I was about three when my family got our first Nintendo console. It was mostly for my older brother, who, unlike me, actually had the motor skills to operate a controller. However, though my mother may be loath to admit it, I think my parents also wanted it a good bit. My mother was something of an Atari whiz at the time, having blacked out at least three games, Missile Command being her proudest. My father would play, too, but was apparently lacking in any notable skill.
By the time 1990 rolled around, I was a ruddy faced five-year-old with enough command of my appendages to make an attempt at playing. As most people of that era, Super Mario Bros. was my first foray into the video game world. Though the controller was as uncomfortable as anything, leaving deep, red ruts in my palms, I found that I was entirely unable to put it down. I was intent upon finding the princess and destroying as many turtles as humanly possible.
My brother would play with me quite often, most times forcing me to play as the lesser plumber/savior, Luigi. It was always a good time, but would usually end with my brother throwing the controller and kicking me out. I, however, never once took my frustrations out on the controller, as tempted as I was. Of course, this was just a litmus test of our disparate personalities. My brother had, and still has, a terrible temper, while I was and am much more laid back, even verging on timid. For my brother, it was always the game’s fault that he lost, never a shortcoming in his skills. I could recognize my faults and attempt to correct them, learning the subtle nuances of each game. I was to find out shortly that Mario has a lot of nuances.
I would come home from daycare, or, as time passed, school, and immediately blow out the cartridge and pop it in. After an hour or so, the honey yellow hue of a hot Alabama afternoon would spill through the open window, tempting me, usually successfully, to put down the controller and wander around until the crickets told me it was time to scurry back home. After the cursory supper (try as I might, the only food I ever remember having for supper is my mother’s fried chicken; I know this to be untrue.) and a begrudging trip to the bathtub, I would beg my mother for one more jaunt through the Mushroom Kingdom. Occasionally, this request would be granted, and I would delve back in with a renewed fervor. The heavy, comforting humidity of a summer’s night would combine with the sweet exhaustion that we can only know as children, putting me into some strange middle-ground between consciousness and sleep, making the game seem almost easy. I would plow through the stages, almost lazily killing Mario’s enemies. Oddly enough, I still find that to this day, I play video games better in that golden haze of sleepiness. Eventually, however, the strums of sleep would begin to play for me, and my eyelids would slowly droop further and further, eventually closing altogether. I would wake after a few seconds, only to find that my game was over. I would take this as my cue to go to bed.
With this routine, I eventually became a professional at mushroom hunting, shell dodging, and coin collecting. I would constantly tug at my father’s arm, pulling him to my brother’s room to watch me destroy a boss. Often, he would come willingly; other times, he would have to go to work, or he was going out for the evening. I would only understand later what that meant, and why my mother would get so upset at him, but things like that did not really impact upon my young mind. All that mattered to me at the time was the desire to show off my meager talent. However, as time went on, my father was around less and less. He was going out almost every night, and when he was home, usually once a week, it was usually just to get into a fight with my mother. I would later learn that my father was an alcoholic. He was unable to keep a job for any substantial length of time due to this fact, and when he lost a job, he would drink more. It was a vicious cycle, one that I’m unsure as to whether he was ever able to break or not. What I really noticed was that he was not the father I’d come to expect. He wasn’t as happy-go-lucky as he’d always been. He just seemed unhappy, and no matter what I did, it didn’t change him.
To avoid this, I sunk myself further into Mario, truly becoming a hero in my own mind. Mario was no longer fighting to save someone he loved; I was. I couldn’t change what was happening in my real life, but I could traverse strange lands and fight odd monsters to save a princess I’d never met in my life. And despite what was going on in my life, those are some of the most meaningful video game memories that I have. I have struggled to capture this feeling again, and have never quite succeeded. I had intertwined myself so fully with the hero of the game that I could hardly separate one from the other. It was a one-time product of outside influences: my father, my age, my cares (or lack thereof). It’s something that’s lost to me now, but I have memories that will always be sweet to me.
I no longer asked my father to watch me play. When he was around, I tended to avoid him. I would go outside to the playhouse that he built for me and my brother and read comic books, or real books, or play with my toys, or listen to music, or just sit and think. I would do anything but be around him. I just wanted my old father back. Whoever this man claimed to be, and regardless of what his name was, I knew that he was not my father. It became my goal to find him. He had become the princess that was always in another castle.
I developed a plan that could only be born in the imaginative and infinitely naïve mind of a child: I would beat Super Mario Bros., a feat that would make him so proud that he would have to come back. I became utterly single-minded. The call of the Alabama wilderness no longer held any sway; I would sit in front of the Nintendo until my mother pulled me away. I eventually realized that my father hadn’t even been in the house for well over month, but this didn’t deter me. I knew that once I beat Bowser, I would not only rescue the princess, but also my father.
One beautifully crisp Autumn afternoon (a Saturday, if I remember correctly), I finally did it; I beat Super Mario Bros.. I rushed out of the room, wanting to pull my father into the room to see what I’d done, to be proud of me, to come back to me. I started toward the kitchen, but knew he wasn’t there; I dashed outside to see if his truck was there, but it wasn’t. I was going to call him, but I realized that I didn’t even know where he was. I didn’t know what to do. I’d done what I thought would make him proud and bring my true father back, but how could I even tell him what I’d done? Maybe if I told my mother, she’d somehow be able to reach him.
I wandered into my mother’s room. She was sitting on her bed, folding laundry. I went in and put on my best broken smile, and said, “Hey Mama, guess what? I beat Super-“; but I couldn’t do it. My voice cracked and hot tears forced their way past my clenched eyelids. I stammered and tried to get it out, but I just couldn’t finish. My mother came up to me and gently put her arms around me. She knew what had happened, and she knew it wasn’t Mario that I was crying about. She kissed me lightly on the forehead and said, “You beat Mario? I knew you could do it, honey.” I hugged her back and cried harder. She crouched and lifted my head up. She wiped my eyes and said, “Harry, I love you, and I know you miss your dad, but we’re going to be okay.” I sniffled and quit crying. I went back to my brother’s room, shut the Nintendo off, and went out to my playhouse, the one that my father had built. I just wanted to be alone for a little bit. While sitting there, I realized that the princess isn’t in any other castle. I had found her, but I hadn’t found my father. But I also realized something else. It didn’t really matter. My mother had always been there for me, for good times and bad. I’d miss my father until he came back, but my mother had never left to begin with. She was the one that I really wanted to make proud. And she still is to this day.
I haven’t seen my father in 20 years. He wrote me a letter when I turned 18, and the return address was somewhere in Tennessee, but I threw it away without reading it. I didn’t need to. I don’t want his apologies; I don’t want his reasons. I have my mother, and she’s never in another castle.