Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Columns

September 3, 2012

Low-tech fun: Peaking at Pong, homemade ice cream and benefits of Tang

My dad and my Uncle Butch Fry used materials they found in a junk pile someplace to transform me into “Robby the Robot” one year for Halloween. They used cardboard boxes for my head and torso, and cylindrical furnace duct packaging for my arms and legs. They painted the cardboard with gray barn roof paint and salvaged components from a discarded pinball machine for my eyes, ears, mouth and such.

None of the gizmos actually did anything, but I acted the part of a robot like any 5-year-old might do and walked around with stiff arms and legs because I couldn’t bend anything. Dad and Uncle Butch used flippers for my eyebrows, light bulbs for my eyes and bumpers to represent gauges on my chest. The photograph that dad took of me in costume before the Halloween party represented the mental image of robotics I carried with me until the “Jetsons” TV show came on.

I assume that the Halloween party I attended as “Robby” must have been in 1954, because I evolved into becoming a cowboy long before my sixth birthday the next summer. Being a cowboy was a lot more fun than being a robot. In time, the glue that held the flippers and bumpers in place came off and my futuristic past became nothing more than a pile of painted cardboard.

But my dreams of being a cowboy also faded like a sunset in the western sky. In real life, cowboys didn’t ride off into that sunset, and those labor-saving robots like the ones on the “Jetsons” that should now be mowing my lawn and running the vacuum cleaner are apparently working on an automobile assembly line somewhere, because there not at my house heating up my oatmeal.

To me, and this is just my opinion, the computer age peaked at Pong. I still can’t imagine anything could be more fun than twisting a knob on a controller clockwise or counterclockwise to cause a line on a TV screen to go up or down in order to control the direction of a light moving on horizontal or diagonal paths across the TV screen. I enjoyed Pong, but I never was a big fan of Tang, although I know it’s what the astronauts drank when they were in space. If that was the reward for all that training, I would just as soon drink a 16-ounce bottle of Lotta Cola.

I’m thankful for automobile air-conditioning, if that’s part of the robot-computer contribution to the world. I should pause here to apologize to anything I might say to anger any computers of the past, present or in the future. Y’all crash on me enough that I always try to speak kindly of your cathode ray ancestors and I never fold, bend, spindle or mutilate any IBM cards under penalty of law.

Homemade ice cream was one of the tastiest treats we enjoyed as a family when I was growing up, and while soft ice cream came along in my youth, nothing matched the taste of a bowl of homemade ice cream made with farm fresh eggs, milk, sugar, vanilla extract stirred in a vessel surrounded by rock salt on frozen chunks of ice. It took hours of grinding a wooden-handled crank to transform the ingredients into ice cream, but it was always worth it.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I much prefer using a chain saw rather than a bow saw or cross-cut saw for felling trees and cutting firewood, and I really prefer using a gasoline-powered weed trimmer rather than a sickle or a scythe. Old timers tried to teach me how to work a scythe for eight hours without getting tired, but I always wound up being worn out after just four hours and no good for the rest of the day.

Some years ago, I visited the old Bluefield Daily Telegraph newsroom when the city was trying to sell it to someone that thought about making it a museum. I was in the building looking at potential structural challenges, but I also noticed several old, discarded personal computers scattered around in the old newsroom. The building had some major challenges, but it seemed to me that the old computer screens weren’t really that old or obsolete. I was surprised that rather modern-looking personal computers didn’t have a place in a newsroom that was new in 1985.

In 1954, the “Robby the Robot” costume my dad and Uncle Butch made for me was way ahead of its time, but someone from today would likely look at it as rudimentary and comical. Still, I can’t stop thinking that there is still a place in modern society for imaginative thinking and that the homemade toys of tomorrow may help define the shape of things to come. I know for a fact that homemade ice cream tasted mighty good and there wasn’t a single Pong-like screen on the ice cream freezer.

Bill Archer is senior editor of the Daily Telegraph. Contact him at barcher@bdtonline.com.

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