Being an Army brat, my family moved around a lot, and when I was in the fourth grade, we were stationed just outside of Seoul, South Korea. The housing community was commonly known as “RGH” — short for residential government housing. Three-story cinderblock buildings painted bright green and white was what we and dozens of other families called home. There was a fence around the entire complex, but its main purpose was to keep non-Americans from entering — it did nothing to keep us from going out.
Both parents worked all day, and my brother and I were left on our own for the most part. We did have a housekeeper — everyone did, trust me, it’s not because we were loaded — but she spoke little English and pretty much let us do whatever we wanted. Well, what we wanted to do most was wander off base and visit the arcades and shops that littered the surrounding area. Now, at this point, I was nine or ten years old and the group of kids I hung with were of the same age, if not younger. We’d wave to the MPs guarding the gate and walk a few blocks in any given direction to see what kind of trouble we could find.
We usually wound up in an arcade. I’m sure you are aware of the typical American arcade, but where I was living at the time, the arcades were dark and dirty — and by dirty, I mean they actually had dirt floors, or at least concrete floors that had trapped the dirt from the streets over many years. The doors were iron grates and corrugated tin, and the dirt just seeped through every opening. Bare lightbulbs with pull strings lit the place along with a half-dozen or so arcade screens.
Every game cabinet had an ashtray resting near the joystick. I honestly believe that it was illegal NOT to smoke in South Korea in the early 80’s. EVERYONE in the arcades (and outside of them) had a cigarette in their mouth, and I didn’t think anything of it — both of my parents smoked — everyone smoked, this was before C. Everett Koop’s tenure.
My allowance at the time was 10,000 Won per week. Arcade games cost 100 Won, a coin almost the exact same size as a US quarter, so I could play 100 rounds of Galaga before I had to guilt my parents into giving me more money — which usually happened by Tuesday. We would play the usual suspects, Pac-Man, Centipede, Space Invaders, and my personal favorite, Donkey Kong. When we got really bold, we would hop on the subway and go downtown to Seoul to visit the “real” arcades, the ones in the underground shopping mall or among the shops of Itaewon. Now those arcades were like a Vegas Casino with all their lights and noise.
Some of my best childhood memories were from the two years I lived in South Korea, but most of those memories are the kind of thing you would have seen in Goonies or Stand by Me — did I mention that firecrackers were dirt cheap over there? My kids are about the same age now as I was when I lived in Korea, and being the helicopter parent that I am, I actually worry about them going three doors down to play with their friends in our crime-free suburban community. My sons don’t need to beg for quarters to plug into a machine — they have the entire world’s video game library at their fingertips in high definition — of course, they prefer to play a blocky, low-resolution game that let’s them wander into strange and scary places — at least there’s no cloud of cigarette smoke hovering in the air.
A bunch of my fellow Pop Culture League members are also writing about their earliest arcade experiences this week. For more awesome arcade memories, check out The Last Hometown, Mr. Smith’s Plastic Bubble, The Toy Box, Rediscover the 80’s, and more!