September 23, 2021

Me and Dad at Six Flags around 1975

It's hard to believe that when this picture was taken, Six Flags was only seven or eight years old.

To someone of my generation, the amusement park Six Flags – or Six Flags Over Georgia, to use its full name (though no one ever really does) – seems to have always been there, enticing us to visit it, encouraging us to keep our Coke cans to save on our entry fee, promising us the danger and thrill of getting soaked on a log ride or risking (but surely not actually getting) life-threatening injuries on a roller coaster. But it wasn't always there, of course; in fact, Six Flags opened the year I was born, 1967, so the amusement park and I are the same age. I can remember talking about going there with some of my friends in second grade – somehow we had become convinced that there was a whale living in the lake at the park (which I realize now was probably not true); I don't think any of us realized then that the park was only a few years old. Not that that would have mattered to us; seven years is a pretty long time to someone who is only seven years old.

I don't remember the specific trip to Six Flags on which this picture was made; I have other pictures that must have been made around the same time – maybe the year before or after this one; maybe even the same summer – but I can tell they were different visits because in those pictures I'm wearing different clothes than I am in this one. Six Flags looms large enough in my memories of the 1970s that I know we must have gone there many times, even though it's all the way on the other side of Atlanta from where we lived.

This picture shows me and Dad on the Hanson Cars, an antique-car ride on which you steer low-powered old-timey-looking cars (fancy go karts, really) on a track that looks somewhat like a road and which metal guides in the asphalt prevent you from leaving. (In fact, I think the steering is optional; as long as you accelerate, the metal guide will ensure your path along the track – though it is less jerky if you do steer.) I know now, after reading about Six Flags on Wikipedia, that the Hanson Cars ride was one of the original attractions in the park when it opened in 1967, as was the Dahlonega Mine Train (a sort of mini roller coaster). The Great American Scream Machine, or just the Scream Machine as we called it when I was in elementary school, opened in 1973 (the same year I started first grade); it seemed such an integral part of the park that I probably believed it had always been there.

Not that I ever rode the Scream Machine, at least not back then (though I think I did ride it a couple of times in 1993 or '94, when I went there in my late 20s after not having been for fifteen year or so). When I was a kid I wanted to go to Six Flags all the time, but mostly I would ride only the gentlest of rides. I did ride the Dahlonega a few times, but that was fast enough for me you couldn't have gotten me on a full-size roller coaster or the Great Gasp or any of those other thrill rides for anything. The ride I remember the best was "Tales of the Okefenokee," a "dark ride" on which you rode in a boat through scenes of animatronic, anthropomorphic swamp critters that seems in retrospect like a combination of the cartoon sequences from The Song of the South (minus all the racist stuff, I sure hope) and Walt Kelly's Pogo comic strip. Or maybe like the "Hillbilly Bears" and the "Possible Possum" cartoons I used to see on TV every day after school. (Anthropomorphized mountain/swamp/country animals, especially bears and rabbits, were part of the zeitgeist of the second half of the 20th century, apparently.)

I think an ideal Six Flags experience for me when I was ten would have been to ride "Tales of the Okefenokee" about ten times, eat some ice cream, and then play ski ball for four hours. In truth, though, I only remember with clarity one visit to Six Flags when I did play ski ball: when I was in fifth grade, we went to Six Flags one Friday after school with Jan and Richard, I think for an AT&T-sponsored event (or BellSouth, or whatever that company was called back then; it was where Richard worked, but I’m sure that meant nothing to me at the time). All I really recall about that trip was playing ski ball and trying to win enough tickets to trade in for...I don't know, a Cadillac, I think. I didn't make it, of course. In fact, I don't think I traded my tickets in for any prize at all; I think I kept them with the intention of going back again soon and then getting enough tickets to get the Cadillac. Instead I don't think I went back to Six Flags for about fifteen years.

I don't know what happened to the ski ball tickets. Probably Mom threw them away a couple of days later, when I was back at school, and I've just now, more than forty years later, realized it.

I went to Six Flags just three or four years ago, with Anna and the kids. A lot of it has changed, but you know what hasn't? The smell. It smelled like Six Flags – not a bad smell at all; a good smell, an exciting smell. Smelling that, I was ten again.

But I still went home without a Cadillac.

Oh, and by the way, the Hanson Cars ride is still there, and so is the Dahlonega Mine Train.

(In the interest of complete honesty, I feel I should admit that they don’t really have Cadillacs among the prizes you can get in the games pavillion, no matter how many tickets you get.)

Bonus: Here are some pictures that one of my parents took in the "Tales of the Okefenokee" ride sometime in the 1970s:

(Yes, it's a rabbit milking a cow. No, I don't know why.)

September 16, 2021

Me, at home, in a T-shirt and plaid flannel shirt, circa 1987

Unlike most of the pictures I choose for these musings, I am (almost, kinda-sorta) an adult in this one. I think I was about 20 when this was taken, probably some time in 1987, maybe 1988. I was out of high school and in college but still living in the house I grew up in in Lilburn, about which I’ve written quite a bit before.

The T-shirt says Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and has the MGM lion on it. I used to wear that shirt a lot. Dad brought it back for me from a trip to California back when he worked for TBS. I was wearing a plaid flannel shirt over it because...because I always wore plaid flannel shirts over my T-shirts--it was part of the 1980s-long-haired-guy uniform. I was also wearing bracelets and a dangly earring--other parts of the uniform. (And jeans, of course. I always wore jeans back then--I don't think I owned any pants then that weren't jeans. Now I never wear jeans--I don't own a pair of pants that are jeans.)

When this was taken, I think I had already started going to Georgia State University, but it was right after my two years at DeKalb College (as it was known then), which were two great years (or so my selective memory leads me to believe). Though I know this picture was taken a couple of years after the fact, it makes me think of the fall of 1985, my first quarter at DeKalb, and taking Philosophy in the Nursing building--I loved that class, with Dr. Yohan (Shan Yohan; her husband, Walter, also a philosophy professor at DeKalb, had retired a year or two earlier. I know this only because Rod Bennett, whom I met in that class, once told me that somebody told him to be sure to take philosophy with Dr. Yohan, and when he did he was disappointed to find out the professor was the wife and not the husband.)

I was also taking the Mercer continuing-ed creative writing class at night with Jalaine, and finding new writers to admire and emulate (Bobbie Ann Mason stands out as an early favorite, but there was also Raymond Carver and Amy Hempel and others). Back then I used to actually write--I mean, write short stories, poems, parts of novels (these blog entries and musings count, but it just isn't the same thing--I know I'm not creating literature here). I even published a handful of short stories back then, too (but mostly in tiny basement-copy-machine little magazines that nobody's ever heard of, though I racked up quite a few rejection slips from university-sponsored literary magazines).

One thing that freaks me out when I do the math: If this picture really was taken in 1987, then it was only about fourteen years before I married Anna. As I sit here writing this, Anna and I have been married for twenty years. So the Chris Burdett in this picture is closer in age to the Chris Burdett who got married to Anna Benoit in 2001 at St. Lawrence Catholic Church in Lawrenceville than the Chris Burdett who is writing this is. Man, do I feel old!

I like the guy in this picture. He still had some growing up to do (maybe he still does) and some stuff to learn (maybe he still does), but he was an okay guy. Hopefully he still is.

September 08, 2021

My First Computer

My brother, Jeff, playing a game on our Apple II home computer in the early 1980s

My first computer was a 1980 Apple II that Dad bought for us, back when he worked for a local computer store that was an Apple dealer (in addition to selling Compaq and Kaypro, and some other brands that are no longer around -- Apple obviously is). This distinction probably isn't something many people these days would recognize as important, but it was an Apple II -- not an Apple II+ or an Apple IIe, and certainly not an Apple IIc -- that model didn't come out until a few years later.

No, it was just a plain old Apple II; for a monitor you connected it to a TV set via an RF modulator, its character set didn't include lower-case letters, and it had to go into a different mode to display graphics than it used to display text. The Apple II did have color, though, which set it apart from many of the other home computers around at that time, but since we used an old black and white TV as our monitor, we couldn't tell the difference: the frogs in Frogger were a light gray to us.

But even if we were watching grayscale frogs hop across grayscale traffic to hop onto the backs of grayscale alligators, we at least had a computer, which was not true of very many families back at the end of the 1970s and beginning of the 1980s.

Yes, it was a computer, at least technically, but it was nothing like the ones we're used to today. In those days 64KB of RAM -- not 64MB, and definitely not 64GB -- was a lot. In fact, I think we started with just 4K (back then you didn't indicate the B; I guess "bytes" was understood) and worked our way up by taking the cover off and plugging RAM chips into the available slots. For the first year or two, we read programs into that memory from a cassette drive, but Dad eventually (perhaps fairly quickly, I really don't remember the exact timeline of all this) brought home a floppy disk drive, and then another, making it much faster for us to boot up Space Invaders or Frogger or whatever game we felt like playing. (These were 5 1/4 -- pronounced "five and a quarter" -- inch floppy drives and disks, by the way, and they held something like 512K per side, which at the time really was a lot.)

Games were mostly what we used the Apple II for: the already-mentioned Space Invaders and Frogger, Lemonade Stand, and quite a few I'm sure I've forgotten. In the picture above, Jeff is playing one of these games, probably Space Invaders, holding the paddle in his lap (the Apple had a dedicated port for paddles, I imagine because games like those were probably its most common use).

I made grand plans when I learned we were going to be getting the computer but didn't yet have it, back in sixth grade, of becoming a programming whiz and creating a computerized version of Monopoly (and possibly getting rich and famous, though I don't think I actually thought about that possibility very much). I would pore over the pamphlets and manuals (Dad managed to bring home a copy of a manual before we got the actual computer) and scheme and fantasize and dream.

Scheme and fantasize and dream, but not do any real planning, other than a few inept sketches of what the screen should look like, and I never wrote even a single line of code for my Monopoly game. I did become a decent BASIC programmer, though, and I did write a game that involved guns you would move around with your paddle, and bullets that could either take out the other gun, or disappear into the cactus in the middle of the screen (it was my sole gimmick, in this game at least) only to be shot out again from the cactus in some new, randomly-chosen direction. I also wrote a program that drew letters on the screen, creating a lower-case character set the computer then lacked. (It couldn't save what you wrote, though -- I didn't know how to make it do that -- so it was not a "word processor" or "text editor" by any stretch of the imagination.) And when I was taking chemistry at Berkmar (in 11th or 12th grade, 1984 or 1985; I don't remember, but I do remember that the teacher was Mrs. East -- actually Dr. East, I believe; I think she did have a Ph.D., but she didn't go by "Dr."), my science fair proposal was a computer-based study program called Computer Tutor, which I actually did do a lot of work on, but which I never actually finished, just as a I didn't finish chemistry. (Dropping out of one made it easy for me to abandon the other.)

When I was in ninth grade at Berkmar, taking Coach Thees's Algebra class, there was a tenth grader in my class who I would talk to sometimes about music (he was into synthesizers and liked Gary Newman) and computers (he also had an Apple II); his name was Jeff Martin. At one point he gave me a floppy disk containing a pirated version of SirTech's landmark fantasy roleplaying game Wizardry. It was a strangely defining moment for me -- I already loved fantasy fiction, and I soon loved this game. I didn't have a manual or any instructions, but by trial and error I learned how to play, and eventually got my cousin Scott and my brother Jeff into it with me, in long Friday night adventuring campaigns with our party of Srizaxa, Sribob, Imok (so named when we saw the spine of I'm OK, You're OK on Dad's bookshelf), and at least three others whose names now escape me. (A full party in Wizardry was six characters, and we always played with a full party.).

The last thing I'm going to say -- for now, at least -- about this phase of my life is that we subscribed to Creative Computing, a magazine I dearly loved and read faithfully every month. I also looked through the ads in the back many times, fantasizing about the computers I would get and what cool things I would do with them.

Today, computers are all around us, powering or enabling an awful lot of what we do, and we tend to take them for granted. I wrote much of this musing on my Google Pixel 3a smart phone using an Anker bluetooth keyboard, and, except while composing this sentence, it doesn't even occur to me what a cool thing it is that I have these tools at my disposal. I am glad, though, that I have memories of a time when personal computers were unique and not yet ubiquitous, and back then I think I really did realize how cool they were.