pulsating soundtrack would be broken by the high-pitched squeal of a UFO that had entered the perimeter.  Slightly moving the ship left-to-right I fired a few test shots and, then went for the prize.  Hitting thrust, releasing, then turning the ship left or right (depending on the location of the UFO) and spitting out a few shots in its direction.  If the UFO was close to one side or another, shooting shots that wrapped around to the other side of the screen were the most effective, but this was rarely the case.  After firing, I had to adjust the speed and horizontal position of my ship a bit, lest the UFO could lock-in on my location and blast me from space.   The exhilaration of hitting a small UFO and blasting it into component parts while still keeping control of my little ship to fight once more, was a feeling that, to this day, is still difficult to describe unless you have done it yourself.   Of course, it was short-lived.  When a UFO suddenly shot my ship out from under my control, it was like hitting a wall while driving 100 miles an hour.  The sudden loss of adrenaline and control was shocking.  Destroying your last rock was even worse.  After ‘ship-hunting’ for such a long time, it was a very difficult transition to go back to merely shooting more Asteroids.  Breaking out of the ‘zone’ like this was a very quick way to end my game.  No matter how many ships I had left in your arsenal, getting back into the zone twice in one game was almost impossible.

When Jeff and got down to our last couple quarters, we knew this part of the trek was almost complete.   Sometimes we shared a final game, with one of us playing the first ship, the next guy the second, and the person who fared the best getting to play the last.   After that, we’d take whatever change we had left-over, and buy a couple $.08 store brand sodas at Safeway, and a handful of $.02 candy from the jars at The Guild Drug.   We’d then pack our supplies, and start the long trek home.  As we walked, our conversations would start with our exploits at Asteroids, but after a while drift to baseball, girls at school, or stuff we were going play in the driveway when we got back home.  As we approached our destination, the Asteroids machine at the Safeway shopping center faded into distant memory. What seemed so important just an hour before, was almost inconsequential as the realities of home became clearer and clearer.  Curtis could appear around any corner.  A pitched yelling match could be taking place inside our house or something even more terrible could have occurred while we were away.  After a few days, Jeff and I started talking about Asteroids again, and a few days later we would have enough money saved to make the trek to the Safeway shopping center again.   With any luck, we’d soon be in the ‘Asteroids Zone’ once more and for a few drifting moments at least, nothing else in the world would matter except for a glowing rectangular piece of space, and our ability to defend it.


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