Much like the day before summer vacation, I don’t plan on doing much of anything this morning, nor am I required, unless some major problem requires my problem-solving skills; although, I must complete a half day of work before cutting out for Christmas break.

Do you know one of the best perks of working for a university? It’s that their Christmas break is your Christmas break. Today marks the last day of the year for me, and the first day in a ten-day spree of doing absolutely nothing, if that’s what I so desire. Cup of coffee, 8:00am, 9:00am, 10:00am, 11:00am, begin the bag packing routine, and finally noon.

Initialize Operation Escape from Academia—I’m outta here, as the sprinting impala evades the stalking cheetah.

The plan is simple: leave at noon, meet up with my two co-workers at 1:00pm, eat some burgers, drink some tasty beverages, reflect upon the last twelve months, and celebrate another completed year in the world of academia. The other two are working from home today, so I’m on my own. I walk to the bus stop, board a downtown route, and make my way through town, on foot. Walking across town, I pay attention to the scenes of Christmas: downtown is buzzing with people carrying shopping bags, streets are decorated with banners, store windows adorned with Santas and trees and tinsel.

I am running ahead of schedule, so I opt to stop in the used media store—I’m searching for a certain something for a certain gaming enthusiast in the family, and luck out with a difficult-to-find title. Purchase snagged, I’ve already said too much.

I round the corner toward the restaurant. Two moving-van men are staring into the street drainage, attempting to lift the grating from the sewer, and apparently someone has dropped a cell phone into the bowels of the city—how unfortunate.

Outside of the restaurant—technically a bistro, but whatever—my phone buzzes: the text from my boss simply reads: I see you, I respond with that’s creepy, and enter the establishment, to see him sitting at a table already. By 1:00pm, the last of our party arrives, we order sandwiches, and have a wonderful off-the-clock two-hour lunch. Of course, the meal could be the entire story for today, but it’s not, there’s more to say. With the completion of our departmental lunch, we each go our own way, thus initiating the official beginning of Christmas break.

The two most joyous times of the year are Christmas morning and the end of school ~ Alice Cooper

So, I suppose, school’s officially out now. I’m free to do whatever I choose: sleeping in late is on the top of the list (of that I’m certain) as is spending time with the kids, watching movies, and playing video games in my living room.

I look forward to my extended break all year—no joke, as do many of my co-workers—treating the duration with the same reverence as a National holiday or any sacred occasion, however the end of the academic year marks the beginning of the gauntlet. I am referring to the Great Gauntlet Run of the Christmas Season.

Racers, on your mark! Total mind-numbing chaos in 3, 2, 1.

Ready, set, go:

  • candy canes, eggnog, cookies, clammy handshakes, hugs, ugly sweaters;
  • driving to distant rural towns, and then completely across the countryside three hours later, to meet with another friend or family member;
  • your fifth trip to the department or grocery store today, to buy yet another item or Christmas present that you forgot in the previous run;
  • your third full-fledged family dinner of the day, and it’s only 4:00pm, with two more houses on the daily travel agenda;
  • infinite parties, sock exchanges, programs at church;
  • and on and on and on.

This is the Great Gauntlet Run of the Christmas Season, and only the strongest survive.

As we give presents at Christmas, we need to recognize that sharing our time and ourselves is such an important part of giving ~ Gordon B. Hinckley

I walk from one edge of downtown to the center, and I have a few stops to make before heading home for the day. I stroll through Market Square paying a visit to the coffee and tea shop, but I don’t find anything of interest for the tea-drinker of my family. From the center of town, I walk past the giant Christmas tree, and steer my feet toward the last record store that’s on my downtown list of shops to visit. I check their inventory for inexpensive albums, although none are tempting enough to add to my current collection.

I cross the street, jaywalking like a champion, because I see an arcade—it’s one that I’ve never noticed before. Quite frankly, I didn’t even know that any arcades were still in existence. Unlike the arcades of my youth, very few machines bleep and beep for my attention. Some upright consoles are unplugged or display a reboot error screen.

The arcade attendant is a frail old man, disinterested in my odd photograph-the-pinball-machines-with-my-iphone behavior. Of all the sights that I’ve seen on my walk, a pinball machine will be a suitable subject for today’s image. This simple machine represents the epitome of arcades from the 1980s—possibly the 1970s as well, but that wasn’t my decade of gaming.

Ever since I was a young boy / I’ve played the silver ball / From Soho down to Brighton / I must have played them all / But I ain’t seen nothing like him / In any amusement hall / That deaf dumb and blind kid / Sure plays a mean pin ball! ~ Pinball Wizard by The Who

I can still remember the row of pinball machines across the back wall of my arcade of choice—Ace’s Break Away and Play located in Century III Mall. And, oh boy, arcades were big business back then. My heyday would have been in the mid-decade, between the Atari 2600 and Nintendo NES eras, when home-grown gaming systems and solutions were few are far between. A gaming system wasn’t prevalent in every home, so dumping quarters in an arcade machine seemed like a perfectly suitable entertainment solution.

Your life force is running out…Elf needs food…I’ve not seen such bravery! ~ narrator voice from Gauntlet video game

In the nostalgia of arcade reminiscing, I am reminded of a story from my childhood. My uncle always sent me (and my two brothers) two things for Christmas: a Hallmark Christmas tree ornament, and a ten dollar bill. Every year it was the same combination. As an adult, I still have all of those vintage ornaments with a rotation of classic pieces adorning the tree each year.

There was one Christmas where I visited the mall, now a bonafide dead mall, with a ten dollar bill burning a hole in my pocket. I headed toward the arcade with a group of friends, quickly exchanging bills for a pocket of gaming tokens. A new re-hot game was out in the arcade, titled Gauntlet (1985), and we were determined to make some progress in the game together.

Gauntlet is a cooperative dungeon-crawler style game where four players work together to explore boards, collect coins and food, defeat enemies, and generally just try to stay alive, if possible. To my knowledge, despite the increased difficulty of higher levels, the game never ends. I’m not certain that my twelve-year-old self knew that fact, or even cared, but sooner than later, the forty tokens had disappeared. Ten dollars was spent on one session of a video game experience. Supposedly pleased with my progress—and that of my group of friends—I reported back to my mother, at the end of the day.

Without a photographic memory, I’m certain the re-imagined conversation sounded something like the following:

Me: “Mom, you’ll never guess how far we all got on Gauntlet today: Level 100!”
Mom: “How much did you spend?”
Me: “I had to spend all $10, but it was sooooo worth it!”
Mom: “I can’t believe you spent all your Christmas money on a stupid video game. You can never tell your Uncle.”

Of course, that’s how the conversation probably went, but I’m not exactly sure. And I never did tell my Uncle about that year. I do recall that she was very unhappy with my decision making. I, on the other hand, didn’t see anything wrong with the time and money commitment, at all.

Exiting the arcade, I walk toward the bridge, cross the river, and head toward the trolley stop. I pause on the platform for the next Blue Line train back home. While I do have ten days off, in a row, I know, without a doubt, that they will be filled with a fair share of chaos.

I am ready…set…go! This is the Great Gauntlet Run of the Christmas Season, and only the strongest survive.