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James R. Stout

The Arcade

            Thomas Wolfe said, “You can never go home again”. I believe that we’ve all experienced that at some point in our lives. When I have the occasion to drive through the area of Houston, Texas that I spent the years between 11 years-old through 24 years-old I come face to face with the fact that things have changed and no amount of wishing that they were the same will make it so. More importantly, I realize how much I have changed. Let me take you back to August of 1973. I was almost 18 years old. I went to the amusement park “Astroworld” with my girlfriend and a friend along with his girlfriend. I had saved up the money to have a great time. Besides the money for the tickets, parking, and food and drinks for the day, I had $100 set aside to spend on whatever I could do with that amount of money. That was a princely sum for a 17-year-old kid at the time. We had a fantastic time that day. It ranks as one of the most enjoyable single days of my life. We rode the rides, my girlfriend and I did a lot of hugging during the three times that we rode the rollercoaster, we enjoyed a live performance of some very talented dancers, musicians, and singers, we ate too much junk, and we even had our photos taken and giant wall posters made out of the pictures. Sadly, the posters were thrown away at some point in my 20’s. Finally, there was about an hour left before we had to leave, and my girlfriend asked me to win her a stuffed animal at the arcade. It was a large arcade with all the typical games of chance to play. Throwing darts at balloons, round pieces of plastic onto cola bottles, shooting jets of water to fill a balloon and hope that it popped for a win, throwing baseballs at metal milk bottles, and a whole host of other games. I still had about $50 in cash and I set out to win her a stuffed animal.

            Well, I was hot that night. I couldn’t seem to miss. Before it was over, I had won my girlfriend over twenty stuffed animals including a very large bear and an equally large elephant. It took all four of us to carry the animals out to the car. It was a perfect day. From the moment I picked up my girlfriend at her house to the moment we kissed goodnight it had been a day to remember.

            Now, let me take you back to another day. It was in April of 1981. If you’re counting, it was nearly 8 years later. I was an old married man by then. No, not really, but my ex-wife and I had been married nearly 5 years. Within two years of that other day in 1973 my old girlfriend and I had split up, I was out of high school by a year, and I met the girl that I would be married to for 27 years. By that night in in 1981 we had already gone through quite a bit of life. The previous year had been a very difficult year for us. I had taken a job in Dallas that turned out to be a mistake. Little did I know when we moved to Dallas that the job would play out within 8 months. The company was in financial trouble and would be defunct after I had worked there for only 8 months. The following several months saw us go through some rough financial times of our own. At one point, we leased an old house in Garland, Texas and despite lowering our rent we were struggling while I worked a temporary job and sought a permanent job making better pay. We resorted to using dish washing detergent to also shower with and wash our hair with. This, besides using it to clean dishes and clothes. We just didn’t have the money to buy the proper products. I sold my 1980 truck and bought a 5-year-old Fiat that needed work. I had to replace the radiator, water pump, and exhaust system. I lost some weight in order to fit into some clothes that had been a little tight and I grew my hair out long to save having to pay for a haircut. The old house we lived in didn’t have an oven that worked, but fortunately the stove top did. I think you get the picture. We were struggling to overcome the situation.

            In February of 1981 I finally got a permanent job. It didn’t pay as well as I had hoped, but it seemed to have promise of better pay to come. We had been behind on some bills and got caught up within a month or so. We had gone for months without doing anything that cost extra money. No movies, no dinners out, no new clothes, pretty much nothing other than the bare necessities required to make ends meet. We moved into a studio apartment on April 15th. It was much nicer than the old house. We had two bathrooms and we even got free cable TV. Well, that would have been great if our old black and white TV had the ability to hook up to cable! One night near the end April we noticed that a large carnival was in town and set-up just down the road from our new apartment. We decided to go have some fun. We had $25 to spend which wasn’t much, but we thought it might be enough to ride a few rides and feel alive again.

            We walked around the carnival and rode a Ferris wheel and the “tilt-a-whirl”. Of course, they had a huge arcade. My wife asked me if I could win her a stuffed animal. Talk about Deja’ vu! Well, I was whisked back nearly 8 years to that perfect day in 1973. I only had about $15 to spend this time though. I would love to tell you that I won my wife 20 stuffed animals, but I can’t do that. It wouldn’t be true. What happened was within about 5 minutes I spent that $15 and didn’t win a thing. It happened so fast that we were both in shock. We both got sick to our stomachs and left the carnival.

            We got back into that Fiat and sat in silence for about a minute or so and then we turned to each other and embraced each other while we both broke into sobs. I cried because I felt like a failure and because I knew how hard it was to get that money that I had just thrown away. My wife cried because of the same reason. We had gone through so much adversity, much more than I have described here, and that $15 represented much more than a mere $15. Thomas Wolfe was right and then some. I had tried to relive just a little bit of that perfect day from 1973 and I had learned that you just can’t go home again. Lightning certainly didn’t strike twice for me at an arcade. I also learned a more sobering lesson. I learned that there isn’t much truth in the old saying, “easy come, easy go”. Too often it’s very hard to come by something and far too easy to lose it.

            Well, we both learned a lesson that night. We never again wasted hard earned money. We learned to make better choices. I believe that had we simply spent the money on a movie and dinner the outcome would have been very different. But we chose poorly. There would be better times and there would even be worse times to come for us. But that’s life. What you have to learn via experience is to recognize when you’re on top of a mountain and to enjoy it while you’re there. Cherish it because you won’t be on that exact mountaintop again. You also have to learn to recognize when you’re going through the darkest of valleys and to not lose hope. You may go through many more valleys in your life, but there’s a mountaintop just ahead. You just have to persevere and be patient.

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