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Wednesday, December 05, 2012

How A Whiz-Kid Made Me A Wise Kid

I thought that I would begin Day #5 of “The Pop Culture Addict’s Advent Calendar” by explaining what I will be doing on this, and the next three Wednesdays. 

As many of you know, I have been devoting Wednesday blog entries to a feature known as the Wednesday Gift Shop.  And it basically focuses on items that can be found in a gift shop.  You know, toys, games, magazines, books...things like that.

Because we’re getting into the holiday season (and because a lot of kids out there are likely asking for toys in their stockings and presents under the tree – or near the Hanukkah menorah if you please), I thought that I would talk about toys and games that I received as Christmas gifts, as well as a loving story about family and tradition in the process.

So why don’t I begin with the story, and work my way up to the topic of discussion?

I’m sure many of us remember grabbing a piece of paper and our best red or green crayons and making out our lists for Santa Claus.  We would list a few items that we really wanted for Christmas morning so that Santa could have an idea of what to bring us.  As children, I bet many of us made lists that were quite lofty, filled with dozens of big ticket items.  I know that I certainly asked Santa for the impossible a few times when I was a kid.

But that was part of the surprise.  A lot of times I would make a Christmas list filled with some of the most expensive items that I could think of, and to my surprise, Santa ended up bringing at least a couple of them.

Of course, some of the items that I put on my Christmas list in the past were quite silly, and I knew that I wouldn’t get them no matter how good a boy I was.  I suppose it was kind of unrealistic to expect my own boat, to star in an Archie comic, and to own the entire state of Hawaii.  At least nobody could fault me for having a vivid imagination as a child.  J

Anyway, I suppose you’re wondering where this story is leading.  Well, it dates back to the second grade.  Our teacher handed everybody in the class a sheet of paper, and we all had to record at least three things that we wanted for Christmas 1988.  Now, 1988 was a rather bad year for me.  Not only did I start the year off by finishing up first grade with a teacher I openly despised, but in September of that year, I was hospitalized for a week due to a severe asthma attack.  Somewhere in my childlike mind, I believed that because I had gone through so much that year, I could really go crazy with my Christmas list that year.

It didn’t matter that my parents tried to explain to me that the North Pole was experiencing a recession and that Santa was shopping on a strict budget that year.  I had it in my mind that Santa Claus was going to find a way to make a miracle happen that year.

When it came down to making my list that year, I settled on what I believed was three items that were reasonable for Santa to bring.  I think this was my list.

1.      Every board game in the world

2.     A life-sized playhouse for me to play in

3.     My very own computer

Keep in mind that all three of these items in 1988 would probably have cost upwards of at least a couple of thousand dollars (well, okay, maybe the board games wouldn’t have cost that much, but then again, do you know how many board games there are on this planet?).

Oh, and did I mention that my teacher decided to take all of our letters to the local newspaper and that the local newspaper printed all of our letters in the newspaper’s “Letters to Santa” section? 

Let’s just say this.  Most of the kids asked for Hot Wheels Cars, skipping ropes, G.I. Joe action figures and Barbie dolls.  And there was my list which looked as if one of Donald Trump’s children had written it!  I suppose that looking back on that time of my life, it did seem sort of greedy on my part...but I was seven years old, and I didn’t know any better.  At the time though, I was still convinced that I would get at least one of the things on my list.  I kept hope alive.

So, December 25, 1988 came around, and I was half expecting to see the room overflowing with perfectly wrapped board games, a computer sitting in the corner of the living room, and a life-size playhouse in the middle of my backyard.

What I ended up getting wasn’t exactly what I had wanted though.

Instead of every board game in the world, I ended up only getting two (“Don’t Break The Ice” and “Don’t Spill The Beans”, in case you were wondering).  Instead of a life-size playhouse, I ended up getting a miniature one that was manufactured by Fisher-Price. 

And this is what I ended up getting for a computer.

You are looking at the classic children’s toy known as the Whiz-Kid computer.  It was quite popular in the 1980s, and I think that many kids ended up owning one.  But I remember the seven-year-old me being very disappointed in the gift.  I didn’t want a computer like a Whiz-Kid.  I wanted the same exact computer that was set up in the classroom, where we could play games like “Pick-a-Dilly Pair” and “Number Munchers”.

In fact, when I first looked at the Whiz-Kid, I didn’t even know how to turn it on.  And to be completely honest, my parents didn’t know either.  It actually took a couple of days before anyone figured it out.  Luckily my eldest sister showed all of us how to turn it on and get it working. 

And I will be the first to admit that aside from getting the plush version of Simon from “Alvin & The Chipmunks” that year, the Whiz-Kid computer was my favourite gift from Christmas 1988.

Released in the mid-1980s by V-Tech Electronics, the Whiz-Kid was designed almost like a desktop computer, complete with a disk drive (albeit a non-working one), and keyboard.  The screen was a brilliantly coloured one with a picture of an owl dressed as a professor, and had bright, cheerful music playing each time you answered a question right or wrong.

An interesting looking machine, don’t you think?

So, here’s how the machine worked.  You see that stack of cards that are displayed right next to the Whiz-Kid computer?  Each card was a link to a various activity.  As you can see in the diagram, card #A-1 appears to be a card about learning how to play music. 

And if I could find a way to blow up the image of the keyboard, you’ll see that some of the letter keys have writing underneath them that have the words “do – re – mi – fa – so- la – ti”.  If you had the music card inside of the little card holder, the keys would play music.  If you had a different card that featured the subject of spelling, then the keys would be the corresponding letter.

You see (and here’s the genius of the Whiz-Kid computer), each card must have had some sort of hidden barcode within them that caused the card reader to determine the kind of activity that the card was, and programmed the keys accordingly.  It was a neat piece of machinery.  I suppose one could say that the toy was ahead of its time.

The Whiz-Kid computer also came with a generic cartridge that one could plug into the side of the computer (kind of similar to the same technology that Nintendo used to plug their video games into a Game Boy).  By the late 1980s, there were several cartridges available, along with individual packages of cards that were specifically designed to target a particular subject.  There were packages that dealt with word games, packages that dealt with mathematics, and packages that dealt with just making music.  There were also packages that catered to different age groups making the level of difficulty vary as well. 

(Note to one self...I made the mistake of buying the blue cards which focused on junior high school level geometry...which as an eight year old boy, I knew nothing about.  But hey, by the time I did enter seventh grade, I always ended up acing geometry.  I guess it was the power of the Whiz-Kid computer!)

Oh, and if you happened to lose one or all of your cards?  No problem!  The Whiz-Kid computer also came with an instruction booklet which not only showed you how to use the computer, but also came with a list of codes.  Each code corresponded with a card.  All you would have to do is enter the code at the title screen, and voila...the program would start up without the card.  The instruction booklet also came with a selection of tunes that one could learn to play using the music card.  You could learn how to play “Ode to Joy”, “Happy Birthday”, and even a Christmas carol!

And in the late 1980s, V-Tech even released a Talking Whiz-Kid machine, which worked almost the same way as the original Whiz-Kid, only the machine talked back to you!  I never ended up seeing the Talking Whiz-Kid, but I hear that it was a neat little toy.

So, that’s my story regarding the Whiz-Kid computer.  It might not have been exactly the computer that I requested for that Christmas, but it ended up providing a lot of wonderful memories and good times regardless.  I suppose if you look at it from that perspective, Santa brought me everything that I wanted that year.  I suppose that getting the Whiz-Kid computer also taught the seven-year-old me a big lesson...not to ask for the impossible, and to be happy with what I ended up getting.

I think that’s a lesson that we could all stand to learn.

So, that’s Day #5 out of the way.  The fun continues tomorrow with the sixth day of the Advent Calendar.  It’s the first Thursday diary entry of December, and I talk about a dream that I have always wanted to come true...but unfortunately it’s also a dream that I am nowhere near ready for.

Confused?  Don’t worry.  It will become clear on Day #6.

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