Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Handheld video games: Remembering “Electronic Quarterback”

The "Electronic Quarterback", my introduction to electronic football.

Long before video consoles like Atari and Intellivision, but after the dawn of Pong, there was a phenomenon I haven’t heard too much about: the handheld video game.

I owned a few, but one that left a distinct impression was the “Electronic Quarterback”.

Coveting my neighbour’s game
Going to school every day meant riding the bus. Back then, I rode it with a neighbour named Mike. He came from a big family, including two older brothers, so he always had a lot of cool stuff from Christmas or various birthdays.

One day, I hopped on the bus and, when I sat beside him, noticed he was holding something and pressing furiously on various buttons. The frenzied action reached a crescendo with some Muzak-sounding music. I asked what he was doing. Why, playing “Electronic Quarterback” of course. His brother had received it for a present, and he was letting Mike play it to pass the time on the bus.

That’s where I got my first taste of the game.

Mastering the offence
Soon Mike let me try, but I really had to learn on my own. I recall him briefly laughing at my futility. Then his older sister scolded him, reminding Mike when he first played the game all he did was press random buttons – which was pretty much what I was doing.

Catching just a sniff of that game made me want my own. So that’s what I asked for Christmas. Sure enough, it was waiting for me under the tree when we opened our gifts that Christmas Eve.

By then I had played enough to have a basic understanding of the game. Like all football games, it was easy to learn how to run. It was mastering the pass that opened up the offence – kind of like real life and every other video game since. The secret, which I learned by playing hour after hour of “Electronic Quarterback” was that when I hit the pass button, if I hit it again it would keep the pass from being released.

It was pretty rudimentary but, in a simpler time, it was a lot of fun. It was so rudimentary in fact, the defence was automated. The players never actually run the defence, just the offence and the special teams. If memory serves, I could punt the ball too.

The playoffs
When I got “Electronic Quarterback” that Christmas, I recall playing on the drive over to Christmas dinner at my uncle and aunt’s, and again on New Year's Eve. They just lived up the road, so it wasn’t a long trip.

On those trips, and later, I pretended I was the Oakland Raiders, who were set to play the Cleveland Browns in the AFC Divisional Game that year, the 1980-1981 playoffs. (They would go on to win that game, dubbed “The mistake on the lake” when Raider defensive back Mike Davis intercepted a Cleveland pass in the endzone to preserve the win for the Raiders).

Parting thoughts
I had hours and hours of fun playing “Electronic Quarterback” but, like with all toys, I eventually moved on to something else. Intellivision came along, which had a more sophisticated NFL Football, then Commodore 64, and finally, for me, Nintendo and “Tecmo Super Bowl”, which was a bit more sophisticated again.

Still, I will always remember that game, my first introduction to electronic football. It’s how I actually began to learn the game.

I wonder if my “Electronic Quarterback” is still in my parents’ basement. I’ll keep you posted.

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Remebering the fall of the Berlin Wall

The Berlin Wall comes tumbling down amid masses of people in November of 1989, 25 years ago.

It changed the course of history forever, and truly was the end of the Cold War. It played a big part in the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe, and led to the reunification of Germany less than a year later.

On Nov. 9 the world celebrated the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and I recall exactly where I was when I heard the news.

The partition
It’s funny. When I was growing up, I heard a lot about Germany and Berlin being divided into East and West. I later discovered I was not the only one who thought that meant Berlin was right in the middle, and the partition line (I refuse to use the word border) that went through the country went through Berlin. Only later, in high school, did I discover that Berlin was located completely inside East Germany, and partitioned there. That was the only way the Soviets could have created their infamous blockade in 1948.

The fall of 1989
The year 1989 would go down in history as one of the most eventful years of the decade. Not only did the Ayatollah Khomeini die in Iran, and student protesters put Tiananmen Square on the map in China, but freedom began to blossom in Eastern Europe.

By the fall, there seemed to be another major event every day somewhere in the Soviet Bloc, whether it was agitation in Poland, the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, or the coup that led to the execution of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu.

Amid all that, things began to foment in East Germany.

Back then I was not as immersed or intrigued by my German roots as I am now. Mind you, I was only 19 years old at the time. Still, anyone who grew up in a German family like I did, that came to Canada seeking a better life, held out hope that one day the Communists would be gone. One day, the two parts of Germany would become one again.

My mother always said it would all change if the right man became leader of the Soviet Union. As in so may other things, she was right. Mikhail Gorbachev became leader of the Soviet Union a few years earlier and began to implement reforms. Whether it was increased openness through Glasnost, or the restructuring of trade with Perestroika, he was changing the Soviet Union.

That change would soon spread to the Soviet satellites in Eastern Europe, and one by one they began to assert greater and greater degrees of freedom and independence.

Finally, in the fall of 1989, I was lying on my bed in my room on Main Kelsey, dozing after another long Edmonton day. Suddenly the phone rang. It was my friend Kevan, who I had begun to hang out with regularly at the start of the school year.

“I thought you’d be dancing in the streets,” he said.

“What do you mean?” I asked. I had no clue what he was talking about.

“Didn’t you hear?” he asked. I had not.

“The Berlin Wall is a coming down!”

I could not believe what he was saying. You have to understand, growing up in the Cold War 1980s, there was this sense the Soviet Union would last forever. There would never be peace, or freedom in the Communist countries. Instead, Communism would reign there forever, and the best we could all do was keep it from spreading.

I hung up and went in to the lounge. Some of my floormates were huddled around the TV, watching the coverage from Berlin. The wall, the symbol of a divided Europe, was coming down. People were actually tearing it down piece by piece.

The next time I spoke with my mother, the following Sunday (when the long-distance phone rates were the cheapest), she really could not believe it either.

Yet, it had happened. Her hopes of a strong leader freeing the people of the Soviet Bloc, had been realized.

Parting thoughts
It is hard to believe it has been 25 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall. One of my overriding memories of that period is not so much the event itself, but the fact I was so immersed in my own world, I did not pay near enough attention or respect.

Looking back, it was just over a year after the death of my grandfather. He would have loved to see the wall fall. But that thought never entered my mind until just recently.

Only a year later, in the fall of 1990, when I took a German history course as my last option before I went student teaching, did I begin to understand what had happened.

It was an amazing time and, looking back 25 years later, changed the world forever.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Honeymoon Suite: a “Saving Hope” flashback

Honeymoon Suite's self-titled debut album. Released in
1984, it produced four certified gold singles in Canada.
A couple weeks ago I heard something curious during a flashbacks scene of the season opener of “Saving Hope”. There, playing in the background on the kitchen radio, was the old Honeymoon Suite song, “Wave Babies”. Given “Saving Hope” is a Canadian show, set in Canada, and the flashback was to the 1980s, it was a likely song to be playing on the radio.

It was the first time I had heard any Honeymoon Suite song on TV in years, and never on a network TV show. It brought back a lot of memories, starting with the album “Wave Babies” came from.

My friend Mat, Video Hits and Columbia House
For the longest time I thought my first exposure to Honeymoon Suite was from their second album, but it turns out that it actually was from their debut album entitled, “Honeymoon Suite”.

There was a show on after school on CBC called “Coming Attractions” which morphed into “Coming Attractions Video” then “Video Hits”. Originally, it featured all kinds of entertainment news, but evolved into a show that played music videos, hosted by Samantha Taylor.

It was some time in Grade 9 when I started watching it more often. That’s when I started hearing about this contest they were running. I did not pay too much attention, other than that the prize was a cameo appearance in Honeymoon Suite’s next video. My friend and neighbour Mat, talked about it periodically too. The next thing I recall was seeing that video, and it featured a sweeping panoramic shot of Niagara Falls and a couple of those binocular machines you can plug coins into to watch the falls. It was part of the honeymoon theme of Niagara Falls. That video was “Wave Babies”, and Mat later told me the aforementioned cameo was a couple seconds of the two winners bopping to the music.

The next time I gave that debut album “Honeymoon Suite” any attention was when Mat bought it when he joined Columbia House. It was one of the initial 10 he purchased to join.

By then, the end of 1986, I was well acquainted with the band’s sound. I wanted more, so I borrowed Mat’s tape and immediately dubbed a copy of my own. I was not disappointed with what I heard.

The debut album
The first four singles on that album were the ones that all made it to radio.

I have a few odd memories. It may have started with "New Girl Now", but it was "Burning in Love" that I always remember. Me and Mat used to cruise down Mayor Magrath Drive in Lethbridge listening to that song, bellowing out the chorus, "I'm still, a lonely man, burning in love". One day, I was hanging out with Mat's younger brother, and he said to me, "You know what my brother was singing this morning?"

"No," I replied.

"White steel, a lonely man…"

Why was he doing that? It turns out that's what he thought Johnny Dee was singing. I laughed so hard, because for one, that makes no sense, and two, I have made up words just as bad for other songs. I can still here, "White steel, a lonely man, burning in love."

The other memory was more heart wrenching. A few months ago I documented the horrible first date I had to go see "Secret of My Success". Well, I was too dumb to take a hint. I kept calling that girl, and will write about what transpired at another time. However, when the annual Whoop-Up Days fair and midway hit Lethbridge the summer of 1987, I phoned her to see if she wanted to go to "Midnight Madness". She did not. I went with a buddy of mine and, with "Burning in Love" playing in the background, I saw her getting on a ride. That was the official end of my pursuit of that girl.

Unfortunately, I had no new girl now.

"New Girl Now", "Wave Babies", and "Stay in the Light" followed. Due, in part to Canadian content requirements, they all got a lot of air play and made Honeymoon Suite a household name in the mid-1980s.

Parting thoughts
Honeymoon Suite is a band I started listening to after they gained some popularity. Usually, we hear the debut album and interest builds from there. Here instead, I got to know Honeymoon Suite and, with no new album forthcoming, went looking for more music. In this case it happened to be older music.

Still, I was not disappointed, and it just reinforced my love for a band I still listen to, even if it is 30 years later on a medical drama on CTV.

Gerard Parkes: More than Fraggle Rock, a classic canadian actor

Gerard Parkes in his best known role as "Doc"
on Fraggle Rock, which ran from 1983 to 1987
It’s one of those faces you may recognize without knowing the name, an actor who always seemed to be playing some role – starring or supporting – on Canadian television. He eventually gained international fame as Doc, the lone human in “Fraggle Rock”, but the career of Gerard Parkes was much richer and more diverse. He passed away recently at the age of 90.

Gift to Last
It was a show I am sure I would appreciate more as an adult than I did as a child but, for three seasons, the CBC had a popular show called “A Gift to Last”. I remember it best on Sunday nights. It starred Gordon Pinsent as a soldier, and Gerard Parkes played one of his brothers, a shyer quieter sibling. Pinsent was the centre of the show, but the presence of Parkes was unmistakable.

“A Gift to Last” is a show the CBC should dig out of the vault some time.

It also set Gerard Parkes up for his next role.

Keep the “Home Fires” burning
Gerard Parkes' next recurring role was in another Sunday night drama I started watching. It was called “Home Fires” and he played a doctor named Arthur Lowe, fittingly nicknamed “Doc”. It was another show I am sure I would appreciate more now as an adult, but there are a few things I do remember.

It aired from 1980 to 1983, centring on a family in Toronto during the Second World War. One episode in particular I remember saw Doc run for elected office under the banner of this new party called the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation. It was my first exposure to the CCF and, only years later, did I discover they would morph into the modern New Democratic Party. Doc had his hands full, because there was a large presence by the Orange Lodge, and after he refused to co-operate with them, they ran their own candidate. It led to Doc’s defeat.

There was also a recurring story line about Lowe's wife's nephew, a boy named Jakob. He was a Jewish refugee from Europe who came to Toronto. Initially, he was unaccustomed to life in Canada. When he was offered an orange at a market, he bit into it like an apple. In later episodes, where he had learned to speak English and became more acclimated to life in Canada, he looked back and laughed at that moment.

And, perhaps what I recall most, was that “Home Fires” was the first recurring role for a young Canadian actress named Wendy Crewson, who played Lowe's daughter Terry. She was already a looker then, and would go on to a successful career that continues today. Most notably, she played the American president’s wife in “Air Force One” alongside Harrison Ford. To Canadian viewers, she brought to life the character of Joanne Kilbourn in several TV movies, and plays a doctor on the current CTV hit “Saving Hope”.

Gerard Parkes, as doc, was the stabilizing force, the patriarch of the family and the show.

Off to Fraggle Rock
After that ended, Parkes found another role as a “Doc”, this time as the only human character on “Fraggle Rock”. The entire community was located behind the wall of Doc’s shop, but he was oblivious to it. Only his dog knew about the Fraggles, the Doozers, and everyone else in that mythical land.

It’s funny. If I was too young for “A Gift to Last” and “Home Fires”, by the time “Fraggle Rock” hit its stride, I was too old. I moved on to other things, most notably more adult TV shows, video games, computers, and girls.

Guest star extraordinaire
Amid all that, Gerard Parkes did guest spots in a who's who of Canadian shows: "Night Heat", "The Littlest Hobo", "King of Kensington", and "Seeing Things". He also found his way to U.S. network TV in shows such as "Cagney and Lacey", "The Twilight Zone", and "War of the Worlds".

Perhaps, more memorable for me were spots in films such as "Glory Enough for All", which documented the discovery of insulin by Canadians; and "The Suicide Murders" which was the first Benny Cooperman novel to make it to TV. Cooperman is a uniquely Canadian private eye in Ontario, created by Howard Engel, and played by Saul Rubinek.

Parting thoughts
The television landscape, especially in Canada, is a much different place than it was in the 1980s. If an actor wanted to be on Canadian TV they essentially had two choices: CBC and CTV. The public broadcaster had a lot more money to make a lot more Canadian content, but the choices were still limited.

In the 1980s, with the advent of the low Canadian dollar and other factors, American production came north, and there were a lot more TV opportunities. When the number of pay and specialty channels began to proliferate, there were even more opportunities.

During much of his early career, Gerard Parkes did not have those opportunities. In the days of peasant vision in the 1980s, and the three channel universe, actors such as Gerard Parkes made the most of it. That't why we may recognize the face, but not the name. He made the most of those opportunities.

Finally, when there were more channels and shows, he found "Fraggle Rock", which gave him at least a bit of the notoriety he deserved.

Carl Crennel: More than Romeo’s younger brother

Carl Crennel played linebacker and some
defensiv end in his CFL career, which he spent
mostly in Montreal (as pictured here)
Ever since he came to prominence prowling the sidelines of NFL teams as a coach for the New England Patriots, Cleveland Browns, and Kansas City Chiefs, I have always wondered one thing about Romeo Crennel: is he related to Carl Crennel?

Who is Carl Crennel?
When I started watching CFL football, I had this brief affinity for the Edmonton Eskimos who were always winning the Grey Cup. The first couple years I watched, the Eskimos faced the Montreal Allouettes, who seemed to perpetually represent the East.

One of the defenders that seemed to terrorize the Eskimos was linebacker Carl Crennel, who always seemed to be around the ball. However, he just couldn’t do enough, and the Eskimos won the championship.

Going to Edmonton
Then, late in the 1979 season, I heard on the news the Eskimos had acquired Carl Crennel. That was so cool, because I still liked the Esks and I liked Crennel. Now they were combining forces.

Besides, they already had a guy named Dave Fennell, and that rhymed with CrennelI. It was part of this odd name game I played with the Eskimos. They also had Warren Moon and David Boone, which rhymed, Mike Wilson and Tom Wilkinson, who sounded alike, and Dale Potter and Hector Pothier, which also sounded alike.

I recall right after I heard the news about the Eskimos acquiring Crennel, they were playing late Saturday night. I fell asleep before I could watch the game.

At school the following Monday, I asked around if anyone watched the game, and if Crennel played. No one either watched the game, or recalled seeing him play. He did end up playing with the Eskimos that year, and winning the Grey Cup.

A cup of coffee in Hamilton (but not Tim Horton’s)
The next season, Carl Crennel became expendable and was traded to Hamilton, where the rebuilt Tiger-Cats went to the Grey Cup, but got blown out by – you guessed it – the Edmonton Eskimos.

Rebuilding Rider nation
When I started watching the CFL, it coincided with the Saskatchewan Roughriders hiring former quarterbacking great Ron Lancaster as their head coach. The team was terrible, winning four games in two seasons (of a 16-game schedule mind you), in 1979 and 1980. This began their descent into oblivion, after years of being a contender.

Then, in 1981 the Riders hired Joe Faragalli, an assistant with the Eskimos during their Grey Cup dynasty, and he began to rebuild the team. He acquired Joe Barnes to quarterback with John Hufnagel, and picked up Lyall Woznesensky and – Carl Crennel – to bolster his defence. By then, Crennel had become expendable in Hamilton too.

Crennel and the Woz strengthened the defence, but the Riders were still not good enough to make the playoffs. They had a winning record at 9-7, but in the tough West Division finished fourth and one game out of the playoffs.

Shortly after that, I lost track of Carl Crennel.

Parting thoughts
It turned out Carl Crennel was a pioneer and a trail blazer. He was the first black player at his high school in West Virginia. It is still hard to imagine that segregation, whether overt or covert, still existed into the late 1960s. He went on to a standout career at the University of West Virginia captaining his team to a 14-3 win over South Carolina in the 1969 Peach Bowl. He was taken by Pittsburgh in the 1970 NFL, and played with the Steelers for a year, before his tenure in the CFL. Once he came north, he was an Eastern all-star in 1973, 1978, and 1979. He also won Grey Cups in 1974 and 1977 with Montreal, and in 1979 with Edmonton
I never thought of him again, until Romeo Crennel started winning Super Bowls with the Patriots as their defensive coordinator. I began to wonder if the two Crennels were related. After a bit of research, I discovered the CFL defender and the NFL coach were related. It turned out they are in fact brothers.

It just shows you how small the football world is, just like any community.

Saturday, 8 November 2014

Ash, ash everywhere: Remembering Mount St. Helen’s

Mount St. Helens in Washington state erupted in 1980, sendin
 ash as far north as our farm near Coaldale and Lethbridge
The other day on Facebook, my cousin posted this 1980s quiz and one of the questions was about Mount St. Helens. At the time it was a big deal because, even at 10 years old, I had the same belief as so many others around me – there’s no way a volcano could erupt anywhere near us. That’s what we saw on TV, and disaster movies. Molten lava, extreme heat, and nothing but desolation. But it happened, and Mount St. Helens left her mark all the way up here in Southern Alberta.

Going volcanic
It seemed like Mount St. Helens had been in the news for months, back in 1980. It was a mountain in the state of Washington that was, in fact, a dormant volcano. It was about to wake from its long slumber, but no one knew exactly when, it seemed.

One of the stories that kept playing on the news, was about an old timer named Harry Truman. He lived on Mount St. Helens and refused to leave, despite repeated warnings. He was portrayed in some reports as heroic and steadfast in his beliefs. It was man against nature, and man would ultimately triumph.

Then the volcano actually erupted.

Getting a piece of ash
I awoke one morning and, as always, my parents had the radio on, CJOC from Lethbridge. They were broadcasting that Mount St. Helens had erupted. My mom told me to look outside and there were faint bits of ash floating in the air. I thought that strange. We had talked about Mount St. Helens at school. I looked on a map, and my teachers even said it was thousands of kilometres away. How could ash travel that far? It must have been some eruption.

I went to school and my friend Tony Curtis had actually gathered up a jar full of ash and brought it to school. Remember those days, back in elementary school, when if we thought something was neat we brought it to school? Well, that was really cool.

Later that day, after school, I discovered Harry Truman had paid the price for being stubborn. His rustic cabin had been buried, and so had he. Mother Nature had had the last laugh, and I recall feeling so sad for Harry Truman.

At the same time, my cousin Carl had a swimming pool. Another cousin told me they were busy straining the pool. While Carl’s parents were away, someone snuck in to use the pool, which happened more frequently than you would think, and left the cover off when they left. All that ash got in and absolutely covered the water. It left this ashy film they had to skim off before it plugged up the filters.

Parting thoughts
Volcanoes are in far-off places. And they spew lava and molten rock, not ash. That’s why it was so surreal Mount St. Helens not only erupted, but its aftermath reached all the way to us in sleepy Southern Alberta. It showed you really can’t count out Mother Nature. Ever.

Greek mythology, outer space, law, and advertising: The wide world of Harry Hamlin

Harry Hamlin as fledgling astronaut
John Pope in the 1985 mini-series "Space"
Long before he was Jim Cutler, the oily ad executive on “Mad Men”, Harry Hamlin entertained audiences as a central figure in Greek mythology, a pioneering American astronaut, and as an idealistic, and at times crusading lawyer in Los Angeles. Such is the resumé of one of the best actors on television in the 1980s.

Walking on the moon – almost
Harry Hamlin first came to my attention back in 1985 when he played astronaut John Pope in the miniseries “James Michener’s Space”. It was an epic, fictional look at the American space program from a variety of perspectives. Hamlin, at the time completely unknown to me, played an ambitious pilot who did whatever he could to get ahead. His girlfriend, played by Blair Brown who was also an unknown up-and-coming actress, did whatever she could to help him get ahead too. Their life sharply contrasted the other astronaut of the story, Randall Claggett, a free-wheeling, high-spirited Texas pilot who was all raw talent with a devoted wife. In the end (spoiler alert they get on a mission to the moon. However, en route they are exposed to some deadly rays that lead to he death of Clagget when he crashes the lunar lander against the moon. Pope makes it home, but it’s a disaster.)

Still, Harry Hamlin turned in an amazing performance.

Michael Kuzak, the conscience of "L.A. Law"
Moving to L.A.
It was about a year later I read in one of the super market tabloids my mom bought that Hamlin was going to star in a weekly series centred on a law firm in Los Angeles. It would be called “L.A. Law” and catapult Hamlin to fame as lawyer Michael Kuzak.

He left after the fifth season, after constructing a lengthy resumé of memorable performances that were at times touching and poignant, and at other times gritty and determined. There was also a comic quality that was all the more effective because he was so serious and intense. The best example was when he wooed love interest Grace Van Owen, played by Susan Dey, away from getting married, and he did it in a gorilla suit. It was priceless because it was so unexpected.

It absolutely boggles my mind Hamlin was never even nominated for an Emmy for his role as Micheal Kuzak, when virtually everyone who acted around him was. I thought he was one of the anchors of the show.

Perseus in "Clash of the Titans"
Clash of the Titans
It was 1981 and my sister and I decided to go to a movie with my cousins Nina and Carl. We were kind of divided on what to see. Carl, in particular, really wanted to see “Clash of the Titans”. I wanted to see this other movie and, with a little friendly cousinly persuasion, Nina and Carl acquiesced. It was called “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, and we all agreed it was the better choice. Besides, Carl lived in the city and could pretty much go to the movies any day he wanted – so he saw “Clash of the Titans” another day. He still thought “Raiders of the Lost Ark” was better after that.

Me, I never saw “Clash of the Titans” to this day. My only exposure to it was when they were giving away free stickers in something my mother bought at Safeway every week. Wagon Wheels maybe?

Only later did I learn Harry Hamlin had played Perseus in “Clash of the Titans”.

Harry Hamlin's first Emmy nomination
came as Jim Cutler in "Made Men"
Parting thoughts
Not too long ago I watched the sixth season of “Mad Men” and was taken by oily ad exec Jim Cutler. He was at times a letch and greaseball, but also a layered character that was never quite what he seemed. Although older and grayer, Jim Cutler was unmistakably played by Harry Hamlin. He did a masterful job and, for his efforts, was honoured with an Emmy nomination, something that had eluded him on “L.A. Law”.

Seeing Hamlin on “Mad Men” inspired me to watch the L.A. Law reunion movie again on tape. The show takes place about eight years after the show ends. Michael Kuzak has stopped the practice of law and is now owner of a happening nightclub. He describes himself as a saloon keeper. Grace Van Owen, his longtime love, is a judge. The firm is still there, and still run by Douglas Brackman, although now his son has joined him as an attorney. Arnie Becker is still a philandering divorce lawyer, and most of the others make a cameo appearance.

However, the main story focuses on a capital case involving one of Kuzak’s former clients. He has one last chance, having exhausted all avenues of appeal. His daughter begs Kuzak to represent him. After some soul searching, he agrees, and spends much of the movie getting his lawyer legs under him.

What struck me was a scene late in the movie that typified Hamlin himself. Brackman is talking to his son and tells him Michael Kuzak is in court. Seeing him in action is always a sight to see.

The same can be said of Harry Hamlin. Seeing him in action is always a sight to see.