When I was 6 something was brought into our household that would change my life in many ways. Sure, my brother was born around that time but his birth hardly compared to the VHS Machine my dad brought home from Sears. I remember it well. The beast was black and had more moveable parts than a Transformer. And it was huge. Well, back then it wasn’t considered huge once you took into account its magical abilities. Looking back, it was roughly the size of a microwave oven – and almost as heavy.
Up to that point the Howley household archived TV shows by recording them onto audio cassette tapes. We listened to the soundtracks and created the visuals in our very own heads. I did, at least. I “watched” Xanadu this way roughly 35.3 times. Sure, I had to flip the tape over from time to time and there were invariably minutes of dead silence or my mom yelling something about using up all the batteries again but that didn’t mean there were dark spots in my imagination. Olivia would merely skate a bit harder, or she’d put together a few more ribbon barrettes in the most beautiful color combinations and they would fall alongside her hair. I would soon begin to copy those barrettes on Sunday afternoons in order to look prettier come school on Monday.
My father liked to purchase things in tandem with my Uncle Dick. I remember sitting in the car lot of the “Custom Carpeted Van (With Pin-Stripes if You Want Them)” dealership looking through stacks upon stacks of huge carpet books trying to decide what would look best together in our new Ford van. And by the end of it all, both he and my Uncle Dick drove off the lot with a promised customized van in both their futures.
“We travel a lot!” I remember him telling my mom. “We could really use it to go to Disney and see your family.” And so it came to be that we acquired a new brown van. It was similar with electronics and vacations. One of the two men would bring something up and the next thing you’d know they would be pricing in-ground pools, new skis, and garage door openers.
When my father brought our new VHS Machine into the room, our reactions were not unlike what they would have been had we finally gotten the dog we had always begged for. We stared at it in amazement, waiting for it to do some tricks or play something we’d never seen before.
Prior having a VHS Machine of my own, I had heard about the phenomenon in the cafeteria at school. A few of the Alpha Families had Video Recorders and they would spill their Alpha Children onto the streets every morning sporting badges claiming the bragging rights to being the more superior race. We barely had a working TV when we were growing up, so I knew my chances of becoming one of “those kids” were slim. But Dana had one. Dana also had a dog who, I was told, was allergic to itself and that’s why it would chew it’s own hair and skin off until it bled. I was always sure that it was undergoing the worse possible form of doggy suicide, freeing itself from quite possibly the most deranged family in Pennsylvania – a suicide I would have pondered myself had I been born into that household. Dana also had a pool, a father who had a boob cake constructed for a fortieth birthday party (that I just could not take my eyes off of), a little brother who would dry-hump furniture on call, a self-playing piano that played “Bad, Bad Lee Roy Brown”, and a finished shag-carpeted basement with a pool table. I guess you could say Dana was Alpha. But Dana, like many other early Video Recorder owners, had a BETA Machine.
Here’s where the details in my head get a little foggy. I’m not sure how or why it happened (perhaps I was flipping the tape over during this part of the story) but at some point some pimply little Alpha, BETA-owning brat started the whole “BETA RULES! VHS SUCKS!” argument. Somehow, it was perpetuated and then escalated. Great tales were spun by the Alpha Kids about their superior BETA Machines and how far they would go and how they could outdo any VHS Machine at any time. The VHS kids knew where they stood. We were second in line, knowing the only reason we even had the Machine at all was due to the drop in cost. The Alpha-BETA kids were indeed first. We VHS kids weren’t going to try and dispute that fact. It wasn’t at all unlike West Side Story (not yet out on VHS).
But the war went on and on and on anyway.
“My uncle says BETA has more tapes.”
“BETA is smaller.”
“My dad says BETA is far superior to VHS.”
“My older brother – he’s in high school – he said he doesn’t know why your family wasted their money on a VHS Machine since it won’t last. BETA will.”
“VHS is for retards.”
If people were around the day that the hare challenged the turtle to a race, spectators would have placed their bets on the hare (without having heard the outcome of the fable of course) but having lived through the whole BETA vs. VHS dispute, I can tell you first-hand, I ain’t doubting no god damned turtles from now on. Especially since I’m always chosen for Team Turtle. If I ever get over the shock I still feel surrounding the fact that children in gradeschool actually fought over the superiority of magnetic-tape recorders, I plan to make a DVD for each of the BETA kids I once knew. I’ll do the project on my Mac. The movie will star my own bare ass with the words “Who’s your ALPHA now, Bitch?” written from one smiling cheek to the other.